I softly drift inward… Jennifer Abejar

How do I explain practicing yoga and its overall impact it has had on my life? Hmm. I can say that it is “alive.”

It moves…through and around me while drawing out the things that are hiding inside as I go in & get quiet with breath & steady Dristi.

I know that something happens that’s quite unique to yoga. I can feel the difference between being at the gym working out and and being at Mission Astanga doing my Mysore practice. Don’t get me wrong, I get my cardio-high in both and I feel good afterward. I admit that I love the bass & rhythms from my playlist & the range of the music selections that help drive me to finish 5 more minutes at the gym when I don’t think I could do any more. Sweating, heart beating fast, adrenaline pumping. I feel good when I’ve finished. I’ve accomplished my goal. I kicked ass, again. On my best days at the gym, I am a machine. Ouch.

Do I have your attention, yet?

I don’t know if I should continue writing because now you’re looking into my soul. Oh well, you’ve witnessed a tiny bit so come on in if you dare to follow me into my personal journey into yoga.

I have been practicing at Mission Ashtanga since its beginning and every morning once I get into the studio, everything “about me” changes. My mind becomes still. Yoga is so quiet. All I can hear is the breath, mine and my neighbors. I liken it to the sound of an ocean lullaby. It’s so beautiful. Before starting Suryanamaskar A, I wait and …I listen. I wait another moment and… try to feel my heart beating. Is it there? Am I here? Once I contact “Yes”, I softly drift inward.

Now, Asana? Go. But it’s not go.
It’s more like AM I READY to be present in my body? Mysore practice is a moving m e d i t a t i o n connected by breath. Each inhale fills my lungs at full capacity, not forced, but just plain delicious! I can’t go too fast because I might miss all the nuances in the practice: how good it feels to raise my hands up to Heaven as I inhale and take it all in, how the pause in the breath miraculously surfaces, how the exhale makes me feel grounded as I move & touch the earth in a forward bend. All of that goodness in a few seconds, in one breath. Follow that up with two more hours.

Yoga and inner peace? You’d think that we’d be able to levitate. Yoga does more than that for me. I am lucky enough to have a wise and non verbose teacher, Devorah. When I first started practicing with her, she asked me why I came to practice everyday. I didn’t have an answer right away, except for “I’m not sure,” and that there was something about it that made me feel good right from the first salutation. Devorah just said, “Oh”. That was it. Nothing else. But there was something about how she said it. That brief interchange has stuck with me for a decade. (I’ve never told her that, but she’s going to read about it now.)

It’s not that no one has ever asked me why I do anything like…why do I always repeat myself, why don’t I flush the toilet after doing no.1 especially when its fluorescing from the vitamins and supplements, why do I order my dressing on the side, why do I eat dairy when I’m lactose intolerant, etc. But as a yogi, when y’all get up in the morning and come to the mat everyday, maybe tired, or maybe you have no night life and did go to bed early, still the question of “Why?”you have committed yourself to something so wholeheartedly IS important because you may not know the answer!

You just “do”. I don’t know why you do. Only you know the answer. So, ten years ago I was asked, and it stuck with me. Which brings me to my point. If you’re ever lucky enough to find a teacher who can challenge you with so few words that effectively make you look inside yourself everyday for ten years, sign up.

Practicing yoga gives me the gift of seeing myself. Asana has always been so exciting for me especially when there is another pose coming. You know exactly what I mean. I’m quite driven, perhaps a generic type A personality. Devorah of little words would let me practice, often leaving me alone for a while. I would then get a pose like upavista konasana and keep trying to do it over and over and over ’til I tire out.

One day she finally let it go long enough and she came over to me and told me, “After three attempts, stop. Move on to the next pose” because she knows how I am. After hearing that, it gave me incentive to try harder. I don’t think that was what she meant in hind site. But I took it that way. She of few words never explained it or lectured me in it as a lesson of letting go. What I love about my teacher is that she delivers it, and then she lets it blossom and grow organically…revealing itself to you. Trust me, she doesn’t lecture. That is what our mothers are for.

My relationship with Devorah has never been her telling me what to do or what to believe. She delivers one or two sentence(s). She’s quite wise. If she suggests something to you in practice (i.e. imagine there’s a string pulling at your heart, where’s your dristi, turn on your legs, etc.) maybe try it and see where it leads you.

There was a day I kept doing a pose over and over again about 5-6 times. It was kapotasana and my upper back and shoulders were not cooperating at all. Devorah came over to me and asked, “What are you doing? Why do you need to do this?” And, I said, “Because I’m type A. I want to do things right. Because I want to be good at it.” I meant every word.

2nd question from Devorah, “What if you didn’t do it, what would happen?”
Before I replied, my voice started cracking. Out of no where came the tears. I replied, “Then I don’t think I’m doing it right. And all the things that my father told me about myself are true. I can’t do anything right, & I am a defect.

I listened to myself and quietly thought, “What? Where did that come from?”

I was standing there in disbelief that all of that came out of my mouth. My father? I felt so stripped down & torn in two. I cried because my current reality and the years of lies and deception converged in that moment. From that one pose. I was always the type to finish what I start. I was good at whatever I did. I always worked hard and did not half-ass anything. But being type A wasn’t the truth of what drove me to do something well.

The truth: I feared vulnerability (that’s another discussion).
And, I didn’t want to entertain the possibility of failure which would’ve supported my my father’s accusations & labels of me.
Type A was just one layer in the onion peel. At best, a facade.

On the mat, and with the help of my teacher, Devorah, the truth was given to me. The gift of seeing myself was priceless. I learned that I didn’t want to live my life superficially, without meaning or simply exist & spend $$ on things I wanted. There’s a lot to discover. And being open to the things that I have feared most has freed me & lightened my personal burden.

BTW, I didn’t get any of that at the gym.

With love,
Jen Abejar
Gym rat
Yogi wannabe

You May Surprise Yourself Yet, Kirstin Chen

The first time I surprised myself—I mean really, truly stunned myself—was on a cold, colorless morning in a mysore room over a 24-hour pizza joint on the outskirts of Boston’s Back Bay. Under the guidance of co-teachers Scot and Kate, I’d been practicing ashtanga yoga regularly for over a year, and working on dreaded drop-backs for over six months. In those six months, I’d started assisted drop-backs with Scot, and then continued them with Kate, and then been told by Kate to pull back and focus on urdhva dhanurasana until my body opened up more.

By the time of the morning in question, I’d figured out how to catch myself while dropping down, but could not, for the life of me, get back up. Instead, I rocked and pushed and fought to ignore the burning in my thighs before collapsing to my mat. Typically, at this point, Scot took pity on me and came over to help.

“I’m barely touching you,” he’d say, his fingertips on the small of my back. “Can you feel how little I’m doing?”

Truthfully, I could not.

Each time I attempted to get up to standing on my own, I felt only the enormous weight in the heels of my palms, the fire in my legs, my shortness of breath. By summoning every ounce of strength within me, I managed to push myself a couple inches off the floor before falling back down. Getting up to standing was an impossible task.

But that morning, instead of coming over to assist me, Scot had other ideas. After I gave it my usual failed attempt, he dropped a pile of blankets at my feet and told me to drop back on my own.

I did as I was told.

Once I was on the ground in urdhva dhanurasana, blood rushing to my head, fatigue building in my arms and legs, Scot told me to hurl myself as far forward as I could, so far forward that I’d end up on the pile of blankets before me.

Still in urdhva dhanurasana, I strained to see his face. “What?” I said. “What do you want me to do?

His expression was opaque. “You heard me.”

What choice did I have? I took a deep breath, rocked back on my hands, and pushed. When I opened my eyes, I was on those blankets on my hands and knees.

“Good,” said Scot in that imperturbable voice of his. “Again.”

With a few more tries I learned to control my momentum on the way up and to stop myself in an upright position, but my drop-backs were far from perfect. I took extra steps; I lifted my heels; now, six years later, I still splay my feet on the way up. But the lesson I learned that morning, I’ve carried with me ever since: Don’t be so quick to dismiss things as impossible; you may surprise yourself yet.

Part of this lesson involves a willingness to keep trying, day after day—something that seems to come pretty naturally for many of us ashtangis. For me, the more challenging task is staying open to the possibility of surprising myself, no matter how many times I may have attempted—and failed—to get in a pose.

Fortunately, over the years, I’ve had plenty of reminders. I surprised myself in laghu vajrasana, when, one day, after weeks of crashing on the top my head and not being able to come back up, I grounded the tops of my feet, pushed through my hands, and felt my torso lift. It happened again in kapotasana, when Kate ordered, “Take,” and my fingertips brushed my heels. And again in bakasana B when after months of falling short, my knees connected to that spot on my arms just above my elbows, and I somehow managed to hold on.

These days, I’m working on pincha mayurasana, as I have been for close to a year. Each morning, I remind myself to stay open to the possibility of surprising myself and nailing the pose. Part of this means listening—truly listening—when Devorah and Luis instruct me to modify my entrance, as they have numerous times over the past months. Sometimes the modification frustrates me; it feels like I’m being asked to take a step back and start over again. But once I’ve soothed my ego, I see that in order to surprise myself, I must be open to trying different ways of getting into a pose, even if it seems harder or more complicated.

The other part of staying open to surprises is, of course, belief. In my case, belief that one day I’ll plant my elbows, walk my feet in, and lift up, effortlessly, into pincha mayurasana. And that I can do it again and again.

Not too long ago, after I’d failed to jump into pincha for at least the fifteenth time, Chad knelt by my mat. “How are you feeling?” he asked. “Are you just frustrating yourself by doing it over and over again?”

These were rhetorical questions, and of course, I saw his point. In repeating the pose, I was simply expending energy while moving no closer to my goal—a pattern that, believe me, I’m still working to temper. But when I told Chad that I was far from frustrated, I was speaking the truth.

“It makes no sense,” I remember saying, “but no matter how many times I fail, each time I plant my elbows, I believe that this time will be different, that this time I’ll get it.”

There are plenty of things I need to work on in pincha mayurasana (and in my practice, in general): clearing my head, engaging my bandhas, pushing through my arms to prevent my shoulders from collapsing…the list goes on. I could nail the pose tomorrow; I could nail the pose next year; I could nail the pose for six days straight and then lose it the following week. But all these ups and downs won’t change what the practice has already taught me: I’ve done the impossible, and I’ll do it again.

A Call To Action…

Since the New Year I’ve been thinking a lot about intention and motivation and what it takes for us to truly make our lives happen.  In the days leading up to the first of the year there’s a lot of energy around making changes and shifting gears in order to have a better year than the one before.  We spend time crafting new years rituals and intention circles with great hope that this will be the year that all things desired are made manifest.   I suppose this is quite natural.  We see a new beginning and in this, the possibility and potential of living the life we have always wanted. It seems simple enough, right?  Say you’re going to do something and do it.  So why, then, is it so hard for us to stick to these very things that we know will make us live happier, healthier, and more balanced lives?

I began to think of my own life and what motivates me. Don’t get me wrong, I often break commitments to myself and I let myself down all the time.  But my most obvious commitment, and the one that I just can’t shake (and I have tried) is the one I have to my yoga practice.  As you know, this practice is not for the faint of heart.  It’s demanding of body, mind, and spirit and can sometimes be the very thing I most resent.  Although my relationship to it has changed over the years, my commitment has been unwavering.  Even as I write this I can feel my heart and belly resonate with a feeling of rightness. It is a profound sense of knowing that I can’t explain with my intellect. It is this feeling that I can feel, right now, percolating from deep within, that gets me onto my mat each morning.  For me, it’s my passionate, heartfelt, longing to know myself authentically and my experience of how my practice supports this longing that pulls me out of bed, especially on those days when it feels like I have nothing left.  This doesn’t mean that it’s easy or that I’m always enthusiastic.  But it is the sacred promise I made to myself and the fact that breaking that promise leaves me feeling dull and dis-connected that literally fuels me from the inside and keeps me on track in those times when everything else in me could care less.

In Yoga this deep resolve is known in Sanskrit as Sankalpa and it is a very powerful method of directing our lives in a positive, affirming way.  Sankalpa can be translated as a willful determination to become something or to do something with your life.  It’s an intense passionate desire that is felt with the entire mind, body, and soul.  It is not something that can easily be forgotten but rather, something that lives so deep inside your cells that it remembers you. All is takes is a quiet moment with ourselves so we can clear our minds and connect to our deepest truths.

Many of us make intellectual resolves all year round that often get lost and rarely lead us toward lasting change.  This is because these resolves are not planted deeply enough within us.  They have not entered into the subconscious mind and have not been backed up with deeply ingrained willpower and fierce commitment.  Like with anything in life, effort and right action are necessary for our desires to be made possible. Yoga is a path of action and Sankalpa calls forth action. If we are clear about what we want and we approach it with strong feeling and commitment, we will begin to feel the mind become more structured and our lives become an expression of what our heart’s most deeply desire.

 

Sthira Sukham Asanam

As a committed practitioner of the Ashtanga system of yoga for almost 20 years, I have certainly experienced my fair share of physical pain and injury.  Over time I have come to understand that my injuries have allowed me to find depth and strength in my body and in myself. Ultimately this physical pain brought me into a more intimate understanding of who I am and how to best support myself, on and off the mat,

In my early days of Ashtanga, my practice revealed a weakness in my lower back that persisted for many years. Sometimes it would be a dull ache and other times the pain was so excruciating that I could barely walk, never mind practice asana.  What a devastating feeling this was as now my whole life centered around yoga practice.  I felt like my body was betraying me and that the practice couldn’t support me.

Despite the pain I continued to practice, ignoring the body’s signals hoping that I could move through this weakness and” get on” with things.  My ego mind was saying one thing and my body was screaming another. I saw my back pain, and ultimately my body, as an obstacle in the way of my path.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali offers us the opportunity to look at all symptoms, all physical pain, as areas of weakness that need attention and one-pointed perseverance to understand and ultimately overcome.  Here, he is reminding us to go into our pain or discomfort and to use it as an access point to better know the self. Patanjali invites us to meet all that arises, not as an obstacle, but as a messenger that alerts us to a new discovery about ourselves and names persistent practice as the means to getting there.

Patanjali describes asana as “steady, comfortable, and relaxed” and states that the yogi should be able to hold the body in posture for a long period of time without feeling instability.  This is the ultimate goal of asana practice but it doesn’t happen overnight and few of us get there without meeting some challenges along the way.  We inevitably will run into those parts of ourselves, physical, mental, or emotional, that are weak, compromised, or asleep.  Finding stability, comfort, and ease in posture takes time, commitment, and perseverance.  It requires us to accept exactly where we are before we slowly, through consistent and persistent practice, open to a deeper potential. If we push through injury or painful sensation we are acting violently towards ourselves, causing further damage to the physical structure and further disturbance to the mind.  This is not Yoga.

For me, in the beginning, my physical pain did become an obstacle in the sense that it got “in the way” of practice as I knew it.  I could no longer go on auto-pilot and just perform asana.  I had to be willing to find new ways to connect to my body that supported my particular areas of weakness.  Some mornings I did the traditional practice with full vinyasa and deep back bending, while other mornings I was lucky to make it through a modified version of the sun salutations. I found this initially, very difficult, mostly for my ego and due to my belief of how things were supposed to be.   Over time I came to I realize that my practice had deepened and transformed and had become more focused and fulfilling.  And slowly, my pain subsided, and my back got stronger. My pain and physical limitation forced me to take a very deep look at my practice, my body and my approach to both.   Ultimately I was led to a deep understanding of how to best meet myself, in practice and in life.

When we are willing to listen to the body’s signals physical pain and injury can help teach us how to most intelligently approach our bodies, our practice, and our lives.

If Yoga is, in its essence, the awakening to the inner reality of our being, than everything we encounter along our path is a messenger that brings us back to a deeper understanding of who we are. So stay interested and curious.   Be willing to face all you encounter.  Modify as necessary but never stop practicing.

As Gurujii always said:. “ Slowly, slowly…Do your practice…and all is coming.”

Who’s Practicing?

I often ask myself this question as I’m on my mat, sweating, sometimes dragging myself through my yoga practice.  I wish I could say that I rush to my mat each morning with vigor and enthusiasm, eager to ‘meet’ myself and all that practice forces me to face.  To be honest, sometimes I would rather do almost anything else other than show up for practice yet, there I find myself, rolling out my mat, and practicing.   In fact, it is precisely those mornings that I’m full up with angst or negativity that I know will end up being the deepest and most healing.

By asking myself the question, “who’s practicing”, I have the opportunity to get some space, out of the way of myself, and of the many grapplings of my ego mind.  The inquiry invites me to step away from the present thought or emotion that is taking over the moment and to step back into a space of vast, openness that is untouched by the chaos of my mind.  It reminds me of the ground of well-being that is always present, no matter what.

The mind moves towards whatever thoughts, feelings or emotions are present.  It’s conditioned to do so.  If we stay overly identified with our mind-stuff, the lens we view the world through gets too narrow and tainted by all of the vrittis (movements).   If we can remember, in the midst of the chaos, to step out of the way of whatever has a hold over us, the lens gets wider and perspective shifts.  The noise of our minds gets quieter (and eventually less interesting) and the boundless, spacious, purity of the background shines through, giving us a glimpse of Who we truly are.

My mind easily gets twisted up with anger, tiredness, laziness, grief, anxiety, you name it, I’ve got it.   If I stayed identified with any one of these emotions I may not even get out of bed in the morning let alone attempt my yoga practice.  So, each day, with every practice, I inquire, “who’s practicing?” and, slowly, slowly the feeling of spaciousness widens and the radiance brightens.  And the feeling of grace lingers just a little longer.

When I remember to pause and inquire into the nature of this “I” that is involved in all of the doing, I meet the unchanging, welcoming, perfection that has always been here and that will forever be.