Welcome the Tormentor-Sage • 5 March 2007

New wrench in the flow this morning. Unexpecting, I was instructed to stand on one leg with the foot of the other behind my head, press the palms together and look up. I long since went native on astanga yoga, so this doesn’t actually horrify me.

Still, that the posture’s called Durvasasana—for an ugly brahman blight and the worst houseguest in subcontinental history—is right unsettling. It’s like having your soccer coach name her secret strategy the “evil mother-in-law play” or “IRS audit play.”

Patthabi Jois’ first series of yoga postures is literally-named: pose to the east, to the west, head-to-knee, bound angle, upward angle, and so on. It is all science and supplication. In the second series, you play charades to make yourself into animals—heron, camel, firefly—then pass through a gate and make the sacred cow on the other side. The third turns out to be something between dirge and carnival ritual, a succession of tormentor-sages en route, it’s said, to the defying of gravity.

I’ve never been one to think of yoga postures as symbols—they don’t need to point beyond themselves to bear meaning. My position has been that there’s enough immediacy of being in Janu Sirsasana C that it’s a bit lame to reach beyond for an added poetry of meaning, as for example does Donna Farhi (2000:133): “Like the symbol of a spiral…, the spiritual journey is one in which the destination is reached when we return to the self…. These postures represent just such a return” (emphasis mine).

No, ma’am. Janu Sirsasana’s a gut-probing, hamstring-rending, toe-cranking surrender of the head to the leg. Let it be that. No need for theory. “Representation” and “symbolizing” create doubles, manufacturing extra culture where immediate experience should be sufficient.

Yet making nice with the extreme shapes in third every morning is re-shaping my drop-the-theory thing. I have to respect a posture named for an irascible god, and at the same time let it revive the poetry and the humor of what we do. For a while I’ve shrugged off my original motive to practice, which was a supersimple love for the immediate wholeness of experience in a Mysore room, rather than any prospective “yogic” inquiry into the nature of mind and being. But my origins may not have been so shallow: maybe I’m just new, but it’s hard to imagine getting any rewards from Durvasa other than (as he finally did for Krishna and Rukmini when he concluded his torturous visit) a release.

Moments in this series can be bizarre, aggressive, and poetically unbeautiful. These postures need not point outside themselves to some “symbol.” Howeverinviting the history, the characters, and the stories in to the practice brings an awesome, particular texture.

This makes me think that when yoga can be as much about 1) intense inhabitation of the present moment as an end in itself as it is about 2) devotion to a progressing method-path-inquiry, then there’s not such a need to parse it between theory versus practice, or science versus art.