"All the handstands, acrobatic jump throughs, deep backbends and exciting postures are all just cheap tricks, but the miracle of the practice is no joke. The gravity of what happens underneath the physical through the practice of yoga is something that is incredibly hard to explain in words. It borders on the ineffable because the magic of yoga happens exactly when you touch the divine within yourself.
When your mind shifts awareness to the highest nature of spirit, the physical body heals, transforms and changes. But if you get caught in trying to master only the superficial tricks of the practice, you run the risk of preventing the experience, the magic, that is at the heart of yoga...
If you are not willing to let the experience of learning how to do a handstand literally turn your perspective on the world upside down, then a handstand is just a handstand. But if you are willing to let the process challenge your attachments, humble your ego and unlock compassionate strength then the process of yoga is happening. It is your choice what you focus on through the practice."
I really feel that this last paragraph really captures the essence of the asana practice. If you have been practicing Ashtanga for a while, you will no doubt notice that there is a certain paradoxical nature to the asana practice: It demands that you work really, really hard on a physical level to achieve some very specific physical outcomes, be it mastering a jumpthrough, getting into a deeper back/forward bend, or mastering a handstand. Indeed, I sometimes think that if somebody were to just randomly stumble into a mysore room and observe everything that's going on, that person might very well get the impression that all that's going on is a bunch of rather scantily-clad people doing gymnastic moves in a rather amateurish manner, accompanied by some unusually loud breathing. Because that's really what's happening, on a purely physical level.
And yet we also know that's not the whole story. What matters is not just what you do, but with what spirit you do it. Am I reaching for my heels in Kapotasana just to get that ego gratification that comes from getting my heels in Kapotasana (I may as well 'fess up here, and admit that I am not beyond such ego-gratification)? Or can I allow the process of reaching for my heels to be a sort of surrender, an exercise in challenging my attachments, humbling my ego, and unlocking compassionate strength? Therein lies the paradox of the asana practice: What appears to be extreme physical exertion and striving from an external perspective can actually be a tool for transformative surrender.
I'm now going to take this discussion in a rather different direction. At the risk of flogging what may be a very dead horse (there's got to be a less Ahimsa-violating analogy here...), I'm going to draw your attention to a striking parallel between Kino's words and something that we have been talking a lot about recently in the blogsphere: Going or not going to Mysore. (You should have seen this coming... well, it's still not too late to stop reading now :-)) Where is the parallel? To see this, simply replace "learning how to do a handstand" in that last paragraph with "going to Mysore". Here goes:
"If you are not willing to let the experience of going to Mysore literally turn your perspective on the world upside down, then going to Mysore is just, well, going to Mysore. But if you are willing to let the process challenge your attachments, humble your ego and unlock compassionate strength then the process of yoga is happening. It is your choice what you focus on through the practice."
Although I have yet to go to Mysore, I have always suspected that going to Mysore isn't just about going to a physical place and practicing in a particular shala under a particular teacher (Sharath or Saraswati), although these are wonderful things in themselves. I suspect that a big part of the experience lies in getting way out of one's comfort zone, letting go of what one is or was, and laying oneself bare on many levels (physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual), allowing the experience of practicing and living in a very strange and unfamiliar place to change one in ways that one cannot anticipate. I think this may be part of what Owl has in mind when she writes about being a zero. In this sense, the physical act of going to Mysore is like the asana practice: It's not just what one does, but with what spirit one does it.
But I suppose somebody could probably respond to all this by saying, "Well, if it's just about going to a foreign place and getting out of your comfort zone, how is going to Mysore to practice different from going to, say, Paris or Timbuktu?" Well, aside from the fact that the KPJAYI is not in Paris or Timbuktu, I'll say that there probably isn't that much of a difference where you go; again, it's a matter of with what spirit one goes where one goes. I suppose it is possible to go to Timbuktu (I've never been there, and know nothing about the place: I basically just pulled this place out of my mind's a%%; if you are reading this, and happen to be from Timbuktu, please feel free to call me out, and educate me about the intricacies of the place. I'll humbly accept whatever you have to teach me), stay there for a couple of months, do the practice while there (or not), and have a totally transformative experience. There. I said it. So it appears, in the final analysis, that there is nothing particularly special about going to Mysore after all.
Oh well. There's a part of me that feels that I should probably write more, and try to say something about why practicing in Mysore might be very different from practicing in Timbuktu. But since I have never been to either of these places (yes, I'm an armchair Ashtangi... how about that?), I think any such attempt would be in bad faith. And besides, today is clearly not a good blogging day. My mind is running all over the place, as you can see, and it would be very unfair to subject you to more of my chitta vrtti if you have been kind enough to actually read this far. So I'll sign off now. More later.