Bobbie would be the better one to untangle the threads of Richard Freeman’s latest “Ask the Experts”, but I think she’s down the rabbit hole of some other writing, so I will have to try. (Think more Jon Stewart’s Moment of Zen than the Dalai Lama’s.)
Here’s Freeman (I usually try to give just a part of it, to encourage your heading to his site, but this one is hard to disentangle — see the above):
What’s the best way to dis-entangle bodily sensation from the consciousness aspect of prana-shakti — in order to avoid becoming egoically identified with the physical and/or subtle body?
If you look at bodily sensation as being composed of separate, individual segments and things, then the vijnana will create images and stories about those bodily sensations and in that creation it is creating a theoretical observer (the ego) who is attracted to or repulsed by those sensations. This leads to identification with the body, which is a miserable state founded in confusion.
The proper practice is to watch the sensations arise and fall and to watch any tendency to wander away from those sensations in thinking. Some schools would say that bodily sensation is empty of self. Other schools would say that bodily sensation is prana, which is shakti, which is empty.
That emphasis on “watching” is why I suggest that Richard is showing off his Buddhist side; of course, there must be some irony to “showing off” a Buddhist nature. (There’s also some irony to this feature being “Ask the Experts” for similar reasons.)
As I roll his answer around a bit, I’m finding a couple of paths out of it. One is the “simple” Buddhist line I suggest in the above paragraph: If you just watch what’s happening, you won’t get attached. (Sounds similar to Krishna’s entreaties to act without concerns for the results.) Then there’s another, which describes bodily sensation as not something from which one need not be disentangled. If it is empty of self or is prana, then what is there to avoid?
The stumbling point, the potential trouble, isn’t with the body. It’s with whatever is thinking it needs to avoid becoming entangled with the body.
Richard may have slyly answered the confusion behind the question. Maybe?
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.
One of the best parts about running this blog has been the chance to have conversations (usually “off-line”) with readers and get to know a broader swath of the Ashtanga community. We’ve spoken with people in New Zealand, the Czech Republic, India (of course, right?) and Japan, among others. We all share Ashtanga, but that’s typically just been the start of discussions.
A few days ago, one of our readers, Diane Mulholland, contacted us to see if we’d be interested in her sending along a few thoughts from a Richard Freeman workshop she’s be attending.
Easy answer. And so here are her thoughts. Thanks to Diane for taking the time! (We’re so appreciative, we’re even leaving in her British spellings!) And special thanks for including some of Richard’s famous metaphors.
Five months ago, I’d never heard of Richard Freeman, and never taken an Ashtanga yoga class. I was searching for more meaning in my yoga and I was looking around for a course or a retreat, anything that would go a bit more in-depth than the purely asana-focused classes I’d been taking. A friend recommended I check out Yoga Campus and the Richard Freeman course was the right length, the right time of year (birthday money!) and was half-and-half asana and philosophy. Sounded perfect, so I asked around, “Anyone know what Richard Freeman’s like?” and the resounding answer was (with a little poetic licence): “OMG he’s amazing! If you get the opportunity to work with him grab it!”
Thus began my relationship with Ashtanga (I had four months to learn primary series to a point where I wouldn’t embarrass myself). Yesterday was the last of my five days with Richard; here are some of the highlights.
Each morning we did three hours of asana. Sessions were based on Primary, but with a lot of meanderings or pauses to look at a form in depth. Here’s a couple of things that really stood out for me:
“Blessed be the stiff, for they shall breathe into it.” I’m a Pilates teacher, so I’m pretty accustomed to being the most bendy person in the room. This week, I was in the bottom 10%. It would be very easy to feel like an interloper, but Richard’s attitude turned this around and made me feel like the special one. Comments like “It’s the process that’s interesting, when you get there it’s just the same” or my favourite, “When you get to the floor it’s kind of sad as you can’t go anywhere any more” made it all OK. It’s a very subtle thing, and a teacher’s attitude can really make or break the experience for a beginner.
“Slow down – what are you trying to avoid?” We spent a lot of time not just holding poses for longer, but exploring the forms that lead to a pose. This relates to Steve’s post from last week on avoiding certain postures. We spent a lot of time, for example, waiting in Upward Dog, which I discovered I really dislike, no wonder I swim through it in a split second. We also explored how a pre-form like standing with the arm lifted before folding into Utthita Trikonasana B sets you up for a better, more connected experience of the posture.
A couple more snippets
Make sure your drishti is visible to both eyes – otherwise you’re giving it the evil eye (check your Trikonasana!)
The exhale frames the pose, the inhale makes it interesting.
Hold the pose from the root, not the petals, like you would a flower (bhandas).
If you find you’re becoming anxious in Pranayama practice then you know something is happening. You need to “‘play the edge” but not push yourself over it.
Richard talks about the Gita
Each afternoon we drew our mats closer for sitting meditation followed by chanting, and study of the Gita. It’s much harder to convey what the afternoons were like, it was such a wealth of information and discussion, but I’ll share a couple of points that really struck me.
One day, out of the blue, someone asked, “What is Yoga.” And I really liked Richard’s answers. He explained – as like me you’ve no doubt heard before – that the word yoga means to “yoke” or “bind.” But as he went on I realised I never really understood what was being bound. It is the linking of the two complementary opposites. Things like inhale/exhale, I exist/I don’t exist, darkness/light, things that you can have no concept of if the other doesn’t exist – yoga provides the balance between the two. We talked a lot about prana/apana balance in our morning sessions and I feel like this is finally starting to sink in. And then the follow-up question: What is yoga, for those who really have no idea of yoga? Yoga is kindness.
The message that was reinforced for me by our study of the Gita was the warning that as soon as you start to think you know something, beware. Krsna spends whole chapters explaining things to Arjuna, and each time Arjuna says “Wow, I’ve got it!” and Krsna turns around and says, “In case you don’t have it, let me start again.” He does this all the way to the end. For me this ties into the idea of work for the sake of the work, rather than for the fruits of the work. Just keep at it, keep trying to understand, and every time you “get it” you peel another layer of consciousness and start all over again. It’s the process that’s interesting. And as Richard said, “It’s always a bad sign when you think you’re enlightened.”
Sometimes the answer is not an answer but a challenge. Never just blindly accept what your teacher says.
When you have placed everyone and everything inside your heart, line up all the centres of all those hearts like a combination lock and opening is easy.
I love how towards the end of the Gita (12:9-12) Krsna explains exactly how you go about it. And what to do if you’re rubbish at it.
Five days is a huge amount of information and this has barely scraped the surface. I’ve filled enough space though, and really everyone’s experience of this week would be different anyway – we all see things from a slightly different point of view. So I will conclude by adding my voice to those enablers from above, if you get the opportunity to work with Richard grab it!
Richard Freeman on the Gita. That’s something you don’t get every day. We’re jealous. Thanks again, Diane!
It’s been a very busy couple of weeks for me, so shout out to Steve for not making me feel bad about not posting. I’ve been revising the writing class I supervise, preparing new materials, and, of course, doing that teaching thing itself. My writing students have been coming in for conferences; they’ve been deep in mid-terms, and they’re tired.
So am I.
The seeds planted by the Confluence have started to sprout this Spring. Nancy Gilgoff has changed the way I practice. Rolfer Russ Pfeiffer (a former student of Richard Freeman and Tim Miller) has changed the way I breathe. Richard Freeman has changed the way I backbend. My asana practice has. . .evolved.
Asana. The Confluence Countdown household has found itself wrestling with the value of asana. Steve has turned to reading the Upanishads. I’ve been reading the Rig Veda, and Richard Freeman’s book, The Mirror of Yoga. where, very early on, he says this:
Typically when we look at the body we see it through those same filters and theories [of experience]. We may see it as a bag of skin filled with bones and blood, or as a continuum of suffocating, painful frustration used to validate all of the miserable opinions we have of others and ourselves. […] Through our consistent yoga practice, all of the different notions we may concoct about what the body is and who we are eventually arise as objects for our meditation.
And what is his conclusion about what the body is? “An open matrix of awareness through which theories, thoughts, and sensations come and go.” “Through the body,” he says, “we learn to understand the universe.”
Today, I’ll be going down to Tim’s to take his Intro to Second class. The truth of the matter is I often see my body as “a continuum of suffocating, painful frustration,” so the question arises, Why am I trying to “advance” when the real practice, clearly, is not in the asana?
Nancy Gilgoff said at one point in her adjustment workshop that she thought the epidemic of knee and back pain in Ashtanga was caused by people being kept in the Primary Series too long. I’ve been practicing First for over a decade now. (To be fair, I was three years into the practice before I tried a real backbend–that is to say, something more than bridge–and another year before I could actually push all the way up.) In light of what Richard is saying, and all that I’ve learned, what does it mean to “advance”?
Last summer, in Mt. Shasta, I was expressing something like these concerns to my friend Suzi, who said to me, “Well, then. That is your practice.”
So, this post is partly to remind me why I’m going down today to see Tim, to see through my body. Once again, I find myself thinking of William Blake.
To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & and a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all Ridicule and Deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.
My Ashtanga practice began with two solid years of pain. A degenerative joint condition began unusually early in life (my mid-20s). An enlightened orthopedic surgeon told me I was a good candidate for spinal fusion, but that it probably wouldn’t help and might make it worse. You won’t be able to stop the degeneration he said, but surgery won’t, either. First, he said, try to “totally change your life.” Sounds like a job for Ashtanga, you’re thinking.
When I stumbled into my first Ashtanga class, I was pretty desperate. I had blown a disk. I had bursitis in both hips, along with bone spurs there and in my cervical vertebrae. The first suranamaskara was…very unpleasant. But I felt at home at once, even though I was lost in all the complexity and daunted by the effort in the room–effort combined with grace. I realized that night I’d been worshipping my pain. I was seeing what I couldn’t do, instead of what I could. Ashtanga would make me strong enough to face the pain.
Ten years later. I’ve met many Ashtangis with stories way more dramatic than mine. I learned that the challenge of Ashtanga is in its constant insistence that you remain aware at all times of the line between what Tim Miller calls “integrative pain and dis-integrative pain.” With both too little effort and too much, the attention to detail lags.
I’m currently recovering from knee surgery. The meniscus in my knee had degenerated to such a degree that part of it had to be removed. My practice is slow, deliberate, cautious. I found these inspirational words from Richard Freeman on the question, “Can I practice with an injury?”:
You can still practice, but you might have to modify your definition of what Ashtanga yoga is. Depending on the injury you might have to skip or modify particular postures or sets of postures, but still you can cultivate gazing, bandhas, perhaps pranayama, and intelligent dialectical movement in whatever postures you are able to do. If you are lying in a full body cast, you can still practice mindfulness and discriminating awareness which are the essential underpinnings of Ashtanga yoga.
Ten years later, after torn hamstrings, multiple tendonitis bouts just about everywhere, shoulder and knee surgery, I realize “discriminating awareness” is the very essence of the practice of Ashtanga. Now, when I roll out the mat, I work harder on that than I ever did on any pose, forced into humility by the obstacle (Jai, Ganesha, Lord of Obstacles) of injury. I’ve come to realize that is my practice, and that they don’t call it “practice” for nothing!