Someone asked if there's a magic bullet that’ll resolve the contradictions we generated on this topic. Maybe I could argue it's the red thread of kundalini…? Alas, sorry. 🙂
There is a refinement within and radiating from the body some old practitioners—I won’t try to deny that. And I can’t say what it’s about.
For what is at stake here, though, I think there is an elegant principle that resolves most of the antinomies. I usually hesitate to go integral, because the first layer of the theory (the fourfold table) is nothing but a compass with no intrinsic explanatory power; and the second layer (the map of the evolution of human consciousness) tends to either piss people off or reduce everything to evolutionary pissing contests. So I’ll ignore the second layer. But… the parsimonious, four-cornered map does organize the different kinds of concerns everyone raised about the prospects of this intense physical-psycho-emotional-whatever program. According to this map, every "moment" of existence (for example, me here now = a moment) can be seen from four angles at once. Inside and outside, collective and individual.
(psyche, subtle body)
(behavior, gross body);
(Culture, shared values)
(social structure: class, ethnicity, nationality, gender)
It’s not as obnoxious as it looks, I swear. When you hit a conundrum with the integral light saber, it explodes it into four. Who knows if this makes things more tractable or multiply more complex.
Is this bizarre practice suitable for a person: 1. Can the individual body hack it? 2. What about the individual psyche? 3. What are the shared cultural limitations and implications? 4. Is it possible and good within whatever social organization?
One, about the body (the exterior of the individual), sounds like a conditional yes. As V said, body type matters, and there are a lot of factors this comprises.
Question two, about the psyche is maybe more interesting. This practice is so intense! It forces a person into even more intimate contact with weird parts of her psyche and forces her to either make peace with them or “vomit them out” in service of an obsession. Sonya mentioned she’d seen people do this practice and be warped, sadly, into selfish jerks; Holden’s heard these rumors of the 3S programme leading to the vomiting of shadow elements… anyone else have a worst case scenario on a psycho-emotional dimension? Maybe Gopi Krishna isn’t so out of bounds after all. 🙂
Is all this just myth and mystification? The only generalization I’m comfortable making is that even the most neurotic, selfish 3S practitioners—the ones who maybe have been internally disfigured, though that is for their teachers, hopefully, to see—know their own minds very well. Better than most. The common allegation that advanced ashtanga creates bipolarism intrigues me: have these so-called ashtanga victims been unmasked by a truth-telling process or simply traumatized by their own poorly-chosen practice/teacher?
Maybe I should be open—later—about what that process has been like for me. For several kind of complicated reasons. I’m amusing the shit out of myself lately, moving through paradoxes of obsession/dedication, shadows/love. Something old Mr. MW has given me recently, in his deconstruction of my practice, is the criticism that ashtanga is hopelessly, blindly obsessive. To the point of generating collective body dysmorphia and chemical addiction. Rather than pissing me off or making me want to reject his teaching, this criticism endeared me to him and freed me to see the insanity in what we do. I’m not on a mission to prove him wrong, but I would like to circumscribe the cases in which he’s right and chart a way through this tradition that acknowledges the depth and truth of my own experience.
The third point of view, about what is shared but subjective, is I think what has made this conversation so tense. When it comes to beliefs about womanhood and what is socially appropriate, we carry feelings that seem so personal but are the more powerful because they’re culturally received and because we see them reflected in others. There is a pressure to reproduce the shared ideas… or a pugnacious urge to subvert them. Mircea Eliade wrote beautifully if perhaps unreliably about yoga as a deconditioning process—both of an individual’s hangups and of his [sic] cultural baggage.
People in this particular orbit seem to agree that a powerful, quasi-traditional, shamanic, contortionist breathing and meditation practice—while uniquely absurd in our context—creates women in a good way. Maybe even a very good way. The openness, independence, groundedness, self-awareness, bravery and strength of this programme may conflict with old school ideas about weak, soft, receptive feminity that "belongs in the home" because men's responsibility and because the owned female body should not be seen. But the residual tension of the last few generations’ problematic ideas about womanhood are part of what makes this practice vital. It is a very good challenge: to see what was good, beautiful and true in the old female archetype and carry that forward without being caught up in reactivity (as if we ever de-condition ourselves of culture altogether). The new culture that this practice creates around femininity—is there a degree of liberation in it? I would say, very often, this is so.
The fourth perspective is social context. Ashtanga is almost a hopelessly Brahmin activity—in the west as well as the east. Its first 1.5 generations were also hopelessly patriarchal and light-complected, as at least a good number of readers agree.
But yoga, once it becomes a lifestyle, manifests this counter-trend of quasi-freeloading authorized and certified teachers unencumbered by material things, who justify their bohemianism (sweetly, if deconstructably) with a glance to the cell-phone saddhus of the east. This is hippie-renunciant-ism, and insofar as this kind of yoga garlands the enormously privileged subculture of ashtanga, it keeps things interesting and a little more honest. There are, as a result, two cultures within ashtanga itself—the diamond-studded gold-chained householders with professional degrees and property, and the people who have given everything to the practice, and ironically carry on their lithe bodies a special contortionism-capital (kapotal, it's been called) to which the propertied folks pay respect. (The coming global slowdown will, I think, bring these two strands within ashtanga closer together….)
But I’m getting distracted. I think the social-structural perspective on women doing advanced practice has to consider both social class (for what women is this feasible, energetically, if they also have modern social responsibilities?) and this notion of staying fecund for the tribe. Can the social organization of the world we’re living in cope with women doing this shit—on a practical level? Does the change in women’s work, and potential for authority, and capacity for élan actually benefit us all when women start emerging as practical masters of psychological, physical or even spiritual practice? Do we need women taking it to the edge? Yeah, I think so. Actually, maybe this is the best argument for women who have the time, opportunity, and a certain physicality and the mental stability to take it to that level if they’re so inclined. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it is funny to take a ridiculously elitist practice and reveal—over the course of just one generation—that being a woman, and being poor, actually can increase the likelihood of at least physical “mastery.” Is that trivial? I don’t think so.
Here’s my shoulders and me, looking at myself, against the background of Butterfield 8 Liz Taylor as a sacrificial, transitional woman under some man's objectifying gaze. (Admittedly, I am grateful enough for what she represents to pin her up in my bathroom.) Things change—a few decades is a long time when cultural and cellular exchange becomes as highly entropic as it is now. Apologies if my navel is TMI for you—that’s just your boundaries talking, pre-entropy. 🙂