Monday, September 10, 2012

To asana or not to asana? A Dialethia

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.   


  1. Of course for Herr Heidegger, as you may well remember noble, Alethia is better understood as disclosure (as in unconcealment) rather than as truth (although he did play fast and loose with his greek) this avoids the binary opposition and allows us to see both positions as bringing to presence different experiences of practice, we get to fluctuate between them, feeding one position into the other which of course brings about it's own disclosure..... trilethia(?).

    Fourth time at the ruddy word verification grrrrrr

    1. Triletheia, huh? Nice... I was thinking about Herr Heidegger when I was writing this post; I was more concerned with representing Patrick's position and responding to it directly. But yes, I do see the possibilities that open up (or shall we say "possibilities that unconceal themselves :-)) if we understand aletheia in this Heideggerian fashion. I will think about this some more. Got to run now.

      P.S. Yes, word verification can be annoying; there's got to be a better way of proving we're not robots that doesn't invade our privacy...

    2. Erratum: I meant to type "I WASN'T thinking about Herr Heiddegger when I was writing this post..."

      Ah, the wonders of technology... Or should it be The Question Concerning Technology? ;-)

  2. According to the sutras, yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind (Yoga citta vrtti nirodha, Patanjali I,2). In a nutshell yoga is the practice of samadhi wherein the afflictions (kleshas) and the impressions they leave (samsaras) are wiped clean (over a period of long, sustained practice.) This leads to self-realization, wisdom, and eventually liberation.

    Asana may or may not be beneficial to a practitioner to reach that state of yoga. Any teacher/person who states that Asana is not a beneficial path is gravely mistaken. Any teacher/person who states that Asana is a necessary component to successful practice is equally mistaken.

    There are many paths a practitioner can choose from. Yoga sutras highlight several paths that are equally valid. Asana is not a part of many of those paths. But if it helps, fantastic.

    And ultimately a person needs to cultivate non-attachment to their chosen method (Patanjali I, 15&16). To use a common Buddhist metaphor, pure consciousness is like a mirror, reflecting all experience. The vrttis and kleshas are like dust that accumulates on the mirror. Our practice (whatever it may be) works to wipe away the dust. Whether you use soap, rags, asana, whatever, once the dust is gone it is the mirror you hold on to, not the method. Practioners spend their time applying their chosen method. Salespeople spend their time pitching the best method.

    Of course the Buddhists take it even a step further, teaching that at the ultimate level their is no mirror! The story of Hui Neng, 6th Patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China, is centered on this narrative. But we're talking yoga here so I'll leave it at that.

    May all beings be free.


  3. tom,
    in my blog i refer to ashtanga yoga as a system of hatha yoga. asana IS necessary to people who practice hatha yoga, but nowhere did i say that hatha yoga is the only path to yoga with a capital Y. we all agree there are many ways to get there. so when you write things like "but if it helps, fantastic," or when you give us a rundown of what pantanjali's yogasutras say i can't help but feel condescended to. i hope that wasn't your intention.

    patrick nolan

  4. I tend to read on and off blogs both well written and poorly written quite often all the while enjoying the controversies & criticism that erupt via a blogger's insightful discourse.

    Nobel's critiques ignite provocative thought; To that affect, Patrick's writings seem to stem from an obvious well read, analytical & experienced point of view.

    Having said that, Tom's paraphrasing comments with parenthesized sources to show proof diminish the 'out-of-the-box' thoughts and ideas of great writers.

    The quote below is a grave opinion with no solid, "scientific" proof, thus making religious/historical/cultural and yes yoga related texts formulated which is incorrect to assume and declare.
    "Any teacher/person who states that Asana is not a beneficial path is gravely mistaken. Any teacher/person who states that Asana is a necessary component to successful practice is equally mistaken."

    As Tom indicated, "May all beings be free".

  5. Interesting discussion here. Hmm... what should I say, and where I do begin?

    Let me begin here. Tom, Patrick really is restricting his claim about the necessity of asana practice to yoga to hatha yoga, of which Ashtanga is a school, as you know. So, to paraphrase Patrick, if you are on the path of Hatha/Raja Yoga, then asana practice is necessary and beneficial.

    I find what your Buddhist point about the necessity to cultivate non-attachment to the method, and about the mirror ultimately being non-substantial to be very interesting. But I can't comment very much on this, since I am not a zen practitioner. At any rate, I am probably too attached to my asana practice right now to be able to talk about things like things with any authority or conviction :-)

    Thanks for commenting here, Patrick. As you can see from my response to Tom and from my post itself, I am in agreement with your main point.

    Hello Dimitri :-) Thanks for reading this post and sharing your thoughts here. I believe that Tom's intention in paraphrasing comments with parenthesized sources lies in acknowledging and respecting those sources. Perhaps more importantly, it is to recognize the fact that whatever you know comes down to us from people that have come before us. I can't speak for Tom, obviously, or really know for sure what is in his mind. But I think that there is much to be said for citing and respecting the sources of one's knowledge. As such, I really don't see how such citing would "diminish the 'out-of-the-box' thoughts and ideas of great writers."

  6. Nobel, I agree with you & respect acknowledging sources. My intention was to say that I feel very often times comments are garnished with too much citing as I believe Tom and manyh others do. I enjoy the idea of taking the knowledge we have acquired (which is generally created by man(or lady) full of faults) and expand/develop those ideas/theories. Apply it and let it evolve with our knowledge, experiences etc. over time. Pointing back to a 'rule' without much else to say is simply not convincing enough. This is what I mean by "diminish the 'out-of-the-box' thoughts and ideas of great writers". Given that, I do enjoy your blogs and responses. Thank you!

    1. Ah, I think I see what you are saying. I take it that you are saying that although citing sources is important and has its place, it is possible to do so excessively, and in such a way as to detract from the authentic "in-the-moment" feel that comes from just saying what is on one's mind without being too officious and stuffy about it.

      Do I understand you correctly?

  7. Patrick,

    My intention was certainly not to condescend. Personally I find Asana beneficial and fantastic, but at the same time superfluous, to my spiritual practice. Which is why I found Nobel's post interesting and worth commenting on.

    When I write something, I write honestly and without sarcasm. I honestly meant it is fantastic if Asana is beneficial. Anything beneficial is fantastic. That is all I meant.

    I also reference the sutras out of respect and deference to my teachers and those who have come before me. When I discuss spirituality with teachers or acquaintances, we always quote sutras. This is my custom and I typically find it leads to beneficial discussion. It sometimes helps create a common playing field to bounce ideas against so we don't bounce them against each other as much. My intention was not to be condescending.

    My intention was to make the point that there are many valid paths, some of which include Asana. I also had the intention to make the point that to criticize the path of another is inappropriate (and damaging to one's own karmic body). To this end I think we are in full agreement Patrick, I find it unfortunate that there are yoga teachers out there making the statements that you cite in your post.

    Finally it was also my attention to call attention to the distinctions between Asana, Hatha Yoga, and Yoga. I did not read of this distinction being made anywhere in Nobel's post and I think it is an important distinction to make. If people were more exacting in their language when they talk about what yoga is or isn't a lot of the negative effects of such conversations/articles/posts/comments would be mitigated.

    Dimitri, I appreciate your comment. Perhaps my statement represents a grave opinion. It is a serious statement to be sure, and one I believe to be true based on what I have seen in my practice and what I have been taught by my teachers. It is not my desire to to prove my point scientifically or to argue with you. I gain nothing from being right and lose nothing by being wrong. In fact I lose everything by being right if my intention is to argue.

    How to make a point without arguing? A tricky proposition. It takes skillful means. I do not always have those skillful means, and to engage in this discussion further with you on this would clearly highlight the limits of my cultivation and my lack of skillful means. My only intention is to be respectful of everyone's path, and to suggest that such respect is beneficial to all practitioners. That is why I say may all beings be free.

    Thank you for the discussion,


    1. Hello Tom,
      I respect your position about quoting sutras and texts, as articulated in your response to Dimitri below. So I will not comment any more on that.

      But there is something you said here that I find rather intriguing, puzzling even. If I understand you correctly, you are basically saying that even though you find asana to be beneficial and fantastic, you nevertheless think it to be superfluous to your spiritual journey.

      Well... why do you think this? Maybe I'm being a bit simplistic, but I would think that if something were beneficial and fantastic, it would help your spiritual journey too. Or maybe your view is that asana is a purely replaceable physical practice, so that whether you do asana or swimming or running (or whatever else rocks your physical boat), it doesn't matter, because whatever you do, the objective is only to preserve or maintain your physical body enough so that it can withstand the rigors of spiritual practice. If this is your view, then perhaps I can see why you would think that asana is beneficial and fantastic, but nevertheless not essential to the spiritual journey. I don't agree with this view (I happen to think there is something irreplaceable about asana practice), but I can at least understand it. But is this your view? Just curious.

    2. Nobel,

      In some ways I am equally as puzzled....Let's see what I can say in the time I have at the computer this morning.

      I like the idea that you put out in your original post that Asana is a starting point/point of departure, and a very good one at that (in my opinion).

      I do not think Asana could be replaced by a purely physical practice - at least for me I need a practice that brings awareness to posture, breath, and mind. Asana and qigong are both very good at this, other physical exercise not so much (in my own opinion).

      Asana has been nothing but good to me. It is great for regulating posture, breath, and mind.

      But my teacher has given me new practices lately, chanting and meditation practices. Doing these for about 1 year now, and observing in myself the profound change that has occurred since starting these practices, I see myself getting to a place where Asana is less important, and much less effective, at getting me to the point of pure singlemindedness. This was always the goal of my Asana practice, the Yoga with a capital Y. And I am finding many of the physical, breath, and energetic benefits of Asana practice coming through in my other practices as well, to the point that Asana is becoming much less necessary for me.

      I don't have time to find the exact quote at the moment but Sri Nisargadatta described yoga meditation as, to paraphrase, the progressively developing awareness of deeper layers of existance without losing sight of the previusly discovered layers.

      In this sense I think you can never lose posture completely, it must become firmly entrenched in your awareness to safely go to the deeper layers.

      But I do not think a person needs to practice yoga Asana specifically to develop this awareness, there are other foundational practices that are equally effective (any of the many schools of qigong and internal martial arts come first to mind). I also think that there comes a point when these foundational practices can be left behind. When and if this is possible depends on the practitioner. Different people, different paths.

      Ramaswami had a great discussion of the Kosas in his October 2010 newsletter:!topic/vinyasa-krama-announce/Hxgeb0bcbV4

      This is what I was referring to above in regards to "the deeper layers/ the grosser layers." The Taittiriya Upanishad from which Ramaswami bases his discussion. There are arguments to be made based on this text that there is a more limited ability to access the deeper layers through the grosser layers than vice versa. Therefore there are many paths of practice which do not start with the body and prana aspects, but start in the mind level.

      I think there are benefits and drawbacks to each approach. I don't think there is a one size fits all spritual practice. I think a persons situation in this lifetime as well as the karmic/causal body they entered this lifetime with determine what path and what practices are the best fit, and which paths/practices might present more pitfalls. Which I guess comes back to the point of my original comment, and respecting the paths of others.

      Well that is some degree of full circle, I'll end this here for now. I hope this makes some sense. I had several interruptions at work while trying to write this, I hope it is not to disjointed to make any sense. I don't think it completely answers your question, and I've opened some whole other cans of worms in the process.

      Gotta Run, be well Nobel!


  8. Dimitri,

    Thank you for clarifying what you wrote in your first post. I understand your point much better now.

    Just as there are many practices, there are many ways to communicate. Some people get bent of of shape when your refer to sutras when expressing an opinion. Some people won't listen or further a discussion if you don't/can't point to the sutras to clarify a point. I can never expect to please everyone, and I hardly expect to please anyone.

    For me referring to texts is very much in the flow of expressing my thoughts. I do not care whether others do it or not. It is not my choice how others communicate. My interest is in the substance of the conversation, not the style.


  9. Tom,
    "Some people won't listen or further a discussion if you don't/can't point to the sutras to clarify a point. I can never expect to please everyone, and I hardly expect to please anyone."

    Fair enough.