The travails of India continue. I am constantly bombarded with so much noise, pollution, and all-out paradox that define India, that it’s best not to leave my apartment unless absolutely necessary.
Why do I come here, again?
I am here for yoga and, specifically, the study of yoga asana. Even more specifically, I’m here to practice a particular sequence of asanas called “Ashtanga Vinyasa” made popular in the West by a man named Sri K. Pattabhi Jois who passed away earlier this year (in ‘09) at the ripe age of 93. Over the last 70 years or so, this man (whom I called Guruji or “dear teacher”) taught a sequence with very little variation from the way it was taught to him by his guru: a man named Krishnamacharya. It is safe to say that this method, more than the guru, is the real teacher. In his broken English, Guruji was famous for saying, “practice, practice – all is coming” and “yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory.” This is because in this method, the aspirant only learns by practicing. There is no short cut; the benefits cannot be learned; they must be experienced.
The primary series, known as yoga chikitsa, is a sequence of about 100 asanas designed to cleanse the body. It is a purification from various toxins that accumulate in the muscles and organs as a natural result of daily bodily functions: eating, breathing, processing hormones of the endocrine system, etc. It is focused heavily on forward bends and some spinal twists. After 5 years of daily practice (give or take a few months to recover from the occasional injury), I have developed enough proficiency in the primary series, to be allowed to complete the sequence here in the shala. Now, as of my second month here, I’m finally allowed to progress into the Intermediate series, known as nadi shodana, which focuses on cleansing the nervous system. I’ve only been given the first pose but, it doesn’t really matter. It all stops mattering. Ultimately (and daily, really), I don’t really care if I get another pose here or if I just practice what I know on my own for the rest of my life. I don’t care what the person next to me is doing. Competing with anyone else is pointless. It is about me, directly experiencing this, alone, on my mat. Comparing myself to how or what I did yesterday leads nowhere. The only thing that really matters is what I am doing right now. Right now, both on and off my mat, is the only thing that means anything. Everything else is just mental noise. So I take a deep breath, focus all my attention on the present moment, find balance in it, rinse and repeat. This is not always possible. I am, for example, essentially living in a construction zone in Brindivan extension (a suburb of Mysore); the neighbors are performing a gut renovation or their house for 11 hours every day: sawing marble, sawing steel, hammering everything within an inch of its existence… every day, since I got here.
Every. Single. Day.
You cannot imagine.
It wreaks havoc on my nerves and it’s all I can do to prevent myself from severely reprimanding the next Indian I see hitting their dog or throwing their plastic on the ground. I am reminded of something one of my teacher’s (John Berlinsky) told me, “the easiest part of my yoga practice is on my mat.” …but, I digress
The name, Ashtanga, is actually two words in Sanskrit: astho, meaning “eight,” and anga meaning “part,” “stage,” or “limb.” Vinyasa is also two words: vi, meaning “in a special way,” and nyasa meaning “to place.” It refers to how one of the eight steps, asana (postures), should be practiced. Lastly, the word yoga is Sanskrit for “union” or “joining,” as in controlling the connection between the physical with the spiritual, between nature and consciousness. Thus, the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system is an eight-step path to enlightenment; the unification of the body/breath, mind, and spirit. This isn’t to say that everyone who practices this method will attain enlightenment and to my knowledge, Guruji never spoke about enlightenment to his students – certainly not to many foreigners. But it is interesting to note here that yoga is both the path and the result of this practice. To participate in this method requires that the practitioner follow specific codes of conduct such as moral restraints and spiritual observances and, in fact, it necessitates a certain lifestyle: one that is based on routine, repetition, dedication, and devotion. This technique dictates that I am to make the same sequence of asanas every day, one after another, without variation and, if possible, daily, without interruption, for as long as I can. Each movement is associated with either an inhalation or exhalation. There need not be extra breaths between movements and one is never to hold one’s breath. The must be constant flow. Inhaling and exhaling, moving the body this way and that. Squeezing the internal organs and stretching the muscles. Bending forward and backward. Up and down. Massaging, kneading, activating, relaxing, concentrating. There is a lot of sweat and, in order to control the body, and keep the mind from wandering, there is the breath and the drishti, specific points on which to focus one’s gaze. The result is concentration that is focused like a laser, void of distraction (from external stimuli such as other people, noises, smells, and internal stimuli such as thoughts, memories, emotions). You could call this level of mind control a “psychic ability,” if the term weren’t so loaded with images of crystal balls. But, no, really, that’s what it is. And with this psychic ability, it becomes possible for a person to cut through all distraction, both external and internal, remaining focused on a single point of consciousness, known as ekagrata. Thus, after exercising considerable discipline to study myself, control my mind, and humble myself before all of Nature (i.e. surrendering myself to what is), the ancient texts state that I will become stabilized in unshakable serenity, regardless of the circumstances. Sounds nice, right?
But, it’s certainly not for everyone and those of us who practice this method are often accused of being cult-like devotees which, I’m sure is what it looks like, especially given the way I’ve seen some of my fellow practitioners behave.
For me, however, this practice has provided all sorts of perspective-shifting, mind-blowing, life-enhancing experiences that have been altogether earth-shattering. Most of them have been so personal, so weird and unexplainable, that they are hard to articulate. I really can’t talk about some of the things that I’ve experienced on my mat, nor can I explain some of the changes that have taken place off my mat. It’s beyond reasonable dialogue. Sometimes, it’s a feeling. Other times, it’s a realization. Every time, it’s deeply subjective. It happens to me. In me. This is not to over-sell or mystify the practice. This is simply to say that, for me, for my temperament and disposition, for my needs and strengths, this style of yoga was exactly what I was looking for. This method aims to calm the endless chatter in my mind, redirecting my attention towards my inner experience rather than my extroverted personality. Because, there are so many other paths that are not for me. Perhaps you didn’t know there were many different yogas? I’m not just talking about the recent incarnations in your local yoga studio: Anusara (ShriDaiva?), Jivamukti, Bikram, Forest, and Baptiste Power Vinyasa Flow. Or whatever. Nor am I talking about the more traditional form of Hatha. Perhaps you didn’t know that there are yogas for action (karma), devotion (bakhti), chanting (mantra), and knowledge (jnana). What we call yoga, in the West, is really just one specific physical component that looks more like Hindu gymnastics than a philosophy of life… And this is what is most frustrating to me and my Ashtanga ilk. Since we take our yoga practice so seriously, since we hold this noble science in such high regard, and since we know that the physical practice is only preparation for higher stages of meditation, it’s sometimes painful to see how this deeply personal pursuit has been marketed, packaged, and sold to the masses. It’s irritating to see 20-something ex-bartenders become “yoga teachers” after attending some 200-hour certification. I mean, come on! It takes 1,500 hours to be a hair dresser! It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
But, it doesn’t matter, those who want to open the door to personal development will find their way. Those of us who want to go deeper will just have to look a little harder to find the Truth we are seeking. For me, for now, it’s this. Yoga is a means to liberate my mind from 30+ years of social/parental/intra-personal conditioning, a way to drop all the bullshit I think I know, about everything I think I know, and actually find out who/what I really am. It is so much more than a work out. It propounds a philosophy of existence. It proposes a theory of Mind. It presents a map of consciousness, the intellectual environment, the material universe, and it identifies a path to transcend all of it. It is all this but, at the same time, it is not a religion. And though the new-age set promotes it as such, it is not fluffy spiritualism aimed at opening your heart chakra. Unless, I guess, it is. But, whatever. It isn’t that, for me. For me, it doesn’t need any magical thinking or imagination to be more wonderful than it already is. I am like a scientist on my yoga mat: I experiment, observe, and repeat. In this sense, yoga means to make a laboratory of my body and mind in order to study the nature of consciousness in an attempt to understand the life-force that animates all living things. The thing behind the thing, if you get my drift.