Smart Yoga, Shibboleth • 30 November 2014

Yet still this Trinity sends out its message

Through the winter-dark, “arise, arise, re-animate,

O Spirit, this small ark, this little body,

this small separate self; of the world’s mortals,

make but one immortal, let but one awake,

to set the dead pyre flaming

that the Phoenix, Venus, Mercury

may fire the world with ecstasy,

with Love who forgets our faults

with Love who redeems the lost,

with Love, Love, Love unique”.

-from Sagesse, by H.D., Winter 1957

(You can subscribe here.)

The planet tilted this month and everything went epic. I feel it in the empty center of my chest – an oscillation between the mundane and the mystical. Between raw grit and radical sensory clarity at one extreme, to full power synchronicity at the other. When enchantment comes barreling in like this, I get lost in time, the cats become animal spirits, and I brim up to the tear-ducts with the beauty of this terrible world. Looks like we’ll hit the synchronicity apogee in a week or three. The pendulum swings about four times a year, and my consciousness at its mercy.

For now, everything is turned on. It’s thrilling. Walking to practice at four in the morning, there’s both the beauty of the world out there, and the increasing intensity of the world in here. When I cross the threshold from my street into downtown, my vision is narrowed down by a hood, a hat, and a faux-fur-lined parka, but inside I see an orange underground fire roar behind an iron grill, embers flying as some god stokes it with a log the size of my body.

Now that it’s freezing, it’s ok to run a little hot. My tri-doshic constitution tilts to its central setting, so digestion can burn through anything, and practice is strong and deep. Thanksgiving morning I waited until 7 to get on with it, and was rewarded with a drop of sweat on my mat for the first time in months. It’ll likely be sweltering Mysore March (coming in 2015, as it turns out) before that happens again.

HD, by HD, came in the mail last week. A library book removed from circulation at some place called the Berkshire School, sent here without a return address. In it, Hilda Doolittle’s poem Hermetic Definition, including passages about falling in love with someone far her junior in the Groves of Academe (Ann Arbor). And Sargasse, about an owl in captivity – regal, sharp eyed – and a woman who marks passing time according to the angels and gods and planets said to govern each distinctive hour.

The book is full of Greeks, roses, owls, academic arbors… muse crossed with goobeldygook. Intuitive fuel spiked with absinthe.

I partake; charm reigns. The Editor walks in on me reading Bihar school books in bed and smiling idiotically. “What is it about Moola Bandha: the Master Key that makes you so happy?”…. We have monthly open house at home for the students on a freezing Thursday, packed into my living room laughing about the absurdity of our own profound sincerity, and then I walk through the cold to the sauna (whatever it takes to sweat). On the way home, texts with three respected colleagues about trouble in paradise leave me in a bit of a sour pickle…. On a Saturday, the Editor and walk through the snow to the prime bookstores and coffeeshops of this over-educated town, and later I’m the only human in the vast arboretum, crunching and crackling ecstatic along the Huron. Toes ice cold and fire in the belly: maybe this will be the year my hard case of frostbite (sleeping in an Oregon snow cave for a month in 1997, with less than adequate gear) begins to thaw. And maybe not. When there’s a world inside the world, I really don’t care.


But wow, I ended up speaking with a lot of colleagues through the back channels this month. Then Ferguson happened, again, and sent me to social media longing for meaningful discussion. It was plentiful everywhere but in in the Ashtanga yoga niches of the internet. Here is my best effort to be direct and plain about what I picked up from the edges of planet Ashtanga this month.

It feels like the internet is eating our young. Sucking the guts out of your concentration and your discriminating mind before you ever get off the ground.

My friends, there is some stuff we’re forgetting to practice. Asana is a fraction of yoga – the fraction one can learn in person with an experienced teacher. And then she can have the good sense—and good taste—to leave at that. It seems that many of us are turning asana into an opiate – letting it serve the same function as organized religion and professional sports. A place to channel thought and emotion so that we don’t have to feel, care, act, outside the world of chasing likes and beautiful backbends.

I am still the biggest asana junkie I have met – I practice more, and more intensely, than anyone I know, and I’m not afraid of whatever projections people have about that. But seriously, even at the most intensive level, if asana is eating our higher consciousness, we are doing it wrong. If it is making us act culty, or narrowing down our generosity to the world and to our own bodies, we are doing it wrong. If it is spurring whole programs of narcissistic input (stat counting, calorie counting, asana counting, student counting) and narcissistic output (like-farming in all its variations), we are doing it wrong. Like, this is obvious, right?

Come on. Are rajasic/obsessive asana training, and the Axis Of InstaTwitFace, going to highjack your brilliant practice? Shiny young Jedi, if you are serious about your practice, you frankly don’t have energy to waste. Developing strong concentration is hard, and the dark side (the black hole of clickbait) apparently wants you to fail.

Listen, do not be lied to. Yoga isn’t actually a total-control program, or a technology for honing the body beautiful. It’s a heart practice. Maybe even a soul practice. An equanimity practice. And before all of this it’s a mental discipline.

If vritti is hungry for the children of the Force, here are some ways to stay on the razor’s edge and ride it under the radar….


Smart yoga.

Shibboleth of the century. At the turn of the 2000s, the way “smart yoga” manifested in Los Angeles was in asana classes where you’d get into triangle pose and then someone would talk to you for 10 minutes about your acromium process. I was not smart enough to get it. Honestly, it would take years to cultivate the internal spatial relations to telescope between an abstract picture of a skeleton an the feeling within my body.

Anyway, I would submit that smart yoga is usually something different. It is silent. Get the technique you need, get any burning questions answered, and then recognize that the desire to talk or be talked to is quite possibly coming from anxiety about the experience of being in the body. Intense anxiety. Being in the body, in silence, while breathing, is scary.

Scarier yet is sitting the body on a cushion, in silence. I sense that sitting practice requires either incredible bravery or – as was my experience – stupid levels of curiosity. But back to asana.

Being in the body is unbelievably hard for a good portion of us. There are some who are blessed with animal intelligence, with a kind of kinesthetic naturalness that I consider brilliant because I came in without a whit. But for anyone with crazy vata, or who identifies as “smart,” or those of us who have some trauma tracers in the nervous system, learning to be quiet with the body is probably hard. The last thing we want to do is feel.

It is possible to practice asana, every day, for years, without more than a few passing moments of real proprioceptive awareness. Deeply cultivated body intelligence is a big part of what I’d call smart yoga.

Smart yoga is casing the heck out of anyone you might call teacher. For example: what are her relationships with all her former teachers, and is there any heavy baggage there that she’s going to pass on to you? Are there any holes in the resume, or any influences he’s keeping hidden? Is he a little tooooo charismatic? Is she quick to celebrate your learning and mourn in your difficulties, in a way that suggests her boundaries aren’t clear and maybe she thinks your practice has something to do with her? (She’s wrong. It’s your practice, not her credit or cross to bear.) Did he have less than 10 years of practice before he got in to teaching – as if your practice deserves any less than 10,000++++ hours from a teacher? Did she get into teaching because her teacher chose, and trained, and blessed, her, or… for some other (deeply suspicious) reason?

Withholding your obedience, your respect, your trust, until these questions are answered: this is smart yoga. I have a very deep faith that we all get the teachers we deserve, for better and for worse. This is part of how.

The closer you get to the source, the more concentrated the environment. There isn’t going to be an emphasis on sales, or workshops, or publicity. There aren’t going to be a lot of extra things or experiences to buy. You’re not going to be asked to pay money to learn to assist the teacher.

The room is going to be fairly silent because the teacher will have worked through her anxiety about the body to some degree, and will have learned – over many, many, many years – how to listen and communicate with subtlety. The teacher will not experiment on you or try out lots of new ideas or instructions, because after countless hours of this stuff, he will not be easily taken for a ride. What will interest him is your running your own micro-experiments while he holds space.

So the closer you get to the source, the more embodied the experience, the quieter the space, the less money/ attention/ adulation the leadership wants from you. So there’s just practice, and it’s sacred but not special. And the more we figure out how to care for the self with respect and rationality and compassion, the more obvious it is how to care for the world.