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?