Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Is "do your practice and all is coming" simply an accident of history?

Or more precisely, did Guruji say this because of the historical fact that his English was limited, and he couldn't verbally convey the full breadth of the yogic teachings to his western students? Guy Donahaye seems to think so. In an interview with Elise Espat, he says:

"When I arrived in Mysore in the early '90s Guruji used to give regular theory classes, but his ability to communicate was often thwarted by language problems. 

Guruji spoke a little English but he had a strong accent which was often hard for English speakers to understand and mostly impossible to understand for non-native English speakers when he started to talk about philosophy.

In the first few years I was there, there were 15-20 students at his theory classes. We were French, German, English, American, Dutch, Swiss… a jumble of languages with varying limitations on the grasp of Guruji's broken English and Sanskrit. So his efforts were often mired in frustration. I felt for him (and for myself - I was also frustrated we were unable to learn more from him in this forum).

There were also increasing numbers of students who did not want to think too deeply. For them being in India with Guruji was perhaps a bit of a lark and not an opportunity to absorb the fullness of what he had to offer. Often they turned Guruji's theory classes into a bit of a circus.

Guruji was a scholar and had the desire to share the gems of the Upanishads or the Yoga Sutra with his students, but as time went by, the quality of the interest was often brought down to a lowest common denominator by questions such as "Guruji, what is the best kind of yoga clothing or mat to use?" or other perhaps important, yet mundane subjects.

In the end Guruji would often shake his head in frustration and resignation and say "You don't understand! Just do your practice and all is coming!" This was accepted by increasing numbers as a motto, and for some, as an invitation not to question any deeper. But I felt it was said in the context of frustration that direct teaching through the mind was not possible."

If Guy's account is correct, then it would also seem to be correct for us to surmise that if Guruji had a stronger command of the English language, he would have spent more time teaching yoga philosophy and theory. And if this had happened, then perhaps Ashtanga would not suffer so much from the bad rep it has in some corners of the yoga community: That it is a very "physical" yoga that is totally concerned with unquestioningly doing what your teacher tells you to do. And it probably also doesn't help that another of Guruji's famous aphorisms is "Yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory." 

Another thing that also seems to lend support to this view--that the relative lack of yoga philosophy instruction in traditional Ashtanga is due to Guruji's being hamstrung (no pun intended) by his limited command of English--is the fact that many of Guruji's senior students (Tim Miller, David Garrigues, Richard Freeman, Kino MacGregor) have since gone to great lengths to expound and expand upon the yoga philosophy that underwrites the practice in many of their lectures and workshops. It's hard not to conclude that at least part of these teachers' motivation for doing this is to fill in a gap in Guruji's pedagogy, by using their much stronger command of the English language to do what Guruji was not able to do. So in a sense, we can say that Tim, Kino, Richard, et al, are Guruji's verbal proxies. I don't know this for a fact, this is just my personal theory. Don't go around quoting me on this (like I can stop you anyway...).

But here's an opposing thought. What if it really didn't matter one way or the other that Guruji's English was limited? Guy Donahaye believes that "do your practice and all is coming" was something that Guruji "said in the context of frustration that direct teaching through the mind was not possible." Well, consider this: What if direct teaching through the mind (whatever this means) is something that is ultimately impossible, regardless of one's language ability? After all, language is just one of several different tools that one can use to get ideas across to people. Could it even be that Guruji's lack of facility with the English language may ironically have made him a more eloquent teacher, because he was not constricted by words and their linguistic/conceptual associations in the way that many of our western minds are? Could it be that because he wasn't so verbally eloquent, his students were forced to get out of their heads more, so to speak, and relate to him on a more... visceral and immediate level? I don't mean to make things unnecessarily mystical and esoteric, but we all know that many of Guruji's students' most cherished memories of him involve his famous, often grammatically incorrect aphorisms ("Why fearing, you?"); aphorisms that arguably would never have come into existence if he spoke better English (in which case he would probably sound like Mr. Iyengar). So perhaps it is as it should be: Guruji is the best Guruji there ever could be, with his linguistic limitations and all. In any case, David Williams also famously said that, "Before you practice, the theory is useless. After you practice, the theory is obvious." So maybe all really is coming when you practice :-)


  1. Darn, good thing I read till the end, I was going to shoot back with David's quote! Enjoy your moon day.

  2. Direct teaching is certainly possible, but aren't there other methodologies? As an academic philospher in the Western tradition, would you say the Socratic method stands in stark contrast?

    Guruji's maxim "do your practice" ultimately begs the question of the meaning of practice. The students Guy describes, who vexed Guruji, were materialists who fallaciously see Ashtanga as being encapsulated in the third limb and its accoutrements, Manduka mats and Lululemon... absurd, isn't it? Others come to an understanding of practice that encompasses all eight limbs, perhaps ultimately comprising Self-realization and the unification with Brahman which was truly the heart of Guruji's teaching.

    A great quote from Ramakrishna: "Do not seek illumination unless you seek it as a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond." Whatever your practice is, do it continuously, for a long time, and with absolute, unreserved commitment. Your karma will fructify accordingly.

    1. You bring up many interesting insights here. Where should I start?... Well, let's start with what I think of the Socratic method. Personally, I think that the Socratic method has been distorted and even, dare I say, bastardized from the original role that Socrates intended it to play. And I'll even go further, and say that academic philosophers and scholars have probably contributed the most to this distortion, by thinking that the Socratic method worships reason as king.

      As I personally see it, nothing could be further from the truth. Socrates' ultimate goal in employing the Socratic method is to use reason to get his listeners to see the limits of reason, i.e. to get them to see that there are certain fundamental matters (what is virtue, what is life, what is death, how should one face's one mortality, etc.) that reason can only point a finger at, so to speak. After all, no amount of applying the Socratic method can enable Socrates to be so calm in the face of his certain death: That composure can only come from a place that is deeper than the intellect.

      The trouble then, as I see it, is that too many people in the western world (including so-called academic philosophers) mistake the finger for the moon (to borrow a zen analogy), and think that the Socratic method is an end in itself, when it is just a method that Socrates employs to try to get his listeners to ponder and reflect more deeply about things, and use these reflections to live a life worth living.

      The cynical side of me also tells me that no academic would ever hold such a view about the Socratic method (to my knowledge, no one has). Because if he/she did, there would be nothing much more to say, and therefore nothing that one can publish academic papers about! And then folks won't be able to get tenure :-)

    2. Sorry for the big rant about the Socratic method and academic philosophy. Couldn't resist it :-)

      But to come back to yoga, if my view about the ultimate goal of the Socratic method is correct, this would mean that the western philosophical tradition as represented by Socrates/Plato/Aristotle and classical yoga philosophy have much in common: At any rate, they both begin with the common problem of how to make sense of humanity's place in the universe in the face of his mortality. And I even think that Socrates would agree with Guruji that ultimately, all things come with practice. It's just that for Socrates, "practice" doesn't just mean practicing asanas (or pranayama) on a yoga mat. For Socrates, the whole of life is the place of practice. Actually, I think Guruji would agree with this too. I think Guy Donahaye said somewhere that when Guruji says that yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory, he doesn't mean "practice" to only include asana practice, but something more inclusive of life itself. After all, what good is yoga practice if you only practice yoga while on the mat, and forget about it the moment your morning practice is done?

    3. Well put, anon! I think there is a wonderful, simple truth in the saying "do your practice and all is coming". But the critical thing is to remember that Guruji's Ashtanga is rooted in Ashta-anga Yoga, the 8-limbed yoga of Patanjali. So we need to also extend this modern mantra to the other 7 limbs of the yoga 'tree'. Practice the yamas and niyamas, and all is coming. Practice pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana and dharana, and all (samadhi?) is coming. Asana is just the tip of the iceberg.

    4. There's definitely something to what you're saying here. I've heard it said more than once that Guruji's laconic manner and limited English had the benefit of forcing the student to take the initiative in exploring the meaning and truth of his instruction. Like mula bandha: "Tighten your anus!" Sutra or koan study, same deal. Do we ever really know what those things mean?

      In effect this is so much like what you're saying about Socrates... isn't "know thyself" attributed to him? The search for knowledge begins with the acceptance that there is an absence of knowledge, and particularly in occult practices such as yoga we must derive it from what clues are available in a long and arduous process.

      Gitane -- yes, I wish more people thought the same.

  3. Lovely post! I agree with La Gitane, TMHO do your practice refers to all 7 limbs of the tree and the final destination is samadhi. But before you can practice all of the limbs you have to quiet the mind so it will be ready to learn right? I guess that's why we begin with asana. As the pre socratic Greek philosopher Thales said back in 6th century BC "a sound mind in a sound body" meaning that only a healthy body can support a healthy mind.


    1. Well said, Olympia. I like what you say about asana as a means of strengthening/quieting the mind.

      But I would disagree that Samadhi is the final destination; it's actually possible to attain samadhi and still be an asshole:


      If anything is a final destination in yoga practice, I would say it is self-realization. And it seems to be possible to consistently experience samadhi, and still not be self-realized.

      Nice blog, btw :-)

    2. Nobel, you're right that samadhi is a limb of the practice, not the "destination", which is self-realization / moksha / enlightenment / not-being-an-asshole. And even then, Gautama Buddha "attained" enlightenment and spent another 50 years or something walking around in bare feet trying to get people to believe that he wasn't crazy... But I bet he did it without being an asshole, which is the critical difference.

      Oh, and I can't resist adding: Practice you must, and coming all is, hmmm? ;)

    3. Thanks for channeling Yoda. I think he is self-realized, even though he might sometimes appear to be an asshole to Luke :-)

      As for Gautama... first, there is this debate in classical Buddhist philosophy about whether one can attain enlightened/nirvana without disappearing from this world. Gautama's case seems to suggest that this is possible. And I think many Buddhists would claim that self-realization and enlightenment are not the same thing. But I'm not sure what exactly the difference is, so I'll stop here.

    4. Isn't the fundamental difference of Buddhists that they deny the existence of the self, of the world? That the only real thing is emptiness?

    5. This is true; which means that the fundamental disagreement that Buddhists would have with so-called orthodox Indian philosophy would be that self-realization is technically impossible, since there is no self to be realized.

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  5. I love your blog, I needed to tell you. It's just great. I've been picking a post to read each morning for the last few weeks, after my practice, as a kind of gentle way to connect back to the real life (that is, non-practice moments, sitting at my computer, working... ;-)And I enjoy all of them ! Well written and well thought, keep on going, it's just cool !

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I am very happy to know that I am doing some good in your life (and hopefully, those of others too) :-)