Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Ashtanga is steeped in purity.

We're taking part in a tradition that is at once a social, cultural, mythic, and philosophic stew of ideas about pure and impure that has, what's more, now been lashed to a Western capitalist work ethic myth — "Get to the top through hard work."

The root texts that inform and shape our practice, the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and subsequent Hatha Yoga texts, are infused with the idea of moving between states of purity and impurity.

Consequently we're told that the practice of Ashtanga purifies the body and the mind.

Rather paradoxically and recursively, purity itself is also one of the means to that end — we practice becoming more pure in order to become more pure.

What's interesting and often rarely discussed is that the idea of pure and impure is one dependent on constant failure.

"Purity," such as it is, is continuously and forever encroached upon by impurity, whether it's thought, deed, or emotion, so much so that we then must practice this ritual act of purification (that is, whatever series) six days a week, for a long time (As Patanjali says, "Sa tu dirgha kala ... ").

What's compelling is that Shiva in ultimate samadhi (purification) is just as much a problem to us and the universe at large as when he's wild-eyed and destructive (impure).

To paraphrase Wendy Doniger in her book on Shiva, it's this friction that results from the movement between pure and impure — rather than the absolute banishment of one or the other state — that generates the heat of practice.

Where does that leave Ashtangis? As the cliche goes, "I can't x because I have to practice tomorrow."

The danger is that the choice to say no to typical recreational past-times can be deformed into self-mortification. It can become a refusal to participate in relationships, and even a refusal to take part in one's dharma.

(My favorite quote from Mysore, for example: "I don't want to have children until Guruji's given me third series.")

Also importantly, how do I know when I'm pure enough? What does purity look and feel like?

Can I update my Facebook profile from "Impure" to "Pure" accordingly?

When I'm pure, can I stop doing the various series? For example, for the last 30 years of his life Guruji didn't practice first through sixth series.

Purity is an aspect of this practice I certainly never took too seriously; in fact, I generally associate ideas of pure and impure with their use in the West — that is, to accompany genocide (racial, ethnic, and religious "purity," and the corollary that follows, "cleansing.")

As I've said before, I love comic books, and so I appreciate and savor the adolescent wish-fulfillment inherent in supernatural saviour figures (superheroes, gurus as parent-figures, and white-bearded sky-gods) and ultimate, transcendent states that are categorically other and different from our experience of reality now (that is, Avenger's Mansion or Heaven).

I don't think we can expect a final state of ultimate and perfect purification.

There is no ultimate freedom from the mind or thoughts, as though yoga practice is to climb up the wall from your thoughts and then kick away the ladder.

So what use, then, are models and systems of purification?

One model, for example, is the Ari Shadvarga or shad ripus, a Brahminical favorite that descends from the Atharva Veda.

(We could pick from your favorite list, such as the Seven Deadly Sins or the Near/Far Enemies to the Brahma Viharas.)

The Ari Shadvarga are commonly known as the Six Enemies or Six Poisons, and they are lust - kāma, anger - krodha, greed - lobha, delusion - moha, arrogance - mada, and jealously - mātsarya.

They're often considered "enemies," which creates a relationship of struggle — "We must defeat our subconscious enemies."

In this use, both "enemy" and "poison" must be entreated with — they aren't banished or erased so much as they're purified, detoxified, or transmuted.

It was through my Crossfit and training experience that I was first exposed to the idea of hormesis.

Hormesis is defined as "a theoretical phenomenon of dose-response relationships in which something that produces harmful biological effects at moderate to high doses may produce beneficial effects at low doses."

With regards to Crossfit and training in general, if you move very heavy weights very far, and very quickly, it can shock or deplete your system enough to kill you.

At the right doses, however, these weights, distances, and speeds elicit an adaptive response and make you stronger, faster and more durable.

So rather than an ultimate victory, transcendence, shedding, or leaving behind of these "enemies" or "poisonous" thoughts and emotions, the Ari Shadvarga serve to shock us, stimulate us, provoke us, and spur us. 

That is, they spark us into deeper and more expansive growth and evolution.

The Ari Shadvarga, our "impurities" and "poisons," can be painful.

Our practice of Yoga then helps enfold them into an adaptive process in an ever-deepening and ever-unfinished process, as they ask us again and again to rise to the challenge, to be better and greater.