Archives for posts with tag: Ashtanga Yoga

At my last lesson, my yoga instructor and I started talking about “fitspo” images (“fit inspiration” pictures; often glossy, perfectly lighted, framed, and posed images of very fit people doing physically impressive—yet also beautiful—feats of flexibility and strength). As someone who is just starting in Ashtanga Yoga, I often find myself searching through Instagram, looking for fitspo pictures of yogis. It is inspiring, beautiful eye candy.

It is also completely fucking discouraging.

And hella unrealistic.

The images you see on Instagram are gorgeous. But they are also severely sanitized. Almost anesthetized. They’re clean. They’re serene. Everyone’s face is stoic. Everyone’s body fat hovers right around 2.3%. Nobody shakes. Nobody’s uncertain. Nobody’s trying too hard.

Ashtanga Instagram

A collection of screenshots just from this morning. Seriously, who the fuck are all of these people doing their practice on the beach? Is that a thing? That shouldn’t be a thing.

I’ve only been practicing Ashtanga for five months now. I love the physical challenge. I love the discipline. I love that the regular, consistent practice forces me to pursue asanas that I find difficult (and might try to skip had I been left to my own devices—So long, Wheel!). I love those rare moments when the spiritual aspect of the practice kicks in, and I feel peaceful, and strong, and non-judgmental, and calm. I start to think that I am one of those clean, bendy people in the pictures. That I am fitspo.

But, dude, for real? Yoga is kinda gross. Kinda really gross. When you contort your body into the kind of shapes and poses a physically challenging practice like Ashtanga makes you, things … happen.

Here’s what those perfect images on Instagram don’t show you:

  1. Farts. Yoga makes you fart. Anyone who has practiced yoga regularly knows that. I’m not entirely sure why this is true, but, trust me, it is. Maybe all of the stretching and twisting and contorting of your body acts akin to twisting and squeezing a sponge. But instead of dirty dishwater, rotten egg farts come pouring out. (Yoga is a great way to regret every single food decision you have made in the last 24 hours, yo.) And, yeah, farts are funny. And you’ll laugh. But if you do it during a class, chuckle, maybe whisper a “sorry” to those in the Stank Zone, and keep going. Every single yoga instructor on the planet is totally used to farts (I’ve farted twice on my instructor. On her, you guys. She never cracked a smile. Didn’t even back away. Totally unfazed.). They will handle your stinky butt symphony with complete maturity and calm. You don’t have to run out. Promise.
  2. Sweat. Nobody on Instagram sweats. But yoga in real life? Man, that shit gets SWAMPY. I keep a towel next to my yoga mat at all times, just so I can regularly mop up. My instructor has actually had to wipe off my face for me in a forward bend, because when I bent over, the sweat filled up my nostrils, and I began drowning in my own salty effort. I don’t glisten. I pour. Crotch sweat, specifically. I don’t know why, but ashtanga makes my crotch sweatier than just about anything. I look like I peed myself (which I may have done a little, but this is ridiculous).

    Crotch Sweat

    I bought new yoga pants. I assumed they were made with sweat-wicking materials. They were not.

  3. Anus Talk. Bandhas (also known as “locks” or “body locks”) are a key part of Ashtanga yoga. Basically, your bandhas are the muscles in your pelvic floor and lower abdomen. You keep those slightly engaged at all times, and it improves your balance, your flexibility, and your stability. You can think about your bandhas in very dry, medical terms: by pulling in your perineum, or squeezing your urethra, or engaging your lower abdominals. But, again, in real life yoga, while the sweat is dripping into your ears and you’re cursing your grandmother for passing down her impossibly short limbs to you, medical terms don’t work nearly so well as nice, direct, anus talk. So, people talk about your anus. A lot. “Squeeze your anus.” “Engage your anus.” “Feel your anus pulling up.” “Are you squeezing your anus?” “Is your anus locked?” “Don’t drop your anus!” (My personal favorite.) The thing is, as weird as the anus talk feels at first, it very quickly just becomes part of the experience. Now, when I practice at home, I’m constantly reminding myself to pick up my damn anus. How’s that for Namaste?
  4. Weird Injuries. I’ve fallen into walls. I’ve fallen into chairs. I’ve fallen against and on top of tables. I’ve come millimeters away from violently elbowing my instructor in the nose. I’ve cut my wrist with my own toenail, and bruised the tips of my toes. I’ve knocked the wind out of myself. I’m not even particularly clumsy. It’s just that this shit is hard. And it’s a hard that you have to hold. And so I fall. Because gravity. And because sirsasana (headstand).
  5. Smells. The farts. The sweat. The crotch sweat. The hot room. The deep exhalations. The feet. Oh, god. The feet. You can taste the bodily fluids in the air. It’s a great reminder that we’re all just a half a chromosome away from flinging poo at each other in a zoo.
  6. Noises. Yoga classes are not silent affairs. Your body cracks, creaks, and crunches. You occasionally let out an audible moan or groan. There’s chanting to open and close your practice. You practice what’s called “audible breathing,” where you breathe only through your nostrils, and try to sound like an asthmatic Darth Vader. It’s noisy. And some of the noises are just. Well. Unidentifiable. You could hear a crack, and have someone look over at you with concern. “Woah. Was that your hip??” Uhhh. Honestly? I have no idea what that was. But I don’t seem to be screaming in pain yet, so let’s just carry on, mmm’kay?
  7. Queefs. Now it’s time to get real. A couple of things, okay? First of all, queefs do happen. Second of all, no woman on the planet enjoys queefing. They’re weird. They feel unnatural. They’re not pleasant. They make me feel paranoid about the status of my own vag. Third, I’m suspicious that having two children in close succession has made me more susceptible to the occasional queef. I mean, let’s face it. The old grey mare, she ain’t what she used to be. That being said, I will admit it. Yeah. I queef. And there are times during yoga when I’ve queefed. Loudly. I’ve noticed that I do it more during what are called the “inversions”—shoulder stands that you hold for extended periods of time. I like to think that gravity is my queef nemesis during inversions. Like, perhaps I just always have some air trapped in my velvet pocketbook. Like, I clearly just go through my day with a little bubble floating in my lady parts. Like some kind of personal contractor’s level, helping to keep my box balanced. Maybe it’s always in there, but my relatively upright daily life just makes it hard for it to escape. Then, during yoga, I flip my hootch-caboose upside down, and suddenly the air in there can just float up. And out. I mean, that’s just science. (Maybe?) A queef is actually the perhaps worst thing that could happen to me during yoga (though, the stronger my pelvic floor becomes, the fewer queefs seem to be escaping). It’s the only noise I make that I actively try to pass off as a fart. A fart in yoga I can explain away. “Ha, ha. Taco Bell!” Sweaty vagina burps? Yeah. Pass.
Real Fitspo

Here’s some real fitspo for you. This was back when I first started ashtanga. My first successful attempt at reverse prayer pose. I was so excited about it, I asked my husband to take a picture of it. (You can see just how big of a shit he gave. Out of focus. No light. Didn’t even bother getting out of bed.) Chubby ass arms, sweaty bun, Target yoga pants, and brown house slippers? Check!

So, there it is. The truth. The non-fitspo picture of yoga. Honestly, I think about Ashtanga in the same way that I think about my children. They’re totally disgusting to every other person on the planet. But, damn, I love them. Sticky fingers, greasy hair and all. And I love yoga. In all its gross glory.

The pain was sudden, intense, and sharp. I yelled as an electric shock ran down the back of my leg, causing my knee to buckle instantly. I didn’t have time to react as my left leg gave out underneath me. I was practically to the floor before I was even aware that I was falling. Luckily, my husband caught me, stopping me from hitting the concrete.

“What just happened?” The surprise was quickly morphing into concern as he looked at me.

“I don’t know. I was just standing up, and it’s like someone stuck a cattle prod on my left butt cheek. It felt like I was electrocuted!”

The next day, I saw my primary care doctor, who is a specialist in sports medicine. After an X-ray and physical examination, she stood back. “Well, it looks like you are having a combination of issues. I’d say you probably have some bursitis in your left hip, some IT band inflammation in your left knee, and you have what’s called ‘piriformis syndrome’ in your left hip and buttock. Basically, you have some big inflammation all down your left leg, and part of that inflammation is squeezing your sciatic nerve, which is what created that electricity feeling and caused you to fall. It’s serious, but totally something we can take care of with anti-inflammatories and physical therapy.”

But physical therapy just wasn’t a viable possibility for me. In order to come in two to three times a week, I’d have to find a sitter for the girls—spending quite a large sum of money, taking quite a large chunk of time—and results could only be promised insofar as I was able to continue the exercises at home (if my issues responded to them at all). My doctor understood my concerns, and she suggested that I learn a few stretches to do at home. “You could also look up some good stretching videos online. Like yoga.”

Immediately after leaving my doctor (a prescription for powerful anti-inflammatories in my fist), I texted my friend, Sara, who has been practicing and teaching yoga for 7 years.

Three days later, I had my first yoga lesson. I spent a good five minutes, just trying to stand in Samasthitih (saam-i-sittee)—the neutral standing “pose” that is seriously just standing with your weight equally dispersed between your feet, and your arms at your sides. I realized that my weight was primarily on my right leg. (I was naturally trying to spare my injured left leg by taking my weight off of it.) I was amazed that I had never noticed before just how off-balance my body had been feeling. Finally, I found my center, and learned Sun Salutation A, and the first couple of standing poses in the Primary Series (the sequence that all practitioners learn when they first start Ashtanga yoga).

It has been three months since I first started Ashtanga (for clarity, most people know it as “Power Yoga,” but that’s really a misnomer). After three days, I stopped taking the anti-inflammatories. They just weren’t necessary anymore. After two months, I ran a 5k with no prior training other than yoga. I haven’t experienced any recurring pain from my injuries (though my left hip is definitely tighter than my right, and requires a little more caution when manipulating certain poses), and my overall strength and endurance have skyrocketed. While I’m not “back” at running yet (the 5k was for a charity and put on by my cousin. I try to do it every year), I have started walking again, and the paces that I can now maintain just astonish me. Whereas walking a 15-minute mile prior to beginning my practice (that’s what you call a daily yoga exercise. A practice) would have left me sweaty and breathing heavily, even when I was running the most, now, I find myself barely perspiring. I often will have to remind myself that my walks are not for leisure, but exercise, and that I should be pushing myself more to get my heart rate up.

Sara, my yoga instructor, told me that a regular practice would change me. I secretly scoffed at the strange, New Agey idea that an hour a day of bends, lifts, concentrated breathing, and asanas (poses) would really “change” anything. I mean, physically? Of course! But mentally? Spiritually? Besides the pleasant release of endorphins that I expect from any exercise, I just didn’t see how that was going to happen. After all, I was a ballet minor in college. I’ve been dancing since I was four. I’ve been a runner for six years. Surely, if I was going to change from a physical activity, it would have happened by now.

Then, just this week, I met with Sara for my weekly lesson. I had had a frustrating week. Sara challenged me with trying headstands for the first time, and I could barely bring myself into the pose that you take before you actually do the headstand. I was stuck in that position, trying to breathe deeply, but just gasping, while the sweat dripped down into my eyes and nostrils. I wasn’t completing a headstand so much as I was thinking about maybe, one day, building up the strength to try one. But, what was even worse, I was feeling particularly frustrated with something called my “vinyasa.” A vinyasa is a transition. It moves you from one asana (pose) to the next. It’s the movement that comes in between the actual movements you have to achieve. And it’s hard.

Basically, when you “take your vinyasa” or “flow through your vinyasa” in the Primary Series of Ashtanga, you are trying to move your legs from being straight out in front of you in a seated pose, to being straight out behind you in a plank (chaturanga) position. You do this by bringing your legs up to your chest, lifting your butt off the floor with your hands, and then tucking your legs between your arms (while you are still suspended) before jumping or stepping your feet back to chaturanga. Here’s a video of it, since it’s kind of hard to describe:

I’ve spent weeks struggling with my vinyasa. I could feel my body lifting internally, but nothing seemed to be budging on the outside. It was as though my bones were lifting up, but all of the non-solid stuff—the fat, the skin, the stretch marks, the ingrown hairs, all of what I perceived as my “ugliness”—refused to move off the floor. I would “take my vinyasa” by grunting, gasping, pushing with all of my might against the floor, only to remain exactly where I was, until I was forced to take another breath, and just walk my legs behind me to get into chaturanga.

I opened my lesson with a diatribe against vinyasa. Feeling unable to do a headstand felt justified. After all, I knew people whose lifelong fitness goal was to “do the headstand in yoga.” But the vinyasa? The transition? The thing that is just supposed to take you from one place to the next? Why did that have to be so hard??

I began my practice, with Sara watching me, breathing with me, and adjusting me as needed. When the sweat began spilling from my face, she quietly placed a towel by my side, and gave me a breath or two to wipe down my slippery hands and feet. When I would bend forward, she’d appear behind me, firmly yet gently pushing down on my back, lengthening it until my forehead suddenly touched down on my ankles. Sara’s quiet, steady strength is inspiring, to say the least. Then, when it came time to take my vinyasa, she just said, quietly, almost in a murmur, “Take an extra exhale to just set the bandhas (your lower pelvic region and core), and then lengthen your arms on the inhale.”

I exhaled, feeling my fingers spread and my palms flatten. Feeling the texture of the mat, and thinking about keeping my entire palm flat on the floor. Thinking about using my fingers to help with the push. I inhaled.

And lifted.

There is a similar pose in Ashtanga called “utpluthih” (oot-ploot-teehee). Translated from the Sanskrit, it means “uprooting.” You sit in lotus position, put your hands down at your sides, and push up. Having pulled bushes, trees, and about twelve incredibly deep and stubborn rose bushes out of my yard, I was already very aware of how difficult “uprooting” can be.



But I realized in that moment, that second of lifting up, that I wasn’t really uprooting myself. I was re-rooting. I was still attached to the ground. Just finding a new way of connecting to it. I couldn’t get my legs to swing back without touching the ground, but I was able to pivot my body forward, walking my legs between my arms on my tiptoes, and as I swung my legs through, I felt the gentle twist of my muscles. Wrapping around my arms from my shoulder blades, around the tops of my shoulders, wrapping back around my triceps, around and around, until the muscles spread into my fingertips. And in that moment, as I was feeling the spiral of my own strength going down into the ground, I thought about the apple trees on my parents’ orchard, growing over the years and decades and generations in a slow twist, spiraling out of the ground and spreading up, turning to find the sun, the wind, the rain, the moonlight. So slow and steady, and so trusting of time, that the only evidence of their continuous twist towards the sun is in the steady wrap of bark around their trunks.

It was a second and a half, but I felt all of those things. That I was like the inverted apple tree, spinning, slowing screwing myself down into the ground. That I wasn’t uprooted, but re-rooted. Flipped. Upside down, but still upright. That strength is different from power. That I realized that wanting power (and calling it “power” yoga) is an exercise in ego, and that ego has no place in my practice. That the tree is powerful. It does not have power. That those two things are very, very different. It was the most incredible, meditative moment of my life thus far.

I collapsed in chaturanga, laughing. “My arms are trees,” I gasped. “My arms are trees!”

I can’t say where my yoga practice will take me. I can’t even say that I will maintain it, or pursue it into more complicated series (there are 5 after the Primary Series, and after 3 months, I’m still only at the halfway point in the Primary). But I can say that it has, in fact, changed me. I’m liking the change. I’m liking the re-rooting. The rerouting as it were. I like that it’s forcing me (quite literally) to look at my world from different perspectives. Ashtanga is here for me at exactly the time it needed to be. It’s healed me. It continues to heal me. And that’s some crazy, New Agey shit for sure. But I like it.