Lessons in How to Get Home

On our last day in New York, Steve and I were determined to get one more practice in at 20140117-220548.jpgAshtanga Yoga New York, a little closure on our MLK weekend workshop with Eddie Stern and Robert Moses. We snuck out of our hotel room to the dark, overcast sky. The snow had not yet started to fall.

It was still early in the shala, so there was plenty of space on the floor, and the room was open and warm. There was a spot right in front of the Ganesha temple (yes—there is an actual and very elegant temple in the school, along with a temple to Siva, and altars to other Devas), and a spot next to that for Steve, right in front of Hanuman.

Ganesha was resplendent after the puja that began our weekend, with sparkling eyes looking invitingly at me. I rolled out my mat, and heard in memory Eddie saying (during his talk the previous day), “Don’t turn asanas into objects.”

I suppose this phrase might sum up a lot of what I’m taking away from the weekend. We learned much, including the strong connections Guruji—Sri K. Pattabhi Jois—had to the non-dualist tradition of Shankaracharya, along with Guruji’s background as a college professor at the Sanskrit college in Mysore. We learned about Vedanta, and Robert reminded us the first day that the purpose of the retreat was to help us remember the real reason for the practice: Moksha, liberation; or, as Eddie put it, “To make us better at being.”

But for those of us stuck in the material world, this is pretty hard to remember. Sublunary beings such as myself often struggle with the fundamental paradox of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system. We haul ourselves out of comfort and move through what amounts to an infinite number of asanas and vinyasas that repay our efforts with immediate, tangible, yet often superficial benefits, benefits that can keep us from seeing Ashtanga’s deeper purposes.

The body becomes stronger, leaner, and more beautiful with each practice. This alone can become an absorbing distraction.

Or you may be like me, and find relief from pain or sickness in daily asana practice—in our desperately ill society, that kind of health can be a point of pride, a source of otherness.

The mental benefits, too, are immediate. Clarity, toughness, endurance, forbearance–and, maybe, just the wrong amount of hubris as a result.

We may begin to fashion ourselves after our teachers, and begin sadhana—study—And since Indian philosophy is so multi-faceted and challenging, we are in danger of adopting rather than understanding.

All of these things leave us in danger of mistaking a means for an end.

After Robert gave us a wonderfully clear and illuminating “Vedanta 101” (as he called it), Eddie followed up with a warning: “These are just postulations for the purpose of enquiry.” All philosophy runs the risk of dying into dogma.

Perhaps our questions began to imply this. So at one point Eddie said, “If you have faith in a form, and you practice it with faith, it will lower barriers, and allow you to achieve more than you ever thought you could.”

But here is where the danger lies, the seduction of any pursuit, intellectual or physical, and Ashtanga is both. We can fool ourselves into believing that we are at the destination—home—when the journey is just beginning. Once that stasis happens, it can be impossible for you to see that you’ve stopped moving. You identify who you are with it. “And they became what they beheld,” William Blake wrote.

So the retreat was a wake-up call for me. “There are no answers to these questions,” Eddie said so beautifully, “When we practice, the questions fall away.” Robert told me that we do the practice to give ourselves the best chance possible at making the right decisions when the time comes—and the time comes with each decision we make. We must identify with the real instead of the unreal.

So when I rolled out my mat and looked up into the eyes of Ganesha, I laughed. “Don’t make an asana out of yourself,” I remembered Tim Miller saying.

Those light-hearted words suddenly became so very wise. Later, after practice, when we walked out of the shala it was snowing lightly. We came to New York between storms, perhaps avoiding obstacles that may have kept us. . .from coming home.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

3 thoughts on “Lessons in How to Get Home”

  1. This post is timely for me. I recently purchased Chogyam Trungpa’s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. The book is basically about what you have written though from a Buddhist perspective and in-depth. I’ve often wondered is asana practice enough even in the beginning? From what I have gathered it seems to be the starting point but shouldn’t we be meditating and practicing pranayama from the start? Asana practice is important to me and I practice it as much as possible but I have to say when you have finished the practice I don’t have much energy after my day to then take on pranayama and meditation. It’s hard to put into words what I’m getting at but there is a lot of emotion or materialism attached to asana practice, getting more postures, achievement, injury, guilt when not practicing etc. (for me). Maybe I need to refine my asana practice and make sure I have more time for pranayama and meditation as part of my daily routine. There’s certainly many photos of Guruji sitting in padmasana next to his altar in obvious meditation. Your post really hit a chord with me it was in tune with what I’m reading so maybe it’s time for me to notch up the Patanjali Asana or seat.
    “We can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.”
    “Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality. For example, if you have learned of a particular beneficial meditation technique of spiritual practice, then ego’s attitude is, first to regard it as an object of fascination and, second to examine it. Finally, since ego is seeming solid and cannot really absorb anything, it can only mimic. Thus ego tries to examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative way of life. When we have learned all the tricks and answers of the spiritual game, we automatically try to imitate spirituality, since real involvement would require the complete elimination of ego, and actually the last thing we want to do is to give up the ego completely. However, we cannot experience that which we are trying to imitate; we can only find some area within the bounds of ego that seems to be the same thing. Ego translates everything in terms of its own state of health, its own inherent qualities. It feels a sense of great accomplishment and excitement at having been able to create such a pattern. At last it has created a tangible accomplishment, a confirmation of its own individuality.
    If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual development is highly unlikely. Our mental habits become so strong as to be hard to penetrate. We may go so far as to achieve the totally demonic state of complete “Egohood.”‘
    “By the examination of his own thoughts, emotions, concepts and the other activities of mind, the Buddha discovered that there is no need to struggle to prove our existence, that we need not be subject to the rule of the Three Lords of Materialism. There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom. This egoless state is the attainment of Buddhahood. The process of transforming the material of mind from expressions of ego’s ambition into expressions of basic sanity and enlightenment through the practice of meditation–this might be said to be the true spiritual path.”
    “Enlightenment is permanent because we have not produced it; we have merely discovered it.”

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