• Renee

Breathing through discomfort

Most people who know about yoga and maybe even most people who practice it think of it primarily as a physical practice. I know that's been true for me for most of my years of practicing.

I haven't spent a whole lot of time thinking about the correlation of lessons learned on my mat to how they may apply to life off the mat. Over the last year, that's really started to change for two reasons. The first is that I started practicing Ashtanga Yoga and the second is that I've gone through almost a year of teacher training. I'll have to hold off on writing about how teacher training has applications outside of life because this post will be far too long if I don't.

If you don't know what Ashtanga Yoga is, this link will give you some insight. Ashtanga classes are physically demanding and breath becomes particularly important. We start with Sun Salute A - 5 times. 1 breath, 1 movement until you reach downward dog which you hold for 5 breaths. That's followed by Sun Salute B - 3 times (at least where I practice). Sun Salute B is more demanding. There are a few more poses before you arrive at downward dog and by the time you get there, or I should say that by the time I get there, I'm winded. We spend our time in the final downward dog of each sun salute working on bringing our breath back under our control. In through the nose, out through the nose. Slow. Measured. Controlled.

This is not unique to Ashtanga, in fact, breathing is an integral part of all yoga classes. Somewhere through my training I learned that if you're not breathing, you're not doing yoga, you're just holding a pose. But for me, Ashtanga has been the practice where I've most needed to learn how to control my breath and how to use it to get through the hard, uncomfortable poses. I love that in Ashtanga, once you finish the 8-10 sun salutations, you hold everything else for 5 breaths, some like shoulder stand and headstand for longer. I tell students that I teach that one of the ultimate goals of yoga is to teach us how to breath through discomfort. If we're passing through each pose without really sinking into it, without really allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable, then I think we're missing a huge opportunity to train ourselves to breathe through the discomfort.

The other thing that really appeals to me about Ashtanga is that you do the same thing every single time. The practice is composed of 6 different series of poses. In every class we do the same poses in the same order for the same amount of time. That might sound like it gets boring and overly repetitive but I love to be able to see from class to class that I can get deeper into a pose or I can twist just a little bit more. When I started practicing Ashtanga I could do a headstand and after years (maybe even literal decades) of not doing it, it was hard but doable. Now I can do Headstand B (with legs parallel to the ground). It's still hard and it still requires a lot of concentration, but I can do it. I've just started working on lifting into headstand with straight legs. It's hard and today I decided I didn't want to spend the energy on it, but next time I'll try it again. And someday, that will be easy for me. I love that over the course of a few weeks or a few months something that once caused me discomfort, no longer does. Something that was once hard, is now easy.

So what has my Astanga practice taught me about life outside of yoga?

1. That sometimes you have sit with the discomfort and breathe through it. There are consequences to never allowing yourself to feel things that you don't want to feel. Trust me on this one.

2. That if you keep challenging yourself to go deeper or to hold longer, you'll make progress. That thing that caused you discomfort may not anymore, or maybe you find you're more able to let go of the source of the discomfort.

3. That some days are better than others. That we can take 1 step forward and 2 steps back, but that we keep stepping up to mat and working on accepting where we are on that day, at that moment.

If you're in Northeastern Ohio, I highly recommend you check out Yoga 101 in Berea. I'm uniformly impressed with the teachers, the owner is a fantastic human being, and there's a small but fun and dedicated group of Ashtanga students.

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