Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Is there one "solitary" place to practice?

An interesting conversation has sprung up in the comment thread to Grimmly's recent post about places to practice. In the post, after showing us a video from the recent Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, Grimmly goes on to remark:

"I don't know though, cringed a bit at the shots of the resort [where the Confluence was held], just as uncomfortable with that as with the sardine packed shala in Mysore.

It's me I know, I have some warped and twisted hangup that yoga is a private, solitary practice that belongs in forests or on mountainsides, deer parks and yes, caves, ever the romantic. And if you haven't got a cave handy then you make one yourself in some corner of your abode. A householder you may be but for an hour or so (or four) you get to be a cave yogi too."

Very interesting. And then, presumably in order to support his views on solitary home practice, Grimmly goes on to quote the following passages from Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda and the Hathayogapradipika commentary by Jyotsna of Brahmananda:

'3.1 Places to practice Yoga
The following places are superior; a place with plenty of water, a fertile place, a place where there is a bank of a holy river, where there are no crowds, a clean solitary place _ such places are superior. in such a place yoga can be practiced'.
Krishnamacharya Yoga Makaranda p33.
12. He who practices Hatha-Yoga should live alone in a small math (monastery) situated in a place free from rocks, water and fire to the extent of a bow's length and in a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom.

13. The math should have a small door, and should be without any windows; it should be level and without any holes; it should be neither too high, too low nor too long. It should be very clean, being well smeared with cow dung (a natural antiseptic) and free from all insects. Outside it should be attractive with a small hall and a raised seat and a well and surrounded by a wall. These are the characteristics of a yoga-matha as laid down by the Siddha-s who have practiced hatha-yoga.

14 living in such a monastery (the Yogin), being free in mind of all cares, should practice only yoga all the time, in the way taught by his Guru.'
 The Hathayogapradipka commentary by Jyotsna of Brahmananda

Well... I realized that I basically just reproduced the whole of Grimmly's post here, except the Confluence video! Shows how original my blogging is these days, doesn't it? :-)

In any case, I really don't know what to make of these passages from the Yoga Makaranda and the HYP commentary. First, consider that passage about living  in a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom... Do I live in a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom? Well, probably not; not if by "virtuous and well-ruled", you mean something like a zero percent crime rate. In any case, is a "kingdom" that is "ruled" by a Democratic administration more virtuous than a Republican one? Or maybe, if you happen to live in the United Kingdom (no pun intended), you would presumably be asking the same question about the Tories versus Labour. Anyway, I guess what I'm getting at is: What the heck is a "virtuous and well-ruled kingdom"? And if I don't happen to live in a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom, what do I do? Move to another kingdom? Start an armed revolution, and install a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom in its place? Wait... doesn't that violate Ahimsa? I'm really clueless here.

And then there is that passage about the cow dung... seriously? Smearing cow dung around your practice mat/mysore rug? (Need I say more?)

Well, if you think all these musings here sound very silly, well, they are! Because whenever one takes an ancient text and tries to interpret and implement its instructions literally, one ends with silly consequences, at the very least. Or one might end up with worse and more tragic consequences, if one is enough of a fundamentalist... (This coming from an Ashtanga Fundamentalist? Go figure.)

Now think about this: If it is silly to interpret the passages about the well-ruled kingdom and cowdung literally, might it not also be silly to interpret literally the part about living and practicing alone in a solitary place free from crowds?

Might it not be that perhaps, just perhaps, the Makaranda and the HYP are not supposed to be interpreted literally? Maybe "solitary place" does not refer to a physical location where you go to be literally alone; maybe it refers to a state of mind? Could it be that with the right concentration (think drishti), one can be solitary even in a very packed mysore room or resort room (or even in Mysore itself)? Conversely, if one lacks the right concentration, one might very well find oneself beset by all kinds of unsolitary thoughts even in the solitude of the deepest cave.

I must clarify that none of this is meant to say that one kind of practice place is "better" or "more appropriate" than others. Due to my circumstances, I have a mostly solitary home practice. And I know that Grimmly also has a solitary home practice, and has benefited many people through his blogging (and videos) of his practice. (I have a suspicion, though, that Grimmly's solitary practice is more voluntary in nature than mine, which is more or less imposed by circumstances, but this is beside the point here...). But I wouldn't say that my practice (or Grimmly's) is "better" or "more concentrated" (or more "drishtified", if there is such a word) than the practice of somebody who goes to a shala. Ultimately, I think it is the intention of the practitioner that makes all the difference. This brings to mind the following lines from Kipling:

"If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!"

If you substitute "talk" with "practice" and "crowds" with "a crowded shala/Mysore/resort room" in the first line, you'll get the picture: perhaps equanimity/drishti/whatever belongs not to the person who can only practice in one kind of place, but who can practice and keep his or her equanimity/drishti/whatever wherever he or she happens to find himself or herself in.

Just my two cents', as always.         


  1. Kipling, Nobel, really? (as it happens I'm related).

    you missed out 'such places are superior' from the Makaranda quote.

    I'm using it as utopia theory 'no-place' against which to measure own own.

    But perhaps your right, a 'superior place' can perhaps be found in the most crowded of rooms.
    See this wonderful Anonymous comment to the post

    'But stuffing yourself sardine-style into the Mysore room was liberating on a different level - I felt like I was wholly anonymous. Perhaps 2% of the people in that room would recognize me, and only one of the teachers would. So in a sense, it was more pure than practicing alone, where I am focusing very much on my self. A huge crowd let me slip into something a little more detached from myself and that iteration of my practice'.

    1. You're related to Kipling (as in biologically related)? How interesting!

      "you missed out 'such places are superior' from the Makaranda quote"

      This only raises the question: Superior in what sense?

      Yes, I saw the anonymous comment too. It's a beautiful description of what I have in mind. Perhaps practicing in a crowded room allows one to "merge" and in a sense achieve "union" with a greater body. In this sense, this kind of practice is also yoga :-)

  2. Great food for thought Nobel!...and you quoted one of my favorite poems
    "If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too"...

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