I tried yoga for the first time because I was a dancer and needed a way to stay active during the off-season. I walked into Yoga On High and, with loads of misguided pretention, informed the woman at the desk that I was interested in yoga but needed direction toward a class that would really challenge me. I had this whole “I’m a dancer – I already know everything there is to know about the body, I’m really strong and really flexible, and yoga is for wimps and hippies” thing in my head that I’m sure made me an enormous pain in the ass for that poor woman signing me up for my first class. She recommended an Ashtanga beginners series and assured me that it would be worth the investment. I skeptically took her advice and began a ten week introductory course.
As those ten weeks passed, I realized that I was not as strong as I thought. I was flexible in some ways, but horribly restricted in others, and 20 years of training external rotation in my hips had created an imbalance in my musculature that prevented me from being able to balance on one leg in a parallel position. I felt energy moving in my body in a way that I never had before, and the Ashtanga system with its repetition, systematic approach, and austerity spoke to me. I sensed that I had found the yoga equivalent of classical ballet, and knew that this was a practice that could support me in ways that ballet never had. There’s no hiding in Ashtanga - No playing to your strong suits and ignoring your weakness. Any strength, weakness, openness, or restriction in the body and mind of the student is addressed in the primary series. There’s no razzle dazzle, no opportunity to distract from your soft spots and direct attention toward your impressive qualities. The poses you take with ease and those that are a struggle receive equal attention – just five breaths, no more, no less. It’s like eating your vegetables: sometimes pleasant, sometimes uncomfortable, and always giving you exactly what you need whether you like it or not. Since I’m a strong believer in strong foundations, the practice lingered in the back of my mind every day after those ten weeks were over.
I attended my first mysore style class because I thought Taylor was someone else. I had read an article about a Columbus yoga teacher doing charity work that I was interested in, and being not-great-with-names, mistook Taylor for that teacher and made an effort to get to his class. It turns out that fate was on my side, and I was unknowingly meeting the man who would in large part direct my trajectory and growth toward who I am today – An event with gravity and significance that I was not prepared for. I thank the stars every day for that mistake.
Walking into the mysore room and hearing only the sound of deep ujayyi breath was nothing short of magic. Being a new student with a somewhat established practice, Taylor was observant but not very involved with me. (I’ve come to learn that it takes a great deal of courage to just watch and learn about a student before jumping in with adjustments and input.) But I did notice the way that he interacted with other students and there seemed to be a sense of trust and camaraderie that mirrored what I’d seen in the dance world – A community of people devoted to their work, balancing focus and playfulness in the name of creation.
In my dancing, I was starting to notice aches and limitations in my movement. My body has always been my tool for experiencing truth and expression, so I was seriously concerned about discomfort in my sacred instrument. I knew that my body was out of balance from too much of the same thing year after year, and was looking to yoga to help me build the functional integrity that would allow me to be a better dancer. I had heard a rumor about a kind of underground club of Ashtangis meeting in the early morning, and asked Taylor about it after class. I thrive on routine and needed a class that I could fit in every day no matter what time I had to be at work. Morning Mysore seemed like a practical solution to a practical problem, so when Taylor gave me the details and invited me to come to class, I was excited to get down to business.
I’m naturally active in the early morning hours, so waking up for class wasn’t as much of a hurdle for me as it is for some students. What was difficult was getting to class every day. There were many days when I would wake up in plenty of time for class, but putter around the house procrastinating until, “oops! It’s gotten too late… Can’t go to class now. Where did the time go?!” I was desperate to cultivate the commitment and tenacity that the mysore practice demands, but the idea of showing up every day also terrified me. I’ve always been naturally smart, pretty, and likable, so I had been able to skid by my entire life without ever having to learn how to actually work hard at something. To those who have walked a different path, this might sound like a sweet deal but trust me, it comes with its own special blend of darkness and mistrust in oneself. I simultaneously loathed that pattern and relied on it to get me through the world – a complex and fascinating contradiction upon which the Ashtanga practice continues to shed light day after day.
I was coming to class about three days a week, and in retrospect I see that I was spending that time on my mat preoccupied with proving to everyone in the room just how well I could move – As if that somehow validated my presence in the class… Or, if you want to take it there, validated my presence on the planet. Twisted, I know. In the traditional practice, your teacher stops you at the pose in the series that you can’t fully perform. I was working on Marichyasana D, a pose that serves as the first ego check for many students, and I was so frustrated I could have screamed. Day after day, my practice progressed toward this pose that I could not do. That’s the beautiful and torturous thing about Ashtanga – You start every day knowing that you’re going to face failure. One day, Taylor knelt down by my mat after my attempt and said, “You’re really frustrated, huh?” I looked at him square in the eye and said, “Hell yeah I’m frustrated! I know my body can do this but I can’t figure out how to make it happen.” My emotional state was similar to what you might experience if you were running late in bumper to bumper traffic on the way to your own inauguration as the president of the United States. Inappropriate? Yes. Am I exaggerating? No. My agitation was pouring out of me in every direction, and Taylor calmly smiled at me and said, “Just remember, it’s not about the pose.” I didn’t even know what he meant by that at the time, but I knew he had become my teacher in that moment. “It’s not about the pose” is a mantra that’s stayed with me all this time, and it applies to everything. It’s not about the outcome, it’s about the process. To be more specific, it’s about the breath and the mind. No matter what I run into in my life – A difficult situation at work, a difficult relationship, any suffering from the most mundane to the most profound – I can always remind myself… It’s not about the pose.
When I first asked Taylor for advice on becoming a yoga teacher, I had been practicing with him for about eight months. I had convinced myself that 3-4 days a week qualified as a committed practice, and without hesitation he said to me, “If you want to be a teacher, you need to start showing up every day.” Period. End of conversation. And so I did, with help and support from the important people in my life. There is no teacher training program for the Ashtanga method outside of traveling to India every year to study with Sharath Jois and hoping that he eventually gives you the blessing to teach. I believe in the efficacy of that approach and hope to pursue that certification one day, but I was feeling the intense urge to teach that is a result of that natural and never-ending cycle of student becoming teacher and teacher becoming student. I was certain that I was placed on this planet to teach yoga and needed a way to make that happen relatively quickly. I found a teacher and training program in New York City to which I was intensely and intuitively drawn, and after a year and a half of studying with the Morning Mysore Club, moved to New York to complete that program. It was Ashtanga-based vinyasa, but vinyasa nonetheless, and I made the conscious decision to take a break from my mysore practice in order to allow space for what my new teachers were offering. I was so habituated in the primary and intermediate series that I literally could not learn how to sequence a vinyasa class, and in the interest of soaking up all that I could from this program that I believed in, refocused my asana attention on other styles of yoga.
Over the duration of my training, I knew that Ashtanga was my home. I was afraid to change up my routine, knowing that it was very possible that all the integrity I had worked so hard to build would disintegrate without the sturdy presence of my mysore practice. What I found, however, was that my practice actually never left me, even as the days since my last visit to the mysore room grew in number. My practice took on a different form and I was able to explore some things that I hadn’t seen before. And while my Ashtanga practice wasn’t specifically progressing, it was always with me. The knowledge of myself and yoga that I had gained through Ashtanga informed my development every step of the way, and I had the very definite sense that it was always waiting for me to return, gently and without judgment, like an unrolled mat in an open room at 5 a.m., patiently waiting for its practitioner to come home.
I’ve recently completed my training program, and am working up the determination to return to my mysore practice. Whenever I meet someone who is interested in Ashtanga or the mysore style, I find myself involuntarily gushing for inappropriate lengths of time about the benefits of the method, and I know that anything that elicits that kind of enthusiasm and adoration is something that deserves further attention and dedication. My time away from mysore has allowed me to grow in ways that I will bring with me when I return, and I know that I will be a more intelligent and aware Ashtangi as a result of my hiatus. It’s a tricky thing, claiming your self-agency. When you give yourself permission to work outside the parameters of a proven method, you can be giving yourself a back door exit from what’s difficult. Sometimes you’re doing what you need to do, and sometimes you’re taking the easy way out. You will make the wrong call from time to time. The important thing is not how well you adhere to a set of guidelines or how easily you risk insubordination in the interest of what feels right for you. The important thing is to watch yourself as you make these choices, and have the awareness and courage to acknowledge when you took the easy road disguised as “listening to your body”. Watch it, see what happens, recognize what works and what doesn’t, and try to learn from it. It’s not about the pose.