Ashtanga vs. the tapasya of kirtan

For nearly 30 minutes, the only sounds in the shala this morning were my breath, the floorboards creaking under my feet and hands, and the low roar of cars from the street beyond the studio’s windows.

Ashtanga in solitude.

Ashtanga as it should be?

KD, during Sunday night’s kirtan

Probably, at its best, the Ashtanga practice always is solitary. (Something we’ve touched on before.) Your eyes don’t drift beyond your dristi; your breath fills your ears; the focus is inward. Even in a room filled with other practitioners, there is you and your mat.

Those 30 minutes — when I didn’t have to focus my dristi like a laser to keep out distractions — were a dramatic contrast to Sunday night’s kirtan with Krishna Das. Before I left for the shala, the morning sky just lightening, I had seen that KD’s Facebook page had linked to our post. And one person had commented: “KD – Kirtan for people who don’t like Kirtan…yet.”

That statement — pretty funny, I think, even if not quite true — roiled its way through my mind as I practiced. (Yes, there was some internal distraction.) I hoped my reflections didn’t suggest we don’t like kirtan; it’s just that it doesn’t call to us as our main path. And, in the Gita, Krishna does suggest there are four ways to know him:

Four sorts of mortals know me: he who weeps,
Arjuna! and the man who yearns to know;
And he who toils to help; and he who sits
Certain of me, enlightened.

Of these four,
O Prince of India! highest, nearest, best
That last is, the devout soul, wise, intent
Upon “The One.” Dear, above all, am I
To him; and he is dearest unto me!

Bobbie and I yearn to know. I think it’s fair to say that’s our path. Even if it means we aren’t Krishna’s dearest. (I take the translation from Chapter VII from here. Later, Krishna adds:  “Whoso thus knows himself, and knows his soul / PURUSHA, working through the qualities / With Nature’s modes, the light hath come for him! / Whatever flesh he bears, never again / Shall he take on its load.”)

As I moved through my practice — the Sacred Fire now burning a bit hotter — I kept passing over those words from KD’s Facebook wall. And as I loosened, perhaps, my Annamaya kosha, I recognized that my lonely, meditative movements were the comfortable side for me of a dialectic: two ways to lose yourself to, as KD says, the love that exists inside us and inside everything.

On the other side is chanting and kirtan. It is uncomfortable and frightening (even more so than the tapasya of Ashtanga).

Both involve losing your self to something greater. But they do so by moving in two contrary directions.

In my preferred direction, in my practice, I move — or try to move — inward. My senses move inward, I am supposed to gain focus and eventually control of my mind, so that the Universal Self is revealed.

You know the drill. It’s what we’re all after, right?

The other direction, via kirtan, moves outward. Rather than control of the self, it seems to me (keep in mind, I’m trying to recapture thoughts had during a quiet Ashtanga practice), chanting involves surrender. It is an act of letting go of the self; it is an ecstatic moment, a movement outside the self. It is self release, not self restraint.

And that is nearly impossible for me because that’s a matter of being completely not self-conscious. I can’t lose myself to KD’s music, not completely, because what will the lithe yogini next to me think? What will the girl behind me banging on the floor (apparently no self-consciousness there) think? What will John Densmore of the Doors think?

Of course I know those questions don’t matter. But they do; this is a block, a barrier — the barrier — to surrendering to the moment.

And then (people have intruded on the shala space by now) I see the trouble. The path I’ve picked — inward toward the Universal Self — avoids my major poison (would it fall under moha or mada?). Ashtanga, for me, is the easy path.

How can that be? Half the posts I’ve written here are about how hard Ashtanga is for me. I’m a broken record of pain and struggle. Could it really be that Ashtanga is a path of avoidance?

If that’s the case… we all know avoidance is not the answer.

And that leaves me where? Well, thankfully my practice is short enough that I never got to the answer. But I fear the KD event in Santa Monica next Tuesday is calling loudly to me. (The 5 p.m. start to ticket sales is a big hurdle, though.)

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

5 thoughts on “Ashtanga vs. the tapasya of kirtan”

  1. My teacher always says that Bhakti yoga (e.g. Chanting) is the quickest way to attain God. Well, I can totally see why. The quickest way has got to be the hardest, right? I remember having nightmares during TT about having to take the microphone and chant in front of class during our daily Kirtan sessions…now, years later, I happily chant away at home but still don’t manage to if there’s others around. Work in progress!

  2. I think you nailed it Steve. Bhakti is clearly and utterly about surrender, but at the same time this surrender must be cultivated (think of preparing the field for crops) by cultivating discipline.

    Ashtanga, perhaps on some level, (although I think ultimately in the end this is a superficial distinction premised on the fact that most people simply equate bhakti with kirtan which is absolutely the wrong idea) inverts this relationship. It begins with the discipline and ends in surrender (just think of dropping back…not going to think your way through that one).

    And herein is perhaps the real point. Bhakti begins with some level of surrender (we have to stop worrying about what people think about us, or what we think about how we sound) and leads to discipline. Ashtanga begins with discipline and ends with some level of surrender.

    Although, I can still see this working the other way as well.

    1. One of the things I took from KD was that a kirtan-driven bhakti can start sort of innocently enough; you copy what someone is doing, you maybe half-heartedly do it, but then it blossoms from there. I can’t quite remember how he put it. But it still involves a public surrender that’s tough for me. Private surrender, still tough, just not as tough.

      And, yes, this is all just me — I’m sure it’s different for everyone.

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