Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kino on strength, effort and surrendering to the process everyday, and my not-so-glorious five steps back

I just came across this very nice Youtube video of a talk and asana demonstration that Kino did at a recent workshop in New Orleans. The asana demonstration, which is in the second part of the video, is great, but I think her talk is even greater! Don't get me wrong; Kino's asana demonstration is beautiful and effortless, as it always is. But there's always a part of me that goes, "Okay, but this is Kino, right? What else can you expect?"

But her talk is a different story. Here are a few gems:

(1) "I don't need it to be easy, but what I want is a way that I can work on it today." Even though most of us know that Ashtanga is not a quick fix for anything, many of us are still consciously or unconsciously conditioned by contemporary consumer culture, and expect things to happen relatively quickly in our practice. So that if we, say, aren't able to master the jump-back in three months, we decide that our bodies aren't cut out for jumping back.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything is possible, but we need to trust the process, be prepared to give it time (lots of it), and things will happen when they do. Hard for many of us to swallow in the heat of the passion of the practice on the mat, but that's just how it is.

(2) Five steps forward, Four and a Half Steps Back: Actually, if Pema Chodron is right, for the first couple of years of practice, it's more like five steps forward, five steps back. And then you progress to five steps forward, four and a half steps back. And if you're wise, you'll celebrate that half step forward rather than brood over the four-and-a-half-steps back.

(3) This has nothing to do with the video, but Kino emailed me last week to ask about how I am doing with my knee. I am very grateful--touched, actually--that she would take time out of her very busy schedule to ask after me. When I first got injured, I had emailed her for advice, and she had been very generous and unstinting with her suggestions and advice as well. I think she's a really great person. I'm very grateful to be able to learn from somebody like her.


All this brings to mind a recent conversation I had with a friend. Some time ago, I had taught this friend Surya Namaskars A and B and a few standing postures, and had told him that there are six series of postures in the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system. I also shared with him that I am only somewhere in the second series (for more details, see the second half of this post).

Anyway, during a recent gathering with some friends, the topic of yoga came up, and my friend brought up the fact that I had been practicing yoga a couple of hours everyday for a few years now. He then threw what he thought was a wisecrack at me: "But how come your yoga still sucks even after all these years of practice?" (I supposed he meant, "How come you are still only at second series after all these years?") I laughed at the supposed wisecrack and said self-deprecatingly, "Well, I am a person of limited talent. What to do?"

To be quite honest, it didn't even occur to me in that moment to be offended. After all, my friend sees yoga as one of many possible ways of keeping fit, and not so much (if at all) as a spiritual practice: To him, it made perfect sense that one can be "better" or "worse" at yoga, just as one can be better or worse at, say, tennis or racket-ball. And of course, if I were a self-realized yogic saint, I would have stayed unruffled and unoffended. But you know how remarks like this often have a way of festering and snowballing, so that the sting comes long after the remark has already been delivered? Well, this is kind of what happened with me (it probably also doesn't help that given the state of my left knee (which he did not know about), I was probably more conscious of my physical limitations than I usually am). Anyway, my first thought when I first felt the sting of the remark was something along the lines of, "Yeah, easy for you to say: Spoken with the true arrogance of somebody who's never used his body for anything much else than eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom!" No really, think about this: Have you ever noticed how many couch potatoes and other largely sedentary beings have this curious tendency to be overly critical of and to put down any display of physical ability that is anything short of Olympian? (Couch potato: "What? He can only jump this high? My grandmother can do better!" Nobel: "Really? Let's see your grandmother do that...")

Well, I probably should stop ranting about this. In any case, what can I do? The only productive thing to do, when all is said and done, is to let go and try to happily acknowledge that I am now in the five-steps-back phase of my practice. The only thing to do is to acknowledge this, go back to the mat, and practice. And then, after long time, all is coming.   


  1. Hi Nobel!
    I've been ruffled by similar comments, too. I was practicing with a different teacher who said, a bit dismissively, "I thought you would have this by now," after I asked for help with Mari-C. It really irked me! It can be frustrating when strictly physical progress is equated with good yoga, and stagnation is equated to sucking. Perhaps even more frustrating is that such comments can irk me... it suggests that my ego is strong and that I am attached to the asanas. Hmm.

  2. Ah, the ego is strong in you, young Skywalker... :-)

    Sorry, wanderingmb, I just couldn't resist the goofy Star-Warsism... But yes, such remarks are really annoying, at least for lesser beings like me and you... But I suppose you must have had it worse, coming from a teacher. At least I can excuse my friend for not knowing better.

  3. I think it's because in the media we only get to see accomplished asanas. It's hard for someone who doesn't practice yoga at all to imagine how many intermediate steps there can be to get to that yoga journal cover-ready point. It probably goes like this in their minds: you don't know how to do a pose at all, you practice a pose for awhile, and then you are there.

    Also, some people don't bother doing something because they're convinced they don't have the talent for it. Since you're practicing yoga, you must have the talent or else you wouldn't have dared to start this activity in the first place. But since you have the talent, how come it's taking you so long to accomplish something?

    I am surrounded by people like this too; it gets on my nerves as well. Telling myself that not only are they missing out on the benefits of yoga, they are also cultivating ill will, which makes them suffer, still doesn't make me feel that much better.

  4. Yes, I hear you Yyogini. Sometimes I think I've been practicing so long that I forget that most other people see yoga as very much a performance art which requires "talent"; I guess my life is quite sheltered in this way... But I guess all this ultimately means that I have my work cut out for me as a practitioner who tries his best to share yoga with others. :-)

  5. Sounds to me that underneath your friend's "put down" comment lays a certain amount of jealousy / envy / feelings of inadequacy.
    There is nothing more destructive to one's motivation than "all-or-nothing" thinking, that one has to accomplish the top results, otherwise the effort is wasted. As an older (59 yo) practitioner, I see everything in yoga as a positive: either I am able to do an asana, or I will eventually (months, years later?) to do it. The process of working up to it is the most rewarding part.

  6. Thanks for sharing, Seb. Unfortunately, too many of us have the "all or nothing" mindset ingrained in us too much of the time. I like your outlook on asana. Indeed, our bodies and lives have so much potential, there is no reason not to believe we will eventually be able to do any asana, no matter how "advanced."

  7. One of the beautiful things that happen in life is we encounter new teachers. This teacher had done a great job helping you see the value of your steps. Asana is not the reason I head for my mat, the peace and focus keeps me coming back. Teri

  8. This is true, Teri. Thanks for the reminder :-)