Friday, March 11, 2011

The fire of the practice, desires and spiritual hunger

First, a prayer and a moment of silence for all those affected by the tsunami in the Pacific. Lokaha Samasthaha Sukhino Bhavanthu.

I practiced with my friends Derek and Brenda at their art and yoga studio in downtown Fargo today. It's really a treat to be practicing with someone, as I mostly practice at home by myself. I don't know if it's the group energy generated by a few people practicing together, or if it's because the studio is quite a bit warmer than my practice room, but I was sweating a lot by the time I got to the prasaritas (when I practice at home, I usually only start sweating when I get to the seated postures of primary). Which meant that there was a lot more internal fire, or agni, going today. Which was very cool.

Speaking of agni... We know that one of the physical benefits of practice is to stoke the agni, and in so doing, improve the digestive and other bodily functions, resulting in a healthier body. This is especially true of primary series: All the forward bending and twisting puts pressure on the abdominal organs, which has a very therapeutic effect on the workings of the internal organs. Hence the Sanskrit name of primary series: "Yoga Chikitsa", or "yoga therapy".

But there is also a spiritual fire involved with the practice. I think it is no exaggeration to say that, for many practitioners, it is this spiritual fire burning within themselves that motivates them to get on the mat and practice, day after day. This spiritual fire can manifest as a sort of hunger for something. For many, it may start out as a hunger or desire for something quite mundane, such as a desire to become fitter, or to have a nicer body, or even a desire to meet hot chicks/dudes. But then, I think many people who enter the practice with such desires find that these desires are slowly transformed into desires for things that are less tangible or physical. And the practice has a very "sneaky" way of bringing about this transformation, so that this often happens with the practitioner being only barely conscious of the change. But the really interesting thing is that, wherever one is along the journey of practice, one's desire is uniquely one's own. My desire to, say, meet hot chicks when I first began practicing is a desire that I experience as uniquely my own. This is true even if there are many other practitioners who have the same kind of desire at the exact same moment in time: Their "hot chick/dude" desires are uniquely theirs, and mine is uniquely mine. And when my desires are transformed through the practice, they also become transformed in a way that is uniquely me, even if other yogis might go through similar processes with their own practices. Because of this uniqueness, change, when it happens, is really and authentically mine. I can't fake it: Indeed, there is no point in faking, because what is there is there. What isn't there, simply isn't.

I think that, throughout this whole process, the underlying hunger that drives the practitioner is the same. In the beginning, this hunger manifests itself as desires for rather tangible things that are in some sense external to oneself (desires for a hot body, hot chicks/dudes, etc.) And then, through the fire of the practice (it turns out that agni doesn't just purify the body, it works on the mind too), these desires are "melted down" and transmuted into desires for spiritual growth, for greater communion and connection with the universe and all living beings, and ultimately, for greater self-realization. But throughout the whole process, there is this deep hunger, and it drives the practitioner on his path, whether or not he or she is always fully aware of it. As David Garrigues remarks:

"Ashtanga is for the hungry, the ones who have something gnawing inside, the ones who honestly aren’t happy accepting complacent norms. Ashtanga is for those who are alive with intense feelings that there are worlds to discover, worlds that are found by reaching passionately inwards for expression that will contribute to personal and collective healing." (Many thanks to Pakistani Ashtangi for sharing this quote on her blog :-))

I also think that at some level and in some way or other, this hunger also manifests itself as a desire on the part of the practitioner to bring about some kind of change in the world around him or her; change that progressively reshapes the world in ways that make it more conducive for other living beings to embark on this same process. Sometimes such change can be brought about in rather inconspicuous ways, sometimes it requires making waves and challenging norms, whether these norms are the norms or traditions of one's own family or culture, or the laws of an entire nation (civil disobedience is one such example). One way or the other, change that happens within the individual will inevitably manifest itself in change in the individual's attitudes and actions, and further, in changes in the external environment. I pray to be an agent of such change, however small or big, and to support and help others who are on this same path.

Gee, that was a lot of sermonizing, wasn't it :-)? May the Force be with you.      


  1. YES! exactly that is how I see it, the fire of the practice drives us in, but it changes forms as of what we "perceive" as the thing we want. In the end what we all want is happiness, liberation, but I suppose it takes agni to get to see that. Nice one Nobel

  2. Yes, Claudia, I think you are right that the thing we want changes form as we progress in the practice. I wonder if it changes form indefinitely, though, or if there is a sort of end-point in our practice where it stops changing? Very curious about this...

  3. David Garrigues always manages to produce quotes that speak to me at the right time. Creepy! Lots of food for thought here. I started Ashtanga as a means to say fit, but it's gone beyond that and I'm still trying to figure out what drives me to practice, beyond the physical.

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  5. From a strict fitness point of view, it makes more sense to cross-train, ie. work your body in different ways, such as adding weights and cardio (running, swimming, jump rope etc) in to the exercise routine. The fact that Ashtanga asks its practitioners to do the same sequence 6 times a week suggests that it's working something in addition to physical fitness.

    I think the end point comes when I no longer have time or energy to do it (eg. have a baby, get a job that requires 16 hour-work days etc) or if I find it no longer serves my needs/desires. (Sorry, the above deleted post was me, using the wrong account).

  6. @savasanaaddict, sounds exciting! It looks like you are getting to the point in your practice where you are getting a lot of physical/fitness benefits, and are questioning what lies beyond this point. I think I'm at the same point too :-)

    @Yyogini, your alter-internet-ego (ThinkingAboutIt) sounds very interesting :-). You are probably right that cross-training probably makes more sense from a strictly fitness point of view. But I'm at a point in my life where I don't care that much about being super-fit; I just am concerned to maintain a certain level of health and a certain minimal level of fitness, and feel good doing it :-) So Ashtanga works well for me :-)

    I don't know when the end point will come for me; I know Ashtangis (including senior teachers) who have kids, and still practice (although I think they probably scaled back the practice while they were pregnant). And I hope I won't ever have to take a 16 hour work day job just to survive. But all this is neither here nor there. I am grateful to be at a place in my life now where I can practice every morning before going to work.