Five Things I Learned from Practicing Ashtanga (That You Can Learn Too) by Stephanie C.
When it comes to committing to a fitness institution, I’m not your girl. I get bored, easily. I love learning new things, and that takes priority over LEARNING something if you catch my drift. Jack-of-all, Master-of-none kind of thing. So if you’re like me, great, welcome to your life. If you’re not, that’s super cool and I admire you more than I can describe in a sentence.
I took the Ashtanga for Beginners series taught by Sarah Nelson at the top of the year, but it wasn’t until this summer (yes, the season that we are currently in) that I got serious about practicing consistently. My impetus of change? Basically, deciding to turn my life upside down and quit my consistent source of income for the path unknown, aka freelancing. Anxiety high, need for stability and consistent fitness outlet also high. Out of shape mentally and physically, I took my ass to class.
It’s only been a month and some change of consistent practice, but let me tell you, the lessons I have learned have been rich with humility, mental and physical growth, and applicable every damn day of my life. Without further ado, here’s my abbreviated list of lessons that have been rocking my world on (and off) the mat.
Lesson One: When All Else Seems Impossible, Just Keep Breathing
My first time back on the mat, I was feeling, uh, less capable than I would’ve hoped. I felt like I was perpetually fighting my body to do basic ranges of motion. Mental? You betcha. Physical barriers? Oh yeah. When I first went in to attempt Utthita Hasta Padangustasana, it was…unsuccessful. It was then that Sarah came through with the VIP assist and whispered in my ear, “breathe” as she helped me keep my balance. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. I didn’t worry about the pose, fighting my trembling base leg, but I focused on that there breath. In. Out. In. Slower. Intentional. Sure enough, things that were a hard no before became more effortless. My leg extended perfectly. It even rose higher. All because I focused on that breathe. Freaking magick.
Now when things seem impossible, I just breathe. When the cosmos delivers me some financial stresses before my honeymoon and while I will have no consistent income, I breathe. When I am problem solving for a frustrated client with no solution or end in sight, I breathe. I return every time, to that breath. And it gets easier. I relax, and I get it done.
Lesson Two: The Only Way Out is Through
No matter what level you are with anything, you always hit a wall, and my wall came in the form of next-level tight hamstrings. I had been practicing consistently for two weeks and now my hamstrings have decided that they’d had enough. Padangustasana? A no go. Paschimattanasana A or B? That’s rich. Definitely not. I was STUCK. After a day of frustration, I headed to my keyboard to ask some advice from the AYC community, when I was recommended of this one truth bomb parable: the only way out is through.
When the body in its physical form or mental form is acclimating to something, it’s going to struggle, it’s going to get hard, and that’s all part of the process. Going through might mean a day off, practicing or going about your day differently, but ultimately, you’re going to build up to the same place. The same is with life. It’s not like these obstacles magically evaporate “oh you’re struggling? No problem the universe is just going to delete this for you so you can get along with your day.” Shit doesn’t work like that. When there’s a wall in the path, you’re going to have to get through it. Sometimes with a few swift motions of a battering ram, other times with a chisel and hammer. Everyone has a different tool kit, but no matter what, with hard work and diligence, anyone can get through the challenge.
Lesson Three: Growth is Not Only the Result of Action, But Also of Stillness
Can I tell you that this is STILL (ha!) the hardest thing for me? Being still. Allowing myself to hold a pose for the full five breaths, or just standing still between poses. There’s so much…energy…robbed from my dedicated practice and channeled into anything but commitment to a particular pose or posture. While I still wouldn’t say I have mastered this by any means, I know understand that my mind was prioritizing pain over process and mastery of a pose. So, when pain rears its head as it tends to (especially as a novice), I know to breathe through and relent myself to the five intentional breathes before it’s time to move on.
Shifting over to the life gear, let’s be honest, how many times have you found yourself overburdening yourself with tasks and projects that you know will render impossible action? How about when you find yourself with a spare moment with nothing to do and it somehow feels…wrong? Let me tell you, that’s essentially my existence in a nutshell. Actually, quitting my salaried job was my way of cancelling that nervous energy, making the decisive action to channel my intention and energy into the future of my career. This is something I remind myself to do every day: taking space to recharge and rest before I move myself into the next pose.
Lesson Four: Keep Your Eyes on Your Mat (And Your Business)
I’m a visually oriented person, and prefer learning from seeing. But BOY that’s not the best idea during Mysore. First off, you come into the morning class and everyone is out there crushing it to a whole other level that you never knew existed, you invite yourself to unfairly compare yourself to those who have practiced for months, years, decades longer than you, of varying physical capabilities. I’m not in the business of comparison, I’m going to yoga to get stronger. If yoga’s a competition, it’s only a competition with you to become a better, stronger version of yourself. Looking at others in their own practice was an exceptional way to redirect my attention to something that has quite literally nothing to do with me. It’s personal robbery. From that point on I reminded myself to stay in my mat lane. Period.
It’s always easy to scroll through one’s social media feed and compare my reality to another’s perfectly curated online presence. Even some vulnerability posts can make me feel like I’ve basically tossed your adulthood potential to the wind and been sitting motionless for the last few years while this cyber persona has been doing everything from giving birth, donating their time to charity full time, rocking the world up from the C-Suite, going to the moon, etc. etc. etc. You and I don’t know what it’s like behind the scenes, what they came from, or what they have done to get where they are today. All of our journeys are so different, and honestly, all so uniquely strange. I can’t compare myself on the mat to others, and off the mat, and once my yoga apparel is off, I try to remind myself of that lesson whenever I’m feeling any semblance of covetous towards someone’s life.
Lesson Five: You Are Capable of More Than You Know
One of my favorite things I have learned so far is how mental a physical activity like Ashtanga can be. In these feats of mental strength, I’ve discovered that the mind can be quite deceptive. For example, as I settled down to do Marichyasana D, I was at a loss. There’s no way I can move that way. I tried, and failed. My mind had polluted my body with the idea that I could not, and therefore I couldn’t. It wasn’t until an adjustment where I was assisted perfectly into the position that I realized I’m capable, and probably capable of much more than I give myself credit.
This realization helped me shed the fulltime job to free up more time for passionate pursuits. Which is…terrifying. I know none of the particulars. I don’t have a roadmap. But I know that I’m capable of more, of aligning my passion with my labor, and generating the type of income to thrive and be sustainable. I focus on breathing when it gets hard (which is a lot!), and keep doing the darn thing. I’m going to show up on my mat, give attention to my drishtis and not others, and repeat. Yoga is hard. Life is hard. And yet…we practice and persevere. Keep showing up and keep learning.
Learning is a fascinating action. Every day, you might go into the same space or workplace, practice the same poses or do the same job, and 1000% have totally different takeaways than the day before. You never know what lessons the mat holds for you. So whether or not you’ve practiced yesterday or you have taken an extended leave of absence (maybe you’ve never practiced?) I invite you to join the AYC family. It’s welcoming, it’s challenging, and it’s an opportunity for you to grow as a human and a yogi.