What is yoga? The ever-elusive question that themes many of my conversations lately. Yoga is a tool to discover internal strength. A strength that comes through recognizing our vulnerability, our limitations, our humility. And okay, sometimes having those moments where we experience the feeling of a posture that we never thought we could do – all thanks to practice, patience and perseverance. The real wonderment here, I believe, comes from understanding the experience of the pose, rather than what we think we look like.
Ashtanga has a negative reputation among some as a physically-tough practice, which is possibly perpetuated by power yoga and similar forms marketed in the West that use Ashtanga as a guide. It’s been my experience that Ashtanga has provided me with the opposite; as one of the few places, especially within a city, that I have been able to immediately drop into the feeling of practicing yoga – of connecting with myself, of experiencing divinity within, for a lack of a more descriptive phrase.
Nevertheless, I have had to take a step back this past month. My body has been aching, in all sorts of different places. This week, it’s a pain running from my left ankle joint up the shin and to the outside of the knee, and up some more along the back of the thigh and into the glute. The pain itself is minimal; the worry that consumes me more is the intense cracking sound that comes from the ankle and now is continuing up the shin, depending on how quickly I move the ankle in certain directions, or even get up from the ground or seated due to fear of putting pressure on my feet correctly. It would be easy for someone, overstimulated by media and yoga culture, to point at a blaming finger at ashtanga yoga – a “strong, pushing” practice and say this must be what caused the injury.
I also have these thoughts – as I am also influenced by my culture – and it worries me, though my gut feeling doesn’t (really) believe it. That “really” is the hesitancy to listen. You see, we have this intense need in the West to Have to make sense and deconstruct everything. There must always be an explanation or a clear and visible cause and effect in order for us to understand something. We have lost our faith and our trust in our intuition; of understanding something through simply knowing it, or surrendering the need to understand it (we are not God). This is a practice to cultivate. This is what yoga teachers mean when they say you are your best teacher – they really do mean listen to your body and go along with it. There is knowledge there. Something that years worth of courses will never be enough to allow you to discover.
Back to my cracking ankle. This is nothing so new for my body. I spent a lot of time walking on my toes when younger, which has terribly affected my posture. My ankles have often cracked. However, the past month it has been louder, longer and more worrisome. Stronger practice + louder, longer cracking = problem with the practice? Don’t think so. All too often pains I experience in yoga are simply a resurfacing of something (structural or emotional issue) in my body that was already there, only more dormant, meaning I was less aware of it. The practice brings these to surface. Of course this is not to disregard the importance of correct alignment to avoid injury. I am saying that I do not believe that some pain automatically means yoga has caused the injury and that we should stop. In fact, yoga could be helping us to see and experience more clearly the patterns and habits we already have existing in our body. It is allowing the pain to surface, either to release or for us to look at it, to be with it, to go into a deeper understanding of it and what information it is trying to give to us.
So, my Ashtanga practice. As much as I would like to be going further into some of the poses, so much of me wanting to experience their full expressions and their benefits, I have had to take a step back. Along with information coming up from my pelvis, psoas, shoulders, back, and stomach, right now I require slow and mindful asanas, and remembering the benefits that come from simple movements. My practice is going further by going deeper inside – not by “doing” the sequence, but by taking movements slower and listening more. I take some variations in postures to protect my knees, I keep knees on the ground in many of my vinyasas, and I go only as far in a pose as to feel safe these days. I came to Ashtanga looking forward to the physical challenge, as this is where I felt I could learn something I felt was lacking. This was true at the time. Now, in these moments, we reassess again what yoga is to us, and what practice means.
My inner teacher tells me that this “injury” is not something negative. It is a result of an accumulated pattern over time and an opportunity to learn again. Sometimes it makes me worry and feel sad that I am hurting myself and that my practice is hurting me. So then the practice becomes the introspection, the asking. The practice becomes the “being with”, whether through a slower asana practice, meditating on the sensation, or simple introspection, like writing this post right now.
The teacher is inside. Keep practicing. (om xico)