©2021 Malcolm McLean; illustrations ©2021 Joyce Borenstein
Ashtanga Yoga brings up old memories!
Performing this practice optimized for 19-year-olds, I feel 19 again. And remember my own teenage years.
High school wrestling! Three times a week, our team would drill intensely. Running on the spot, defend – kick legs back and hit the floor, scissors reverse, back to standing, kick legs back, hit the floor, roll forward left, stand, etc… Learn new moves, drill the ones you know to become second nature, do laps around the field, sweat off those last five ounces to make the weigh-in for tomorrow’s match. “OK guys, great you all made weight. Now go home, eat a nice lean steak and get lots of rest for tomorrow…”
And be fit, and feel confident! But in the first year, it was enough for someone to say, “Oh, you’re up against Martin. He’s City Champion. Tough luck.” And the issues would be: will you manage to survive the first period? How hard will you struggle against the inevitable? Will your entire school get to watch you give up, or will the gaunt powerful champion, looking disdainfully over a nose broken no doubt in a bar-room brawl, actually have to work at it to pin your shoulders to the mat? I hung in for a terrified 45 seconds in my first match.
By the fourth year, the wheel had gone around. With an aura of championships and victories, this one’s name alone would defeat some opponents. I saw that in their eyes. Aggressive opponents were the easiest, because at the moment of their attack they were vulnerable, their energy could be appropriated, with a bit of speed and balance and certainty.
Convincing or confusing feints might induce others to straighten up, with weight held forward, making them easy prey for a leg dive and a fireman’s carry, and a firm deposit on their backs for a 15-second win.
We were a great team, with a coach who knew and loved the sport and how to make us work and we were fit to bounce off the wall and throw each other around (and recover from injuries really fast!). I was unbeaten. We won the championship. The school gave me its most valuable player award. But I never joined any kind of sports team again, never reached that level of physical fitness and ebullient personal confidence.
What has this got to do with yoga? Wrestling is a combat sport, win/lose, egos have a banquet of praise or shrivel in public defeat. It’s not therapeutic: by age 26 most people are too old for the sport. Today my knees still hurt sometimes from the grinding into the mat of the wrestling years. But it was intense, like the Ashtanga practice: in its drilling, sweating, discipline, developing new abilities and strength every week.
There’s no opponent in Warrior Pose (Virabhadrasana), except your own ego or fear. No crowd cheering wildly when you stay solid in Tree Pose (Vrikshasana), just an inner eye observing.
But persist, past arm waves and wobbles,
And you will find balance, strength, and conviction.
And if you’re silent, you’ll hear, deep in the cells of your being,
The sound of all who’ve lived before this moment,
Applauding this use you are making of it.