What our bodies require in order to thrive, is what the world requires. If there is a map to get there, it can be found in the atlas of our skin and bone and blood, in the tracks of neurotransmitters and antibodies.—Aurora Levins Morales
When I first started practicing Ashtanga yoga, I was a heavy drinker and smoker. I had been practicing yoga for six years; however, until I started Ashtanga I had never been faced with so many demands in a practice. The system is set up to encourage dedication, devotion and determination. Typically practiced six days per week during the time before the sun rises, it’s immensely challenging to show up hung over. And yet I did just that for years, sweating out the late night cigarette smoke and whiskey still on the tip of my tongue. I tried to mask the stench of my sweat with essential oils — but still it lingered and burned my skin.
During those early morning practice sessions I felt at war with myself, Why did I stay out late again? I wish I were stronger so I could give up drinking. I would make commitments to myself, and a few days would go by with them intact until I would be back down the same spiral of self-destruction.
But my teachers showed up to my mat, no matter what. With patience they guided me deeper into my body and eventually into my psyche and spirit. There was something stronger pulling me to the mat. It wasn’t the sense of accomplishment or even punishment. It was like coming home to myself. Really living in my skin, muscles, tissues, and bone. Showing up to my faults and strengths and standing with them without turning away. Ashtanga taught me presence.
Drinking had become a habit and an addiction. Since the age of eighteen, when I moved out of my mother’s house and into my own apartment, drinking was an everyday affair. Drinking was a way for me to both escape reality and also to enter a state of becoming more how I wanted to be, an open and loving person. I felt uncomfortable in most social situations. I had a hard time connecting and most people when they met me described me as closed, intimidating and distant. Until they went out for drinks with me. When I was drinking I became fun and open.
I remember one night at the bar; my usual glass of red wine wasn’t going down as easily as normal. There was bitterness in my throat and as the alcohol slipped down my throat, I could feel the affects of the drink in a different way. I wasn’t just making my escape; I was setting myself up to fail. I became very conscious that I needed to make a choice. I could drink this glass and another one after that and wake up groggy and tired or I could show up to my mat the next morning and give my whole self to the practice. I decided to give myself a chance. I paid for my drink and went home that night sober.
Soon I stopped going out on days when I was practicing. After a year of intense Ashtanga study, I started showing up rested and ready. At first, this filled me with a sense of accomplishment: I wanted to be able to do the physical practices and it was a lot easier sober. However, through time yoga taught me that being uncomfortable was okay. Feeling awkward in a social setting was similar to holding warrior beyond the point when you wanted to stop holding it. It didn’t feel good but I could handle it. I survived the discomfort.
Waking up alert and strong became more important than one more drink at the bar. On my mat I was part of a community of people who were showing up to their imperfections and challenges just as I was. There was an unspoken accountability between us, row by row, body next to body. We were all struggling to breathe a little deeper, to feel the ground a little steadier, to balance and to stay present in our bodies. Together we became a poetic devotion to the divine inside of ourselves.
Some days, my internal doubt and fear was so harsh that I broke down in tears. Other days, especially as I began a deeper backbend practice, I had to pause and reorient myself because of the intense flashbacks of trauma and violence that would overcome me. However, I was able to face this darkness because the practice of yoga allowed me the space to heal and the tools to respond to myself with love. I had finally arrived inside of my body and started to experience an opening, much in the same ways that before only alcohol could provide.
Where had this love come from? Was yoga becoming what religion never had been for me? Though I’d grown up conservative Catholic, I had renounced organized religion at the age of ten when I refused to attend another Sunday mass or a summer Christian Camp—where I experienced more trauma than liberation. The church had always made me feel like a sinner and a stranger.
At first, I rejected all spiritual aspects of yoga too. Ashtanga yoga in particular though was interwoven with a history, philosophy and practice that were undeniably spiritual. Before practice sessions, the conch shells were blown and group chanting rang through the crammed 250 square foot studio. Laura Spaulding, the director of the Louisville, Kentucky-based studio and my first traditional Ashtanga teacher, guided upwards of forty students every morning. Laura usually began our sessions with a story about Hindu gods and deities, stories about the eight-limbed path. I played along with the protocol, albeit warily. However, through the years, it was the spiritual aspects of Ashtanga yoga that threaded me to it. I discovered that it was this spiritual aspect that kept me steady through the tumult of the flashbacks and that held space for my healing.
I also learned about the spirituality of this practice through a closer study of Ashtanga Yoga Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Jois was an Indian guru who both inspired me and whose presence I felt guiding me in my practice during these foundational years. He started to visit me in dreams. After he passed in 2009, I experienced a great wave of loss but also an abundance of appreciation. It was as if I met him, even though physically I was never able.
The unique aspect of traditional Ashtanga is that it moves the student at their own pace, teaching them the next pose in a series of six. Now mind you only one person has ever really practiced sixth series and that is Sharath, Jois’ grandson and the carrier of his lineage. Most students remain in primary series for years and may eventually advance into second series. Second series, while not more difficult than primary, is more emotionally opening and focuses around surrender and back bending. A vulnerable practice, especially for those of us with trauma housed in our bodies. I was in second series and stuck where many others had been stuck before at Laghu Vajrasana.
Even fewer students advanced into third series and a handful into fourth. I had studied with some of these teachers: Kino MacGregor, Tim Miller and Greg Nardi. I learned a lot from them, although my dedication to the daily practice always felt a little short. It was easy to practice full primary series but harder to practice primary and second series together. I read the yoga sutras but I didn’t know them by heart. My Sanskrit was rudimentary. What I did know, and very well, was my experience in practice. I did know that on the mat I faced fear, I faced doubt, and I overcame the monkey mind so that I could enter into a state of devotion and prayer. Not all days, but more and more I felt the connection of yoga’s intention. A connection of the mind, body and spirit.
I feel so grateful that I learned the traditional for of Ashtanga yoga. Laura Spaulding had a dedicated connection to the lineage and traveled to Mysore, India the home of Ashtanga Research Institute, almost yearly. Laura emphasized the spiritual aspects of yoga’s origins much of which comes from Patanjali’s yoga sutras and begin with simple and poignant do’s and don’ts — they show up on the mat and in life outside of the asana practice as the 8-limbs of yoga: ahimsa (nonviolence), asteya (presence and non-stealing), satya (truth), brahmacharya (control of the senses), aparigraha (living in the space between extremes), saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (zeal), swadhyaya (self-study), and ishwara pranidhana (surrender).
Although I have found a spiritual home in the Ashtanga yoga system, I don’t think that Ashtanga yoga is for everyone. Some folks don’t need to be challenged in this way mentally or physically. Many people know Ashtanga through power yoga classes or from teachers who aren’t connected to the lineage and history of the traditional practices. Too often Ashtanga is assumed to be just another fast-paced physical vinyasa yoga. However, traditional Ashtanga is dynamic. My personal practice has shown me that, as it has shifted through the years based on my needs. For example, these days I move at a considerably slower and more fluid pace with a greater concentration on my breath and the meditative aspects of practice. That is the beauty of the practice. Once you learn the structure, you can use the guidelines as a way to keep going deeper.
Over these fifteen years, I have expanded my knowledge of mindfulness and studied several other yogic traditions (mostly what was formally known as Anusara, Dharma Yoga, and Tantric Yoga). I often incorporate the lessons I have learned and studied in these other yoga lineages and in Buddhist Mindfulness traditions in my daily practices. However, it was Ashtanga yoga that taught me the rigors of daily practice and the power of devoting to myself fully. Ashtanga yoga is more than my practice, it’s my home.
About the Author: Jardana Peacock
Jardana is a holistic healer, coach, and writer who works with change makers internationally through virtual coaching and yoga and wellness retreats. She has studied Ashtanga yoga for nine years with certified and authorized teachers all over the world, including a month in Mysore, India. She is currently completing her 500 hour Tantra Yoga teacher training with Vira Bhava Yoga and has been practicing yoga cumulatively for 15 years. She recently released an e-book, Heal Myself, Heal the World: Practices for Liberation where she chronicles her journey through trauma and addiction and into social justice activism and healing work. She is a frequent traveler but is currently based in Nashville where she lives with her partner and two sweet sons. She believes everyone has super powers and the ability to be part of healing the world. She can be reached at www.jardanapeacock.com.