I. A Necessary Stage
“In the early stage of relationship, without the creatively destructive dynamics of desire and longing, our protected sense of self cannot be destabilized or subverted from our old way of being; we cannot be chaotically reorganized to accommodate ourselves to anything fresh. A certain state of blinding ecstasy seems necessary for navigating the first crucial thresholds of a loved one’s recognition.”-David Whyte
Your courtship is new, full of butterflies and promises and escapist tendencies of early love. Maybe you are new to yoga and it's taken you off guard, as it did me when I first stepped onto the threshold of its disarming honesty. Or, maybe you've been practicing for years, but have never felt like this before, as if this were an entirely different beloved beckoning you to her side. You'd heard about Ashtanga Yoga, maybe even tried the guided classes. If you were being honest, it bored you. All that forward folding, the repetitive postures, the impossible transitions, the no music bit; its relentless forward momentum. But you'd plateaued in classes where out of necessity, the teacher teaches to the middle of the room, and you want progress. They tell you to start a Mysore practice, and there is something there, something you can't quite name, that draws you in. The room is quiet, you are half-asleep, and it feels as if everyone around you is floating on water. Though your bones feel heavy and your back aches, this is the quietest you've gotten in a long time.
Listen: before we go any further, I have to tell you something. This is not your story alone. This is mine and hers and his also. This is a common arc: from infatuation to disillusionment to deep, intimate commitment; as with most relationship arcs, it is also a cyclical one. So I hope you know enough to know that when I say you, what I really mean to say is me. Years of established practice do not necessarily make us immune to doubt, disillusionment, and heartbreak. Also, this is not one of those Ashtanga is the most superior of practices stories, rather, it is a testament to the transformative potential of Practice. Mine happens to be this one. So, drop your defenses and read on. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself here.
II. The Practice of No in An Upside Down World
'When we say non-attachment, the word you should hear is commitment. Because non-attachment means being fully engaged. One of the things we don't see in modernity is our avoidance of commitment on a cultural level, because we are free, and being free means we can choose what we are going to do with our time. Then what happens is when there is an opportunity to go deep into something, we just want to take out of it what we like, and then it doesn't challenge us at all to let go of some of our attachments. And that's why our world is upside down. To cultivate non-attachment requires commitment. '
In those other classes, you are free. They do not tell you to come everyday, they do not ask of you to memorize anything, and they do not single you out to repeat the most challenging postures. They do not tell you: No, not yet. In fact, you cannot remember a time where you have heard so many No's: no water, no stopping, no skipping of poses you don't like, no adding of poses you want. Though you are daunted by some of this, offended even, you feel special, different, chosen even, a little badass. You feel drawn to the discipline, and at the same time, you are not entirely sure that you are up for it, up for one more thing in your life that requires all of you. And who can blame you? Life is already full of small and large disappointments, and the last thing you want is for your yoga practice to become a heavy burden, another chore on the to do list, a project with no end in sight.
So, maybe it's the physical challenge that brings you to your edge daily and the adrenaline 'high' of the steady flow, or, perhaps it's that you catch a glimpse of your true self and you notice that there is an opportunity here. A rather unpleasant opportunity to look at your shit, and really see what you've been shoving under the rug all those years, or, maybe it's that taking deep breaths for an hour and half can bring you surprisingly closer to yourself than anything else you've ever tried. And as much as you know this, to make yourself practice at home never gets off the ground.
So you wake up before dawn, to the cold, dark house, and you make a ritual of your mornings before you wander weary-eyed into the Mysore room. Maybe all of this steadiness scares you, and you know enough by now to know that you need to move toward and not away. So you show up, morning after morning. The showing up is often the hardest part. But you are propelled from somewhere inside you, a small and resolute sound that whispers: Yes.
And maybe you make a pact, a promise to yourself: I will do this, I will commit to practice. And you may even be as bold as to make grand declarations to others about how you finally get it, that after all the attempts at running from yourself and trying this and that, you have found the practice that works for you. You may even, with the best of intentions, become an evangelical missionary of sorts. You are convinced, after all, that you have found the answer to all of your problems, and to others' as well. That if you just do this practice, something will come. You are not sure what yet, but you've been told: it's coming. And, so, you show up, though the mornings are getting cooler and the bed feels warmer, though you have to think twice before accepting dinner party invitations and offers of another glass of wine, though your partner grunts and ask you to stay in bed, you show up.
'This practice will un-integrate you. That is not the same as disintegration. As we go deeper into practice, it's not going to feel good. It doesn't matter what your practice is, if you treat it like a spiritual practice it's going to undo you. HOPEFULLY, it's going to undo you. And if you apprentice with someone, that relationship is going to undo you until the real you is there. So, good luck.'
Then it stops: the joy is gone, the hard work doesn't feel like is going anywhere, and the idea of one more showdown with your inner voices makes you want to run screaming from that quiet room.
The same room that had become your refuge.
The same room that was the answer.
The same room where you first heard yourself saying: I want this; saying: Yes.
When they said Do your practice and all is coming, you did not think this was what would come. This pain, this boredom, this relentless internal voice that repeats no, no, no, the voice that says: you cannot, says, who do you think you are? The voice that has been inside you all along, and you had gotten good at muffling with pills and the drink and the smoke, or, food and sex and drama. Work. Television. The adrenaline rush of pain, of over-crowded schedule books, of more, more, more. No matter. What to do now?
You take a day off to give your system a rest. You take another day off because, well, why not? You are free after all. The next day when you drag yourself to your mat, the first dive forward nearly knocks you off your feet into the puddle that your neighbor has left on the floor: that voice again!
So, instead of moving into this uncomfortable new situation and becoming intimate with this version of yourself, instead of practicing becoming intimate with the uncertainty of where you may be, you promptly move out of it. And boy, do you have fanciful tools to build your road out! You create a story that will convince yourself and everyone around you that you are listening to your body. It's not that the practice dislodged a piece of you that has you unsettled; it's that the teacher is too strict, the practice does nothing for your tight shoulders, and you really shouldn't be practicing so early in the morning anyway when you are so tight, it's downright dangerous! You forget about the voice, also yours, who asked for more of this, who said the Yes, and you choose instead this new, more appealing voice: find something else.
IV. Yoga as Intimacy
I am here to tell you what you already know: commitment is hard. Because what we are committing to, by its very nature, cannot be controlled by us. Yet we try. We change the rules half-way through the game, we pretend that we never wanted to commit to this anyway; we decide that the whole thing is utterly stupid and inane. Often we know that we want to commit to the practice, yet when it starts to work and challenge us in a way that requires looking at ourselves, we expertly sabotage the Yes-sayer. Anyone who has ever tried a diet or a new exercise regimen will tell you how easy it is to start 'cheating.' It may sound as if I am advocating a rigidity that will not allow for a deep listening or for choosing a different course. I assure you that is not the case. What I have found, both in my own practice and in my teaching practice, is that often when we say things like 'I am listening to my body' we are actually listening to the stories that our mind is very well-versed in creating. Stories that are not inherently false, but they are just that: stories. When we begin to identify with those stories, and we react to them, that's when commitment to practice tends to get derailed. When we take the 'difficult' practices out of our daily practice, and add in their place the easy, pleasurable ones, the ones we are 'good' at, then we are cheating ourselves out of the opportunity for growth.
So, maybe you wake up and your story is this: I am too sore to practice. You listen, and you identify with the story, and you react by not showing up on your mat. You give this story more importance than your resolve earlier in the week to show up for your practice no matter what. You make excuses. You say you are listening to your body, that this is practicing yoga, non-harming, ahimsa. You forget that the practice is about showing up, not about performing. And showing up, can and will undo you at times. Showing up when you are not at your best, will allow you to practice letting go of your attachment to the practice being any one thing, your attachment to the practice feeling a certain way, your attachment to feeling good. Showing up will poke holes in your assumptions about the practice: it is perfect; it is aggressive; it will save me; it is rigid; it is boring. If you show up, you will have to see that those assumptions were really about yourself all along anyway. That the practice in and of itself is nothing; it's you who can either be aggressive and rigid, or, tamasic and lazy. It is also you who has the power to say Yes over and over and therefore, the power to transform yourself: Yes to the challenge, Yes to trying again and in a different way, Yes to backing off when wise, Yes to diving toward your core. Yes to showing up, Yes to commitment.
Yes to deep seeing.
Yes to intimacy.
So if you practice when you are not in your optimal and ideal physical state, you will have to actually practice deep listening, so in this way not only you become intimate with the impermanence of physical ease, you also get an opportunity to practice ahimsa in action. You get the opportunity to see through the games that the mind will play in order to derail your practice. You will get to experience that your mind and body are not separate entities; that embodiment is full of its own ecstatic pleasures and harrowing pains, and that they are really two sides of the same coin.
You will get to see that the idea that each practice needs to be pleasant and easy and perfect is as unrealistic as expecting important relationships in your life to be easy and uncomplicated. If it's worth your time, it's going to undo you, until the real you is exposed: all of your fears about yourself, all of your weaknesses and strengths also, all of your mental patterns. The whole of you, integrated. This is vulnerability. This is intimacy. This is Yoga.