Knowing, Being Known • 24 October 2007

Is practicing with someone intimate?

You sweat with him, learn his breath, come to know the ways his energy changes and the ways it is constant across the days.

So what? In a way, I’m tempted to take the “shala solipsist” position on this question. That whatever’s visible in someone’s practice has more to do with how she was trained than with her essence. As someone suggested recently, central to the shala solipsist argument is the insight that the ashtanga atmosphere fosters rampant projection. You get no verbal or eye-contact feedback from others; thus what you think you perceive is very much about you. Besides, even to the degree you are perceiving others in themselves, what’s in play during practice is just one side of a person. And that side doesn’t really tell you anything about how kind they are, or how thoughtful or intelligent, or what motivates them or makes them laugh.

But I don’t know. Maybe it is just that I sort of hate conversation— the way people use it to bulldoze each other, hide from each other, or whatever: because there is so little listening that happens in most conversation. But I feel like a conversation-free zone is rich for sensing people in far more interesting ways than usual.

Not that what you are doing during practice is sensing other people. You’re just picking up on them, mostly. But I think that this can actually subvert our habit of projecting. When we are trying to figure someone out, we go straight into our own cognitive patterns. Being-with in practice is simpler, less goal-oriented. You are just creating some community, not struggling to reach an apparent understanding or establish a shared point of view.

I have a sense that students vary in the degree to which they project their inner experience out into the room. Some days we project, sure; but other days the agenda flickers out and we become incredibly receptive to the environment. Maybe too receptive. Some days we are just so damn self-conscious that we become ultra-present; some days self-consciousness advances to a state of cluelessness; and now and then a person will truly go tharn. Sometimes the will is strong; sometimes surrender is literal and fairly complete. It varies. But I feel that learning to ride that over time with certain people is intimate.

I don’t usually break the sound barrier with fellow practitioners. But when I do, it’s with someone I know I want to relate to in that way. And by that time we’re already so comfortable with each other that the sides of us that play the friend role engage easily and with a little bit of delight.

Is yoga practice ineffably personal? Are my own perceptions all I can ever know?

When I love someone a lot, I grant them mystery. I refuse to make assumptions about how they feel and what motivates them, and give them the power to reveal to me exactly what they choose.

Though for all practical purposes: give me a break. If you have any intuition at all, and a basic capacity to bracket your self-centeredness, other people are easy. You yourself are easy.

Practice is really not so serious or “personal.” Yes, it is about your experience. But as you spend time with others, the boundaries of that self become a little blurred. You’re not just a monad on the mat: if someone is beside you and you’re not blocking them out (which does need to happen sometimes), then in non-trivial ways your experiences will be part of each other. How is that not intimate?

24 Comments

  • R
    Posted 24 October 2007 at 7:02 pm | #

    i’m a monad on the mat.

  • Posted 24 October 2007 at 7:06 pm | #

    Oh, you dualist.

    Search term: choiceless awareness.

  • Posted 24 October 2007 at 7:19 pm | #

    I think that the Mysore room changes the dynamic somewhat. In the mysore room, as compared to other yoga classes, there’s a certain assumption of dedication, commitment and mutual respect. We all know that we have up days and down days. We know each other’s faces and roughly where in the series we go. We know that receiving the teacher’s attention is random but not competitive.

    So while it’s a very personal experience, it’s also a group experience. we all feel the energy in the room, the temperature and the humidity, how tight the mats are and whether our arms can go to the side or front.

    I love the sounds of the mysore room – the gentle admonitions from across the room; the muffled laughter; the sound of someone spraying their arms for GP; and of course the breathing.

    Then again, I’m probably just projecting my feelings – I only get to go once or twice a week, so I’m left craving more. Perhaps others can’t wait to leave?

    (oh yes, your book recommendation – Kerouac’s Big Sur, of course. It’s his reflection from the other side of the road – drunk, depressed, and trying to escape his self-created myth.)

  • R
    Posted 24 October 2007 at 7:29 pm | #

    this “choiceless awareness” thing seems to imply that if you really zone into true being, the distinction between self and non-self should dissolve and you should sit serenely in the pocket where inward and outward are the same, light thing—that that’s somehow the way things “really” are or something. how whacked out is that?

  • R
    Posted 24 October 2007 at 7:30 pm | #

    :)

  • Posted 24 October 2007 at 7:33 pm | #

    Mmmm. I think the atmosphere is pretty addictive for most, and this is why we come back. I am a junkie for better and for worse.

    Agree that Mysore is absolutely unique and wonderful. Flow class? Whatever. Pick-ups and projection; maybe some “zoning out” if you’re lucky.

    Re: “Drunk, depressed, and trying to escape his self-created myth.” Um, why would I want to experience that on my vacation? We should all just stay away from that misogynist, boring, shallow myth in the first place. If we never buy in, we never have to escape.

  • Posted 24 October 2007 at 7:36 pm | #

    :)

  • Posted 24 October 2007 at 7:54 pm | #

    misogynist? (psst. they were sleeping with each other.)

  • Posted 24 October 2007 at 11:03 pm | #

    I don’t get the intimacy either. I’ve had sweat flung on me by lots of people and not felt any closer for it.

  • Posted 25 October 2007 at 3:09 am | #

    Oh, let’s not talk about Kerouac. Might be time to revisit On The Road with an eye to the females are characters or tools, and whether they’re capable of liberation like the others. I appreciate that Sal “Where’s Dean?” Paradise is totally and wonderfully in love with a man, but it’s beside the point. Anyway, let’s not talk about beatnicks.

    I’m surprised R and Carl don’t feel closer for having been sweat on regularly by someone.

    Any other people have thoughts on that?

  • Posted 25 October 2007 at 3:21 am | #

    Naturally I thought “Big Sur” when you mentioned the location, but I was so bummed by the book that I didn’t recommend it. Miller, of course, is a go-to. About intimacy (well, sort of): mind-body problem? Is revulsion physical or mental? Oops, dualist categories…

    Yes by all means let’s kick around South Bend, IN or something else. If Kerouac’s too mythologizing in a specific register, how about some of Steinbeck’s travelogues?

    Being sweat on by someone (assuming droplets must carry through air before contact) sort of ruins the Walter Benjaminish “aura” of the sweat-as-intimacy, you know? Dang it, reading you really brings out my inner grad student. Still, a nice tracking slow-mo shot of sweat moving from one body to another would make a great little indy film sequence.

  • Posted 25 October 2007 at 3:48 am | #

    Oh my god Patrick, we are going to have to be careful. It is true that I love the “aura” thing, and Travels With C. (And I have this thing for Roseasharn, too, since we both were named for the middle eastern plains where the apocalypse is scheduled to begin.) In other words, I’m horrified to learn I bring out your inner grad student and will try not dissolve us into a formless puddle of differance. (Differance is so 1995.) I honestly don’t want to be a bad influence.

    Besides. Sweat puddles, I’m coming to feel, are so much more interesting. Which reminds me that you people are deferring all the way around the question! So which is it?

    Are you a shala solipsist, or do you believe those who practice together fundamentally know each other?

  • Posted 25 October 2007 at 10:06 am | #

    There are certain people I particularly like to practice next to because it feels good somehow. There’s no talking or any other type of interaction apart from perhaps an accidental nudge, but it feels special. Yes, actually I think the word is “special” not “good”.

    cj x

  • Posted 25 October 2007 at 12:46 pm | #

    Oddly, now that I try to address this a bit more seriously, I realize that my nearsightedness makes me more shala solipsistic, and I’ve noticed that this does NOT apply the other way around. Sure, I could see the dude lowering into Karandavasana. But more often (and this all refers to SF, where I had a shala in which to be; here I do not) people would tell me that I had good energy or words to that effect. Even when my eventual shala-buddy Annie and I would practice mat-to-mat (facing), it was still the pre-mat familiarity which appeared. Perhaps I need better antennae to pick up on the fundamental acquaintanceship of Mysore-style practice. Or, of course, just more experience with it. Who wants to fly me to SF again?

  • V
    Posted 25 October 2007 at 2:05 pm | #

    Short answer: yes. I do think we bare our souls on our mats. A different issue is whether you are able to concentrate on your own practice while still being aware of your surroundings. My teacher said something once along those lines…please don’t take this as a quote as I can’t remember his exact words, but I think he was trying to say that closing ourselves off to our surroundings is not what it is. We must be aware both of our inside and what’s outside at the same time, without letting either affect us too much.

  • cranky housefrau
    Posted 25 October 2007 at 2:43 pm | #

    Are my own perceptions all I can ever know?

    this is something that plagues me constantly! how accurate are any of the things that i think are real? and how much does it matter?

    my practice always comes back to the reality that i practcie alone. i can’t remember what it felt like to practice with a room of regular strangers. but i remember clearly the feeling of being near people who could either feed your energy or suck your energy right out of you.
    i have this experience with my students, too. i feel like you do learn people’s body language as a teacher or a fellow student and that says a lot. but again, it is all perception if you aren’t actually talking to them. but even if you are talking to them, we can be so disjointed from ourselves that who is to say that an outside observer is not more accurate in perception that someone is of their own being?

    what is real?

  • Posted 25 October 2007 at 5:12 pm | #

    a baby’s laughter is real. is there anything more wonderful than hearing children genuinely laughing without any resistance or hesitancy?

  • cranky housefrau
    Posted 25 October 2007 at 5:23 pm | #

    yeah, that is the truth. my kids bubbly laughter is pretty awesome.

  • Posted 25 October 2007 at 7:46 pm | #

    Well… sweat does occur in some intimate instances. Such instances haven’t been part of my yoga practice though. Not yet anyway.

    A sweat puddle that causes me to slip and fall on one of my shala mates… that would bring some closeness I guess. But what should I say if I slip in someone’s sweat and land upon them? Would “Good Morning” suffice?

  • cranky housefrau
    Posted 25 October 2007 at 8:33 pm | #

    i think if you slip in SOMEONE ELSES sweat and fall on them, the proper thing to say is, “get yourself a towel!” ewwwww…

  • Posted 25 October 2007 at 9:07 pm | #

    Why should people stop to wipe up their sweat puddles? They’ll dry up soon enough on their own, especially if the sweat gets smeared around thinly enough that it can evaporate more quickly.

  • cranky housefrau
    Posted 25 October 2007 at 11:30 pm | #

    oh, crikey. then get a rug. isn’t that the point of the mysore rug? stop urguing, Carl.

  • Posted 27 October 2007 at 1:01 pm | #

    I’ll take the shala solipsist position but disagree with your definition. “Training” seems too impersonal, and makes too many assumptions about the consistency and stage of one’s training. “History” could be more of a middle ground, able to include past training as well as life experiences, and referencing individuality without going so far as to claim “essence.”

    Similarly, your intriguing mysore description would seem to rely on homogeneity:

    “Being-with in practice is simpler, less goal-oriented. You are just creating some community, not struggling to reach an apparent understanding or establish a shared point of view.”

    Maybe this picture could work for a room of dyed-in-the-wool ashtangis, but I would argue that despite its interesting features, mysore remains fragmented and personal. Or maybe I am projecting my own ambivalence.

    Well, that was more fun than a Saturday morning crossword puzzle. I probably need to add Bourdieu to my reading list…

  • Posted 27 October 2007 at 6:18 pm | #

    I don’t know, Myst. I think a lot of what I’m saying depends on the experience of feeling close with some individuals with whom I’ve practiced for years. I know your shala experience has been more ambivalent, like you mention. Maybe an experience like mine is one fragment (albeit a cohesive one) of the larger mysore picture.

    Bourdieu is difficult. Email me if you want some possible starting points.

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