Last night I dreamt I went back to the Broome Street Temple again. I stood outside the door leading to the staircase, and for a while I could not enter, the way was barred.
Then, like all dreamers, I was suddenly possessed with supernatural powers and passed through the door, up the steps and into a humid embrace of incense, chanting and ujjayi breathing. There, Eddie Stern’s crisp countenance nodded to welcome my entrance.
I’m a professionally trained dancer, thus Ashtanga suits my temperament. The regiment, rhythm, and rigor is reminiscent of ballet training, not to mention the many codified modern dance techniques such as Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham.
Now that I’m no longer dancing, my Ashtanga practice has provided me with a similar (yet ultimately more fulfilling) dance-like satisfaction. I’ve jokingly self-diagnosed myself as being ‘Obsessive Compulsive-lite’ (…I’m not that crazy…) and I usually struggle with breaking cyclical habits. However, I recently took a break from my daily sun salutations. Why? Because my mind and body told me to do so.
Just as a dancer consistently trains in technique classes to prepare for the inevitable onstage performance, a yogi regularly practices in preparation for the fluctuations of life. Comparisons can also be made with unseasoned soldiers rucking through Basic Training. Habitual practices build resistance and provide us with thick armor when we most need it.
Unfortunately, this past holiday season I experienced some of life’s hardest fluctuations: I cradled a terminally ill family member as she dissolved into the depths of imminent death. Amidst the murk of this arduous time, I was reminded of a teacher’s favorite catchphrase: ‘THIS is why we practice.’ I concur. However, during this instant when I supposedly ‘needed yoga most,’ I didn’t desire to practice the Ashtanga Series. My body forbade me to continue my normal regime of waking early to salute the sun.
During this hiatus, I just allowed my practice to wander. Some days I meditated. Some days I practiced pranayama. Some days I took a restorative class, some days an Iyengar-style class, and some days I didn’t do anything at all. I placed it on cruise control, sat back, and bore witness to its power as it took hold.
Was I being an unfaithful yogi? Had I been banished from the Ashtangi coven?
No, I realized. I suddenly saw that the breaking of my usual cycle was actually an integral phase of my path. While I might not have realized it, the resistance accumulated from practicing was actually working at its fullest capability during this hard time. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the famed Christian ‘Footprints in the Sand’ proverb. In it, a man questions God, believing God to have abandoned him during his most hopeless moments. When asked where God was during these difficult times, God replies, ‘During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you.’
Now that I’m happily back practicing with Eddie and the other folks on Broome Street, it’s as if I had never left. My Ashtanga practice was waiting for me, and in fact, it had strengthened. What was once an exhausting excursion through the dense jungles of the Primary Series has now become a smooth, fluid dance between asanas.
Breaking our habits is part of the yoga practice and I’ve decided that we cannot exercise yoga’s true effects until we rest a while from its literal implementation. To fellow Ashtangis near and far, I encourage you to take an occasional pause from your regimented asana practice.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: there aint no yoga Hell and Ashtanga aint going anywhere anytime soon. Sit back and enjoy the ride. After all, it’s just yoga, right?
**Thanks to Daphne du Maurier for allowing me to appropriate the first line of her classic Rebecca