Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Matthew Sweeney on getting settled in the "seat", moving ahead, and experiencing new things

This morning, I re-read Matthew Sweeney's book, Astanga Yoga As It Is. It's very refreshing to re-read such a gem, and to come into contact with Master Sweeney's wisdom again. I highly recommend this book, especially the introduction, which covers the basics of Ashtanga practice as well as some of the more esoteric and lesser-known aspects of the practice and its philosophy. Upon re-reading it, there are a couple of passages that really speak to me. For instance, he writes:

'The traditional [Mysore] method is relatively linear and methodical. Keep adding asana, remembering the vinyasa as you go, until you come to something you cannot do. You keep practicing up to the asana that is difficult or impossible but you do not add new postures until you can do it effectively. This can be a little limiting but it does establish the body's capacity in the asana. You become settled in the "seat". An unfortunate side-effect of this format is the tendency in Astanga to ask the question "What posture are you up to?" as if this indicates some kind of personal development. It is normal to want to move ahead, particularly as far as positive motivation and liveliness is concerned. The practice should never be lifeless, something new can be experienced every day, even if it is just a changed attitude. This forward looking attitude, however, should always be tempered with present tense awareness; stay in contact with what is rather than what should be.'

These words speak to my present practice and life on so many levels. First, on the asana front, I have been doing the same sequence of postures (full primary plus second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana) six days a week for the last ten months, ever since certain issues in my body made me decide to scale back from my second-up-to-Karandavasana practice. I won't bore you with the details of exactly what these issues are; if you want to know, you can look up my blog posts from around September to November 2011 :-)

I sometimes think that if somebody who is not familiar with Ashtanga Yoga were to come to my home every morning and observe my practice, he or she would think that what I am doing is very boring, except for maybe the part from Kapotasana to the finishing backbends (even with these, though, I would still imagine that boredom would set in after a while: I mean, not to be immodest or anything, but just how many times can you look at somebody do Kapotasana day in and day out, even if that somebody can grab his heels in that posture?). But I think it was David Williams who once said that the real yoga is what cannot be seen, not what can be seen. I know he wasn't referring to asana when he talked about what cannot be seen, but in a sense, what he said can be applied here. Even though I haven't been adding any "new" asanas to my practice for the last ten months, I really feel that over this time, the consistent performance of the same postures has resulted in a certain depth to my practice. Every posture is really familiar, and yet also feels uniquely different from one practice to the next, because every single practice uncovers some new aspect of the posture and how my body relates to it. And since the mind and the body are ultimately one and the same entity, every single practice also, in this way, reveals some previously unseen or previously forgotten part of the mind. In this way, the practice is a mind-body meditation.

And actually, in a very interesting way, this no-new-asana practice has led to physical breakthroughs in other areas. Because I do not have to contend with learning new asanas, I am able to surrender my mind and body to the process of working deeper and deeper with the postures I already "have." And I can't help thinking that this attitude of surrender is very helpful with the backbends that I am currently focusing my attention on. This morning, for instance, as I walked my hands to my feet for Chakrabandhasana after the three dropbacks, a lot of mental chatter came up in my mind: "Will you be able to grab your ankles today? What if you don't succeed?" "Don't you feel your thighs burning already? Maybe you should call it a day?" And so and so forth. As my hands walked towards my feet and around them, I listened to these voices, mentally acknowledged and nodded at them in understanding, and then proceeded to continue the work of walking my hands around my feet, slowly inching my hands until they could grab the ankles. And then, with a steadiness that is almost not of my body, they held on to the ankles for five breaths before letting go. Again, something like this made me feel that the mind and the body really are one: If one seats the mind down steadily, allowing it to listen without judgment, and allowing it to direct the body to do what needs to be done, the results follow.

But having said all this, it is also true, as Sweeney observes, that "It is normal to want to move ahead." This is true both in asana practice and in life, whether we are talking about wanting to be in another physical location, or wanting to be in another, "better" situation in life. And this is good. But it is also useful to know that one doesn't always need to change one's external circumstances immediately in order to change one's state of life; "something new can be experienced every day, even if it is just a changed attitude." Or here's another way to look at it: If one wants to move forward safely and comfortably, it is best to first make sure that one is fully settled in the "seat" of the present moment. Again, this true in both asana practice and in life: If one doesn't settle oneself fully and securely in the seat and make sure the seat belts are buckled, etc., one might get thrown out of the windshield of life when the going gets rough.   

Wow. I seem to be in "sermon" mode today. Wonder why? Pretty interesting, considering that it is actually quite sunny outside where I am right now, and sunny days are not usually associated with contemplative or "sermony" modes of mind. Hmm... interesting. Well, with this thought, maybe I'll sign off for now, and try to spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying some sunshine :-)


  1. Hi Nobel, I love this post! I too love to do the same thing every day it is an excellent mirror I think. Thanks for posting.

  2. Yes, doing the same thing everyday is indeed a good mirror for the self. Good to hear from you again, Helen :-)