Clean and Elegant

Clean and Elegant

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Benefits of an Ashtanga Yoga Practice, Part Two

A childhood friend who once peed on my play dough recently took up Ashtanga Yoga. In his wave of newly born enthusiasm he googled, “The Benefits of an Ashtanga Yoga Practice.” Curiously enough, the first result was an article I wrote for Elephant Journal by the same name. I wrote it when I was twenty-five, about four years into my daily Mysore practice. What a darling I was. Let’s see how much has changed.

25-year-old Erica. The Darling.
Twenty-five year old Erica says,
“It’s easy to doubt your efforts when onlookers may see your practice as a self-indulgent, masochistic, tripped out version of aerobics. In order to relieve your doubts, I believe that it is extremely important to regularly evaluate the intention behind your hard work.”
Twenty-nine year old Erica: Indeed. Where does this wisdom and coherence come from? As fate would have it, twenty-nine year old Erica’s doubts are massive. Since the end of February, she/I have been relentlessly pulling out all kinds of blustering speeches about the Ashtanga Yoga method.  

Speech A: "After being coerced into weird extreme unnatural movement, for example, bending backwards until your hands grab your ankles, and/or your calves, and/or your knees as often as possible for five to ten to twenty-five years, it’s just not that surprising if some part of your body starts to feel terrible."

Speech B: “If I’m really honest, I feel like at least one of my vertebrae has slipped out of place and left all the joints from the left hip down grinding together at least once a week, and probably way more often than that. When did this start, you ask? I think somewhere between learning kapotasana and putting my legs behind my head every day.”

Kino's Spiritual Spine in Kapotasana
Speech C: “I just don’t think that very many senior teachers are being honest about what hurts, how much and for how long. There’s too much at stake for them. I can’t trust anybody.”

Speech D: “I mean, all my love to Sharath. Mysore was a delightful time. But, ‘don’t walk too much?’ Walking is not optional! Walking is a biological imperative. Sticking your face between your knees is not!”
Speech E: Something about rampant sanctioned eating disorders, social alienation, adrenal fatigue, Daddy Issues, superiority complexes and paralyzing neuroses. And how Kino MacGregor’s injured S.I. joint meant that she was a nun in her past life, but my clicky crooked eighty-year old spine is almost certainly not so spiritual.

And what would twenty-five year old Erica say to all this?
Your reasons for practising yoga will evolve over time. Everyone comes to yoga for different reasons and during different circumstances. The first time I did yoga was from a video by Ali McGraw that my mother had given me. At the time, I was a chronic exercise addict and I couldn’t get through the day without physically torturing myself as much as possible. My mother really wanted me to relax, but she knew that I wouldn’t be able to stop moving. The yoga movie was set in a bright white desert, where clouds hung low to the ground. In a flattering white leotard, Ali McGraw demonstrated sun salutations and some basic sequences of yoga postures as a man with a soothing voice talked me through it. When I got to the end, the man told me to lie down and let go of everything I didn’t need until all that was left was love. This seemed like a pleasant concept, but a little hokey and not very realistic. I quickly returned to my extensive and neurotic cardiovascular routine

Ali MacGraw, Yoga Mind & Body

Teehee. I was fifteen when my mom bought me that video. These were the days of the Stairmaster and running with ankle weights. No wonder leg-behind-the-head has been a washout. In fact, the first time I ever did yoga was in a psychiatric ward where I was admitted after an ex-lax overdose. The teacher was a tiny blonde woman who wore high heels and business suits. Besides yoga, she wanted to teach us coping strategies besides cutting ourselves or taking laxatives. On large chart paper at the front of the room, she drew diagrams about the cycle of anxiety. She highly recommended gardening.

During the yoga class, we mostly just breathed and lay down. While we were lying down, the teacher stayed sitting up, and I remember this made me feel safe. I was extremely tired from screaming and crying and begging them to let me out of the psych ward. Most of the time, I just fell asleep.

Yoga Video #2 was Rodney Yee. Like Oprah, I felt that Rodney had a beautiful body. And he could go upside down, which was compelling and exciting. By then I had switched from Ex-lax to vomit. The ankle weights were still a thing. By the time I was seventeen, I was hospitalized again. For four months, I attended a Day Treatment program for teenagers with eating disorders. We got to do yoga on Mondays. The teacher’s name was Martha and she was very adamant that whilst menstruating, a woman should not tilt her pelvis. Barely any of us got our periods, so this was a moot point. Many of the other patients vibrated their legs compulsively as we sat cross-legged in some empty carpeted conference room.

“Inhale,” said Martha, and we followed her as she raised her hands above her head. “Exhale, shower yourself with love and compassion.” To this day, this remains one of my  favourite facetious catch-phrases. Another day, Martha had us take a long savasana. Over and over again, some new age skylark sang
"I will be gentle with myself,
I will love myself,
I am a child, of the universe,
Being born each moment."
I remember lying there, tears streaming down my face. It all seemed way too far-fetched. Once I was medically stable, my mother looked for other yoga classes I could attend. Somehow, she came upon an Ashtanga Yoga school in Ottawa. She called the instructor ahead of time, explaining that I needed something that would allow me to sweat, work hard and not get bored. The instructor told her that there would be lots of sweat and no boredom. He was right.

Twenty-five-year old Erica:  There’s only one way for me to summarize this experience: I really just couldn’t believe it.
This seems to be a motif in people’s Ashtanga Yoga Memoirs. In our first class, amid puddles of sweat, there’s this recognition that we have tapped into something unbelievable, indescribable, beyond words. What is it?

After that first class, it would be another four years or so before I committed to a daily practice. During this time, the mere thought of yoga was consoling, and the idea of going upside down seemed highly redeeming. I continued to dabble in led classes and videos, with the dream that one day I would learn enough about yoga that I could go upside down, and practice every day.

Twenty-five year old Erica:   Finally, at age 21, I found myself at Sattva Yoga Shala in Montréal, where Pattabhi Jois’ students Darby and Joanne run their studio. The shala was just down the street from my university. It became possible for me to go to yoga every morning before class. My previous tendency to obsessively overtrain no longer seemed to make any sense. Ashtanga yoga is definitely vigorous, and it provides undeniable physical benefits including strength, flexibility and the release of toxins. However, Pattabhi Jois was as correct as he was adamant when he said, “This yoga is not for exercise. Yoga is showing where to look for the soul – that is all” (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Puck Building, NYC 2001).

This is all very nice. I wonder where my soul is now. The thing is, under the disguise of very beautiful Ashtanga Yoga practice, it is entirely possible to go bonkers and back. My twenty-five year old self sort of agrees.
Certainly, yoga has not provided me with an unfailing cure for shit times, but Guruji was right when he told us that “yoga is showing where to look.” For the soul, for God, for whatever is that is left “when you let go of everything you don’t need.” Whereas my former fitness endeavours served as an attempt to escape from my problems, yoga has given me the opportunity to meet with every single aspect of myself every single morning. Every day when I unroll my mat, whether or not I feel like merging with God, I face myself, breath after breath, posture after posture. 

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I am so earnest, so sincere and so convincing.
I believe that in simply showing up no matter what, I begin to rise above these insecurities. I stand on my head. My life is a mess. I breathe anyways. A really huge mess. Too bad, life. I’m still here. Maybe tomorrow, the mess will be a little less huge and when more mess comes, I will remember that no mess is forever. 

Very true; however, broken cartilage and ligaments, these take a rather long time to heal. The journey back from emaciation post misguided raw food fungus cleanse? Also quite extensive. Sorting out the Daddy Issues you projected onto your teacher? Lifetimes.
The remainder of “The Benefits of an Ashtanga Yoga Practice” is there for you on Elephant Journal. I ended with another feel-good quote from Guruji, who I never met, and with something about unshakeable peace. Unshakeable peace is worthwhile endeavour, though it hasn’t always proved to be available.

Bonkers and back. 29-year-old Erica likes this. Maybe I was more coherent when I did second series.
My childhood friend who peed on my playdough has already been immersed in a different yoga and meditation cult. He is not interested in surrendering to a Guru or in becoming consumed with a bunch of rules and rituals. He does his practice in the afternoons. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he follows along with some nice lady who does half primary on a video. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he does kettle bells. It all sounds so balanced and civilized.

I think that people do themselves a disservice when they say, “If I didn’t practice, I’d be a total mess.” As though without practice, your whole life would crumble into a series of enormous mistakes. It will be you, vodka, Netflix and one inappropriate source of sexual gratification after another. All this, in addition to extreme and unmanageable obesity.
That’s what I thought. And yet, after over a month of taking a break, I have continued to exist. So far, I have even avoided devolving into debauchery. Although I did make a few free-spirited moves in Toronto, I feel as though all my choices have been quite reasonable. Plus I got to keep my biceps.

“Your life is not a series of mistakes.” This is from a Michael Stone podcast. I listened to it while I was in Mysore, the day after I realized that I almost totally hated Halifax, and would likely need to move.
“Just when you think your life is over, your heart has more beats.” Sharath said this during conference that week. He was quoting a Bollywood song. Nobody else remembers him saying this. I do. He looked straight at me. I was imagining leaving the Boatman. My Birkenstocks and spiritual pants would go in one suitcase. All the fancy clothes from my fake mother-in-law would go in the trunk. Where would I go?

My life is not a series of mistakes. My heart has more beats.
I hope yours does too.

Whatever your practice is, may it bring you unshakeable peace. May you learn to go upside down, and may this be exciting as you imagined it would be. May you always remain at least as wise as an Elephant Journal article. May your practice inspire you to give up Ex-lax, ankle weights and the stairmaster.  And Elephant Journal. May you travel to India, and meet masses of delightful people who have been to bonkers and back. May you meet as many people like this as possible. May you discover that you were a nun in your past life. May you develop unrelenting reverence for your breath, your spine, and the trillions of cells in your body. At the darkest of times, may someone tell you that your heart has more beats.  May you cease to view your life as a series of mistakes.

May someone watch over you as you lie down. And when you lie down, may you learn to let go of everything you don’t need. Until all that’s left is love, much of it for your mother.

When I wrote unshakeable peace, I couldn’t help but also think, unshakeable peas.

Much of the love is also for my father.

The End.

Me and Sharath, looking less than 25
The Benefits of an Ashtanga Yoga Practice, by Erica Schmidt

Unshakeable Peas

Shower Yourself with Love and Compassion
Follow me on Twitter: @mypelvicfloor
Exuberant Bodhisattva on Facebook 

Ashtanga/Eating Disorder Memoir Type Posts:

You Cling To Things Until They Die 
Are You Strong or Are You Skinny? 
Not Separate From All That Is 
This is the New Story of My Life

Michael Stone Podcast: MU (Your life is not a series of mistakes.) 

Ocean Invertebrate Personality Quiz (I'm a Royal Starfish)


  1. Do not give up on Halifax yet. We have yet to meet you and have a coffee and a half, between my tall friend and my shorter self, we combined could comprise the missing friend and a half required to complete your small circle of friends. Between us we would take your small collective up to the requisite number of 5 humanoids required to participate in guerrilla origami and interpretative dance collaborations.

    We too participate in the practice of throwing ourselves in the general direction of the floor and not missing. Perhaps some day after sharing the coffees and bemoaning our paper cuts we could find a place where we can all throw ourselves at the floor in unison.

  2. I'm sure you're splendid, but I'm already gone! Hit me up if you're ever in Montreal. I love a friend, tall or short. Thanks for reading!

  3. My first two yoga videos were the same! And, truth be told, I'm not so sure about the extreme ranges of motion of ashtanga either. Seems like SO MUCH on the joints.