Ashtanga as Tapasya, or why yoga should hurt you

I’ve been thinking more about the idea of yoga, and specifically Ashtanga, as a modern Tapasya.

When I wrote it last week, it probably one of those moments where you write yourself further along than your thoughts actually are. In other words: I hadn’t thought of it so concretely that way. It’s what I think, no doubt. But I hadn’t crystalized it, yet. (One of the missions of this blog achieved. It was also nice to see that I got Nobel thinking on it.)

As a reminder, here’s what I wrote:

I don’t believe that the lesson of yoga is to learn that I’m perfect the way I am or to accept my place in the world or anything of the kind.

It’s a modern form of Tapasya, an attempt to burn away “the bad fat,” as we read in Guruji’s Yoga Mala, in both its literal and figurative forms. It’s hard. It’s rough. It’s grueling.

In other words: Yoga should hurt.

This idea has been getting a lot of talk for the last few weeks, since William Broad’s article in the New York Times Magazine. The talk is fixing to ratchet up when his book on the subject drops the first week of February.

I realize I will have to take the position that yoga, at times, should and will hurt. I think, if we’re honest, it is the position all Ashtangis have to take. (Maybe the Anusara people don’t.)

After all, as Guruji is quoted as saying: “Sometimes, walk funny six months.”

Which of us hasn’t had a teacher stand on us in Baddha Konasana? What about that last little stretch in Marichyasana D or Supta Kurmasana? And, judging from the noise folks make in Kapotasana, I suspect it isn’t exactly pleasant.

Perhaps there are those lucky few who are so limber that the poses all come easily. But I also know that Richard Freeman says something along the lines of, “Blessed are the stiff.” And Tim Miller talks about how people can get flexibility from strength (something close to sthira?) but not strength from flexibility. For the stiff (ahem, for us), the practice continues to unfold. It may and will unfold painfully, but it continues.

I don’t expect nor want my Ashtanga practice not to hurt. Burning away the bad fat isn’t going to be painless.

Of course, I also don’t want it to hurt too much. And so the message of being mindful and careful and smart about the practice remains.

It just doesn’t translate to “gentle.”

On a side note. I’ve seen the “$h!+ Ashtangis Say” video at Nobel’s blog (link to the side or above). To be totally frank, I didn’t laugh quite hard enough to want to pass it on. Call it editorial prerogative or an end-of-weekend crankiness. But you can find it there. At least Ashtanga is getting its video, I suppose.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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