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? ;-)