On Quitting Ashtanga 10

Robert Bejil

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.

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10 thoughts on “On Quitting Ashtanga

  • Theresa

    Good article but I don’t agree. Somewhere along the path of life, I learned to listen to my body. Pain is a clue that something is out of balance. Of course we all have temporary setbacks in life, where the reason is obvious, like stub your toe, fall off your bike, having your moon time, things that throw you off balance for a little while. But chronic pain is very different. I don’t believe that it is a good thing to tolerate or ignore pain. It is like abusing your body, which you should have more respect for, as a sacred temple. I hope you can find the balance again in your life. Love, Mom

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  • Anna

    Oh I certainly don’t mean ignore your pain. But in Ashtanga there are as many kinds of pain as there are emotions that (often) inspire them. I’m working on the balance!

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  • LizScott

    I love this.

    So, I’m not religious but I was raised religiously, and every week in church there was the moment of prayer for the people who weren’t in church that day, either “because they are traveling, or sick, or because it hurts too much to come” I still think about that, years later, about how the act of going to worship could hurt too much. I don’t know why it’s so surprising to me; it can hurt too much to love, to be kind, to get out of bed every day.

    I guess sometimes when things hurt us it has little to do with the thing, and lots to do with us and how we chose to let it in. But like you say: you have to live your life, the only way you know how.

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  • Erin

    I’ve quit Bikram because I got sick of the intensity. I stopped doing Zumba regulaly because I got lazy and somehow thought I was getting important work done instead. The end result is more stress, moods, weight gain. I didn’t gain anything by stopping except the challenge of having to start over again. Sure there is time for rest but our bodies need movement. I think there is also something in the commitment even when it sucks so that you are on track the next day and the day after that.

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  • Alyssa

    I know EXACTLY who you are talking about in Chicago! I was always seething, thinking about her perfect, yoga-bending children and how she was doing freakin handstands while pregnant with her 600th miracle baby.

    Then one day, she snapped at some guy who wouldn’t (uh, couldn’t) put his heels down in downward dog, and I was like, this chick ain’t so chill after all.

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  • Boodiba

    I’m considering quitting! I’ve been serious about 7.5 years and made it to the 7th pose of 4th, but now I’m solo. I’m tired of dealing with the egos of patriarchal male teachers. I used to be a gym person who did some yoga before. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going back.

    It’s like all relationships I guess. A certain amount of pain is inevitable and good to face, to work through. But there can be a tipping point, when the bad outweighs the good. Then, in my case, it’s time to reconsider.

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  • Lori

    I practiced daily for over 16 years, staight up ashtanga, and yes , I got up at 4:30 am cause I had a small child to care for and that was my only uninterrupted 2 -3 free hours. No other yoga style seemed as complete, as challenging, rewarding and stellar fabulous as ashtanga. I made it through 3rd series and then -well, by age 50 I started to hurt and felt worn out. my joints couldn’t handle the arm balances and the endless chaturanga dandasanas. However – I was 34 when I started and now that I am 54, I realize that the last few years of my practice were an intense desire to maintain that level of yoga fitness I had before even though it was no longer the optimum practice for my body. Yes yoga will keep you looking and feeling youthful to a great extent, but at some point it needs to be tapered in this particular way : (LISTEN UP YOUNG-UNs) – it needs to become a bit more about CULTIVATING PRANA and less about EXPENDING energy. A traditional patthabi Jois practice no longer works for me….I miss it but I love having more energy for the rest of my day

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  • Odette

    I love Ashtanga yoga. After twenty years of practice got totally burnt out with getting up at 5am and the demands of raising a family and working. Life circumstances change. My lymph gets so scarily sluggish and one hip hurts way too much if I do too heavy a practice now. It’s not always about the sweat and the burn. Walking, bouncing on the trampoline, saunas all help mobilize the lymph. Yoga (what I know so far) – not so much.

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