Monday, December 19, 2011

Devotional gymnastic assholes

Practice this morning was great. Still modifying most of my half-lotus postures, except Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana and Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana; the idea is to work on getting into these postures slowly, taking as much time and as many breaths as are needed, and try to move into them by using the external rotators and the adductors rather than just muscling into them; the general idea is to initiate the action from the hips/core rather than from the knee. I figured that if I can teach my body how to get into these first two half-lotus postures effectively and safely, I can then apply the same lessons to all the other half-lotus and lotus postures in primary and second. This approach seems promising so far. I'll write more about this as things develop.  

On the backbend front, there are some interesting developments. Over the last week or so, as I bring my mind's eye to focus more on opening in the mid-back, I have been able to get deeper into Kapotasana. This morning, I managed to grab that area where the Achilles Tendon ends and the calve begins on both legs (is there a name for this part of the lower leg?).

That's the thing about asana practice sometimes; you "lose" something, but "get" something and "progress" in another area. Interesting, don't you think?

But there is really no such thing as a bad practice in Ashtanga. We have a tendency to judge and differentiate between "good" practice days and "bad" practice days. "Good" days are commonly thought of as days on which the practice flows smoothly and seamlessly, when one's breaths and movements are (relatively) smooth and unencumbered, and one's mind is not full of "monkey thoughts". "Bad" days are, well, everything that good days are not. But in the bigger scheme of things, even so-called "bad" days are actually good days. I think Guruji once said, "The only bad practice is no practice." In his latest post, Patrick expresses this very nicely when he writes:

"And in this way, devotional practice is regular practice, because there's nothing to gain or lose. I still get sore (annamaya) but it's the energy management (pranamaya; and with it, hints of emotional management) that really happens. Annamaya contains, runs with, alongside, pranamaya, and it's more and more, now emotional energy that is cracked out of fascia, anger at my household situation, mourning about my father earlier this year, anxiety about the holiday travel with my family's chronic weird communication and suburbanity, other things. Practice is not ABOUT these things, but I am about these things, and I learn this in practice. I see my own noise better. I hear the jam band that is my emotional/physical/energetic state, over the bass note of practice's equanimity."


"I see my own noise better"... I like that. Do we become better people when we are able to see our own noises better? I think the answer is yes, according to the Official Yoga Party Line. If you are able to see your own noises better, you will be able to achieve a certain level of detachment/distance/separation from your own noises, and you will then be able to make more conscious, "yogic" decisions, rather than simply react to those noises. Problem solved. 

Several years ago, at an asana intensive, Nicki Doane approached what I think is the same point from a slightly different direction. She said something to this effect, "If one has a beautiful asana practice, but is an asshole off the mat, then one is merely doing gymnastics."

I suppose one way to respond to Nicki's words might be, "Well, what's wrong with doing gymnastics? It's at least good to look at, if nothing else. Think about it: Any asshole can be an asshole, but it takes something to be a gymnastic asshole..." But of course, being the nice Asian guy that I was (and hopefully, still am), it did not occur to me at that time to muster such a comeback. Sidenote: I will seriously pay a lot of money to see the expression on Nicki's face if somebody were to muster such a comeback. If you are planning on doing this soon, please let me know :-)

Hmm... that wasn't very nice, Nobel. I wonder what's wrong with me today; I've been in a rather subversive mood the whole day. But anyway, I guess what I was trying to say (before I got sucked into that subversive digression) is that according to the Official Yoga Party Line, what Nicki is implying is that if one hopes to get more out of the asana practice than mere gymnastics, one needs to do something more with the asana practice than simply strive for physical perfection. Or, as Kino would say, one must "make the transition from a fitness oriented approach to yoga into a devotional one."

Sounds good. But maybe things aren't that simple... What do I mean? Well, in the course of making that transition to a devotional approach to the practice, one often has to radically change one's lifestyle habits and schedule. These changes do not just affect oneself: They also affect people close to oneself. For instance, your significant other may start noticing that you are no longer willing to stay up late to, say, watch movies or hang out or partake in other, uh, more intimate activities. Or you may start turning down perfectly legitimate requests from your friends to help them out with certain things at certain hours of the day, because you either have decided to set aside those hours for practice, or you have decided that you need to be getting certain of your own stuff done by a certain time if you are to get to bed by a certain hour so that you can get up and do your practice at a certain hour tomorrow. (How do I know about all these things, you may ask?...)

And might it not be possible that the friends and loved one/s you have turned down in the course of this transition might see you as an asshole for being this way? Oh well, maybe you don't have this problem. Good, good... But what if you are one of these unfortunate souls who do face this kind of dilemma?

On one level, it is probably things like this that have rightly or wrongly earned Ashtangis the reputation of being uptight/anal/dogmatic/judgmental/whatever type A personalities. So, one solution is obviously to "let go", "get a life', and don't be so uptight/anal/dogmatic/judgmental/whatever. Well, okay, but I can't help feeling that one can only "let go" so much before one throws out the proverbial baby with the bathwater (sorry, can't find a less violent metaphor...).

Anyway, I think this is becoming one of those posts where I'm not quite sure where I'm going, or how I'm going to end. So I may as well end now, while I'm still semi-lucid. But I guess you can see that there is some kind of a paradox here, which is something like this: In the course of trying to move towards a devotional approach to the practice (which would, if everything goes according to plan, make one less of an asshole), one becomes the asshole that one is trying not to become. Interesting, don't you think?   


  1. As I read your post today, you reminded me that I need to work slowly getting into Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana and Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana. I have an ankle that is very stubborn and often causes me pain in Mari B and D. I think I need to try to relax and focus a little bit more as opposed to trying to force my foot up into the hip crease. Thanks for helping me become more aware as I step on the mat tomorrow.

  2. Dear Nobel
    i'guess lately i've had a string of bad practices, by Guruji's definition. i'm hoping to find an apartment closer to the office so i have no commute and therefore some time to practice again in the mornings.

  3. Glad to be of some help, Juliana :-) Tell me how it goes.

    Hello Arturo, good to hear from you again. I hope you succeed in finding a place closer to your office, so that you can stop being a "bad man" :-)

  4. That is a very interesting paradox Nobel...I guess there are many kinds of asshole a person could be, and as the practice becomes more devotional our beloved hypothetical yogi trades in being one kind of asshole for another, perhaps less assholic asshole. That's seems to be part of the process, becoming more aware of our 'noise,' and slowly replacing that noise with quieter, more peaceful noise, and on and on until we reach silence. And even when we reach silence some people might still think we are assholes because they do not hold a shared belief that silence is a desired quality...