I woke up three hours early in anticipation of Sharath’s Led Primary class, when I could have slept in a little longer. I chose the 8:30 class for that very reason, but at 4:45, I awoke and could not go back to sleep. I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning — what present will I find when I get up?
I had a very light breakfast of banana, a bit of granola, and rice milk…although traditionally, one does not eat before practice. Still, it would be three hours by the time I went to class, so I figured it would be OK. Plus, this breakfast is a big improvement from my pre-yoga breakfast meal a year ago – at least 2 strips of bacon, every day, plus eggs (pancakes on the weekends), heavy helping of coffee with cream, and some fruit. People were shocked at what I ate – sometimes half an hour before a heavy duty practice! It’s good thing I have an iron stomach, but since going more deeply into yoga, I’ve been making more conscious food choices…namely, cutting out most meat. So, no more bacon every morning (maybe on a holiday)…
I was ambitious, too. I had my surfboard and wetsuit packed in the car, just in case there were waves to catch after practice. Heh. Little did I know…
I arrived at the shala at 8:15 and it was abuzz with new faces. The boutique was transformed into another waiting area. I searched for some faces I knew from regular practice…then the doors to the practice studio itself opened five minutes later and I saw how the windows were gray with steam. Liz came out and saw me – she smiled and said, “It is HOT in there!” Ashtanga turns into Bikram?? People kept on pouring out, with fully wet hair from sweat and blissed out looks on their faces. I saw more faces I knew, and wondered if I had made the wrong decision – what if everyone I knew went to the earlier 6:30 class? Nothing is more fun than practicing with folks you know, sort of like surfing with old friends you’ve surfed with forever and ever. I nearly bumped into Saraswathi as I approached the doors and saw that the floors were covered with sweat. Not to mention the smell of I-don’t-know-what from so many bodies exhaling, inhaling, sweating out all their toxins. Yuck!! I thought. I saw my exuberant friend Aina, and we hugged each other; it felt great to see a familiar face. I mentioned the sweat and everything else, and Aina told me that practicing at Mysore was worse. LOTS of sweat and icky carpets. I cannot imagine!!
So, they (actually, just Brian) mopped the floor, and the 830 class trickled in. We set our mats to the floor, adjusting mats closer to each other as more people came in. Aina and I set our mats together and looked for familiar faces…maybe a couple here and there, but we were mostly surrounded by strangers. When Sharath and Saraswathi came in, the room fell silent…the opening prayer began, and I began to notice the differences in my own practice compared to a year ago. Well, for one thing, I could recite the opening prayer now instead of looking nervously around me, thinking, What the hell are they saying?!
After practicing the intense backbends and leg behind the head postures of the Second Series, Primary feels like a lovely massage and vacation all rolled up into one. Sharath’s voice had a calm authority and it felt wonderful to go a little deeper into the postures of Primary Series…while intense, it also felt a little like home. Forward bends are so much easier than gnarly back bends!
But Sharath is tricky. He likes to count…SLOWLY. And he likes to have us do extra cycles of a particular pose…Navasana (Boat Pose) is a good example. Typically, we just do three cycles of Navasana, meaning that we extend our legs up towards the ceiling and extend our arms straight out, then lift up into Uth Pluthi, the back in Navasana…again. And again. By the 5th cycle, we are quite tired! Conveniently, Sharath slows down the count.
“One!” he says, amidst our trembling, sweaty arms.
“Two…………” (looong pause)
“Three………” (another looong pause)
“Four……………………” (yet another looong pause…)
By now our stomachs are burning from holding the legs up, arms are shaking, sweat is pouring down like multiple rivers down our faces, and legs are shaking. After what seems like interminable moments, Sharath chuckles and says, “FIVE!” I hear gasps of relief all around me…only to transition to…Bhujapindasana – the shoulder press where, ideally, you wrap your legs around your arms (without the feet touching the floor) and slowly lower your chin to the floor. For….five….sloowww….breaths. Can you say, Holy F%ck, what am I doing?!
Sharath likes to chuckle when we start getting tired/panicky, I’ve noticed, and when he sees a student transition too quickly, he will quickly hone in on her or him. Or me! I am guilty of quick transitions, too. There seems to be no hiding from Sharath. It is as if he knows when I am at my weakest pose, and when I look up, he is right there above me. “Why hurry?” He likes to say. He likes to have us in Chataranga for what seems like 2 or 3 breathes before we arch into upward dog. By the time we get onto the inversions, we are spent, sweaty, and utterly tired. But oh, it only gets better…especially when we arrive at Sirsasana (headstand). I realized the 15 breaths of headstand, followed by 10 breaths of half-head stand, followed by 1 breath back into headstand are totally relative. Sharath’s counts of 15 equal my counts of 25-30. By Sharahth’s “Ten”, my back and arms were on FIRE. People around me were starting to come out of headstand. I heard gasps, ragged breaths, even a whimper here and there…
Come on, just one more breath, you’ve done it before, I tell myself mentally. The dialogue that ensues is like the devil and angel. Devil says, Ida, you’re tired, cut yourself a break! Besides, you’ve been good all week, catching heels in Kapotasana.
Angel says, Ida, if you do this, it will help you in Karandavasana. Devil says, Your arms are on fire! Cut yourself a break!!
“Twelve….” I shut out the dialogue and wonder to myself, How slow can this guy go???? God-f&cking-d@ammit!!! I keep on repeating to myself, OK, it will help with karandavasana…balance point, balance point. Don’t work harder than you have to. Find the balance point.
“Thirteen…” More feet plop down. More sighs and gasps. I can’t see his face and but I imagine a chuckle on his face.
“F—our—teen…” one more breath, I tell myself. I’m shaking like a leaf and hoping that no one (even Aina) notices…
Well, so the gap between fourteen and fifteen feels like FOREVER. Sharath pauses. I am still in headstand, partly amazed that I am still in headstand and partly super impatient for his “Fifteen!” which never seems to come.
Ok, now, dammit! I think. More people plop down. Soon I will be one of them, lying in defeat in Balasana, in a puddle of my own sweat…
“FIFTEEN!” Ah, the words of salvation!! But nooooo, we can’t come down yet! We have to carefully lower our legs parallel to the floor…for TEN….SLOW…BREATHS. Then inhale back up. Then SLOWLY lower down our feet down to the mat.
But still that’s not it!! Oh, no! All Ashtanga yogis look forward to Uth Pluthi (heh – note the sarcasm here), the final pose where we lift our legs up from the floor while in full lotus (Padmasana). For another TEN….SLOW….BREATHS….
But I did it. I couldn’t do it last year when Sharath and Sarawasthi came here. My arms felt like noodles, but there was also this sense of completion. Yes, I did it, I thought…I survived.
Still, the best part was Sharath’s talk. I can’t do his beautiful talk enough justice, but basically, Sharath talked about asana, and how many people view yoga as just asana – only postures. People see Ashtanga yoga and think of its difficulty…they see the leg behind the head postures and want to do it for the challenge. But asana is only one limb, Sharath said, and Ashtanga is about the eight limbs. It is not just about the postures, but how one is in life. In other words, yoga is a way of life, it is not just postures. Asana is important, though, because it stabilizes the body, and prepares the mind for meditation. Sharath said, “When the body is stable, and healthy, then the mind becomes stable, still, strong…When the body changes, the mind changes….so it is not just about asana.”
Sharath also talked about time — how time is needed to truly know yoga. He joked about how so many yoga teacher training programs grant one a certification as a “yoga teacher”, but that isn’t truly knowing yoga. I feel this is very true. I realized that this practice has grown so much more than just a practice of the body, or even the mind. But it has been only with time, and consistent practice, that I’ve come to know this. Of course, the body is involved, and certainly the mind changes. And I realize that the amount of time I have spent in practice — a mere 2 years and 2 months — is in its embryonic stage, compared to 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years or more from truly seasoned practitioners. Who knows how much the body and mind will grow with continued practice?
Ultimately, yoga is also an alchemy of the soul. I think of the last time I saw my sister Nina just a couple of months ago. We live on different coasts, so it is hard to see each other although we talk on the phone frequently. As I sat with Nina one night, chatting away, she said, “You know, Ida, you’ve changed. You are so much calmer now. Is it the yoga?” As the hot tempered one in the family, that was really a surprise! I don’t know if it is only the yoga, it could be a combination of different things. In one’s 40s, one (hopefully!) does get mellower. But I feel that yoga has a contribution, for sure…
Needless to say, I got a very nice present at the end of practice. I didn’t go surfing…I could barely walk or move my arms. But I was happy as can be…
(Shala photos courtesy of Jois Yoga Encinitas)