“Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.” ~Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois
I’ve been a practitioner of Ashtanga yoga for over seven years. It’s an intense, vigorous and very strict form of yoga that is based on the eight limbs mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The physical, or vinyasa, side of Ashtanga came in being in the early part of the 20th century when it was transmitted by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in India. Linking physical movement with breath regulation, it is considered a moving meditation.
My reasons for finding yoga were rooted in both physical and spiritual reasons. In 2007 I had a very serious spinal cord operation that left me paralyzed in my early twenties. The rehabilitation process was slow and sometimes excruciating. By the time I started my senior year of college, I could just barely make it to and from classes by myself. In what was supposed to be the highlight of my youth, I instead felt handicapped and limited.
I felt very desperate and extremely low. Not only did I feel limited in my mobility, a lot of my previous dreams suddenly seemed unreachable. Travel the world by myself? Probably wouldn’t happen. Climbing pyramids? Not with this leg. My mother even offered to move in with me my senior year to help me climb the stairs and take out the trash. (I politely declined.)
That’s how I found Ashtanga. I had already been introduced to general hatha yoga by my mother, who once even taught classes. But during my recovery process, she looked at me very firmly and said, “You need Ashtanga.” It would help me recover physically, she said, but also spiritually. A week later, a DVD showed up at my house.
My Ashtanga practice started out very slowly and very modified. Some days, I cried through the whole video session, frustrated by all the things I used to be able to do but no longer could. Cried because I might never walk normally again. Cried because the stress of the operation still lingered and haunted me. Other days, I experienced strange bouts of progress that made me feel like I was almost normal again. Made me feel like I might be able to run someday soon, or jump again.
Despite all the careening emotions associated with practicing, I always did it. Ashtanga is supposed to be a daily practice at the buttcrack of dawn. My own level of dedication has varied between 3 to 6 times per week over these seven years, usually in the evening time, and sometimes right after I wake up, but never at the recommended 5:30AM.
It’s hard to stick to that sort of practice. The series of postures never changes. For seven years, I have been doing the exact same sequence. Yet, somehow, it’s not. Even though it’s the same physical series, the level of intensity increases as your skill increases. That’s why a lot of yoga practitioners talk about the importance of ‘showing up to the mat’.
It doesn’t matter if this is the best or worst practice of your life. It’s not about being better than somebody else, or being the best. It’s about progressing slowly, at your own pace, and about showing up.
It’s always about showing up.
At the beginning of 2013, I began to take myself seriously as a writer. I wanted to get published. I wanted to spend most of my time writing novels, which was a goal I’d had practically since birth. I wanted to get this show on the road. Get some titles to my name, start a following, maybe even take over the world.
Despite setting this goal, I continued to avoid writing. I would look at old projects, add a few lines to something here or there, or half-assedly edit works in progress. Nothing substantive. At this point, I mostly relied on the muse for my output. You know, that searing moment of inspiration where you sit down and pump out four chapters at a time, and then don’t write anything for three months?
As months rolled by and I continued to get more frustrated with my lack of progress despite my clear goal, I noticed that I was making some very new breakthroughs in my yoga practice. Reaching new levels that I had never dreamt possible. I got myself into an unassisted headstand for the first time ever. The excitement of my feat actually caused me to fall out of it (typical!).
I realized then something I had known all along: I wanted to write but was avoiding the process of it. I knew I had to practice, daily. I knew I had to write crappy short stories that would embarrass me. I knew I had to send my work out for critiques, and take all the stinging lashes of constructive criticism. I just had to write. I knew all this.
But I was too afraid of sucking. I was afraid of putting myself out there, of making the effort only to find out that my lifelong dream had been a bust. I also had an extremely high aversion to writing something that wouldn’t go on to be a masterpiece (see: every amateur author’s reason for not writing more).
It reminded me a lot of the reasons I’d had prior to starting my yoga practice. I insisted, in the first year or two, to practice alone, because I was so embarrassed by my awkward postures, by the clearly inelegant transitions, by the fumbling, weaker leg. I didn’t want anyone to see evidence that I wasn’t perfect. But then I started going to classes, and no matter how good the students were, the teacher always had suggestions and corrections.
Even for the students who looked like they’d fallen straight out of Yoga Journal.
But there we were, every week, showing up to the mat. Like writers need to do if they want to get better.
How could I ever have hoped to walk again without putting in the constant practice of actually doing it? The same concept seemed glaringly obvious to me in my writing.
Because what’s more important? Preserving my ego, an illusion that I somehow don’t have room to improve? Or actually going out there and pursuing those goals? Whether it be writing better or walking better, the goal has to be more important to you than not doing it.
Regaining my physical strength was more important to me than looking like a fool in front of others, or not doing postures right for a long time.
And writing better, and getting work I’m proud of published, is more important to me than the discomfort of facing my perfectionism.
If I don’t show up to write, I’ll never reach the goal. I don’t want to imagine where I’d be in life right now if I hadn’t taken on Ashtanga in those dark days during my physical rehabilitation. What if I had just given up? What if I had just let the assumed embarrassment of failure win, and never even attempted?
I sure wouldn’t be doing unassisted head stands right now, that’s for sure.
The same goes for my writing. If I don’t try, almost every day, there’s one sure outcome. And that outcome doesn’t look much like my goal of being a successful, fulfilled author.
Practice means showing up and actually doing it, no matter how it looks or feels, no matter how you look or feel. No matter the weather. No matter your schedule. No matter your word count. No matter what.
Here’s to all of us writers showing up to the mat.
Ember Leigh has been writing erotic romance novels since she was far too young. A native of northern Ohio, she currently resides in South America with her Argentinean partner, a detail she uses to justify her Bachelor’s degree in Latin American Literature. In addition to romance novels, she also writes travel articles, maintains three blogs, and continually attempts to complete a mildly-gripping short story. In her free time, she practices Ashtanga yoga, travels the world, and eats lots of vegetables. Visit her website. Find her on Twitter and on Facebook.
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