Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ashtanga practice as the death of fear and ego

I just saw this video that Kino made about practicing Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore and her thoughts on the path of Ashtanga practice. It has the same aesthetic feel as the Mysore Magic movie that came out earlier this year; which is not surprising, really, since James Kambeitz, who did the cinematography for the earlier movie, is also the director, cinematographer and editor for this one. As with the earlier movie, this video also opens with some street-level shots of Mysore, then cuts to scenes of practice in the shala, with Kino's running interview/commentary throughout the whole thing.

I am probably a bit biased here, but I feel that this video goes more in depth into the character and nature of the practice and what it does to you than the earlier Mysore Magic movie. But maybe I'm not being fair here; perhaps the two movies have different "missions": Perhaps the role of the Mysore Magic movie is to give people who are uninitiated and know little about Mysore and the shala a taste of what the experience is about, as told through the perspectives of various practitioners. And perhaps the role of this video is to go into a little more depth into just what practicing in Mysore (and practicing Ashtanga in general, wherever you happen to be) does to the practitioner. As such, I think it is a great video.

Kino is quick to say, at the very beginning of the video, that going to Mysore to practice at the shala is not a vacation (despite claims made by some people in the blogosphere about Club Mysore), and that yoga is not an escape. The physical practice serves as a mirror to seriously look within oneself. As Kino notes, very often, when one is practicing, many thoughts and feelings (some of them not very pleasant) come up. Unlike in most other life situations, when unpleasant thoughts and feelings come up in practice, one can't point to any particular person or event as the trigger. Which means that one is left with no choice but to face these feelings, breathe, and continue to practice with those feelings. Or, I suppose, one can just roll up the mat, go home (if one is at a shala), turn on the TV, and settle back with some popcorn with the TV tuned to one's favorite reality show. But if you are in Mysore, this is not really an option, right? Not with Sharath watching you... Well, maybe this is the real magic of Mysore. Damn! Got to get my a$$ there soon...

There is one other thing that Kino said later in the video that really resonates with me: In practice, as in life, if you try to accomplish things by brute force, you inevitably end up hurting yourself and others. The trick is to lean into whatever it is that is bringing up fear in you, breathe, be with that thing, and wait patiently for things to open up. Easier said than done, of course, but think about it this way: All fear is ultimately the ego trying to hold us back from expanding and deepening our lives. When we go into uncharted territory and feel our fears without running from them, we shine the light of consciousness on these fears; the fears lose their power, and we powerfully and fundamentally expand and deepen our lives. The ego tries to avoid this expansion and deepening. Why does it do this? Because it knows that if it allows life to expand and deepen, it will bring about its own death. And since the ego fears death, it will do anything to avoid having to face fear directly. Which is why it always tells us to just put on an appearance of being put-together, and push through and accomplish things by brute force, at any cost. To do the practice seriously is to face and feel these fears head-on, without either running away from them or trying to eliminate them by brute force. We could even say that to do the practice is to constantly allow the ego to die a natural death. Actually, I was just reading something by Eckhart Tolle that really expresses this point very succinctly. So perhaps I'll leave you with his words here:

'Fear seems to have many causes. Fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of being hurt, and so on, but ultimately all fear is the ego's fear of death, of annihilation. To the ego, death is always just around the corner. In this mind-identified state, fear of death affects every aspect of your life. For example, even such a seemingly trivial and "normal" thing as the compulsive need to be right in an argument and make the other person wrong--defending the mental position with which you have identified--is due to the fear of death. If you identify with a mental position, then if you are wrong, your mind-based sense of self is seriously threatened with annihilation. So you as the ego cannot afford to be wrong. To be wrong is to die. Wars have been fought over this, and countless relationships have broken down...

Since the ego is a derived sense of self, it needs to identify with external things. It needs to be both defended and fed constantly. The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often also political, nationalistic, racial, religious, and other collective identities. None of these is you.

Do you find this frightening? Or is it a relief to know this? All of these things you will have to relinquish sooner or later... You will know the truth of it for yourself. You will know it at the latest when you feel death approaching. Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret to life is to "die before you die"--and find that there is no death.'    

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