In short: Because it’s too hard.
The teenage son of a friend of mine was over the house the other day. Looking over the bookshelves in the living room, he said “I see you like poetry a lot.”
“Yes,” I said, “Do you?”
“No,” he replied. “I hate it.”
“Hate’s a strong word. Why do you hate it?”
He didn’t hesitate: “Because it’s hard and I don’t understand it.”
I hear this all the time about poetry. I hear it from my students. I hear it from friends. So I have a ready response:
“If you spend your life avoiding things that are hard and you don’t understand, you’ll never learn anything beyond the obvious.”
He looked at me thoughtfully and pulled one of the books off the shelf while I chatted with his dad.
The memory of this conversation came to mind as I was thinking out my response to David Garrigues, and his comments on pain. I also kept thinking, oddly, of lines from poets on poetry; Keats, for one–about the way it makes you think in “branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain.” And Marianne Moore’s famous first line on “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it,” she wrote.
Ashtanga, like poetry, is a demanding thing, and true understanding of anything is painful. It’s why I’m always a little suspicious of people who say they “like” yoga in the exact same way I’m suspicious of people who tell me they “like” to write poetry. You have to give up so much that is familiar and comfortable. “Like” is really the wrong word for that.
The process of relinquishing to Ashtanga is slow and sometimes sneaky. I’ve noticed that it seems to happen in a fairly predictable order. Usually, you get an eyeful in your first few classes of someone who seems to be an otherwise ordinary person doing extraordinary things. You want. You want to do that. Your teacher seems to be asking you to do extraordinary things as if they were possible. You begin to believe. So you start practicing more.
More practice, more possibility. You start carving out more time for practice.
Then: Diet. Then: Life habits. Then: Sleep habit. Then: Study. Then: Everything else.
It’s definitely true that most people that try Ashtanga do not go through this process. A few who try it stay, and hover around the first few stages. They never venture into sadhana. I suspect that most of these practitioners eventually quit, because something that seemed amazing when they first started suddenly seems repetitive, prescriptive and limiting, or worse: demanding and dangerous. Pain has a lot to do with this.
And after a certain level of proficiency, the asanas of the Ashtanga system aren’t any harder than any other rigorous workout. But that kind of entropy usually leads to experimentation. “Maybe I’ll try Pilates,” they’ll say to themselves one day when they feel bored, “or go back to running more.” Ennui sets it.
I’m not deriding this; I’m just suggesting that eventually, practice of Ashtanga leads to study, and the practitioner at that point makes a choice. They either study, or quit.
I’m reminded (as usual) of a story Tim Miller tells about Guruji. “Practice, and all is coming,” they heard (as have we all). So they practiced. But one day they asked, “Guruji, what is coming?”
“Samadhi!” he said. Samadhi is not going to come from just practicing the third limb. You’ll need to know what those other six are all about to get to the seventh.
So this is another reason why Ashtanga will never be popular. Like poetry. There’s a lot of poetry out there. But the fact of the matter is a lot of it is bad. It’s bad, because it’s easy, and the poets that write it have not studied poetry. They haven’t studied poetry because it’s hard and they don’t understand it. It will never be popular—that is, true poetry will never be popular. Because it’s hard. Why read it? Why write it? Why do it? Dylan Tomas answers:
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
So when the Ashtanga practitioner gets to the point where the real work begins, when they must release the familiar—even familiar kinds of pain—and learn to distinguish the Real from the Unreal…Well, that is poetry. And it’s hard.
Posted by Bobbie