Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tight asses, beach bodies, energetic openings, being a samadhied asshole (?)

Some recent posts in the blogosphere (and more generally online) have caused me to ask some fundamental questions about the practice of Ashtanga yoga: What exactly should one aspire to in doing this practice? Is it alright to practice Ashtanga only for the purpose of getting a tight ass, for instance? And I don't just mean people who are new to the practice, who may quite understandably be attracted to the practice because of such "tight-ass considerations" (one irony here is that making one's ass too tight (i.e. if one clenches the buttocks too much) may make backbends difficult and even injurious. But this is a topic for another post). If this recent article in the NYT is any indication, even long-time "advanced" practitioners may still be motivated by "tight-ass" or fitness considerations.

Which is totally fine, as far as I am concerned. If doing this practice for the sole purpose of getting a tight ass or beach body (or whatever ass/body) works for you and rocks your boat, more power to you. After all, didn't this particular South Indian gentleman, one Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, famously declare, "Do your practice, and all is coming"? The "all" here, I suppose, should include tight asses and beach bodies, don't you think?

But I suspect that many people out there may look at the tight-ass-motivated Ashtangi and shake their heads in disapproval, saying that our Ashtangi here should be aspiring to more exalted things. After all, if our friend here has "advanced" to second or even third series, shouldn't he or she have totally transcended any ass considerations, and be striving for higher, less body-oriented goals?

What might be these goals be? Energetic openings might be one possible candidate. The trouble with energetic openings is that, for one, they are not things that you can necessarily will or intend to occur at particular times or places in the practice (then again, is there anything in the practice--or indeed, in life--that works this way?). For another, according to Owl, it is quite possible that:

"most westerners intuitively slow down their own transformation by half-assing the concentration, relaxation, diet or drste. At first, some rajas or tamas intake (emotional, dietary, mental) may act as insulation." 

As somebody who half-asses these things in more ways than I can count (or am conscious of), I think I can understand at least some of what Owl is saying here, even if I may not fully appreciate what my half-assing is preventing me from experiencing (or insulating me from, if one wants to put a more positive spin on it... it's very much a matter of perspective here, I suppose :-)). If many other Ashtangis in the west are in the same position as me, then it looks like if one is to have any chance of experiencing any kind of energetic opening, one would need to eliminate those things in one's concentration, relaxation, diet or drste that are causing one to half-ass one's practice. Which is possible, I suppose, but definitely no mean feat.


Long story short: Striving for/aspiring to an energetic opening is probably counter-productive, and would probably lead to a lot of unnecessary suffering from unfulfilled expectations.

So striving for/aspiring towards energetic openings as an explicit goal of practice is out of the picture. What other possible candidate/s is/are left? What about Samadhi, that holiest of holy grails of yoga practice? After all, if one is going to forego tight-ass considerations as a motivation for practice, one may as well strive for the highest possible yogic goal. But samadhi turns out to be a little more complicated than might be apparent at first glance. Yoga Sutra 1.17 describes four forms of Sampragnata or distinguished samadhi:

"Thorough knowledge
is accompanied by inquiry
into its four forms
analytical thinking about an object,
meditative insights on thoughts,
reflections into the nature of bliss,
and inquiry into one’s essential purity."

translated by M. Stiles

According to Swami Shyam, these four forms of samadhi culminate in an inquiry into bliss during which there is an awareness of peace and joy, and a lack of awareness of words, meanings, time, space. At the same time, there is also an awareness of the fluctuations of asmi, the source of ahamkara, or ego.

Commenting on this passage, Swami Satchindananda further cautions that the practice of samprajnata samadhi must be pure and selfless or else the practioner or sadhaka will abuse their new found powers and abilities.

I find Satchindananda's words here very interesting: If one does not practice samadhi with pure and selfless intention, one will abuse one's newfound powers in this area. This means that it is possible for one to attain samadhi while having impure intentions and being selfish. In other words, it is possible to attain samadhi and still be a total asshole! Which means that one can be a self-realized asshole!

Interesting... But if one is going to make all these efforts to attain samadhi and still remain the asshole one was, why bother? Why not just stick with tight asses and beach bodies? At least one would have less things to worry about that way.

Maybe I have discovered a certain paradox; let's call this the paradox of samadhi: One starts out the yoga practice being an average asshole. In order to overcome this asshole nature, one embarks on the practice of yoga, aspires to and eventually attains samadhi. However, if Satchidananda is right, then it is quite possible that one could still be an asshole after attaining samadhi. A samadhied asshole, but an asshole no less.

Or maybe the goal of yoga practice isn't actually to stop being an asshole, in the first place. Maybe it's just this: Do your practice, and all is coming (and even if you are an asshole, it is still coming...). Shows what I know, right? :-)


  1. You crack me up Nobel.... Think I got lost there at the end... But still laughing so there must be some truth here! I was also struck by that exact paragraph at Owl's by the way, she has a way with words....

  2. Thanks for laughing, Claudia :-) I think the last couple of paragraphs could have been written more clearly.

    Yes, Owl is a very good writer.

  3. Based on what I have been taught, and my own experience, obtaining samadhi, even objectless samadhi, does not equate to or imply self realization. Samadhi is simply a tool that can help us get to realization. We still must use that tool regularly and allow purification to happen on deeper and deeper levels. And without the foundation of purity of intent (like if we are still striving after experiences, energetic openings, or mystical phenomena) the tool is useless and eventually can be self destructive.

    I once worked with a teacher, quite an adept who could abide in samadhi state and who could and did demonstrate some pretty fantastical attainments (siddhis/psychic powers). Despite his fantastical displays of knowledge and abilities, the striving in his heart (and suffering that goes with it) was still rather obvious. His workshops were like a 3 ring spiritual circus! I used to think anyone of his level of accomplishment must have done the work, must be on he right path, but after a while it became very clear what the yoga sutras say about attainments possibly indicating progress on the path but also being a big distraction and trap...

  4. I read that NYT article this weekend. I thought it was rather funny. I actually enjoyed her article. I definitely wouldn't call her an "advanced" practitioner if she was only practicing 3 days or less a week. Plus she admittedly eats meat and 'wines and dines" she's a bit foolish to think that Ashtanga would make her have a size 2 body despite the rest of her lifestyle.
    I must admit that at times I have wondered if I need more exercise than just my 2 hour practice 6 days a week. But I've learned that for my body, this is enough, especially since my work (teaching yoga and practicing bodywork) is very demanding and on top of that I walk a lot (I live in a small town with great weather). I thought her article pointed out a lot of the body image obsessiveness that can come with yoga (whether that was her intention or not!)
    There's a popular misconception in our superficial Western culture that practicing yoga will turn you into a supermodel who is perfectly serene and beautiful all the time. Obviously this is not true...Practice can be hard and fierce and it makes you confront yourself and your physical and mental limitations.
    Ashtanga has certainly changed my body. I am stronger, leaner and more toned than when I first started practicing, and I think I've lost at least 10 lbs since I first started, but that said it's not given me the "perfect" body (whatever that is!).
    So, all that is not directly connected to your main points in the post...but that's what I was thinking about.
    Having a healthier, stronger, thinner body is definitely a huge perk of the practice, but is it my goal? No. Even if it was one's goal in the beginning, the practice is hard enough that I would imagine that over time if one stuck with the practice, this goal would probably change as the practitioner deepens in his or her awareness. But really...who knows....

  5. Thanks for sharing, Tom. It's very insightful what you say, that Samadhi is simply a tool that can be used to aid one on the path to self-realization, but that, like asana, it can also be a distraction without purity of intent. This gives me much to think about.

    Thanks for sharing, Frances. It is definitely true that having a leaner, fitter body is a byproduct of the practice for many people. We need such a body in order to be of service to ourselves and others. But for many (including myself) the attainment of such a "perfect" body (along with attaining "perfect" asanas) often tends to become the be-all and end-all of practice, distracting us from the greater goal of yoga, which is self-realization.

    This, at any rate, is my two cents. I don't have the last word on this whole thing either :-)

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