Thursday, July 21, 2011

A few thoughts about the completeness of the practice

"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.                


  1. i would just like to say 'amen'. i really like the way you write, Nobel. i read norman's article and all sort of thoughts came up and i tried to write them down but i think they were too muddled up. you said it so nicely and so very clearly. we all take from yoga what we need and it's a very personal relationship.
    in relation to injuries, i have to say that i have come across long time practitioners and even some teachers who said pain and injuries are a regular occurrence. this kinda scared me a bit but it also made me very adamant to try to avoid them which makes me concentrate even more whilst doing asanas and doing as much research in order to deal only with 'good' pain of waking up different muscles.
    anyway, thank you for the post - a very enjoyable read ;-) ivana

  2. Thanks Ivana. Well, you must also remember that I have the advantage of typing on a real computer, which allows me to organize my thoughts more; whereas, as you mentioned in your last post, you wrote your post on your phone on the train :-)

    As for teachers and practitioners who say that pain and injury is a "regular occurrence"... it's actually a pretty complicated issue, and it's really hard for me to assess their claims without knowing what exactly they are referring to. First, pain. In my experience, as one goes further in the practice, it becomes a little more tricky to make the distinction between good pain and bad pain. There are clear limits, of course: If one experiences, say, a sharp, pinching sensation in the hamstring attachments every time one does a forward bend, that is almost certainly a hamstring attachment tear, and is definitely bad pain. But many people who first start doing deep backbends experience very intense openings in their backs, and many of these sensations are not pleasant. For instance, when I first started being able to grab my heels in kapotasana, my back hurt so badly for two weeks that I had to crawl slowly out of bed in the morning (jumping out of bed would probably have killed me). At that time, I honestly couldn't tell whether it was good or bad pain on my own. Thankfully, it went away after those couple of weeks.

    Hmm... I didn't mean to scare you; this doesn't happen to everybody, by the way. But I guess this is why it is a good idea to practice with a teacher, especially as one goes further in the practice. It has also been my experience that the further you go in the practice, the more opportunities there are to injure yourself.

  3. May be my old hippy roots, but I do love The Prophet! Kahlil Gibran spoke such wise words - thanks for quoting them!

    I read the Norman Blair article on Grimmly's site, starting off with interest but as I kept reading I found myself disconnecting somewhat. As you said Nobel, it has all been said before. Maybe it's partly because I've never looked to Ashtanga to provide a 'complete' spiritual practice. I've been a follower of - for want of a better description, a meditation teacher, for many many years. Sometimes a better follower than others, but it's always been there. I've always known I need to keep the two separate - not let the ashtanga take over. (The physical side is often easier to work on than the spiritual side I find!)

    In fact I think that ashtanga can complement my spiritual practice. Not that I think of ashtanga as a purely physical practice - I'd be long gone from it if that's all it was.

    Overall - I'm just deeply happy to accept what my ashtanga practice gives me.

    And I know what you mean about practicing with injury - that's my story at the moment - though nothing like as dramatic as that video that's also been doing the rounds of practicing with a broken leg. Now I'm not at all sure that this isn't an example of pushing too hard, but it's still quite amazing!!

  4. I'm really happy you like the Prophet, susiegb. Gibran speaks so clearly and deeply to so many people around the world, it's amazing.

    I hear you when you say that Ashtanga can complement your spiritual practice. Too many spiritual practices are so cerebral, and being in one's head for too long can actually be anti-spiritual. Ashtanga, however, is not totally physical: I sometimes think of it as physicality with a spiritual edge. I think it is this spiritual edge that makes it such a good fit with so many spiritual traditions.

    Please work slowly and patiently with your injury. I'm sure you will recover very soon, and your practice will only grow and become deeper.

  5. I've heard about people who are so eager to push their bodies into the shapes of perfect asanas that they injure themselves and have to stop practicing. I don't think it's Ashtanga though.. it's just people's personalities. Ashtanga is "complete" if you like the practice for what it is, but there's nothing wrong with supplementing it with extra meditation practice or extra work out routines either.

  6. Interesting thoughts, Yyogini. Yes, there are people--and that includes me at least some of the time--who are so eager to achieve the "perfect" posture that they injure themselves. But I suspect that almost all the time, if you actually examine the practices of these people, they almost always neglect the tristana; for instance, they probably forget to breath evenly in their over-zealousness to get that "perfect" posture.

    And yes, I agree that there's nothing wrong with doing other things (meditation, extra work-out routines) in addition to the practice.