When the Old Way Stops Working

Yoga-quiets-theThere is usually a reason people come to the mat. I started practicing my senior year at Columbia University when I found myself at a real crossroads in my life. Without going into too much personal detail, a series of events forced me to look carefully at the choices, the big choices, I had been making. I realized with some alarm that none of them had anything to do with me, at least not in any real way. I had been making decisions based on other people’s needs, mostly, or on what I thought I should do, but I had no real understanding of what I wanted. I was an adult, but I didn’t really know myself. Just the basic things, even–what makes me happy? What do I need, or want? What am I here to do?

I took my first yoga class with Dharma Mittra at the Dharma Yoga Center in New York City, where I grew up. At first, I kind of kept sticking my toe in the pool, practicing once or twice a week. It wasn’t an instantaneous light-bulb experience, it was just that little by little, I began to realize that my moments of clarity, of awareness, of feeling really myself, were happening on the mat. And so my practice became a sort of lighthouse, a beacon, it just kept drawing me in, and soon I was practicing six days a week. My stairmaster collected dust, became a coatrack, and was eventually put out with the trash. I had no desire to go to step class, or an abs class, or to lift weights while listening to my walkman. I did not want to plug in, tune out, and focus on aesthetics, I wanted to tune in and find out who I was.

I have always been blessed with phenomenal teachers, people who have shown up at the perfect time. I do not believe this is coincidence. There is the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”; I have found this to be true, both as a student, and as a teacher. The best teachers I have had have taught by example, just by the way they lead their lives. At a certain point, my practice kind of took hold of me, and began to fill more and more of my time, and the deeper I went, the more I committed, the more there was to learn. And every time I looked up, there was someone there to illuminate something else for me. Some of my biggest influences have come from Dharma Mittra, Bryan Kest (at whose studio I taught for over 5 years, and for whom I will always feel enormous gratitude), Jorgen Christiansson (I began practicing Ashtanga yoga with Jorgen in 2001, and eventually assisted him), Baron Baptiste, Max Strom, and Saul David Raye.

The gratitude I feel for my teachers surpasses anything I could write, but truthfully, the practice itself is your best teacher, just showing up on the mat. In 2009 I felt moved to open my own space, and fill it with amazing teachers. It wasn’t part of my long-term plan, but sometimes the universe gives you a huge kick in the ass (which is usually preceded by several smaller ones you may have ignored), and as a result, Yogis Anonymous and my daughter were born on the same day. They joined my then almost three year old son. So I had a plethora of teachers arrive all at once.

Any yoga practice begins as an internal journey, and often students ask about this. It’s true, you have to turn your attention inward…..my breath, what is happening in my body, in each and every moment? The most amazing thing, though, is that this internal journey will eventually lead you back to your connection with everyone and everything else. There are countless benefits to any regular yoga practice, one of which is just getting comfortable in your own skin, both physically and emotionally. What is the truth? Not what do I want it to be, or what do I think it should be, but just, what is? This is a practice that has Eastern roots, and here I am, this Westerner. We live in this hyper-commercialized society, where so much value is placed on the external. Three minutes of commercials is all it will take to convince you that you don’t look right (you should try this diet), you don’t smell right (better buy this deodorant), and apparently, you don’t feel right, either (better call your doctor to get this medication, quick). So many people suffer as a result, always in search of those external factors to make things right–“I’ll be happy when I lose 10 pounds, find my soulmate, have that giant house, or new car, or better job, or fill-in-the-blank”, and there will ALWAYS be something else, and happiness will be this hummingbird, always in sight, but just out of reach.

It takes so much energy to fight the truth, whatever it is. We grow up, and even those of us with the most loving parents are told, “Don’t be sad”, or ,”Don’t be angry”, and so we are taught that only certain feelings and behaviors are all right, are acceptable. And little by little, we lose the ability to even identify what we are feeling, let alone sit with those feelings. I have a vague sense something is wrong…let me, quick, turn on the television (“you don’t look right or smell right or feel right!!!!), or the internet,(Facebook, anyone?) or pick up the phone, or race to a movie (where I will likely be convinced that if I could just find my soulmate, I’d be happy), because I don’t want to FEEL anything but good, and here comes life with all it’s ups and downs, and I just don’t know how to deal with feelings of loneliness, or rage, or boredom.

And so we fight the truth of what we’re feeling, but this takes so much energy. And suddenly everyone’s got chronic fatigue syndrome, and it makes you wonder whether that even existed 100 years ago. Whether it’s possible that all of our so-called advances have actually set us back. There are so many awesome facets to a yoga practice, and one of them is just that. Identifying the truth of the moment, even if it is challenging, confusing, confrontational, painful, and being all right with it; learning how to breathe through it calmly, with compassion, staying grounded and centered. This morning I am in Ardha Chandrasana, and I feel that I could hold it forever. Tomorrow, I am falling all over the place, convinced someone has replaced my mat with a surfboard. So be it. This is the truth of the moment, and either way, I am breathing. So many opportunities, microcosms on the mat, and little by little this stuff starts to seep off the mat and into your life. I am in love, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, I am breathing. I got dumped, it’s freezing out, and those same birds just crapped on my shoulder, I am still breathing. The truth is, there is no way to control anything. Great things will happen, sad things will happen, things I want to happen, won’t, and things I don’t want to happen will, and this thing, this happiness of which we are all in search, is nothing more and nothing less than just steadiness through it all. Inner peace, serenity, wisdom, gratitude, call it what you will. They cannot bottle it, and you cannot buy it. But you can absolutely find it, have it and hold it, and the best and only place I’ve found to start is on your mat.


Ally Hamilton

3 thoughts on “When the Old Way Stops Working”

  1. thanks, for the insight, ally. we haven’t met but i like what you have to say. i really like the image of the relentless pursuit of happiness we are constantly sold on as becoming like a humingbird expending so much energy searching for food.

    by contrast, it takes no effort to sit still, to breathe and appreciate small pleasures. i hope we all find the contentment and ease with life that waits inside all of us.

    keep sharing what you do!

  2. Thank you for the great sharing! I found I can feel the sincerity in your words. That makes me so moved..I have never been to your class but I started to travel to YA on Friday every month. I live in Bakersfield but I love your plac SO much! I look forward to going to your class in the future and I know it will be here when it is the time! Thanks again for the blog! 🙂 <3

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