I still remember when the yoga class ended, Lian said it had been a while since she last practiced yoga. That was in 2018. Ever since then, I have witnessed her journey going back to the mat, going to mindfulness retreats, deepening her practice and growing as a person. I saw the power of yoga helping her through a difficult time in her life, just like the way it did to me. As a yoga practitioner and teacher, as well as a counselor, I have experienced and seen the healing and transformative power of yoga. I hope that by reading Lian’s story, it gives you a snap shot of what that looks life.
Happy International Yoga Day today.
Editor in Chief
Copy Editor: Katie. M
May 20, 2021
It was 6:15 am on a cold, dark winter morning in Beijing. The temperature was 6 degrees below zero. Still half awake, I stepped out of the door to go to my Ashtanga practice, gently closing the door so as not to awake the neighbors, like I had done for six days a week. Half an hour later, I arrived in the room, which was also dark, but with just enough natural light coming from the windows to let me see the mats and not the faces of other people in the room. The room was so quiet. The only sound I could hear was the deep, long breaths of two or three students already there. The teacher was sitting in the corner, his presence revealed only by his silhouette near the window.
Then I stood on the mat, getting into the practice. “Ekam (Sanskrit word for “one”), Inhale.” I said it to myself in my head, as I raised my arms above my head while taking the first deep inhale for the very first sun salutation. I knew I was home again.
I practice Ashtanga yoga - a system of yoga transmitted to the modern world by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009). There are two things that people love and hate about Ashtanga: 1. It follows a set sequence so you cannot add or detract postures. After a certain time of practicing, you are expected to memorize the sequence and do it on your own. 2. The traditional way to learn and practice Ashtanga is the Mysore style, named after the city from which Ashtanga originated, which requires you to show up on the mat six days a week, ideally in early morning, doing what you have learned over and over again. For five days, you practice on your own, in silence, while the teacher walks around the classroom and gives you adjustments in certain asanas. On the sixth day it’s a led class, when you do the full series, usually 90 minutes, with the teacher counting.
Sounds strange, doesn’t it? I love it.
When I first started practicing Ashtanga using an app, I did not know what I was getting myself into. It was a period of my life when I just went through a big earthquake in my life that threw me out of my old life and into a massive cloud of not knowing what I was doing and where I was heading. I was living alone in a small apartment, with plenty of time to study and understand myself. Anxiety and fear were my familiar companions, breaking my days into anguish and sadness. I needed something that I could do by myself, that I could manage according to my situation and that could make me feel grounded again. Then I found Ashtanga. It was not love at first sight, but love developed through many many hours in silence and loneliness. The Ashtanga “system”, with its fixed sequence, its requirement of daily, persistent practice and the magic of synchronizing breathing with postures, was a safe place for me to fall into, to feel and connect with my body on the most sensitive and delicate level. I practiced the standing sequence over and over again in my small room, in the midst of all the inner battles I was going through, and so I was not alone.
Early morning practice in the woods. May 2021
I have practiced the full primary series 200 times over the past ten months since I started practicing regularly with an authorized Ashtanga teacher. To this day, the practice continues to speak to me in a profoundly emotional way. Every day, I wake up at the same hour, show up in the same place, do the same things, struggle with the same postures. In total silence.
This silence is precious. Without a teacher giving instructions and the students trying to understand and follow them, like in most yoga classes, practicing in silence is the only two hours in my waking time when I am free from all the distractions in the world, free from the endless flow of information rushing into the mind. Then there is nothing left in these two hours but me and the practice. So I breath, extend, fold, over and over again. I learn to observe my breathing, my body, my feelings, my mind, the thousands upon thousands of subtle dramas going on about me. There is a universe within me, waiting to be explored and understood.
I remember one time I had quite a few slices of cheese for dinner and the next morning my body felt so heavy and slow. My body changed, and so did my practice. And there were many days when everything seemed grey and lifeless, when the only thing I could do was to shrink away in my bed, but I knew I still had my practice. The same reason that brought me to yoga a long time ago would again and again bring me back to the mat. On those days when I didn’t have the energy to step out, I would roll out the mat next to my bed, and start from “Ekam, Inhale.” During those moments, the practice gave me a chance to experience compassion with my body, and through that, compassion for my being. I breath, extend, fold, still in silence, all alone, coming face to face, heart to heart with darkness. And I noticed how the practice lifted me up and brought me home.
Home practice on a smoggy day
The most beautiful words that touch me deeply come from Dena Kingsberg, a devoted student and teacher who has been practicing Ashtanga for over 30 years:
“Each day, we breathe, we bend, we extend, we fold and unfold. The next day again we breathe, we move, we move a little further, we unfold again. Again and again in the same place, penetrating deeper and deeper, peeling away the layers. Letting go. The practice strips us back. Through the struggle of it, we disentangle from the bondage of conditioned existence. We shed the layers of cultivated self. You are neither your job nor your position in society. You are not your education or your image. You are not the people you attach yourself to. You are not simply body or mind. Stripped back of everything that separates us, blinds us, our awareness directed inward instead of outward. a spiritual awakening seems inevitable.”
Then the practice becomes homecoming.
Practice by the Yangtze River. October 2020
All photos from Lian