Friday, January 27, 2012

Why we all suck at yoga (and why we should be okay with sucking)

In his recent post, Steve over at The Confluence Countdown writes:

"I don’t believe that the lesson of yoga is to learn that I’m perfect the way I am or to accept my place in the world or anything of the kind.

It’s a modern form of Tapasya, an attempt to burn away “the bad fat,” as we read in Guruji’s Yoga Mala, in both its literal and figurative forms. It’s hard. It’s rough. It’s grueling.

And, apparently, I still suck at it."

Much of what Steve says here resonates with me. I also agree that the purpose of yoga isn't to learn that I am perfect as I am; or maybe I am perfect, but to get to that perfection, I need to burn away a little "bad fat." Which is what the practice is for. And it takes a while (actually, according to Guruji, it takes Dirga Kala--a long, long while) to burn away that bad fat. And in the process, one gets to see the badness of that bad fat in all its glory (ego, assholeness, etc.).

Actually, I suspect that this is one of the main sticking points that separates Ashtangis from other yogis. If one does the Ashtanga practice daily, one cannot help but see all that "bad fat". And once you see the bad fat, you can't ignore it; which means that you will almost inevitably think that you "suck." I'm guessing that's probably why so many Ashtangis come across as being self-critical, even self-judgmental, in their writings: Writings on many an Ashtanga blog are filled with reports about how one's practice on or off the mat is still lacking in this or that area, and how this or that area needs more work.

I, of course, am a constant contributor to such writing. So much so, that not too long ago, a commenter on one of my posts remarked that devout Ashtangis are not peaceful and very judgmental. I have to say that there's something very funny about being accused of being devout (maybe yoga is a kind of religion, after all) and not peaceful: It's a little bit like being accused of not being happy... I mean, what do you want me to do, be more happy?

In any case, I don't think Ashtangis write like this in order to be intentionally unpeaceful and judgmental. It's the stuff that the practice forces you to see in yourself; and if your writing is "real", it will reflect this stuff. Stuff which induces in you a perpetual sense of "sucking." I think David Garrigues made pretty much the same point when he said something to the effect somewhere that the practice induces a constant sense of disappointment and failure. And perhaps failure and disappointment aren't such bad things if you face them down on a daily basis: They simply become the fabric of your existence and a constant reminder of how much work there is to be done. To use a very cliched expression, it is what it is.

So if everything I just said is correct, then Ashtangis are suckers for sucking: We know that every day's practice is going to leave us with a sense of sucking, but that doesn't stop us from showing up on the mat everyday, and sucking anyway. And sucking is okay. Woody Allen famously said that 80% of success is showing up. Well, I think if he practices Ashtanga, he would be saying, "99% of success is showing up and sucking."  If you don't suck (or think you don't, at any rate), then, well... then you probably don't need to practice Ashtanga. Yay!


In other news: Anybody know what happened to Susan? It appears that after posting her latest post earlier today, her blog kind of disappeared. I mean, the blog is still there, but it seems to have been emptied/deleted of all its posts. Susan, if you are out there reading this, can you respond (comment on this post, or otherwise get in touch with me)? I don't mean to sound self-important or anything, but I would really hate to lose touch with a fellow Ashtanga blogger whose writings I really enjoy.    


  1. Hey Nobel!

    I miss Susan's blog too! Where is it? I really wanted to hear what she had to say about Dwi Pada Sirsasana. Susan! Where are you?

    Strange things happen in India. To blogs and to internal organs.

    As for sucking, well, it seems that with the wrong attitude a great deal of self-deprecation is possible for Ashtangis. I've been through stages of my practice where I was chronically beating myself up for not being able to do such-and-such a posture. And if ever I figured in out, there would be the next one I couldn't do. And I would be a terrible, sucky person.

    One of the teachers in Halifax suggested I cut out Karandavasana for awhile. Since it seemed to have such a life-or-death quality. I stopped for a week. A lesson in non-grasping I guess but I felt rather unorthodox. I quit the posture for a week. Then I conveniently decided I had gotten over my attachment to the posture and started doing it again. I'd meant to write a post called, "Why I Broke the Karandavasana Fast," but I postponed it until it became out-of-date. The reason for breaking the fast was probably something along the lines of: as long the process is not fatal, looking at your failures and disappointments, even every day, is healthy... The beauty of vinyasa is that you can jump back and erase the failure and disappointment every time.

    I hope we find Susan soon.
    Take care, Erica.

    1. Hey Erica,
      It appears that Susan is back in the blogosphere (see Claudia's comment below); but her blog is now a pop-up blog. Which means we can only read one post at a time, and can't access past posts. Yes, strange things do happen in India.

      Sometimes "fasting" on a pose can make it stronger and deeper when you get back to working on it. That has been my experience. I hope you feel that way too.

  2. Susan said in Facebook: I've just deleted my entire blog. Nothing to worry about, I just got sick of being frustrated by it.... she said it was a trivial issue related to blogger acting up... we all miss her, she knows :-)

    1. Thanks for the update, Claudia. I was starting to worry that the Ashtanga police may have arrested Susan and then shut down her blog for writing something blasphemous in her latest post :-)

  3. Hi Nobel. Thanks for missing me, guys!

    For the record, here is what happened - iPad is incredibly buggy (in fact I can't even comment here with it!!! I've just spent ages trying, then finally written this as an email and mailed it to my iPhone to paste in!). The BlogPress app wouldn't work with iPad at all and kept telling me I had no network connection; then I tried switching over to the newer Blogger backend in case that would help, but it then didn't work with iPad anymore either. And although I managed finally to post something (albeit without photos) Blogger removed all the paragraph breaks and jumbled it all together; and then it wouldn't allow me to edit but just brought up a blank page. By this time I decided I just didn't need this frustration in my life and deleted the whole thing (well, I couldn't delete the blog, but just all the posts).

    So this morning I got an email from BlogPress, who put out a new release to fix their part of the problem, and I was able to post something today. But I decided not to keep a history going forward either, now that the past is gone. It seems self-indulgent. I don't need to go over my past posts.... so it's going to be on a pop-up basis, here today and gone tomorrow just like real life is. But at least this way I can still communicate.

    Basically, iPads look slick, but I wouldn't recommend one!!!!

  4. I bet you're sorry you asked :-))

    1. I'm so glad you are okay, and that you haven't been hauled away for engaging in un-Ashtangic activities :-) I'm really sorry about your misadventures with your iPad/BlogPress. Must be very energy-draining. This is probably why I am a bit new-technology-resistant: I don't have an iPad, and still do all my online activities using my laptop. Sometimes, less technology is more... But anyway, don't mean to rant about technology here. I'm glad you are doing well.

  5. Interesting article, Nobel.
    I actually have no first hand experiences with Ashtanga. My practice is with Anusara and that is all I have known since I started my practice 2yrs ago. I have a girlfriend of mine who does Ashtanga, and she loves it! Is it true and most Ashtangas are very self critical? I don't think I would want to show up if I felt like that all the time. Focusing on what I'm doing right and progressing keeps me coming back. Please understand that I'm not criticizing...I'm just trying to understand. :-)
    Great blog, btw!


    1. Thanks for commenting, Justin. I'm probably overstating the point a little in this post. I suppose the practice must appeal to one in some way or other in order for us to have a reason to keep coming back to the mat: If it is just a sadomasochistic exercise in self-torture, why do it?

      But having said this, I must also say that if one keeps at the practice long enough, one will inevitably encounter pain of some sort, either mental or physical; I'm not advocating injuring or otherwise hurting oneself deliberately. But the repetitive nature of the practice is such that one cannot do it without it bringing up issues on one level or another. And in a sense, facing these issues on the mat is the point of the practice. It would be nice, I suppose, if one can just breeze through the practice everyday. But for many Ashtangis (including myself), facing pain on some level and working with it is a necessary part of growing and becoming more integrated as a person. At least, this has been my experience. I can't speak for other Ashtangis, or practitioners of other styles of yoga.

  6. Gotcha.
    I keep coming back because of the sense of community. I've me some amazing people with my practice and have surprised myself on what I have done on my mat. Pretty cool. I'm sure you'd experienced the same. Us yogis are pretty amazing. We work extremely hard, but play just as hard.
    And, we have amazing butts! Ha!
    I'm following your blog. Looking forward to the next post!


    1. Yes, I think community (online or in real-life) is a wonderful thing, and is what keeps us going. And yes, I think we are pretty amazing; not so sure about the amazing butts part, as I rarely see my behind :-)

      Just visited your blog. Nice blog. Keep blogging!

  7. Nobel, I love this post. I, too, deal with discouragement and disappointment a lot in my practice. After 15 years of seemingly incremental progress, somehow I still roll out my mat and practice every day. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it sucks less, and occasionally it feels blessedly easy.

    I think folks who stick with Ashtanga tend not to get discouraged easily. I aim to be accepting, at peace, most of the time, with the difficulty of it, with the challenge, with the suffering that's inherent in the practice. Vairagyam. Even though physically much is the same as when I started practicing (although I sometimes suspect a lot of that is because my practice is mainly alone - I have rarely had the opportunity to practice with a teacher or get assists) I still remain curious and hopeful and try to playfully explore the potential of my mind and body through the practice.

    The loneliness of practice can tend to make me feel a bit sorry for myself...but, that's the bad fat. And, so, I practice, and try again.

    Dirga kala, long time.

    1. Yes, the practice is definitely a practice in Vairagyabhyam. I think a big part of the beauty of it lies in simply venturing out on the mat everyday, and trying to stay open to what one finds.

      Did I hear that you are going to the Confluence (are you the same Michelle who comments regularly on the Confluence Countdown blog)? If so, have fun at the Confluence!