Sunday, September 21, 2008

Why do we do what we do?

Why does it matter so much to be able to backbend or bind in Mari D or whatever it is we are trying to learn at any given time?

And it does matter. If it didn't, we wouldn't talk about it so much. We wouldn't write about it so much. We wouldn't read books about it. We wouldn't bother going to see a teacher for asana lessons. We wouldn't become teachers because we wouldn't understand why it matters to anyone else either.

But why? Why does it matter?

Well, it does FEEL good, physically, to be able to make a bind in some poses. And I don't just mean difficult binding poses like Mari D and Pasasana, etc. I mean, even grabbing the big toe in Trikonasana feels better than NOT grabbing the big toe.

When I see someone in Kapotasana with hands on heels, or someone in Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana with the sole of the foot curled around their own head, it looks so satisfying. It looks like the hand, or foot, as the case may be, was just meant to be there. It's like the heel was designed as a hand rest. And the sole of the foot, designed to curve elegantly around the head.

The way the arm gets into position for a bound twist, the way the legs curl around the arms for Bujapidasana, the way the legs find their way to the arms in Bakasana B - when you get it right, it feels like hitting the sweet spot of a tennis racket. Whoomp - right into place.

But there's more than that. There must be ego involved. If there weren't, then there would be no reason for the whole line of comments on my most recent backbending post.

YC

12 comments:

(0v0) said...

Hi. You’re in my friend Susananda’s comment thread so your discussion landed in my in-box just now. Here is one way that I’m seeing. Maybe it’s as simple as this:

Taking the full expression of a posture can be done for (1) self-esteem through achievement. Same as finishing a marathon. Or (2) it can be done for the fullest release of physical and emotional blockages in the body. To prepare for meditation.

The first is power-“yoga.” It helps the self. Teachers who emphasize full expression over release may be working on the insight that we really have to heal the self (create self-esteem and contentment) before we can let go of the self. (Or, sometimes, they’re just interested in empowerment.)

The second approach, even if taking the toe is part of it, doesn’t really care about posture. It sees all trikonasanas as full expressions no matter what they look like. That's not really the topic at hand though.

Finishing a marathon is a rush we all recognize as good for self-esteem and healthy for the ego. Maybe standing up from a backbend—even if it does not open the heart or create the energetic movemnet Susan is recommending—is also an important and illuminating practice. Genuinely. The intention is not actually yogic in a traditional sense (doesn’t immediately express any of the yamas or niyamas or whatever), but practicing this way may sometimes make space for yoga and is good fun. Repair the ego to release the ego. Study the self to forget the self. Be present to stop the narratives. However you want to put it.

Make sense? Seems like there are a lot of valid ways to practice and teach. We all have different physical and emotional needs at different times (though we also lie to ourselves all the time too). The whole power yoga thing can be shallow and self-harming (physically and emotionally), but if it sees itself, it suddenly gets interesting. Like your post.

Hope you don’t take offense or anything. I just had the thought and it occurred to me to offer it here. Hope you find it useful. I really need to work now.

Yoga Chickie said...

1 and 2 might sometimes overlap, I think. Do you agree? Or perhaps (1) is a necessary step for some people before (2) can happen. I definitely think that I was SOLELY practicing in the realm of (1) when I first started. I just wanted a workout, I just wanted to get through a Bikram class without sitting down, I just wanted to see improvement in this or that pose, etc. But I saw the (2) IN it, and I wanted to keep practicing, rather than moving onto the next form of exercise that might have caught my interest because I was interested in exploring (2).

I think we agree, right?

susananda said...

Hi Owl!

I think we all agree. Also YC, I honestly didn't mean to sound critical of your standups, because as Owl rightly points out, the sole act of doing it contains something, and you are clearly getting that 'something' from it. Rock on!

The main reason I wanted to comment though, is to say that I too think postures I can't do look so very satisfying, but it's funny how 'civilians' always exclaim how they look painful :)

Carl said...

There's a lot of truth to your final observation and it's unfortunate.

I'm not so interested in binding in the marichis or standing up or whatever. I do the marichis bound because Troy will help me get that way if I try to skip that. But I also do them unbound for a few breaths because I get better effect that way. Forcing my poses pushes me outside the envelope wherein I can cleanly mate breath to movement and posture -- forced binds make the poses into intense, semi-anaerobic stretching, which isn't really interesting or beneficial, in my opinion.

I know there's a lot of emphasis on rigorous method but when we don't yet have the physical flexibility or strength to do poses as specified, we get pushed to do sloppy, expedient semblances of them. I haven't watched your video but I'm sure your dropbacks and standing up from backbends would gain approval from my teachers too. I'm in a place that's similar to where you are and I struggle with similar issues. It's silly to chastise people for working as best they can. It's also quite silly to point out that a practitioner's actions might be strictly physical. The physical body is the foundation upon which all else is built. Physical work comes FIRST.

monkey said...

I think of the quest to achieve particular asanas as serving two functions:

1) Occupy the monkey mind so you can hurry up and get on with the yoga;

2) Make the body healthy and robust so you can hurry up and get on with the yoga.

So ultimately, I don't think it really matters at all, in that it doesn't really matter what asanas you're working on, so long as you're working on something, hopefully without getting too caught up in the whole thing.

Who is a better yogi, the person working on third series with no dristi and a competitive edge that brings tension and unhappiness to the shala, or the person who dogs through half primary for 7 years with concentration, love and an open heart? I have a problem with the notion that someone can be "better" than someone else at yoga, but I would also say there is no way that the first practioner is more advanced than the second, viewed holistically.

(0v0) said...

Yes YC, seems so.

Richard Freeman has said several times that people probably come to this practice for a lot of neurotic reasons, but practice itself reshapes the motivation over time. What a compassionate statement of faith, I feel. I think good teachers stay teachers as long as they can really believe that this is true (and others leave because they just stop believing--their students somehow kill their faith). Without faith that 1 leads to 2, how could your teacher and others even justify what they do? I mean, they have better things to do than teach gymnastics to idle middle aged people.

It is interesting when teachers start asking students (one way or another) to be super honest wih ourselves about this question:

When is the ego sufficiently healthy that we can stop using the practice to build it up... and instead use the practice to break. it. down? Maybe finding that tipping point--moving from building up to breaking down--is when people become their own teachers, if they're ever capable of that. Some westerners really have a self-esteem deficit and need to realize our own power as a basic way of taking care of ourselves; others are already healthy in this area and quickly begin to use the practice to get off on our own accomplishments. Very human. But also: quickly trite.

That seems to be how this works (if it works), how it seduces us from (1) to (2). We get bored or disgusted or just disappointed with (1). So even though we start out thinking that (2) is a bunch of foreign religious hokum, somehow we back in to it through experience.

I love this system, but I'm still not sure it works at all. Seems like we should be better at relationships and more loving and less unconscious than we all are.... Honestly, maybe the whole focus on better "poses" and body perfection (disguised as "cleansing") takes us away from deeper ways of being. Maybe we've turned the practice into a distillation of everything that's already messed up about us.

But isn't there a kriya that has something to do with drinking one's own waste? :)

Sincerely and in good humor,

gilesdm said...

"Study the self to forget the self. Be present to stop the narratives. However you want to put it.

Make sense?"

Erm, not really… (Well not to me anyway :) but that’s not really saying much to be honest) I went to a Yoga class for a while and really enjoyed the exercises and found it relaxing and rewarding to achieve, improve and adapt. But unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay because I couldn’t understand a word the Yoga instructor was saying. She would say things like the comment 0v0 made above, and I found it really difficult to understand. To me (and my extremely small mind) it sounded like a load of total gibberish, and people who say these types of thing are clearly a lot more intelligent than I could ever hope to be.

So, unfortunately I had to stop going to the classes.

It’s reminds me of the time I did Kendo classes in the UK. My kendo instructor would make the class bow as we entered the room and bow when we left the room. He would make us bow to the Japanese flag, and bow to each other before and after every move or skill/drill we practised. (I remember thinking, my god, people in Japanese Kendo classes must never get any training done, as they surely must bow more than we do) When I was learning how to us the sword and gain some power in my thrust, I asked my instructor for advice and he said to me… “See the mountain in the distance, and you will see yourself and be able to access the inner power” (and that is no joke)

How spiritual and full of inner meaning I thought, I wish I had a clue what he was going on about…

Anyway. I ended up in Japan (working) about a year later, and started attending a kendo school. What a shock I got. Did they make us bow to the flag, or each other every five minutes; no…they trained hard… and kept on training without interruption…
They had a weights room at the Kendo school, and the students would lift weight to develop the muscles they needed, to make powerful thrusts and attacks, along with endless, endless practise.

Upon my return to the UK, I realised that when we borrow far east disciplines like Martial Arts, Yoga and whatnot we convert them into what we want them to be and romanticise them into something they may never have been intended for.
So, when my ex yoga instructor started talking about stuff that made no sense (to me), I had to wonder, does SHE have a clue what she’s going on about.

I wish I could go back and do some yoga! :)

And sorry for my mindless ramblings.

gilesdm said...

"Study the self to forget the self. Be present to stop the narratives. However you want to put it.

Make sense?"

Erm, not really… (Well not to me anyway :) but that’s not really saying much to be honest) I went to a Yoga class for a while and really enjoyed the exercises and found it relaxing and rewarding to achieve, improve and adapt. But unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay because I couldn’t understand a word the Yoga instructor was saying. She would say things like the comment 0v0 made above, and I found it really difficult to understand. To me (and my extremely small mind) it sounded like a load of total gibberish, and people who say these types of thing are clearly a lot more intelligent than I could ever hope to be.

So, unfortunately I have to stop going to the classes.

It’s reminds me of the time I did Kendo classes in the UK. My kendo instructor would make the class bow as we entered the room and bow when we left the room. He would make us bow to the Japanese flag, and bow to each other before and after every move or skill/drill we practised. (I remember thinking, my god, people in Japanese Kendo classes must never get any training done, as they surely must bow more than we do) When I was learning how to us the sword and gain some power in my thrust, I asked my instructor for advice and he said to me… “See the mountain in the distance, and you will see yourself and be able to access the inner power” (and that is no joke)

How spiritual and full of inner meaning I thought, I wish I had a clue what he was going on about…

Anyway. I ended up in Japan (working) about a year later, and started attending a kendo school. What a shock I got. Did they make us bow to the flag, or each other every five minutes; no…they trained hard… and kept on training without interruption…
They had a weights room at the Kendo school, and the students would lift weight to develop the muscles they needed, to make powerful thrusts and attacks, along with endless practise.

Upon my return to the UK, I realised that when we borrow far east disciplines like Martial Arts, Yoga and whatnot we convert them into what we want them to be and romanticise them into something they may never have been intended to be.
So, when my ex yoga instructor started talking about stuff then went right over my head, I had to wonder, does SHE have a clue what she’s going on about.

DebPC said...

As a yogi and a veteran of 15 marathons with experiences ranging from sublime to dismal (in both running and yoga, I disagree that we run marathons to stroke the ego. Rather it is to get to the place of knowing that if I can do this, I can do anything. For me, I mean that in a yogic sense. If I can tolerate this and push through it, if I can hold this pose here and breathe into it even though it is really hard and kind of uncomfortable, I can breathe into and tolerate the uncomfortable postures that life takes at times.

I have run a 3:49 marathon and I have run a 4:57. I loved both. My worst ever in terms of how I felt was 4:27. Why was it the worst? Because the yoga wasn't there. They joy of the present moment. The ability to relax and breathe and accept what was there.

Yes, I remember pretty much all of my marathon finish times. Many people remember how many times they have bound in Mari whichever or stood up from a backbend. Maybe all of that serves the ego. But is it bad to take pride in your accomplishments? If I have been working to bind and I get it, I have a right to be happy. The acceptance that suffering is an inevitable part of life to me does not mean we need to make ourselves miserable, that we can't recognize when we have done something good, esp when we had to push ourselves to get there.
Owl, you do kind of say this-- accept the ego to release the ego. Maybe I'm just agreeing in my own words.

(0v0) said...

Dear Deb, I really like what you said. Really gives me something to think about. And I hope I haven't been using language that's alienating or actually takes people out of their own experience (like the teacher Giles mentions). There's no need for pretentious language to describe actual experience.

The "if I can do this I can do anything" practice is super valuable for building self-esteem, especially if one's self-esteem has been beaten down by life. This is what you're saying, it seems, and what I've seen in others. Sometimes, that is such a supportive practice. But also, after a while, I'm suggesting that this approach turns from support of the self/ego to something else. The most extreme example being the recently-concocted American yoga-of-self-affirmation where you sit around in workshops and clap for each other's poses. Again, we're all a bunch of semi-idle middle-aged people. Our asanas are humble figures.

So I guess the open question is if there's a yoga that happens after the self-affirmation practice has succeeded. Or is yoga fundamentally about empowerment? (If so, shouldn't we go back to running? Or chess? Something that won't pit the imperative to accomplish or "win" against the health of the knees or back.)

I want to say that just practicing takes you through this to something even more simple. To just getting quiet. But again, I'm not always sure that Ashtanga is different from the Anusara c-j.

Yoga Chickie said...

Gilesdm - I totally relate to what you are talking about, and that is a huge reason why I practice Mysore style Ashtanga. I don't have to listen to the yada yada of a teacher who may or may not be simply entertaining her/himself with all the talk. I like the quiet of a Mysore class (punctuated with the occasional giggle).

Lauren

Yoga Chickie said...

Carl - I hear you, and thanks. Binds are useful when they are within reach without sucking all the prana out of the practice. Until then - why bother? In fact, you just made me realize that I don't even WANT to touch my feet in Kapotasana until I can do it without freaking out. When that might be? Hmmm....dunno...never?

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I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.

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