Dr. Ashtanga: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Downward Dog

The first time I tried yoga, I don’t think I ever I ever hated something with such vitriol. It was a morning class I took my junior year of college to fulfill my physical education requirement. I thought that it would be a refreshing way to start my day. Plus it was “only” yoga, the sport of choice for mommy bloggers across America. If they could do it, so could I. After all, how hard could an hour of basic stretching two times a week be?

As it turns out, pretty damn hard. I learned the hard way that while yoga might look easy (and you can make it easy if you’re lazy and stick to the simple poses), it isn’t all breathing deeply and feeling zen. Insert derisive laugh here. If only…

It took roughly one sun salutation before I figured out that downward dog, along with the rest of the poses, was no picnic. I have (correction: had) pretty weak shoulders, so all of those plank variations were my own variation of yoga hell. I am (correction: was) about as flexible as a slab of rock, so my muscles weren’t exactly happy with me, either. I think it was in the middle of my first pathetic attempt at an unsupported shoulder stand that I thought to myself, “…is it too late to drop out and take fly-fishing instead?”

And this had been the easy stuff, the most basic poses of ashtanga yoga. I began to dread outright going to yoga class, to the point that my roommate would have to practically drag me to class in the morning. Though my progress made small steps throughout the semester, I never was happy doing yoga. Downward dog was never a place of rest for me, like it was supposed to be. Garland pose never really loosened my hips. And while dolphin pose may have aided my weak shoulders, that fact was vastly overshadowed by the steady stream of silent expletives I was spewing in my head. Despite being “only” yoga, that class was probably my most challenging during my four years at Washington & Jefferson College. The day it ended, I was probably the happiest student in the class, and I swore up and down that I would never unroll my mat again, so strong was my hatred.

In hindsight, I realize that most of my yoga woes originated from two factors. First, I had been doing this for a credit, not myself. Second, since I’d only been doing it twice a week, I wasn’t really getting any of the benefits.

A few months after I moved to Japan, I reluctantly decided to take up yoga again. A diet fueled largely by rice wasn’t doing wonders for my athleticism, and I was too lazy and cheap to join a gym. So the mat came out again…

That was almost fifteen months ago, and yoga has become a near-daily habit of mine. Not only have I come to tolerate yoga; I now actively enjoy it. It’s my magic bullet for any minor ailments. Be it a migraine, congested sinuses, or aching back, ninety minutes of yoga fixes me up like magic. Without it, I get antsy, restless, and even downright cranky. I’ve come to love the loose, “overcooked noodle” feeling I get in my limbs every night.

Dancer pose on Lamma Island in Hong Kong. I'm kind of half-assing it though, as I was on top of a mountain, and losing my balance would have meant plummeting to my death.
Dancer pose on Lamma Island in Hong Kong. I’m kind of half-assing it though, as I was on top of a mountain, and losing my balance would have meant plummeting to my death.

I’ve become one of those amateur yogis who extols the benefits of the practice to anyone who listens. And as such, yoga’s taught me some pretty valuable life lessons as well. As silly and clichéd as they might seem, I can honestly say that I’ve become better because of them.

1.) Focus is everything. In yoga, the drishti is your visual point of focus while you hold a pose, and I’ve learned it’s vital. Some of the simplest yoga poses can completely fall apart without a drishti. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been contently chilling in tree pose, only to let my eyes stray and ungracefully lose my balance. And it goes the other way, as well. The most difficult poses are next to impossible without a good focusing point. Good luck trying to hold feathered peacock pose without locking your eyes on something. It works the same way in life; without something to focus you, you’re bound to fall.

2.) The places you’re happiest can start off as the ones you hate.  I’ve made it clear that I wasn’t a fan of downward dog at first. Loathed it. Wished it would burn up in fiery hellfires. I was rarely more miserable than when I was in that pose. My “happy yoga poses” basically consisted of child’s pose…and that’s it. Now downward dog – along with dancer pose, half-moon pose, and plough pose, all of which I started off hating – is a place of content. Pushing back into downward dog is now accompanied by a happy sigh. Even if we originally hate a place, eventually we can learn to love it.

3.) Sometimes you need to stop, step back, and start again. Once you lose the integrity of a pose in yoga, it’s difficult to recover your balance and slide back into proper form. The only thing to do to get the pose is back is give up and start again. Otherwise you just keep struggling to half-ass it, rather than accepting failure and trying to do better next time. Stopping and restarting doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it just means you recognize that you can do better when starting from scratch.

4.) Turning up the heat brings out your best.  Yoga in the summer is brutal. Sliding around in your own sweat while trying to maintain dolphin pose in temperatures of over 90 degrees is no picnic. As the temperature rises, though, so does your flexibility. Your muscles loosen up and you’re able to maintain poses that are otherwise extremely difficult or painful. When the circumstances are toughest, your best finally shows through. In summer, my clothes might be soaked through with sweat when I’ve finished (Attractive, I know…), but I rarely feel better physically.

5.) Your surroundings shouldn’t change your habits. I travel a fair bit, and hauling around a yoga mat isn’t exactly practical, so I invested in a pair of those goofy-looking yoga “paws.” They’re basically wearable yoga mat gloves and shoes, and while I may look a tad eccentric (If I had a quarter for every weird look I’ve gotten, they’d have paid for themselves five times over), they allow me to keep up with my yoga, regardless if I’m in an airport or hotel room. In fact, I often need yoga most when I’m not at home, because it calms and centers me. Just because your location changes doesn’t mean that your core habits should as well.

6.) Tiny changes add up. The first time I tried sugar cane pose, I thought my hip was going to dislocate itself. But every day, the pain receded just a tiny bit, though I barely noticed at the time. Now it barely even causes a twinge. The smallest of changes, even if you aren’t fully aware of them, can eventually produce the most satisfying results.

7.) Being forced to do something makes you automatically hate it. As I said, I hated yoga at first, and I’ll probably never take another yoga class. But once I took it up for myself, it became more than just a way to exercise. Surprise, surprise, I loved it! Doing something for yourself, rather than because it’s required or expected of you, can make all the difference for your happiness.

5 thoughts on “Dr. Ashtanga: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Downward Dog”

  1. I’ve just started yoga lessons and thank you for voicing some of my exact sentiments! Yoga is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m thrilled that I finally got down to signing up for classes! But at my second lesson, my current favourite pose is of course the child’s pose… ha! My first mission is just to touch the toes. Any tips for a beginner like me who is super inflexible, and basically leading a sloth life before this? 🙂

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    1. Honestly, the best advice I can give you is to practice outside of class. If you only go a few times a week, that’s really not enough regularity to see major improvements. As much discomfort as it causes, making it part of your routine will pay off really quickly. And to make it easier on me mentally, I *always* listen to music when doing yoga. I have a specific playlist I use every time, and it’s taught me to time my pose changes, as well as giving me something to think about besides the pain itself. Hope that helps, and good luck! 🙂

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  2. I’ve done yoga for about 6 years now… and I can honestly say it’s the one thing that has been consistent throughout that period – I’ve changed cities, countries, continents, boyfriends, best friends, hairstyles – but my twice weekly yoga sessions have seen me through all of that, and have kept me sane.

    Not sure what you mean about the hand/feet yoga mitts though Alex? I pack a travel mat – it’s still bulky, just thinner than the regular type. Send through a link if you don’t mind?

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      1. These look awesome! Thanks for the tip! Btw – have you tried hot bikram? Cos I can definitely see how these puppies would work great in hot yoga! Namaste!

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