Conversion Story, Part I • 3 May 2007

Why do you practice astanga yoga? What brought you to the practice?*

I practice because: how could I not? If I hatch a reasoned explanation, I might just lie to justify the sacrifices I’ve made and the quirks I’ve taken on as I have habituated to the yoga. Astanga is a weird and jealous lover, quite the wallflower at parties: making our relationship out to be rational cheats her of her brilliant lunacy.

I found astanga by accident—a literal one, involving a car and a concussion. And I stayed because its culture made sense: the no-bullshit intensity and sublime understatement of Patthabi Jois’ personality, the habitual interiority of the technique, its grounding in a philosophical lineage (and adaptability to the nondualism that resonates with me best), and the sacramental gratitude built into its gestures and ritual patterns.

I can say I love the danger of practice—the way it puts my most precious self-harming habits and safest inner caves in peril. I love the pleasure and joy of it—the way it sets my energetic rhythms and releases some addictive elixir of endorphins and breath onto the platform it sets for awakening. And I love its refuge—the way it builds some peace and honesty into days that otherwise might get far too dramatic. Post hoc, these are reasons to love practice, but I don’t know that they get me to the mat.

The best I can say for why I show up is: I’m a curious little nerd. Astanga gives my body to me as a terrain of exploration, and I am both grounded by the fact that it sets me a peaceful meditation schedule, and curious about the shifting nature of this ground.

I’m emphatically not a creature of habit, but rather one who tends to impatience and nomadism. The impatience, manifesting as a boredom with repetition and a desire to collect experiences, is the most consistent demon in my relationships with self and lovedones and work and the world. My curiosity can be a distracting, greedy kind of energy. But in practice, I turn it inward, and suddenly it is luminous. This is a place I can be active and exploratory without killing receptivity and repose. I don’t get on the mat with the expectation of philosophical or existential payoffs, but because it distills a problematic tendency into a little pinlight that seems to be taking me somewhere, even if it is just to a place where novelty has lost its allure and deterioration is the real name of the game. I’ve piled up a lot of scrapmetal out in the garage in the search for truth, but this inquiry feels genuine because there’s just not much to it. (Little more than a strip of Manduka PVC, if you know what I mean, on the trash heap every 3 years or so.)

Growing up evangelical, in the blood-red, poor-white backcountry of a redstate, and a preacher’s kid at that, I learned the value of conversion stories. But unfortunately, force-fed a belief system with my baby food, I grew up with the conundrum of having never been evil and thus never rescued by Jesus from the maw of vice. We’d do evangelism workshops to practice sharing “testimonies” as a conversion tactic, and I’d feel like half a person. For a preacher’s kid, the classic temptation is to give yourself a dark period, a Christian rumspringa, of drugs and sex and rock music, and then let Jesus bring you back from the dead in time to settle down to a life of ministry. No matter how far away you get on this prodigal venture—even if you’re a leftist, anti-racist, gender-equality-loving, environmentalist, non-patriotic, secular humanist intellectual, who lives in the DEN OF VICE (Los Angeles, California)—there’s always the question of whether you’ll give up the way of the goat and return to the fold.

I have returned, allright. My conversion story to astanga practice is not all that interesting: car hit me/ I hit yoga mat/ life reconfigured down to the roots. But the story that best answers the question of why I practice is the one about how I found my body. I think I’ll write out a version of that story in the next few posts.

*These questions originated here.