Guest blog-- Dawn Blevins
My first yoga encounter was a free outdoor class at a mall because I was so convinced that I would hate it that I did not plan to stay for the entire class. It seemed much less rude to walk out of this situation that it would be to walk out of a studio class. I knew absolutely nothing about yoga but something was pushing me to try it and I no longer had the capacity to resist. What actually occurred during this first class was completely opposite of my expectations. I had the immediate feeling that yoga was what I was always supposed to be doing and that somehow I was home. Now this does not mean that yoga seemed easy to me. It felt impossibly difficult and I remember thinking that chaturanga must be Sanskrit for torture, but it also felt like I had no option but to explore this path. The first thing that became clear to me during those initial classes was that I needed to become stronger. Whenever a yoga teacher would ask me to set an intention at the beginning of class mine always revolved around getting stronger and I would feel a sense of desperation around this need for strength. At the time, I thought this was only about physical strength, but really it was a mark of my less conscious and ongoing fear that I didn’t have the inner strength to withstand whatever life might have in store for me.
Yoga entered my life at a time that I now understand was a breaking point. Over many years I had allowed various parts of myself to become so deeply fragmented that I could no longer sustain the separation. I had responded to experiences of abuse and chronic pain by completely disconnecting from my body. While I had done a great deal of psychological work to find peace, I had largely left the physical out of the equation and I truly did not understand what yoga teachers meant when they instructed me to listen to my body. I had simply never done that because I primarily saw my body as a source of pain. My spiritual self was underdeveloped as well. I had always been a spiritual seeker but never found a tradition to which I could authentically connect. The only part of myself I felt like I could truly rely upon was my intellect and I had prioritized that above all else. It was only after I finished grad school for the final time that I realized an incredible void inside. This was partially due to the achievement of a long standing goal and partially due to the misconception that life would change, that I would finally be complete, if I just had a few letters after my name. However, my life did not change; I had the same job, same friends, same everything as before. And none of this was bad – I already had a very good and happy life filled with amazing people, but something was clearly missing and it was only in this newly less hectic life that I was able to experience the emptiness born of self fragmentation.
I have heard and read enough stories from fellow Ashtangis about how they arrived at this practice to know there is no standard path, but still, mine always seems a little backwards in retrospect. After a few months of taking random yoga classes, I happened to read about a city in India called Mysore. I can’t remember exactly what I read, but I felt an immediate connection to this place on the other side of the globe and knew, for reasons that are still inexplicable, that I had to travel there and experience it for myself. Of course, people were traveling to Mysore to study Ashtanga yoga so I decided this would become my practice and did a quick Google search to find a local introductory class and daily Mysore style class. That there already existed in my city a strong Mysore program with a devoted teacher and group of practitioners at the moment I sought it elicits such deep gratitude in me now. But when I first started attending Mysore class, it was a largely unhappy transition. I missed what I nostalgically referred to, at the time, as happy fun yoga. To be clear, I mean no disrespect to these other yoga classes by using this phrase. In them, I had been guided by wonderful teachers, had done tough physical and emotional work, and had begun to experience deep transformation. These classes were an essential gateway to Ashtanga for me; I don’t believe I would have found the practice without them. I only used the phrase to rather angrily contrast that yoga with this new yoga that just felt, to me, like difficult and lonely work. While I was instantly engaged by the challenging nature of Ashtanga, I really worried that I was going to lose my newfound connection to my physical self in the pursuit of more poses. Yoga was the first place I had ever truly allowed myself to accept failure and to let go of the need for achievement, and I worried this system of moving on only after a certain amount of proficiency is realized in each pose was the exact opposite of what I should be doing. However, I could not shake the desire to travel to Mysore, so I decided to trust that Ashtanga was the correct path for me. I also resolved to find some joy in the practice so I would no longer be so sad about not being in the happy fun yoga classes that I could hear on the other side of the wall some mornings.
Certainly when I arrived in Mysore at the end of my first year of Ashtanga, I knew that the practice had changed my life in subtle but significant ways, but I couldn’t necessarily articulate this in a coherent way. I still wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing there, but I knew that I already felt somewhat at home and was relieved that the connection I felt to India had not been imagined and that the trip and the practice was not just a big mistake. I was, of course, intimidated by the idea of practicing with Sharath and with people from around the world who had so much more experience and such amazing practices. But, unbelievably, I walked into the shala to practice on my first day and experienced a profound sense of calm. The nervousness I expected was not there and it just felt like every other practice, with the addition of the incredible energy of the shala. At that moment, I realized that the great gift Ashtanga had given me was steadiness – a steadiness that allows me to remain the same whether I am in India practicing next to a famous teacher or if I am at home practicing next to a close friend, and more importantly it is the steadiness to deeply know myself regardless of external conditions. Steadiness does not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, but it is exactly what I needed to find – a kind of counter to my natural inclinations and an antidote to many of my fears.
Halfway through my month in Mysore I was still feeling like this new sense of steadiness was enough of a gift and not really desiring or needing anything else from the experience, but there was more generosity in store. I happened to be facing Sharath’s office window while I practiced one day and the light was such that I could see my reflection in the glass. I hadn’t really noticed this until I caught a glimpse of myself as I lifted up into kukkutasana and I actually looked strong, so much stronger than I would have imagined. The reflection in the glass was of my present self but it was also of my child self and I saw a little girl who was very strong. The strength had always been there and so had all the other parts of myself that I felt like I had lost in the space between my birth and that moment. From that point on, I have understood that this practice will always demand that I work hard to develop more physical strength. I still frequently doubt that I can become physically stronger and I have a tendency to believe that all arm balances were devised specifically to torture me, but most of my fear that I lack real inner strength has evaporated. I realized that filling the void had always been a matter of finding my way back to myself, my whole and more integrated self. I know I am only at the very beginning of this journey but I also believe that the fruits of this path will continue to be bountiful and unexpected.