When the Monkey Mind Goes Blank

In a bit of a poetic rant about the theater business, Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote, “The fascination with what’s difficult has dried the sap out of my veins.” It’s a good thing, in the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, that we do lots of stuff on the side to replenish the sap.

I say this, because its difficulties are endless—I mean, six levels? Six series to master? (Well, maybe “master” is the wrong word here; it’s more like “do.”) That’s the full repertoire of Ashtanga; it gives our form of yoga the quality of a really long Russian novel. You keep reading and reading and reading…until you just can’t anymore. I’ll never finish War and Peace, and I’ll never do Sixth Series.

I started practicing yoga (the more general variety) not too long after blowing out a disc in my lumbar spine, about 20 years ago. I didn’t really like it all that much—I did it with the level of enthusiasm you summon for brushing your teeth—until I found Ashtanga, around 13 years ago now. I attribute my immediate attraction to it to the fact that it was clearly impossible to do.

Way back then, once I was shown marichyasana D I remember clearly thinking, There is no way I’m ever going to be able to do that pose.

Now, my friend and teacher Maria Zavala is teaching me Third Series, and I found myself saying those very same words. Right before Maria put me in the pose.

If you could cut away a little window into my brain to see what was happening in real time, the short movie would run something like this:

Shot of a tree full scampering little monkeys swinging around the branches of a tree while disco music is playing…say, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

[Maria puts me in the pose.]

Silence falls. The monkeys all freeze, drop what they’re doing, and calmly stare back at you.

[Release the pose.]

The needle drops back down on the music and the monkeys resume monkey disco shenanigans in my brain.

I’ve decided this silence is one of Ashtanga’s great coping mechanisms, a way into the Great Unknown of the body. It’s the great blessing of the lizard brain, that mental white noise that happens when the body meets the mind and the mind checks out for a second. This used to happen to me every time I did kapotasana, and was probably the only reason why I could do the pose.

But at some point, gradually, the pose becomes less scary, less difficult. Familiar. The pose becomes part of the sequence, strung along with the other poses on the mala of the breath. Then the mind checks back in and gets another chance to find dominion over that tree full of swinging monkeys we call thought.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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