I cried in class today. Several personal issues were weighing on my mind as I walked in the door. I felt the subtle crumbling that precedes a break down. I thought about leaving during the opening postures, but I knew I needed this practice. A comment from the teacher at the beginning of the primary series postures really hit home. She reminded us that what followed was “yoga chikitsa” or yoga therapy. You might initially think, like I did, that this means physical therapy. And indeed it is physical. I have gotten stronger, healthier, and more flexible since I have been practicing yoga, and particularly since I have been practicing Ashtanga consistently. The secret though, is that the physical benefits are only lagniappe, as we say in Louisiana. They’re a nice bonus, but not the main goal. And it wasn’t until recently that I began to really understand that concept. After over a decade of practicing yoga, several years of teaching, and more recently practicing mostly Ashtanga, I am beginning to get it. As they say, this is lifetime practice, measured in years and decades. The true aim of yoga is “chitta vritti nirodha,” the calming of the fluctuations of the mind. We are striving towards equanimity, a calm and blissful internal state that we maintain despite what external storms may be blowing around us. That can be a tall order. Not only do we have the day to day minor irritations like traffic, illness, or work stress, but we also have our deep rooted habitual thoughts and behaviors, or samskaras. So when a challenge confronts us, it is not only that specific problem that we wrestle with, but also our old fears, insecurities, and past insults that pop up and join in the brawl. The practice of yoga helps us to systematically call up and release those samskaras. And if you’ve ever done a detox or cleanse, you know that it usually feels worse before it gets better. It is painful to dredge up all that old toxic stuff hiding in our minds, clouding our perspective, dampening our energy. But it is the only way to get it out. We have to face it, hold it up, and examine it to get rid of it.
I struggled to continue to breathe deeply towards the end of class because I could feel the breath stoking the internal fire, stirring up emotional energy, burning samskaras. I could literally feel my breath going deep inside me and dredging up some really dark stuff. I wanted to resist, but I knew I needed to surrender. My ego was telling me it wasn’t professional to cry in class, at the studio where I also teach, in front of students and colleagues. I was worried about how I would look to others. But really, what better place than around those who understand? This battle between ego and spirit raged silently in my head, and I made it to the closing postures without incident. I sniffled into my towel during the post-backbend Paschimottanasana, or forward fold, my head buried between my shins. But then again, I generally do that in every class anyway, as deep backbends are very emotionally intense for me. It is a very vulnerable thing to have your soft underbelly completely exposed, not to mention if you dropped backwards, barely seeing where you’re going, to get into that position. Otherwise I mostly kept it together, until savasana. The teacher was giving me some lovely gentle adjustments and I couldn’t hold back the flood of emotion any longer. Poor thing, I think I scared her as I suddenly burst into tears and shook with emotion. I rolled to my side and cried quietly into my towel until the end of class. There I managed to soothe myself, put myself back together, finish the class and go on with the errands of the day.
I am so grateful though for the breaking apart, the tearing down, that this practice does for me. Sometimes you have to break into pieces before you can put yourself back together. It truly is therapy, and trust me I’ve done plenty. The beauty of Ashtanga yoga for me is that the poses are set out in a perfect order, allowing my mind to settle and work within instead of wondering what comes next, trying to hear the teacher’s words, or listening to the music playing. It is designed to systematically release our samskaras. And although they vary in the details, when it comes down to it, we all share the same ones. Fear of rejection. Desire for approval. Grief over a loss. Suffering. Ashtanga grabs onto of all this darkness, holds it right up in front of my face, and says, “Breathe.”