To end the year the way I didn’t spend it, I took today off. Slept four hours extra, walked to the shala in the snow before the late-late sunrise. Sixteen whole degrees, making me way overdressed in a winter coat as large and leak-proof as a space suit.
The shala was already full when I arrived. The students who are also keepers of keys were not waiting until 8 for self-practice, and maybe thought I was a little bit of a slacker for sleeping in. God: to end the year just riding on the energy of their practice, the momentum they create together. I rolled out my mat in the third row and just merged. At Durvasasana, a giggle from the back. Our resident 7 year old hasn’t seen the irascible sage before, finds the posture funny. I wobbled and didn’t fall.
This was the curtain on 2014: re-ingesting in my own body the group energy that has come of age, matured so much that it acts independently instead of waiting for me to say when and how. The collective is self-intelligent, the shala version of a singularity.
The cliché about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts now applies. Four years after we incorporated, and seven years after my brother bought the domain (I was already trained for teaching by then, but in denial), this coming year is going to feature the novelty of rest. Crop rotation: two weeks with the Ayurvedic jungle doctors of Tamil Nadu, and two months in Mysore. Posting here next month will require escaping the jungle shamans long enough to bogart some wireless in Coimbatore; might not happen.
Yesterday I compressed a year’s worth of time not wasted on the internet into a few hours of listening, reading and watching. I wanted to know, how did people talk when they talked about yoga this year? More specifically, I have been thinking about my love relationship with the practice, and wondering if there is space out there now to speak about something so intimate and possibly offensive. Some would say it is an abject, life-ruining, love. I don’t want to try to describe it and be mistaken for talking about gratification, escapism, or some sort of pointless self-control trip.
What I read yesterday is that people have talked this year about discipline and the reality of suffering on the mat, and on the other hand they have talked about practice as a place where one experiences “just being,” possibly with some positive emotions like gratitude and self-acceptance added in. There are translations into everyday language of notions that sound a little like Advaita, Tantric hatha yoga, ascetic Yoga Sutra style self-trancendence, and badass (Jack LaLanne/puritanical) self-mastery. Many competing ideas and discordant values.
Looking at all that, the emotion-motives I actually experience might reduce to a combination of (1) the commitment expressed by the self-trancendence writers and (2) the gratitude and immanence in the Tantric writers. This is not a contradiction. My practical experience includes discipline, sensory absorption, suffering, and ecstasy.
I don’t see any way around this. We live on a planet with a down and an up. Energy moves toward Earth, toward the sky, and across the surface. Gender (a dance, not a personal trait) expresses along a continuum that has end points of agency, and of receptivity. There are two big orbs in the sky, one of them powerful and burning, one of them reflective and shadowy. The planet is full of animals, and animals often experience each other as having separate minds – those of us who are not aspen trees or slime molds interact with perceived others not just by consciousness-sharing but through relationship. Under these conditions, being a human on Earth involves contrasts – of will and surrender, wholeness and particularity, upward moving energy and downward moving energy, transcendence and immanence, self and other. Not surprisingly: there is an aspect of human self-reflection that involves trying; there is an aspect that is about just being; and there is an aspect that is about serving. This is so logical for Earthlings. There is not just one idea to rule us all.
Go ahead. Become an Advaita person. Or an ascetic. Or a devotee of the “call off the search” school. See how many years you last until you break out of that cave screaming about how the other guys are right. No one idea is sufficient for a person having a long, full life experience.
Some of the most compelling big ideas in yoga this year had to do with immanence – of not going beyond the present moment or the particular personality. Of just being, and appreciating reality as such. Wonderful. But not wonderful as a belief system. Lately, immanence is being offered in a repressive way, as the school of not trying, of denying any feeling of separation from spirit, of hating on the impulse for transcendence. So the yogas of “non-duality” end up being aggressively (if not angrily) dualistic, cordoning off the yogas of discipline, focused action, and effort as “other,” “wrong,” and “bad.” See Mark Whitwell and Christopher Gladwell for variants. Godfrey Devereaux says efforts at transcending the individual ego/present moment are dangerous; J. Brown seems to imply that if yoga is hard, it’s not yoga. Invoking an unblessed lineage claim to U.G. Krishnamurthi, who despised relationships and everyday life, Brown teaches that relationships and everyday life are the ground of practice. Some confusion is there.
On the other hand, I don’t see articulations of the path of discipline as being infused with effortlessness, surrender, grounded sensory pleasure, and ecstasy. But that is very possible. Discipline, effortlessness, ecstasy. At the same time.
The love of practice is not rainbows and dancing chakras. Practice is not my happy place. It’s more like love of practice leaves me on my knees saying thank you/ I don’t know what I’m doing; and in exchange for that abject thanks/emptiness, practice has taken away a career and made me a quasi-outsider to society. Um, thank you? This is not dramatic, or punishing, and there’s no fight about it.
The story behind this love relationship is that I encountered a distinct stream of energy, fell in very deep, and eventually looked up and realized that it had changed my consciousness and the course of life in a way that was really beautiful. In a way I wanted, but never could have found through trying or planning.
I don’t know if I will always do this. There is a commitment to daily practice that removes all doubt about what to do tomorrow morning, but I can’t see the distant future and I don’t really care about it. For now and tomorrow and 10 years from now, I trust this.
The love is not the result of feeling physically gratified by practice. Maybe at first it was, but like everyone eventually does, I found a formula for the reduction of short-term gratification. Take one woman, subtract southern California, add long hard winters plus body pain, subtract sleep, reduce teachers to 8 weeks per year, add teaching. The gratification reduction program has led to an increase in meaning, and deepening of the love.
The lover has many faces: mostly I don’t feel like the doer, but sometimes there’s strong effort. There is present moment joy/equanimity that means I do not suffer quite as much as I did before, but also a commitment to growth that demands I be slightly brave every day. Also (this might be offensive) there is some desire to change not just my own consciousness but our world through service.
Is that bad? The desire to make a contribution, and the hubris of believing that could matter? One or more of the impulses that I experience – transcendence, immanence, service –could be delusional. I don’t know. But that’s what is in me, and I’m not going to lie or spiritually repress myself in order to fit into a more narrow point of view.
This morning, merging with the student body, I was humbled to see the hardness of my own mind. It is so easy to stoke energy in the central channel from the first ekam in a room where that’s the program. When I am alone and it is early-early, at the beginning of almost every practice, every single movement requires effort. Breaking my inertia means going through a little, concentrated hell. Even if I’m buzzing, I just want to lie down. This laziness would be funny if it weren’t a threat to doing what I truly want to do. I know many of you are more mature than this– you just get on the mat and do the thing. And I know others would say if I have to fight some part of myself to get moving, that’s not yoga. A true practice should never be effortful.
I go into the little hell because every time I practice alone, knowing from experience that practice will eventually take over. Sometimes after 1 minute, and sometimes after 45. I don’t know why the resistance still has to exist, after all this time. Is it constitutional? Am I a hard case? I can’t know, but when I say that I love practice, and that I am in a love relationship with practice, this includes the little hell. It is the love in the relationship with practice that enables me to go there.
A few years ago I started feeling strongly that attachment to rituals is a block in the heart. A knot in the central channel that shrinks and over-specifies love. I think maybe my love of practice started as this – as commitment to ritual – and this was useful for a time.
And now it feels more pointless. Like, this lover could leave me on the side of the road and I might just keep walking, forever, never to reach Valhalla. Unless “arriving” is the ecstasy and momentum on the way to the place we already are.