Going With the Flow
by Evan Joblin
Just over five months ago, I decided to enroll in a six-month-long Yoga Teacher Training at The Light Within Studio, in West Grove, Pennsylvania.
This was not planned.
First of all, I don't live in West Grove, Pennsylvania.
In fact, I don't even live near West Grove, Pennsylvania.
And-- at least in my mind-- I don't even live near Pennsylvania.
Having technically set up residence in Israel the year before, I was merely "passing through" after working a summer camp job in New York State and somehow failing to return to the Middle East (or anywhere else) at the conclusion of the summer.
For reasons unknown to anyone but my subconscious mind, I ended up settling into an "extended visit" with my family in Birchrunville, PA (about 35 miles northeast of the studio), as I literally could not figure out what I wanted to do (or what I should do) next.
To be fair, this was neither the first time I'd had trouble making an important life decision, nor was it the first time I'd considered enrolling in a yoga teacher training.
But the idea of staying in Pennsylvania, far from any social scene in Philadelphia-- and commuting almost an hour each way for weekly classes and once- or twice-monthly, intensive training weekends-- never even crossed my mind.
That is, until I came to attend an open house at The Light Within with my mother, who had (seemingly randomly) discovered the studio from a listing in the phone book, taken an immediate liking to owner/lead teacher Alison Donley, and enrolled in the teacher training, herself.
When my mom first asked me if I wanted to go with her to the open house, I politely declined.
I'm not going to be around here much longer, anyway, I figured, So what's the point?
When the day came, however, I felt bad about my mom having to drive an hour each way by herself, just to watch other people do yoga.
So I agreed to join her, and in the car marveled at what seemed like an endless ride even further out into the middle of nowhere than where my parents actually lived.
Little did I know, we were heading to the heart of "The Mushroom Capital of the World." (Had I known, I probably wouldn't have been so alarmed by that unidentifiable yet nevertheless troubling smell in the air.)
The good news was (upon finally reaching the studio), there were snacks. Some health-conscious options, like fruit and raw veggie, but also-- more importantly-- homemade cookies. (When I get nervous, my sugar-craving reflex automatically assumes leadership over all other brain functioning.)
And why shouldn't I be nervous? I'm about to spend the next few hours (otherwise, why make the trip) attempting to make small-talk with a bunch of people who I don't know, but who all (in this small town) most likely know each other. And who all-- unlike me-- are dressed for yoga.
But this was now my mom's yoga studio of choice, and I figured it would be better to smile and try than to sit in the corner by myself with an ample stack of homemade cookies.
As it turned out, we had arrived just in time to watch an "Ashtanga Yoga" demonstration as "performed" by current students under the instruction of a teacher named Shannon. This was, we we told, merely a "taste" of what a full Ashtanga practice would look like.
And so I hunkered down in a chair along the perimeter of the (admittedly pleasant) yoga room, wondering (in my head) why I hadn't just saved myself the two hour round trip and practiced in my bedroom with my favorite Baron Baptiste DVD, instead.
Just a few minutes into the demonstration, however, I had to admit (in my head): this is some serious yoga.
Before now, I thought I knew what "Ashtanga" meant, because-- having spent the past ten or so years as a perpetual beginner with an on again, off again "vinyasa flow" practice-- I was no stranger to repetitive sun salutations and copious upward dog/downward dogs situated between other (and, if I'm being honest) more enjoyable poses.
I was so familiar with this "flowing" athletic style of yoga, in fact, that my wrists had suffered a great deal over the years from overuse injuries, undoubted from pushing too hard in order to keep up with the other Type-A overachievers in class.
Though, whereas I had come to equate sun salutations (and, specifically, my nemesis, the downward-facing dog) with struggle and pain, what I was witnessing in this Ashtanga demonstration flat-out astounded me.
Everyone appeared to be utterly focused and calm-- breathing in, breathing out-- while somehow simultaneously managing to perform a series of graceful, gravity-defying feats which I was certain required the strength of a well-trained gymnast. (Later, I would learn this is called "floating." Back in the comfort of my own bedroom, I would discover that "floating" with the grace of Shannon's students is much, much harder than it looks. "Flailing"/ "floundering"-- not so hard.)
In any case, during that Ashtanga demonstration, I soon found myself completely under the spell of Shannon's hypnotic instruction and her students' profound dedication to and solidarity in the practice.
And yet-- as I continued to watch them-- I could tell that all of these students were not all practicing at the same "level." While each one certainly seemed to "flow" with the instructions given, some people seemed to mirror Shannon's postures perfectly, while other people were clearly performing modifications that seemed appropriate to their body type, flexibility, and physical strength. Others seemed to know when to leave out a particular movement in the sequence, or take rest when they needed it. Whereas everyone may have appeared to the casual observer to be on the same page, after a while I could tell that each student was truly working through his or her own custom-tailored practice.
By the time the students were a sweaty mess of glistening bodies lying motionless on the floor in savansa (corpse pose), I knew I had just witnessed something special and unexpected-- something that, try as I may, I couldn't ignore.
In the brief moment of meditation that preceded Shannon's bringing the class to a close, I considered my own somewhat-less-than-optimally-
While my historical tendency had always been to run as far from Pennsylvania as possible in my perpetual quest for enlightenment, it occurred to me that perhaps the Universe was offering me an intriguing challenge.
Instead of running...
Study and practice yoga with these folks in West Grove?
Five months of yoga teacher training later, I think I'm almost ready to answer that question...
TO BE CONTINUED