There’s no avoiding the contradiction of my two main lessons from Ashtanga

There is a big contradiction to my two main lessons from Ashtanga.

And there’s no avoiding it.

That’s just it, though: Avoidance.

All of this is heavily influenced by Tim Miller’s teachings, of course. And these are my learnings; your mileage may vary.

One is from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Sutra 2.16: “Future suffering can be avoided” (heyam duhkham anagatam).

It’s a pretty easy one to dissect, either for an asana practice or for life. For asana, it’s: If you are thoughtful, if you prepare correctly, if you research a pose, you can avoid pain and injury and ridiculous difficulty. It’s not too much more difficult for life: Keep your eyes open, pay attention to what’s coming and what might be around the next corner, and you can avoid unexpected trouble, or at least prepare to deal with the problems as they come.

The other is one Tim talks about, I suppose, mainly in terms of asana — but as with most asana lessons, it has a lot of relevance off the mat. It’s this: Avoidance is not the answer.

On the mat, it comes down to: You aren’t going to suddenly be able to do that hard pose, that difficult transition, that little flourish (if that’s you thing) by not trying it. Skipping Janu C every time (not that I do) isn’t going to make Janu C happen.

The same — even more painfully, though — is true off the mat. Have a friend (or maybe frenemy) you’re avoiding for some reason? It isn’t going to make the inevitable meeting any easier. Got a task or job to get done? Procrastination isn’t your friend.

Both make sense, right? Have you seen the contradiction?

Future suffering can be avoided… but avoidance is not the answer.

So where does that leave me?

Happily, well prepared, thanks to my study of Oscar Wilde (not, as is usual, of William Blake). From his wonderful essay The Decay of Lying comes this (admittedly, ironic on a variety of levels) quote from one of the two characters in the dialogue:

Who wants to be consistent? The dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out their principles to the bitter end of action, to the reductio ad absurdum of practice. Not I. Like Emerson, I write over the door of my library the word ‘Whim.’

There also is, of course, always Blake to consider, in this case from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.

It’s about living in the unsettledness of it all, the gyre.

Posted by Steve

Blog highlight: The irony of Ashtanga

In a past life, I was a bit of an Oscar Wilde scholar.

You know him best, I’m sure, for “The Importance of Being Earnest” or “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Or perhaps as the victim of one of the dumbest legal cases in recorded history. His pursuit of a libel case against the father of his male lover led to the evidence being unearthed that, in turn, led to his being found guilty of “gross indecency.” Two years in prison didn’t suit him well.

Wilde tends to get dismissed as not terribly serious, more of a wit and raconteur. I argued that there was more to his poetics and theories of art than generally recognized.

I thought of Wilde and the title of his most famous play when reading the recent interview with Richard Freeman, which we posted about last week. In particular what caught my eye was part of his answer to a question about knowing which teacher to follow:

Other teachers are destructed by money and fame. And even if they are good teachers, may be though, something will happen to them; someone will come and offer them too much money or fame. And they will loose their quality after all. It’s a dangerous world right here. One day this happened to Jesus. Satan came to Jesus and offered him a kingdom. And, I think, this happened to all yoga teachers in different times. This is how temptation comes. This is why a teacher should have friends or other people who give him feedback, who criticize them. Those friends, who are not their students, friends who make fun of them. They need to have that. But sometimes they cut their friends off and they almost drawn themselves better on students. And they become what we call Narcissus – people, who fall in love with themselves. And they cannot bear any criticism; they are, you know, like Gaddafi, they do not allow any criticism. While in a healthy yoga lineage they always have at least the one who is equal to you, who laughs with you, or who tells you that you are doing something stupid. And even if you look at the Buddhists today they all have, even the big lamas, have other lamas who are the teachers, so they laugh at each other, and that helps them going way off.

“They laugh at each other.”

As I thought about the interview, I came to realize that a sense of laughter is absolutely fundamental to Ashtanga. But it is more than that. It really is a sense of irony — one infused with humor — that has been a hallmark of the majority of teachers I’ve studied with. And they seem to have gotten that from Guruji, himself.

We’ve all heard the many stories of Guruji’s humor and “childlike” — that word is used a lot to describe him — embrace of the world. My once-removed sense is that both have the smell of irony to them.

What could be more ironic than smashing down on someone in Badha Konasana and saying after, “Sometimes, walk funny six months.” Or his putting the senior Western students in headstand for, what, an hour or more to try to get their heads, in this case almost literally, screwed on correctly?

There also is something fundamentally ironic, to me, about someone with Guruji’s teaching grace constantly being talked about as “childlike.” I wonder if it wasn’t just that he was in on a joke few others even knew.

A similar irony serves Tim Miller. His commentary on the Yoga Sutras absolutely is strewn with irony, whether he is talking about the difficulty of practicing or how great samadhi sounds. He constantly undersells things, from my perspective. Samadhi “sounds pretty good,” or something to that effect. “Practicing yoga usually works better with practice,” is something else — to paraphrase — he says.

Either could be dropped into “The Importance of Being Earnest” — best line, by the way, “Oh, Gwendolen is as right as a trivet. ” — without audiences missing a beat.

I’ve found similar ironic touches to Eddie Stern, David Swenson and Richard Freeman, most notably.

In trying to determine what might be the source of this irony, I keep circling back to the idea of practicing. Ashtanga’s goal, to put it one way, is to become “perfected” — to see God, to be one with the “unified field” as our Western teachers have come to put it. But it isn’t going to happen, and that fact is fundamental to “the practice,” so much so that we describe what we do as something that can’t be done right, can’t be completed. We just have to keep at it, anyway.

Stepping onto the mat is an ironic gesture, in and of itself.

As I’ve been thinking about this, I realize it is this irony — the sense that the joke’s on me as I prepare for the opening chant — that attracts me to Ashtanga and not to some of the more earnest yoga strands out there. That other A-yoga that’s been so in the news seems unbearingly earnest, even if its fallen guru sounds playful. (For those paying attention, “playful” may be an ironic choice of word.) “Mainstream” Vinyasa classes, with their Rumi-rooted, life coach-flavored Savasanas seem to be, too.

It’s as if they aren’t in on the joke, and therefore are missing the bigger picture.

Posted by Steve


Mercury day poetry: The Selfish Giant (plus Eddie Stern and Mark Singleton)

Bobbie’s going to kick my asana, because today I’m stretching the definition of poetry a bit … too … far.

This is absolutely a short story. But it’s still got a poet’s touch, that poet (and playwright) being Oscar Wilde. The story is called, “The Selfish Giant.”

Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden.

It was a large lovely garden, with soft green grass. Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars, and there were twelve peach-trees that in the spring-time broke out into delicate blossoms of pink and pearl, and in the autumn bore rich fruit. The birds sat on the trees and sang so sweetly that the children used to stop their games in order to listen to them. ‘How happy we are here!’ they cried to each other.

One day the Giant came back. He had been to visit his friend the Cornish ogre, and had stayed with him for seven years. After the seven years were over he had said all that he had to say, for his conversation was limited, and he determined to return to his own castle. When he arrived he saw the children playing in the garden.

‘What are you doing here?’ he cried in a very gruff voice, and the children ran away.

‘My own garden is my own garden,’ said the Giant; ‘any one can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.’ So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board.

You’ll have to follow this link to find out what happens.

There’s a reason I picked a Wilde story — it’s a nice tie-in to Eddie Stern’s last blog post, which is really his sister’s reflections on another Wilde piece. Take a look.

I have no good tie-in for this, but I also saw that Mark Singleton — whose kickstarter campaign we highlighted — is speaking later this month on Bowen Island, near Vancouver. The talk is titled, “Are Yoga Poses Ancient History?” A few things he says are worth passing on:

Asked what we can learn about yoga through a lecture, Singleton replied, “The question implies that we know what ‘it’ is. Yoga as it is popularly practiced has changed incredibly over the past 150 years. Often what we do in the name of yoga today bears little resemblance to more traditional practices. Historical study of the development of yoga, and its recent past, can tell us a lot about what it is that we practice. In turn, this can help show us other possibilities for practice. It seems to me that the “West” has received a very thin slice of the yoga pie.”

Sounds pretty close to his kickstarter-funded project. It’s OK with me if part of our backing goes to a cup of coffee while he’s there! And I like to think the yoga pie is coconut cream.

Finally, I should note that my headline is not meant to imply that Eddie or Mark are selfish giants!

Posted by Steve

It’s true, Ashtanga’s a cult, and I’m proof

OK, confession time. (Also known as: The original purpose of blogs.)

I wrote the post that’s below, got it all ready, and asked Bobbie to take a look. (A nagging suspicion? Perhaps.)

Here’s how she responded:

“The post is fine, but it’s a bit too earnest for my taste. It’s ridiculous to even ponder Astanga as a cult, so you give the idea more dignity than I would.”

People, with that, I’m here to tell you:

Ashtanga is a cult. Run!

I yell this caution to you because there is simply no other explanation for how I would become the earnest one in our relationship, or earnest at all. For nearly 20 years, I haven’t even been able to fight seriously or earnestly. (This has insured I’ve lost most fights in our house. I’m happy to report they’ve been relatively few over the years.)

But now. What’s happened to me? Ashtanga apparently has robbed me of my sense of play and my irreverence.

Here’s the offending post. Keep in mind, it is entirely false. Ashtanga is a cult, an especially pernicious and evil one, and you absolutely should consider if you are being adversely affected by your practice:

What keeps Ashtanga from being a cult

A few weeks ago, an old friend we hadn’t seen for a few years was in town. Included in one of our back-and-forth emails to plan our meeting was the question: “Have you guys joined a cult?”

I assured him no, although he may have walked away less convinced after our afternoon together.

With the Kumare documentary out, I’ll admit I’ve been thinking about the cult / guru nature of Ashtanga and yoga, in general. As someone who is decidedly not a “joiner,” I sort of assume it’s unlikely I’d wake up one day in a cult. But stranger things have been known to happen.


If you search online, you’ll find almost as many sites with definitions of cults as there probably are cults. I happened on one really simple one, though, at Andrew Sullivan’s political blog:

1. Does it have secret, sacred places that are sealed off from outsiders? 2. Is there some kind of esoteric teaching involved known only to those high up in the faith? 3. Is it easy to leave the church, i.e. is apostasy without serious consequences? 4. Does it enforce tithing effectively?

I suppose one could argue that the Advanced Series fits No. 2 there, or maybe pranayama. But, of course, those advanced poses end up in flow classes and there are any number of pranayama techniques out there. And I’m sure we all feel No. 4 every month when payment time comes, but that doesn’t make a gym a cult, does it? (OK, maybe bad example!)

All that aside, what I’d actually focus on is No. 3, and what it also implies. Cults cut members off from the world; people end up physically and emotionally isolated. But at Ashtanga’s core is that it fits in with our daily life, our lives as householders. (Yes, it may end up making that life more austere, with crazy strict diets and early bedtimes.) Ashtanga practice takes up a very specific and clear part of our day, but from there our lives are supposed to take precedence, even if Ashtanga does wield influence throughout our days.

I think this fundamental fact to the Yoga that Guruji spread would keep it from ever being a cult. Might an Ashtanga teacher come along someday and establish a cult, based on most of the Ashtanga tenants? Totally possible. But the thing is, the moment you go from being a householder who practices yoga (I think here when I write “practices yoga” I probably mean something close to “is religious” in the sense of the yoga filtering throughout one’s life) to a yogi surrounded by a bunch of other Ashtangis… well, then you’ve got some problems.

Until that happens to me, I think I will keep practice with a clear conscience, if not a clear and focused mind.


Again, let me repeat: The above is false. Ashtanga’s a cult. Women and children get in the lifeboats first.

And I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Posted by Steve

Mercury Day poetry: Wilde’s ‘The Harlot’s House’

I’ll make a tortured leap that one could read the speaker and his love in the following poem as akin to “looking bird” and “eating bird,” (if you are familiar with that story).

Why? Because I simply, absolutely, irredeemably and unapologetically love this exquisite poem, “The Harlot’s House,” by Oscar Wilde. (Fun fact: My English Master’s thesis was on Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome.”)

Wilde is a pretty familiar figure, I think. The tortured gay poet/dramatist and, I’d argue, philosopher of the late 19th Century, perhaps best known for his play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and short novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

He was famously tried, albeit due to his own missteps. He sued someone for libel (that someone was the father of his male lover) and ended up being found guilty of various indecencies. Prison seemingly broke him, and he died a few years after being released and leaving England for good.

As I said, I’m sure I’m stretching things, but I think reading some Wilde will do you some good!


The Harlot’s House

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot’s house.
Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The “Treues Liebes Herz” of Strauss.
Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.
We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.
Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille.
The took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.
Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.
Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.
Then, turning to my love, I said,
“The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.”
But she–she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.
Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.
And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.
The shortness of that last line is wonderful.
Posted by Steve