The Emotional Lives of Yogis? • 2 April 2007


AUGUST 2010 NOTICE. ATTENTION YOGAWORKS TEACHER TRAINING PARTICIPANTS. YOU, LIKE HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF SUCKERS BEFORE YOU (MYSELF AMONG THEM), HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED THIS WORTHLESS ESSAY QUESTION. YOUR TEACHERS HAVE SEEN MANY ANSWERS PLAGIARIZED FROM THE ESSAY BELOW.

BUT PLEASE, DON’T HESITATE TO USE MY IDEAS. AS YOU MAY AGREE, THE PHILOSOPHICAL VACANCY AND PRACTICAL IDIOCY OF THE QUESTION IS A PIECE WITH THE QUALITIES OF YOUR PRESENT “TEACHER,” THE YOGAWORKS CORPORATION. AS A TEACHER, THE CORPORATION IS AS IMPOVERISHED IN YOGA AS IT IS RICH IN FEES. LET’S NOT MISTAKE THIS EXPENSIVE TRAINING AS PREPARATION TO TEACH YOGA. IT IS NOT AN INITIATION IN TO A LIFE PRACTICE. IT IS NOT A TRANSMISSION OF METHOD. IT IS NOT A REQUEST FROM A MENTOR WHO KNOWS YOU THAT YOU TAKE THE ENORMOUS STEP FROM LONG-TIME PRACTICE IN TO TEACHING.

Here’s a little more essay-writing as I bring this winter’s teacher training class to a close. I don’t know if it’s my ancient history as a forensics nerd or just living in three non-overlapping value zones (yoga, sociology, Christian fundamentalism) that makes me question any question in the process of answering it. But so it is. Not that critical thinking doesn’t belong in every zone….

How do the kleshas and the gunas effect your asana practice?

In yoga philosophy, kleshas are mental obstacles to enlightenment — specifically ignorance, egotism, attraction, aversion and clinging to life. Gunas are thee qualities of our prakriti—ignorance, passion and goodness—one for each of the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Yoga philosophy provides many lists such as the kleshas, and also frequently divides up the world into three essences. These are wonderful interpretive tools, especially for one living in India while practicing Hinduism and ayurveda. However, because I do not intuitively understand the samkya system of purusa and prakriti (or the tantric Siva-Shakti), and how it integrates the theory of karma, my understanding of the kleshas and gunas is still superficial. The gunas, especially, and the kleshas of “wrong understanding” and “ego” seem particularly subtle.

Though I need to study samkya philosophy to develop a practical understanding of these concepts, this does not mean that my yoga practice itself cannot inform me about my inner states. While wonderful tools, kleshas and gunas are not causal agents which actually “effect” anything. My mind loves to grasp after categories, to substitute a map for the territory and thus pretend to know the whole terrain. Thus, for me, categorizing my experience according to these new concepts, while it will be terrifically interesting, might do more to substantiate the categories themselves, as if they are exhaustive of the mind’s possibilities, than it will to show me what is in my mind. If I imagined these concepts as causal agents which create “effects,” I would be mistaking abstractions for reality, or treating as real that which is transitory. And, working with a definitional, non-integrated understanding of the concepts might lead me to confuse myself, rather than know myself better. Ultimately in practice I am hoping to attenuate conceptual, discursive thought rather than increase it.

Still, if kleshas roughly categorize destructive mental tics and gunas an approach to psychosomatic dispositions, my asana practice is subject to both. It has been almost three years since I began a daily astanga practice and so found myself meditating on the body. After the first year, curious about the nature of consciousness, I began exploring different forms of meditation. Last year, breath meditation inspired a pranayama practice. So far, these three practices illuminate one another: the resistance I experience in meditation—where discursive thought and deep emotions frequently cut in—and pranayama—where a physical-mental-emotional fear of death arises in kumbhaka—both highlight that my asana practice is relatively open and quiet. Asana practice supports the more difficult practices, even as the latter teach me to breathe rhythmically and sense my mind downshifting in asana.

In the first six months of astanga practice, remembering the sequence of postures and disciplining my body into their shapes required my best concentration. This was the yoga—linking the mind and the body. Once I had attained the basic union that resulted from settling the physical practice into my body so I no longer had to rehearse movement mentally or pause to query some isolated part of my mind, I was able to practice what TKV Desikachar describes as dharana in asana. In the beginning, nobody told me that thoughts or emotions were supposed to “come up” during asana practice, and my journals indicate that I experienced practice as a quiet, physically pleasurable “zoning in” as I dropped into meditation. (I am thankful that no one mentioned mindstuff to me in the beginning: had I gone searching for kleshas, I am sure I could have created habitual stumbling-blocks to fulfill that search.)

While I would like to have more to say about emotions that “come up,” or the way asana helps me manage distraction or energetic fluctuations, I have very little. Beautiful generalizations by writers like Joel Kramer and Stephen Cope resonate with me somewhat, but they say too much. I rarely experience a deep or intense emotion in asana, and find that even on the most heavy days initiating practice resets my psychosomatic disposition to the best clarity I can manage on that particular day. That quality of clarity is always a little different, but dissecting it too much leads me to grasp at false explanations.

Before I had been practicing a full year, I underwent what I can only describe as reordering of my nervous system that manifested as a kind of spiritual crisis. The peace, joy and equanimity I’d begun to find gave way to loss of patience with the world. Intense sound, food, light, or emotional expression made me shudder, and I withdrew from most relationships even as I became more intellectually acute and physically vivacious. It is not that I decisively rejected the world, but that I became hypersensitive to stimuli and craved quiet stillness in myself and my environment at all times. I wanted life to imitate meditation. During these months, I felt that practice was more real than the world. Rather than being in the world and letting it show me to myself, I wanted to renounce the world because it interfered with my preferred state of consciousness.

It took nearly six months for me to tiptoe out of that place, and initiate a much more messy practice of life as some kind of yoga. For the past year, I have sought to blur the boundary between asana practice—which is still a refuge—and daily life. Asana practice itself is still pretty simple and largely the same every day. As Kramer says, morning practice does put you deeply in touch with how you treated yourself the previous day. Yet I find that seeking explanation for every little internal variation is a fast track to self-confusion. The mind wants explanation for everything, but on a deeper level my nature is to love, and to die. I hesitate to analyze how these ever-present processes of love and death interact with my sleep, my emotions, my food, water, light, recovery time, proximity of my mother-in-law, and endless other variables to render certain experiences on the mat. Practice is a gift, not a performance. I hesitate to rank it.

Whatever my experience on the mat, practice does set a high standard for the rest of my life. I oscillate between using that standard as a measure of my daily inadequacy (as mental tics and psychosomatic modifications overtake me completely) and seeing it as an inspiration for what clarity, love and insight a holistic practice might bring in time.

One Comment

  • Natalie
    Posted 11 April 2014 at 1:14 am | #

    HII! great post! i am in the yoga works training as we speak, or as I type . this assignment is due tomorrow lol. I agree with everything you posted! The more I practice and the more I mediditate the more dissconnected I feel. Its hard to describe, but there are moments and times when I completely dont think about ANYTHING and my freinds will be like what are you thinking about. And i literally say. Nothing / The benefits of asana and pranayama seemed extrenely rewarding within the first year of my practice, yet its becoming more and more difficult to connect with other ppl. I love yoga, yet I think there is a difference between going through the motions and completely surrending yourself to a moment. I begin to find more and more flaws in my asana practice. Id love to chat more!

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