Monday, August 23, 2004

I have a pet theory about ashtanga yoga. I’m not sure if it holds water, but I’ll lay it out anyway: the older the ashtangi and the longer they’ve been practicing, the less dogmatic they tend to be.

People begin the practice, perhaps casually, and then they have an epiphany. They begin to practice in earnest. After a few years they develop relative competency in the first two series. It’s at this point they come to believe that there’s only one way to practice ashtanga, and that way is to be followed faithfully, perhaps unquestioningly. Deviation from the series, and from any of the myriad “rules” and tradition that surround it, is not tolerated or even understood. As you would expect, self-righteousness comes hand-in-hand with this transformation of tradition into dogma.

Perhaps this phase in unavoidable, and even necessary. Perhaps one has to cling to the structure and rules before letting go.

I haven’t done any empirical research on my theory. Maybe it’s more wishful thinking than anything else. But any of the “senior” teachers I’ve met, the people who’ve been practicing upwards of 20 or 25 years, seem to have a light touch and a sense of playfulness when it comes to the practice, as though the practice of ashtanga is the punchline to a profound cosmic joke.

People bring a lot of baggage to Gokulam, not just self-righteousness. Most of it is tucked away in their heads. They have expectations about the practice and about Guruji and Sharath. “Why does Guruji always help me with backbends? Why not Sharath?” Or, “Why has Sharath given pasasana to Frankie Forwardbend and not to me? I’m grabbing my ankles in backbends!” Or, “Why has Sharath left me on shalabasana for two months?”

In the middle of my third month here, on a Sunday morning, something shifted for me. Sharath was counting, the room was crammed, all I was aware of the two guys on either side of me was their ragged, tortured breathing. A simple thought floated up from my subconscious, overwhelming in its simplicity and in the strength of its truth: You show up, you do the practice, and you don’t think about it. Leave the thought-baggage at home.

I agree: it seems so innocuous and incidental when written down. How to describe the visceral sense with which this realization permeated me, from skin to marrow?

This thought was followed by a second, some minutes later. I realized I could now leave Mysore.