BY ELIZABETH CHEEK
I started practising Yoga about 3 years ago, and after exploring for a few months, I found Traditional Hatha Yoga at Atmavikasa in Mysore, India. My initial reaction to attending my first course was:
“The first few weeks were a complete mental battle. Everything I thought I knew about Yoga or myself was shattered leaving my mind in a broken mess of emotions (frustration, confusion, pain and self-doubt). I moved through the days being exhausted, with a body ache while also mentally preparing for the next class. We lined up outside the shala in silence and when we were inside, we waited for the next posture of pain that Acharya Venkatesh would make us hold for an eternity. “Enjoy the breath. It takes time”, he would say. Everything inside of me was screaming and my mind was running, if there was an asana for frowning, I would have mastered that.”
After a few weeks, it felt like something inside of me had shifted. It seemed at first that something broke me. But, only later did I come out feeling much stronger, lighter and healthier. I also felt a deep sense of happiness, gratitude and a purpose in my life. Since then, I dropped all other methods and stuck to this one. I come back to Mysore every year to deepen my practise and have the benefits of Yoga gradually develop over time with consistent effort.
Yoga has helped me in discovering my strengths and weaknesses both physically and mentally. It has taught me to accept both with equanimity. It has opened a door and shown me how to live a more balanced and peaceful life. It’s also shown me the benefits of slowing down and becoming more present both on and off the mat. What I love is about Yoga is, how it shows me my pain, and teaches me a way to move past it. It helps me cross the limitations of my mind, and grow with courage and confidence while also having the patience to understand that great things take time.
In the beginning, I could never sit still for a few minutes and my mind was always restless. Learning to stay in one asana for 30 minutes (pranayama/meditation) without moving was a challenge for me. I was confronted with so much pain and frustration, that I thought, ‘’What’s the point of all of this?’’. While gritting my teeth, I was putting the effort to endure the pain and it only created more tension in my body. I was so frustrated because I could not accept my limitations and my reaction to pain amplified it further. A total inner turmoil of my mind.
Acharya Venkatesh would say, ‘’How you respond to irritation on the mat is how you respond to irritation off the mat’’. This mantra has always stuck with me and made me reflect on how much true it is. Gradually as I began to let go, my focus grew and I started to concentrate on something greater than my body – my breath! I learned to observe the pain without attachment and finally understood the statement that “Pain is not in the body, it is in the mind”.
Learning to overcome various pains on the mat, has helped me to overcome uncomfortable situations in life. I have learned to slow down my inhalation and exhalation, watch my breath, and see to observe everything coming and leaving. Regarding my practise to sit still, which was something I dreaded and resisted before, is now a constant presence in my daily routine.
Internal / External
What I learned through sitting meditation, also applied to the practise of advanced asanas. Both are practised in order to control the mind to reach a stillness within. Through my backbend journey, I have come to understand this better.
As a backbend enthusiast with a naturally flexible spine, I knew that I would be in my element while attending my first back-bending course at Atmavikasa. With my excess drive and excitement to bend, it didn’t take me long to realise that this causes instability and lack of focus. Bending was no problem, but slowing down and holding the postures for a considerable amount of time was the real challenge. Finding stillness in a demanding position really challenged my mind to overcome fears, doubts and pain as well as controlling excitement.
Backbends teach you life skills, as it takes energy, devotion, will, discipline and care. Not only that but it releases tensions and emotions stored in the body, it fires up the nerves that sometimes seem impossible to control.
But as my practise progressed, I began to feel stronger and more confident with myself, not to mention the energy, joy, love, trust and positivity I embraced! Patience and practise makes progress. The more the mind is controlled, the more the body can be.
The Yoga practise at Atmavikasa does not use props or physical adjustments. Even in the scariest of positions where I don’t know where my feet are from the ground, or whether I will fall on my head, I could not rely on any external support. I feel that this hands-off approach has allowed me to go deeper inside to understand the subtleties of my own body and mind. It internalises the practise and taught me self-reliance. Not only that, but the verbal instructions have remained in my memory so that when I’m doing my self-practise, I hear them clearly as though I am still in the shala.
“You need time”, Acharya would often say to me when I’m struggling in a pose. Impatience would arise in me every time I would hear that, but later I understood that both body and mind need to be ready to develop organically. Nothing can be forced.
Food Becomes Mind
I have also learned that diet and lifestyle play a huge role in living a balanced life. Following a clean Yogic diet is just as important as the asana practise. ‘’You are what you eat’’ refers to how the gut is closely linked to the mind. Cutting out refined sugar, caffeine, spicy and oily foods helped me tremendously to still the mind for a more focused practise. My energy levels would remain far more consistent throughout the day and I no longer have emotional highs and lows.
Focus, Detachment, Practise
From a restless girl who could not sit still, I am now someone who feels a lot calmer within. I am continuously practising, exploring and learning to uncover the layers of myself to go deeper within. It’s hard to see the changes within myself, but hearing it from my teachers Acharya and Hema, has given me the encouragement to further this journey. I am so grateful for the endless lessons from them and for their patience, compassion and guidance in showing me the true benefits of Yoga. I continue to practise Yoga every day so that I can live a happier and more balanced life.
Elizabeth grew up in Cambridgeshire, England and for the last 6 years has been travelling and living in different countries around the world. After discovering Yoga, she travelled to India to practice with Acharya Venkatesh and Hema from Atmavikasa, Centre of Yogic Science in Mysore. She returns to India every year and spends several months in deepening her practise and furthering her knowledge of Yoga. She currently lives in Bali, Indonesia and aspires to become a Yoga teacher.