I just read this recent post by Patrick Nolan, in which he talks about there being a dialetheia of progress in the practice of Ashtanga yoga. The general idea is that in the course of our practice, we are often bombarded with two common truisms ("dialetheia" being a combination of the Greek words "di" ("two", "double") and "Aletheia" ("truth"), hence "double truths" or "double truisms". Just so you know, I wrote all this without googling or wikipedia-ing anything. Knowing a little Greek is nice for times like this :-)).
Roughly, these two common truisms are (1) Asana is important, and you need to work really hard to attain mastery in asana if you are going to get anywhere on the path of practice, and (2) Asana is not important; yoga isn't about attaining this or that asana. It's about the process which leads to ethical and spiritual growth as a human being.
Many practitioners may feel that there is a powerful tension, even a contradiction, between (1) and (2). How can asana be both important and not important at the same time? Or is asana important at certain times and under certain circumstances, and maybe not so important under other times and other circumstances? How important is dropping back into and standing up from a backbend--or, for that matter, any particular posture that I find very challenging and which seems impossible right now--to my yogic journey? Comparing this dialetheia of yoga practice to a similar dialetheia in 12-step programs, Patrick has this to say:
"In 12-step programs, pretty much everybody falls off at some point or
another. When that happens, one (hopefully) gets back on the wagon and
tries again. So there is a duality here. One tries, earnestly, to do
something which is basically impossible. This leads some to emphasize
the process as opposed to the goal. Indeed, "progress, not perfection"
is one of the myriad 12-step slogans. Another 12-step slogan is "easy
does it." Too much emphasis on process, though, and you can lose sight
of the goal completely. Still another slogan, in rebuttal to the
aforementioned one, is "easy does it, but you gotta do it." For
addicts, too much emphasis on the goal can lead to an endless cycle of
failure (both actual and perceived), guilt, and then resentment. On the
other hand, addicts who put too much emphasis on process at the expense
of the goal might continue to fuck up, harming themselves and others,
with no accountability.
In yoga practice, less direly, emphasis on process can mean stagnation
and ultimately, resignation... The
yoga that I do is Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as taught by Sri K Pattabhi
Jois. It is a system of hatha yoga, which means that asana is the point
of departure into investigating ethical principles, the mind,
spirituality, etc. Although I don't really practice them any more so I
can't say for sure, this should also be true of other systems of hatha
yoga as well,eg, Sivananda, Iyengar, Viniyoga, etc., etc. I'll repeat:
asana is the point of departure. Therefore it behooves a practitioner
of any hatha yoga system to be acutely involved in his asana practice.
He or she should always strive for improvement and growth. Progress and
striving can be good. So it confuses me when I keep reading over and
over again in places like Recovering Yogi and Elephant Journal
complaints about yoga teachers who supposedly place too much emphasis on
asana. The complaints are typically along the lines of: "Yoga isn't
just about asana, and anybody who emphasizes asana can only be somebody
who doesn't have the intellectual and/or emotional means to get the
deeper spiritual dimensions of the tradition." I find this attitude
insulting. I'm over it. To paraphrase the speaker at the 12-step
meeting: if you think it's not about asana, try working at asana. And
furthermore, if you have a yoga teacher who says its not about asana,
chances are his own asana practice is deficient."
I think that last sentence there ("if you have a yoga teacher who says its not about asana,
chances are his own asana practice is deficient") is a bit harsh and quite possibly a sweeping generalization. I also don't know enough (quite honestly, I know nothing) about 12-step programs to be able to say whether Patrick's comparison is an apt one.
But all in all, I think that Patrick's main point is well-taken. Asana, as he mentions, is the point of departure. Personally, I prefer to call it the foundation and the starting point of the practice, but I think it all comes down to the same thing in the end. B.K.S Iyengar expresses this point very nicely in an interview he gave some years back . His interviewer was peppering him left and right with questions about what enlightenment is. Finally, Mr. Iyengar got a little impatient, stuck out his hand, and said, "If you can't even hold this hand in proper alignment, how can you talk about enlightenment?" (Note to reader: I'm feeling a little too lazy right now to go You-tubing to hunt down that video, but
maybe some of you Iyengar folks out there may know which video this is. I'm pretty sure I didn't make this up :-)).
I don't think there is much more I can add to this: It's very difficult to trump Mr. Iyengar when it comes to immediacy and clarity in making a point. The general idea is that we are all embodied beings, and being embodied beings, the most natural place to start to work with ourselves and attain control over our selves is with the body. Hence, again, asana is the starting point/point of departure.
But I just thought of a slightly different way of approaching the same point. Actually, this may prove to be a more apt way of getting the point across to many people, since I seem to be attracting a lot of foodies to my blog lately (see previous post for more on this). Think about it this way. Suppose life were a big dinner in a nice restaurant, and suppose the goal of life is to taste and rate every single item on this restaurant's menu accurately, without rating it too highly or too lowly. (So yes, I am comparing the yoga journey to being a food critic, if you haven't already noticed ;-)). In order to do your job as a food critic successfully, you have to train your tastebuds by exposing it to a very wide variety of different tastes and flavors. If your taste buds are only exposed to sweet things and nothing else, you won't be able to judge salty or sour flavors. If you have never exposed your tastebuds to spicy food, they won't be able to accurately rate foods that are spicy. Same goes for life and the asana practice: If you never push and strive very hard to attain a particular asana (and attain the asana/s in question at least some of the time), you won't be able to understand what it means to put your body through intense physical and mental struggle. And intense physical and mental struggle is a big part of life and the yogic journey.
Well, I hope my restaurant/food critic analogy works. Actually, it's starting to look like Mr. Iyengar's and Patrick's ways of putting the point across are clearer and more succinct... Oh well. this will have to do for now. I've got other things to go do for today. Can't spend the whole day polishing one example in one blog post... More later.