A friend recently asked for a contribution for a book he’s writing on the “Why To” of yoga practice. Here’s what came through:
When a friend showed me some yoga poses just after we graduated from college, in 1998, they felt good, physically, and so it only seemed the intelligent thing to do to begin doing them regularly. I knew nothing about yoga at the time – growing up mainly in Omaha, NE, in the mid-’80s to ’90s, I’m really not sure I had ever even heard of yoga until near the end of my college days. After college, I became extremely nomadic, mostly working on organic farms in exchange for food and shelter (WWOOFing), and while I had very little money to spend on classes, whenever I found myself somewhere with a free community yoga class, I would drop in and pick up one or two more things.
This is how I started down the path of yoga – so simply, and that simplicity has never changed. I love my yoga practice; I generally find the approximately three hours a day that I currently get to spend in meditation, asana, and pranayama quite heavenly. I do these things because I enjoy them, and it has always been this way. They feel good, as they should. As I have heard said before by some senior teacher – or maybe many of them, “if it doesn’t feel good, you’re not doing it right.”
In 2001, I spent a couple months as an apprentice/intern at the EcoVillage Training Center on “The Farm” in Tennessee, an old commune from the ’70s now turned community. As part of the apprenticeship, we were able to take yoga classes at no charge at the community yoga studio, where the most challenging class, which I preferred over the rest, was called “Ashtanga.” Later I would realize that the class was more “Ashtanga-based” – it was not a strict following of the Primary Series; but what I took away from that class were two things: #1) the word Ashtanga – that this was the style of yoga that I liked; and #2) Surya Namaskar A and B (Ashtanga’s sun salutations), which I learned well enough to remember, and each of which I began to do a few times every morning.
In my first weeks of practicing Ashtanga’s sun salutations (and nothing more than these), my arms and shoulders were killing me!!! I had so very little upper body strength back then. Growing up, I was always very skinny (despite the colossal amount of food I generally consumed) and weak, as well as completely un-athletic – typically one of the very last kids picked for teams in gym class. The only sport that I got into was horseback riding (jumping and dressage) – which, for me, took more strength of will than physical strength. I rode from about age 9 to 17, and as I was never taught to stretch before or after riding, I also became extremely stiff during this time.
About a year and a half after starting to practice the sun salutations, I was working in a raw foods restaurant in New York City, with a waitress who was an Ashtanga teacher. It wasn’t until the very end of my five-month stint in NYC that I made it to one of her classes. This was the first time I saw the entire Primary Series being practiced, and I was blown away – I think it must have been seeing Supta Kurmasana that really shattered my mind. I bought David Swenson’s Practice Manual the next day, and I took it with me to the farm I was heading to in Costa Rica, where I had lived once before, and where, I found upon returning, they happened to have just built a yoga platform. On January 1st, 2003, I took my Manual out to the platform and began my daily practice of the Primary Series.
I liked Ashtanga because it was active – not nearly as active as West African dance, which by then was both my primary physical and spiritual practice, but much more active than any other type of yoga I had ever found. And I liked it because it involved a set series of postures; I liked that I could learn the series and then practice on my own, meaning that I could take it with me wherever I went and didn’t need to always be in a class. As for classes, too, I liked that I did not have to listen to continual instructions, or watch someone, in order to be led through what to do, and that I could advance at my own pace – for me, the Mysore class was the perfect way to learn (and, eventually, teach, as I generally prefer to keep the talking to a minimum).
By about five or six months into my daily practice, I knew I was ready for a teacher, that I needed to be pushed further within the Primary Series or start learning the Intermediate Series, that I couldn’t go further on my own with just the Practice Manual and occasionally dropping in on a class. I researched each of the teachers in the old picture shown in the first few pages of Swenson’s Manual and then signed up for a workshop with Nancy Gilgoff, the only active teacher from that original group who was female. By the end of a powerful two or three days with her, I had decided to travel to Maui the following winter to study with her – and, as it turned out, with her assistant Casie, who took over the classes while Nancy was traveling. On January 1st, 2004, I was on a plane headed to Maui.
INTERMEDIATE/SECOND SERIES – HEALING – PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY
Whereas Primary Series had felt like a way to keep my body together, to keep me physically fit and able to safely do the other physical activities in my life, Intermediate Series was very plainly HEALING me. For a few years before I began the Intermediate Series, I was visiting chiropractors all the time, putting my out-of-alignment back back in order. Once I began to get strong in Second, I never went to another chiropractor.
But now I also began to access the emotional body. The reason my back was so “broken?” Well… a little back-story on me (no pun intended)… A couple years before I began my Ashtanga practice, I had suffered the biggest trauma of my life thus far, becoming a widow at the age of 24, losing not only my (Ghanaian) husband, after being given less than a year with him, but also the sweet, simple life in West Africa (my dreamland) that went with him. What I saw as my whole life and future were suddenly, quite unexpectedly, gone, as was my best friend and other half – which, of course, was the worst part. In the following year of profound mourning, I had stored a great deal of my grief and pain, which I was not ready to deal with, in a certain spot in my upper back; and this spot hardened, layer after layer – eventually becoming numb, as I also worked for about five months as a cashier – stuck behind the cash register in the same repetitive motions for eight hours a day (at a new health-food-store chain called Whole Foods)…
As the backbends in Second Series began to strengthen the muscles in my back, getting them to the point where they could hold my spine in a more comfortable position – a more proper position for functioning in the world, they also dislodged the emotions stored in that physical, knotted-up spot. I was told that moving into Second Series typically brings out anger or sadness, or both. For me, it was pure sadness. Tears and tears and tears and more tears… And some of my ribs began moving – moving out of place before they could move into a more proper place – and the whole thing was really quite painful! But so very necessary – and by then I thoroughly trusted the practice and whatever process it was going to put me through. And thank goodness I had found this healing space on Maui, where I felt so supported – in the yoga studio, in the ocean (which always helped tremendously during those physically painful times), and in Nancy’s and Casie’s hands – which I also always trusted completely.
In my first couple years of practice, there were times when I would miss my practice for a few days or maybe even up to a week or so, due to travel or some other life event, and by the end of that week or so, my body would be feeling it – in particular, my back pain would return. But I soon realized there was more that I was missing than just the asanas that seemed to be putting my body back in a proper, non-painful position. I missed the breath. The quality of my breath soon began to feel different without the Ashtanga practice and its particular breath. And I began to see a piece of the truth behind what my teacher had been professing – that breath is the most important part of this practice. Then pranayama came into the picture (following Second Series), and the quality of my breath changed immensely. It wasn’t long before I felt I simply could not take a deep breath if for some reason I missed a day or two of pranayama.
By now, in 2018, 15 years into my daily practice, my understanding is that it’s not just a matter of “breath,” but it’s prana, it’s life-force, it’s vital energy, and that through this practice, we are learning not only to take it in and refine it, but also to direct it within our bodies – the physical body as well as the emotional, mental, energetic/subtle, and spiritual bodies that are so intricately entwined with the physical. The more we do the practice, it seems to me, the more conscious of the prana we become, and the better we can become at harnessing and directing this vital and incredible energy that is the source of life itself… Wow – pretty big stuff!
So here we go, bringing prana, life-force, vital energy, into the body through the breath, spreading it through the body as we open the body’s nadis – energy channels, via the movement of the breath/prana within the postures… meanwhile gaining more and more interesting postures as we advance along… accessing ever more nooks and crannies in our bodies (and not just our physical bodies)… waking up ever more of our Selves…
THE MAGIC OF ADVANCED A/THIRD SERIES
For me, Advanced A, or the “old” Third Series, feels like magic – and always has, even in my early days of practicing it when it was SO CHALLENGING! Advanced A has so clearly had the power to completely transform me; if I’ve started off the practice feeling unwell for any reason (not enough sleep, dietary mishap, etc.), Third will have turned that around before I know it, and by the end I’ll be feeling amazing again, my entire body charged with energy. (And what better way is there to walk through your day?) I have experienced this countless times over the years. And yes, to a certain extent, I have experienced this with any series in the Ashtanga syllabus, but with Advanced A, for me, the feeling tends to be much more pronounced.
It has also served to make me strong like never before; on a physical level (though I suppose also, simultaneously, branching out to all the other levels), Advanced A has helped me tremendously with developing my strength. Once I had started to do West African dance on a regular basis, a couple years before I began my Ashtanga practice, and was stretching before and after dance class, the flexibility had begun to come to my body pretty easily. But the strength… for me that took much more time to develop. A great deal of Third was hard in the beginning. And the fact that eventually, after some years of practicing it generally three times a week, it became not hard can still feel a bit surprising to me. Watching other people in the Maui yoga shala doing certain parts of Third, I used to think… no way – I cannot see myself ever being able to do that. …But this is the power of practice. You do the practice and you change, and your body changes; the practice develops you. It can feel quite miraculous, but it actually makes perfect sense.
Advanced A has also taken me into deeper levels of healing the wounds in my back. Just as I had this experience with the Intermediate Series in the early days of practicing it, I have also had the experience of some degree of back pain/discomfort returning if for some reason I’ve been slacking on my practice of the Advanced Series. On an emotional level as well, Advanced A has helped to facilitate more “letting go” of past trauma – coming along with not just the further opening but the strengthening of that wounded spot in my upper back – and with the bringing of ever more prana into the area, as some of the postures have provided me with a way to gain deeper access.
Looking back, I think that for me, the main effects of starting a daily practice of the Primary Series were that it started to get the body in shape and realigned, and it started to develop the breath and the movement of energy. Starting on Intermediate Series began to really open the energy body for me, to “clear the nadis,” as they say – to clear or open the body’s energetic pathways for the prana to traverse. And, of course, it began to strengthen my damaged back, and all of this also resulted in a hearty dose of emotional cleansing. …As for Advanced A? Besides the dramatic strengthening of the entire body, all I’ll say is… MAJOR MOVEMENT OF ENERGY. And while these have been the most notable, or noticeable, effects, meanwhile, all of the series, always utilizing Ashtanga’s signature breath-with-sound, have subtly been working on calming the mind…
FALLING IN LOVE WITH ADVANCED B/FOURTH SERIES
After about six or seven years of practicing Advanced A generally three times a week, and by then feeling quite strong with it, I began to feel interested in Advanced B, the old Fourth Series – the final set series in the “old-school” Ashtanga syllabus. For one thing, I was curious about what it would do for my body (maybe even deeper levels of healing in my back?); but my biggest reason for wanting to do it, if my teacher felt me capable and ready for it, was to keep Advanced B from dying out. I knew of only one woman who was definitely still practicing it at the time (an amazing and beautiful badass of a woman, incidentally), and she was in her 60’s and not a yoga teacher – and therefore, I thought, would most likely not be passing it on. It seemed that all the other folks in my teacher’s generation who used to practice it in their younger days were no longer practicing it – or teaching it, and that outside of my relatively small “old-school” Ashtanga community, the younger generations of Ashtanga practitioners who made it to the advanced series were all learning the “new-school” way (in which the old Third and Fourth have been divided into more series, as well as switched up into a different order of postures – an order that generally seems much less sensible to those of us still practicing the old way). At that time, my teacher – one of only a few senior teachers, as far as I know, still teaching the advanced series in the old way – had only successfully passed Advanced B on to a couple of people, and that was decades before and I had no idea if those women were still practicing it. …So I really felt strongly that if I was able, I should do all I could to keep my beloved “old-school” tradition fully alive.
…I had no idea what a gift Advanced B, the “old” Fourth Series, would be. I fell so instantly in love with it, from the very first day of trying just the first piece of it, that I soon felt like I was having an affair – cheating on my beloved Third Series!
While I had seen the previous three series working on my physical, emotional, energetic, and mental bodies, for me, Advanced B finally clearly tapped into the spiritual body. …While for so many people yoga was what they considered their “spiritual path,” I had never felt that way about it, and I had never strongly felt the “spiritual” side of my yoga practice – at least not more than in the way that any of my practices have a spiritual element to them, which really they all do… Perhaps it was because I already had established West African dance as my most spiritual practice by the time I started the yoga that I never had felt the yoga was my “spiritual practice;” the dance had always so strongly and clearly tapped into the spiritual body, making my spirit soar, giving me my most easily-accessed and straight-forward experiences of blissful Union with the Divine One, that everything else paled in comparison. …But with Fourth Series… The best way I can describe its effect on me… was that it reached down into the deepest discovered levels of me – into that Divine I – the Self with a capital “S” that dancing and drumming had always accessed so much more easily… it found its way to reach down into this deep Divine level of Me, and then to pull it out/up/forward/backward, inward/outward/surround-sound/all-around… to encase me, fill me, shine forth from me… and calm me… It was so calming, this Fourth Series. And I have always been an extremely CALM person, life-long, but even for me, such a calm person, wow… this calm feeling that started to come to me within both the practice and the aftermath of Advanced B… I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I still like it a lot. I don’t know whether this calm, peaceful feeling that this series brings to me comes from its particular postures themselves, or from its design of intense, strength-inducing postures followed by either calm, meditative postures or intensely deep stretches… or whether it’s just from the calm and ease and grace and peace that naturally come to us when that Divine aspect inside radiates through us – that come to us when we experience our Divine Nature… But whatever the cause, every single time I do it, which is generally twice a week, Advanced B is such a gift, a prize – it really feels like one of the greatest gifts I have ever received in this lifetime.
SELF-REALIZATION IS THE NAME OF THE GAME
From my very oldest practice for knowing the self, writing, through all my practices… I feel that essentially it’s all Yoga – it’s all Union; it’s all about Consciousness, Self-Realization. Whether it’s feeling the Divine take over and move my body in dance class, shoving the ego out of the way as I am united with the rhythm, the music… or whether it’s feeling the music pass through my own body, as I play West African rhythms with a group of other drummers, all of our different parts clicking together in Union within the same groove… or whether it’s feeling the Divine flow of words spilling forth onto the page, as they use me as their vessel to manifest into the world… or feeling the Divine flow of creativity as I contentedly work on some sewing or textile project… or whether it’s feeling the Divine Prana filling me and moving me as I do my yoga practice, moving through me and subtly expanding my consciousness… it’s all a piece of the puzzle of my own journey into Self-Realization.
This is Yoga – this Union with the One, this Self-Realization, this knowing of, and living with – being, the Divine Self. There are countless ways in which we can come closer to ourselves, to our Divine Natures, countless paths we can take, practices, etc. For me, walking through this lifetime, it wasn’t the yoga that first led me to the Divine – I first found the Divine, within me and within all I witnessed around me, during my first, profoundly life-altering trip to Africa, immersed as I suddenly was in a God-conscious culture. And so I was never seeking anything spiritually with the yoga practice – it just felt good physically, so I kept with it because that seemed the intelligent thing to do. And over all these years, I have found it to be one of the most essential ways for me to keep my physical body functioning well (proper rest and diet being the only two factors I have found to have an even greater impact on me). Over time, I have also seen the yoga help me to heal old wounds; certainly I have seen its calming, clarifying effect on me; and perhaps what has lately come to have the greatest impact on me has been its contribution to the development of my awareness and use of prana… All in all, eventually the yoga practice became one of the most significant practices or tools that I have welcomed into my life – to help me find or remain in balance, to help me heal and evolve, and ultimately to bring me closer to the Divine.
It can be hard to gauge the effects of a daily practice you have done for years (a mere 15 for me, as I write this in 2018) – it is like a mother not noticing how much her toddler has grown in half a year because she is witnessing/living the growth on such a steady, subtle level every single day. But I will say that, within two or three years of daily practice, and continuing on through the present, I could feel the following effects. Physically, I simply can’t imagine being comfortable in my body, as I walk through my life, without the asana practice. I can see that, through this practice, I have been learning how to hold/inhabit my body, as I move through this world. And I have been learning how to breathe, how to more fully access and use my lungs – which also amounts to learning how to take in more of the prana all around me. Mentally, I know the meditation and the pranayama, along with the asana practice, work wonders for me – I have felt the difference in the quality of my mind, my thoughts, my focus, when, at times, I have missed a couple days of any of these elements. Emotionally, I know the practice has helped me evolve – I have experienced it, mostly through the spontaneous sobbing – and the resultant feeling of “letting go” – that has often sprung from me in the midst of my asana practice (predominantly in the early years of developing the Intermediate Series). The practice has also certainly served to increase my awareness of the energetic or subtle body, and it has helped to remove blocks that get in the way of the free flow of energy within it. …And as for the spiritual body? …To me it seems the spiritual body doesn’t need any help – it is so clearly perfect as it is, always; but I suppose the practice can help reveal that fact. If nothing else, it seems that getting those other major bodies more in order and alignment – “in good shape” – is what we need to do in order to let the Spirit, our Divine Essence, be realized, experienced, and shine forth.
Physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically, spiritually… the yoga practice has made me so very much stronger than I imagine I would have been without it. And it has helped me to feel… whole, and together, and… just… how I am. It is a gift for which I am ever thankful.