Friday, April 13, 2012

Suffering animal sounds, difficulties in the practice, and the question of love (again)

I just read Kino's latest article on Elephant Journal. Lots of good stuff in it. Among other things, she writes about how yoga practice is like Navy Seal training (yes, Navy Seal training!), and how we can apply four important mental tools from Navy Seal training to help us when we face difficult postures in the practice.

I'm not going to talk about those four tools here (you can go read the article yourself ;-)). What I'm going to do here is share a few passages from her article that really speak to me, and say a few things here and there, like I always do. At the beginning of her article, Kino tells us a story about one of her students in her weeklong Mysore course: 

" the class that I was leading there was one student who made a small whimper every time a posture or movement was difficult. When I asked her if she was in pain she would invariably say no, just that she felt it was really hard. This sound came out of her in a subliminal manner without her even realizing it. This little whimper also came directly before she would quit and give up on the challenging movement.

...I had this sense that if she could gain control of this part of her nervous system then she would gain strength and clarity in her practice and perhaps also in her life. When we talked about the relationship between her “suffering animal” sound and quitting when postures were difficult she said that the sound must be subconscious because she wasn’t even aware of it.

When we returned to the practice and worked on one of the hardest movements for her, a deep backbend from the Ashtanga Yoga Intermediate Series, she was steady and calm, quiet and focused and actually able to go through the whole movement with strength. By concentrating the mind with the power of yoga she was able to rein in the involuntary urge to give up, give in, whimper and quit when things were difficult."

Hmm... why does something keep telling me this "deep backbend from the Ashtanga Yoga Intermediate Series" is Kapotasana? ;-) Well... because what other deep backbend from Intermediate Series is so notorious for inspiring so much fear and anxiety and, in this case, "suffering animal" sounds? (For a first-hand account of the emotional dramas that often accompany the performance of Kapotasana, see this post.) And if it is indeed Kapotasana we are talking about, then the yogini's emission of the "suffering animal sound" is totally understandable: If you do kapotasana in your practice, you know what a formidable posture it is.

But back to what Kino is saying. She continues:
"We all have our sounds of suffering: a grunt, a whimper, an exhale through the mouth or just a slouchy posture.

When these arise as a knee-jerk reaction to what you are experiencing and you allow that reaction to guide your actions, this pattern has a dangerous hold over you. To a larger degree the lesson of yoga is about gaining control over the nervous system when you stand in the face of panic, pain, stress and challenge. In this way yoga is actually meant as a training of the mind to prepare it to face adversity with a balanced emotional state.

If you have the energy to make a noise and grunt, you have energy to give to the posture or movement. Instead of just releasing the potency of the moment in a sound, try to direct your energy inward to the inner body and utilize the urgency of the moment to delve deeper within.

What you do when faced with these feelings will largely determine how you are able to adapt and move forward in your life.

If you collapse, quit, give up and give in to the suffering animal inside of yourself rather than train the mind to be steady and calm in the face of pain or danger than you are setting yourself up for failure. In order to work through painful and difficult circumstances the mind must learn how to be strong and balanced, clear and compassionate."

This passage really speaks to me. I feel that these words express very eloquently why we bring ourselves to the mat every morning and put ourselves through so many physical challenges. Actually, I would also like to add to Kino's list of things people do when they get to their "least favorite postures": One of my teachers told me that when she got to her least favorite posture, she would always consciously or unconsciously find herself getting up from the mat and taking a bathroom break!

But seriously, I really think that there is a lot of truth in Kino's observation that "If you have the energy to make a noise and grunt, you have energy to give to the posture or movement": Whether we are aware of it or not, every little action that we take or word that we utter releases energy. Actually, this is true of all our actions in the world at large, but our practice on the mat amplifies this fact and brings it to our attention in a way that is hard to ignore; unlike in off-the-mat life, where we often have the option of tuning out difficult feelings or sensations by distracting ourselves with all kinds of things in our surroundings, we cannot simply ignore or "tune out" the very uncomfortable sensation of not being able to breathe comfortably when we are in a challenging posture like Kapotasana. The practice forces us to face difficult situations, and make a conscious choice as to how we are to use the energy that we have. We can choose to release that energy in the form of a sound or gesture that expresses our fear, anxiety or frustration; or we can choose to move that energy "inward to the inner body", and use it to help us navigate the challenging posture. In this way, yoga can be likened to a Jedi training, both on and off the mat.

Actually, if we think about it a little, all this also sounds very much like pratyahara. We usually define pratyahara as withdrawal of the senses, but insofar as what we direct our sense-organs to often determines where our psychic energy goes, pratyahara can also be understood as a withdrawal or turning inward of psychic energy. So, in this way, working with difficult postures with equanimity and presence of mind through maintaining steadiness of breath is also an exercise in pratyahara. Pretty interesting, don't you think?


All this also makes me think about the recent conversation in certain quarters of the Ashtanga blogosphere about the question of whether it is possible to love the practice and still do the practice "right". It seems to me that if everything I (and Kino) said above is right, then the answer has to be: Most absolutely! If the practice is such a wonderful training ground for our minds and spirits, what's not to love about it? Sure, the practice is not all roses and whatnot (what's the correct expression here?), but then again, life isn't all roses and whatnot either. Should we cease to love life just because it is not all roses and whatnot? Should we cease to love people we love just because life with them is not all fun and games and fireworks? (I'm hoping your answer to all these questions is no :-)) The practice (and life) can be very difficult at times; indeed, if we take our lives (and practices) seriously, the difficult times may very well outnumber the joyful ones (or maybe it's just that the difficult times always feel longer...). But why make it harder by not allowing yourself to love it?

Grimmly recently commented that I may be overloading my readers with too many videos in my recent posts. But videos are fun! And Kino does make some pretty good videos. So, at the risk of overloading your senses with even more visual content (Ha! Talk about pratyahara...), I'll end this post with one of my favorite Kino videos. Enjoy!



  1. No Noble, not you, Kino. What I said was
    'I shouldn't comment though as I haven't watched Kino's video, too many videos recently no, overexposure?'

    I meant that Kino has been posting more and more videos, articles , seems like something every day or a few times a week at least, can't keep up. Overexposure perhaps, increasing her profile a little too much?

    1. I see; I misunderstood your comment :-)

      It does seem that Kino has been posting more videos and publishing more articles lately. I can't comment about whether there is such a thing as overexposure, but it seems to me that the quality of the articles has certainly not gone down as a result of this heightened exposure; if anything, her recent articles seem to have a more "real" quality to them and are very dense with relevant information (in a good way).

  2. Very inspiring post and I've learned a lot. It is true that there are bad things that we unconsciously and it is good if someone would draw our attention to it so that at least we can remove it or improve it.