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Can you be devoted to yoga without loving it?

April 10, 2012

The headline here is taken from a comment on my earlier post about not trusting people who “love” yoga. The commenter wrote: “how can you be devoted to something without love for it…”

Both that comment, and another, propelled my thinking on this subject. As someone on Twitter noted, I may be being a bit facetious, but I’m not — entirely.

"Thou Art That" -- neat huh? Via uci.edu

Ashtanga is simply so painful and challenging, that I can’t identify with people who talk about “loving” their practice. I have a complete cognizant disconnect. What are they doing that allows them to “love” this? Are they doing it “wrong?” Are they not pushing themselves past the point of happy and positive feedback?

I don’t know. And since I don’t know, I can’t help feeling a little bit of distrust.

It was always the same for me when I was interviewing potential hires when I was a newspaper editor. If the person said “I love to write” as a reason for getting into journalism, that raised my red flags. Writing, like yoga, is hard, messy business. It’s a painful extraction of ideas from your brain.

I’m a professional writer; I’m a lifelong writer. I’m part of two disparate blogs. But I don’t love writing. It’s just something that feels necessary.

Like the Ashtanga.

But back to the comments on the earlier post and “love.” (More comments have been added even as I write this.) Both affirmed a love for yoga, and one even suggested that without love “it ain’t yoga.”

And this is where a lot clicked for me. My aversion to yoga festivals and most other styles of yoga asana practice; certainly my retreat from the stereotypical “flow” class that ends with a passage from Rumi. My general aversion to a lot of Bhakti Yoga as practiced and the trappings that come with it. Even my good-natured joking about all the hugging that goes on in a yoga studio (of which, while joking, I’m more than happy to take part).

All this is yoga as a path to love.

But that’s not my understanding of yoga.

My understanding is that a yoga practice is intended to bring you somewhere between or maybe to a combination of non-attachment and unification with “everything.” (As a spiraling side note, that “everything” may just be my own constitutive universe. I don’t think that changes the fundamentals here, though.) Or, as Guruji said, and I’m paraphrasing: Everywhere you look, you see God.

Love, to me, is the exact opposite: It’s the ultimate attachment and the ultimate separation from “everything.” It’s “I love,” “I love,” “I love.” The other — to fall into the jargony rabbit hole  – is ever present in love, much as it is in hate.

And where the other is present, so is the self, or the ego, or the defined and thus limited “I.”

Rather than finding love, the goal is Tat Tvam Asi: “Thou art that.” But that’s not “love,” right? The non-attachment part of the yoga, as I see it, draws us away from that. If you are that, there’s no you to do the loving.

I see four main arguments to my point, which I want to try to address: Bhatki Yoga. Hanuman. The Yamas. The Gita.

Bhakti Yoga

A comment on the earlier post noted that Richard Freeman says all yoga is Bhakti Yoga. I have in my notes from the Confluence Richard’s talking about Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender to “God.” From my notes, I see his talking about this in terms of realizing a oneness that “allows you to let go of it” or as an “offering” — “Let me give, give, give.”

Both I think emphasize Bhakti as more “devotion” than “love.” You are devoted, you give yourself away (entirely, into the “all”) and as you enter what Richard called the “unified field” you dissolve and there is nothing left to feel attachment. (Richard’s Buddhism also plays into things here, and from a Buddhist perspective I’d say that “love” does enter things.)

The singing of songs, of the names of God, is more part of the process of finding that moment of unity than an explicit expression of love.

Hanuman

You can’t have a yoga post on devotion without Hanuman, right?

And I guess the question comes down to: Did Hanuman love Rama and Sita?

It would seem crazy to answer that question in anyway other than “Yes.” But, well, I’ll say it: “No.”

Was he devoted to them, absolutely? Yes.

I think the Ramayana supports this understanding via Hanuman and Rama’s first meeting. In that moment, Hanuman — the embodiment of all that’s best in man and monkey — immediately sees Rama’s distress and offers to do everything he can to help.

Thus begins their relationship. But unless you want to argue that this is a case of “love at first sight”, I think it demonstrates that Hanuman was a devoted spirit, a spirit that — to circle back to Guruji’s words — saw God everywhere. And when suddenly faced with, literally, God, he had no doubts. It was his time and role to serve.

Another example of this is the famous story of Hanuman’s ripping open his chest and Rama and Sita being there on his heart. It’s easy to conflate that with love — love = the heart, after all — but I see it as meaning that even his heart belonged to or was part of God. Hanuman’s very being was always with God, inseparably.

The Yamas

Here is another point that may fall simply to how we define the first of Patanjali’s Yamas: Ahimsa. I think we have to look at the “A” in the word, which makes it a negative: non-violence, non-harming. I don’t see how that translates to “love,” except loosely. And I think it is more a reflection of the unity of yoga — harming something else means harming yourself.

The Gita

The Gita may present the toughest argument, if only because as a wonderful religious/philosophical/poetic text, it is open to such interpretation.

Can you find a translation of the Gita that doesn’t include the word “love” many, many times? I doubt it. Chapter 12 is full of Krishna’s talking about people loving him and being devoted to him and his loving them back “with very great love,” according to the Stephen Mitchell translation.

But this “love” is complicated. It also involves having “unwavering faith,” surrendering all actions and having a mind that has “entered [Krishna's] being.” And often times, we find that word “devoted” right along side “love.”

Are devoted and love the same thing? Or are the meanings ever so slightly different?

Further, is this “loving” Krishna the “ultimate” point to the Gita? I won’t pretend to say, with certainty, but I will argue that for Arjuna, I think the Gita comes down to lines in Chapter 18. Krishna is speaking:

It is better to do your own duty

badly than to perfect do

another’s: when you do your duty,

you are naturally free from sin.

That Arjuna must do his duty as a Kshatriya and kill people he loves — all while not being attached to his actions, giving them instead to Krishna, to god — seems to me the core of the Gita. Follow your Dharma without attachment. Give yourself up to God.

In the same sense, I’m trying to give myself up to the practice. From there, perhaps, I can get to the point of being able to give myself up, detach myself from my wants and desires and fears and pains, find that unity of yoga, with God.

Trying to figure all this out is, of course, why I’m excited about the Sadhana Yantra.

Posted by Steve

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2012 9:02 pm

    mulling over the rest of the post for a while, but this jumped at me: “Are they doing it “wrong?” Are they not pushing themselves past the point of happy and positive feedback?”

    it’s interesting that your difficult moments point you in this direction, rather than ‘am I doing it wrong? am I pushing myself to the point of unhappy and negative feedback?’

    just saying :) two ways of going about things: inside and outside.

    • April 10, 2012 9:08 pm

      I totally agree. Nancy’s the latest in a long line who I have heard suggest we shouldn’t be hurting ourselves in yoga.

      And I’ll admit this is very much an ego-driven perspective on my part (see the end of the post to realize I’m at least trying to get away from it). But even where I’m not “pushing” — forward fold, Trikonasana — the experience is one that I just can’t identify with “love.” And so I just can’t fundamentally imagine what these other practices are like.

      I easily could think about what I might be doing wrong. But my ego won’t let me think I’m doing it wrong, right?

  2. April 10, 2012 10:21 pm

    For me to truly love something means to acknowledge that is part of you and you are part of it, there is no separation, no disconnect. It’s not attachment to a feeling of pleasure or lust or a daily comfort. It’s impossible not to feel humbled by that no more than when I feel humbled at my attempts at kapo some mornings.

  3. April 10, 2012 10:32 pm

    I understand your consternation about the devotion/love question, Steve. That word “love” is thrown around so easily by us – “OMG, I love that movie/book/show/restaurant!” – its meaning can get diluted.

    Do I love my practice? Like any loved one, I would miss it terribly if it was not part of my life. I would grieve I lost my practice, or lost the ability to do asana (that’s already happened to me when I was badly injured, and I was pretty depressed about it. But, the loss of asana compelled me to look to the other limbs of practice, and that was a good thing).

    I am attached to my practice. I guess in that sense, I “love” my practice.

    So, I think the words “I love my practice”, signifies that (beneficial?) attachment, but also a commitment, a dedication, a need, an impulse, to do the practice and to find the peace and happiness that arises when you do it. You would have to “love” your practice – or maybe, love it’s positive effect on you – to be compelled to do it 6 days a week. Initially, I did the practice just to reduce stress in my life and to feel physically better. I still do it for that reason, but, as with most of us, it’s evolved over the years, and now I practice because I have a lot more clarity, and I’m a better, more compassionate person to others because I practice.

    But, is this “love” in the devotional, unconditional bhakti sense? I don’t think it’s bhakti if you just do it for your own benefit, and that’s how the vast majority of us start doing the practice – to make a positive change for ourselves. Nothing wrong with that! There are practitioners who do their practice for the alleviation of suffering of all sentient beings, who are able to give up their efforts to God, who don’t get attached to the fruits of their practice. Unconditional, loving practice. That’s big yoga, and, if we are all being honest with ourselves, pretty rare.

    It’s a process. To do the unconditional love thing all the time is perhaps what we are here to figure out, and we will keep coming back again and again until we do figure it out. Meanwhile, there are many paths to the one Truth, which is why there’s all different forms of yoga. It doesn’t have to be bhakti to be yoga, although you can use that as a goal/intention. Which I think is your point when you quote the Gita – “it’s better to do one’s duty badly than to perfect do another’s.” You have to practice what works for you – and the fun of yoga is searching for what does work, and then dedicating yourself to that – devoting yourself – and learning to love your practice, even if it feels like a slog sometimes. Like any relationship, the real learning and growth happens when the going gets tough.

    • April 11, 2012 12:41 am

      Before Bobbie got serious in her answer below, I was going to point out that what you wrote here:

      There are practitioners who do their practice for the alleviation of suffering of all sentient beings, who are able to give up their efforts to God, who don’t get attached to the fruits of their practice. Unconditional, loving practice.

      seems to describe my practice precisely. I was all, “Wait, she’s describing me!” :)

      S

      • April 11, 2012 6:49 pm

        :) Yes, I’m totally that way, too.

        (Not!)

        I have practiced next to you Steve – I definitely see it as a labor of love, too. Bobbie is right!

        Still, there are some practices (which I will not name) that espouse this approach of “love” in the “it’s all good, I looooooove my practice and looooooove everything” – the whole “opening to grace” idea, of doing the practice. To quote, this yoga “encompasses a vision of totality in which every part of each person is seen as equally Divine.”

        It’s a lovely idea/goal. But, I think it’s a bit too “Pollyanna” for me, for lack of a better word. I have a feeling many of us – most of us – can’t get to that space of ultimate grace and unity without going through the dark side for a bit. Without wearing away the samskaras for many years of practice. They are there. Ignoring them and thinking everything is just hunky dory and a representation of the Divine Unity doesn’t mean bad things – feelings, thoughts – don’t exist.

        So, yes, Ashtanga appeals to those who are willing to look at the dark side and work through that darkness – work through the tough samskaras – to the light. I am speaking way too metaphorically here, but I am pressed for time. (Gotta go pick up my kids.)

        Sometimes we learn a lot by going through the dark side. It reminds me of a T-shirt I once saw:

        “Come to the Dark Side. We have Cookies.”

      • April 11, 2012 11:45 pm

        Agreed, Michelle. I definitely need my yoga a little “rougher.” Tim talks about it as a Heroic Practice — it’s scary. It’s tough.

        But apparently I also need my Ashtanga “rougher” than some. Fortunately, it is — it’s all rough and hard. When many people seem to talk about “my difficult Kapo,” I can talk about “my difficult Trikonasana.”

        Last thought: Your comment is just the perfect example of a householder, isn’t it? Your practice is definitely inspiring, if you don’t mind my saying.

      • April 12, 2012 9:12 pm

        Well, I don’t know that I am inspiring, but thanks, Steve! I’m fortunate in that I have figured out a nice schedule. I get up, get the kids to school by 7:30 (and I won’t be driving them much longer – my 16 year old will be driving in the Fall – woo hoo!) then go to my studio and practice for an hour and 10 minutes (just enough time to finish primary or second and have a short closing – but not enough to goof around with drop backs) before folks start showing up for the morning Mysore class.

        Two hours later, and starving at that point, I get lunch, do some errands or admin stuff for the studio, and eventually pick the kids up again at 2. They could take a bus, but it’s almost an hour ride when they do, and, as I said above, I won’t be driving them around much longer. The days are long, but the years go quickly.

  4. April 10, 2012 10:44 pm

    Bobbie here. Speaking as someone who practices next to Steve nearly every day, I can tell you that it’s a labor of love. I’ll chime in and remind Steve that Nancy never said not to practice in pain–she did and does. Tim has a similar philosophy–his workshop on Ashtanga as “the heroic practice.” it’s part of his devotion to Hanuman, the Mahavira, the Great Hero. “It wouldn’t be heroic if it wasn’t scary,” Tim says. I think this is part of Steve’s point, and part of what he calls his “distrust.” There’s pain, and there’s pain, if you see what I mean.

    Unity is an ever-illusive non-goal, and we use every device in our power to seek it (even though seeking is of course a promise of failure). That’s it.

    Steve’s discussion of “the other” is perfect in this context, I think. “Ego” isn’t the same as “egotism” (see Eddie Stern’s dismissal of that word–often used incorrectly). The minute you claim to be experiencing non-attachment. . .Well, you’ve lost it.

    I’ll admit to being guilty of loving Ashtanga. It’s frequently a free exercise of egotism for me. I hope, one day, it won’t be. All I’m capable of “acknowledging” at this point in my practice are _some_ of the moments when I’m farthest away from unity. Many others pass without me noticing them. Maybe one day I’ll be able to know them all, and transcend them. But in the meantime, all I can do is practice.

  5. April 11, 2012 8:03 pm

    Wow…….you guys can be way deep sometimes!
    Maybe it all depends on how you define love. Me, I like to simplify things. The way I see it is you can say, I love my brother or my kids or my car, and feel no doubt about that. But does that mean they don’t annoy you or even cause you pain sometimes? And when this happens, do you then say, ‘brother, I can’t love you cos you cause me pain?’ No, you see the big picture and you continue to love him because you see him for who he is……ultimately, a part of you! You continue to love your car because, it looks good and gets you from place to place even though it may malfunction sometimes (ok, maybe thats a bad example, but you get my drift)
    So to me, its the same with ashtanga yoga……..you can love it because it gives you a strong flexible body, or clarity of mind, or good health……or whatever. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain or frustration sometimes with your practice.
    With regards to the comments about love being the ultimate attachment, maybe that would apply if you said, ‘I love this, that or the other’ But what if you said ‘I am love’ That to me is the real path to love! Besides, is not the desire for nonattachment an attachment in itself?

    • April 11, 2012 11:53 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Obsidian. I fear there may be more depth coming. I’ve seen a glimpse of Bobbie’s next post!

      I’ve continued to think through this issue — ever refining — and I think the key thing is a few things:

      1. I suppose I highlighted the notion of people “loving” their practice, because that’s how people put it. (Similar to “loving your car,” and I do love my MINI.) It remains an idea or emotion I simply can’t relate to because practice is so full of Tapasya for me, from beginning to end. As I said in response to Michelle above, a lot of people point to Kapo as a painful pose or a real challenge. Thanks to my decades of stiffness — Tim’s said I’m an archetypical stiff white guy — it all is that way for me. I wonder if people would love an Ashtanga practice that was 75 minutes of doing Kapo?

      2. In answer to that question, they would, I know. I recognize what people are saying when they say “I love yoga” — and why. I just can’t understand it, because the practice is one giant challenge after another. And when it isn’t a giant challenge, well, then I know I’m not doing it right. (So if it isn’t a big challenge for others, are they don’t doing it right? That’s how I got to that thinking.

      Plus, for me it misses the point of the practice, which is to move me away from a place where there’s an I to do the loving. The discussion we’ve been having here has helped me solidify that idea in my head, which has been VERY helpful to my practice.

      3. Your point about “I am love” I can’t and won’t argue with. It’s a different approach to the same goal, of course. None better than the other.

      S

      • April 12, 2012 11:08 am

        Thanks…….I think I am beginning to understand where you are coming from. It is a valid perspective. However, it is just one way of looking at things, I believe. What I mean is you’ve said that you perhaps need the practice and perhaps desire the practice, but don’t love the practice. Well, those are as much attachments as loving the practice. So, one could argue that that is also missing the point of the practice which is to get you (in your words) to a place where there is no you to do the needing or desiring, and if you are having those experiences, maybe you are not doing it right! May I also point out that you may be considered lucky in some ways if trikonasana is challenging you to an extent that you move into a place of no ego-you are approaching your goal right from the get go. Some need to get into a complex twisty arm balance before their minds finally stop chattering. They may not find trikonasana physically challenging, but other emotions could come to play; maybe boredom (at such a simple pose), or impatience (to get to the exciting stuff), or pride (that they’re so much better at trikonasana than other people)…….
        So be happy! (not too much or you could get attached!!)
        You have your challenging practice…….and some people love yoga! All are the same, all are attachments. If we didn’t have em, we probably wouldn’t be doing the practice…..we’re all doing it right……..now look what you’ve done! I’ve gone and strayed into that way deep place!!!

      • April 12, 2012 12:41 pm

        Thanks for “staying the the deep end” for a while. :)

        I’m not entirely sure how the discussion got as far as people thinking I think less of people who love yoga. (You said you don’t trust them!, you’re saying.) The lack of trust is my lack of understanding; it’s just a way to express that.

        But on to your actual points.

        I also hope I didn’t make it seem like I’m anywhere near where the yoga practice should take me. First off, it’s pretty impossible as we all know — of course I’m attached to the practice. Why else am I up again at 5 a.m.?! In that sense, maybe we all can agree that none of us are doing it right.

        But that’s OK. After all, it’s practice. It’s study. It’s research. And if we keep doing it, then all that “good” stuff is coming.

        Finally, of course my perspective is just one. I guess perhaps I didn’t take into consideration that as the “author” of the blog post, somehow it makes it seem I think my perspective is superior. I don’t. It’s all in the hope of having a conversation, working things through for myself (which I have) and, maybe, helping others think about their practice, too.

        Last point: It’s being 5:40 a.m. and now time for practice, I reserve the right not to be happy! :)

        S

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