Clean and Elegant

Clean and Elegant

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

You cling to things until they die

You cling to things until they die.”

A yoga teacher from Halifax said this to me once. I don’t think he meant for his words to haunt me as I meditated on the breath below my nostrils for three and a half days, but they did. Other catch phrases from this same yoga teacher.

“You have a hard practice.”

“Your practice is violent, harmful.”

I’d seen this teacher order a ham wrap for breakfast. What could he tell me about violence?

Arriving in Halifax three years ago, my Ashtanga attachment issues were pretty extreme. I was four years into doing a solid “traditional” Mysore practice at Darby’s. Taking up practice six days a week had coincided with a rush of creative energy, sexual gratification, body acceptance and an eight-month hiatus from puking in my mouth

Puking in my mouth was this weird rare eating disorder symptom that I hated myself for but could never get rid of. After every meal and snack I would regurgitate food into my mouth and then reswallow it, over and over again. It was like clinging to food until it died and/or became so acidic and disgusting that it felt like my teeth would disintegrate and fall out.
Then came Ashtanga, and suddenly with almost no effort, the puke in my mouth stopped. A million things in my life that used to be so hard were now so easy. My whole world seemed to click.

Now comes a long story about the vegan life coach, prozaac, coffee, toenails and raw food cleanses. This is to say that among other things, I did start puking in my mouth again. But I kept practicing through it all and eventually my eating disorder more or less stopped completely. And this was all because of practice. My practice wasn’t violent, it was magical. If ever I ever stopped, me and my life would go back to being a horrible catastrophe.

In Montreal, it was perfectly reasonable and common to give up everything for your yoga practice. The die-hards made up a whole club. Maybe you worked four to six hours a day for 40 to 60 dollars. But it was considered rather unreasonable for work to start before 10 a.m. And the best was if you practiced and then had enough time to lounge around for post-practice coffee afterwards. During coffee time, you could talk about your pelvis problems, sex problems and money problems. No matter the problem, at least we had our practice. That was the most important thing. Whatever happened, as long as you practiced, you would be somewhat okay. 

When I moved to Halifax to live with the Boatman, I had two main objectives.

Number one: Do not get pregnant.  Number two: Do not stop practicing. In Halifax, there were two different Ashtanga studios. I confess I was hideously judgemental of both of them.

At the first studio, there was an enormous prop room. What a scandal. The prop room was full of straps, blocks, blank chairs, pool noodles, bolsters, iron weights, sand bags, dumb bells and even an exercise ball. Some people did the “traditional” Ashtanga sequence. Others lay on chairs, bolsters, with sandbags or weights on top of their legs, or they rolled around on pool noodles. Still others did a little bit of both. There was a lot of chatting, and a few ipods.  I felt smug and a bit special because I could do all of second series and I didn’t use props. 

As for the other studio, I arrived one Friday morning for Led Primary. My timing couldn’t have been worse. The teacher hobbled into the class. Her hips hurt so much she could barely walk. She had one of her students lead the class for her as she breathed and winced through the practice. At the end, she reported feeling much better.

“That really says something about the power of the practice.” All her students chipped in about their experiences with pain, arthritis and cortisol shots.
“Yikes,” I thought.  For the most part, the ham wraps won over the cortisol shots. I ended up spending more time at the noodles and chairs studio. It was easier to get to and the teacher there was quite brilliant when it came to anatomy and adjustments. And he asked me if I had ever done tick tocks. I said no. Darby didn’t really teach those. I reverently went on to say that of course I never asked for postures because that was like asking for oral sex which the Vegan Life Coach says wasn’t allowed.

 “You’d be surprised,” the teacher responded. “Sometimes you’re allowed to ask.” Henceforth, I got to learn tick tocks.

Kino MacGregor mid Tic Tocks (Image from here
The first time I did tic tocks was in a bar in Montreal with a celebrity actor personal trainer who also happened to be a little person. The second time was with Sri W. Ham Wrap.
Another big perk was that he was willing to let me teach a bit. Although I’d done teacher training with Darby in 2008, I remained utterly inexperienced. For me, teaching yoga was in the same category as oral sex and yoga postures. You couldn’t ask for it, you had to be asked. But when I was asked, it was a big ego trip.

“Teacher training with Darby is a good thing,” said Sri W. Ham Wrap. Perhaps it was. This didn’t prevent most of my classes from being terrible. I apologize to anyone I disappointed.
I had only a couple of moderately inspirational lines. In Janu Sirsasana B, I told students to “luxuriate on their perineums,” and when they switched sides, I’d say, “same perineum, different heel.” It was charming.

I also remember saying to yoga students, “Just because you did it yesterday, doesn’t mean you have to do it today.” Alas, those who cannot do, teach. My peppy words never applied to me. Every day, I demanded the same results from my body. Because I was severely unemployed, I figured I didn’t have an excuse not to go full throttle. Plus now I was a “teacher.”

A couple of months in, my left s.i. joint shifted out of place. If you have never done yoga, perhaps you have never heard of an s.i. joint. Lucky for you. Before I started yoga, I didn’t know what my s.i. joint was either. Then one day, crunch, there it was.  I injured it soon after Darby started to take me through second series and ever since it has probably shifted out of place three or four times a year, if not more.

Many yoga people think there is something internal and symbolic about their injuries. Pain is not just physical. It represents an emotional, psychological, and spiritual pattern coming to the surface. Some people see pain as a pranic or energy blockage. Practicing yoga, and other breathing and meditation techniques is supposed to help liberate the blockage and ultimately heal the injury. I believe there is some truth to this. Over the years, my pain hasn’t been constant and seems to appear and disappear mysteriously. Sometimes all it takes is a good fuck for it to go away. Or an uncomfortable email for it to reappear. I have longed for the pivotal moment where the deepest root of the injury reveals itself and burns away and I become a whole and liberated person. In the meantime, however, pain radiates intermittently across my sacrum, down my hip and above my knee. And I wonder if I will need surgery within the next decade, and if I will be able to walk when I’m eighty, or even forty-two.
That said, despite my pain, I have always insisted on showing up. For every practice and every posture. During my early Halifax days, although I may have done primary instead of second series, my practice remained ninety minutes to two hours. For better or worse, I attempted every posture. It was egoically and emotionally painful for me not to complete a posture in its full expression and for this reason, I would only slightly modify postures, “working my edge” too intensely in attempts to make the desired shape. I never really gave my injury the space to heal.

When I told the hip-injury cortisol-shot yoga teacher about my injury, she said, “Well, I’m not surprised.” I waited for her to continue.

“You have a flexible body and no Moula Bandha.” She told me to draw my navel strongly into my spine and stop fiddling around to get further into the postures.

“I have arthritis in my s.i. joint,” she said. I think she said it was from going too far in backbends with no Moula Bandha.  At her studio, I did my best to focus on following the breath count and engaging what I vaguely understood to be Moula Bandha. While I always left her studio with a clear and focussed mind, my back hurt more every single time.
Sri W. Ham Wrap had a pretty straightforward exercise for getting my s.i. joint to go back in. All you had to do was squeeze his legs between your knees while he pushed out hard. This worked about 70 percent of the time. About 80 percent of the time the joint would click back out within a few days, if not during practice. As I practiced, I cried frequently. Sometimes this might have been deep rooted emotional baggage coming to the surface; however, more often it was a primarily shallow frustration at the fact that postures that had once been so easy for me were now painful and out of reach. One day, Sri W. Ham Wrap was astute enough to point this out.

“You’re only happy when you can do the postures well.” I asked him what the solution was.
He took out his Iphone. “You can take delight in something,” he said. “But you can’t expect it to last forever.” I didn’t care about Iphones and I wasn’t ready to let go of my practice yet.

“What should I do? Only primary series?”

“You know lots of postures beyond primary series. There are twists, inversions. Lots of options.” I imagined him taking me through a long boring sequence with pool noodles and sandbags and chairs. This sounded like a terrible option.

“But what if I want to stay within the Ashtanga sequence?” I asked.

“Then you may as well join a church. Churches are even better. You get nice comfy cult robes.” I told him that at Darby’s we would always keep practicing through injury, just making sure to avoid acute pain.
“That’s one way of doing it,” said Sri W. Ham Wrap. “But there are consequences to that. Poverty. Homelessness.” I can’t remember what else was on his list. Depression, suicide. Whatever it was, it was very dark. And all this from sticking with Ashtanga. Then he told me a weird story. I get the sense that maybe there are different versions to this story, and I cannot confirm which version is the truest. To protect the privacy of those involved and hopefully reduce the spread of Ashtanga rumours, I am altering several details.

So a man started doing Ashtanga later in life. His body took very easily to the practice and soon he was executing advanced and impressive postures. People were amazed that he was able to learn so much, so quickly, and at his age. He drew a great deal of attention and the man became a huge inspiration.

Then he had a bad car accident. He didn’t become paralyzed or anything, but he broke a few bones and suffered from nerve damage throughout his body. The doctors said that although he would recover and remain independent and functional for his age, it was not likely that he would be able to continue to practice as intensely as before. Certainly the advanced postures he’d been doing would never again be possible.

“So what happened?” I asked.
“He killed himself.”

Regardless of whether or not this story was true, Sri W. Ham Wrap was essentially calling me an Ashtanga suicide candidate. I went home in a huff. The Halifax yoga community was leaving much to be desired. Either I could eat ham wraps and lie around on chairs and pool noodles, or I could break my back. Or I could commit suicide. Or all of the above.

There was no post-yoga coffee club in Halifax. Except for me, everyone seemed to have jobs. Back at the Boatman’s house, I decided it was a desperate housewife sort of day and so I vacuumed and mopped. I can distinctly remember the sharp nerve pain travelling around my sacrum, hip and swollen knee as bent over and tried to vacuum the dog hairs from under the couch.

I spent the next week moping around and practicing at home, enduring the same moderate level of pain. At least for now, I wasn’t homeless or dead.

That weekend I decided that my best bet against homelessness was to write a self-help book. My goal was to write it in three days and make one hundred thousand dollars. Then I could keep living at the Boatman’s house, and I could pay for more than just toilet paper.  And I wouldn’t have to get a regular day job, which seemed excessive, strenuous, and unconducive to my die-hard practice. The book was supposed to be about the nine gurus in my life including Darby, the Vegan Life Coach, old bosses and a couple people with disabilities I had worked with.  Unfortunately, the guru book didn’t write as easily as I had anticipated. The idea seemed more awkward than catchy and I contracted horrific writer’s block. All weekend the Boatman had to endure my obnoxious behaviour and it was looking like maybe I would end up homeless.
On Monday, I went to Sri W. Ham Wrap to pick some bones about cult robes. I told him about the self-help book, and my money problems.
“You cling to things until they die,” he told me. So many times, these words have pervaded my psyche. During my practice and during my life. Because they are a little bit true. Nothing in my life is casual. Everything has to be a major monumental action that will bring me something that lasts forever.
I told Sri W. Ham Wrap that one thing I have clung to consistently is this idea of surrendering to a magical yoga teacher. In blogs and ashtanga memoirs, I always read about these beautiful surrender moments. A student meets her teacher and her heart melts and from then on that person is okay forever. Certainly Darby and I had a strong connection and until my body gave out, I was wholly committed to whatever he taught me. Despite all the misplaced boundaries and drama, I believe we both carry one another in each other’s hearts. Still, I can’t remember my heart ever melting and well, being okay forever seems highly unrealistic. All this could simply be a mythological experience. And yet, I feel like so many people have been through this heart melting thing. Sri W. Ham Wrap got it, I think twice. Why not me?

“Well, you can’t plan for that,” he said. Alas. Another thing he said you couldn’t plan for is having your deep-rooted injury to heal itself on a physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual level and never come back. Alas again. Even the best Lululemon goal setters can’t plan for this. That said, Sri W. Ham Wrap healed his spiritual s.i. joint injury after months of getting the shits in India, plus a day or two of similar digestion in New Zealand. Maybe all it takes is a good bout of Delhi Belly. Mysore is an okay place for this. I could try and drink more tap water.

I’ve been in Mysore for two weeks. So far I don’t have any Delhi Belly, but yesterday I ate too much coconut chutney. I used to think I was allergic to coconuts. My roommate just told me that coconuts were a laxative. This makes a lot of sense. Coconuts and Delhi Belly might heal my pelvis. Or possibly my future is paved with hip replacements and cortisol shots.

Anyways, let’s bring this mammoth tangent back to the breath below my nostrils. Meditating on the breath below my nostrils turned out to be one mammoth tangent after another.  I had looked forward to vipassana because I thought it would be great to get eleven whole days off from yoga. For seven years, I’d barely taken any days off beyond the sanctioned rest imposed by moon days, Saturdays and ladies’ holiday. Probably the most I’d ever stopped practicing was four days, and this occurred only a handful of times. Vipassana, I believed, would provide an excellent break, both for my mind and for my pelvis. This turned out to be merely wishful thinking. As Goenka says, “Nothing doing.” Apparently there is no rest for the neurotic. Pelvis angst remained alive and well and all through the day, I obsessed about practice. Should I stop Ashtanga completely and take up wilderness camping? Yes, I should stop. The hell with it. I shouldn’t go to Mysore. Or I should stop practicing until I get to Mysore. Let Sharath fix me from scratch. Or I should quit and become a nurse. Definitely I shouldn’t do any more than sun salutations until Mysore. Maybe I could do one sun salutation per day until I got to Mysore. This went on and on.
I felt pissed off at Darby. Even though these days he is so mellow I worry he might float away.

I felt pissed off at Sri W. Ham Wrap. Even though he was right. I cling to things until they suffocate and perish.

In Mysore, people are constantly taking turns rehashing their “Ashtanga Memoirs.” Some people have magical heart-melting type stories. Some claim that their practice didn’t start until they met Sharath. Others are way more low-key about the whole thing. They have teachers who they learned to trust gradually. They came to Mysore because they were curious and they keep coming because they like something about it.  So far I haven’t met anyone who is heinously injured, though many have tweaks here and there.

The other day I was in a café and two women beside me were going on and on about their elbows and obliques in karandavasana. I used to do that pose every day. The laboured, grunty process made me feel like a mammoth. I had all sorts of beautiful visions and fantasies about what my life would be like when I could finally do that posture.  Until it died. I haven’t thought about this posture in a long time. At the café, I jumped into the conversation and told the girls with the elbows and obliques that the key to karandavasana was childbirth. I read this on a yoga blog somewhere. No, no, no, they emphatically responded. Neither one wanted kids. I can understand. Kids seem like they would be horrible for your pelvis. Although I imagine that when a small creature pushes its way out of your crotch and begins to say funny things, it can be somewhat rewarding. 

Karandavasana, the Mammoth Pose
Besides teaching yoga, Sri W. Ham Wrap throws super fun parties where he makes awesome martinis. One night over martinis, we argued about practice and diet and following rules. Sri W. Ham Wrap said that imposing rules upon yourself is just another form of violence. Forcing yourself to be a vegetarian is more violent than eating meat. Blindly and dogmatically following a tradition is more violent than staying up late watching Netflix and sleeping in. And being self-righteous about following all the rules is worse than breaking them. At the time, it seemed like a cop-out, as well as highly convenient for people who liked hamburgers and sleeping. But everyone knows at least one starving, die-hard vegan who, went running for the bacon after years of deprivation and turning yellow. And although Ashtanga yoga most often makes people thrive and glow, it’s possible that some long-term practitioners have hung on too hard for too long, ending up with washed out faces, creaky joints and infertile uteruses…

Sri W. Ham Wrap believes that our practices and lifestyle choices ought to evolve organically and without force. For some of us, this means that our future holds heaps of ham wraps and Netflix. Others gradually make their way from ham wraps to vegetarian lasagna to sprouted lentils to coconuts to occasional sips of air and water. Or from Netflix to yoga blogs to crossfit to Mysore rooms. Everyone has a different path, just like everyone has a different pelvis. One pelvis isn’t necessarily better than the other. You could argue forever about whether or not this laid back approach justifies and perpetuates destructive choices. But arguing is probably horrible for your pelvis. 
Mr. Goenka was always saying, “deep attachment equals automatic suffering, automatic misery.” Deep attachment, this is also horrible for your pelvis. You can try and let go, but letting go is hard to plan for.

In the meantime, perhaps there is not much to be done.
Your Iphone is breaking.
Everything is dying.

Dear Halifax. I am sorry for my cult robes, and for being such a yoga snob. I look forward to seeing you and the chairs and the pool noodles when I get back from India. Until then, may your pelvises remain free of cortisol shots.
The End.
After the guru book died, I tried my hand at another self-help book called I Let Go. I have yet to crack 100 grand with the profits. Maybe this is because I cling to things until they die. Or maybe this is because it is only 2 dollars. Anyways, if you have two dollars, please click here to buy it. (In fact, prices have gone up to $2.99 to account for coriander's 300% market jump.)

More on Going to India:

Our lives will never be the same


  1. Much love for this post. And your words. And your way with words. Til next time I bump into you on the street.

  2. Thank you, Mia! So far the B.C. Folks I've met have been some of my favourites. Til next time indeed, E. Xo.

  3. Madison Susan and Rachel are there!! They are beautiful wonderful lovely people.

  4. Absolutely superb. I couldn't decide which bits made me laugh the most but small creatures pushing their way out of your crotch is right up there. I bought your book, I'll save it for my next yoga mini break X