Thursday, January 26, 2006

Striving and being


One of the puzzles of yoga for me is the tension between seeking new experience and letting go of ego and ambition.

When I first began practicing yoga, everything was new. I did everything “wrong,” and I learned enormous amounts about life. Today, I’m reasonably competent at the things that used to give me great difficulty. I don’t tip over too much in vrkasana, and when I do, it feels much like tipping over has usually felt over the past several years. I suppose I’ve gotten used to tipping over, so that even that doesn’t easily draw me out of my abstracting rut.

It’s the escape from the rut that I valued so much from my beginning practice.

Don’t get me wrong – my life is significantly better for the benefits of the years of yoga practice. I feel equanimity even while reformulating my religious life. I no longer need daily meds to see me through til evening. My back problems are managed. My weight is under control.

All of those are good things – really, really good things.

Shunryu Suzuki taught that it is the beginner’s mind that we should seek. He said, in essence, “In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities. In the expert’s, few.”

Yoga does offer a way to respond to the dilemma of mastery – if I get sufficiently flexible, strong, and accustomed to a posture, there is always another posture, a further complication, an elaboration to make it more difficult. So if I no longer tip over in Tree pose, I do it with my eyes closed. If I don’t tip over with my eyes closed, I can do it on my toes. If I don’t tip over that way, I can extend it into a backbend.

There’s always something to keep my mind from settling.


Aspiration takes me away from present experience. Perhaps there is someone who is better at managing that dilemma than I am, but for me, ambition is a significant complication and distraction. Yet I can’t figure out how or why to practice yoga without caring about whether and how I practice yoga.


One of the elements of my yoga practice is this: from the very earliest exposure I had to yoga, I learned of Lotus pose and Handstand. To my untrained mind, those two poses seemed the very essence of yoga. As I learned a little more, I transformed my view of them from the essence of yoga to something only slightly more moderate – like Everest pointing to heaven.

From the outset, Handstand required things mental and physical that I couldn’t figure out, so I set it aside. Lotus seemed more attainable.

I started with the mostly unthreatening Half lotus. I’d work it into various practices. Instead of sitting in Thunderbolt, kneeling and seated on my heels, I’d sit cross-legged, one ankle atop the other knee. To get there, I’d have to rest my weight on one of the sitz bones, letting the other lift off the floor. That skewed my pelvis a bit, but stretched the various muscles in my butt on the side of my top leg. The pose never felt remotely sound, always contrived. After a long practice in a hot room, sometimes I could get my other leg into Lotus for a few moments, but it hurt to do so. I had to contort my spine simply to get into the position, and even more to hold it for very long. I figured I just hadn’t stretched the muscles, ligaments and tendons enough, so I began sitting in Half lotus for extended periods while in my office chair at work. That promptly led to knee pain that persisted for weeks even after I stopped.

I found and attended for six months or so a studio with a teacher and group that practiced a very sedate style of yoga – mostly floor poses, combined with a few standing poses. My knees healed and forgave me my ill-guided excesses. I learned a few mantras that have become part of my own internal Ipod. I came to appreciate the gentle insight and mind explorations of that group.

But the power and energy of yoga seemed absent. I gained weight. And while I needed the spiritual life that that practice provided, I needed more than it was providing.

At home, I tried Handstand against a wall. The first dozen times or so, I couldn’t get vertical, even against a wall. Either I didn’t have the strength to kick my legs up high enough, or I couldn’t get my mind to let my body move into a posture that felt so unsafe. Whatever. But I kept at it. A few weeks later, I managed to kick up and rest my feet on the wall, only to discover that my arms, shoulders, and torso immediately began to quiver wildly. I wasn’t strong enough.


The yoga studio where I’d practiced sedately closed, and the teacher relocated to a new place, modifying the style of yoga and the class schedule. I was uninspired by the new changes and thought perhaps it was a good time to explore a bit. I found a nearby studio I’d seen, but where I’d not practiced previously. The studio taught a variety of vinyasa yoga it called “core power” yoga. After the usual process of skeptical (i.e., self-defensive) checking out, testing, etc., I began to practice there two or three times a week. At first, that level of practice was painful. My arms and legs quivered. My abdominal muscles ached on rest days. My neck cramped. But I was getting stronger. And the pain was muscle pain, not joint pain.

And the practice routine included not just a particular inversion, but a few minutes in each period to work on whatever inversion we wanted. They started us in Crow. After a few weeks of tumbling out of Crow, I found I could hold it for several consecutive breaths. When I could manage that without gasping, I re-added Headstand. I’d figured out the balance for getting into Headstand some years ago, and it was nice to supplement the inversion and counter the muscle strain of Crow with the ease of Headstand. After three or four episodes like that, I decided to re-try Handstand. So when we reached the Inversion-Of-Your-Choice, I headed to a nearby wall, placed my hands on the floor about 18” from the wall, and kicked my legs up and over, against the wall. The weeks of Down Dogs showed their effect. With a toddler’s balance against a solid object, I pushed up with my arms and shoulders and breathed.

In the weeks following, the experience was largely the same – I could kick into the inversion and hold it for five to fifteen breaths, all the while teetering between balance and keeping a toe against the wall. To evaluate a new teacher a friend had recommended, I attended a more advanced class than I was accustomed to. To my surprise, shortly after a few warming postures, the teacher called for Handstand. I was in the center of the crowded room. After a few tentative kicks, I decided to give it a real try. I kicked up, but with no wall, I continued over, tumbling into the friend who had recommended the class and teacher to me. After apologies, I settled into Child’s pose, kind of excited that I’d even tried Handstand in the first place.

Then, a couple of weeks later and during a more typical practice, the teacher called for inversions. I headed for a nearby wall, kicked up, got my balance with a toe against the wall, and then, my arms and legs tipping, my torso wobbling a little, I found my feet freed from the wall, balancing over my hips, my hips balancing over my shoulders, my shoulders balancing over my hands. I breathed and tipped back to the wall, breathed again, and tipped back to upright. The moment is etched into my mind when my toe left the wall and the inverted column of my body accepted simultaneously both the responsibility for bearing weight and for maintaining the balance.

That peculiar combination of ambition, attainment, imminent collapse, and the energy running from the earth to the sky to the earth is, for me, yoga.


I read recently that the importance of advancing yoga postures is to stay on the edge. The unity within a group of practitioners with different flexibility, different strength, different balance is that no matter what the characteristics of a body, it can be moved to and along its edge. At the edge is the potential for failure. At the edge is the potential for discovery. At the edge is the potential for growth.

However, the self-adulation associated with being able to do something like Handstand after years of wanting seems quite poisonous to what makes yoga valuable to me.


How do I stay on the edge without depending on ambition. How do I stretch and exert without turning to ego?

Is there a mirror before which I can practice that will show me exactly what I'm doing without showing me what I am?

Or is the question better framed "who is looking in the mirror and why?"