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

Friday asana aid: Shirshasana (aka headstand help)

As I’ve been lamenting, there are only so many asanas one can feature in a weekly asana aid before, voila! All done.

I considered looking all the way to Third/Advanced A, but… nah. Maybe Vasishthasana, but, really… who needs help with that?

And then inspiration struck: The finishing poses! And thus, on to Shirshasana. Up first, David Swenson, which is fun to watch even if you don’t need much headstand help:

Then, Kino MacGregor:

To prove that irony is alive and well at our blog, Lululemon:

And finally, Kiki Flynn, whom I don’t think we’ve ever featured before but did spend a few days on our Yatra earlier this year:

For those who care, I toyed with spelling this Sirshasana or even Sirsasana (I prefer Siva to Shiva) but somehow Shirshasana looks best to me.

Posted by Steve

The single, funniest moment of the Confluence

At the first Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, Tim Miller proved to be the dark horse who produced the single funniest moment in 2012. From that coverage: “Tim also got the biggest laugh of the Confluence, but it just won’t translate here.”

This year, the front-runner for funniest teacher gets the award: David Swenson.

David mixes humor into his teaching at this point like breath itself. Bobbie always says he seems very much like the Texan he is, and this is part of the reason why. It also is part of his remarkable charm.

At one point during the final panel, at which point everyone was pretty loosened up and the mood overall was the lightest and most hilarious, David talked about what yoga needs.

It needs, he said, a Star magazine to bring everyone back to earth. And he meant the whole thing paparazzi / TMZ thing. You know, with photographers with telephotos lenses: “Sharon Gannon and David Life eat chili dogs!”; or headlines like “Richard Freeman — from Mars!” (Quotes are him.)

It had all the teachers in front of us rolling around laughing. And everyone in the audience, too.

Posted by Steve