Ashtanga revival

I’ve had a colorful, lasting, love affair with yoga. It started 20 years ago when I spent several semesters waitlisted for the very popular yoga class at my college. Being denied again and again made me want in all the more (yes, this also happens in my love life). Senior year, finally admitted, I found I was bad at being still. The poses made me toot in front of people (= embarrassing), and the whole thing increased my stress instead of decreasing it. I dropped out and took an withdraw/fail on my transcript.

Yoga finally began for me in 2006 with ashtanga. I was injured at the time, and frankly a little afraid of my usual activities: hiking, kayaking, skiing, biking. My roommate took me to a class, and I loved it. Though I was physically fit, those ashtanga classes were a new kind of challenge: just a 5′ x 2.5′ space, my muscles, and a teacher’s voice. Each breath moves the body into a new posture, so there is no time to think self conscious thoughts. I got my butt kicked and I went back for more.

Ten years later I called my college boyfriend to tell him I’d become a hatha yoga instructor. “You’re kidding,” he said.

I’ve since learned to love and appreciate many yoga styles. But this winter my regular practice is pretty far gone. I did not practice yoga while pregnant or during the first six months of my daughter’s life, except the kind where you roll around on the floor breathing deeply. Sigh.

So, last Thursday I went to an Ashtanga class.

The teacher guided us into hand-on-the-big-toe pose, where you stand on one foot, grab the big toe of the other foot with two fingers, and try to straighten that leg at a 90-degree angle parallel to the floor. Then, let go of the toe. The leg is supposed to stay up; mine slid steadily down like dripping candle wax.

Then, something interesting happened.

Instead of feeling disappointed in myself, I felt overwhelmingly happy. Just to be in that studio with my foot a few inches less than level, doing this crazy thing called LIFE was enough.

Physically, I haven’t been this weak since elementary school when the mile run left me gasping, wheezing, and walking. But I kept going.

I tried a headstand and crow (the simplified versions). I was asked to wrap my leg behind my arm and over my shoulder, and I did something like that. At another moment, I threaded my arms under my legs and sat on them. Every now and then, it’s good to do something that scares you.

After a few months of ashtanga back in 2006 I did some mountain races and made my best times even though I had scarcely trained outside. But women in the mountain running community are known to make their best times after becoming mothers. For a long time, I’ve wondered why – perhaps they’ve learned to “push through” the pain? Last week’s yoga class gave me some new ideas.

Idea 1: Moms with 90 precious minutes to themselves don’t screw around. Training (without a baby on my back) rarely happens, so when it does I train hard. Precious time = focussed mind.

Idea 2: De-facto fitness no longer exists. In pregnancy, all strength is stripped from a woman’s body (one woman I know says this happens so we can’t resist the birth process). If I am ever strong again it will be because I fought tooth & nail for those muscles.

Idea 3: Babies are really inspiring. Ten months ago our daughter was born floppy (can you imagine if other animals were born like that?). But she does squats and sit-ups non-stop and now she’s almost walking. I try to do more of what she does.

Life is full of major setbacks; we get back on the horse if we want to. I’m currently lousy at yoga asanas (poses), but I wont always be. Being okay where I am means that mentally I’ve never been stronger.

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