Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On Virtuosity and being "yogic" (or not)

First, a few words about my practice this morning. Nothing extraordinary happened. I did second only up to Karandavasana. I did notice, however, that on average, my breaths tend to be shorter when I am doing second series than when I am doing primary. This is probably an indication that I haven't gotten to the point where second is easy for me yet. But that's okay. It is important to be with what is: If it is indeed the case that my breaths are shorter in second series, then they are shorter. I think Matthew Sweeney said somewhere in his book Astanga Yoga As It Is that trying too hard to keep the breath long and even may actually have the effect of producing strain in the body and mind, which totally defeats the point of lengthening the breath in the first place.

I just read this very thoughtful article on Recovering Yogi by Alice Riccardi. She writes:

'More and more yoga students are becoming proficient at asana at an earlier age (see the Yoga Journal feature article “21 under 40”), perhaps due to better teaching and alignment methodologies, along with the fact that human beings are now generally more interested in physical health than they were ten years ago. This current atmosphere is giving rise to the focus on asana as a virtuosic endeavor with a lessening interest in yoga as a practice.

Years ago, when I was a dancer, I remember having the epiphany that just because someone has good technique, does not make him or her a good dancer. It is the content they bring to their dancing — not just their ability to perfect the execution of the movement — that makes their dancing inspiring.

Similarly, in yoga, the continual focus on doing more and more difficult asana or becoming “good” at it has begun to take the pleasure out of doing yoga for the simple enjoyment of doing yoga and reaping the benefits that come from that approach. Instead, we have yet another endeavor at which we need to excel, and if we cannot, we might as well not do it. Or we instead exchange our enjoyment for workshops on how to get better at it and accumulate more knowledge about it.'

I think Riccardi has hit a certain nail on the head. It is definitely possible to become so preoccupied with "achieving" asanas (or achieving a particular form in an asana) that one loses the sense of simple joy and appreciation of the practice itself. And I have a feeling that Ashtanga, with its fixed series of increasingly challenging postures, is frequently a target of this "asana-virtuosity-for-its-own-sake" charge.  The charge, as I understand it, is that many Ashtangis, in their ongoing quest to achieve the ideal expression of this or that asana, or to be "given" the next asana in whatever series they are practicing, tend to identify their practice (and indeed, their very self-conceptions) with their "success" or "failure" at such "achievements". This leads to over-identification of the practice with asana, which leads, in turn, to over-identification with the body, which leads, in turn, to over-identification with a certain conception of self. Which is, well, not yogic.   

Such a charge is rightly made, in many cases. I'm quite sure I have succumbed on many occasions and in many ways to such over-identification. But here's something to think about: Does a desire to work on and attain a certain level of mastery in asanas necessarily have to lead to over-identification? Does the fact that I want to be able to, say, land my lotus on my upper arms in Karandavasana today necessarily mean that I am staking my entire self-conception on the ability to perform this action? Not necessarily: Asana "achievements" are like achievements in any area of material life, in many ways. For example, I can accept that my performing well at my job and getting a promotion is not the be-all and end-all of my life, or even of my career; I can accept that my not getting that promotion that I really want does not mean that I am a bad, "useless" worker or person. But accepting this does not give me less of a reason to really go all out and give what I want (the promotion) my best shot. Similarly, I can accept that failing to land my lotus in Karandavasana does not make me less of a yogi or person or whatever. But accepting that does not give me less of a reason to really go all out and give that posture my very best shot.

Indeed, if I try to be "yogic" and try to deny that I want something when I actually do want it, I would be acting in what Sartre calls "bad faith": I would be denying the facticity of my present set of desires by trying too hard to transcend them (for more details on Sartre and facticity and transcendence, see this post). The key, I think, lies in being able to say, at the end of the day, that I have done my best to try to achieve what I was going for, even if what I was going for does not define who I am. Why? Because if we cease going for things, we cease being human. And what good is being all "yogic" and s%$t if one ceases being human in the process?

Hmm... I hope all this doesn't come across as being confrontational or apologist. I certainly didn't mean to come across this way. But really, here is the paltry two cents' way of summing up my thoughts thus far: Yes, go ahead, acknowledge the impermanence of existence, the physical body, and what have you. But don't stop trying very, very hard to get what you want. Because if you do, then you stop being human. And if you stop being human, then you cannot be in the present moment. Because to be in the present moment is to be in our embodied human condition. Which would totally defeat the whole point of being "yogic' in the first place.       


  1. I feel the pressure to become more "yogic" (e.g., study texts, philosophies) is quite intense in the Ashtanga community. Perhaps it is the identification of Ashtanga as a more "traditional" form of yoga that leads to this, but sometimes I wonder if it is not enough to be where you are, and enjoy the physical practice for its own sake.

  2. I think it is a good idea to study texts and such, but I really believe that the practice, if done with humility, is a great teacher in and of itself. Besides, sometimes I can't help wonder if trying too hard to be "yogic" makes one's practice too cerebral, and therefore, less present; and therefore, less yogic, paradoxically.