Lessons From Ashtanga Yoga

This week's blog comes to us from Miriam Lamey.  Miriam teaches the Ashtanga Yoga Basics classes at The Shala. 

Last night’s wine hadn’t finished working its way through my system, but I had the wisdom, then, to eat enough and stop when I’d drunk enough. Interrupted sleep had me slightly unsteady on my feet, my chest tight with some unidentified emotion that had no weight, yet pulled taut. Breathing, doing, moving hadn’t shifted it; the burden was precariously balanced on a hot, dry cliff’s edge, teetering enough that a solid heave would send it tumbling over to whatever depths lay below.

But I still made myself go to Yoga. I still chose to follow my practice. I still waited patiently with the room full of statues breathing and preparing for the class to start. Yoga is a continual learning process, and I was about to have my first Ashtanga Yoga experience.

He sat in front of the assembled, no music punctuated his words: “We will hold each pose for five breaths. And just remember, nothing lasts forever.”

Until this moment the class had not intimidated me — another unpronounceable, mysterious Sanskrit word that would likely appear on a test at the end of my course. I love languages, but not ones that have no universal application, no way to communicate. These are merely words, names for poses and practices that hover above the ocean of language and try to fly against the wind that is my mindset. If Yoga is about opening the mind also, then it might be time for me to change direction.But I’ve never been one of those people who like to permit the wind to guide them; I relish breezes that blast into my face, I struggle against the gales, and I live for the feel of the wind swirling my clothes and hair to a confusing disarray.

I had no idea what the tides were doing, nor in which direction the wind had shifted as I rose from my mat and stood in  Samastitihi — Mountain Pose — feeling wobbly in mind and in body. The instructor walked about the room, calling out poses and demonstrating the deeper, thicker breathing pattern that was a fundamental part of the practice. Ujaii breathing. It mattered, in ashtanga, as I started to quickly realize.

We were in Adho Mukha Svanasana — Downward Dog — and instructed to hold for five breaths. Ropes of muscles pulled and tightened to keep alignment and body steady, the breath acted as an anchor, lurking in the depths of the pose. Yet I felt a slight fire. Too much water before practice? Did I eat too soon? I breathed through the burn, finished the sequence and without a second thought, except to attend to the breath, we all began again. As suddenly as the sequences started, they stopped. “We move on to balancing poses,” the voice said, floating over the sea of still and sweaty bodies. “Remember, I don’t care if you’re good at each pose — in fact, no one should want to be the best in the class. Just breathe.”

I swallowed. “It’s just Yoga,” I told myself, “You can always stop.” But I knew that I would not and could not curl up in child’s pose; leaving something unfinished is only reserved for terrible books, tedious films and television series that become flat, grey and uninspiring.

The standing poses were, as usual, difficult as I swayed and pitched around, not able to fully unfurl my body and limbs. “It’s all about the attempt,” I remembered, as the room misted around me into a soft focus. We started the familiar forward bending poses. Then I received an assist. In Paschimottanasana — Seated Forward Bend — which I’ve always liked, a pair of hands suddenly applied a steady pressure to my lower back, rising and falling with my breathing. The wave of my back eased further forward, my front tucking more neatly than I could have imagined onto the shores of my legs. I breathed. In. Out. In. Out. I had never stretched this far, yet the guidance was sympathetic to my natural breathing pattern. Five breaths felt never-ending, but I began to ease out of the pose as the instructor guided the class into the next pose, which I don’t remember.

We finished with backbends and a glorious Savasana — Corpse Pose — where the instructor's calm, accented voice described how the pose is representative of that final stillness, death. As every journey comes to an end, the body and the mind and energy will find its final port and cease. Death is not something modern American culture addresses well, especially death in a dignified fashion: it still terrifies me, knowing this permanent harbor is one none of us cannot leave. Yet I breathed and lay still, hearing the soothing rings of singing bowls in some distance as I allowed the tears to bead up behind my closed eyes and, occasionally, trickle into my hair.

At the end of the class we collectively rose, slightly windblown, and took our possessions away from the voice, the ringing and the room. I felt a bizarre mix of utter calm, a strong desire to laugh crazily, and that the familiar weight in my chest had somehow worked its way into my throat. The tears had stopped for now, but a tide had turned somewhere and an understanding and acceptance would devolve, later, into the full expression of deep, murky emotion.

If life is a continual state of learning, then, for now, ashtanga yoga is the new lesson I have chosen to study. My teachers are the poses, my classmates my breath and physical from. Ashtanga practice is a more solitary book that I have opened, but in the collective space with other practitioners, people trying to navigate their way through this existence, I am not alone

-Miriam Lamey, Writing and teaching yoga as one "simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."     www.miriamlamey.com