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

Refreshing Ashtanga

Next time you have a down moment, I’d encourage you to absentmindedly scour through the Yoga Workshop website.

When I do, I invariably discover something I hadn’t noticed before. Over the weekend, it was this gem from the Lineage page:

A fundamental aim of the teaching at the Yoga Workshop is to keep an open mind as we continually refresh the linage of Ashtanga Vinyasa system by making it applicable to the immediate condition of our bodies, minds and cultures.

We encourage students to read and ask questions about original ancient texts that have been influential in this lineage. Students are also encouraged to contemplate and question the ever changing context and landscape of yoga, both within their own practice (self reflection) and within the broader context of yoga as it evolves in the 21st century. We encourage the juxtaposing of our tradition with other traditions and lineages to challenge, to critique and to refine both ourselves and others.

As part of this we offer classes not only on asana, but also on meditation, pranayama and philosophy.

I recognize this struck me because I struggle with the efficacy of a combo of different traditions, philosophies and/or lines of inquiry. It can seem a little too “cafeteria spirituality.” My bias, I know.

I also wonder what is the drive to find something beyond Ashtanga — should it be enough? Vipassana meditation is one “addition” to Ashtanga you see a lot, for instance. What’s missing that has people looking toward that type of quieting or stilling of the mind?

At the same time, my own lines of thinking are, I think, eclectic. But there’s a marked difference between thinkings about politics, for instance, and morality or, even more to the point, religion/faith.

Or is there? Thus the struggle. And thus the thinking more about the value of juxtaposition of tradition. Because I always find myself returning to one William Blake quote — with most of his writings, well-outfitted in irony: “I must Create a System. or be enslav’d by another Mans.”

Anyone have lots about adding other elements to whatever one might consider “my practice?” Did you find a useful companion to Ashtanga? What hole did it seem to fill? And how, perhaps, did it improve your Ashtanga/asana practice?

Posted by Steve

One way to think about being ‘in the moment’ or ‘being here now’

Right now, I’m plowing my way through the 500 or so pages of The Yoga of the 18 Siddhas: An Anthology. (We saw images of them in at least one of the temples we visited on our Namarupa Yatra nearly a year ago.) These Southern Indian sages are a less known lineage and branch of study. We’re all more familiar with Northern Indian Tantric “counterparts.”

Be here now…

A lot of it, to my surprise, is very proscriptive: Do this, and this, plus this to reach Samadhi or Siva-Consciousness. (The Siddhas are from the Saiva tradition, so the metaphors are of Kundalini and snakes and the nectar of immortality.) Here’s an example, from Bogar:

Directing the vital breath in the sitting posture will stop ageing;

Converting the physical body to ten million suns

Which will exist for three aeons time

Driving away desires and achieving contentment.

Other verses are more — to use one of our favorite words — esoteric. And the language itself, Tamil, is referred to as “twilight language”: Its meaning is obscure to begin with (the perfect language for poetry, then).

Verses like the above get to the heart of one notion of samadhi: eternal life. But it comes through that there is an opposite way of thinking about eternity, not just the grand expanse of time and space and existence. There also is making the present moment last. “Be here now,” as one noted contemporary sage has written.

This is, of course, one core idea to meditation. As I’ve been reading through these poems, a way of thinking about it — new to me, at least — bubbled up. It sort of involves math, so I apologize in advance for that.

You have to imagine two objects and the distance between them. (Back in high school, where I think I first was introduced to this idea, it was a boy and girl across the classroom.) You then have one object move half the distance toward the other. Then the other moves half the remaining distance closer. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

And even if you repeat it infinitely, or forever, the two object never will touch. Some distance — half of what just was — remains.

It occurred to me one night that being here now could be discovered or explored in a similar way. If one could focus first on this moment, and then try to divide it in half and focus on one side, and then divide that in half and focus on one side, and continue to do so, one would remain forever in the here and now, never getting out of this one particular moment.

This is something that our go-to Sage at this blog wrote, in Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

In this case, we think, he wasn’t being ironic.

Posted by Steve

 

Now, let us define Ashtanga and cry and curse

As I proscribed a couple types of Ashtanga, although I didn’t put it to the forefront, there was a healthy level of irony to it all — due to trying to define yoga, even asana; because everyone has their own opinion on such things; and because it’s just a blog post, after all.

Here’s what was in my mind during both “types” of Ashtanga posts. This is by William Blake:

London

 

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

***

Yes, bad things happen when we charter, map, order, define things. But we can’t help it. It’s just one of our original sins/falls from grace/divisions from the universe/trappings on the karmic wheel.

For some cosmic order, check out Tim Miller’s blog post this week.

Posted by Steve

Blog highlight: Imaginative geography and the subtle body

Note: While we are in India, we intend to post new items if we have the Internet access. In the meantime, to keep our mojo going, we’re running some of our most popular posts.

***

As part of Robert Moses’ reading list for our upcoming yatra, I’ve just started Diana L. Eck’s book, India: A Sacred Geography. I’m not very deep yet, but Eck makes a few excellent points at the beginning I thought I’d pass along.

Eck begins with an argument to shake the reader out of Western notions of geography. She describes a distinction between a geography that is “historical” versus one that is defined by the routes pilgrims have taken on tīrthas, a geography that exists outside of linear space and time.

It is indisputable that an Indian imaginative landscape has been constructed in Hindu mythic and ritual contexts, most significantly in the practice of pilgrimage. The vast body of Hindu mythic and epic literature is not simply literature of devotional interest to the Hindu. […] Hindu mythology is profusely linked to India’s geography […]. It “takes place,” so to speak, in thousands of shrines and in the culturally created mental “map” of Bhārata.

There are a number of mind-blowing things about the idea of an “imaginative geography” here. Eck immediately points out that one of the first things the British East India Company did when they arrived was to send a boatload of cartographers. Leveling all the sacred places in India down to one, linear plane was an act of imperialism.

But the thing that’s resonating most with me is the idea of India having an “imaginative body.” There is a creation story in the Rg Veda in which all of existence is formed from the body of Purusha—literally: legs, arms, mouth, eyes, all become both physical landmarks (his mind became the moon) and abstract social ideas. It’s a myth familiar to me from both William Blake and Celtic mythology (the island of Ireland, you know, is actually the body of sleeping Finn).

And yes, there’s the connection or parallel to the spiritual body of the practice. I just happened to be flipping through David Swenson’s (essential) Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual this morning, and I came across this:

By bending and twisting the spinal column we are encouraging and maintaining suppleness on a physical level as well as opening energy channels to allow prana to flow freely on the subtle plane.

The subtle plane. The imaginative body. At this level, our connection to our practice takes on an ethical connection to the land itself. Another reason to roll out the mat and do your practice.

Posted by Bobbie

“You asked for it”: Intro to Second with Tim Miller

Los at his forge. The real work begins.

Yesterday I braved the ravages of three counties of the Worst Traffic in the Known Universe (Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego) to Tim’s Ashtanga Yoga Center. Destination: Tim’s 5:30 Introduction to Second Series.

Ashtangis know this is a rare class. To have Tim Miller teaching is, of course, even rarer. The room was full. I rolled out my rug next to my favorite photographer, Michelle Haymoz. I was excited to be there. Because my return to Second after my knee recovery is relatively recent, I figured it would be a needed refresher.

“Refresher” turned out to be an understatement.

On the second Surya A, Tim pulled my hands out about a foot, lengthening my nice and comfy adhomukha to something that probably looked much more like a stretching dog. It just got more intense from there. When we arrived at kapotasana, Michelle gave Tim a look. “What, you’re not ready? You want research poses?” We did. A few poses later, Tim reminded us, “You asked for it!”

Soaked and trembling, I tried to keep my purpose in front of me. I’m here to see through this, I thought. This is not me doing this, I reminded myself. I tried. I’ll admit to you that I failed. I was thrilled when Tim put my fingers on my toes in kapo, when he told me to jump into bakasana B, and it happened. Even when I held my own in the last three poses, I felt spent and pleased with myself.

Later, in the car, facing that long 100 miles in the other direction, I realized I’d failed. I had a long drive to ponder that. You’ll forgive me if I took mental refuge in my “fall back position,” so to speak–to William Blake. When an individual soul “falls” in Blake, it’s in the moment when she believes she is separate from her imaginative vision of the world. The imagination takes the form of the artist/blacksmith Los, who in that moment picks up his hammer, and begins the hard labor of restoring unity. But first, he gets angry:

I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s;
I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.

So, the mental labor begins again. I spent the drive trying, essentially, not to think. The terrible and wonderful thing about the practice–practice–is that you get another chance, every time you roll out your rug, to Create.

Wish me luck, again.

Posted by Bobbie

The Myth of Advancing

I’ve got my lantern lit. From Blake: Los Entering the Grave

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.

Wish me luck.

Posted by Bobbie