The most advanced yogis aren’t the lithe Lululemon-clad women who drop their mats down and kick up into handstand because it’s a difficult pose to master. We claim to be egoless, yet sometimes we secretly prefer to prance our practice around, put it on display. Grandstand our heel hitting wood while the motley lot peer up from their books and their phones, while we holds our breath for a moment before coming down. Our practice has begun because we’re able to hear the sound of a heel thumb against wood.
This isn’t yoga to me, it’s showing off. Truly skilled practitioners settle into their breath because that is the most difficult thing one can do. That is the union: stillness and movement coalescing, folding in on itself like a note held too long, sorting itself out. When I started my practice in 2002 I was driven by ego; I regarded the asanas as a succession of poses I could master. Little did I realize that while I could run six miles at a eight-minute clip, holding a Warrior pose would reduce me to a shaking mess. How could I know that my physical impairment — a shattered collarbone that never healed, only prevented one arm from growing, so I was left with one arm markedly longer than the other — would make many poses anatomically impossible?
How I could know that it would take me seven years to sit still for fifteen minutes?
I wrote a lot about my return to the mat, but I hadn’t prepared myself for how my practice has shifted in the three years since I’d left it. I used to be a deft back-bender with open hips, frightened of inversions and believed that forward bending was some cruel form of torture. This is how I defined my practice for seven years, until I resumed it and found my body didn’t respond in the ways that it used to. While I still have those open hips and loathe seeing the world turned upside down, backbends are now a struggle and forward bending is fairly effortless.
One morning, after several failed attempts at wheel, I came down, angry. I had done this before, I rationed to myself. I had done drop-backs! The anger dovetailed to tears. I felt as if I were in a city that resembled the one in which I live, and the streets and sounds seem familiar, the people look like people I used to know, but there’s this unheimlich, a feeling of the uncanny. Years pass, and the stores rearrange themselves, new people move in, and the place I thought I knew is suddenly foreign. And in the end I realize I’m lost. The shape of something isn’t the thing that it actually is, and this is what I realized midway through savasana.
Your practice will never be what you want to be, it only is what it is. Our work is the practice, the repetition, refinement, and breath. It’s not the kicking into handstand, it’s the daily scanning of our bodies to see where they need a bit of work, a lot of love. Years ago a teacher once told me that the most advanced teachers are the ones who go to Basics classes. They revisit and strengthen the foundation. And if we’re to believe that our bodies are a house that we must treat kindly, then don’t we deserve to varnish the floors and maintain the walls?
Over the past few weeks I’ve been in the thick of a consulting assignment, which makes practicing a bit of a challenge. I do my yoga when I can, and I’m trying to clever about how and when I come to the mat, and how I find new ways to challenge myself while remembering to breathe.
A few weeks ago I took a Level 1 Aerial Vinyasa class with my sweet friends Hitha and Kate. To say that I was terrified was an understatement. The idea of hanging upside down frightened me (cue the inversion fear), and I kept asking the staff if the cords and hammock could really hold weight. An hour later, I was dangling with the best of them, and I viewed the hammock as yet another prop that could afford me access to a deeper yoga practice. Because when your feet are nestled into a hammock and your arms are in plank position, you can’t think of anything else but alignment. Not to mention it’s pretty cool to hang upside down with your friends, sort of like when we were kids playing in the Jungle Jim.
After spending time with Julia, a fellow yogi and bright light, I became committed to building a home practice for the evenings when going to yoga after work is practically impossible. I’m taking Elena Brower’s and Tiffany Cruikshank’s YogaGlo classes, and I’ve invested in a slip-proof mat + a block. I tell myself that even if I do twenty minutes of class, I’m still doing yoga. I’m still devoting time to listening to the sound of my breath.