August 31, 2011

The Benefits of an Ashtanga Yoga Practice‏. ~ Erica Schmidt

Author’s Note, 2019

This article has not matched my insides for quite some time. I have chosen to keep it published as a social archive; however, following the horrific revelations of the sexual abuse committed by Pattabhi Jois, I have made some alterations and wish to begin with my wholehearted pledge of support for the victims. I believe the victims beyond any doubt. I am sorry for having participated in a system that elevates teachers, particularly men, to dangerous levels of power. I am sorry for falsely bestowing Ashtanga Yoga with magical capacities that would lead people to believe that the practice and teachers could do no harm. While Ashtanga Yoga may have “changed my life” and countless other lives, it has also caused all kinds of harm. 

From 2007 to 2015, I practised Ashtanga Yoga with unrestrained zeal and at least three ounces of delusion. I am sorry I was so naïve and unwaveringly committed to the practice that I failed to question his explanation, or consider what the practitioners in the photo might have been going through. While the following 2011 article continues to idealize the practice to a certain extent, I have altered all deifying references to Pattabhi Jois.  Please know that nearly eight years later, I do not idealize any of it.

According to the Ashtanga yoga tradition, taught by Pattabhi Jois, practitioners are “supposed” to practice asana six days a week. Jois designated Saturday as the day of rest, since Saturday corresponds with bath day in India. There are also a few “get-out-of-jail-free” days, including Full and New Moon and, if you are lucky enough to be a fertile woman, the first three days of your menstrual cycle. So this Ashtanga yoga thing requires a relatively high level of commitment. Along the way, you may endure a great deal of discomfort on both the physical and emotional level. It’s easy to doubt your efforts when onlookers may see your practice as a self-indulgent, masochistic, tripped out version of aerobics. In order to relieve your doubts, I believe that it is extremely important to regularly evaluate the intention behind your hard work.

Your reasons for practising yoga will evolve over time. Everyone comes to yoga for different reasons and during different circumstances. The first time I did yoga was from a video by Ali McGraw that my mother had given me. At the time, I was a chronic exercise addict and I couldn’t get through the day without physically torturing myself as much as possible. My mother really wanted me to relax, but she knew that I wouldn’t be able to stop moving. The yoga movie was set in a bright white desert, where clouds hung low to the ground. Ali McGraw demonstrated sun salutations and some basic sequences of yoga postures as a man with a soothing voice talked me through it. When I got to the end, the man told me to lie down and let go of everything I didn’t need until all that was left was love. This seemed like a pleasant concept, but a little hokey and not very realistic. I quickly returned to my extensive and neurotic cardiovascular routine.

My second yoga video was by Rodney Yee. Strength for beginners. Besides having a compellingly chiselled body, Rodney could go upside down. I found this fascinating and exciting, but I was so terrified of falling or dying or worse, that it was nearly five years before I would even attempt inversions. Still, that interest and excitement stayed with me. Even though I only practiced a few times a year, I was beginning to believe that yoga might in fact be a worthwhile endeavour.

When I was seventeen, I was fortunate to attend my very first Ashtanga yoga class. There’s only one way for me to summarize this experience: I really just couldn’t believe it. Although it would be another few years before I would incorporate a daily practice into my schedule, I absolutely knew that Ashtanga was my yoga of choice.

Finally, at age 21, I found myself at Sattva Yoga Shala in Montréal, where Pattabhi Jois’ students Darby and Joanne run their studio. The shala was just down the street from my university. It became possible for me to go to yoga every morning before class. My previous tendency to obsessively overtrain no longer seemed to make any sense. Ashtanga yoga is definitely vigorous, and it provides undeniable physical benefits including strength, flexibility and the release of toxins. But Jois was also adamant that “This yoga is not for exercise. Yoga is showing where to look for the soul – that is all” (K. Pattabhi Jois, Puck Building, NYC 2001). (Author’s note, 2019: Unfortunately, this was not all. Jois sexually assaulted Annecke Lucas at this very event at the Puck Building. It seems people were not looking hard enough. Or in the right places.)

I am 25 now. For the last four years, yoga has followed me though academic struggles, broken hearts, financial insecurity, the illness and death of loved ones, as well as days when I possess the mobility and grace of a wobbly brick. Certainly, yoga has not provided me with an unfailing cure for shit times, but perhaps yoga can show us where to look. For the soul, for God, for whatever is that is left “when you let go of everything you don’t need.” Whereas my former fitness endeavours served as an attempt to escape from my problems, yoga has given me the opportunity to meet with every single aspect of myself every single morning. Every day when I unroll my mat, whether or not I feel like merging with God, I face myself, breath after breath, posture after posture. I wrap both legs behind my head-I hate my job. I lift up-But I’m so broke. I jump back-I have no core strength.

I believe that in simply showing up no matter what, I begin to rise above these insecurities. I stand on my head. My life is a mess. I breathe anyways. A really huge mess. Too bad, life. I’m still here. Maybe tomorrow, the mess will be a little less huge and when more mess comes, I will remember that no mess is forever. Jois once said that, “taking a human body – this is a very rare opportunity. Don’t waste it. We are given 100 years to live, one day you have the possibility to see god. If you think in this way it is giving you good body, good nature and health.” From my experience, it seems like many of us view life as something to be managed and endured, rather than as a gift or opportunity. Yoga provides us with an alternative to the suffering that emerges when we consider life to be a torture chamber. Maybe it isn’t necessary to tap into this alternative every single day. But if your ultimate goal is unshakeable peace and the cessation of suffering, I fail to see the harm.

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Erica Schmidt