Friday, November 19, 2010

"Is the practice a controlled form of torture?"

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? 



  1. I'm assuming you are being somewhat facetious about this but I completely disagree with the entire analogy. If indeed Ashtanga is "torture" then I respectfully suggest that there is something wrong with your approach. Sure, I'm frustrated with certain poses but I actually try to pay extra attention when I am so that I can find acceptance and humor. If Ashtanga was in any way torture, I would not do it. What it is is challenging. What it is is asking me to work a bit harder than I normally would. The daily effort to do something that "impossible" is a way for me to open the mind. Impossible has different definitions for each person. For some it shows up in Primary, for others they don't hit it until a later series. But the very act of coming up against the impossible is the point. There will always be a pose I can not do. I don't care about that. I only care about the fruits that come from a daily practice. Ashtanga happens to be the one I've chosen, could just have easily been sitting Zen.

    Sorry this is so serious, I just dislike the word "torture" being used so lightly. What happens to people who are genuinely tortured has nothing to do with what we are doing on our mats.

  2. PS Which is possibly why we dislike Bikram!

  3. torture implies against your will and without your consent. Ashtanga practitioners are willing and in my case mostly not able! :)

  4. Interesting insights, Loo. Hmm... I agree with a lot of what you are saying, especially the part about working to open the mind by doing something that is "impossible".

    But is what we commonly recognize as torture a totally different species of physical suffering/discomfort? Or is it just different gradations of the same spectrum? I don't know... I need to think more about what you are saying.

  5. Why? Hmm, yeah, why? Torture or voluntary stretching, why? In all complete honesty, and in order of appearance in my onw mind these are my humble reasons: I am affraidnof suffering and want to be healthy, I like it, I want a proportionate body, I like the after practice feeling, I like how my mind feels after practice, I like correlating how I can stay with discomfort during practice and then in the realnworld as well, hmmm... I am sure there is more.... And as per Bikram, yeah, God bless him

  6. fft, I understand where you are coming from. Not to be semantical here, but consider this: Is the concept of "self-torture" an oxymoron? If it is (if it is impossible to be tortured, except against one's will) then I agree with you that the concept of torture simply cannot apply to ashtanga. But if it is not an oxymoron (if it is actually possible to willingly undergo torture in some way or other), then... I'm not so sure.

  7. Nobel and associated yogis,

    I know from doing my little, bitty yoga practice - (I am not accomplished in yoga like you lot– I will probably never do tittibhasana in this life time, never mind kapotasana) - that it is difficult and it is sometimes treacherous, but I have never found it torturous. For me, yoga is a perfect example how doing something of value requires a certain amount of discomfort or uneasiness. To accomplish something great, one has to be willing to move outside one’s comfort zone. It is about transformation and change – and whether or not that is physical or political or intellectual or psychological, it usually means discomfort of some kind. (Which I accept – I don’t expect greatness to be easy). I agree with FFT that torture has to be against one’s will. But to answer your question Nobel, in a rhetorical way since I am not an accomplished yogi, I would say you/we do what we do to attain a certain level of greatness. We continue to challenge ourselves in whatever we choose because we desire greatness

  8. Tally ho!

    Wonderful provocation in this post.

    My feeling is that, yes, it's totally ok and normal for there to be some self-loathing. And it's also not universal. It's helpful to be careful about projecting negative emotion. But whatever! Self-loathing is okay. No need to loathe the self-loathing. :-) Or to do "spiritual bypassing" on it and push it down because it seems like a way yoga people aren't supposed to feel.

    It seems like if during practice it (the self-loathing, I mean) gets some clarity and space to do its thing (various reproaches and comparing and chitchat that's probably ALWAYS there but drowned out by other noise), there is huuuuuuuge, immediate pain. Yay! It is coming to the surface!!! Let's get a look! So yes, maybe it is useful to have a very clean space in which to be with that pain. And eventually--sometimes with great ease and grace--to transmute it.

    Maybe if someone continually feels metaphorically tortured by ashtanga, that person in particular could find genuine peace through a true one-pointed focus in Bikram. It's a strong, deep practice, designed to overwhelm the mind until it can only be in the moment. Over time, I'd be totally curious if it could be more effective and transformative than medium-tapas ashtanga. I've met a few regular Bikramites with true glow and brilliantly agile minds, you guys. Who cares if it's a fake lineage? It's just the false eyelashes to others' "natural makeup."

    PS, loved Loo's second comment and Claudia's as well. xoxo

  9. Wow OvO, those three paragraphs define Lucid for me.
    I forgot to mention in my initial response Nobel that I associate torture with humiliation, and the mockery of the tortured subject for being unable to protect itself from harm. Perhaps to many Rambo like movies in my youth? Self harming/self torture like the medieval mystics? I'll have to mull that one....

  10. Two very compelling questions; let's not let one obscure the other. The real one is about why we push ourselves with a practice so difficult, so challenging, that makes us uncomfortable day after day. I would argue that this is, in fact, the nature of any practice, and if your practice isn't regularly making you squirm and inviting change (physical, emotional, mental and/or spiritual), either it's not the right practice for you, or you haven't been putting in enough effort.
    The other question is about conflating effort and discomfort with torture, which demeans the actual horror of torture which is still an abomination in our world, with actual people suffering actual torture. Bikram does it for marketing and PR. He likes to make a splash. Personally, I'd rather not encourage him. He has a point, which is what generated this very interesting discussion. I just don't like the way he makes it.

  11. OvO, Nobel, and all: yes, self-loathing to be sure but I don't think that is torture. And per your point about perhaps Bikram being more effective, I believe it is for certain people, hence my point that I could just as easily have chosen Zen as my daily practice. It would be just as difficult and challenging because that is the nature of daily practice. Different paths for different people. Whatever gets your groove on. Which brings me back to the original idea that if you find Ashtanga to be a method of (self) torture then perhaps a different practice is on order. BTW, the most self-torturing class I ever did was a foam roller class where you roll your fascia, oh god. THAT was hellish. I'd rather take the slow road of Ashtanga anyday.

    Thanks Nobel for the provocation! Fun!

  12. An analog to the "torture" issue. I read it this morning, and remembered this discussion.

  13. Thanks for the article, Fran. Now I risk coming across as being insensitive and politically incorrect when I say this, but do you think this means that we should stop referring to yogis/yoginis as "alignment nazis" or "vinyasa-count nazis"?

    You might find this a little ironic, but the first person whom I heard using the term "alignment nazi" was one of my first yoga teachers, who was himself Jewish. He was describing his Iyengar teacher.