Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Energetic Imbalance, Ashtanga practice, pranayama, and predominantly male abuses of power

Recently, I have been thinking quite a bit about what the Ashtanga practice does to us. Not so much on a physical level, but more on an energetic level. These are things I have thinking about since I first started writing this blog, and probably even before that: At any rate, I definitely have been thinking about them since I started doing the second series backbends and feeling their subtle energetic effects more than two years ago.

These thoughts are not very well-formed, but they revolve around a few questions: Is there a particular kind of person (maybe a Type A anal control freak) that is most commonly drawn to Ashtanga? Does the practice ameliorate and "mellow out" these individuals' "negative" qualities? Or does it make these qualities more pronounced; for example, if one is already a Type A anal control freak, does practicing Ashtanga make one even more of a Type A anal control freak? Or is the story a little more complicated: Perhaps the practice brings out the Type A anal control characteristics of the Type A anal individual, making them more pronounced, so that the individual can see these "negative" traits in all their ugly glory, come to terms with their dark side, and eventually, after Dirgha Kala, finally be able to purify themselves of these "negative characteristics"?

Being a neophyte on the Ashtanga path, I do not have answers to these questions, and also do not feel all that qualified to write about these things. But I write anyway, because writing and thinking aloud is what I do ;-)

But yesterday, I came across something that might shed some light on these questions. I was reading this recent post that Linda over at Linda's Yoga Journey wrote about the most recent yoga scandal to hit our, uh, otherwise pristine yoga community; in case you don't know about the scandal, let me just say that it involves an individual whose first name rhymes with "bathtub". I'm not going to talk about it, because although I do feel for those who were harmed in this case, I don't know enough about what's going on to say anything with any authority (actually, when was the last time I actually knew enough about anything to say anything with any authority?... but I think you get the point).

Anyway, as I was saying, I read Linda's recent post about this scandal. In this post, she shared a very interesting and thought-provoking message from one of her readers. Here's part of the message:

"These yoga practices can very often and easily drive up combinations of energetic imbalance that predictably result in such situations. I used to wonder why so many of these yoga gurus would end up in scandals, if they are supposed to be models of “enlightenment”, but now I can see that it is not at all surprising.

Because yoga is primarily a “fire path” (with practices designed to move shakti upward through the spinal and central channels and out the crown), males in particular are susceptible to these problems.  Most men are already somewhat imbalanced toward this “fire” direction, as opposed to most females, whose “water” (cool) energy tends to flow downward more easily and are thus more naturally grounded when practicing yoga...


[This imbalance] often results in sexual activity because of the unconscious nature of its manifestation. When you’re not grounded at all and you’ve bypassed your lower chakras to shoot out the crown, those lower centers tend to act on their own.  And it can also result in various forms of male/female domination, abuse, and control."


As is clear from the context, the person who wrote this was trying to shed light on why the recent scandals (the one involving the "bathtub" guy and another earlier this year, which involved somebody whose name can be rendered in Spanish as "Juan Amigos") happened by talking about the energetic effects of yoga practice. But I also can't help feeling that all this is also relevant to the above questions that I have been having about Ashtanga practice; as many of you know, the goal of Ashtanga practice, from an energetic point of view, is to get Kundalini to awaken from its dormant state at the base of the spine and to rise through the sushumna nadi to come out through the crown chakra. In particular, the backbends and leg-behind-head postures in second series are supposed to work together by generating the creative tension in the spinal column to encourage this upward movement of Kundalini.

Seen from this perspective, I wonder if all this may also be related to the reason why we don't start pranayama practice in Ashtanga till after the practitioner has finished third series. Maybe this no-pranayama-till-completion-of-third-series rule acts as a sort of safeguard against the kind of energetic imbalance mentioned in the comment above. As you know, pranayama practice works directly with the nervous system; while the benefits of pranayama are great, the stakes are also higher. If you mess up asana practice, you mess up your body. Which is pretty bad, but fixable. But if you mess up pranayama practice, you mess up your nervous system. Which is, well, really, really bad.  You might go crazy, or become afflicted with the kind of energetic imbalance mentioned in the message above. 


Seen in this light, perhaps there is a method to the apparent madness of Ashtanga. Perhaps there is a reason why we are not "allowed" to start pranayama till after we have mastered third series, as crazy and unreasonable as this may seem ("Why do I have to freaking be able to stand on my hands and put my feet in lotus at the same time before I can be allowed to do a few freaking breathing exercises? Where's the sense in this?!").

Well, here's where the sense may be: Perhaps the idea is that a practitioner whose nervous system has become more grounded as a result of practicing both primary and second series would be better equipped to guard against the kind of imbalances mentioned above. So in this way, the order of the Ashtanga series and the no-pranayama-till-completion-of-third-series rule can be seen as "energetic safeguards" that serve to protect the practitioner from himself or herself.

At any rate, this is my theory. Nobody has yet endorsed it (or refuted it, for that matter), so don't take this as the Ashtanga Gospel Truth. But here's something else that may be interesting and related. A fairly reliable source recently told me that over the course of his/her long practice career, he/she has met some male Ashtanga teachers who have definitely abused their positions of power as teachers. I have not practiced Ashtanga long enough to be able to verify these claims independently, but I trust this source. Anyway, the upshot seems to be this: If abuses of power caused by energetic imbalances can occur even with the energetic safeguards that are in place in Ashtanga, how much worse would they potentially be if these safeguards weren't there? 

In saying this, I am not saying that Ashtanga is "better" or "superior" to other styles or lineages of yoga because it has these safeguards. I'm sure that other styles also have their own energetic safeguards, or some such equivalent. At any rate, I don't know enough about other styles or lineages of yoga to talk about them here. I can only talk about the style that I practice. And even then, I suspect that I may be going way out of my depth here. But I thought I'll put my thoughts out here anyway; maybe we can still learn something from one another by thinking and discussing together; after all, there's a Chinese saying that can be translated roughly as "Three incompetent generals can outsmart one military genius." (If you read Chinese, the original saying is 三个臭皮匠顶个诸葛亮. Ha! Now you know how bad I am at translation :-))

Anyway, I feel myself starting to wander off into neither-here-nor-there territory. Which is a clear sign that I should sign off now. Well, as always, it was fun writing this; hopefully, you will have at least half as much fun reading :-) If you have anything to share, I'll love to hear from you.    

22 comments:

  1. This one should be one of the best yoga posts ever.

    I do, as probably many dedicated ashtanga practitioner, ask myself the same questions about physiologic and energetic influence of yoga practice.
    But the point of relating it to the excess of some gurus is very good.

    Nevertheless, I would think the individuality of the guru has a large impact over here: it would be interesting to compare the percentages of cases of abuses (even minors) from male CEOs to secretaries to these of the gurus.
    I would bet that even there are counter-examples most yoga gurus, and even if they have and can exert much more power to their followers, do not take advantage of these powers as would many non-yoga practitioners do.
    What do you think?

    Thanks for your wonderful post
    Louis

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    1. Hello Louis,
      I'm very happy you find my post wonderful :-)

      As for your question: Let's think about a different example. Some months ago, William J. Broad published this book (you probably know about this if you follow yoga news) in which he "exposed" how yoga can cause life-threatening injuries and wreak your body. A few people responded by pointing out that even if it is true that yoga practice can lead to injury, the overall rate of injuries (not to mention the overall health level) among yoga practitioners is still lower than the rate of injuries from other kinds of physical activities or sports.

      Similarly, although I don't have the figures to back up my claim, I also like to think that while it is true that yoga practice can lead to energetic imbalances and abuses of power among senior teachers or gurus, the rate of such abuse is quite likely to be a lot lower than that which occurs among business leaders or leaders in other areas of our capitalistic world.

      At any rate, I can always use myself as an example. When people ask me, "How come you are such a mess even though you do your practice everyday?" I always reply, "Really? You think so? Well, you should see me when I don't practice..."

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  2. Such a great article, thanks for posting all your thoughts, it was a really interesting read!

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  3. Interesting ideas. I don't lean towards the Type A control freak but I actually think it could be good for those types because you have LESS control in the traditional Ashtanga method: you don't get to choose when you move forward in the series, the teacher does; you don't get to choose which pose to do and when, it's already set in the series. So, I think it could actually teach a pretty good lesson in letting go of control.

    I think that staying grounded could also be a reason why there's always at least one day of Primary practice, no matter which series you're in...just a though ;-)

    Good post!

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    1. Good point, Tara. Yes, I think it is true that the clearly-defined structure and fixed boundaries of the traditional Ashtanga method can serve as a check on the ego/type A tendencies, and can be, in this way, a good lesson in letting go of control.

      But perhaps it could also work the other way for some individuals. Some people (including myself sometimes) may take excessive pride in being able to work within the tight boundaries of the method ("See, I'm so disciplined and able to follow this demanding method so strictly and in accordance with the yamas and niyamas. Unless those free-for-all vinyasa-flow people, who have no sense of boundaries...")

      So I guess it's a double-edged sword. But (and I'm probably biased here) I'll still go for having structure and boundaries over having none :-)

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  4. I like your blog ~ deep and thoughtful but at the same time light hearted :) A couple of thoughts to share: 1) maybe one of the reasons Ashtanga is more protected from abuse is the fact the teacher is always a practitioner, usually practicing alongside the students. We see the teacher as a person struggling with their own edge and weakness (relatively speaking)and therefore we aren't as likely to fall for the human tendency to put the teacher sky high on a pedestal. The teacher is also humbled in practicing alongside students. 2)Ashtanga puts the focus on you and your own practice. There is very little sitting at the feet of your teacher passively listening. 3)With Ashtanga you remain in the everyday realm of the normal reality of the householder.....most of the time....unless you're one of the blessed who can scoot off to Goa or Mysore or wherever whenever the desire arises. 4)To sustain a daily practice over time the typical Ashtangi is grounded and established in terms of career, lifestyle etc. Not likely to go off the deep end. 5)Still, the potential for abuse is always there, just as where there is great light there will always be a great whopping shadow. Oh, one more thought....for a teacher to abuse there must be students willing to surrender to the abuse. I like to think Ashtangis are less likely to put up with shite for long. We can always pretty comfortably go to a home practice if things get weird.

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    1. "...where there is great light there will always be a great whopping shadow"

      Nice line :-) Sounds like something from Spider-man or something along those lines.

      I agree with your points, especially 1). The fact that students actually see the teacher struggle serves as a reminder for the students' of the teacher's humanity and mortality. I think it also serves as check on the teacher's ego at the same time; if my students can see that I am struggling with y-asana just like they are struggling with x-asana, then it becomes much harder for me to project myself to them as anything more than the human being that I am. No bullshit, just practice.

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  5. he he he...maybe we have to cultivate our own personal superheroes to deal with the huge whopping shadows that are sure to come to light through our practice..... onward brave yogis and yoginis!!

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    1. Kino strikes me as a good candidate for Ashtanga superhero :-)

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  6. Definitely agree. She has also hatched thousands of other baby superheroes with her inspiration and enthusiasm.

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  7. I think mindfulness is key here...being aware of how the practice works on you and your constitution and your own tendencies towards certain behaviors or thought patterns. It's very easy for a Type A person to get carried away with the external forms of the Ashtanga asana practice and conflate effort and achievement with spiritual enlightenment. The work is in seeing those tendencies in ourselves and using the practice to manage and minimize their effects on our behavior. Mind control.

    I read a quote somewhere (the Yoga Mala perhaps) which said that we should use the practice to balance the different sides of the body. If one side is more flexible than the other, not to give in to that flexibility, so that over time, with consistent practice, the imbalance will work itself out. I can see this principle working in our off-mat life as well...

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    1. Interesting... I have not thought about the possibility that side-to-side flexibility imbalances can also be mirrored in our off-mat life. Something to think about :-)

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    2. Well...I didn't quite mean it literally, although imbalances across both sides of our bodies do have implications for our off-mat life (in terms of our gait, etc). What I was trying to say is that if you give in to patterns that occur naturally to you (thought, behaviors or otherwise), without cultivating the patterns needed for personal growth, you'll end up exacerbating the qualities you started with in the first place and may not experience the full potential of change and growth. Does that make sense?

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    3. Yes, it does make sense, the more I ruminate about it. Thanks :-)

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  8. I am still waiting for a tale of a girl guru gone beserk...

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    1. I have a feeling that if and when this happens, the abuse will be very different in kind and nature from the kinds of abuses we have seen from male teachers, just because--to repeat a cliche--males and females are wired very differently.

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  9. yoga practices of any type are easily driven up with postures. ....

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