Thursday, August 18, 2011

Love, discipline, necessity? What gets you to practice?

"You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose."

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Stephen Mitchell

Rilke's words here were addressed to a nineteen-year-old military student. This student, an aspiring poet, discovered that Rilke spent a year at the same military school that he was attending, and wrote to him for advice about his writing. What followed was a beautiful five-year correspondence between the two men, in which Rilke honestly and freely shared his thoughts about art, poetry, solitude and life.

As I was reading the above excerpt from Rilke's first letter, I was struck by how much the sort of attitude Rilke has towards poetry resonates with the mindset with which I approach the Ashtanga practice. I have long felt deeply that the practice is an art; not art in that kind of rarefied sense in which one produces something of aesthetic value that is then subject to appreciation or criticism. But art in the sense that in doing the practice, one goes into oneself, and surrenders one's previously conceived self to the process that the practice entails, and accepts the new self that is continually being sculpted and re-sculpted, however ecstatic, exciting, boring, uncertain, or even painful this process may at times be. Such an attitude of surrender need not entail giving oneself up to a personified higher power or being (although particular individuals may choose to do so). Rather, in my opinion, this surrender involves a certain courageous acceptance of what is, and an openness to work with what the practice and life may throw at one, embracing what needs to be embraced, discarding what needs to be discarded.

A common question that has come up in discussions of the practice, both in the blogosphere and offline, is: What motivates you to practice? What motivates you to take a considerable chunk of time out of your already full life and dedicate it to this practice, this activity that, beyond perhaps enabling you to someday touch your toes, put your legs behind your head, stand on one arm [insert one's favorite asana here], does not seem to yield that much in the way of practical benefit? Sure, one will probably become more flexible or physically stronger, attain better health, and feel better about oneself as a whole. But none of these benefits are things that can only be attained through doing the practice.

Some people might say it is self-discipline that enables one to get on the mat. Perhaps this is true for many people. I also admit that a certain degree of willpower is needed to get myself to take that step onto the mat, especially on days when I am feeling tired or a little under the weather. But one would think that discipline can only go so far in getting one to do such a physically and psychologically strenuous activity six days a week for years and years.

Others might say that it is love of the practice that gets one onto the mat. I think there is some truth to this as well. But I can't help feeling that whatever it is that keeps one going through the tough times of the practice (illness, injury, other commitments, etc.) is something that is more than some nice, fuzzy feeling that one feels for the practice. I will be the first to admit that I don't always feel this nice, fuzzy feeling when I bring my half-conscious mind and body onto the mat in the morning.

Maybe one would say that love in its truest and deepest sense is more than just a warm fuzzy feeling, that in any love that is not merely faddish infatuation, there is a deeper level of commitment involved ("through thick and thin, till death do us part..."). Genuine love of the practice involves just this kind of deep commitment, one might say.   

I have much respect for those for whom such love is the motivating force behind their practices. But what motivates me is something different. At the risk of sounding very grandiose and self-important, I feel that for me, what gets me to practice (and to stick with it so far) is something akin to what Rilke calls a necessity. Just as a poet, heeding the call of some inner vision of which he or she may not even be fully clear about, might feel the necessity to write and give expression to this vision, I feel that the practice calls out to me even in the times when I least feel like practicing, so that I heed the call and step onto the mat anyway, and try my best to embrace whatever unfolds from that point. In the process, I give my all to the practice, and try my best to accept and embrace what arises from this process.

Well, maybe it's time I turn away a little from all this introspection, and turn this post into something that involves all of you. So I'm going to end this post somewhat abruptly, and leave you with a few questions: What drives you to get on the mat and practice? Is it self-discipline? Love? Some kind of artistic necessity? Some combination of all these? Or something else? 


  1. Thank you Nobel for sharing this poem, it is really beautiful and can be applied to almost anyone searching for "the meaning of life", dharma etc. Truly inspiring
    I was not familiar with Rilke before and am now committed to reading more of his poetry, so once again, thank you

  2. Wonderful! I'm so glad to have introduced you to Rilke. Happy reading!