Practice of late has become an arduous, grueling process for me. I’ve been traversing what seems to be an endless, bleak terrain of fatigue and pain without relief. I’m still stuck at Eka Pada Bakasana, for six months now. I have just now been able to lift my head up and hold for a couple of breaths, on each side, before collapsing on my sweaty mat in complete exhaustion.
I still get up at 0 dark thirty, despite switching to a less stressful job with a later start time. Perhaps because I’m older now, it takes me at least an hour to fully awaken and do my bathroom routine before I feel ready to practice (or surf). There’s nothing worse than the feeling of a bloated bowel while you are trying to grab your feet in Kapotasana or scurrying over a huge set wave about to break on your head.
The practice atmosphere seemed to have changed of late too. Our once hearty and robust group has thinned out considerably. Some folks got married and moved; some folks just moved; some just went on to something else entirely; some got pregnant; and some have switched yoga studios for various reasons. Our yoga shala has certainly seen a great deal of change since its inception in 2010…from a beautiful, ample space along the main business district of Encinitas along the 101 Highway and three teachers authorized by the KPJAYI…to our current, shall we say, “humble” space on “the hill” (because it is close to the industrial building where most surfboards are shaped in Encinitas, atop a small hill) and just one teacher.
For me, though, it was not just the physical space itself, but the emotional tenor that seemed to change. I have always studied with Andrew, and while I practiced on Saturdays at Tim Miller’s shala, I have always felt that Andrew was my primary teacher. But lately, over the last couple of months, being stuck and frustrated in Eka Pada, and not receiving much feedback, I began to feel resentment. It lit up as a small ember in my heart and would not go away. The ember grew when he saw him give poses to other students, ones who did not have to work as hard as I did to get there. Why is he making me work so hard? I wondered. Not fair! The ember glowed even more when, one morning, being able to lift up my head on both sides during Eka Pada, he did not even seem to notice. How could this be? He used to pay attention and help me!
Of course, my pitta dosha does not help. I know, on an obvious level, that yoga is not a competition or a thing to be accomplished…but as a competitive athlete for a good three quarters of my life, it is hard to let go of this ingrained belief to accomplish something. Perhaps you can blame on it on “training” but in all honesty I have to say that it may be part of my nature too. I was mad enough already that I still couldn’t get Eka Pada, and even madder that Andrew apparently did not even seem to notice. And most days, he seemed distracted, distant.
To make matters worse, Andrew will be leaving next week again for an extended period of time. He had already given new postures to a couple of other students, like a little parting gift. But for me, nothing. I felt invisible, ignored. Why am I even doing this? I wondered to myself. I rarely contacted Andrew outside of practice as I didn’t want to be a bother, but yesterday I sent him a text, asking him for feedback on Eka Pada. He usually was quick to respond, but this time I did not hear back from him.
I was frustrated and furious, but mostly sad. The connection has been lost, and I felt lost myself. I thought yoga was supposed to make me feel better, not all this mixture of anger, abandonment, and resentment. Finally I decided that I had enough. Enough of the shabby old building with moldy walls and shaky stairs, and enough of being invisible and unseen. I spoke to another friend of mine who had switched over to the other shala, and she said that for her, it felt like the right and healthy choice right now. So I sent Andrew an email, letting him know that since he will be away, I wanted to take a break from practice, and whether he could issue a refund. If not, I could certainly stay for the remainder of month until he leaves.
When I saw Andrew’s reply to my email later on, I felt a small sense of relief. I had a flashback of being a small child of six or seven, being spanked, scolded, and sent unceremoniously to my bedroom by my parents for being “bad”. I remember feeling stuck in this awful quagmire of badness for God knows how long, crying silently…and then when my mother returned to check on me, I felt as if light had parted a gloomy dark sky. Andrew replied that he had intended to talk with me about practice and had noted my frustration, but his tendency was to wait until the student approached him. He could definitely issue a refund, and would also talk with me if I planned on returning to practice the next day. He had feedback for me, but said that email was not the space for it. I emailed him back, thanking him and stating that I would come to practice the next day. I was worried. It must be bad if he cannot express feedback in an email, I concluded.
The space between yesterday and today felt like eons, especially when the connection seems lost. I was prepared to make the switch, having checked the mysore times for the other studio. It could potentially work for me even though the start times are later and the prices were higher. I could do a self practice in other days and then just go to Tim’s for a couple of days during the week. I would know a bunch of people there since I already go on some Saturdays. But I felt lost, uncertain, and sad. I have only really known one teacher; I really couldn’t imagine having a different teacher, and then working at getting to know each other. Do I really want to go through all of that again?
Didn’t sleep well either. Had a disturbing dream of being at the other shala, feeling lost amidst familiar faces, and wanting to hide. I awoke and went to practice. Went up to Eka Pada Bakasana…almost held my head up with extended left leg but my leg dropped down to the floor before quickly lifting back up. Muscles quivering, sweat pouring down my face. Andrew stood close by. He noticed everything. Like Sharath, he always seems to notice when things go wrong. And did not give me the next pose.
My heart fell. Went through back bends. Still needed a bit of help with tocs, but they are beginning to feel easier and lighter. I felt as if I flew back on my third and Andrew said, “Good!” And so my heart lifted a bit.
After finishing, showering, and heading back to the main entrance, Andrew stopped and came out for our chat. We sat down on the couch, and I sensed his full attention and presence. It felt like the old times, the kind and gentle teacher I knew. We went through our usual exchanges before getting down to the heart of the talk. “You know,” he said, “you are doing Advanced…Advanced is hard. Eka Pada Bakasana is one of the hardest postures. It takes a really long time. You said that you’ve been stuck with it for six months, but really…I want you to think of it differently. I know it’s probably harder for you, with your personality…”
“What do you mean? You mean my pitta dosha?”
“Well, yeah, maybe that…but you’re a competitive athlete, you do surf competitions, so it’s part of your nature. You like to accomplish things, and that’s fine. But in practice, it’s really better to take your time with it. There should be ease and steadiness once you get the posture right…” and here he quoted a yoga sutra (which I will have to research). He also told me how he simmered in Galavasana for two years with Sharath, and how he began to wonder and feel frustrated. “Things have always been very easy for you, but sometimes it’s good to get into a place of frustration, where you really feel stuck. It’s actually an opportunity.”
“Yeah, Eka Pada is still very hard for me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so stuck before.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve been watching you. You’ve just now got it, where you can lift your head and hold for one breath–”
“No, for at least three breaths!” I said, half joking. “I feel like you’re harder on me than on other folks.”
“Well, they are really short breaths, then!” We both laughed. “But see, you know, it is still very hard for you. I know you can do it. I was going to give you a new pose before I left, because I can tell that you were getting so frustrated, but you know, there are five more arm balances after this one. I can give you the next pose, but if you don’t have Eka Pada down right, everything else will be just that much harder. It’s a lot of strain on the shoulders and back if the technique isn’t right. But if you get Eka Pada down right, everything else will be that much easier. I think that in the long run, it will be better for you stay with it just a little bit longer, until I come back.” His words were comforting, and they also made complete sense to me.
When I left the shala, I felt happier and lighter than I had for days. I did not receive a new pose of course, but something that meant so much more — the original connection with my teacher. I was glad that I reached out and that we spoke face to face; so much can be misinterpreted without that essential communication. And somehow, the push to advance to the next pose was gone; I know that, when I do receive the next one, it will be because I have really earned it. Last, Andrew was fine with me practicing elsewhere while he was gone, but I will return when he comes back. This new plan felt like coming back home, and that was the best feeling of all.