Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Moon Day Poll; Ashtanga and the Art of Sports Car Maintenance (and ninjas)

Happy Moon Day, Ashtangis! If you are not an Ashtangi, and are reading this, Happy Moon Day anyway! For those you who are Ashtangis, I hope you are taking a well-deserved break from your Ashtangic labors, and indulging in whatever it is that you indulge on days when you do not have to (who said you have to, anyway?) spend one and a half to two hours bending yourself into all kinds of funny shapes. Hmm, really: What do Ashtangis do with the couple of extra hours that they have on Moon Days? Here are a few options that come to mind:

(a) Sleep a couple extra hours;

(b) Play video games (Somebody should seriously come up with a Wii version of Ashtanga for hardcore Ashtanga OCD folks; that way, if you, say, can't grab your heels in Kapotasana in your regular practice on the mat, you can try to "achieve" it on Wii. True, it's not the same as nailing the posture on the mat, but hey, you got to take what you can get :-));

(c) Read books (on Ashtanga or other subjects);

(d) Spend more time blogging (or spend more time reading Ashtanga blogs like this one :-));

(e) Have coffee or tea (with oneself or with others);

(f) Have sex (with oneself or with others);

(g) Some of the above;

(h) None of the above.

Actually, this looks like good material for a poll! So let's do it. In the right hand corner of this blog, you will see a poll with these eight options. As usual, polling is anonymous; not even I will know what you choose. So feel free to choose honestly, and to your heart's content.


Recently, it seems that a certain corner of the Ashtanga/yoga blogosphere has been abuzz with intimations of Ashtanga infidelity: This blogger has courageously confessed to Ashtanga that she is "seeing other yoga". Hmm... I'm pretty sure I know what Guruji would say about this:

 Bad Lady!
[Image taken from here]

But seriously, I'm probably not doing much justice to this particular blogger's sentiments in "cheating on" Ashtanga, which I thought she very eloquently expressed. She writes: 

"You see, I'm not a dogmatic person. I don't have a religion, and I don't subscribe to the idea that any one system is better than another. Yet when I was introduced to you, Ashtanga, that sense of superiority was somehow present in the subtext. Now, I know that you're saying "it's not my fault I'm misinterpreted!" - and you know what, you're right. It's not your fault! But somehow that's the message that slipped through - "Ashtanga is like the ferrari of Yoga", one teacher said to me. The implication being that other 'vehicles' will get you there (wherever there is!) all the same, but that Ashtanga will do it faster. And with a bit more panache, perhaps. And I admit, when I first come to the practice, I certainly felt a bit of that turbo charge from the fast pace of the sequence and all those vinyasas! But I've come to a time where I'm suddenly thinking that a Ferrari is maybe not the only car that I need, because really, a Ferrari is only good if you have perfectly smooth, wide roads - say, a healthy, fit, injury-free body.  To be honest, I'm more of a 4x4 girl myself - because life is not a smooth ride, and I'd happily sacrifice a bit of speed to make sure that I have enough flexibility to deal with anything that comes along!

And that's the thing, Ashtanga. In real life, I think that in order to be effective, a system has to be able to evolve and change. But in Ashtanga, there is no evolution of the system. We are taught that the system is perfect as it is, that it is enough, that it cannot be changed or modified."

Interesting. Let me start by talking about the Ferrari analogy. Honestly, speaking from my own experience, I'm not entirely sure that I would describe Ashtanga as a Ferrari (or any other kind of sports car). Maybe there is a certain "turbo" element to the whole thing, at least from the outside: Those jumpbacks and jumpthroughs sure look pretty impressive and "turbo-charged" to an onlooker. But this is just an appearance; and appearances, as we know, are deceptive. Beneath the facade of speed and panache lies a long, painstaking process; a process marked by many plateaus (brought about by physical limitations, pains, or injury), punctuated by the occasional spurts of "progress" or "achievement" (i.e. you "master" a particular pose, get a new one, do an "old" one with greater ease and less effort, or get one-tenth of an inch deeper in a challenging pose).

I guess I'll say this: If Ashtanga is a sports car, it is a very high-maintenance sports car, one that breaks down quite a lot. In fact, if what I said above about plateaus in the practice is any indication of what most Ashtangis' practices are like, I would go so far as to say that breakages are the norm rather than the exception in the practice. So why bother to practice? Why not choose an "easier", "lower-maintenance" vehicle? In order to answer this question, we need to consider another, related question: What should we do when we encounter breakages (plateaus, injuries, pains) in the practice? What is the most productive attitude to take toward these breakages? Even though he doesn't practice Ashtanga (at least not that I know of), Eckhart Tolle actually has something to say about this. He writes:

"Whatever you cannot enjoy doing, you can at least accept that this is what you have to do. Acceptance means: For now, this is what the situation, this moment, requires me to do, and so I do it willingly... For example, you probably won't be able to enjoy changing the flat tire on your car in the middle of nowhere and in pouring rain, let alone be enthusiastic about it, but you can bring acceptance to it. Performing an action in the state of acceptance means you are at peace while you do it. That peace is a subtle energy vibration which then flows into what you do. On the surface, acceptance looks like a passive state, but in reality it is active and creative because it brings something entirely new into this world. That peace, that subtle energy vibration, is consciousness, and one of the ways in which it enters this world is through surrendered action, one aspect of which is acceptance."

To illustrate what Tolle is saying here, let's apply his insight to a common occurrence in the practice: Injury. Sometimes, despite our best efforts at alignment/healthy movement or listening to our bodies, we still get injured in the course of the practice, because bodies are physical things, and physical things break. One could react to the injury by resisting it, asking "Why? Why me?!", and then proceed to either (a) try to deny the existence of the injury by simply pushing through the pain, or (b) give up the practice altogether. As anybody who has worked with injury in the practice knows, neither (a) nor (b) are productive responses. (a) is not productive, because it subjects one to more unnecessary pain, and can possibly aggravate the injury. (b) is also not productive, because although not practicing might mean no pain (at least temporarily), whatever it is that caused the injury in the first place is not being addressed, and the movement pattern that caused it will continue to lurk in the mind/body, setting the stage for possibly more pain and injury in the future. Here, one can't help recalling Tim Miller's famous words: "Avoidance is not the answer."

A more productive response would be one of acceptance. In this state, one tries one's best to practice with the injury, either by modifying and/or moving around the pain, even if doing so is not pleasant physically and mentally. By doing so, one not only allows healing to take place on a physical level; one also becomes able to understand the mind/body connection better with regard to this part of the body, and is able to bring the light of consciousness to bear on this part of the body. In so doing, one is able to gradually undo the deep-seated samskaric pattern that led to pain and injury in the first place, leading to healing on a deeper level.

When we understand that the most productive attitude to take towards pain and injury (and, for that matter, any kind of plateau-inducing phenomenon) in the practice is one of acceptance and surrender, the question of "Why bother to practice?" also answers itself: Although there are many obstacles and plateaus in the practice, these obstacles and plateaus are what make the practice "real" and meaningful. Working through these obstacles and plateaus presents a valuable opportunity to practice the surrender and acceptance which lie at the very heart of yoga. Indeed, I think we can even go as far as to say that these obstacles and plateaus constitute the raison d'etre of the practice: Without obstacles and plateaus and the surrenderful attitudes of acceptance that they demand, we may just as well be training to become gymnasts or acrobats. Or ninjas. Now don't get me wrong; ninjas are way cool. In fact, my childhood dream was (and probably still is) to become a ninja when I grow up. But we'll see...

This is who I want to be when I grow up (the male version, of course)
[Image taken from here]

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