When you first get into yoga it’s like the first flushes of a new relationship. Everything is perfect with it, it’s what you’ve always been missing, it completes your life. In fact, it’s what you catch yourself daydreaming about, planning your schedule around; finally a North Star, an anchor in the storm of life, a guiding light that gives you hope. It’s hard not to carry on waxing-lyrical; I, like most I imagine, fell head over heels for yoga, and it’s hard not to romanticise that time, indeed, not to want to return to it. I remember it all like yesterday, the first time I entered the Mysore room, and, quite definitely knew that was it. For days later I was still almost giddy, reeling from the discovery of connecting to myself in the most complete way I ever had so far in my first twenty-years on the planet.
So, it was, that I found myself a few years ago, asking, just like an estranged husband might do; when did it all start to go wrong, turn sour..? When was it that I started to feel controlled, repressed, joyless? When did every date we made start turning into a sufferance with further painful recriminations to follow? The practice had turned from something I looked forward to doing to something I just made myself do every day out of a sense of compulsion. As if, if I missed one, that would be it, our relationship would be over, which would entail something unknown, but very bad happening, and I would be left bereft, alone, without purpose or meaning.
It’s not this bad for everyone, I for one, fell heavy. I threw my towel in and dived in head first, not content to simply practice, from the get-go I wanted to devote all my time to it, and with two years I became a teacher, and a couple of years later supported myself fully through yoga. It’s hard to get perspective when you’re highly invested in something, your judgement is seriously impaired. Also, when you’re right in the middle of it from morning until night, emeshed in a routine of getting up way before the crack of dawn (2am) and making sure to fit in my chores and meals before retiring to bed by seven. You don’t really have space and time to think clearly, consider if the whole deal is still working for you, or If it might need a little tinkering with to suit where you’re currently at in life. Fifteen years is a long time to go on exactly the same, but yoga is meant to be a daily practice for life, so how do we get the perspective we need to amend it over the years?
I took a step out of it and stopped practicing in the end for about a year. I never thought I’d do this, but I felt I had reached the end of the road with the whole thing. I felt disillusioned and deeply doubtful of teaching something that was leaving me in pain and deeply unfulfilled in my life. It hadn’t always been that way, but it had been that way for long enough that on top of everything else I was starting to feel dishonest and hypocritical. Now back in practice and more committed than ever to the life-changing nature of yoga practice, I wanted to outline a few pitfalls and dead-ends I encountered, and in hindsight how they might be, hopefully, avoided by others on the path so yoga can be a life-enhancing and affirming force throughout the winding course, and differing demands, of the strange and unforeseen road on which we travel.
The most inevitable and fundamental roadblock, and root of all our suffering is that after sometime our yoga practice becomes routine. This is just impossible to avoid. It’s something you are doing everyday involving equally the same sequence, or couple of sequences at maximum for most people. The new always demands, and hence also commands, fresh attention. I see a good majority of students everyday going blithely through their practice in autopilot, just to suddenly awake at the new posture they are working towards right at the end, only to show degrees of awareness, experimentation and diligence that suddenly come out of seemingly nowhere. It’s true, things get repetitive and then they get boring, at which time we switch-off and just aim at the end goal of getting the thing done and not the experience itself of doing it. That’s why you always here the injunction to cultivate ‘beginners mind’ in any spiritual practice. It’s an irony, but often, the beginner is engaged in a deeper practice than the long term, perceived ‘advanced’, student, as the challenge of learning a new skill simply requires a degree of alertness, presentness, that we don’t need to bring to the fire when we ‘know’ something.
The shame of it is that knowledge is always of something past. As soon as one thinks one knows the possibilities of learning close down, and one is self-immolated on the pyre of a past revelation. Life on the other hand, is a constant unfolding of the new in each and every moment and a true, or freer and happier experience of it, demands this open-minded and ‘in-knowing’ quality. It’s really the one elemental condition yoga attempts to help us embody, yet the structure and necessity of discipline and method paradoxically closes down the aperture of fresh experience and spontaneity. This doesn’t have to happen, but more than often does. So, year after year, we go on dong the things in the way we already know how to do them, the familiar is the comfortable, but it doesn’t produce the change we want. Often, instead, we are digging our own graves as we carve deeper meal-functioning patterns in our body in unthinking habitual movements.
As the system of Ashtanga requires a breath count and a sense of brevity in performing the postures, this doesn’t help the issue. It is often encouraged to get into and out of asanas in one breath which doesn’t allow for possibilities of experimentation with how different approaches feel. It’s a hard line to draw, as I’m not encouraging modifications necessarily, or superfluous or extraneous stretches, but the way I see students ‘close down’ into postures if far from inviting in the process of sling and development. When there is a struggle to get into the position as fast as possible and then a literal ‘locking into the shape’, there is little room to allow for the new, fresh and unknown to be revealed, for the real magic to happen.
Daily practice will become perfunctory, at best only periodically. With this also comes crystallisation process, an inflexibility in our approach in the face of the organic system we actually inhabit; constantly in flux, negotiating between opposing demands on its energy, both from within and without. The body and the internal energies that governs it, does change everyday, and without exaggeration, does then engender the need for each and every posture to be approached afresh each time we are demanded to perform it. This might mean small, imperceptible variations, but over the years, there will and should amount to greater differences of approach; most obviously our practice should not remain the same when we are sixty as when we probably started it in our twenties. It is it ideal then, as I did, to suddenly have to crash-and-burn, much better to more holistically amend and cultivate the difference pragmatically and gradually over time.
On an emotional level the discipline that the method requires easily leads to stagnation or an obsessive approach to our yoga. We now have to do it in order to feel good about ourselves, otherwise we have failed, let ourselves down yet again. This wasn’t always the case. When first encountered, we found it all rigorously liberating, the need to focus, let go, devote, or give ourselves over to something else not immediately gratifying. It feels deeply purifying, like a prayer of sorts. Then, over time, the dark under-belly becomes apparent, if we don’t do it, we are in equal parts bad and selfish or egotistical. So we end up forcing ourselves to do a practice that should be about freedom and healing, but has become about dragging ourselves through, sometimes tired, disinterested and even injured, as we feel that in our difficulty and suffering there is a growth and learning.
The difficulty lies in the fact, that also struggling through adversity is the definitive aspect of a life well led. The struggle with doubt, and the temptation to give in to our lesser-desires and selves, is no better described than in the biblical writings recounting Jesus’ time wrestling with Satan in the desert. But, on the other hand, struggle can also just be struggle; where the only learning, is a hardening and dulling of the spirit, a numbing to the pain. The Daoist root-teaching, instead, is ‘to be like water’; to adapt and follow the path of least resistance. But is it possible to apply this notion and not end up pressing snooze and missing time for yoga each day? This is the real and substantial cultivation and deepening of practice, a constantly ‘trimming of the sails’, to radically embrace the yoke, but also to know when enough is enough and the best practice is to no practice at all. For many years I found myself oscillating between the two extremes of self compulsion, struggling against the darker forces of lethargy and torpor, just waiting for a moon-day or Friday night when I would finally explode and indulge in every desire of which I had felt denied. Not such a balanced approach, though, nevertheless a necessary and valuable aspect of my journey.
Yoga is, I feel, a unique and more than special, deeply profound, practice due to its working with harnessing a non-categorising, open, awareness by pulling together the disjointed nature of normal sensory experience. This is done in such a way that other disciplines fall-short of, as it utilises the dual seminal techniques of stimulating energy by flexing and twisting the spine, as well as engendering a subtle and integral sense of the nature and position of breath to our very existence. However, a great deal of what makes yoga, something ‘other’, ‘spiritual, which elevates it and us in turn, above the mundane and nullifying effects of the constant pull of desire and aversion, out battle between handling our responsibilities and constantly looking forward to the next weekend or holiday, lies in a radical embracing of ‘the plateau’ which is daily life. This life-changing quality can be found in any form of commitment to discipline embodied in a daily practice. In his book ‘Mastery’, George Leonard, has written, perhaps, the most useful yoga manual; though not specifically about yoga, it describes carefully how to approach a lifetime committed to practice. Here, he talks of actually ‘cultivating the plateau’.
This, most apparently tedious and limited proposition, I have found to be the very life-saving attitude that allowed me to re-assess an re-embrace my own yoga. conversely, to what it superficially seems to suggest, with a sense of renewed energy and interest. A more laconic, If not demotic, way to state the above, is in the well known branding of just do it’. Worrying about what happens in practice, the achieving of goals, or measuring up to some previous benchmark, is not only un-useful, but also destructive and unsustainable. Let the yoga take care of itself, what can or can’t be done is not the point. Remember, when things were new and you were just pleased to touch your toes? Then one day, you look up and the postures have just become another painful and egoic identification, another barrier to hide behind. Something to ward off the intimacy of coming face to face with the present, as well as the fear of abandoning yourself to the unknown, your own un-knowing, your own mortality.
We can easily accrue much more baggage, much more of ‘a cross to bare’ taking on the badge of a ‘yogi’, or worse, a yoga teacher (!) we also feel the rub of having to justify our position by a dogged maintenance of some physical level. Not only this, but we now have to appear, not only to ourselves, but everyone else too, like we’ve got it all under wraps, got the goods that you want, the inner knowledge and contentment that comes with the ‘knowledge’ of yoga. We now have to cultivate that secret-smile, talk in a soft voice and love everyone and everything..all the time. This kind of dishonesty is tiring to maintain and, ultimately, tedious for the individual who now only relates to reality, and people too, indirectly and unnaturally, as they feel they ought to do. A template has now been applied, that stops the sustaining and truly fulfilling relationship with self and other in all its raw real ness.
Yoga is transcendent, but in a way that is distinctly unglamorous. It’s the practice of acknowledging the inevitably of our own death. In this ultimate acceptance we can achieve the freedom we yearn for most deeply, in choosing to die before we actually die physically by letting go of any ideas we have about ourself that we then become afraid to lose. This is why detachment and renunciation are so often iterated in yoga texts. This is the true meaning of the resurrection, the very same truth spoke of yoga. This is what lies behind the injunction to embrace The Plateau, simply throwing back our attention on the journey itself, for we don’t know who we really are, or where we, then, might be going. Against the exciting, ideas and notions of corroborating inner achievement with external abilities. There is no development, only as T.S Eliot says in his beautiful poem ‘The Four Quartets’, the constant setting and hauling in of sails and rigging to an unknown destination. The practice shows us the great and the terrible, of done properly, over a long period; just as life is itself all things. It is lack as much as it is fullness, disappointment as much as achievement, but with yoga done internally, on the plateau, we come to accept all contradictory aspects of life and in doing so, maybe, transmute them. Like the ancient practice of alchemy, yoga practiced with this kind of ‘impersonalness’ turns everything to gold, but if practiced for the self alone, will surely end up ruining your life.