Ashtanga and Adversity

At the last Confluence, a question about the challenges of Ashtanga was directed at the affable David Swenson. “I don’t do Ashtanga anymore,” he said, “It’s far too difficult.” Laughter.

The author with Tim, not too cool for school.
The author with Tim, not too cool for school.

“One of the main reasons to do this practice,” said Tim Miller, “is to teach us how to face difficulty. You learn to be calm when facing a difficult pose, so that when life throws something really tough at you, you don’t freak out.”

The past month of my practice has been tough. Every now and then, the arthritis in my joints flares up, and I am en fuego—everything hurts. Feet, hands, knees, elbows, shoulders.

Now, I’ve had arthritis since I was in my mid twenties, so it’s no mystery to me. But thanks to Ashtanga, I have long stretches of time when I’m free and clear of pain. I think, every practice, “Whew!” and have a blast.

Then things change, and I wonder, Is this it? Is this the corner, and now the new normal?

Morning practice, not happening. Even in the afternoon, when I’m warmer, less achy, movement is slow, deliberate.

Sometimes I have to play music or I won’t make it. (Hey, don’t judge—if Nancy Gilgoff can play Santana I can play Led Zeppelin.)

The real fight, though, is not against pain. It’s against self-pity, self-indulgence, self-centeredness. Stopping myself from wallowing. The poet G.M. Hopkins called this “carrion comfort”: indulging in your suffering. Maybe feeling a little pride in it. It’s a test of adversity.

So it was in the middle of this pity party that Tim’s words were brought back to me, because a friend of ours passed away after a long fight with cancer.

Suddenly I remembered what Ashtanga is. It’s nothing, really. A daily lesson in what’s important, a daily reminder that it’s not important at all. Every day, you get tested. Why are you doing this practice? And every day, you either pass or fail.

Grief over great loss. Something really tough. It stopped the massive flow of pointless pity I felt for myself, shifted my pain around out of the center of my life and moved it decidedly into the minor inconvenience category.

And from there, the pain I’m feeling now became something to be appreciated, in a way. I can still do the practice, in the face of the pain, and that makes the pain unimportant, really.

In the memorial service program for our friend, I found this poem, a reminder of where to put the emphasis:

Four things are beautiful beyond belief:

The pleasant weakness that comes after pain,

The radiant greenness that comes after rain,

The deepened faith that follows after grief,

And the re-awakening to love again.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

6 thoughts on “Ashtanga and Adversity”

  1. Asana practice is great it just brings your focus back to the present, clears out the daily cobwebs. I used to get the same buzz from really long runs, or practicing my saxophone for hours at a time. Many of our mental complaints aren’t real problems at all when you think about it. Sometimes our station in life is a real problem and action beyond yoga has to be taken poverty isn’t such a great thing, abuse, disasters etc. Most of the time our problems are just twisted perspectives it’s all how we see things. Physical pain is real and using ahimsa and asana some of that can probably be alleviated. Dealing with grief from loss or anticipatory grief while caring for people Asana and Yoga philosophy can help deal with that I guess if you are open to the teachings. Suffering is good if you can be present with your suffering and your other emotions and you don’t become melancholy. Many cultures have practices for dealing with loss and grief but most people don’t follow religions anymore. The one thing yoga has done for me is just taken some of the edge off, chilled me a little to sit with what is and work with what’s happening. I read in the book Guruji recently where Guruji told one of his students after his wife died, “non attachment was not so easy.” I liked how Guruji cried in front of everyone for quite some time after his wife died, loved gold, loved his family, loved his students, cared for himself and his spiritual well being really a great example of living a full life. As Black Elk said, “good is good enough.” On Thursday i’m taking my terminally ill 8 year old daughter and my son to visit a family friend diagnosed with stage 3 bone cancer. Kali and Siva doing a little dance.

  2. Thank u for this post. It’s so real. I have arthritis but at 65 you expect that. Some mornings I just don’t know how I will do an hour of practice but I do the best I can and try not to get into a pity party. It helps somehow to know others are feeling the same thing. At least we are doing it.

      1. No I have not seen it – loved it – makes me want to keep keeping on! I am still teaching also – not qualified to teach Ashtanga but teach other styles and practice Ashtanga on my own. It keeps me young.

  3. Thank you so much for this post. The timing is great. I just started an Ashtanga practice last week and am dealing the failure of my first IVF cycle. I switched to Ashtanga from my usual practice because I felt like I needed something deeper to sustain me as I prepare for our next cycle in October. I cannot tell you how much it’s helping me. I am so grateful. And that poem is beautiful, I’m going to share it with the others in my infertility network xx

  4. To brad fisher. Thanks for your comment and wanted to let you a know as a member of the community of readers here that my heart goes out to you in your efforts to care for your daugjter and be with your friend.thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

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