Guest blog- Confessions of a Bad Student - Annie Mendenhall
I started practicing Ashtanga yoga after suffering a hamstring injury that affected my stride and caused pain in my hip and IT band. At the time, I was practicing Vinyasa yoga, and honestly terrified of the “serious Ashtangis” in Mysore classes. I only knew Taylor as “that Ashtanga teacher who always steals our space heaters.” But after injuring myself, I started attending Mysore classes because the format allowed me to practice the same poses daily at my own pace. Learning the primary series provided me with a methodical approach to healing, and quickly persuaded me the sequence had real therapeutic effects.
Perhaps this makes me sound like I was a good student. I was not. I came to the practice physically weak and perpetually skeptical. Ashtanga forced me to start over physically and mentally, and at times I was resistant. The entire first series, after all, focuses on hamstrings and hips––mine were tight and injured––and when I finally got to the part I was ‘good at’ (backbends), I was initially too weak to lift my head off the ground into Urdvha Dhanurasana with integrity in my legs, shoulders, and lower back.
So despite showing up, I complained and argued my way through practice. For several months, I was convinced I would never get past Baddha Konasana, and I would try to argue my way out of getting an adjustment in the pose. When I started learning dropbacks, I alternated between refusing to work on them, and whining that I didn’t understand the mechanics of the movement (fyi, whining doesn’t help). I also invented creative reasons I couldn’t do certain poses: my arms were too short, my spine has a weird curve, I sweat too much, only men can do those poses! I think I spent 15 minutes after class one day explaining to my teacher why it was impossible for me to jump into Bakasana. I’m still surprised I never got kicked out of class (Taylor, I’m forever grateful!). But as I showed up to class week after week––as I was goaded/encouraged to try again, do it with integrity, and be stronger––suddenly things that seemed completely and totally impossible became possible.
What I appreciate most about the practice is that it works, and it works on multiple levels. I don’t know much, if anything, about yoga. But I have experienced how the mental and physical challenges in the practice force me to observe how I react to difficult situations. In the difficulty, the method provides the tools (breath, bandhas, gaze) to find more subtle strength and awareness over time. I have to use the tools to fight my tendency to get frustrated, to ignore help, and to pretend that I know it all. The pose doesn’t really matter, because each new challenge brings me back to the beginning, to the point of not knowing, where I have to trust the method and the teacher. And each new lesson on the mat gives me more work to do in everything that comes before. Observing the transformation over time can be pretty amazing.
In the traditional method of teaching Ashtanga, you are often asked to stop at a pose, usually so you can build up strength, flexibility, and/or stamina to proceed safely. (I know that bothers some people, but I’ve always been really thankful for this show of mercy). Right now, I’ve been stopped at a pose for more than a year, and the work on that asana has challenged my patience and strength at every level. I’ve been known to complain, “I’m too weak for this pose!” After all, old habits die hard. But what amazes me most is that even though I still can’t do that asana, I experience the physical and mental benefits of the work in every other part of the practice. Failing is still success. It has allowed me to go back, refine, and do more work elsewhere. So I keep practicing and try not to worry about the result. It has made me more consistent and ever so slightly more focused in practice.
Sometimes people ask me, why would anyone want to do yoga? It’s hard; you wake up early; it doesn’t seem fun; it’s embarrassing to fall or be inflexible. I totally get it… I still experience those sentiments frequently. The only thing I can say in response is that I was skeptical too. You just have to let practice change your mind.