Out of all the cornerstones of my spiritual life, yoga is the most recent. Yet perhaps precisely because of its late arrival, it has empowered change most profoundly—on every level and in every dimension. How I live, think, breathe, eat, sleep have all transformed.
I was first curious about yoga during college, though the tiny college town had no yoga offerings. After college, a colleague in my small Japanese city, upon learning of my interest, brought me to a yoga class. That first class resembled nothing of the stereotype. A middle-aged, mildly cranky, Japanese woman, shorter than I and nothing like a limber, mellow hippie, barked at the small group of students, while my colleague whispered quick translations. I focused on ignoring both the teacher and the staticky radio in the adjoining room, while trying to mimic my colleague.
I never returned to that class, but my curiosity remained. Several months later, I purchased a yoga DVD and tried to follow it at home—another experience never repeated. About a year later, a Chinese friend taught a tai chi class, where I was the only other gaijin (non-Japanese). Immediately I loved the connection of breath and movement. Though I often felt awkward and confused, I started practicing tai chi in my apartment several times a week, in addition to classes. He kindly kept his explanations simple, so that I could understand his instructions. He emphasized the slow deliberation of tai chi, likening it to the difficulty of riding a bicycle slowly instead of quickly.
As much as I enjoyed tai chi, I still wanted to study yoga. After moving back to the US, I sampled all the yoga studios I could find. I met a lot of nice teachers and many flexible people. I hoped my body would open up, but mostly I was curious about the internal exploration. The yoga classes I attended seemed great for bendy people, but I remained detached—I felt exactly the same at the end of the class as I did at the start. Though my curiosity was not yet fully engaged, it remained unabated.
I continued to seek a style of yoga that incorporated tai chi’s connection of breath and movement. I felt certain that combination had to exist, though I had no idea how. At a friend’s recommendation, I attended an ashtanga class.
My life changed in the first sun salutation. Deep, conscious breathing is the primary focus of ashtanga—an internal focus, rather than the outward manifestation. I couldn’t be distracted because every breath (and therefore moment) demanded my attention. Moreover, breathing determines how and when to move in the practice. Finally, I found yoga that I was somehow certain had to exist.
Worth noting that I was ridiculously inflexible—under age 25 and far from touching my toes or even sitting cross-legged for more than a few minutes. And I was at least ten years younger than all the other students. Though I had always been active, I could barely keep pace with the class—after 90 minutes, everyone, myself included, was sweating profusely. I felt different in the first five minutes of class, and by the end I felt as though I had been turned inside out. I nearly staggered to the parking lot afterwards.
But because breathing is the foundation of the practice, attention on my breath subordinated all my physical inabilities. I didn’t care about them because the breathing felt more incredible than anything I had ever experienced. The challenge fascinated me beyond the ability of simply manipulating my body—to maintain even, conscious breathing throughout the practice, regardless of physical effort or mental hesitation.
Completely inspired and undaunted, I began consistently attending led ashtanga classes. I was grateful that asanas were secondary to breathing, because plenty of them intimidated me to the point of terror—I watched other people sit in lotus or stand on their heads and I thought they were crazy.
As I continued to practice, I realized not all asanas seemed crazy. Some felt great. Inevitably, others exacerbated my fears, and I often avoided them. I felt certain that I would never be very physically capable; my imagination, let alone my expectations, couldn’t foresee many changes. Even when trying to touch my toes I panicked that I was always on the brink of disaster—about to pull a muscle or fall over. Skepticism dominated my thoughts: If I’m this incompetent, there’s no hope of accomplishing much in the way of flexibility. But I dig the vibe anyway.
For example, I loved downward-facing dog, but in the first year never attempted backbends. In every class I thought about starting them. But every time I put my hands on the floor, the internal shouting drowned out all other thoughts: DON’T DO THIS! YOU’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO, SO DON’T EVEN TRY! I felt like I couldn’t breathe, as though buffeted by waves. You can’t do this. You’ll never do this. Even small waves, as these rushes of emotion often were, can be exhausting in enough frequency. You’re going to hurt yourself. And you’ll look like an idiot neophyte in front of all these people. Right, okay. Just breathe, just breathe. And then my ego always justified my avoidance: You’re too tired. You need to be CAREFUL; you don’t want to hurt yourself.
(Now, of course, I understand that my addiction to disbelief assured the impossibility, though at the time I was pleased with my logical, rational behavior. Acceptable excuses for not having to confront what was uncomfortable, scary, etc meant I was giving my full effort.)
Over the months, however, my body shifted. Because I had never shared my doubts with anyone, no one had explained that yoga changes everyone, without exception. One day, my middle fingertips barely brushed my toes, to my initial bewilderment. Wow. Maybe that’s possible. Some months later, my fingers comfortably gripped my feet. Wow. Not so bad, really. Really? I didn’t know I had that in me, literally. Interesting. Whatever. Just keep breathing.
I was accustomed to working towards predetermined, concrete goals, and for the first time, my expectations had not encompassed what was possible. I surpassed them, even without specific intentions to do so.
That said, I still thought sitting in lotus was crazy, but I didn’t care, since I focused on breathing.
Teachers, moreover, frequently baffled me with comments such as “open your heart” and “embrace your fear” and “be present with the now.” The tone suggested the effort was obvious, yet I was clueless. I consider myself intelligent, but my lack of experience made everything very abstract. How, exactly, does one open the heart? What happens when it opens? Why would one choose to embrace fear? What happens when one does?
Honestly, all the talk sounded pretty hokey. But even if the commentary were stereotypical fluff, I didn’t care because I only focused on breathing. Often I ignored the teacher and just listened to everyone breathe. Ashtanga quickly anchored my disorientation amidst reverse culture shock (which, for the record, is often more stressful and long-lasting than culture shock in a foreign land).
But the obvious sincerity of the teachers still made me curious. I thought I might understand eventually. Maybe. Sometimes I believed their sentiments, though only intellectually, from a distance. But I had no concept of how to embody them. Nowadays, I chuckle internally when I state similar ideas, such as “move into your hesitation.” But at the time, I felt far too idiotic to ask for further explanation.
My internal comments, as noted above, were quite different. They usually alternated between Ah, I feel so much better, wow and What am I supposed to do? That’s way too complicated. You’ll never do that, so don’t even try because you’ll hurt yourself. I honored both perspectives—I appreciated the relaxation and I heeded the warnings. I had long been conditioned to live without affirmation. Believing that I was unworthy and often incapable made sense.
For the first several months, asana practice left me physically exhausted, mentally confused, and emotionally weary. I was on the brink of tears by the end of every class, as I contorted with these new internal dialogues. My body was both capable and incompetent, and I didn’t understand any relationship with all the sensations—I simply assessed that I was churning through pain, doubt, and fear. I worried I couldn’t handle the torment. But I was too fascinated, perhaps morbidly so, by the raw power unleashed when I began to encounter my own depths.
Yet, paradoxically, I felt amazingly safe and affirmed. Dave Stringer describes yoga as “exhausting and exhilarating”—certainly true in my experience. Sustained, powerful breathing reassured me in ways I could not articulate, despite the confusion, the exhaustion, the fears, and the intimidations. My intuition whispered that I was doing powerful work, something beyond my imagination, and that I should remain committed to the exploration. In my marrow I knew I was in the right place.
The reason I was living in Atlanta at that time was because my grandmother lived with my parents. My extended family had always lived far away, so I wanted to savor the opportunity I knew wouldn’t last very long. The time I had with her was even shorter than we expected—several months after my first ashtanga class, her health precipitously declined. For a few months, we watched her deteriorate in nursing homes and hospice. She died peacefully less than a year after I returned home.
Though I was glad for the chance to have lived in my hometown again, her death terminated my only meaningful reason to be there. I had always considered her my anchor, but she was, in fact, the rope. From that point, I was ready to leave, destination undefined and departure undetermined.
I soon realized that I wanted to explore the source of yoga, the land and culture from which it came. Pattabhi Jois was still teaching at that time, in his 90s. I knew the opportunity to practice with him wouldn’t always be available. I worked six days a week to finance my escape, and left Atlanta just over a year after my grandmother died.
India is the most powerful place I have ever been, with seemingly endless manifestations of spiritual practice. My time there combined structured, consistent yoga practice with unchartered confrontation with mySelf. I had teachers and methodology to follow in class, but little guidance for what happened within—just time, in abundance, to observe, feel, react, ponder, and, occasionally, discuss.
Practicing in Mysore was far more overwhelming than class or workshop I had ever attended. In my first practice, Pattabhi Jois, who was barely taller than I, adjusted me in backbends, by far the scariest thing I had ever done in a yoga class. I faced him, and he held my back while I arched backward, put my hands on the floor, and stood up again. He did most of the work, and I was still completely terrified—bungee jumping for the first time was far less intimidating than facing him. I nearly fell on the floor a few times, and he (rightfully) admonished me: “Why you hurry?!”
He never accepted excuses or delays (not that I was foolish enough to attempt any), and in the first month I was certain my back would snap. Every reflex resisted, every conceivable excuse continued to present itself when I reached that point in my practice. In those moments, I always had a vision of myself supine, with my chest cracked open, everything exposed and unprotected. Not exactly a nightmare, not quite the realistic, bloody mess it should have been. But it seemed completely real, utterly possible, and highly probable. I started to see it whenever I thought about backbends, desperately frightened of the vulnerability it depicted.
Strangely (then, though logically now), my back continued not to break, despite my continual terror. The realness of my vision faded somewhat when I recognized that backbends were becoming more possible. I considered not fixating on my dread. But like any habit, I struggled to abandon my catastrophe-inclined thoughts.
On my last morning in Mysore, Sharath came to adjust me in backbends. He stood in front of me, hands at his sides. I glanced down worriedly and reminded him that he had to help me. He chuckled, then said, “It’s possible.” He’s crazy if he thinks I can do this. Then a split second of counterpoint: How is Sharath crazy? He’s been practicing a long time and he knows A LOT more than I. So if he thinks it’s possible….
I didn’t drop back on my own that morning—Sharath helped at the last moment. However, he showed me that although I pushed a lot of boundaries, my ego still confirmed limiting patterns of thought. I was reminded of my earliest experience of touching my toes—that perhaps this was another time when my expectations couldn’t encompass what was possible.
Next, I went to Kerala to study with Lino Miele. Similarly, he tolerated no excuses or delays. After helping me drop back and stand up in backbends for a few weeks, he pronounced, “Stephanie, you do it. You know it.” I didn’t verbalize my answer, but I didn’t doubt that he could sense my thoughts (and probably had heard already similar sentiments many times). He is absolutely, completely, fucking, CRAZY. I cannot do this. I’m not.
The next morning, nevertheless, I knew he was waiting, watching. The fearful, pouting voices resumed their complaints, now criticizing him as well. I never considered that he had faith in me, let alone how much.
So I leaned back a little, where I could see the back wall. Though the resistance wasn’t shouting, I clearly heard No, no, nononono NO NO! I stood, waiting. Then I raised my head. Then I leaned back again: No, no, no, no, no no no. After several more false starts, I finally mustered the effort for an equally firm response: Yes.
And I did it. Very sloppily. But the muscle memory was there. No exaggeration that I needed ten minutes to do that day what now takes less than one. But I was newly motivated to become proficient, perhaps even graceful one day.
The process was messy and I struggled, for weeks. My timing was inconsistent and I constantly lost my balance. One day I even hit my head. That was the only time Lino rushed to me and said, “Stephanie, I’m so proud of you! You hit your head! That’s wonderful!” Not only did we both know that I desperately needed encouragement, we both knew that the other knew. But I was still grateful.
Meanwhile, the vision of the cracked ribcage intensified, which led to noticing that my mental and emotional objections were stronger than the physical ones:
Hey, what are you DOING?! I HATE this part! I’m gonna HIT MY HEAD and the CONCRETE floor is gonna HURT!
Deep breaths. You’ve done this before. Don’t worry so much.
Yeah, but it’s like birth control, NOT 100% EFFECTIVE! You’re arching more! SERIOUSLY, STOP!! THIS IS WAY TOO EXPOSED AND REALLY DANGEROUS! You CAN’T do this! WHY are you still TRYING?!
It’s gonna be all right. Seriously. You can do this. You already have and you’ll continue to do so. Just breathe with me.
I DON’T LIKE THIS at al—
But this is NOT a good id—
Yes, a daily internal shouting match, analogizing to the effectiveness of birth control. In the words of the Big Book, “Adversity truly introduces us to ourselves.” Truly, I met mySelf in a completely new way.
Despite the fears around these experiences, the reactions felt familiar. So I began to consider what other scenarios elicited emotional tantrums. I realized I had the same panic reaction to vulnerability, the same ludicrous logic to avoid outward emotional expression. I always internalized, distracted, or rationalized how to sidestep what scared me. Backbends triggered all the pains embedded in my fear, insecurity, and panic. Those reactions provoked other emotional struggles: abandonment, trust, commitment. My reluctance both on and off the mat was the same.
Not a coincidence that all the unwillingness congregated in my chest, around the heart. I remembered those incomprehensible comments in my earliest classes. For the first time, I not only understood how I could embrace fear, but also why I needed to do so. Yoga made the abstract concrete. I thought about the vision that started in Mysore, ribcage wrenched apart. Maybe this was how the heart opened, at least in my case. Physically I felt opened, and obviously my associated mental picture was already open. I began to wonder if my newfound willingness to believe beyond what I considered possible, to question my so-called certainties, was also a sign of my heart opening.
Learning how to drop back required that I stop judging, slow down, observe carefully, ignore distractions, evaluate shrewdly. Most unfamiliarly, I had to stop criticizing, start encouraging, and understand the illusions that my fear presented. Learning headstand was the same process—at first I felt only fear and frustration. As I gained balance and stamina to stand on my head, I gained confidence and stability not just about headstand, but towards any challenge I faced.
Every practice provides the opportunity to confront my (often tangled) emotional amalgamation. I often don’t know to be more confident, more loving, or more accepting. But unlike abstract emotional concepts, asanas are more conceivable, even if they seem impossible. I can comprehend those challenges, which can demonstrate lessons beyond my conceptual limits. Through continually facing internalized struggles, I have learned how to manage their external manifestations. The more I shift my thoughts around scary asanas, the more I can mimic those actions in any situation. My practice on the mat is literally practice for the life off the mat.
In Sanskrit, ashtanga’s primary series is yoga chikitsa, literally yoga therapy. The practice certainly functioned as therapy—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—for me. At the time, I hoped that what I dreaded would eventually become tolerable. And yet what I experienced was far more profound, as the lessons from my asana practice migrated into everything else. Asana practice (and others—meditation, etc) functions metaphorically, a mirror with which I can perceive my life. Not the full picture, but significant perspective, transforming theoretical into tangible from of my mind, heart, and spirit.
These days, I tell my students that if I had any idea then that I would have to teach what frightened me so much, I would have videoed myself in all my fear and clumsiness. Never happened, but I do have incredible students who have also worked through this process. This video was taken from the student’s second day dropping back without assistance, and she was much, much more graceful at that point than I was.
When I stopped ignoring my weaknesses, I found true strength. Moving into all the reluctances in my practice has literally opened my heart. Backbends were the first poses to teach appreciation of what challenges me most—what are most intimidating signal the most powerful, compelling work. What have been most difficult have been the most transformative and therapeutic—easy poses have never changed me so deeply. The process taught me to crave vulnerability. Now, I no longer fear or avoid that work, and I love backbends; I feel like I’m flying.
Explaining the process now drastically condenses its duration, of course. Over the years, as my anti-emotional carapace has fractured, my dread of connection likewise has diminished, at about the same rate. My emotions inspire less fear, and I am less likely to avoid emotional confrontations, whether with mySelf or with others.
Most importantly, I recognize that embracing fear, opening the heart, and being present are learned behaviors. Until I went to India, I never had enough affirmation in my life to understand that such courage requires practice, and such practice requires time. There I encountered what I didn’t know existed, let alone how to seek or even see.
Spiritual practice enables a fuller sense of my compulsions, while simultaneously empowering transcendence. A local teacher describes it more eloquently: “I have found yoga practice to be both humbling and empowering: merciless in rooting out weakness and imbalance wherever they hide in the body or soul, but also superlatively compassionate in providing remedies.”
Practice which demands mindfulness, in every breath, holds space to evolve. The power and potential of yoga, its beauty and grace, have always compelled me. Perception often cannot fathom potential—I am capable of the same grace, that I can harness the same power.
After a childhood full of writing and playing music, I quit, deliberately, because I deemed my efforts worthless. The suppressed version of me seemed to be most functional and appropriate. Years later, when I first returned to them, I never shared anything because I was addicted to the safety of the negativity, a pass on accountability. At the time, I was “seek[ing] only love’s pleasure.” But just as yoga has taught me to appreciate challenges, I no longer fear what I manifest and create.
Anything can function as meditation, anything can create compulsion—by that rationale anything can confront addiction. Rehab might work, or maybe religion. Working with children always illuminates my fears, hypocrisies, attachments, and wisdom. Whatever the practices, they are like stars in the sky—in infinite combinations they can create infinite constellations. My constellation of spirituality is unique only in how I have integrated various traditions, my intuition refining them over the years, for the sake of being my truest, most heartfelt self.
∞ Thanks to Larry Hunsunker/Intent Images and Elaine McCall for kind permission to use their photos, as well as the inspiration and direction I gained from their images. Neither image was Photoshopped or altered digitally.
∞ Deep gratitude to my amazing teachers, who, even when I couldn’t recognize their care, always pushed my boundaries compassionately.
∞ Equal gratitude to my badass students, whose perseverance, curiosity, and encouragement always inspire me to extend the realm of possibility.
SK © 2012