Ashtanga and the lessons of facing difficulties

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing.

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At the last Confluence (2013), 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.

“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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theconfluencecountdown

Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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