Garland of Skulls • 6 January 2012

So I don’t talk about my personal practice, or student-teacher relationships, or “my” pain. That specific kind of chit-chat is bad practice, and always has been. (Always, as in millennia.)  Besides, these things are intimate and fleeting. Clouds in the coffee.

And not to get you worried but… have you read the Hathayogapradipika? If not, I’ll paraphrase that and some other sages here. At first, the best places to read this stuff are Muktibodhananda’s translation of the Pradipika and some commentaries on Patanjali’s Fourth Pada. Here’s the big idea: getting very specific in talky talky about your relationship with your teacher, and your attainments, is bad juju. A sincere practitioner should be super-careful about attracting attention like that. It’s not that the techniques should be secret – by all means, let the esoteric shit be known! But in the meantime: Don’t pimp out your practice! Spiritual materialism = turning poses and such into “adornments of the ego.” But if we make the mala of postures in to a piece of jewelry, it’ll just decay into a heavy, rotting necklace of skulls.

(Insert Durvasa/ pirate accent) Arrrrrr!

I have rambled like this as a strategy to repel most readers before they get this far. For those still reading, I’ll now contradict it all by talking openly about my practice. Because this story turned into a topic of conversation at the coconut stand yesterday (re-told by witnesses), I may as well blog it out in service of something bigger (i.e., the definition at the end of the post).

So here’s the story. Monday, I’m in Gokulam, sitting on my hands. Except, not exactly. Because I’m at Command Central, sandwiched in middle of like a hundred ashtangis in the thick of practice, and while balanced on my hands my mulabandha is working its allotted five breaths of gravity-defiance while my left leg is wrapped around my head and my right foot is hanging up in the air in chakorasana.  And my teacher, Sharath, looks down on me from approximately the height of Mount Meru and says Noooooo! Intermediate series only, you do! After this, intermediate only!

And I’m like, oh. He just told me that I no longer practice Advanced Series. Ok. From now on, I practice Intermediate.

This is the practice.

When I first came to Mysore four years ago, I was practicing almost full Advanced, having learned it and practiced it four days a week for a few years with three different Certified teachers. And upon getting here, I practiced primary series.

That is how it works. We come here for the gift of having the world of the practice made new. To be reborn. To be relieved of our knowing, jaded, all-mine, me-me expertise. To see the strange in the familiar… and to take the time for the merely strange to become stranger still. (Which, if you make par for the course by changing your ticket to stay for that third month, it will. Usually, the spirit world waits until the third month to come alive in you. But that’s another story.)

The first year, Sharath taught me (and I do mean taught – the matieral was sparkly-new in this context) the first bit of intermediate. Then he left town. And his mother, Saraswati, gave me the entire rest of the series in a single day. I thought she was kidding, so for two days I did not do as she instructed. Finally, she yelled at me for practicing primary. So, ok. I practiced intermediate. Then the next year, to my surprise, I returned. And I continued as instructed. Then Sharath asked me if I’d learned the whole intermediate series from him. I said no, and suggested I go back to midway through the series so that he and I could work through it together. I realized that this was asking a lot of him – he would have to give me energy that he could give to someone else. But it seemed right for my practice – I wanted those few moments of pure transmission from him, when he would have to notice that my practiced needed to move on, and take the time to go through a new vinyasa with me. He said my suggestion was good, and in so doing gave me the opportunity to be shiny-new yet again.

Hey, it’s India. Have you read the Mahabharata? The whole dying thing is kind of sketchy around here. Time moves in circles. And it’s not that abnormal for Mount Meru to materialize in the middle of the shala, and then bubble under again just like that.

So anyway, on Monday when he publicly takes away Advanced Series, my  body responds by proceeding to backbends and finishing without the arising of entitlement, embarrassment, anger, et cetera. No problem. It wasn’t until happy hour at the Coconut Stand that I learned that many people in the room had noticed what happened and experienced empathetic humiliation as a result. They broached the topic as if peeling back the bandages of a horrible wound. As if I had been gored by an otherwise peaceful Mysore cow, as if they were gingerly, compassionately observing my mangled ego. They wanted to help me with the delicate work of self-reconstruction, as if Advanced Series were a vital organ and now I’d have to learn to live without it.

Thankfully, previous rounds of postural give-and-take inoculated me. Previous arbitrariness guards against the certainty of future loss. When old age takes the postures for the last time, well then maybe there will be some blood. But for now, having Advanced taken away loudly in the middle of the shala is THE PRACTICE. (Hilariously, Sharath called me into the vestibule and gave the poses BACK after practice the same day. So then they were mine again. And then two days later my quadratus lumborum took them away again. Today, the Q-L and ahimsa teamed up to take away the second half of primary series too.)

Anyway, this is an example of the deep ground of this method. It sets arbitrary constraints, and we let the ego balk at them until it can simply observe them. Then we continue accepting and just being with the reactions until there is no I/me/mine left to care at all.

Come to Mysore, and immediately these constraints are placed on the ego:

(1)   You must practice with the body you have today (practicing in a fantasy body of the past or the future = structural damage).

(2)   You must do the postures you are given (feeling entitled to more or less = pure, pitiful suffering).

(3)   You must come at the time you are given (cutting in front of other people = compromising their faith that this practice actually does chill us out).

(4)   You must clarify and simply the activity of the body and breath (doing otherwise will garner unwanted attention)

This aspect of constraint is so central to the method that I’d actually use it to define the practice. So while it is also true that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is:

(1) …. a sequence of postures linked by blah blah blah.

(2) …. an asana program designed to heal and purify the physical, energetic blah blah blah.

(3) … an ancient practice transported from the Himalayas by confused leaf-cutter ants who accidentally blah blah blah.

            …AVY method is also, in essence:


Don't imagine you understand it if you're letting your ego run wild across the surface of some shapes, switching it up as the vrittis pull you this way and that, reacting to the reactions on reactions, identifying with the achievements, never letting any outside constraints put these machinations of the small self in check.

When it's taken as a practice, it is a process of working with the same constraints day after day, in relationship with teachers, community, clear method, and the physical body. These parameters (body, method, teacher, community) are wonderful, dependable, even semi-objective sources of feedback for the ego. Bless them, they are the providers of constraint. The method uses these constraints to create freedom.

This is a kind of simulation of enlightenment. It is not a dissolving of the ego. Rather, it is a set of practices that give us the opportunity to act as if the ego has already been dissolved.

Do it long enough, and yeah, maybe the skull necklaces we’re all wearing around here really will crumble to dust. That's when we'll know we're beyond method.