Monday, May 23, 2011

Is Yoga a Sisyphean Undertaking?

[Image copied from here]

"The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor...

But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

I have been reading Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus to prepare for my fall classes. At the same time, I also just read Megan's recent post about the doubts and fears that we encounter in the course of doing our daily practice. So I've decided to bring these two things in my life (Camus and yoga) together, and see if anything insightful and useful comes out of my random musings.

According to legend, Sisyphus was an ancient Greek king who defied the gods by capturing Death, so that humans would not have to die. In return, the gods punished Sisyphus by making him push a huge rock up a mountain; every time the rock reaches the top of the mountain, it rolls down again, and Sisyphus would have to start rolling the rock up the mountain all over again. This seemingly futile process would continue for all eternity.

The image of Sisyphus rolling the rock up the mountain eternally has become associated in the popular consciousness with painful, futile labor, so much so that the American Heritage Dictionary defines "sisyphean" as "endless and unavailing, as labor or a task."

Camus, however, has a different take on the story of Sisyphus. To Camus, Sisyphus is the ultimate existential hero. He is fully conscious of the inherent meaninglessness and endlessness of his undertaking, yet he accepts and fully embraces this. It does not matter to him that there is no greater goal that he can hope to attain, no greater meaning he can hope to fulfill by rolling the stone up the hill with all his might. All that matters is that he is fully absorbed in the task immediately before him, so that every little detail of this task, "each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world." He does not need any god or greater being to reward his efforts; the very process of struggling towards the heights is enough to fill his heart, with or without the blessings of the gods.

I like Camus's interpretation of "sisyphean" much more than the standard American interpretation. To Camus, Sisyphus' task, although devoid of ultimate meaning, is far from unavailing and futile. Through his radical act of interpreting his labor on his own terms, Sisyphus has, in Camus's eyes, succeeded in creating a universe of meaning for himself where none had existed before.

Is yoga a Sisyphean undertaking, in Camus's sense of the term? I think the answer is: Yes and no. No, because unlike Sisyphus' task, which is inherently devoid of any greater meaning, the yogic journey involves Ishvara Pranidhana, or surrender to a power greater than oneself. In so doing, the yogi looks to this power (whatever it might be) to imbue his yogic endeavor with ultimate meaning.

However, there is also a sense in which the answer is yes. In order for our daily yogic labors to make sense for ourselves in our own unique time and circumstance, we need to recreate for ourselves what the yoga practice means to ourselves in our particular place and time, if we are to be able to sustain and continually find refreshing perspectives to allow ourselves to keep growing in our practice. Megan writes:

"...many times my mind finds room to question, to consider, as I inhale my arms up for that first Surya Namaskar, that perhaps this is not the best idea.  After all, I'm already tired and I've got the whole series ahead of me.  I might need the energy later.  I should probably just take a nap/have a snack/read a blog instead (hint, hint...). [Nobel: I got the hint, Megan. I'm even quoting your blog :-)]

This tendency for skepticism in the face of obvious truth has been the source of a number of personal revelations thoughout my (relatively few) years of practice.  Sometimes it feels as though I'm stuck in a wheel, learning the same lessons over and over.  Until one day when the lesson is somehow not merely learned but absorbed, assimilated into my being.  Another veil falls and a new and vivid world appears before me.  Sometimes the veils fall and flutter softly to the ground, and sometimes they must be roughly torn away."

Like Sisyphus, if we are to be able to begin to roll the yogic rock up the hill of practice every morning, we need to find the energy to cast off the veil of ignorance and slough that tries to prevent us from getting on the mat every day. Some days, this may be easier to do, other days it may be harder. But one way or the other, the journey of practice is a journey of continually finding inspiration and energy where none existed before, creating meaning and refreshing perspectives where there was only slough and sleepiness. In this way, to do the practice is to be an existential hero.

Before I sign off, I also want to take this opportunity to point out an interesting karmic connection here. Megan lives and teaches in Austin, Texas. Incidentally, Austin was also the first place I lived in this country: I attended UT Austin for one semester in the fall of '99 as an exchange student from Singapore. It was at UT Austin that I met Professor Robert Solomon. It was in his Existentialism class that I first heard about Albert Camus. Unfortunately, Professor Solomon has since passed away. Fortunately, he has inspired and touched the lives of many students, one of whom shamelessly continues to write and blog about philosophy, yoga and practically everything under the sun that occurs to his not-always-fully-lucid mind (I'm sure you know who this guy is: I'm not going to name names here...)


  1. Ha ha yes it is (^o^)v i wrote a simlarly themed post, much shorter, less intellectualby no means academic by rather pretty methinks,

    Am working on a question for your philosophers mind, coming i a while hope you'll be able to clarify it for me ☆

  2. Personally I think this version makes more sense:

    Is yoga a Sisyphean undertaking, in Camus's sense of the term? I think the answer is: Yes and no. No, because unlike asana practice, which is inherently devoid of any greater meaning, Sisyphus' task involves παραδωσιν κυριῷ, or surrender to a power greater than oneself. In so doing, Sisyphus looks to this power (whatever it might be) to imbue his Sisyphean endeavor with ultimate meaning.

  3. Very cool, Esther! I'll go read your post soon. I look forward to hearing about your question too.

    Dhr Bibberknie, interesting. I have really never heard of paradosin kurio (Is that what it is? My Greek is very rusty; you have to excuse me, I haven't read any Greek in ages...). Can you say more about this concept?

    Or is this an attempt at irony that I am not getting? :-)

  4. …enjoyed this post, Nobel! I like the part about imbuing repetition with meaning through our conscious participation in life. Meaning v/s Ultimate Meaning is an interesting notion yet not important in living from moment to moment, unless we think that faith makes a difference.

  5. Hello Brooks,
    Thanks for your insightful comment about meaning vs. ultimate meaning. I personally do think that faith makes a difference ultimately, although it may also be true that on a moment to moment level, faith in ultimate meaning may or may not be important to getting through what one needs to get through.

  6. lovely post! i enjoyed reading and doing a bit of my own musing. it is an interesting parallel made there and also a very interesting interpretation by camus. i often use the phrase 'sisyphus' task' but in a common way. i shall be thinking twice now before i use it again ;-)

  7. Thanks, diveintoashtanga. Yes, I really feel that Camus' interpretation is so much more life- and practice-affirming :-)