This question occurred to me as I was listening to NPR in my car this morning. Somebody was interviewing somebody who had written a book on the experiences of victims of torture. I didn't listen to the program long enough to glean any details about who was doing the interview, and who was being interviewed, or even the exact nature of the subject nature. But at one point, the interviewee posed an interesting question: If he was the one being tortured, how long would he have lasted before he "broke"? His answer: Not very long.
This brought to mind a particular thing that Bikram Choudhury said in his book, Bikram Yoga. Referring unapologetically to his 90-minute asana routine as a "torture chamber", he goes on to ask, "What would you rather do, suffer for 90 minutes or suffer for 90 years as you live your life without a truly healthy body and without realising your potential?"
Whatever else one might think about Bikram and his accomplishments (I'm trying to find a more neutral term to describe his actions in this world, but I can't), one cannot deny that there is there is some truth in what he is saying here. I'll go even further and say that his words aptly describe the ashtanga practice as it is experienced at least some of the time. I would like to be able to say that every single one of my daily practices is an uninterrupted session of unadulterated bliss, where I transcend all the limitations of my physical body and sit blissfully in padmasana or extend lightly and effortlessly into kapotasana. But that would be disingenuous: As you can tell from my many kapotasana posts, my asana practice is far from effortless. It is even less effortless when one is trying to work with injury: Finding that place of productive discomfort where one can work the body to its limits without aggravating the existing injury takes a lot of careful effort and patient perseverance. At such times, one has to walk the tightrope between excruciating pain, on the one hand, and unproductive sloth and exasperation, on the other.
I think it is no exaggeration to say that at least part of the 90 minutes (or however many minutes your practice takes) of the daily practice is spent in a torture chamber. Within this "controlled torture environment", one brings both the body and the mind to its limits and tries to somehow find the space to take five long deep breaths and focus on the drishti in the midst of such challenging circumstances. It is controlled torture, because it only lasts for five breaths, and the poses that cause the most torture are usually surrounded by other less intense poses which take away some of the hard edge of the torture. But it is still torture, at least if one defines torture as a situation in which one deliberately subjects the mind/body to tremendous amounts of physical and mental stress.
Which brings me to the question: Why are we doing this to ourselves? I mean, isn't it true that only psychologically sick people torture themselves?
Well, one alternative is to accept Bikram's implied answer to his own question, which is that we torture ourselves now so that we can (hopefully) live to 90 with a healthy, disease-free body and realize our highest potential. I think there is some truth in this, but it still doesn't get to the root of why one would struggle so much with the drama of kapotasana or dropping-back (or whatever your "favorite" posture is); nor does it account for the anguish and disappointment one often feels when one seems to be making no progress towards achieving a pose. After all, if I do live to the age of 90 and die with a disease-free body (what would I dying from if my body is disease-free, I wonder?), I probably wouldn't care at that time whether or not I would be able to drop back effortlessly into kapotasana on my dying day, would I? This is a little morbid, but this actually might not be such a bad way to go: Getting into your "favorite" posture, and then expiring in that position...
But I digress. Let's get back to the main point. Which is that I still don't have a satisfactory answer to the question: Why on earth are we torturing ourselves everyday?