Ashtanga yoga is like traveling to India: It is not necessarily pleasant to be there; the journey is always worthwhile; and I feel compelled to return. Stepping onto the mat each morning is analogous to stepping off the plane in Mumbai or Delhi, as I ask: why have I done this to myself, again?
Despondent as I approached the second surgery to reconstruct my mastectomy, I was surprised when the Tibetan amchi (doctor) I was consulting told me to practice yoga. “Yoga is wonderful,” he said. “Everyone should practice yoga. But you must practice yoga if you are going to be healthy again.” The weekly class at my gym, that I missed as often as I attended, wasn’t what he had in mind.
I showed up for my first Ashtanga class seven weeks after that surgery. Perhaps I should have waited another week. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started the practice with an unhealed incision. Tradition and lineage are important to me, and I am a researcher by profession, but I had no idea what I was getting into when I walked into that studio. The draw was visceral, instinctual.
The first thing that caught my eye was a woman, about my age, seated on her mat, placing her feet behind her neck. I turned to the instructor, Todd Roderick.
“I can’t do that.”
“No, you don’t understand. My body can’t do things like that.”
He smiled. “You will. Unroll your mat over here.”
I do five more.
Then I go home and collapse onto my bed in my sweat-soaked clothes and sleep for three hours.
I hate it.
But I paid for a month of classes, so I go back.
I am angry at myself for being weak, for being ill, for being overweight and ungainly in front of the other students. My body protests with skin eruptions, gastrointestinal upset, putrid sweat. I am assured that this is all normal, and that the bad smell will someday become an ammonia smell, which is to be celebrated, as it means that some truly nasty stuff is being sweated out of my body. It also means I throw out a lot of expensive yoga clothes.
Eventually, on some days, I forget myself enough become immersed in a practice that doesn’t feel like a complete insult to the tradition.
I approach the sun salutations the same way I approach the porters at the Chhatrapati train station in Mumbai, setting my shoulders and plowing through them to get to the good part of my travels and my practice, respectively. I notice a certain similarity of attitude with the way I approach aspects of my Buddhist practice, rushing through some of the prayers and preliminaries to get to the meditations I enjoy. In this I see one of my limitations: I do not yet inhabit every moment, every experience, with the quality of attention and care that it deserves.
Three months into Mysore practice, leaning forward in Janushirshasana A, I gasped, then cried, as electric fingers burned through the left side of my back. Long-dormant nerves fired; in their waking transmitting pure pain to my brain. I came to love seated forward bends: I could hide my face in my legs, and since my pants were already soaked with sweat a few tears didn’t make any difference. I was reassured that crying, too, is integral to this practice.
One hallmark of Mysore class is receiving hands-on adjustments from the teacher. An instruction to lift the right hip is accompanied by a helpful hand placing that hip exactly where it is supposed to be. Touch can exploit. Or it can steady, center, and heal. I know the difference.
About six months into the practice, in Prasarita Padottanasana C, trying to breathe while Todd pressed on my hands, a clear bolt of pain sheared through my left shoulder. My numb left shoulder, in which I had not felt any sensation since the mastectomy in December 2008, five years earlier. During the intervening years that shoulder, and other parts of the left side of my body, had never regained sensation. Like a cheek that has received an injection of Novocaine before dental work, my mental image of my shoulder had been large and swollen, although I could see in a mirror that the left was no larger than the right.
As I came up out of the pose, Todd shrugged a little. “It’s getting better,” he said.
“I felt that.” He looked at me, puzzled. “I felt that, in my left shoulder.” He smiled, but I could tell he didn’t really understand the significance, to me, of what had just happened. For several days, my shoulder insisted on my attention. I was aware of it in ways that I had not been. “Shoulder” would insert itself into my awareness, as I was on a conference call, answering email, loading the dishwasher. “Shoulder” reminded me constantly that it had awakened.
Todd told me that his teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois , would refer to “sweet pain” and I understood the sweetness of pain, when the alternative is the inability to feel.
I dreaded backbends. Partly because I could do them before the surgery, so every attempt, every failure, was a reminder of what had changed about my body. Partly because I felt both exposed and trapped. Late one night I was cornered in a panicky, grasping place in my mind with only one escape I could see: stop the process that was causing the distress. I messaged Todd. The backbends were pushing me too far, and I didn’t want to go to class in the morning.
One quality all good teachers have in common is the ability to hold a mirror up to the student, steadfast even during emotional storms. Todd didn’t tell me what to do, only that the practice was working and that he knew I would make the right decision.
After a sleepless night, I showed up early to practice. I have no idea why there were only two other people in the studio that morning, but I was grateful. I cried all the way there, and all the way through my practice. Todd said I could skip the backbends. I didn’t.
When I got home I took a nap. As I drifted off, an image came to me, of myself in a dress. An image that had been lost to me for decades, from a day that I cannot fully remember and have tried to forget.
Except now I don’t want or need to forget. As fragments reassemble into memories, I am no longer afraid. Memories that could be overwhelming on my meditation cushion were manageable merged into movement on my yoga mat. I knew I had found a container for healing and transformation that had been missing from my life, and a teacher whose compassion would be genuine enough and strong enough to push me into the places that I needed to go, but not too far, and not too fast.
I was slow to understand that a violation of my body/mind complex needed to be healed by addressing both my body and my mind – as obvious as that might seem to others, or even, in retrospect, to myself.
Halfway through primary series, my practice began again for me.
I began to inhabit my body more fully, to be less alienated from the experience of living in it. To shut out the awareness of constant pain I had disconnected myself from my own embodiment. True integration of body and spirit still escaped me, but I received hints, intimations, that it would return. I was moving differently, even able to move to music again.
The hardest part of my practice now would be mental. Every day I am aware of what my body was capable of 10 years ago, and struggle to allow myself to let that go, to enjoy the practice, and my body, as it is.
With every opening of my body, I go through a period of rebalancing, where I am unsteady in poses and unable to stand on one leg. Surrendering to the practice is releasing emotion trapped in my body and I need help. It is a metaphor for needing help in general, that I have tried for too long to do everything on my own.
Last December I again found myself questioning the benefits of the practice, whether I was progressing, noting that several of my friends attend a studio that is within walking distance of my home, where classes are held at civilized times, rather than at 6 am. Recognizing all of this as just another instance of fear slipping up from my body to manifest as resistance, I keep going to class.
I knew that my shoulders were holding on to something deep and painful. Judith Lasater had even commented on it last summer, as she observed me reclined in a pose. “Whatever you are holding onto in there,” she said, “it’s time to let it go.”
Yes, but how?
I wasn’t consciously resisting Prasarita Padottanasana C, but there was a line my body and mind didn’t want to cross. Todd kept pushing at that boundary. The other night I went to bed willing myself to relax into the pose in the morning. I was rewarded with a night of violent dreams, blood smeared and spattered on brilliant white pages spiral bound into a book. But in the morning my shoulders slipped past the point of resistance.
Learning to focus my attention while moving complemented the work I was doing on my meditation cushion. Each practice strengthened the other. I gained deeper understanding of my own embodiment and the interaction of my psycho-physical aggregates. Energy flows and blockages generated strong emotion; with guidance from Todd I eventually learned to hold these and relate to them in the same way I would relate to any other phenomenon arising in meditation. In tandem my mind and body became more comfortable, more relaxed, and lighter.
In 2006, on the road south from Guntur to Hyderabad, I asked my driver to pull over. Cotton fields surrounded us. The sun was setting, a giant red ball that seemed flattened, suspended over the land in a hazy, dusky purple sky. People were coming in from the fields, following the rhythms of the day, and gathering in their homes. The driver, perplexed, could not understand why I wanted to be there; to him, nowhere of any interest.
Transfixed by a scene that I could have witnessed had I stood there 2,500 years earlier, I was connected to something elemental, deep in my mind and my body, the rhythm of life itself, rising and falling, living and dying, the in-breath and the out-breath connecting me to all who have ever lived.
Why am I doing this to myself?
Because I enjoy it. All of it. The sweat, the pain, my life. As it is.
I step off the plane, onto the mat, sink into my cushion. Breathing in, I begin again the endless, deathless journey.
© 2015 Teresa Sivilli. All rights reserved.