Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pain is the House of Ashtanga

[Spoken with Yoda voice] Ah, a very funny thing this blogging is. For most of this month, I have just been averaging about one post a week. But then suddenly, this is the second post for today. The blogging muse is indeed a fickle creature...

Just a few minutes ago, I stumbled upon this article by Anne Finstad, in which she describes Ashtanga yoga as a "House of Pain." As you probably remember, about a month ago, David Garrigues published his by-now-famous blog post on the inevitability of pain in the Ashtanga practice (it's so famous that I'm not even going to link to it here; I bet you have probably read it, like, a thousand times by now). In response to this post, the entire Ashtanga blogosphere was aflame (or should I say "inflamed" :-)) with passionate discussions about whether pain is good/necessary in a "real" Ashtanga practice, how many kinds of pain there are, whether the pain that comes from practice is similar to the pain that comes from poetic creation, and whether some senior Ashtanga teachers might be Cylons (this last one is, of course, entirely my own contribution to the conversation :-)).

Anyway, this article by Finstad is definitely worth a read. She talks about her own experience of pain in the practice in a very honest, heartfelt, no-hyperbole kind of way:

"There was a long time for me, the practice just hurt. I spend my first trip to Mysore having torn a hamstring insert before going. It meant a lot of adjustments from Guruji and made me wonder what was wrong with all of us — especially me. It was not an ideal spiritual journey. It was pure raw pain and it was not only painful it was exhausting. I really was suspicious that Pattabhi Jois was a crazy man and we were all crazy for going to India to go through this. And as many will tell you, he didn’t really explain much to you, he just did it. So there was a great deal or room to wonder.

The thing was, and thank God, that part of the practice wasn’t forever. This magic thing happened where after five years of practice my hips opened. After seven years of practice, my knees stopped hurting. And as people will tell you or you can see if someone sticks with the practice over time and through these things, the body is made new.
It’s not a perfect transformation in all cases and the limits of it are dictated by how we take the practice. But as much as we let it the practice will change us for the better."

One of the first things that hit me when I read this was: "Damn, seven years of knee pain!" Most ordinary human beings I know would probably bail after like, five seconds of knee pain. Seven years? Gosh... But Anne has more to say. Here's the upshot of pain in the practice, according to Anne:

"I am writing this to say that everyone at some point has an experience of pain. We each have an attitude towards our own pain. To me the practice is a good way to start looking at how we approach pain. This discussion isn’t always comfortable, but it is one that a lot of us need to have. To work out how to not seek it, avoid it, or fear it. It’s going to happen, this pain. Just like life is going to happen. Sometimes it calls on us to do something, and sometimes we just need to let it be what it is and not try to fix it.

What the practice teaches me is how to let go of fighting the pain — to move on and through it without hanging on or becoming identified with it. To let pain become another sensation that educates me, to change my behavior, or to accept what is.

This, rather than just putting my foot behind the head, is yoga."

I hope you find Anne's article as edifying as I do... but--and I'm pretty sure you are already suspecting this, but I have to say it anyway--this also means that Anne Finstad is probably also a Cylon. How else could anybody live with knee pain for seven frakking years? 


But here's a different way of looking at this whole pain-and-Ashtanga-yoga business. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously proclaimed that "Language is the house of Being." I'm no Heidegger scholar, and am therefore unable to tell you what Being is (maybe Grimmly can, but he's on the beautiful island of Crete, soaking in the sunshine and taking in wonderful yoga instruction from Manju... and who wants to read and talk about Heidegger while on vacation?). But as a very convenient (albeit somewhat bastardized) shorthand, you can think of Being as being akin to the Tao or the Force of Star Wars.

So language, according to Heidegger, is the place where Being/Tao/the Force is most at home, and reveals itself most readily to us. But this revealing cannot take place by trying to wrench meaning out of words by linguistic analysis. Being can only reveal itself to us when we are open enough in our being for language to unfold itself through us. Heidegger's favorite example is that of the poet. The poet does not work with language by analyzing it or trying in some way to force meaning out of it. Rather, he allows the muse to speak to him and, in so doing, becomes an open conduit through which language and Being unfolds itself through him.

If none of this makes much sense to you, it's not you: It's probably a combination of the fact that I am both not a Heidegger scholar and also a very bad poet. But where's the connection to Ashtanga here? Well, consider this: What if Pain is the house of Ashtanga? In other words, what if it is through the language of pain that the truth or Tao or whatever of Ashtanga reveals itself to us? In other words, could it be that Pain is the House of the Being of Ashtanga? Yeah, I know, all this is very awkwardly put (I told you I was a bad poet...), but hopefully, you get my drift here.

But if all this is true, wouldn't this mean that practicing Ashtanga is a form of poetic creation, so that in practicing Ashtanga, we are doing poetry with our minds and bodies? Ha! So the pain of Ashtanga is really akin to the pain of poetic creation, after all. Well, shows what I know, right? ;-)     


  1. Back when I was reading enough Heidegger et al.for it allot make some sense to me I would think of language as the 'prison' house of language. The poets of course offer some escape. Heidegger suggests that the philosophers can only take us to the edge of the abyss the poets however..... Ricoure puts it nicely when he explains that the poets metaphore 'shatters reality and re describes it anew'. Now if we think of ashtangi's trapeed in their pain language going round in circles as with the DG article and response. But then perhaps there are poet Ashtangi's who employ the mat as an Heideggarian clearing where pain language can be re encountered anew. This becomes interesting if we substitute the word suffering for pain, then the poet ashtangi's are exploring our relationship with, the being of, our suffering and perhaps suffering in general. Perhaps we're not just frivolously bouncing about on rubber mats after all. Hmmm perhaps this does all make sense to me still, at 5am at least aching all over in a sweltering room on the sultry isle of Crete contemplating whether to do my much neglected 2nd series for Manju in a couple of hours.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply from your Cretan retreat/vacation!

      I certainly like to believe I am not just frivolously bouncing around on a rubber mat (or Mysore rug) every morning :-) I do think the word suffering is more apt than pain... after all, who was it that said that "Pain is real, suffering is optional"? But to extend the Heideggerian image further, I wonder what would make the difference between somebody who is trapped in pain language and going around in circles, and somebody who is authentically shattering the reality of pain/suffering and rediscovering/redescribing it anew.

      I've never studied with Manju before. But I'm sure you will learn much from him. Let me know if you end up doing second series with Manju :-)

    2. Yes did 2nd today, Manju said it was good which was kind of him but now I'm bugged and should probably do it all week.... except Friday thank god. So hot and sweaty in this charming Shala I feel I can get into almost anything.

    3. Cool! It's good to get away from London and practice in a hot and sweaty place every once in a while, don't you think? :-) At any rate, you will get a break from 2nd tomorrow (Friday)...

  2. Excuse the typing, big thumbs, small itouch and intermittent wifi that won't let me edit.

  3. yeah, i really loved her post.
    but somehow the image that comes to mind whenever you mention cylons, is that they can't take pain- they just die and download to a new body...got that scene of cavil trying to off himself during a battle, stuck in my head here..
    regarding emotional pain..nope, cylons don't like that either..their god is what takes away their pain..but that might be too large a leap. so i don't agree that ashtangis are cylons :)

    1. I really love your new profile image :-)

      I remember that Cavil scene very well. Actually, what I remember even more vividly is the human resistance fighter looking at him dying and saying, "I hope you take a very long time to die." Watching BSG sometimes makes me question my faith in the goodness of humanity...

      Maybe some Ashtangis regularly die and download into new bodies?...

    2. Oh, I would also like to let you know that I just officially became a follower of your blog (as "siegfried23") and will be adding your blog to my blogroll. I don't know why it never occurred to me to do this earlier; I enjoy your writing.

    3. thanks!

      yeah, i know what you mean about bsg..it got darker and darker as it went on...

      one more argument against ashtangis as cylons..they don't love..well, except for a couple of them...though on the physical endurance side..yeah, that would be useful for practice :)

  4. I would suggest that practice is the house of ashtanga, in which we find pain, pleasure and eventually, equanimity.

    But don't take my word for it. Krishna spells it out:

    For one who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends |
    But for one who has failed to do so, his very mind will be the greatest enemy. || VI.6 ||

    For one who has conquered the mind, Paramaatman has already been reached, for tranquility has been obtained |
    To such a person, happiness and distress, heat and cold, honor and dishonor are the same. || VI.7 ||

    1. Thanks for sharing the Gita passages. Gives new meaning to Guruji's famous saying, "Body not stiff, mind stiff!"

  5. I appreciate Anonymous's contribution above, and I think it's right, even without the Gita support for the argument. Still, I also like Anne Finstad's post, as I did when I read it a couple of weeks ago. I think she's addressing the topic of pain in Ashtanga, she is not saying that is all that Ashtanga is. So the two are not mutually exclusive. and I like Anne from what I've seen of her. She doesn't seem wrapped up with pain at all. She may have found that poetry.

    1. Indeed, she may have found that poetry :-) Thanks for chiming in, Anonymous... hmm there are so many Anonymouses commenting on this blog these days, it's impossible to keep track of which Anonymous is which anymore. But then again, maybe that is the whole point of being Anonymous, isn't it?

  6. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f8/Internet_dog.jpg

    If I may allow Patanjali to talk out of the other side of my mouth:

    To the discerning one, all is but pain due to the conflict of the fluctuating gunas, anguish through change and the pain caused by subconscious impression. || II.15 ||

    The pain that is yet to come is to be avoided. || II.16 ||

    The cause of that which is to be avoided [pain] is the union of the seer and the seen. || II.17 ||

  7. BTW, a language thing: is "cretan vacation" correct in your reply to grimmly? or should it be vacation on crete?" (some of us studied/worry about English, not philosophy)

    1. Dude, you're thinking cretin, not Cretan


  8. The saying “no pain, no gain,” depending on the definition of pain, can be a rough truth or a harmful misunderstanding. Surely pain unchecked, pain un-alleviated by mindfulness, will not lead to healthy conversion—the damaging misconception. Yet pain that fallout from facing challenges and managing them gainfully is mightily favorable to growth—for those who aspire to evade literal developing pains, the rough truth. A more vivid description could be “no growth in comfort, no comfort in growth.”