Most Sunday mornings, I wake up and go for a long run. This past Sunday was very different. Instead, I woke up and headed to Lehigh Valley Yoga for a morning Mysore practice. There was a time when I followed the syllabus for second and third series, but I knew Sunday’s practice would mean going back to the beginning – to primary series:
Micheal Lear is an Ashtanga yoga instructor who is fairly well known in the Ashtanga world. He happens to be from my area, so when he isn’t teaching in Thailand or somewhere on the other side of the globe, he teaches at my home studio. While he was never my main teacher, I’ve practiced with him often over the years. He’s seen my practice when it’s been at it’s best, and when it’s been at it’s worst.
When I walked into the studio this past Sunday, I was greeted with many familiar faces and several new ones. I was also greeted by Micheal, who gave me a huge hug and a warm welcome. Micheal knows I’m a runner and with other interests besides yoga, and truly respects that. Most traditional Ashtangis think that daily practice is the solution to everything – physically, mentally, and spiritually – and everything else is just a distraction. Even in the height of my practice, I could never commit myself to just Ashtanga yoga.
As he hugged me and asked how I was feeling, I told him I’d abandoned a traditional practice. I told him that I’m not just stiff and tight from running, I’m stiff and tight from neglecting yoga. My practice was going to be ugly. His response stuck with me for the rest of my practice, and has resonated with me over the past few days.
“Ugly is good.”
As I stood in samastitihi and began to move through Surya Namaskar A and B (sun salutations), everything ached. My hamstrings were tight, especially the pesky right one. That was always the tighter of my two hamstrings, even in the height of my practice. It’s funny how some things never change. My muscles on the right side of my chest from pole class the day before were screaming at me. Why am I here? I don’t belong here. This isn’t who I am anymore. Everyone else looks so pretty. Comfortable. Smooth. And why in God’s name do I feel like bursting into tears? My practice looks so…ugly. Ugly is good.
I finished the sun salutations – five sets of Surya Namaskar A, five sets of Surya Namaskar B. I began moving through the standing sequence, modifying Padahastasana and Parivrtta Trikonasana. I notice a woman who was a beginner, someone I taught during her first days of Ashtanga, enter the room and begin her practice. She’s lost a significant amount of weight, and she moved fluidly through the postures. She looked graceful and beautiful. I remember when her practice was not as solid, not at steady, not as sure. When it was “ugly”. Ugly is good.
I moved into the seated sequence and I noticed my friends who encouraged me to come, Dina and Jen, to my right. In the height of my practice, I used to be on the same level as them. On Sunday, I started from the beginning, as they continued to move forward. They were gracefully moving through second series, a more challenging sequence that I somehow used to prefer but can’t imagine doing anymore. Jen reminded me that I was the one who taught her how to jump into and out of a headstand to complete the “Seven Deadlies” at the end of second series (a sequence of seven different variations of headstands). She said she thinks of me everyday during that time in her practice, and tries to mimic the grace and control I had when I would do that. I would have never described my practice as controlled and graceful. I always thought it looked choppy and ugly. Ugly is good.
Even though Jen, Dina and I were all in very different places on Sunday morning, something about the whole thing reminded me about the first time we all practiced with Micheal – when we were all on the same level. All of our practices were pretty “ugly” that day, too. Over time, it evolved and blossomed into something beautiful. Ugly is good.
As I reached a posture that I knew I would struggle with – Supta Kurmasana, which requires you to put your legs behind your head – I saw one of the new faces directly across from me. She was also working on second series, and she was entering Eka Pada Sirsasana. It’s the beginning of the extensive second series sequence that requires you to put your legs over your head. She reminded me a lot of myself when I used to have a traditional practice. The way her leg hit the back of her neck and the way she folded into the posture was very familiar. Since that pose was a challenge for me, I only ever saw my flaws when I would be in it. I used to think that pose looked ugly on me, but with patience and practice it became beautiful. Ugly is good.
As I laid in Savasana, I closed my eyes and listened the Ujai breath of those still practicing. I tried to clear my head, relax, and focus on my own breath. Instead, I started thinking about why I came to yoga that day. I think part of me wanted to see if I wanted my practice back, especially after what happened in Indianapolis. It was heartbreaking to train for 19 weeks to have it end the way it did, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little lost.
But I know that starting Ashtanga again would mean I would need to stop running. For me, an Ashtanga practice isn’t something I can just drop in and do once or twice a week. If I chose that path, it is a commitment to a lifestyle. Did I want that? Was that why I was there? It certainly stirred up a lot of emotions. A bit of nostalgia, because part of me misses being able to move through the challenging postures with ease. A bit of sadness that I let my practice go to the wayside. A sense of peace because watching everyone practice, I knew that with hard work I could practice the way they all were. I’ve done it before, and I know I am capable of that.
But there was also a sense of relief that I didn’t have that daily obligation to get on my mat. Because towards the end, that’s what it became – an obligation. A chore. So I stopped. Ultimately, Sunday reminded me of that and opened my eyes to something else entirely. That anything challenging I’ve ever wanted started out ugly. It had to be ugly, before it could be beautiful. Ugly is, in fact, good.
Lately, running has been ugly for me – but this isn’t my first rodeo. There were many times where I chased goals and things got ugly. The first time I wanted to qualify for Boston. The countless attempts at breaking 3:30. Oh, did it ever get ugly. But here we are, five Boston marathons later and many sub-3:30 finishes under my belt and I’m staring down a goal of a sub-3 hour marathon. Things got ugly. Yet as ugly as it became, running was never a chore. It was never an obligation. Two days after my crash and burn at Indy, I found myself wanting to run. All week, I found myself wanting to run but refraining because I was letting my body heal. It’s my hope that the time away healed the strain. I’m sure my first run “back” will be ugly. Ugly is good.
I’ve had some really ugly days out running. Days where I go out for a training run and everything feels like crap. It might be on a day where I’m just supposed to run easy, or it might be on a day where I have a track workout or a tempo run planned. It’s ugly, but progress is still happening because I’m out there doing it. Ugly is good.
I’ve had some really ugly weeks. There are times in the middle of a training block where I have an entire week where every single run is ugly. No matter how much I stretch or foam roll, I feel stiff and awkward. No matter how many pounds of Epsom salts or ice I soak my body in, I ache. It feels ugly. But then, a new week begins and everything feels fresh and new. Ugly is good.
I’ve had some really ugly races. Days where I toe the starting line and start to run, and my legs want none of it. The days where simply finishing the race is the only goal I can accomplish. Those days are ugly. But then, I run a race and achieve a goal I never dreamed would be within my reach. Those ugly days make the successful races that much better. Ugly is good.
I’ve had some really ugly seasons. Ugly seasons where I’m fighting to keep my fitness through cross training and physical therapy appointments, and struggling to remember why I began running in the first place. Seasons where I laugh at myself for even considering that I could run a certain pace, or hit a certain time. Then I have a season where it all goes right, and ends with race times that blow my original goal out of the water. Ugly is good.
2015 was an ugly year. It began ugly, and it ended ugly. I don’t know what 2016 will bring, or if my luck will change anytime soon. I hope I can continue to get back up when I get knocked down, because I know that nothing good comes easy. In order to achieve big goals, it’s likely that there will be great struggle involved. It will be hard. It will hurt. It will break my heart. It will knock me down more times than I think I can get up. It will be ugly.
Ugly is good.