Ten years ago, a co-worker overheard me telling someone I was interested in yoga. She recommended a nearby ashtanga studio, and I attended my first class the next week. As I’ve mentioned before, I was in. By the time I attended a David Williams workshop a year later, I not only attended classes twice a week, I usually practiced sun salutations in the mornings. Now, nine years later, I still have a daily practice, which now includes meditation and chanting in addition to asana.
And yet for all the time I devote to asana, the physical mastery alone means very little to me. Asana keeps me healthy, which I value greatly. But I don’t need to master particular poses to stay healthy. Beyond that, what use is asana off my mat? If I disagree with someone, how will hanumanasana win the argument? If I want to show someone my appreciation, how can an arm balance convey it? I love you bakansana much!
I care about asana primarily because it is the vehicle for me to learn the lessons so that I enact and live what matters. It’s not about what I do; it’s that I do. For example, my mastery of headstand matters far less than the lessons it taught when I struggled to learn it. If I hadn’t kept showing up to practice—i.e., falling over every day—I would never have learned so much about strength, balance, focus, commitment, faith, and confidence.
People often tell me that I’m exceptional for sustaining a daily practice. I recognize that it’s unusual. But I don’t attribute my consistency to anything particularly remarkable about me. My favorite explanation for practice comes from Krishna Das, who often says “I’m a drowning man and chanting is my rope.”
Yoga, in its many forms, is my rope. Every morning (even the asana rest days), I create at least a few minutes for meditation, pranayama, and chanting. No matter how tired, busy, distracted, cynical, annoyed, dismissive I feel, I am always better after I practice. And I am always learning. The yuck days often have the most potent lessons. And asanas that have challenged me for years have given me the most wisdom. Kapotasana has challenged me for years; it’s been the greatest teacher about many, many insecurities. Well, HELLO, fear of commitment! You must be here to hang out with my abandonment issues.
My first asana teacher, Adele, always said that asana practice is impossible to master. No one can (or will) because there will always be more to do physically. I can “do” headstand, but there is always room for improvement. Physical changes are often valuable, particularly in terms of becoming more healthy. They can mirror internal shifts. But there must be far more important reasons than just physical ability.
I felt non-physical benefits immediately from yoga, but I truly understood how unimportant the physical details are when I had severe injuries. I practice a set of sun salutations within 12-13 minutes. The Ashtanga practice has two variations of sun salutations. The first (suryanamaskara A) is considered to have 9 movements and requires a total of 10 breaths. The second (suryanamaskara B) has 17 movements and requires a total of 14 breaths. See here for an illustration—there is one line for A and two lines for B. Normally, I practice for at least an hour—the sun salutations are the warm-up.
Several years ago, when I severely injured my ribs, I couldn’t eat, laugh, cough, drive, shower, even walk, without pain. In that condition, I needed 25-30 minutes—basically twice the normal—to do the same set of sun salutations. And then I was exhausted, and I stopped. I moved geriatrically. I was under 30. But I still showed up, ribs creaking, for months, barely able even to eke out the warm-up of my normal practice. The lessons were still there, just in different manifestations.
Eventually I healed, and over time resumed the rest of my practice. A few years later, I nearly broke my arm in a fall. I didn’t want a cast, so I didn’t go to the doctor. I alternated ice and heat, wrapped my nearly-busted elbow every day. I couldn’t fasten pants, so I didn’t wear them for months. Even lying in bed was painful unless I propped my injured arm on a pillow.
Good thing yoga pants can be pulled up with one arm. And thus began (pretty sloppy) one-armed sun salutations. Fortunately, the rest of my body compensated well. I had the stamina to stay on my mat for more than half an hour. And so on. Slowly, slowly my arm healed. But in the meantime I still showed up, every day. Again, lessons still there, in different forms.
Finding a way to practice with those injuries provided profound lessons about facing obstacles. When something was impossible, I had to do something else. Sometimes I abstained—no shoulder stand on a busted arm, for example. But I also had to attempt things I had always avoided, like one-armed pushups.
And even when I’m perfectly healthy, there are still plenty of obstacles to practice. Insufficient sleep. Other responsibilities. Social opportunities. Exhaustion. The most important lesson I gained from David Williams was to create a sustainable practice. That you don’t have to be a contortionist on your mat for an hour or more to make yourself worthy. In other words, ashtanga is available and the lessons are always there, regardless of your physical condition or time constraints.
He has sustained a daily practice for decades. (Daily ashtanga practice is one rest day per week, plus rest on new and full moon days.) That seemed very reasonable, and I resolved to do the same. And so I have practiced every day, save the rest days, for just shy of nine years. I haven’t missed a day. Really. On plenty of those days, I had only enough time or energy for ten minutes of sun salutations and pranayama. But I still showed up.
I have rolled out my yoga mat in hotel rooms, with just enough floor space amidst the bed and TV and desk, often while others slept. I have tried to be inconspicuous while meditating and sun saluting in airport waiting areas. (Riiiiight.) I have gone outside: porches, carports, even parking lots, often before dawn. All my trips to Burning Man have included practicing in parking lots at trucker hotels.
As a teacher, I want to empower my students via asana, not for the sake of asana. Yoga embodies asana with intention, so that rather than contortion, asana is a tool, a vehicle, for whatever one may seek—mindfulness, compassion, discipline, peace, understanding, transcendence.
As for recognition as a teacher, I do not try to attract students via my physical abilities, though of course that capacity is important. I need to hold a meaningful and safe space for my students. I do some cool stuff. I drop back into backbends and stand up. I put my legs into lotus while I’m in headstand. I balance on my forearms. But equally important is the lesson of showing up for the process. Without exception, without excuses.
When I want to cave to the tantrums of my ego, I can rely on my practice of surrendering to the demands of consistency and integrity. I care about enforcing my boundaries with grace. About facing disputes with compassion. About staying vulnerable and real when I’d rather run away.
Rather than being known as an asana whiz who happens to teach because she’s so physically capable, I would much rather be known for my integrity and my actual teaching abilities, concurrent with asana expertise. I believe facing personal challenges matters more than perfecting asana—and that I’m more qualified than most people to facilitate learning how to do so. I think the fact that I’ve had a daily practice for nine years matters more, particularly as a teacher, than anything I can flaunt of my own asana practice.
Yoga has been the ultimate teacher—because I am ultimately the teacher. Lessons specific to me, directly from circumstances in my life, make my practice so intimate and potent. It is better than a mirror—more accurate because a mirror gives a reverse image. Yoga has removed the veil, though the process has often felt a bit more intense—tearing off and burning the veil is more accurate.
Practice is about intangible grace—I am not nearly as interested in mastering all asanas as I am in living a life of authentic bliss. A life not of perpetual ease, but one in which I live my truth and confront its challenges. I am my best when I do that every day, which requires practice. Propping my legs behind my head, nailing handstand—I care far more about how I face difficulties and recover from setbacks, how I manifest intentions and acknowledge success while being my highest self, without ego, in fullest love.
SK © 2013