Flame of a burning citronella candle magnified 10X by Jonathan Gill via Flickr Creative Commons
Claudia Azula Altucher was the first ashtangi blogger who really caught my attention. As a daily blogger and a frequent tweeter, I could count on interesting observations or some Ashtanga news tidbit whenever a tweet from @claudiayoga flittered by on my HootSuite dashboard. I’ve never met the New York-based blogger, but I hope to some day.
When I do, I hope she’s got more energy than she does now.
Claudia has Lyme disease. Earlier this week, this trio of tweets gave her followers a 140-character sense of what she was experiencing:
Take that Lyme Disease, I have energy right now and I am loving it! I cannot Fail! I am working with the LIGHT and antibiotics too
Aaaanddd down I go again
Hey, Lyme rhymes with Light…
The next day, Claudia went into more detail in a blog post titled “Asana meltdown.”
‘Time for me to go to bed’ I said at 7:34 AM. Yes, AM. Are you sure Honey? said James. How about we try something different?
He then sat on the floor in the small space in front of the coffee table and did something that resembled paschimotanasana. He did not say anything, just attempted it. I got up from the sofa, slowly, sluggishly, and sat on the floor. Tried dandasana first, my eyes locked on James, scared to what may come, then on the exhale walked the hands and tried to go down.
That is when it hit me and I started to cry uncontrollably. That was my paschimottanasana of three years ago maybe four, barely could touch the toes, three breaths and I was out.
He did not pay attention to the tears at all but rather pointed out that I was touching my toes and my back was relatively straight, or rather, not so rounded. From his perspective the asana was glorious.
Yesterday, her husband, James Altucher, wrote a blog post that begins:
In a few minutes, Claudia will collapse. It’s making me sad. Her normal schedule is to wake up around 4:30-5am, read with me for awhile, and then begin her yoga routine which could last from 2-3 hours. But for the past six weeks she has not done yoga. For the first time in ten years.
I highly recommend reading both blog posts in their entirely. They’re beautiful testaments to a strong love for a practice and a strong love between a husband and a wife during a time of intense challenge.
Following Claudia’s struggles with Lyme disease as I fight to start, and maintain, a six-day-a-week practice is a reminder to me that our Ashtanga practice is our greatest teacher — whether or not we are physically able to get on the mat.
Our ability to do the physical practice changes throughout the course of our lives — due to illness, due to injuries or lack thereof, due to our commitment levels, due to teachers whose paths we cross (gifted teachers can make such a difference in our relationship of the practice). Basically, our ability — for better and for worse — to do the physical practice changes due to the unpredictability of life. But I think our connection with the practice is a fire that can burn consistently strong regardless of all other circumstances.
The founder and owner of Hilltop Yoga, my home-base yoga studio here in Lansing, Mich., has experienced extended periods of not being able to physically practice yoga. Hilaire Lockwood has metastatic resistant thyroid cancer, and by all accounts, she shouldn’t even be alive. She’s alive because she’s a pistol of a human being, and she’s alive because of her eight-limbed yoga practice, as she explains on her website:
I have since in six years had five radical neck dissection and lymphectomies, my last one just more than a year ago. Each time my practice continues to come back, reassuring me that it is always there regardless of my physical or emotional state. They say I will never be in remission as I live with my cancer. I found my cancer through meditation and continue to find it every time it is back or revisiting in my meditation sit time, which is crucial. Not only did this experience provide perspective for my practice but has also allowed me to teach yoga as a healing modality.
Yoga in the classical sense is a lot more than physical postures, of course. It includes the eight limbs — ethical practices, breathing exercises, meditation and sense withdrawal among them.
From my observations, it seems that for any committed yogi, being kept from the physical practice due to circumstances beyond your control is a combination of frustrating, saddening and painful — even though we know there are seven other limbs. I mean, for the die-hard ashtangis accustomed to a six-day-a-week practice, missing even one practice is an event (and not a desirable one). Most of my power yoga friends don’t do well if they miss any practice they had counted on getting to.
And when the circumstances beyond your control move beyond a traffic jam, a late babysitter or an overdue work project and into the realm of Lyme disease or cancer — I can’t even imagine. It’s hard not to feel a sense of “there but for the grace of god go I…”
Six days a week?
David Garrigues says this in “Six days a week since ’93,” a blog post based on a workshop talk:
Do you see it? What is holding you back, from going further, I’m talking about things that truly don’t belong there. Not things in your life that do belong, like a great job, relationship, children, art and such, ultimately, those things feed you and your soul in just as necessary ways as your practice does. I’m talking about the things only you’ll know what they are. The expendable parts of your life that you are choosing to divert your energy into. The reality is that Ashtanga might help a person be better at nearly any physical activity, but nearly any other physical activity will compromise your Ashtanga practice in some way. For me, even how much I admire the soul of true surfing, I still choose my Yoga practice. There’s a subtlety to it that is not found elsewhere.
The thing that most often keeps me from my mat is my work schedule, and over the years, I’ve seen how much “I can’t fit that in” has changed. In the beginning, that meant I got to a yoga class once every two weeks, maybe once a week. In 2009, I stepped it up and would take vinyasa yoga classes at my local studio up to five, six days a week.
At heart, though, I’m an ashtangi, and most recently, I’ve stopped letting it be a hindrance that there aren’t daily Ashtanga classes offered at local studios that I can fit around my work and teaching schedule. For the past two months, I’ve fought to get as close to a six-day-a-week Ashtanga yoga practice as I can by practicing at home.
I’ve been doing OK — last month, 19 Ashtanga classes, one vinyasa yoga class at the studio. So far this month, 18 Ashtanga practices — all but a couple on my own, in the less-than-ideal setting of my little apartment. I practice at different times every day. In less-than-ideal circumstances. In a shorter timeframe than I would like. But I am practicing far more frequently than I ever have in my life — and I hope to work up to a daily 6 a.m. practice some day. Baby steps, right? (To reach this last phase, I need to figure out how to let go of sleeping at 1 or 2 a.m. I’ve always been a night owl, and I feel most at peace and most creative between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.)
That said, if I really and truly can’t practice these days, I let it go. I couldn’t agree more with Confluence Countdown blogger Steve — a former journalist like me whose current job still comes with deadlines and unpredictable hours — when it comes to this:
Some busyness — my work this week — just drains, and while Ashtanga can buffer against that, at a certain point there’s a balance you have to find. You have to let go, I guess, and realize that getting up that next morning isn’t the best thing for you.
Other busyness, perhaps that brings with it more straight-on stress, might demand an extra practice, or at least some extra attempts at yoga with everything around you. You know those times when you need those focused moments, just you and your body and the practice.
I try to listen to how I’m feeling. And that’s certainly one of the benefits, or effects anyway, of a dedicated yoga practice, right? You can hear your body better. (Or maybe it’s just that your body learns to yell louder and more persuasively.) I try to put my ego aside and agree that maybe tomorrow does need to be a rest day, when my body is arguing that.
I am grateful every time I have the chance to get on my mat and start the Ashtanga opening invocation. “Vande gurunam” is such a source of comfort for me, because I know that getting to that point was the hardest part.
When I practice next, I will dedicate it to all those who can’t practice due to circumstances beyond their control. And Claudia — lots of people are thinking about you. Thank you for blogging your experiences and being honest enough to share your struggles and victories. Namaste.
(Photo credit: Flame of a burning citronella candle magnified 10X by Jonathan Gill via Flickr Creative Commons)
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