Introduction

Why I started practicing Ashtanga Yoga

Before I go into my personal anecdote, I saw this post today on Bobby McFerrin’s Facebook page (thanks to the lovely Adren Reju!) about Robin Williams death, and his participation in this video.

It’s just so sad to learn that Robin Williams was in such pain. It breaks my heart. The Robin I knew was so light-hearted and fun, always laughing. And he was extremely generous to me.

Robin invited me to open for him on tour in the mid-1980s, when not very many people knew who I was. I was experimenting with my voice, pulling ideas from everywhere, singing in different characters, and Robin thought his audiences would enjoy it. But the presenters weren’t thrilled with an improvising solo a cappella singer opening the show, and the audiences were downright confused. I felt pretty lousy about the whole thing. Then one night he decided to intervene. We walked on stage together, and he introduced me as his friend, explained what I was doing, and reassured the audience that he’d be back in 15 minutes to do his show. The whole atmosphere of the room changed. He taught me a lot that night about audiences, how to invite them to come with you even when you’re headed way out there.

A couple of years flew by, and suddenly, unexpectedly, it looked like Don’t Worry Be Happy was going to number one, and the record company wanted me to make my first MTV video. Robin called and asked if he could be in it, and it’s a good thing, because I never would have dared to ask him. We had such a crazy non-stop day, Robin and Bill Irwin putting on crazy costumes and cracking each other up. The most fun ever on the planet. I hope people can feel it.

I hope where Robin is now there’s endless freedom and joy and warmth and play and love. He’ll fit right in.

A couple of years flew by, and suddenly, unexpectedly, it looked like Don’t Worry Be Happy was going to number one, and the record company wanted me to make my first MTV video. Robin called and asked if he could be in it, and it’s a good thing, because I never would have dared to ask him. We had such a crazy non-stop day, Robin and Bill Irwin putting on crazy costumes and cracking each other up. The most fun ever on the planet. I hope people can feel it.

I hope where Robin is now there’s endless freedom and joy and warmth and play and love. He’ll fit right in.

It was March of 2010 and I was having a depressive breakdown, experiencing suicidal thoughts, and feeling scared shitless. I was over ten grand in debt from making my first album independently. Without any mentor for insight, I’d realized two weeks before it went live that I had foolishly not budgeted anything for promotion. I’d poured my heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into a project that I was fairly sure was going to “fail.” I’d moved into my very own apartment in Brooklyn, living without roommates for the first time in my life. I’d started a new job, and I’d broken up with who I thought was the love of my life for the second time.

It was a whole lot of change and stress in about a one-month window, and my brain was not having it.

Thankfully, I had a doctor in the family to tell me over the phone that yes, indeed, my symptoms did indicate some sort of mental / depressive breakdown, there were likely chemicals pumping through my system that would inhibit me from having “normal” stamina, both physically and emotionally, and that I should plan on taking about six months to recover. My family was as wonderful as they could be over a phone wire, 1,500 miles away, and thankfully a few close friends living in the city were my saviors in my awful state. I was broke, emotionally and creatively spent, and feeling like a lonely failure.

So I decided that step #1 was to make a commitment to my yoga mat. 

I figured it was the free resource I had available, and if that failed I would worry about paying for a therapist. I committed to getting on my mat every day, and spending a minimum of ten minutes on it. If all I did was get on it, and sit in childs pose sobbing for ten minutes, that was OK. I also agreed that I would give myself one day a week that I didn’t have to get on the mat if I didn’t want to. I figured this was as much as I could commit to without failing, furthering my self-loathing.

I swear this is what saved me. My yoga mat became my safe place. It was my shrink, my support, my source of non-judgment. It was sometimes the only part of my day where I found relief from my screwed up neurotransmitters and subsequent aching body, and it always left me feeling like one day I would crawl out of this hole.

Why Ashtanga? Well, frankly, because it allowed me to be lazy. 

(We were keeping the bar real low here, folks. It’s about celebrating small successes sometimes.) Ashtanga is the same series every time. You don’t have to think about what to do next, you just do the next pose in the series.  And if you’re ever tired or need a break, you can do childs pose. I did a LOT of childs pose.

What I did not anticipate was that because I wasn’t fretting about which pose to do, I could just focus on how I felt. 

And because I was doing this alone at home, I could do it as fast or slow as I needed, and be as disgusting as I needed to be without anyone knowing how crazy I felt. There was a plethora of crying, farting, burping, sweating, sometimes screaming… you know, all the things that our culture tells us are bad things? Yeah, I did a lot of them on my yoga mat those first six months.

After even one month I was amazed at how much better I felt not only on a regular basis, but how drastic the difference was pre-mat and post-mat.

This was the best free drug out there. 

Four plus years later I still practice Ashtanga and I’m almost to the point of being able to do all the postures in the primary series, which is supposed to take about 90 minutes. Even though I continued to tell myself I only ever needed to do 10 minutes, almost every day I would practice for over an hour. This continued until I moved out of state and took a job that made that absolutely impossible. Now I know that the real benefit of what yoga has given me is not the ability to lay my head between my knees, but to balance the chemicals in my brain, give me a physical 2-ft by 6-ft place to restore and listen to myself, and be an elixir for just about anything from hangovers, to depression, to anxiety, to broken heart, to allergies, to colds, to lethargy…

Yoga is my cure-all.

I even stopped taking my allergy shots and the three medications I was on, and I’d never felt better. (This was also in conjunction with starting a gluten and dairy-free diet, but that’s another story for another blog.)

Many Ashtangis are hard core. They get up and practice at 6am, and they do the whole series every day, and they might even tell you this is the ONLY way to practice Ashtanga.  Well, the Ashtanga police (not a real thing) might come after me for saying this, but I say SCREW YOU GUYS, IT’S MY LIFE, AND THIS IS WHAT WORKS FOR ME. Some days I practice 10 minutes.  Some days I practice 2 hours.  Sometimes a week goes by that I don’t practice at all, although that is less and less, as I’ve noticed how much my body, mind, and sprit crave it.

I tell everyone: you can do yoga. And I mean it.  Sometimes “yoga” is childs pose, and that’s it. But a little is better than none. And chances are, if you do a little, you’ll feel the benefit, and it will no longer be “that thing I should do,” and it will become, “the thing I love to do.”

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