I think about quitting Ashtanga four or five times a year. “That’s all?” said my teacher. The presumption being that most of us think about quitting all the time. And when your practice is lifelong, many of us do succeed at it eventually.
Quitting is as much a part of life as trying, as succeeding. Still. There’s something so unsettling about the term. To throw your hands up and say, “That’s it. I’m done. No more.” It feels like failing.
I’ve been doing this for four years now, which is not very long, in the grand scheme of things, but longer than any relationship I’ve ever had, which feels significant. When I started, I was half-assed on a good day, maybe quarter-assed the rest of the time. I went to an “Ashtanga” class at Cheetah Gym in Chicago once a week with a woman who mentioned every class that she’d been doing yoga since she was nine. Every. Damn. Time. I learned a lot about her children (11 and 14, both did yoga), their hobbies, and sometimes, the “healing circles” she was involved in, but I didn’t learn shit about Ashtanga.
Until I met the yoga teacher who became my girlfriend, who very lovingly and patiently nudged me out of bed every morning for the next 2.5 years. I fell for Ashtanga slowly, not at all the way I fall for women. But fall I did. I loved the way the steam rose from my drenched, exhausted body, the resistant yet persistent changes in my sinews and skin. The small, private miracles I witnessed in myself that no one else did, but which made me euphoric nonetheless.
I also hated it in equal measure. Taking two buses in the pre-dawn darkness. The pain, the fear, the crying. My god, the crying. The torn hamstring that has followed me from shala to shala, city to city, acupuncturist to doctor to ayurvedic healer, with very little change.
What has stuck with me though, long after my relationship with the yoga teacher ended and I was forced to make my own damn coffee in the morning, was the subtle, yet insurmountable joy I felt from the practice. When people would call me crazy or ask what on earth compelled me to get up at stupid o’clock and sweat and grunt and cry in public for two hours a day, six days a week, I would tell them, in all earnestness: “Because it makes me happy.”
And it did, until recently. I started a new job. I started a new relationship. I started losing my mind. My physical pain was unceasing. My emotions all over the place. What once felt buoyant and freeing now felt like something I was destined to suffer through for all eternity. Or until I quit. Whichever came first.
When I talked to my teacher about it, I said, I think I need a break. I said, It hurts too bad. I said, There’s no joy in my practice anymore.
She was, as usual, maddeningly astute: “We have to cultivate our own joy.”
Joy doesn’t just happen to us. Although it feels like it does. You have a good day, the bus comes right on time, your hair stays straight despite the humidity, and you think, Thanks, Universe. You’re a pal! But what actually matters aren’t the trials or triumphs we experience on a day-to-day basis, it’s how we respond to them. Whether you get friend dumped or you get a promotion, your life still has a motion. It still needs tending. We choose who we let eviscerate us. We choose who we let in. Like Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” By this I don’t mean to downplay the truly terrible things that happen all the time in the world. I don’t mean you are weak for not instantly picking yourself back up off the pavement whenever you’re knocked down. But I do believe our ultimate happiness lies in how capable we are of letting go.
It’s not easy for me most days. But I show up. I do the work. I do it even though some days it feels like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I do it because it’s the only way I know to live.