Thursday, December 30, 2010

What exactly is the place of asana in our practice? Or, why I might be becoming a Kino groupie

I have been following with intense interest the past few posts on Boodiba's blog. I wanted to comment on a couple of the posts, but I couldn't find a way to say something that isn't trite. So I thought I'll just write a blog post myself. But I hope you find a way to work through the ennui you are experiencing, Boodiba. The Force is always with you.

Following the exchange on Boodiba's blog brings up a deceptively simple question: "What exactly is the place of asana in our practice?" It's all too easy to respond with the "official line", and say something like, "Asana is not important. The most important thing is to breathe and to be aware of everything we are doing, both on and off the mat. The asana is just a means towards this end. Fixating on the achievement of asana brings up pride, ego, and all the other things that get in the way of self-realization."

Fair enough. I buy that (I really do). But the fact is that asana is a prominent part of the ashtanga life, at least if you measure it by the number of hours the "average" practitioner spends on asana practice a week:

6 days a week X an hour and a hour to two hours a day = 9 to 12 hours a week.

That's a lot of time to be spending on something that is "not important"! This is going to sound really crass, but imagine if we were to all get paid at least the federal minimum wage for all the hours of asana we do each month? It won't be a fortune, to be sure (it probably won't even make rent for me), but it'll still be a sizeable chunk of change, especially if you multiply that by the amount we would "earn" in a year. And this still doesn't do justice to the anguish that we experience with trying (and "failing") to achieve particular postures (dropping back/standing up, raja kapotasana, you name it), or to the emotional upheavals that accompany having to accept and work with physical limitations and injuries. I guess what I'm trying to say is that we seem to be expending a lot of physical and emotional energy on something that is "not important", that is only supposed to be a means towards an end. So why do we torture (if I may use this word) ourselves so?

An unsympathetic "outsider", who is "uninitiated" into our "ashtanga cult" would probably look at all this, smile in a somewhat amused and disdainful way, and say, "Why put yourself through all this? Don't you think your life would be easier (and probably happier) if you were to ease up on trying to achieve dropping back/standing up/rajakapotasana (or whatever)? If the point of your practice is to achieve peace of mind/self-realization, why don't you just do some sitting meditation? Or go take a walk in the park? After all, it's not as if you are going to suddenly become an enlightened being the moment you succeed in dropping back/standing up or getting rajakapotasana..."

I have an answer to this unsympathetic outsider. Well, sort of. I would probably respond by saying that although asana is "not important" in the bigger scheme of things (even though we spend a lot of time doing it), it is an invaluable tool that helps us to learn about ourselves and who we really are: In the process of striving to get our bodies to do and achieve things that seem physically impossible, we are forced to confront the ugliness that arises in ourselves in this process, accept it (yes, the ugliness) as part of ourselves, and then see what we can do to work with this ugliness and live fulfilling lives in spite of the presence of this ugliness. Is this a good reply to the unsympathetic outsider? I don't know. Well, it will have to do, because I can't think of anything better (and I want to have a reason to continue doing my practice everyday!).

Actually, there is something Kino recently wrote that really speaks to this issue. Speaking of Kino, I had a really weird dream last night. I dreamt that I was taking her workshop somewhere. Instead of leading us through a practice, Kino first had us lie down on our mats with our eyes open. And then, while we were still lying down, she somehow conjured up this holographic image of a woman. The holographic woman then spoke to us, and got us to do a series of unfamiliar movements in the reclining position. Later on in the dream, I found myself standing in a corner of the studio where the workshop was taking place, feeling a little cheated out of the workshop (Gosh, Kino, I didn't pay all this money to be entertained by your silly holographic monkey tricks!). I tried to do the primary series, but found that I had become so fat/bloated that I could barely even get into Trikonasana! (Well, there's actually a biological explanation for this one: I ate 3 slices of pizza before I went to bed last night).

But all this is neither here nor there. Like you would care about the content of my dreams (Am I becoming a Kino groupie, by the way? I'm even dreaming about taking her workshop...). Anyway, here's what Kino has to say about the seeming paradox of achievement in the asana practice. I suppose some skepticism on your part may be inevitable ("Come on, you're Kino MacGregor. It's easy for you to say this"), but if we try to put this skepticism aside, I think what she says is very true and wise:

"Along the road to the realization of impossible postures yoga teaches us that the real impossibility we strive towards is no mere physical form, but is a state of inner peace that is completely imperturbable. The consciousness of eternal peace is the classically paradoxical comprehension that the real goal is in essence the journey itself. In order to “get” anywhere along the lifelong spiritual path of yoga one of the most basic lessons is to realize there is nowhere really to go. This letting go is the release of attachment and desire that leads to a truly peaceful state of mind... You will know that your happiness is not dependent of the achievement of the outcome and therefore be truly happy.

Once your self-worth is separated from the outcome of your actions you win your freedom from emotionality blurring your integrity along the way. Yoga asks you to learn that who you are is grander, larger and more connected than you ever dreamed and that you are only yourself when you rest in this higher awareness. When you remain non-attached to the results of your actions you also have more space to think through the process with clarity and be open to the solution when it presents itself. The greatest teaching of yoga is also the greatest paradox of life. If you want something so badly that it makes you a lesser person for wanting it you will also hold yourself apart from your goal by the very intensity of your desire. At the same time you must commit yourself fully to any process in order to get the results you want. Solving the riddle of just how much effort, luck, openness, thoughtfulness and perseverance to put in is the mystery of life. Yoga teaches you how to walk this thin red line between belief and impossibility, goals and attachment and temporality and eternity with grace and ease. Thus, by doing yoga you also learn how to master the game of life."


  1. Very interesting... it is all here, nothing to look for, nothing to strive for... liked Kinno's words.... your dreams are strange indeed...the holographic thing seemed cool though

  2. Yes, Claudia, I think Kino is very wise person, almost wise beyond her years (I don't mean this in a condescending way)... I guess what I mean is that she says what she says in a very approachable and unassuming, without coming across as preachy or "guru-like" (hmm... this is not making it any better, is it?)

    Recently, I have been recalling a lot of my dreams in great detail, so I'm also using this blog as a dream journal of sorts.

  3. Sounds like this dream was Kino MacGregor meets Star Wars, I'd love to dream about holographic people! :)

    There have been days....weeks, when I ask myself, halfway through practice, what the hell I'm doing up at an unearthly hour trying to contort myself into these strange poses. And why I'm doing it. I don't know to be honest....part of it is the faith that 'All is coming' (which begets the question of what constitutes 'all') and for health/physical reasons. Another part, which I read from one of Kino's articles, is to learn to be comfortable with discomfort on the mat so that I can apply it to my life off the mat.

    Would that satisfy an Ashtanga outsider's curiosity? Probably not. But the practice is such a personal experience that it really doesn't matter does it?

  4. Hi Nobel, just want to say I have enjoyed your posts on yoga and life.

    I agree with what you said above. But why Ashtanga ? What would you say to a non-practitioner who suggest you could get the same mental benefits from, say, running, or ocean swimming ?


  5. Sorry not meaning to be contrary but I am asking myself these questions a lot lately, after trying for 2 years an not able to do ekapada sirsasana.


  6. p.s linked to it in my recent post, hope that' okay.

  7. Wow, I didn't expect to get so many thoughtful responses to this post. Thank you all for your insights.

    Danielle, I agree with what you say. After thinking about it a bit more, I think there might never be a way to fully satisfy the curiosity/skepticism of the outsider. We can always give reasons and explanations for why we do the things we do, but at some point, choosing to do the practice constitutes an act of faith (not blind faith, but still faith), as you said, and the practice has to speak for itself. And, as a wise guy once said, life is too short to be trying to justify/explain yourself at every turn. But I still try to justify myself all the time anyway, probably out of some ingrained habit (or maybe it's my ego wanting to be right all the time).

  8. Floss, thanks for reading and commenting on my post.

    What would I say to a non-practitioner who suggests I could get the same mental benefits from, say, running, or ocean swimming? Hmm, I guess I would say... great! If it rocks your boat, more power to it!

    But here's the thing. I may be wrong about this, but I really believe that if you pursue any activity with a certain degree of intensity (whether it is ashtanga, some other style of yoga, running, or ocean swimming), you are inevitably going to hit a plateau or "stuck point". How you navigate this "stuck point" or plateau will determine what you get out of the activity. And there is no one-size-fits-all formula for navigating this "stuck point". In some cases, the right thing to do might be to examine what are the physical or emotional issues precipitating this "stuck point", and then modify the activity or practice in order to address the physical or emotional issues. In other cases, the right thing to do might be to simply take a break from the practice or activity, in order to gain some much-needed perspective, and then come back to it later.

    But I digress. I guess what I'm trying to say is that choosing not to do ashtanga (and doing something else instead) won't give one a free pass through the physical or emotional issues that one needs to work with. The same issues will just resurface in some other activity. As Tim Miller once said at a workshop, "Avoidance is not the answer."

    I empathize with the feelings that not being able to do ekapada sirsasana brings up in you. I have issues with leg-behind-head postures too. I can put my leg behind my head, but due to issues that I have with my SI joint, I have to be super-careful with leg-behind-head postures. For the last few months, I have had to stop my practice at Supta Vajrasana or Ardha Matsyendrasana, because even though I have the physical capacity to put my leg behind my head, I know that my SI joint is not stable enough on that particular day, and that I might have to suffer the consequences if I keep pushing forward. Ah, the anguish of not doing something that I want to and can do! By the way, this is one thing that I don't know if I'll ever be able to explain to an outsider. In fact, I once told a friend that I regularly put my leg behind my head during yoga practice. He screwed his face up, and said, "Is this even medically safe?" And I hadn't even told him all the bad stuff about my SI joint!

  9. Helen, I'm really happy you like the post. And thanks for linking to this in your post. This way, I'll be able to exchange ideas with more people :-)

  10. " 'Asana is not important. The most important thing is to breathe and to be aware of everything we are doing, both on and off the mat. The asana is just a means towards this end. Fixating on the achievement of asana brings up pride, ego, and all the other things that get in the way of self-realization.' "

    I buy this official line, too… except the first sentence. And the bit about asana being "just" a means to an end. It's a very *important* means to an end! That's why I spend so much time doing it, thinking about it, dreaming about it.

    But it's definitely good to keep it in perspective. It *is* a means to an end. The bonus features of practice are what's so addictive and fun and yet challenging about it -- the energy flow, the dance of vinyasa, and the mental focus, the attitude and approach to challenges, the simplest things becoming complex, and the refreshment that comes with those deep inner releases… Even at its frustrating moments, there's all these aspects, and so the pride / ego just has to learn how to take a second seat.

  11. Hello Stephanie,
    thanks for your insights. Yes, I think you are definitely right in pointing out that it's not just the mere physical performance of the asana, but the "bonus features" that come with it (energy flow, mental focus, etc.) that make asana so valuable as a transformative tool. Hmm... maybe just calling asana a means to an end doesn't do justice to all these aspects of the asana practice?