Some thoughts on exercise // my love for Ashtanga yoga

I’ve done all of the exercise. All of it. I grew up with a father who, to this day, is devoted to his exercise routine. I’ve watched him consistently lace up his sneakers and drift away, and do sit-ups and stretches, with zero excuses. No matter how tired, hungry or how many tequilas he had the night before. My mom used to be the best ballerina in Nicaragua. Literally all of Nicaragua. Like legit she was on TV for point-ballet. My build is inherently athletic; I’ve got quads that don’t change size no matter how thin I get that elicit thunder as I walk. My body is made for movement.

I’ve ellipticall-ed enough to fill the universe. I’ve spent 90 minutes straight on that horrible machine, many-a-time. How am I not dead from boredom? Have you ever seen ANYONE on an elliptical actually paying attention to it? No, they’re bouncing watching tv or reading a magazine because it sucks. I’ve run, a lot (I used to run one hour daily while I was in grad school and literally prayed to God to keep me going because it was so painful). I’ve trained for two half-marathons, and completed zero. I tried, people, and it was not happening for me. I tried to train again to be a good “strong” person, and then found myself dumbfounded when the man in charge of the marathon training program gave a speech about all of the marathons he had ever run (like over a hundred) and he did NOT look fit. Like if I saw him on the street, I would think he spent his time sedentary, which is the exact opposite of what he’s was doing. I’ve awkwardly zumba-ed, stairmaster-ed, stairclimb-ed, CrossFit-ed, I’ve done pilates, all of the tapes and DVDs, dance classes. Bands. Weights. Heavy weights. Heavier and heaviest weights. Tracy Anderson. Maybe everything except the shake-weight; I’ll live.

I always thought I had to plow through, to accomplish, to kill myself, to push during exercise; but in order to…what? To be able to say I was a person that exercised 4 days per week? To have a 140 pound deadlift? To have a pull-up? I understand goals, for sure, but the type of exercise I had been used to up until two years ago, which was “exercise as punishment”, I realize, wasn’t for me. My addictive personality would pick anything up if it meant I could brag about it later, or use it as armor in defense of weakness. I kind of don’t want anyone to tell me what to do, to push push push and huff and puff and sweat my butt off during nonsensical workouts.

But that’s exactly what I did for the past two years. I would do two hours of exercise most of the time, leaving behind dates with loved ones or time spent creating my art. I went to Colombia with my best friend a year ago, someone who doesn’t live in the same city as I do, and who I cherish and love with my whole heart. I was obsessing about the fact that I was going to go ten days without CrossFit and found a CrossFit gym closeby, and as I was lacing up my reebok nanos to go super early in the morning, she looked at me sleepily and said “REALLY? you’re in Colombia, on a fucking break, with your best friends, and all you’re worried about is CrossFit?” That was the beginning to realizing it was unhealthy.

I knew I had to do something about it one afternoon when I found myself complaining to my dad about how tired I was, and yet, I expected myself to muster the energy to keep up with all of the things and berated myself when my exhaustion rendered me unproductive. He told me lovingly that I needed to let something go, like, what was I really looking for? What was I wanting to accomplish? I remember using my multiple workouts as a badge of pride. Until I ran into someone at Trader Joe’s from my yoga classes and I told him that I also dabbled in CrossFit a few days a week. He was like “whoa! that’s awesome, so now you’re gonna become like SUPER FIT!”. I hated him. Wasn’t I supposed to be SUPER FIT already? I was putting all of this energy, all of this time, into something that wasn’t doing what it was supposed to be doing.

I’ve also gone through all of the emotions that come from exercising. All of the motivations. All of the “making up for what I’m gonna do later” and “calories in, calories out.” I’ve run past limits I thought were humanly possible (which was 11 miles for me, something during which I had to stop my run for possible stomach explosion and thanked God my wearing of brown leggings that day was happenstance). I’ve done two hours of fasted cardio to prepare for Thanksgiving. Pure punishment. To make up for something. To cleanse. To prove myself as a worthy person, to myself. To see abs. To obtain a body I thought would make me happy. (Newsflash: bodies don’t make you happy.) A way for me to zone OUT rather than zone IN.

Enter yoga.

I first started doing yoga on the P90x DVD several years ago. It was a 90-minute recording of Tony Horton doing a vinyasa flow with all of the typical poses. The warriors. Crow. Shoulder stand, etc. Although I looked like an uncoordinated roly-poly, I liked the way it stretched out my body. I’ve always been flexible, and this elongated me more. I did it about once a week as more of a restorative type of thing. I took a few yoga classes here and there in person, but nothing really stuck.

I started to venture around Miami and found a studio I liked. I connected with the teachers, and I dabbled in ALL OF THE YOGAS. I spent about a year between Vinyasa, Anusara, and Ashtanga. A friend of mine taught the vinyasa class and I loved her classes and the messages she imparted through the movement. I also became obsessed with Anusara and felt strongly connected to the woman who taught it. Anusara is a heart-opening style of yoga that incorporates the juicy and spiritual stuff, and if you know me, you know I love that shiz.

I decided to try a guided Ashtanga class one night and was surprised to see that there is never any music and there is this chanting that goes on in a strange language throughout the entire class like cues for the movements. I was like, “oooh it’s gonna be all meditative and chanty, FUN!” The class KICKED MY ASS. Like, it was harder than any other exercise I had ever done in my life. Sweat was saying hello out of places I never knew existed. I felt like I was being pushed and pulled and tumbled all around on some sort of mini awkward rollercoaster. I felt discomfort throughout my entire being and my entire mind, and I couldn’t wait to do it again.

The thing with Ashtanga is that it’s fundamentally the same exact thing, every single day. There is a traditional sequence that must be followed with a strict series of poses. The poses come deliberately in a specific order. There are also different series as you advance, but duh, as a beginner, I started with the primary one. I did about 6 months of guided classes, with a few different teachers. In guided classes, they call out the poses, but I was more obsessed with getting the next pose, and the next one, and all of the physical aspects than really tapping into what the essence of ashtanga and yoga really is. I became obsessed with getting headstand, and getting into all of the twists and binds and laying my head on the floor.

I did this for about six months, about 1-3 times per week. I practiced at home sometimes, but was more concerned with checking emails on my phone or looking outside as leaves blew away. Tantalizing. I found myself still going to other yogas, but ashtanga didn’t leave me alone. As I read blogs online, I saw that the way to really advance in this yoga and GET INTO IT, is to practice in the traditional Mysore method and find a really good teacher. I practiced Mysore-style one time and was traumatized. I felt like I didn’t get a good workout and felt ashamed because everyone was ahead of me and doing all these crazy things like dropping backwards, etc. In the Mysore method, a teacher comes to you individually and tells you which poses you should do in the sequence. There comes a point where you stop. The teacher helped me, but I still left traumatized.

Ashtanga was still bugging me, and a close friend of mine had been telling me for months that I needed to meet her Ashtanga teacher friend, one of the best in Miami. I had been searching to connect with a good teacher for a long time, and sometimes, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” I finally felt the need to call her, and when I did, everything changed.

It doesn’t mean that it got easier. Like I said before, I had been practicing full primary for about six months, but after my teacher observed our first guided primary class that we did together, she took ⅓ of the postures away from me. She said I hadn’t built a firm enough foundation yet to get those postures. That is the first sign of a good teacher.

It’s now been about six months that I’ve practiced Ashtanga six days per week, and I finally feel like I can begin writing about it because I am seriously devoted. For some time, I still dabbled in other sorts of exercise like weightlifting or metabolic conditioning style workouts, workouts where you kill yourself, etc. But now, I’ve given up all other exercise besides “fun” things like walking or paddle-boarding or cycling or rollerblading for Ashtanga. It’s because it’s the first thing I’ve found in exercise that comes from a place of love instead of a place of hate. That comes from accepting and loving yourself right where you are, today, rather than changing yourself in order to accept yourself. It lets you know that with firm focus and concentration everything else can fall away. That in order to do hard things you must relax and breathe and let go. That every moment can be a catalyst for change, if you feel that change is the thing you need to do.

The hook with Ashtanga is that it teaches you to be calm and understanding with yourself during moments of difficulty. So if I can be calm in this pose, bhujapisana, my greatest teacher, where I feel like all of the Ashleys of all of the ages are throwing simultaneous tantrums at once, like screaming and pulling their hair out as they twirl around me, or kurmasana and supta kurmasana, where I literally told my teacher that I felt like I was going to suffocate, as she replied “yeah, that’s normal, grown men cry from this pose”, then I can remain calm during moments of stress at work when I have fourteen things cooking at once and I’m burning myself, when my boyfriend triggers something within me and I feel like a three year old, or first world problems like when whole foods doesn’t have my balsamic vinegar or I can’t afford to buy everything I touch at lululemon.

It also reveals my deepest beliefs about myself. Backbends show me that I’m scared to open my heart and trust along the line of fear. I believe that I must push in order to be good. I can’t relax during certain poses so I can’t relax in life. I’ve learned I’m good enough, and this practice, today, is good enough. And what’s interesting about it, although I’m doing the same poses day after day, I change. You feel yourself integrating what you have learned in the practice about yourself, to yourself, within yourself. You also get up close and personal with your thoughts because suddenly, you cannot escape them. There is literally nowhere to go but your mind, and your breath. It must stay calm and relaxed. I have to admit that a few weeks after I began mysore I went backwards. I got re-fucked up, I guess. I saw what I really believed about myself and didn’t like it, so I avoided going to that place. I’ll write more about the dark side of the moon in a later post.

I’ve learned that change happens as a by-product of accepting yourself and loving yourself right now, in this moment. With this body, with this cellulite, with these stretch marks, and a butt and arms that jiggle a little bit. The body that the jeans don’t fit, that half your closet doesn’t fit. Right now, this body. This body you made. This body that is currently a direct reflection of your mind. If you have a healthy mind, you will have a perfect body. You cannot will yourself to having a sustainable body.

I’ve decided to be monogamous to Ashtanga and walking because I’m done punishing myself through exercise. I don’t want to be outside of myself as I exercise. I want to focus on the internal, without music, without other people, without distraction, and get curious about what’s really there. Nothing but me, my body, my mind, my breath, and my movement.

Yoga forgives. Yoga accepts right where you are. Yoga forces you to confront all of the dark parts of yourself and STAY THERE. It’s really not about the poses. A lot of people think,  “WHOA look what that body can do! I can’t believe that!” But how have they gotten there? Have they forced themselves there? Have they pushed and not accepted themselves to be where they should be? Just something to think about. Many yogis say that yoga begins when you want to get out of a pose and you stay. I want to feel my brain, my mind, my body, my heart, my intuition, together, at once, and just see what happens. You will go back and you will go forward. What matters is where you are right now, today, and how you carry on with it.

All in all, I’ve shifted my exercise perspective from one where “I must do”, a punish-y, kill-myself-to-be-worthy, to a place of love. Because it does feel undeniably good to move; our bodies were actually made to move slowly for long distances. But today I move because it feels good, because I want to, because it makes me feel refreshed and happy and IN my body. Not because I should, not because I’m a bad person if I don’t, not out of laziness, but because I WANT TO. This is a relationship I work on daily, and because I spent two years in a land of unhealthy exercise, I will continue to be fully responsible for my healing.

Also, just because someone puts in work at the gym, and they are super disciplined with their workouts and have the body to show for it, does NOT mean they are healthy and/or happy. They might be, but this isn’t a direct correlation. This is a huge fallacy; so many people delay their happiness until they have “the perfect body”. I know I definitely wasn’t happy. Some of my happiest moments have been spent being lazy. What’s important to note is the intention and the WHY of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are you deriving your self-worth from it? Your goodness as a human? Are you being super crazy obsessive? Doing workouts four times per day? That might need to be looked at. Try to just do what works FOR YOU. Just like our diets. Whatever it is, just make sure it makes you happy and it feels good to live inside of the brain and body that you’ve been given.

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