The Healing Power of Ashtanga

The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed yogini Barri DeFrancisci to rediscover her ashtanga practice and experience it in a whole new way.

“Before Coronavirus.” It feels like a lifetime ago. Mornings were my absolute favourite — I’d wake up early, enjoy a cup of warm lemon water while reading a few pages from a dharma book, meditate, cook breakfast, pack my husband’s lunch and see him off to work. I’d then drive to my beautiful shala and practice with my incredible teachers and sangha at the Miami Life Centre. After the shala, I’d spend the rest of my day on the move, teaching at several yoga and fitness studios where I always felt blessed to share my passion with eager, loving students.

Driving home after a busy day, I would take in the Miami sun slowly setting over the city skyline casting a golden light over the water and yachts pulling in to dock. I felt on top of the world. But, about a month ago now, my reality quickly changed. I had finished a class and unplugged my phone from the studio speaker when I noticed around 15 messages and several missed calls from my husband. I ran out of the studio and called him before my next class. That was the beginning of a cascade of bad news. My husband and his entire team were laid off. The company, a marketing and events agency, could no longer sustain due to the mounting cancellations caused by COVID-19. I was left in shock. I felt distraught and in a state of panic. The only reason I could afford to pursue my passion as a yoga teacher was because of my husband’s income and benefits. But now, suddenly and without warning, we were in the midst of a pandemic without a stable income, health insurance and financial security. Hundreds of negative thoughts flooded my mind. “Would I have to be the breadwinner now?” “Teaching was fun, but I guess I’ll have to find a ‘real job’ now.” “Will we have to move back in with my parents?” “What about our cats?!”

The fear and panic lasted for several days, until it started to become the new norm. Two studios where I was teaching closed their doors permanently, and another two temporarily closed until further notice. In the span of a week, nearly half of my income was lost due to studio closures. But, I’m one of the “lucky ones,” as I also work remotely as a personal assistant and that allows me to at least still have a job, which I am incredibly grateful for each day. That one silver lining helped me to find the courage to adjust to this new way of life and find a way to overcome it.

Life before Corona: Barri strikes a pose on the beach.
Photo: Renee Choi

To start with, I welcomed the opportunity to be home all day with my husband and cats (I’m definitely a homebody and cat lady at heart). During the day, I kept myself busy working, practising ashtanga and teaching online. I love cooking, so I made it a point to cook something new every day. But, despite all my efforts to stay grounded and occupied, I felt a constant state of fear looming over everything. I would take my temperature three times a day and wash my hands every hour. When I would lie down in bed, I’d find myself overcome by panic attacks. A dull pain encroached upon my chest until it felt as though a snake was wrapped around my heart, daring me to breathe. I’d drop to my knees and cry, until I finally surrendered to the cold, tiled floor, wishing my body to melt into it so the pain would go away. I felt this every night for days.

As days turned into weeks, I began to accept this new way of life and acknowledged that in order to really address my irrational fears and panic attacks, I had to make drastic lifestyle changes to adapt. I decided to adjust my routine – staying up later in order to subdue the panic attacks and therefore stopped waking up before sunrise to practise ashtanga. I felt guilty about it at first but knew I had to put my mental and physical health first. I’ve let go of the idea of having a set schedule every day and I’ve become less attached to practicing my full ashtanga asana practice every day. I still wake up, drink my lemon water while reading dharma, and meditate and practice yoga, but it’s definitely different from before. Now, I carefully listen to my body and mind and check, “What do I need today?” Maybe it’s kapotasana and a full practice, or maybe it’s just standing postures. When I was in Mysore, I became painfully bored of the Primary Series, but now, I’m embracing the beauty and magic of this series more than ever, as it always leaves me feeling grounded, stable, and flexible both mentally and physically.

I find that I spend most of the day on my mat, to maintain my own practice, and to teach. I’m also learning to adapt to the world of virtual teaching. I’m used to being very hands-on and giving adjustments during my classes, especially when teaching ashtanga. Now, with new students, who I only know virtually, I can’t touch them or even see them completely. I have to balance demonstrating the entire class, while counting, explaining and giving verbal cues through my computer screen. It’s difficult, to say the least. But, it has also given me a chance to experience the practice in a whole new way.

Life before Corona: Barri teaching yoga in a park.
Photo: Cliff Faber

These changes are teaching me to slow down, go deeper into explaining the proper form of each pose and letting go of the need to hit every single posture in the series. It’s more important to me that the students are practicing safely at home than whether they bind in Marichyasana D or not. I’m learning new skills and exploring ways to grow as a yogi by leveraging a variety of platforms such as Instagram and Zoom to their fullest potential. In addition to starting my first-ever Instagram challenge with daily pose tutorials, I finally started my YouTube channel and even created my own website.

As we navigate the challenges of our new way of life, I keep the first sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in mind,“Atha Yogānuśāsanam,” or “now, the practice of yoga begins.” I realised that this is the time for our spiritual practice to thrive. We mustn’t dwell on the past or dream of the future, but rather we must remain fully in the “atha,” or the “now” at all times. We have to accept reality as it is in every moment, and yoga works beautifully to keep the mind equanimous. This is the essence of our practice, where our ultimate truth and reality lies.

Barri DeFrancisci is a former ballet dancer and started teaching Ashtanga after attending Kino MacGregor and Tim Feldmann’s Ashtanga Practitioner’s Intensive at Miami Life Centre, where she still practices regularly. In December 2019, she travelled to Mysore, India, to study Ashtanga with Paramaguru Sharath Jois.

Find her teaching schedules, here.

April 14, 2020
Photo (lead image) Sneha Kondapally

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Diana

    Amazing article Barri! At the beginning , I went through the same things . Meditation , practice and constant positive affirmations really helped me to overcome fear and panic. I believe that the Universe will guide us, I believe that the Universe cares about us , we just need to open our hearts and believe in its power. Stay safe 🙏🏻Sending you light and love❤️

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