I was sixteen, insecure, body-image obsessed, and searching for something to identify with, from which to build a sense of self. Always a perfectionist, even at a young age I put a great deal of pressure on myself to do well and, of course, to be thin. As a result, I suffered debilitating stress migraines beginning at the age of nine. Stress was turning my body into a mess of tension, nothing helped my migraines, and after a series of futile medical and chiropractic visits to address the pain, I didn't know where else to turn.
For my sixteenth birthday, I asked for a yoga mat, a pair of blocks, and two books: The Woman's Book of Yoga and Health by Linda Sparrowe, and David Swenson's Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. I knew next to nothing about yoga; all I knew was that it was supposed to feel good and reduce stress – both things that I wanted.
I began with Swenson's book, and though I didn't know Ashtanga Vinyasa from Kundalini, I recognized the eponymous Downward Facing Dog when I saw it. The black and white photos of Swenson himself demonstrating the foreign series of postures was intimidating. I decided, wisely, to begin at the beginning, with Surya Namaskara A. It was hard. Downward Dog was nearly impossible on the slick new mat, and my shoulders, hips, and hamstrings screamed through the motions of the vinyasa. I came back to the mat a few times in the week or two after I received it, experimenting half-heartedly with some of the sequences in the books, but ultimately became discouraged, rolled up the mat and put it away for a long time.
Fast forward five years of running, lifting weights, and waiting tables at turn-and-burn restaurants, and my health and range of mobility were rapidly eroding. I was too young to be so sore and stressed out all the time. I had reached a point of desperation – tension headaches every day and hip pain that kept me up at night. Something had to give. I remembered my mat tucked away somewhere, and toyed with the idea of giving yoga another try.
It was around this time that I made one of my bi-annual trips to visit my parents in Wisconsin. I had taken an enormous camping duffle with me with the intention of retrieving some more of my clothes and books from the house. Sorting through the books, I came across the two yoga references I had abandoned so long ago. I put them in the bag and began searching for the mat. I found it, rolled up and covered in dust on a shelf in the basement. I wiped it off and threw it in with the books, feeling tremendously wise for bringing such a large bag.
When I got the stuff home, I poured over the books in a way that I had not had the patience to do before. I read about the importance of the breath and sequencing, about modifications, how to use them, and why the practice might feel strange to the body at first. This time around, I was better prepared and determined to stick with it. I humbled myself to the realization that Swenson's book might be best saved for later, and began with the first sequence in The Woman's Book of Yoga and Health, the "Woman's Essential Sequence." This was a nice hatha sequence that took the body through its full range of motion and included many of the foundational postures, with an emphasis on forward bending. It was hard, but I kept at it.
After a few months, I began to alternate the Essential sequence with the next sequence in the book, the "Woman's Energizing Sequence," which introduced some bigger backbends, like Ustrasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana. The intensity of these postures blew me away. My throat and chest were so closed that I could barely breath, but their power intrigued me. I kept working at it, lifting into a trembling Urdhva Dhanurasanas at the objection of my back, shoulders and wrists, or barely breathing in Ustrasana. Even Upward Dogs were difficult, but improvement came slowly, with regular time on the mat.
The practice was sporadic at first, with bursts of daily practice spliced between intervals of once or twice weekly sessions, but even so, my body responded quickly. First, my strength increased, then my posture began to improve, and shortly thereafter, my hip and back pain began to diminish. I wanted more from my practice, or perhaps I wanted to give more of myself to my practice.
In either case, I bought a few more books, and began to increase my reading. I started meditating before my practice each day, and began to get the hang of ujjayi pranayama. Initially, just five minutes of quiet sitting was aggravating and uncomfortable, emotionally and physically; but with practice, I began to look forward to the sitting, and found myself meditating for longer, chooser to linger just a little bit longer each day before beginning my asana practice. I began to introduce new asanas to my sequences, building on the two sequences from Sparrowe's book. I started experimenting with order and flow, picking out asanas that appealed to me, mostly from The Yoga Bible, but the practice was choppy, aimless. There was something missing. I wanted a seamless practice, a moving meditation.
*This is the first part of a 2-part series. Read part 2 here.