Abhinivesha and Ashtanga Yoga

For years, I have suffered from anxiety. It is like standing in the surf and feeling a wave recede beneath my feet. As the water slides back towards the ocean, everything begins to evaporate. Hands cold and chest afire, I am sucked into a bright, dissolving void.

There is a tradition of anxiety in my family. My grandfather suffered from “smothering attacks” and severe hypochondria. My mother developed stress-related tachychardia during her first year teaching and worried she would collapse in front of her students. My brother recently left the medical profession because of stress. Everyone in my immediate family, at one time or another, has turned to Ativan, Zoloft or alcohol to blunt the fear that afflicts us. Our worry is the most enduring of the mental poisons or klesas: abhinivesha (fear of death or clinging to life, depending on your interlocutor). In my family, we fear that we will become ill, that our children will become ill, that we will be poisoned by insecticide, that we will be disfigured by a terrible affliction, that we will have a brain injury and lose our intellect. The list goes on. It sounds comic on paper, but it is awful to undergo and even worse to watch.

I have tried many things to manage these moments of crisis: psychotherapy, bioenergetics, Clonazepam, acupuncture and yoga.

I am grateful to my therapist. She has been compassionate, insightful and patient. And the drugs have gotten me through some terrible moments, but only the practice of yoga has given me lasting relief. It has reshaped me more powerfully than even motherhood; this may be unpopular to admit, but it is true. The adage goes that people don’t change, but after twelve years of yoga practice, change is what I most experience.

This does not mean, of course, that I am “cured.” When I’m tired, I snap at my kids; I resent that my husband still can’t read my mind; I gossip about other people; I procrastinate with my taxes; I eat sugar when I’m depressed; and I lie to make myself look better (this is a conservative list). The difference, however, between my pre and post-yoga life is that I no longer go nuts in the middle of the day for no good reason — or if I do, I no longer believe that I am actually crazy. For years, this was a regular occurrence. Sometimes there would be a concrete fear: this mole looks like Kaposi’s Sarcoma, or my heart just skipped a beat. Sometimes I would begin to feel a burble of unease during lunch with friends and by dessert I would lock myself in the bathroom and splash water on my face. Locked inside of my mind, I felt as if everyone else was in the same Hollywood comedy while I was alone on Elm Street. I won’t indulge in the theories my therapist and I developed about the origin of this feeling, but the theories did little to keep it at bay. Yoga did and still does.

Beyond the experiential proof of thousands of practitioners, there are sound and explicable reasons for yoga’s success with anxiety and depression. Chiefly, it brings balance to the central nervous system. The practice of yoga enhances our own ability to relax physiologically and checks our tendency to hyperventilate, tense our muscles and release toxins into our blood stream. Anti-anxiety drugs sedate, while yoga teaches the body to soothe itself. This is not new-age conjecture but demonstrated by research from universities across the world (Harvard, Yale, UCLA, the University of Wisconsin). While anxiety robs us of our breath, yoga relies on breath to restore us. Traditional scripture claims that breath and consciousness are like two fish that swim in tandem. Steady one and you steady the other. Science calls this regulating the autonomic nervous system. Yogis call it pranayama.

Each physical yoga posture invites us back into the body, tapping into the wisdom that resides beneath our skin. Instead of feeling only tightness in the chest or pressure in the jaw, asana helps us rediscover that we have feet — even baby toes — , that our shoulders have been inside our ears, that there is a world of physical sensation we deny through tension. The somatic therapist Christine Caldwell describes how physical tension cuts off feeling in whole regions of the body. How often has someone touched your upper back and said, “Wow! You’re full of knots,” when you haven’t even noticed that you were tense? By activating certain muscles and releasing others, yoga helps us “get our bodies back,” as Caldwell’s brilliant book advocates. A yogic reeducation begins with connecting to the pelvic floor and releasing the upper body from its undeserved life sentence. We do this through breath and movement, and we learn to observe what is occurring in our body; or, as Richard Freeman says, we use the body to observe the body.

Asana, however, is only part of Patanjali’s eight-limbed model of yoga. First come yama and niyama (ethical precepts and practices), than asana (postures), pranayama (extension of the breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of sense perception), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (meditative absorption, whatever that is).

These last three limbs are elusive for most of us. Dharana is a crucial step towards the famous “stilling of the movements of the mind” described in Patanjali’s definition of yoga. Bringing our concentration to a single object (gazing at the fingertips, repeating a mantra, taking even breaths) focuses the mind and thereby calms the body. In the 1970’s, Herbert Benson’s The Relaxation Response amazed westerners with scientific proof that concentrating mental awareness on a single object lowered blood pressure. Thousands of years ago, people in the Indus River valley already knew this.

People who experience anxiety are often told to meditate. But how can you mediate if your heart is racing, your thoughts boil and your knees hurt? Pattabhi Jois, the principal exponent of Ashtanga Vinyasa, used to laugh at westerners when they spoke about meditation: “Mad Attention you do!” he would say. Most of us start with asana and discover our bodies; we re-learn how to breathe in pranayama. Then maybe we are calm enough to sit down and be still.

I have no idea why my anxiety sometimes bubbles up mid-morning in a café or standing in line at the supermarket, but these days I don’t spend much time trying to figure it out. I have stopped fighting fire with fire. I breathe deeply and regularly: Ujjaiy pranayama, our single, greatest ally against The Matrix or what ancient yogis called the Kali Yuga (or “dark age” in which we are now immersed).

When I wake up in a commotion, flapping through breakfast as if a late pass from the principal will be the end of my eight year-old’s academic career, I do my practice after drop-off and emerge steady and productive. It is like getting a second chance and actually using it.

Some people do yoga because they enjoy the experience. It helps their back pain or improves their sleep or their digestion. For me, it’s yoga or the drugs. Having tried both, I know which one I choose.

I used to devote great energy to “overcoming” my anxiety, but I have become more interested in my life than in my failings. I find the world captivating because I am finally paying attention to it — instead of only to myself. Although I still fall prey to my own drama (too often), I seem to have acquired a few extra seconds of perspective in my perception, a little slow motion before everything speeds into action. This moment of recognition is essential. Every time we recognize someone else’s existence (be it a leaf’s, an animal’s or another human’s), we vindicate our own.

The sum total of my efforts have produced this change, but the abiding transformation occurs in my practice. Like millions of people all over the world, I feel a sense of gratitude for the yoga tradition that only the tradition can help me express: standing in silence, palms together, eyes soft. Practice is both the vehicle of great feeling (love, devotion, generosity) and what keeps great feeling (anxiety, depression, anger) in check.

This subject is vast and complex, and we Western yoga enthusiasts have believed that we can know and own it. But that is not my intention, though undoubtedly I will oversimplify ideas I can’t begin to understand. What I would like to tell is the story of how I came, like so many others, to this practice. This is my story, not an academic or even accurate discussion, just my experience. When I say “yoga” — for now — -I mean asana, basic pranayama, a beginner’s meditation: what most people mean when they say, “Today I went to a yoga class.”

We also like to discredit the experience of Westerners with Eastern spirituality. It’s so easy to cast contemplative practice as self-indulgent, privileged hooey. But what is more self-indulgent than self-destruction? Or drinking too much or working ourselves to death in order to avoid what we feel? Will we ever concede that the mind should serve the heart and not our intellectual vanity?

For years, I rummaged around the jewel box of hatha yoga, trying out different styles and different teachers. Each school taught me something unique and yet the core of the practice was always the same: settle down, breathe, experience the joy of body and silence. Tim Miller describes his first experience with yoga as “coming home” to a place he recognized as his own, but that he hadn’t visited for a long time. That was what I felt: at home as I had never felt before and, at the same time, naturally so. Soon my practice had staked a significant claim on my life and, as Dena Kingsburg writes, “I once had other dreams for myself, other plans, but yoga simply outshone them.” I began to practice every day; I read books about asana. I rocked screaming infants, thinking, “This is awful, but tomorrow I am going to yoga!”

At the time, “Yoga” was a led Primary Series one day, Rodney Yee another, a postpartum DVD with Shiva Rea, an Iyengar class someone recommended. It was anything I could put my body into. It was all the same to me. All good.

When Westerners discover a yoga practice, this is usually what happens. We look for what makes us feel good and then we buy a nice mat. We begin to master certain poses. Then we buy nicer pants. We flit from one teacher to another; we compare methodologies. The Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa calls this “spiritual materialism.” But when he talks about materialism, he doesn’t mean Lululemon; he is referring to the ideas that we gobble up, the twenty different spiritual books crowding our nightstand, the Ganesh on our altar and the authentic Indian mala hanging around our neck. He describes how this dabbling and experimentation can clutter up the clean, white room of the Self. His classic work, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a painfully accurate description of what happens to most of us once we believe we are “on the path.” Trungpa explains how, instead of amassing a body of knowledge, all we create is a junk shop: “Before we filled our shop with so many things, the room was beautiful: white washed walls and a very simple floor with a white lamp burning in the ceiling. There was an object of art in the middle of the room and it was beautiful. Everyone who came appreciated its beauty, including ourselves. But we were not satisfied and we thought ‘Since this object makes my room so beautiful, if I get more antiques, my room will be even more beautiful.’ So we begin to collect and the result is chaos.”

I dabbled for years, before whittling my attention to two main teachers from two different schools: Ashtanga Vinyasa and a therapeutic method designed for teaching addicts and in prisons. I loved both practices. One gave me great focus and discipline; the other felt expansive and joyful. I didn’t want to choose. Why couldn’t I do both? This Indian idea that you have to select a single path was not for me. It seemed authoritarian, limited, outdated. Why miss out on different experiences? Everyone said that yoga was about freedom, after all.

Indian gurus couldn’t be more explicit on this point. You follow one person, one style: without a single teacher you are lost. This is a major sticking point for Westerners. We interpret this limit as akin to brainwashing, and fundamentalism — as opposed to surrender, humility, or faith. Unshackled by tradition, we are “free-thinkers;” we enjoy “agency.” But we also suffer from obesity, addiction, depression and diabetes.

Most serious teachers in the West agree with Indians on the importance of choosing a primary guide and lineage. If you are lost in the night, one North Star might get you home, but following five different lights will turn you in circles until you collapse in exhaustion. This doesn’t mean you can’t read a plurality of books and expose yourself to different methods, but at some point, if you’re really going to progress, you have to choose. Why we have to choose is more significant than what we choose. We think of inveterate bachelors as immature people who can’t commit. So are spiritual dabblers.

As I began to teach, this problem became acute. It’s one thing to dabble as a student, quite another as a teacher. Of one thing I was sure: Ashtanga was not for everyone. It was too demanding, too physical for middle-aged people who haven’t moved for years. My students needed something softer. They needed to connect with their breath and feel their bodies, to open their chests and expand their backs. They needed a playful mix of asana with inspirational themes. And that is what I gave them.

I excelled at telling stories that I elaborated throughout the class, tying them into the asana sequence as the students tied themselves into poses. We did handstands in groups; we practiced to music; we did simple pranayama. I left the class feeling confident that I had given my best, pleased to watch students rise out of savasana noticeably different than how they’d arrived. What a good job I was doing, I told myself at the end of the hour. How peaceful I felt sitting on my little pillow at the front of the class.

Privately, I practiced more and more Ashtanga, Mysore style four or five times a week. Fascinated by the silence of the studio, I rode the currents of breath as students moved through the fixed series of postures. I taught my happy hatha classes in the morning and practiced Ashtanga in the afternoon, convinced that I — the teacher — was ready for one kind of practice, but that my students were not. I joked that Ashtanga was the drug I couldn’t give up. I listened to other teachers badmouth Pattabhi Jois’s methods — as ego-driven, injury-inducing, poorly aligned, etc. I actually heard myself say out loud, “Yeah, I don’t practice what I teach.”

Improvising in my hatha classes, I unleashed my heterodoxy. I once made a playlist inspired by the gunas and forced my students to do sun salutations with Tom Waits, tree-pose to Katy Perry, and then a cool-down with the sattva of Krishna Das. My students humored me, and I thought I was ingenious, thrilled by what I had to give.

The greater the rift between my teaching and my personal practice, the more irritable I became. Bored by hatha, critical in Ashtanga, I followed no one but myself. In my prison classes, I just made the sequence up as I went along. Anything was good for them, anyway.

There is a well-known parable about a man who digs a hole six feet down into the earth and, when he doesn’t find water, he goes off somewhere else and repeats the same process until he has filled the earth with shallow holes. Never, of course, does he find any water. Standing in Samasthiti or Tadasana between my two shallow holes, I felt empty and dry.

Richard Freeman has said that yoga begins with listening. One day, standing before my students, I realized that my yoga began with talking. Even on the days I promised myself I would be quiet, I babbled. I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t stand myself. In prison, I found myself shouting — as if that would get the point across. I listened to students criticize other schools and reduce asana to physiology: shoulder girdle, psoas, coccyx, femur. Tantra was better than Classical Yoga. Inner spiral was better than mula bandha. Handstand was more important than headstand. Jalandhara bandha was sacred. Jalandhara bandha was going to wreck your cervical spine.

I yearned for silence.

I cancelled the classes I was teaching. I signed up for a teacher-training program in Ashtanga Vinyasa, and I did what the teacher asked: I put the practice above me. Like something I could barely see up there in urdhva drishti was the practice — not a teacher or an idea — but the practice: six days a week, no explanations, no dialogue. I decided, most importantly, to suspend the belief that I knew best.

What this experience has produced is a sensation identical to that of standing on the beach while a wave recedes and the sand whispers. It is the feeling of everything falling away and of finding myself naked in the spray and the wind: stripped of years of conditioning and ideas. It is terrifying, but it is also the beginning of freedom.

I put away my books on Tantra and went back to the basics, studying the Yoga Sutra, keeping my head down and my mouth — mostly — shut. Within this silence, I am still astounded by the volume of my own arrogance and the blunderbuss of my ego. But, mostly, I’m just astounded.

A few weeks after my big decision, I lay down in the final rest pose and felt a churning in my abdomen that extended throughout my entire body. It was as if someone had turned on a motor in my body, and it rumbled through me, wondrous and frightening; when I opened my eyes, I felt as if I had never been in the practice room before. And when I stepped outside into the garden, that I had never felt grass underneath my feet. I drove back home surprised by the steering wheel in my hands and the machine rolling me through the morning. Everything was fiercely visible and at the same time as composite as the dots in a pointillist painting.

I know I could tell the opposite version of this story, of how I finally gave up Ashtanga and everything changed. “You can please God by polishing a spud if you polish it to perfection,” says a character in Chariots of Fire. Whatever practice you choose — Ashtanga, Iyengar, modern dance, gardening, Vipassana, marathon running, tea ceremony or crochet — it is the intention and the dedication that matters, the abhyasa or practice and its guardian vairagya (detachment). Everything else is anecdotal.

But this was my experience, and this was my choice.

Ashtanga yoga practiced in the Mysore style, is one of those microcosmic representations of human experience: someone is just walking in the door while someone else is splayed out in corpse pose, someone’s brand new to the practice and doesn’t know the sequence, someone else is defying gravity in the third series; someone has just had a breakthrough in a difficult pose and someone else is ready to cry because they feel so tired and discouraged and their nose won’t reach the floor. Some people are fiercely competitive and others unaware that there’s anyone else in the room. Some practitioners are lithe and beautiful, others overweight and grizzled, some smell of lavender oil and others of old socks. You can hear murmurs of mantra as people initiate and finish their practice, occasional grunts of effort and even laughter as someone tumbles out of an arm balance onto their face. What you always hear is breath: collective, individual, easy, strained, continuous, unceasing breath. Everyone is doing his or her own thing, but we are sharing the same space, the same hushed focus. And here’s a fascinating detail: there is a teacher, but the teacher is silent too (mostly, hopefully). The teacher breathes with the student, adjusting him or her only as that student needs to be adjusted. Every once in a while, there is spoken guidance, but not much. It is a place of safety, of danger, of endless possibility.

Few things are more serious or potent than a room full of devoted ashtanguis sweating towards Samadhi. Early students in Mysore said that even the walls could breathe in Pattabhi Jois’s practice room. It is an environment, whether in Mysore, Kansas or Tokyo, that inspires reflection and respect.

There is nothing less awe-inspiring, however, than dragging your sore, aching body into yoga pants (again) and dragging yourself (again) to the practice space to begin your first sun salutation (Oh Jesus, here we go, again). No one is going to cheerily exhort you into grace. No one is going to douse the mental fireworks in your head. No one is going to stop you from becoming overambitious and hurting yourself (again). This is you, as you, going once (again) through the same series that can seem like a softshoe dance to heaven or the fiery road to hell; on good days, it will seem like the familiar road to and from home.

Every movement corresponds to an inhalation or an exhalation and the practice hinges on the vinyasa: the marriage of breath and movement, the jump back, the jump through. Physically challenging and seemingly acrobatic, the practice requires endurance, flexibility and strength; advanced students appear to float while beginners tremble in downward dog. But, despite the physical rigor of Ashtanga, experienced practitioners agree that what matters is the breath.

Why then, I heard someone ask a senior teacher, do we have to learn these difficult poses? His answer, and that of many others, is that it’s good to undergo “a certain level of stress” and to breathe through it, to let go of fear, to let go of the fear of death (which is all most people think about in kapotasana). Among his few verbal commands, Pattabhi Jois often said, “No fear” and “easy breathing.” Graeme Northfield, one of Jois’s senior students, describes feeling that he was about “to jump off a cliff” every day when he arrived at a certain posture. Some days I pull up out of bhujapidasana because a primordial panic scuttles my calm. But every day I show up and suspend my whole body above my outstretched neck. Which is exactly what the practice asks: “to stick your neck out,” but for your own self. When you take that risk, you discover that you are capable of more than you imagined and that, while you feel you might die in the process, you also might encounter grace.

This idea, that our yoga practice is a preparation for and a rehearsal of the moment of death, is a point of confluence in many schools and traditions. The Indian Jesuit, Father Joe Pereira, who uses Iyengar and pranayama in his rehabilitation clinic, calls yoga “a no-nonsense death process.” His students must die to their old habits and addictions; their yoga practice facilitates this painful and arduous process. Gary Kraftsow, the director of the American Viniyoga Institute, once said at a conference, “We’re all going to die, so why wait? Die now. Die to your attachments. All of sadhana [practice] is to prepare for the moment of death.” Buddhists are unequivocal on this point. A lifetime of meditation is only training for life’s end.

Can we abandon our fear of separation — whether it is separation from our bodies, our ideas, our children, or our computers — and experience the “heightened awareness” of what is happening right now? Richard Freeman says: “The thing we choose to rarely talk or think about, but which is really the only guaranteed thing in life — the fact that we will die — can truly draw us into the present moment. It splits open our hearts and gives us true relationship because it reveals the mysterious and deep nature of relationship as a sustaining aspect of reality.”

We have this experience of being “split open” and fully present during moments of great intensity: when someone is born, when someone dies, when those we love leave us or when we first discover them, when we are twisted up and bound and can barely breathe in Marichyasana D. Usually these events are few and far between. Yoga allows us to encounter them daily.

In every practice — if we are lucky — we die a little, giving up ideas about who we are, peeling off another layer of belief, experiencing our bodies and breath more intimately. How many times have students refused to believe they will ever do a headstand and, after only a few months of practice, they invert both their bodies and their minds? Inversions confront the basic fear of raising your pelvis above your head, of risking a loss of control in order to achieve a miraculous balance. Headstand marks a breakthrough in a student’s practice; it is called the “King of asana,” for good reason. Headstand bestows upon us new confidence, a radical shift in perspective and gratitude. It took me eight years to stand on my head and my heart still thuds through other inversions. I cheat my way through many of them, doing pincha mayurasana at the wall. I don’t really go for it. And so I let fear devour my experience.

Since I began my daily practice of Ashtanga, I have felt a little more flayed each day, my skin increasingly exposed in that salty breeze. This is not a comfortable experience. There are days in which I leave the practice space feeling almost perforated. To breathe through doubt and unease, to spend two hours daily in silence with one’s own thoughts, to summon the physical strength to do it again and again — none of this is easy. “No one said it was going to be easy,” a teacher said to me once, “that’s why they call it a practice.”

When I was 18, I was in a car accident. I shattered the windshield with my forehead, lost some teeth, broke a few facial bones and tore several ligaments in my back. I had a severe concussion and missed a month of school. This was my senior year, and I was supposed to be at the height of teenage glory. Instead I was foggy-brained, in pain and under the watch of an anguished mother. My neurologist suggested I might not be able to “make it” through my freshman year of college or play soccer, my great passion. It was, literally, my first big blow.

Every day, when I lower down into bhujapidasana I run back into the windshield of that accident. The first time I felt the weight of my body pin my forehead to the floor in supta kurmasana, I snapped out of the posture like a wild woman. But I come to my mat again and I do these poses. I put my body in a shape that gives me both the experience of fear and the experience to breathe beyond it. Every day I am a little less afraid. The commitment of abhyasa brings with it the miracle of vairagya.

There are good days when I move through the series with ease, expecting little and receiving much in return. There are days when I sweat and grunt and lug my aching body as if I were nine-hundred years old. There are days when I despise everyone and wish I were as advanced as that girl over there. There are days when I have a beautiful practice and then halfway through it turns to mush. My mind grumbles, sings and sometimes — magically — is almost still.

This practice, and the act of putting it above you, requires shraddha, or faith; faith is not something you can decide to acquire. Samshaya or doubt, however, is something most of us encounter. I never dreamed of having faith or devotion in my life; I now experience the dance between doubt and faith on a daily basis.

It has been demonstrated across cultures that addicts do not recover unless they believe in something greater than themselves. There is nothing more positive, I think, than believing in something greater than yourself. By definition it ejects us from the maniacal driver’s seat of the universe, grounding our lives in the marvel of life, love and creation. My teacher suggests that we put the practice above us in the same way that we lift a glass in order to drink. If we do not lift the glass, we will never receive anything. We will simply stare into the glass, infuriated that we are still thirsty.

Faith is experiential. It is something that I have gained through physical effort, by sending my body where my mind could not yet go. I have witnessed events (both internal and external) that I can’t intellectually understand but that have transformed my life.

I discovered faith standing on that beach, naked in the wind. I am astonished by all I have found in what I considered to be the place of death. There, in the practice room, where everyone is “doing their own thing” we are all connected through the pores of our skin and the fiber of our hearts. What I had understood as coming undone is actually a coming together. This feeling of dissolution is actually a joining up. Yoga is separation, says Classical Yoga. Yoga is Union, says Advaita Vedanta. And, as experienced teachers will say, they mean the same thing.

Is it possible, then, that the big mama of the klesas is just a big mama, a great embrace, nothing to struggle against, but instead something to melt into?

I love Dylan Thomas’s poetry, but what could be better than going “gentle into that good night?” What good is in there in raging against it? That approach certainly didn’t work for the Welsh poet. Thomas died drunk and miserable in the Chelsea hotel, raging against everyone.

Abhinivesha creates suffering. Yet even the great sages are said to cling to life. I once heard this problematic explained as trying to withhold a banana from King Kong. You’ll only end up torn to shreds and you definitely don’t get to keep the banana. Another teacher used the goddess Kali in a similar metaphor: “It’s like having sex with an eight-hundred pound gorilla. She’s not done until she’s done with you.”

Once again, Richard Freeman:

“At the time of death, when you are choking on mucus, where is your pranayama? When your central nervous system is failing, how will you stretch those hamstrings you have been working on for years? When we are facing death, these things reveal their true nature: that they are enmeshed in an interwoven matrix of all else that is life in the infinite reaches of the universe. Whether it is at the moment of death or right now, this is our chance; it is the moment when we can begin the practice of yoga again.”

In the yoga studio, in the garden, at the wheels of our cars, playing with our children, this is our chance. Now.

As I write this, my lower back pulsates ominously. I woke up in the middle of the night afraid that I have a herniated disk and that I won’t be able to practice. I am afraid to go to the studio. I am afraid not to. I am still the person who can spiral into obsessive worry. But I am also the person who knows that this fear will pass, that focusing on the present moment, on my breath, on where my feet and arms go, on the mystery of the pelvic floor, will steady and deliver me. On days like today, I am gravely aware of what a challenging path I have chosen. But I am committed to seeing it through.

So right now, with both faith and fear in my heart, I am going to stand up, atha, and go practice, to discover what I can give up today, to be a little more exposed in the spray of the ocean, to hear the tingling of the sea and feel the salt alive in my skin.

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