The irony of Ashtanga, or the importance of not being too earnest
In a past life, I was a bit of an Oscar Wilde scholar.
You know him best, I’m sure, for “The Importance of Being Earnest” or “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Or perhaps as the victim of one of the dumbest legal cases in recorded history. His pursuit of a libel case against the father of his male lover led to the evidence being unearthed that, in turn, led to his being found guilty of “gross indecency.” Two years in prison didn’t suit him well.
Wilde tends to get dismissed as not terribly serious, more of a wit and raconteur. I argued that there was more to his poetics and theories of art than generally recognized.
I thought of Wilde and the title of his most famous play when reading the recent interview with Richard Freeman, which we posted about last week. In particular what caught my eye was part of his answer to a question about knowing which teacher to follow:
Other teachers are destructed by money and fame. And even if they are good teachers, may be though, something will happen to them; someone will come and offer them too much money or fame. And they will loose their quality after all. It’s a dangerous world right here. One day this happened to Jesus. Satan came to Jesus and offered him a kingdom. And, I think, this happened to all yoga teachers in different times. This is how temptation comes. This is why a teacher should have friends or other people who give him feedback, who criticize them. Those friends, who are not their students, friends who make fun of them. They need to have that. But sometimes they cut their friends off and they almost drawn themselves better on students. And they become what we call Narcissus – people, who fall in love with themselves. And they cannot bear any criticism; they are, you know, like Gaddafi, they do not allow any criticism. While in a healthy yoga lineage they always have at least the one who is equal to you, who laughs with you, or who tells you that you are doing something stupid. And even if you look at the Buddhists today they all have, even the big lamas, have other lamas who are the teachers, so they laugh at each other, and that helps them going way off.
“They laugh at each other.”
As I thought about the interview, I came to realize that a sense of laughter is absolutely fundamental to Ashtanga. But it is more than that. It really is a sense of irony — one infused with humor — that has been a hallmark of the majority of teachers I’ve studied with. And they seem to have gotten that from Guruji, himself.
We’ve all heard the many stories of Guruji’s humor and “childlike” — that word is used a lot to describe him — embrace of the world. My once-removed sense is that both have the smell of irony to them.
What could be more ironic than smashing down on someone in Badha Konasana and saying after, “Sometimes, walk funny six months.” Or his putting the senior Western students in headstand for, what, an hour or more to try to get their heads, in this case almost literally, screwed on correctly?
There also is something fundamentally ironic, to me, about someone with Guruji’s teaching grace constantly being talked about as “childlike.” I wonder if it wasn’t just that he was in on a joke few others even knew.
A similar irony serves Tim Miller. His commentary on the Yoga Sutras absolutely is strewn with irony, whether he is talking about the difficulty of practicing or how great samadhi sounds. He constantly undersells things, from my perspective. Samadhi “sounds pretty good,” or something to that effect. “Practicing yoga usually works better with practice,” is something else — to paraphrase — he says.
Either could be dropped into “The Importance of Being Earnest” — best line, by the way, “Oh, Gwendolen is as right as a trivet. ” — without audiences missing a beat.
I’ve found similar ironic touches to Eddie Stern, David Swenson and Richard Freeman, most notably.
In trying to determine what might be the source of this irony, I keep circling back to the idea of practicing. Ashtanga’s goal, to put it one way, is to become “perfected” — to see God, to be one with the “unified field” as our Western teachers have come to put it. But it isn’t going to happen, and that fact is fundamental to “the practice,” so much so that we describe what we do as something that can’t be done right, can’t be completed. We just have to keep at it, anyway.
Stepping onto the mat is an ironic gesture, in and of itself.
As I’ve been thinking about this, I realize it is this irony — the sense that the joke’s on me as I prepare for the opening chant — that attracts me to Ashtanga and not to some of the more earnest yoga strands out there. That other A-yoga that’s been so in the news seems unbearingly earnest, even if its fallen guru sounds playful. (For those paying attention, “playful” may be an ironic choice of word.) “Mainstream” Vinyasa classes, with their Rumi-rooted, life coach-flavored Savasanas seem to be, too.
It’s as if they aren’t in on the joke, and therefore are missing the bigger picture.
Posted by Steve