Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How can I keep up this practice forever?

'The Captain looked at Fermina Daza and saw on her eyelashes the first glimmer of wintry frost. Then he looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.

"And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?" he asked.

Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.

"Forever," he said.'

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Since today is a moon day, and we are taking a well-deserved rest from our Ashtangic labors, I thought this would be a good time to ponder this question. As I often do when pondering such big questions, I am going to write this post in a sort of monologic, thinking-aloud manner. Please bear with me.  

Here's one possible answer to this question: Why on earth would you want to keep up this practice forever? Isn't there a point at which you, well, grow older (actually, you are growing older all the time, but that's not what I mean...), and simply have to cut back on whatever it is that you are doing in your practice right now, whether that happens to be primary, second, third series, or whatever fancy series you happen to be working on? After all, our bodies are finite physical entities, and all such entities have to break down at some point. And since Ashtanga vinyasa practice is undeniably an intensely physical practice (in addition to the energetic aspects, and all that good stuff), and no amount of practice can reverse the aging process, wouldn't there have to come a point where one has to cease doing this practice?

Whatever you think of this answer, there's no denying its compelling force. No amount of yoga practice, eating healthy or whatever else one does in the way of self-care will change the fact that we are all mortal beings who will grow old(er) and die (hopefully not too painfully). I'm not saying this to put down the value of the practice and all our self-care efforts. As a matter of fact, I plan on doing this practice forever, or at least for as long as I inhabit this earthly body; see below for more details on this. But I also think it is safe to say that it is pretty much a given that, with very few exceptions, almost none of us will be able to keep up the physical yoga practice that we are doing at this particular point in time, in say, 50 years (if we are still around).

Why all these depressing thoughts? You may ask. Well, some wise guy once said that in order to live one's life properly, one must first ponder and study the problem of our mortality and death; in this sense, to ponder death and mortality is not to deny the value of life, but to see life within its ultimate parameters and in so doing, to understand its value in the most holistic manner. Since our practice is such a big part of our daily life, it would follow that we cannot truly understand its value unless we consider it from the standpoint of life's inherent finitude.

How do we begin to do this? Hmm... I'm not sure, really. But maybe we can learn something from somebody who has been on this path a little longer than many of us. In his open letter to his students, David Williams writes:

"I have learned from my own practice and observation that pushing your current limitations to get into a position can result in injury, which results in one needing to rest the injury to recover so they can resume their practice. This entire sequence of events is not only unpleasant, it is contrary to my belief that through slow, steady daily practice, one can achieve greater flexibility by generating one's own internal heat to relax into positions, rather than being forced into a position. I have observed this slower, steadier method is not only healthier, but it allows one to develop greater flexibility of a more lasting nature, than the kind that is forced. Unfortunately, as many have found, pushing one's current limitations can result in having to severely curtail or limit activity during recovery. This cycle can lead to unpleasant associations with one's yoga practice, rather than the pleasant experiences I work to instill, and that I feel are necessary for a lifelong practice...

The key is being able to continue practicing Yoga for the rest of your life. From over 30 years of observing thousands of people practicing Yoga, I have realized that those who continue are the ones who are able to figure out how to make it enjoyable. They look forward to their daily practice and nothing can keep them from finding the time to do it. It becomes one of the most pleasant parts of their day. The others, consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, quit practicing."

The one thing that I take away from Williams' words is this: The secret to keeping up the practice forever is love. Love of the practice, love of the wonderful things that this practice gives to our life. And it is easier to love something that is enjoyable and gives us pleasant experiences than to love something that is, well, not enjoyable and gives us unpleasant or even painful experiences (I believe we call this an abusive relationship... wow, it's possible to be in an abusive relationship with yoga? I'm learning something new all the time just by writing. Now you know why I love blogging :-)). And in the end, it is perhaps this love that will give us some measure of equanimity and power in the face of death, so that maybe, just maybe, if we love enough, we will be able to truly understand that "it is life, more than death, that has no limits."  

Speaking of which, if you haven't read any Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I really, really recommend Love in the Time of Cholera. I recently bought myself a new copy of this book (I had misplaced my old one while moving here to Minnesota) just to reread it. If you don't read anything else this summer, you will really profit (excuse the crass commercial term here, but I can't think of anything better) from reading this book. Happy Moon Day!



  1. Thanks Nobel. Very timely post for what ails me. I toggle between resting the injury and risking "letting the fuzz" grow...

  2. You're welcome, sereneflavor. I just read about what happened with your arm/hand. Sorry to hear about it. But it looks like you have discovered what is the issue behind it, and are on the way to recovery and a more sustainable practice :-)

  3. One of my teachers, when asked how to keep up the practice, just looked (a little concerned) at the person asking and just said 'Don't you want to be happy?' :-)

  4. Very nice, Helena. I really like this response :-)