Anger and Pride in the Practice

In his poem, “A Poison Tree,” William Blake has this to say about anger (long before Freud said much the same thing, by the way):

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

I’m going to tell my wrath with supta kurmasana now.

At any number of points in my practice, teachers have said some version of, “If you got angry, you could do it.” This past Sunday, taking some comfort in First Series, enjoying practicing next to Steve, I tried to put myself in supta kurmasana. And failed. Then Steve tried to put me in it. And failed. So I embraced acceptance, started to move on, and thought, “Dammit, I can do this pose!” and sat up, locked my feet behind my head, lowered to the floor, and took the bind. I got angry, and I did it.

Blake's illustration: Bad news for your foe.
Blake’s illustration: Bad news for your foe.

But of course that’s not what the practice is all about; you’re not supposed to desire it–non-grasping, et cetera, et cetera. All the same, if we didn’t like the challenge and the sense of accomplishment, we wouldn’t be practicing Ashtanga. We’re not supposed to be so goal-oriented that we end up doing violence to ourselves by getting angry at a pose.

Goal-oriented. This is the great paradox of Ashtanga (well, one of them). Anyone just starting the practice knows that if you’re not goal-oriented, you’ll never make it to savasana. Even experienced practitioners have a hard time relinquishing the desire to “nail” a pose, or “get” the next one–or the next series for that matter. Very violent-sounding, very graspy. And this is Ashtanga; we’re supposed to be working for that eighth limb, samadhi.

Still, it’s frustrating when you’ve been practicing a pose for a long time, and still can’t find it in the middle of all the desire to get there—the “asana,” the seat, the place where you feel the pose. You can’t, in other words, do it.

I remember a moment in one of Tim Miller’s trainings when someone asked, “Is it necessary to take the wrist in the bind for marichyasana B?”

“No,” Tim answered immediately. Then he paused, and added, “but it’s so satisfying when you do.”

The fundamental absurdity of our position in this moment of satisfaction is that 1)It may not ever happen again and 2)There’s always something else to grasp (the wrist in, oh, I don’t know…marichyasana A, C and D, for instance).

So sometimes, you get angry, and it works. But I don’t think it’s in the anger, or even in the sense of satisfaction where the danger lies, however; it’s in the pride.

In Dante’s long poem, The Divine Comedy, the poet takes a tour of hell, purgatory and heaven, stopping along the way to chat with various sinners suffering their poetically fitting eternal punishment. The Wrathful are writhing in the River Styx, wallowing in mud and biting and striking each other–basically punishing themselves. But the Prideful are in Purgatory—redeemable—and are humping it uphill with massive boulders on their backs.

By Gustov Dore. Dante checks it before he wrecks it.
By Gustov Dore. Dante checks it before he wrecks it.

What can we learn from Dante? (Who, by the way, considers pride to be his own sin, since he is presuming to write a long poem presuming to know the mind of God.)

Well, anger may take you to the wrong place, and pride is a burden. Pride will weigh you down.

Both will, in other words, keep you from the goal.

So how do we reconcile these contradictions in the practice? I think one of the reasons why pride is a redeemable sin for Dante is that there’s always something to check it. It took me a long time to learn this from my practice. It’s hard to get perspective on the pattern (“samskara / halahala”) until there’s been a certain amount of repetition. It might go something like this condensed version of the Ashtanga Pride Flow Chart:

Yay! I can touch my toes!–>Boo! I can’t grab my toe.–>Yay! I can grab my toe!–>Boo! I can’t get my hand flat on the floor.–>Yay! I can get my hand flat on the floor!–>Boo! I can’t get my hand flat and next to my foot–>Yay! I can get my hand flat, next to my foot–>Boo! I can’t reach around my foot to take my wrist.–>Yay! I can take my wrist!–>Boo! I can’t get my foot behind my head…

You get the idea ( you can call this one the Hamstring Pride Flow Chart—it’s infinite). At some point, you begin to recognize that you can feel satisfied, but you shouldn’t get overly fond of that emotion, and desire for more shouldn’t be why you practice.

And you should not be proud of it. At all. I mean, what’s the point of that? Proud of what, exactly?

In Dante, it’s pride that leads to a whole list of horrible things–it leads to the worst treachery possible, which is why at the very bottom of Hell (which he calls “The Coccyx,” by the way), frozen in a lake of ice up to his waist, and still angry, we find one of the most prideful characters in literature: Lucifer.

So I’m letting myself get a little angry. But I’m not proud of it.

Posted by Bobbie


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

5 thoughts on “Anger and Pride in the Practice”

  1. Today, i had to apologise my neighbour for cursing like a sailor in supta kurmasana. I never curse. Except this morning in supta kurmasana. Wow.
    Your post couldn´t have been more current for me today, thank you, enjoyed reading 🙂

  2. “So how do we reconcile these contradictions in the practice?” you ask. What comes to mind is the following:

    “Kama (desire), Krodha (anger), Moha (delusion), Lobha (greed), Matsarya (envy), Mada (sloth) – the 6 poisons that are an essential feature of internal cleansing; they relate to the 6 poisons that encircle the spiritual heart. In the Yoga Scriptures it is said that God resides in our hearts in the form of light. This light is, however, covered by 6 venoms. When yoga practice is maintained w/meticulousness and assiduousness, not to mention dedication, over a period of time, you will find the heat produced as a result, burns away these toxins from the body. Subsequently, the light of our inner nature will shine forth”. Happy Breathing 😉

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