Friday, September 19, 2008

Off the mat -- Why Practice Yoga

A yoga teacher recently began a class I attended by saying that he’d run across an idea in his vocational rehabilitation study that he strongly disagreed with. He read:

Unless we die suddenly, we are all disabled eventually. Most of us will live part of our lives with bodies that hurt, that move with difficulty or not at all, that deprive us of activities we once took for granted or that others take for granted, bodies that make daily life a physical struggle.

--Wendell, S., “Toward a feminist theory of disability,” Hypatia, 4, p. 104 (1989)

“That may be true of people outside of this studio, but it’s sure not true of people who practice yoga.”

He said this to a room of 30-35 people, most of them in their twenties. I wondered for a few moments whether he noticed the age distribution of his class. And, if he did, I wondered how he would have accounted for the fact that there were few people in their thirties, and only one or two of us in our forties there.

The teacher was, I’d guess and as you might well have imagined, in his mid-twenties.

* * *

Aversion, attachment, delusion.

The Buddha taught that these three actions of our minds create and perpetuate suffering. The Buddha’s excellence lay not in finding a remedy for a life-scarred, pain-ridden, capacity-constrained body, but in finding freedom inside such a body.

Is a right hip joint with limited rotation a cause of suffering?

Is not being able to fly?

Yoga is a blessing. Within the context of a declining physical capacity, within the context of a limited range of flexibility, of a diminishing amount of strength, of a decreasing stamina for endurance, yoga allows us to blossom. In degrees, it does reduce pain, increase strength, advance flexibility, improve endurance. But if that is all there is to the practice of yoga, it is a band-aid on a heart attack.

Despite faithful practice, bodies age and die. Krishnmacharya died. Paramahansa Yogananda died. Vivekananda died. Gandhi died. Their yoga, as profound and committed as it was, did not save them from aging, decrepitude and death.

* * *

Asana, which we translate into the word “pose,” in the Yoga Sutra actually means “seat.” Patanjali did not seem to intend asana practice to be much more than the physical preparation needed to enable the yogi to sit quietly in meditation. That’s not to say that we should only practice asana for the purpose of enabling us to sit quietly. Much has been discovered and developed about the practice of yoga since Patanjali’s times. But it does stand as a reminder that yoga is about much more than a perfect body or a pain-free life. Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that my meditation practice seems to bleed off the meditation cushion (actually, I use a block) and into every part of my life. As that has happened, I’ve come to appreciate Patanjali’s formulation of asana practice more. Asana practice is precisely to prepare us for our meditation practice – which practice is all of life.

The very definition of an asana practice is moving and stilling a body in a context of space and gravity. That physical embodiment is entirely defined by limitations. What is Warrior 3 pose other than an expression in and through the limitations of a particular body’s strength, flexibility, and endurance? Absent the limits, the pose isn’t a pose. Utkatasana, like lots of other yoga poses, quickly saps us of strength, of endurance. Though we often get entranced by discovering a deeper reserve of strength, of prana, a deep enough pose will never last more than a few minutes.

When I was a runner, I loved increasing the distance that I’d run. It was always a bit of a balancing act, because my mind could outrun my body, and I often found myself injured to one degree or another. One day as a part of a physical check-up, I was put on a treadmill for a heart check. The nurse wired me up, and started me running at an easy pace – well within the tolerances of my running practice. Trying to be helpful, but tinged with obvious pride, I told her that to get me to the point of exhaustion at that speed would take at least a couple of hours. She looked up from her equipment and smiled slightly, saying that this would take no more than fifteen minutes. I mentally shrugged to myself and proceeded into my mind thinking that I’d prove her wrong. After a couple of minutes at that level of exertion, she didn’t increase the speed any, but she increased the angle of the treadmill by a few degrees. A couple of minutes later, she did the same again. And a couple of minutes after that, I couldn’t run any longer.

I’d been living so comfortably within the confines of my own capabilities that it had never occurred to me to that I’d identified those conditions with the entire potential of existence. Nor did I have any idea of how short a distance there was between my relative ease and comfort and completely impossible physical experience.

Asana practice puts us into situations at the edges of our capabilities. Doing that has the fortunate side effect of expanding those capabilities to a small degree, but really not much in the over all scheme of things. But that’s ok because it’s just the side-effect. The principal effect of putting ourselves into situations at the edges of our capabilities is to train the mind, to allow us to experience pain and to discover how our minds respond to pain. To allow us to experience fear and to discover how our minds respond to fear. To allow us to experience frustration and to discover how our minds respond to frustration. To allow us to experience joy and to discover how our minds respond to joy. And as we become aware of each of those experiences, we strengthen the basic practice of awareness itself.

And awareness itself prepares us for meditation.

Bless the young yoga teacher’s heart, he meant well when he promised us that our bodies would not experience pain, would not decrease in flexibility, would not lessen in strength, in endurance. He was obviously wrong, of course, but given the age composition of the class he was guiding, he wasn’t alone in his thinking. Where were all the forty and fifty and sixty and seventy-year-olds? Their bodies, I’m dead certain, knew much of pain and stiffness and weakness and misalignment. Perhaps they, too, thought that if yoga didn’t confer on them strength and flexibility and stamina and energy, they’d failed. Or perhaps yoga had failed them.

Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t yoga that failed them, but the unwise teaching that yoga, done right, was a panacea for ageing that failed them.

But eternal youth is not the promise of yoga. The promise of yoga is wisdom, and an end to suffering. Not an end to pain.

From a dharma talk by Pema Chodron:

The first thing the Buddha ever taught was there is suffering. It’s part of the human experience. It isn’t bad. No matter what you do, no matter how much money you spend, no matter how much physical exercise you get, no matter how many face lifts, or beautiful clothes, or the right diet, or whatever, you still have old age and death. And probably a lot of other things as well.

And so this whole attitude of the whole catastrophe living, you know, of actually opening your heart, softening around the whole thing, this is what I’m getting at here. … It’s all about learning to let go, loosen up, relax. And it’s never too late. I want to say that again and again. No matter how far you are into clutching and grasping and yelling and screaming and stamping your feet and throwing things, it’s never too late. You can never lose it. Because now is the moment. You just catch yourself right now.
-- The Pema Chodron Audio Collection, part 1.