Thursday, July 26, 2012

Is hope the opium of the un-present masses? Pulling an Eckhart Tolle during practice (and also pulling something else)

I have a bad feeling that this is going to be one of those posts that contribute to the popular (mis?)conception of  Ashtangis as self-torturing pain junkies who delight in inflicting pain on themselves. I hope I don't contribute too much to Ashtanga's already bad rep in this area. But everything that I'm about to describe here actually happened yesterday and during this morning's practice. So I can at least say that I am being honest, if nothing else.

Before I go on to tell the story proper, I think it would be useful for me to give you a little background story. I am going through a rather nerve-wracking and angst-provoking time in my life right now: I don't particularly feel like going into the details here (although I might when all this is over, however it turns out), so you'll have to bear with me for being a little vague about things here. Suffice to say that I am waiting for a couple of things to fall through (or not), and I'll know in a couple of days whether they do. Right now, there is nothing to do except wait. And wait some more. And in the meantime, continue to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, do the practice, blog, and try to stay sane the whole time. I have tried reading Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, but honestly, it hasn't been helping much. He's just too harsh and rational about this whole being in the present moment thing for my state of mind right now. For example, at one point in his book, in response to somebody who said, "Surely we need hope to keep us going, and hope is always hope that things will turn out better in the future. So doesn't having hope imply not being in the present moment?" To this, Tolle replied that if one is fully present in the moment, one doesn't need hope: When one is able to fully savor the present moment, what use is there for hope for the future? I'm paraphrasing, as I don't have the book on me right now, but I'm pretty sure I captured the essence of his reply. I don't know about you, but I think this is kind of harsh. I mean, it does make for a certain logical kind of sense: If you are fully, fully present, you won't need to hope for anything in the future. But I think it is no exaggeration to say that we humans are hardwired by centuries of cultural conditioning to hope for a better future when things get rough. And, to borrow a phrase from Marx, perhaps Tolle is saying that hope is the opium of the un-present masses, just as religion was the opium of the masses on Marx's view. And maybe it's just me, but isn't it a little bit cruel to deny a frail mortal like me even the opium of hope in a time like this? Well, I'm guessing that Tolle will disagree here; he'll probably say that I need to go "cold turkey" and use this difficult time in my life as an opportunity to rid myself once and for all of the opium of hope. Whatever. Go to hell. (Yikes! What did I just say?)

To add insult to possible injury, I was talking with a friend yesterday about my present situation. He listened for a while, and then suggested that I take a bigger-picture view of things as they are right now. Even though things are not going quite as I would like them to go, there are many blessings in my life: Good health, a yoga practice, etc. He then proceeded to point out that material possessions and worldly position are really quite insignificant in the light of this bigger picture. Wow... this is what happens when one reads Eckhart Tolle: Even your friends start to sound like him. 

But here's another ironic twist: As much as a certain part of me refuses to buy into any of Tolle's talk about being in the present, the Ashtanga practice seems to be the one thing that is actually fostering such presence in my life right now. This morning, I woke up with a rather funky mood. My whole body felt stiff and heavy, and I did not feel like practicing at all. Well, okay, I asked myself, what are you going to do then? Go back to sleep? But I somehow knew more sleep was probably not going to make me feel much better: If anything, I'll probably end up feeling even heavier and stiffer a couple of hours down the road. So I gingerly rolled out my Mysore rug, and started moving through the practice. As I got into primary series, an idea suddenly struck me: The last couple of days, I had been re-reading Matthew Sweeney's Astanga Yoga As It Is, and familiarizing myself with the Sanskrit vinyasa count of the postures and transitions in primary. It's pretty funny to say this, but as much of an Ashtangeek as I am, I have actually never gotten the exact Sanskrit vinyasa count in the seated postures of primary down pat. I figured that now would be the time to rectify this gap in my Ashtanga career :-) Anyway, as I got into primary this morning, I suddenly thought it would be kind of cool to recite the vinyasa count mentally to myself as I did each of the postures. So on I went: Sapta, inhale and jump into posture. Ashtau, exhale and hold for five breaths. Nawa, inhale and exhale there. Desa, inhale lift up. Ekadesa. exhale into chaturanga. And so and so forth. And since Sweeney does the traditional long count, he doesn't "reset" the count to Sapta on the second side of the posture, but continues with the count on the first side. So I get to count all the way up to Ekonavimsatihi (I really love the sound of this particular word!) and then Vimsatihi, which is when you exhale into downdog before starting from Sapta again and jumping into the next posture of the series.

It's really interesting, but before I knew it, I realized that counting the vinyasa to myself really helped to remove all extraneous thoughts from my mind. Who knew that one could pull an Eckhart Tolle simply by doing the vinyasa count? Maybe one day, when all this shit that I am presently going through is over (I know, I know, I'm not being present again, but whatever...), I'll teach a workshop titled, "Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Eckhart Tolle: How to use the Traditional Vinyasa Count to bring greater presence into your practice". Maybe you come? :-)

Another, less pleasant thing also happened during practice this morning. My upper back muscles, especially the Trapezius, goes through periods of tightness. Such tightness tends to recur during periods of stress or anxiety. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been feeling this tightness from time to time whenever I sit in front of my computer or when I am reading. These past couple of mornings, I have been feeling the tightness during practice itself, especially when I lift my legs to put them behind my head in Supta Kurmasana. But I thought that if I moved into and out of the pose carefully, I'll probably be fine. And in a sense, I was right. Nothing major happened in Supta Kurmasana this morning. But something major did happen as I rolled over into my second Chakrasana (the one following Setu Bandhasana). As I rolled my legs over my head to go into downdog, I felt this sharp pulling sensation in my trapezius. Somehow, I still managed to land my feet in downdog. But I knew the damage had been done. Damn... no more Chakrasana (and probably also no more putting legs behind head in Supta Kurmasana) for the next few days, or maybe even for the next few weeks. We'll see. Anyway, my traps have been aching since then. In fact, they are aching right now, even as I am typing these words. I am doing a whole bunch of gentle trapezius stretches throughout the day to relieve the soreness. But the funny thing is, even this pain has its upside: It is making me more present in my body, and causing me to fixate less on the other things in my life that are causing great anxiety. I guess this says something about my state of mind, when I am actually at a point where I actually prefer physical pain to mental anxiety. I hope this doesn't mean that I need to go see a psychiatrist or something. Scary. Anyway, I guess I'll sign off here. More later.

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