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On Quitting Ashtanga

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.

Panchakarma Part 3: Ashtanga, India, and Masochism

Forgive the delay in this gripping series of enemas and ghee drinking shenanigans. Since I got back from India, I’ve been swamped trying to catch up with life and bills and the consumption of fried cheeselike things. I’ve also been hobnobbing with Dan Savage (by hobnobbing I mean we talked on the phone for 10 minutes) recently, which was super exciting and awesome. I was on his podcast talking about this Salon essay I wrote about how San Francisco fucked up my sexuality.

www.anyway.com

If you missed Part 1 and Part 2, there they are. So shiny!

Moving on then. After you’ve completed your internal oleation (aka drinking butter) around Day 4, they start you on the external oleation (aka full-body oil massage, followed by a steam bath). Sounds like a spa day, yeah? And it kind of was, and was mostly not unpleasant, but only when comparing it to the previous days’ regimen of dry heaving and shitting everywhere. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. It wasn’t THAT bad. I never swore or cried once during the oil massages, not even when they karate chopped my face and slapped my feet like they had just swore in church. “Bad feet! Sister Mary Clampett is so disappointed in you.”

The steam bath was a smallish, steel box, with a hole cut out of the top for your head to stick out of, as if you were dressing up as a breadbox for Halloween. Inside the box was a bench for me to sit on, with a steal bar strategically placed to push on my lower spine, which afforded the least amount of comfort possible and therefore led me to believe was purchased at some sort of sex dungeon clearance sale. Once I was in there, they covered my eyes and my heart and the top of my head with wet cloths, and left me to blanch. “Steam come?” said My Sadist, and I tried to nod in a way that wouldn’t dislodge my various wetnaps. After a few minutes, the sweat started to drip off me in places I didn’t know had pores, and I was naked and wearing only a mesh loin cloth, and so of course I started thinking about sex, and whether this kind of immobilization/heat therapy/spine torture was someone’s fetish. It must be, I thought. There’s a fetish for everything. Chewing ice. Popping balloons. Girls who fart on cakes. (I would link to these, but I already get enough lascivious Google search returns, so I’ll leave that excavating to y’all).

Throughout my treatments, My Sadist and My Younger Sadist would whisper to each other in their Kannada dialect, of which I know approximately 7 words, all of which relate to bread (chapati, roti, paratha, kulcha, poori, dosa, naan, lest you think I’m exaggerating) and then they would laugh. Which I obviously thought meant they were mocking me. Even more so when they did it during the aforementioned foot-slapping. “You should see this one,” I imagined them saying. “It’s like she’s never been scalded with hot bags of rosemary before!” In reality, I’m sure they weren’t talking shit about me, lest it was to talk about my shit. But…no, where was I?

Oh, S&M. I thought about that a lot when I was in the steam box, oleating. I remembered this time in Chicago when I was 25 or so. I went to an S&M meet n’ greet at a dungeon on the North side with S. and this middle-aged professor from Philadelphia who slapped me across the face, and then later cried when I didn’t reciprocate his “love” for me. (Long story, touched upon in this Rumpus essay about guns). But the party was hysterical. It was like a job fair with spanking benches. There were nametags and Triscuits and tiny plates. A septuagenarian in a three-piece suit, whose nametag read something like “Mister Fister,” poured me some apple juice and talked to me about James Baldwin. There were a few people on leashes, but most were in street clothes. I didn’t know what I was doing there exactly, but I loved the weirdness of it all. That last sentence pretty much sums up my whole adult life, actually.

I was suffering then, but I never let anyone know it. I was heartbroken. I was constantly crossing boundaries because I didn’t know where the line was to begin with. I wanted things to be different, but the wanting was a nameless, faceless thing with sharp edges I could only rake myself against. While I was driving to a man’s house, a very sweet man who laughed constantly and asked me why we never went anywhere that wasn’t my bedroom, a question that made me so nervous I never answered it, I called my mom and cried and begged her to talk me out of going to see him. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” she said in her soothing psychologist voice. “You are in charge of your life.” And I don’t know how I’d failed to realize the obvious truth of her words, but it was like her saying so made me believe it, and I felt instantly better.

D. and I were talking about masochism recently. She said I was drawn to it, and I said that was probably true, but that it had nothing to do with sex anymore. I like the impossibly hard, the struggle and the striving make me feel more accomplished. Maybe that’s a terrible way of looking at it. It’s not that I crave hardship, but my ability to weather it instills me with a kind of pride. I can take it, I think. The pain, the waiting, the discomfort of a scalding massage, the discipline of a rigorous Ashtanga practice.

One time I heard my yoga teacher chastising someone from across the room. Someone who didn’t want to do backbends. She looked up at Magnolia from the floor with this pleading face, and Magnolia said, matter-of-factly: “Do it. Do it, even though it’s hard.” I find her words in my ears often now, when I am doing something difficult. Do it, even though it’s hard. Do it, even though not doing it feels safer and easier. Do it because you can, not because you want or don’t want to. It’s not about the failures or the successes. The trying is the reward.

When the panchakarma was over, I got so many compliments about how healthy I looked. “You’re glowing,” a yogi friend said. I felt light and energetic and a little funny, a little not-me. And I didn’t get sick the whole time I was in India, and I’d dread doing it again, but am glad I did it. I even got a few stories out of it, which is really the best a writer can ever hope for.

Panchakarma Part 2: My Sadist

 

gratuitous yoga shot

Read Panchakarma Part 1 here if you missed it.

Whenever people would ask me why I was going to India and I would say “yoga,” there’d often be this pause, like they were waiting for me to say something else, something about temples or enlightenment or The Beatles. If this pause was long enough, I’d throw in an addendum: “I also plan on drinking a lot of coconut water…from coconuts,” hoping this would appease them. On the surface, going to India to do yoga didn’t make a lot of sense. I live in San Francisco, after all. You can’t throw a bong out of a window without it landing on a yoga studio. The city even installed a yoga room in the airport. If there’s something lacking in San Francisco, it’s certainly not places to wear stretchy pants. So why was I traveling 8,000 miles to do something I could just as easily do at home?

Farmboy, fetch me that pitcher

If you don’t know this about me, I respond really well to people who order me around. It’s the fastest way to get me to agree to something (within reason). It’s how I wound up on a trapeze. It’s why I moved to San Francisco. It’s why I started doing ashtanga in the first place (It was also to impress a girl. I’m sure I really wowed her with my ability to fold myself into a sad parenthesis). So when my teacher, Magnolia Zuniga, told me to go to India, I said, Okay! And then I put it off for two years, because I’m not crazy.

This fall she brought it up again, when my stint at Mother Jones was about to end, and I was super bummed they didn’t hire me, and at the thought of being unemployed again in a city I couldn’t afford to be unemployed in. During this time, one of the few consolations was that I would finally have the time to go to India. I started saying this out loud to people, at first because it made my unemployment seem more glamorous than it actually was, which consisted of only wearing clothes with elastic waistbands and drinking things out of measuring cups. But then I started freelancing more, and doing social media for a few places/people, and the thought of going to India started to seem not only possible, but terribly exciting. “I’m going to India!” I would say, and shake my fists close to my chest, as if playing a set of maracas badly.

Salud!

I told my parents last because they are worriers. If I sneeze more than three times in a row, my dad casually suggests that I go to the ER. When I told them, I didn’t mention the words malaria, dengue fever, intestinal parasites, or any of the other potential hazards that were brought up to me by a woman in a lab coat wielding a syringe, hazards that I promptly ignored because vaccinations are fucking expensive. Plus, I know lots of people who’ve been to Mysore, and they said it was probably going to be fine. So I said, Okay! (I have 4 days left, so knock on wood or pray to fairies or whatever, but I’ve yet to contract any weird jungle diseases this whole 6 weeks).

I have a pretty laissez-faire approach to health care in general, not just with vaccinations. Since I don’t have insurance anyway, I decided to do the truly American thing, which was to outsource my health care to India. Not just because it’s cheaper, though it certainly is that, but because I’ve also grown increasingly tired of Western doctors throwing pills at me regardless of the problem I come in with. I thought I’d see what Indian doctors would throw at me instead. I never dreamed the answer to that would be scalding bags of herbs.

Feeling the burn

As I mentioned last time, I tore my hamstring about 3 years ago, so part of my panchakarma was to specifically address that injury. This entailed the Indian version of Granny Clampet sauteeing my hamstrings for 20-to-30 minute intervals every single day for a week. The process is called kizhi, and it’s supposed to eliminate toxins and release pain from the affected muscles.

At first it feels nice. There’s a little massage bit that happens while the oil is heating up. Once the oil starts to crackle in the pan, however, the bags of herbs are coated and applied to the skin. The more times the bags were pressed to my skin, the more my legs began to flop involuntarily, like a poorly-trained circus walrus. “Holy fuck,” I said, trying to convey my pain to my masseuse, (whose name I actually don’t know because I’m deaf and you can only ask someone to repeat themselves so many times before you just give up and start calling them the word you think sounds like what they might have said, which in this case was Washcloth, but which seemed really disrespectful, so I started referring to her inwardly as My Sadist, which seemed like a truer reflection of our relationship anyway). Anyway, I politely swore at My Sadist, knowing full-well that she was probably not well-versed in the varied connotations of swear words. She knew a little English: Hello, How are you, Pain gone, and Is okay? But mostly we had to rely on body language to communicate. It was how I imagine playing charades in hell must be like.

So, My Sadist would burn me with herbs, and then afterwards, I would thank her, like a good masochist. This is how it went the first couple of days, until I finally became bold enough to ask her to turn the heat down on the portable gas stove. The reason it took 3 days for me to ask an old woman to please not treat my limbs like a bucket meal at Long John Silver’s is because I am terrible at that shit. I basically go through life trying not to inconvenience anyone, even if it’s their job to be inconvenienced. For instance, on the plane ride from Hong Kong to Bangalore I got really thirsty (because the Chinese TSA made me throw out my water, even though I got it ON THE PLANE I HAD JUST LEFT, which I tried to explain, and which failed to rouse any response from them other than polite bowing). Rather than push the button for the stewardess and ask for water, I simply went without. I rationalized this by telling myself that I probably wouldn’t die of dehydration in 6 hours. Besides, they turned the cabin lights off! Clearly that was a sign that water no longer existed on board the aircraft. So, obviously it took me several days to ask My Sadist, who was very sweet when she wasn’t near a skillet, to please stop burning me. Also, as I said, there was a language barrier. I eventually settled on “Less hot please!” accompanied by a wince-y face. And it worked! For about 30 seconds. Whereby she would resume her task of scalding me and I would resume my task of pretending that I wasn’t being scalded.

Coming up next: What does S&M have to do with ayurveda? A lot, if you’re me.  

The Practice

Embarrassing photo courtesy Ellie Kaufman

Whenever I tell someone I do yoga 5-6 times a week, the response is invariably, “That’s crazy.” I’ve wondered if other people get this reaction, like marathon runners, say, or anyone doing something they’re passionate about that happens to involve a daily commitment. No one seems to attach the “crazy” label to the horrible practice of sitting in a chair for forty hours a week, although we wouldn’t be off-base for doing so.

This isn’t to say that going to yoga in the wee hours of the morning is easy for me. Indeed, there’s inevitably one day a week where I have to fight with myself in order to get out of bed. But I am always glad I did, even if I’m hungover or exhausted or cranky. Doing my practice always makes me feel better, and gives me a sense of accomplishment right out of the gate that stays with me for the rest of the day.

Since my internship at Mother Jones ended and I’ve started this exciting/terrifying free fall into being a self-employed writer, I’ve had to think about my daily choices a lot more. I’m the kind of person to get off track very easily–oh hello, Twitter!–so reaffirming my commitment to things that are important to my health, well-being, and goals is crucial. Part of the reason I’ve committed to a daily Mysore practice is that it has a snowball effect on other areas of my life. For instance, I’ve been drinking coffee since I was 9 years old. Sure, it’s not a meth habit or anything, but I would drink 4-5 cups of coffee a day, and it really started to negatively impact my health–my skin and my body’s ability to rehydrate, most notably. I naturally complained about this to my yoga teacher Magnolia, who’s also my unpaid therapist and drill sergeant. She told me to quit drinking coffee, duh. It took me a few weeks, but I eventually succeeded, and now I’m seeing all kinds of improvements in my body and life (and wallet. Damn, did I have a latte habit).

Long story short, committing myself to yoga helps me know that I’m staying on the right path. Granted, I still veer off course, like, all the time. I stay up too late writing about threeways, e-hoarding, and werewolf sex. I rarely ever turn down a glass of sauvignon blanc (or 7). I spend far too much time stalking attractive people on the internet. But that intention, the dedication to something as simple as caring about my health, fosters an attitude of achievement that affects many other things, my creativity, livelihood, work ethic, etc.

I never knew I could be disciplined until I started doing yoga. Some things we never know because we’re too busy coming up with excuses to try. Maybe that is the real “crazy,” that we allow ourselves all these opportunities to not change, that we look at our habits and think they somehow permanently define us.

Be smart with your time, and your choices whenever you can. Reaffirm your commitments to yourself daily, because if you don’t have a stake in your long-term goals, then who will? As Dear Sugar said, about art, but I think we can apply it to the choices we make in general, “Art isn’t anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives.”

What commitments have you made to yourself lately? What’s worth the discomfort and the struggle? I don’t think we ask ourselves this enough. I certainly don’t, but I’m trying to be better. That’s another tenet of Mysore. The point isn’t to be able to put your leg behind your head or be flexible enough for acrobatic sex or what-have-you. Showing up is. The trying is the lesson.

In and out

Ashtanga is a breathing practice. The rest is just bending. – Sri. K Pattabhi Jois

Warning: potentially obnoxious new-agey yoga post below

Today’s practice was like any other, in that it changed everything. And I mean that sincerely. Each practice is a transformation, no matter how small, and when I can focus enough to recognize it, it fills me with this fundamental joy. I feel light, expansive. And it’s something I’ve REALLY needed lately.

Usually, when I do yoga, I am attentive to the BIG things – not dying, alignment, pain, sweat dripping into my eyes, etc  – and can forget completely about the less obvious, but no less important aspects of the practice, like breathing. Also, if you practice a set sequence like Ashtanga, the poses can become so routine that you’re not even thinking about doing them. You’re just moving, counting. Muscle memory. I notice this going-through-the-motions routine, usually when I’m really tired or hungover. It’s deadening but sometimes it’s all I can do to just keep going.

Which is why breathing is so important – it’s an act of self-creation. My body will forever pop and moan and strain, but the breath is my purpose, the unifying force that connects my puny self to the universe.

I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been clinging, to my emotions, to the past, to the routine comforts that I’ve grown so dependent on, (to hyphens, apparently),  and today I was able to let go — briefly, brilliantly! – with the help of the breath. Through deep, conscientious inhalations, I swallowed all the world had to offer, and then I exhaled and let the world go. I realized that I was fixating; I was abusing the present. Or, as Susan Sontag put it: “The inner life dims and flickers, starts to go out, as soon as one tries to hold fast. It’s like trying to make this breath serve for the next one, or making today’s dinner do the work of next Wednesday’s as well.. .”

So I breathed into my fixation, into my torn hamstring, into my shaky legs after dropping into a backbend. I breathed into the uncertainty that I find so terrifying and let it fill me up instead. And you know, for the first time in a long time, I thought I could cry with joy.  And that joy wasn’t just relevant, it was salvation. After that, it didn’t matter that my back was kind of killing me from wonky landings. It didn’t matter that I was lonely or exhausted or feeling rejected. It only mattered that I keep breathing.

In and out, in and out.

Related:

Written on the Body

It’s hard for me to write about yoga. Partly because I tend to find most writing about yoga to be maddeningly vague, in an affirming, new agey way. Sentences like, “Melt your heart into playful arm balances with So-and-So” make me feel stabby, not inspired. (Sorry, Yoga Journal). There’s also the feeling that yoga isn’t mine – to declare or opine or appropriate – it’s a culture and a religion and a fad all at once, depending on what you’re reading, which makes me hesitant. I feel the same way about being part Native American. I mean, look at me:

I don’t even think I could pass as a call girl playing an Indian.

I know it’s not rational, that experience and agency and even culture are what you make of them, but still, I feel that certain topics demand responsibility, and I guess yoga is one of those topics for me.

I started doing yoga two years ago, for the honorable reason of wanting to “impress” my hot new yoga teacher girlfriend. Once a week, I would go to Cheetah Gym and learn “Ashtanga” from a woman who, at least once a class, reiterated that she’d been doing yoga since she was nine years old and that her children did yoga too and her unborn grandchildren would also be doing yoga once they were free of the restrictions of not being alive yet. She also used the class as time to do her own practice, never giving any adjustments or practical help, which I didn’t find annoying until I took a class with someone who actually did teach.

I did learn a few things from her though, namely that doing yoga ONCE a week is the worst idea ever. It took me months before I felt like I wasn’t going to die every time I did it. Then, in June of that year, I took an expensive workshop (that was totally worth it) with Kino MacGregor, who is one of the most inspiring, eloquent and hilarious people I’ve ever encountered. Watch the three minute video below to get an idea of her awesomeness (if you’re lazy, just skip to the 1:30 mark where she demonstrates her practice).

Whenever Kino leads a class, amazing transformations always seem to occur in my practice. For instance, in prasarita padottanasana C, which is supposed to look like this:


but in actuality, looked more like this:


However, when Kino adjusted me in that pose, I felt this odd, cold sensation in my hands, which took me a second to realize was MY HANDS TOUCHING THE FLOOR. Easily, it seemed. It was amazing. She’s full of such moments, like an ATM machine that dispenses puppies and rainbows instead of money. (She travels a lot, so if she comes to your city, I highly encourage you to shill for her.)

The downside, of course, was that a year later, hopped up on Kino-rmones, I pushed too hard and tore my hamstring. It’s been about ten months since that happened and I am STILL recovering. I took a lot of time off, thinking that would help me heal faster and lessen the frustration of no longer being able to even touch my toes. Or maybe I was being lazy. It’s easy to come up with excuses when you’re injured, when things that once seemed possible suddenly aren’t and it’s comforting to know that if you can’t touch your toes, at least you can watch The Bachelor and have a good cry. I’m also lazy by nature. I need discipline. Ellie has to wake me up 2-3 times each morning, make the coffee, then throw it on me in order for me to get up.

No one ever called me out on the laziness pertaining to my injury though, until recently. Ellie and I have been practicing with Magnolia Zuniga, (who has a really funny and incredible story that you should read on her website) at YogaWorks. Like a benevolent drill sergeant, Magnolia spat on my excuses and pummeled me with pain-tinged enlightenment. And in a few short weeks, I have seen drastic improvement in myself and my willingness to get up at stupid o’clock every day and breathe and contort myself into impossible positions. My body is no longer looked upon as a treachery. Don’t get me wrong, it still hurts, but the hurt is more like faith and less like ignorance.

She gave me permission to feel what I was feeling, the pain and frustration, the limitations. It seems so astonishingly simple. Yet there it is. And each day, my practice becomes a different telling of the same story. It’s urgent and affirming and maddening (but not in a new agey way) and becoming. This morning, while pouring a second cup of coffee (because it still takes a lot to get me out of bed), I felt a pang of excitement in my stomach at the thought of back bending. Like I was about to go on a date with a yoga pose, that kind of pang. After the initial embarrassment subsided, I felt really joyful. Like an emancipated traveler, like Sisyphus finally pushing that boulder up the hill and having it stay put.

Call it gratitude or hope or enlightenment if you want. I call it a really nice place to be.

For now.