Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ashtanga and the Dark Side: The Confessional Musings of an Ashtanga Sith Lord

If you have been reading this blog for a while, it will be no secret to you that I am a Star Wars geek. I think that there are a lot of similarities and parallels between the journey of the Jedi knights and the journey of the Ashtangi. Just as the Jedi taps into the Force to bring out his or her fullest potential and use his or her powers to make the universe a better place, as Ashtangis, we strive through the daily practice to move our lives and selves in the direction of greater self-realization and in this way, bring out the best in ourselves and others.

However, even though I see these parallels, up till now, I haven't quite been able to succinctly explain how exactly these Jedi themes relate to our yogic journeys, beyond a few silly, off-the-cuff remarks here and there :-) Of particular significance is the notion of the Dark Side: If there is this negative, shadow aspect of the Force that ensnares the unsuspecting Jedi aspirant, it seems equally intuitive that there is also a similar Dark Side to the Ashtanga journey. And it seems to me that if there is such a Dark Side, we would do well to have some awareness of its nature, if only to be better prepared to face it.

But what exactly is the Dark Side of this practice? Recently, I came across a very insightful and eloquent blog post which addresses this question. At the risk of being very unoriginal, I'm going to quote this post at some length:

"It goes without saying that ideally our paths toward self-realization would be simple and straightforward.  But, this is not the nature of the journey.  Arguably all paths that engage their participants in an authentic search for the self are riddled with pitfalls akin to the “Dark Side.”  To complicate matters further, we embark on our journey flawed and laden with our old baggage.  This is why we need to seek the guidance of those who have traversed the troubled waters before us, because we can’t do it on our own.  However, this seeking does not solve the issue.

Powerful as they are our guides and masters cannot wave their magic wands and lead us from temptation. Those expert guides and gurus, try as they might, cannot walk the path for us.  They can merely show us the way and hope and pray we are wise enough to follow their guidance.  And yet, despite our most sincere desire and efforts to listen and understand, so many of us, probably all of us on some level, come to our mats very much like Luke, with our guns/old ways drawn to fight the enemy within...

...what is the “Dark Side” of Ashtanga?  Undoubtedly there are as many as there are practitioners, but I would say that there is one which beguiles more Ashtanga practitioners than others.  From the very beginning of one’s Ashtanga practice there is no denying the focus on the body.  You step on your mat and from the first Suryanamaskar you are breathing, twisting, jumping, lifting, contorting and sweating through every minute.  Clearly, with practice one can find peace, calm, control and even surrender therein, but the body is always there... You are learning to transcend the body by going deeper and deeper within it, and herein lays the trap.

According to yoga, the source of our suffering is our ignorance regarding our true selves.  In short, we are ignorant of the fact that we are not material beings, but spirit souls embodied in the material world.  With the practice of yoga, our “liberation” lies in coming to understand and realize our constitutional position as spiritual beings.  Ashtanga’s rootedness in the body serves to easily capture those who fail to see through the allure of the material to the point where they can find themselves becoming very powerfully enticed, swayed and influenced in the direction of the body, the very thing we are meant to realize we are not.  This can lead one to become further and further entangled in the sources of their suffering until it might be said that one is actually hurting himself with the practice.  Here I have in mind something beyond the occasional injury which accompanies any strenuous activity, although this is a very real possibility, but more a desire, subconscious or otherwise, to punish oneself with a gruelingly intense physical practice...

So, instead of being led toward an inner peace, the practice creates a relentless barrage of “you are not good enough,” “you are not strong enough,” “you are not thin enough,” “you are not flexible enough,” reinforcing the self-fulfilling prophecies marketed to us by society at large.  This, in turn, serves to solidify the grip of the ego on the already fragile mind creating a situation in which the practice supports false notions of the self resulting in identification with the outward manifestation of the practice.  Your identity becomes entangled with the practice until you and your practice become non-different.  In this condition, the practice affords the practitioner a daily opportunity to indulge himself fully in the bodily self.   Often, one find himself wrestling with this on a day when the practice has failed to live up to his expectations and the rest of the day is ruined."

My very first reaction upon reading this was: Crap! This totally describes me. If extensive identification with the body and the tangible physical results of the practice is what it means to "go over to the Dark Side" in Ashtanga, then I am so totally a Sith Lord! I am super-obsessed with deep-backbending, for one; I am also not above taking pictures of myself in asanas and posting it online, for another (see my previous post). The only thing I haven't done is master that Force Chokehold... If you are a Star Wars Geek like me, you know what I'm talking about: I mean that ability which allows a Sith Lord to strangle somebody from a distance, without having to physically touch that person. Hmm... very useful ability to have to teach that asshole who just cut me off in traffic a lesson [insert evil kungfu master laugh].

Oh no, what did I just write?! Isn't this supposed to be a yoga blog? Why am I having these violent thoughts about strangling people? Well, now you know that I am not actually the accomplished Ashtangi I pretend to be in my more enlightened-sounding posts, but am actually a Sith Lord in Jedi's clothing :-)

But seriously: If there is indeed a Dark Side to the practice, what should we do about it? Is there a way to avoid it? The problem is, if we are doing the practice in an honest, authentic way, we will have to face our Dark Side at some point or other if we are to genuinely progress and mature in the practice. In her latest article, Kino writes that working on backbends:

"requires a heroic willingness to go to the scary places inside and face the sometimes paralyzing fear that surfaces the moment you try to bend over backwards. While not always rational the fear that arises in intense and deep backbends it is almost always a deep cleansing of the nervous system. Whenever you face fear a stringent application of the conscious, meditative mind will give you the tools needed to move straight through the fear."

While Kino is writing specifically about backbends, I think her words here apply to the journey of the practice in general as well: If one is unwilling to go to and in a sense, be with the dark and scary places in one's practice, one cannot hope to move through these places successfully, and truly mature and grow as a practitioner.

Thus it seems that facing the Dark Side is not an optional thing in our yogic journey. Each of us will face it at one time or other if we stick with the practice for a while. Remember Guruji's words, "Do your practice, and all is coming." Well, who knew that "all" also includes the Dark Side? :-)

All this brings up a compelling question: If all of us have to face our Dark Sides at one point or another, how deeply can we go with our Dark Side and be with it before we get irreversibly swallowed up by it?  

Well, I really can't write any more about this topic for now. As someone who is deeply mired in the Dark Side, I can only write about the Dark Side. Any attempt to try to guide you through this Dark Side would be very disingenuous on my part: Even though I am a Sith Lord, I have at least this much decency left in me :-)

But if you have any thoughts and suggestions about how to pull me (and others like me) out of this cesspool of the Dark Side, I would love to hear them :-)



    That aside, i think there IS a dark side to the practice. I remember my first Hatha Yoga teacher telling me that I'm not able to doing certain poses like headstand (like everyone else in the class can do a headstand except for yours truly) because I have a lot of unresolved fear in me. and she feels that i use the practice as a way to mask my emotional pain. i don't know if this is true. perhaps. perhaps not.

    like you, i find that too often, how i start my day begins with how great or sucky my practice is. beats me why we are so harsh to ourselves sometimes!

  2. Hi there,
    This piece is great! Thanks for linking to my blog -
    I'll definitely add you to my blogroll.

  3. Hello yoginicory, if you know how to do the Force Chokehold, please teach me. Maybe you can make an instructional video and post it on your blog? :-)

    Yes, I have heard many stories of fear in postures (especially inversions and backbends). I guess my Dark Side surfaces in a different way: I have a tendency to push too much, sometimes through sensations like pain that are not wise to push through. Actually, I think that 99% of people who practice (the 1% being Sharath, maybe? :-)) have to confront their Dark Sides on a constant basis. In fact, I think that the presence of this Dark Side is what makes it necessary for us to practice.

    Hey Frances, thanks for adding me to your blog roll :-) I just discovered your blog a couple of days ago, and am having a lot of fun reading it!