My Two Curves • 6 November 2007

Curiosity : New Learning :: Nostalgia : Repetition

So it has been a long time since I advanced in the series. And people are starting to suggest it’s time I take on the next pose.

Nono noono nonoooooonononooo.

And sell myself out of one of my few remaining chances to participate in a ritual ashtanga moment? Chances are that I’ll add a posture another ten or at most twenty times in the next twenty or thirty years. Learning a posture is this obvious, almost comically obvious, moment of imitation shaktipat built in to the practice at intervals; and in my old age I’m coming to see it as a very sweet thing.

In a practice that is all about intense personal experience, that hinges on meaningful relationships of student and teacher (including where the student takes the method itself to be her teacher), advancing to the next pose is this no-duh moment of live transmission. It’s a mini-enactment of the whole method.

I did not always care about that at all. When the learning curve on the physical level was steeper, I had more curiosity for what was next and at the same time longed for challenges. But the curiosity has leveled off as the physical work becomes less about new openings and new powers and more about refinement. There’s a ton of work left before I’ll master my practice such as it is (hello, mayurasana), but it is quieter work than it used do be.

As I show up every day to repeat–and try to refine–what I know, my nostalgia for the method is a rising trend. It's pretty weird.

I don’t think the word for my condition is “reverence” or “submission.” It’s not that I’m afraid or feel wrong about giving myself a pose. It’s that the longer I spend in this practice the more I feel the strength and sweetness of its master, SKPJ, and the way he’s personalized the method by transmitting it individually to so many. I don’t have any pretention to a personal relationship with the man and don’t regret this, but do have an increasing gratitude for the whole tradition. For me it’s not that learning from a teacher is “correct”: it’s that it is awfully sweet. And because much of my practice during my life will be without someone steeped in the subculture, I’m pooling my nostalgia around the obvious symbolic touchstones.

So! There I go shrouding power in foofy cultural nonsense in order to legitimate a hierarchy. That is actually a great counter-argument to everything I'm feeling. There exists the following criticism of the ashtanga method: that teachers become old-school hoarders of the crucial knowledge. That they dole it out in ways that increase their own authority and students’ practical dependence and emotional subservience. I take the point. I’ve not been subject to this kind of thing, though I am sure it happens. But the possibility of a messy dynamic is what I accept for the benefits of not having to administrate the program myself. For someone like me who lacks the kinesthetic brilliance to practice spontaneously in a way that is both quiet and challenges physical boundaries, administration is annoying mindstuff. It’s a gift when someone will do that pain-in-the-ass thinking and planning and fussing for me. This is why I see teaching so much more as service than as control.

I suppose this knowledge-hoarding criticism is most valid to those who see ashtanga as a set of postures rather than as a living tradition. If it’s just postures, then the method should be Do What Thou Wilt When Thou Wilt.

But it’s not a set of postures. It’s an entire subculture. Subculture without postures is tourism; postures without subculture is pilates. Or something like that.

Ashtanga’s a subculture the same as punk rock or skateboarding. And while I used to experience it with a vigorous curiosity, now I feel more like a sentimental old girl who thinks that for all its neuroses and pathologies, the more traditional ways are meaningful enough that I’d like to re-enact them the same way I do any other received tradition.

Maybe this is just what happens to you when you do the same exact thing day after day for too many years. You fall weirdly in love with all of it.