Sunday, March 25, 2012

Practice, transitions, limitations

Yesterday (Saturday), I went to morning mysore practice at my friends Derek and Brenda's studio in downtown Fargo, ND. Derek and Brenda have been running this mysore class, which meets once a week (Saturday morning at 9 a.m.), for close to 4 months now. Now that I'm talking about it, I should also give it a little plug: If you are ever in Northwest Minnesota/North Dakota on a Saturday morning (why would you be? But that's a question for another day...), please think about stopping by and practicing here. I try to go whenever I can make it; since I mostly practice at home, it is quite a treat to be able to go practice with others at least occasionally. I always feel that I build up more heat and tapas when I am practicing alongside others.

After practice, I chatted with Derek for a little bit. Brenda and he just had a baby girl a couple of weeks ago, and Derek was sharing with me about how they have been sleeping rather irregularly, waking up whenever the baby wakes up (I'm guessing that those of you out there who have children might be able to relate to this...), and squeezing in an hour or even a half-hour of practice when the baby takes a nap. He also said that they might even bring the baby to morning mysore in a couple of months. Now that would be pretty cool, wouldn't it? I mean, when was the last time you saw a baby in mysore class? :-) And just imagine what the earliest memories of this baby would be when she grows up... ("My earliest memories are of mom and dad bringing me to this funny room smelling of incense, where people do funny things like jump back and forth, fold themselves into half, and put their legs behind their heads. And then there's this little picture of this little old Indian guy (Guruji) at the front of the room...")

Anyway, as I was listening to Derek, it also really struck me how his present practice experience really brings into sharp relief the nature of the practice. If you have been practicing Ashtanga for a little while, you will know that it is only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that Ashtanga yoga is the yoga of "no": The practice confronts you with limitations everywhere you turn. Whether you are a relative "newbie" who is working on the standing postures or whether you are an "advanced" practitioner in the depths of third or fourth series, there is plenty in the practice to challenge you physically, mentally and emotionally: By bringing your body to places that you did not previously imagine it capable of going, subjecting it to postures that you may not even have previously imagined it capable of attaining, your ability to maintain equanimity and a spirit of humble acceptance is also being pushed to the limit.

The demanding nature of the practice becomes even more apparent in times of transition or major life changes: These can range from physical practice-related issues such as injuries or pain, to big life changes such as having a new member of the family. During these times, the limitations that the practice throws at one becomes even more pronounced: Over and above the inherently challenging nature of the practice itself, one also has to work with the pain or discomfort imposed by these changes.

So why do so many of us continue with the practice in the face of all of these challenges both inherent to and outside the practice? Well... one possible answer is that we are all suckers for pain and punishment: Perhaps it is really true that dedicated, "hardcore" Ashtangis are all a bunch of sadomasochists; a bunch whose numbers are increasing all the time, by the looks of it (as they say, "A sucker is born every minute")...

But I personally prefer to believe that there is much more to this practice than just enduring pain and punishment. In particular, I like to think that there is great value to be found in voluntarily and courageously confronting our limitations on a daily basis. In her latest post, Magnolia Zuniga shares this quote from the I-Ching:

‘Limitations are troublesome, but they are effective. If we live economically in normal times, we are prepared for times of want. To be sparing saves us from humiliation. Limitations are also indispensable in the regulation of world conditions. In nature there are fixed limits for summer and winter, day and night, and these limits give the year its meaning. Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man's life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is.’

Could it be that many of our limitations, far from merely restricting our freedom, are really there to help us understand ourselves--our unique strengths, as well as our inherent weaknesses--better? In so doing, we acquire the ability to move and act more effectively in the world, and be of service both to ourselves and to others. Seen in this way, Ashtanga practice is really a practice that enables us to work constructively with these limitations so that we can move more effectively with greater self-understanding, both on and off the mat. In this way, the limitation is actually a gift; without it, we wouldn't have a place to start to work on and transform ourselves. 

Ha! I just realized that the tone of this post has subtly shifted into sermon/preaching mode without my being quite aware of it ("Welcome to Yoga in the Dragon's Den's Sunday sermon. You may not get enlightened or acquire any siddhis from listening. Heck, you won't even get any coffee! But you will at least leave with a bellyful of words and ideas that may or may not mean anything. Chew on it. Amen/Namaste."). I guess this means that I have reached the limitations of my blogging prowess for now. So I'll sign off now. More later.            


  1. Well, one thing is certain about the dedicated Ashtanga practitioner: we don't get discouraged easily. Or, if we do, we seem to be able to work through the discouragement. I think the small epiphanies of the practice help you to get through the darkness. Instead of the yoga of "no", maybe it's more like, the yoga of "not yet."

    1. 'Instead of the yoga of "no", maybe it's more like, the yoga of "not yet."'

      Well said! Or maybe it's the yoga of Dirga Kala: Long, long time... At any rate, it's definitely not the yoga of instant gratification.

  2. Really great stuff in the last two, Nobel. Well done.

    1. Thanks Patrick :-) Nice UHP, by the way :-)