"You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life's procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth's furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret.
But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.
You have been told also life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching."
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
This particular article by Norman Blair is currently making the rounds of the Ashtanga (and probably also the non-Ashtanga) blogosphere. Many thoughtful and interesting blog posts and comments have been posted about it. Which makes me really hesitant to say anything about it: What else can I possibly add to the great numbers of wise voices that have already made themselves heard?
But if I may give my very honest opinion, although I think the article itself is very balanced, thoughtful and well-written, I really don't think that the themes brought up (pain, injury, the perceived intense athleticism of the practice vs. spirituality in the practice, physical flexibility vs. possible mental rigidity, "Is the practice by itself a complete spiritual practice, or does it need to be complemented by some other spiritual practice (sitting meditation, etc.) in order to address the other seven limbs of yoga?") are anything new. They have been brought up in discussions in the blogosphere in one way or another, at one time or another.
It seems to me that discussions about the Ashtanga practice in the blogosphere are like the phases of a pendulum; the tone oscillates between phases of enthusiasm about the practice, on the one hand (these phases typically take the form of enthusiastic posts about how to work on particular asanas or particular aspects of the physical practice, or how the practice relates to other areas of everyday life), and phases of skepticism or even pessimism about the intensely physical aspects of the practice and its possibly detrimental effects on the mind, body and spirit (these phases typically manifest in posts that question the point of the practice, or question the adequacy or completeness of the practice, or posts whose overarching tone is something along the lines of "If this practice can lead to so much pain and/or injury, and probably by itself leads us no closer to enlightenment/samadhi/whatever-your-desired-highest-state-of-being-is, why bother to do it?").
I could be wrong about this, but I sense that we are in one of these skeptical/pessimistic phases right now. Of course, this is a very vague statement to make, and it's also probably a generalization which doesn't do justice to the many of us who are enjoying and gaining much from our practices on the mat right now. But I believe that it is possible to kind of get a sense of the general state of the blogosphere from where I am in it. And that's what I am doing. I'm just giving a barometer reading of the state of the blogosphere from my corner of it. It's not good or bad or anything; it just is.
But I didn't write this post just to make some vague generalizing remarks. I'm actually going to give my own very personal take on one of the questions that Blair brought up in his article: "Is the practice by itself a complete spiritual practice, or does it need to be complemented by some other spiritual practice (sitting meditation, etc.) in order to address the other seven limbs of yoga?"
My very personal answer to this question is: No, I personally do not feel the need to complement the practice by having a sitting meditation practice or some other spiritual practice. I do kind of have a sitting practice of sorts; I do my Buddhist prayers in the morning for about an hour before I start my practice. But I've been doing this for years before I even knew about yoga, and I wouldn't consider it a sitting practice that is meant to complement or supplement (whatever the word is) my Ashtanga practice. I was drawn to Hatha yoga in general, and to Ashtanga in particular, because of the physicality of the practice; actually, I still am. The intense powerful movement in the practice coupled with the tristana system (breath, posture and drishti) is an exercise in paying attention to what is going on in the moment. To me, that's all the meditation I need.
I suppose many people out there might disagree with me on this. Well, that's fine. Actually, some time ago, a fellow Ashtangi tried to convince me of the merits of having a sitting practice by saying something along the following lines, "There is a limit to how far you can go in the asana practice. Most people never make it past primary, and even fewer people make it to third or fourth, let alone fifth or sixth. Since there is such a limit to how far asana can take you, it makes sense to have a sitting practice."
Well, this argument didn't make much sense to me when I first heard it, and it still doesn't. Yes, I know that there is a limit to how far I can go in the asana practice. As a matter of fact, I don't know if I will ever make it to third in this lifetime. I also know that there will come a time when age will catch up with me; when that time comes, whenever that might be, I will quite definitely have to greatly modify my practice. Hopefully, when that time comes, I will be able to relinquish or modify my practice with a spirit of grace and surrender, and with as little kicking and screaming as possible :-)
So where does having a sitting practice come into the picture here? Is it to remind me that there is a limit to how far I can go in the asana practice, that there will come a day when I have to modify or even relinquish this practice? But I already know this, and I don't need a sitting practice to tell me this; and I really don't think any amount of sitting will prepare me for that moment of truth when I need to deal the death blow to my physical practice... okay, I'm being over-dramatic here; I simply mean the moment when I need to modify and/or relinquish the practice.
Maybe the idea is that even though Ashtanga, if done properly, is supposed to be a moving meditation, people often get so caught up in the physicality of the practice that they get their egos all puffed up, and forget the moving meditation part. Or the problem could also be that people get so familiar with the practice that they just kind of space out and let their minds wander all over the place during practice, and again forget the moving meditation part.
Well, I should say that the ego problem is not unique to moving practices like Ashtanga. As Norman Blair very astutely points out, the ego can also rear its ugly head in sitting meditation communities as well (comparing your own meditation experiences to others who have had sartori/nirvana/out-of-body/whatever-the-desired-transcendental-experience-in question-is, comparing your ability to sit for a long time with that of another practitioner, etc., etc.).
As for the problem of spacing out during practice, here's one thing that will take care of that: Injury or physical difficulties with postures. Don't get me wrong: I am not advocating injury. I'm not the sort of practitioner who wears injuries like badges of honor... seriously, I am very bewildered by all these references in the blogosphere to this mythical figure of the "hard-core", sado-masochistic Ashtangi who delights in hurting himself or herself, and who, well, wears his or her injuries like a badge of honor. Just where do people get this caricature from? In all my time practicing Ashtanga (which is not that long, I admit), I have never met such a practitioner. All the teachers and practitioners I have met have been individuals who try their very best to take care of themselves and others around them. But maybe I just have been very fortunate, I don't know...
But I digress. What I'm saying is, even though injuries should be avoided at all costs, there is really nothing like working with an injury to ground you in the moment and prevent you from spacing out. When you are practicing with an injury, paying very close attention to how you get into and out of postures at every moment is the only thing that stands between you and excruciating pain. Such close attention makes all the difference between having a good practice and a (excuse the language) torture session. Again, I want to stress that I am not advocating that you go out there on the mat and injure youself. But let's face it: Whether we like it or not (hopefully, you do), Ashtanga is a very strenuous physical activity. This being the case, it is quite likely that many practitioners will have to work with injuries or other physical limitations at some point during their practice career. But we can also look at this from another angle: These injuries or physical limitations present invaluable opportunities to really be present, to really appreciate just how many iotas of consciousness you can squeeze into one moment. Actually, you don't need injury to get into this state; you can achieve the same state if you just pick any posture that you really have a lot of trouble with, and see if you can work with that posture repeatedly and observe the many funny sensations and feelings that come up without backing away from them.
Is this state as transcendental as sartori/nirvana/out-of-body/whatever-the-desired-transcendental-experience-in-question is? I don't know; I've never experienced any of the states in question. But honestly, I don't really care. I can only work with what I have here. Which is that I know that the practice has done me a lot of good, and will probably continue to do so for a while to come. The only thing to do is to get on the mat every morning, do the work of this practice to the best of my ability, with as much joy and love for it as I can muster. Everything else is Maya; or maybe, as Guruji would say, everything else is coming.