A few days ago, while a student was coming up from backbends, I noticed that she was breathless and grimacing. I asked her what was up. She said that her previous Ashtanga teacher encouraged her to move through the series of movements quickly. She described how the rapid movement agitated her. Dropping into a backbend and coming back to standing is traditionally taught: exhale go down, inhale come up, and the movement is repeated three times with no pauses in between. As a teacher of this tradition, I was immediately stuck with a quandary. Do I ask her to keep the traditional vinyasa count, thus, honoring the tradition but compromising her well-being, or do I offer her an alternative route? This is a classic situation that comes up in practice, both as a student of the tradition and as a teacher. Do I uphold the tradition or honor the well-being of my student? I think it’s obvious that my students’ well-being has to come first over the tradition, but in honoring the tradition, it can become a very slippery slope between letting go completely and gripping with a quality of rigidity. In many ways, as a teacher and practitioner in and from The West, the dance of honoring tradition and the individual, at the same time, can be a challenging one. How do we not lose the essence of the tradition and, at the same time, fit the practice to the individual?
'Correct Method' / 'Incorrect Method'
I, personally, have struggled with this question for quite some time, probably since the first day I showed up in Mysore in 1993 and discovered that in order to bind my legs in a lotus posture (padmasasna), I had to dislocate the meniscus. Each time I believe I have struck the perfect balance, I find that I have either become too rigid in a particular situation or way too ‘wishy-washy.’ Admittedly, I err on the side of ‘wishy-washy.’ Something about my personal makeup hates imposing right and wrong on my students. And so much of following the tradition is about right and wrong. There’s a right way to do the sequence and there’s a wrong way. Throughout the years of being a student of Pattabhi Jois’, I heard the words “correct method” and “incorrect method.”
Yoga That Transcends Duality
And somehow, in my mind, a good and powerful system of yoga should and must transcend all duality. Yoga is, after all, about the union of those opposing forces, masculine and feminine, right and wrong, evil and righteous. In the language of The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we’re balancing and harmonizing the solar and lunar energies within the left and right tubes or nadis of the subtle body that feed the energy vortexes, called chakras, in order to evoke or stimulate the sushumna, the central channel within the subtle body of the spinal column. This is an energetic code for the experience of the transcendental experience that occurs when masculine and feminine, right and wrong, good and bad have been harmonized. It’s a way of saying that a deeper, wider, and more profound reality exists beyond the bounds of duality. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that posture should be “steady and comfortable.” (2:46) “It results with relaxation of effort and the meeting with the infinite.”
Fighting through a posture just because the tradition demands us to do it in a particular way takes us further and further away from the essence of yoga. And I think that this is where, as teachers and practitioners of any system that comes from a different culture--whether it is yoga or Zen— we need to maintain a critical eye. It doesn’t behoove us or our students to fall into the trap of saying, “because that’s just the way it is.” It’s simply the way it is as determined by the elite within the system that we’re in, whether it is the charismatic teacher or the agreement of the masses within the system.
Drawing the Line: Tradition vs. Individual Needs
But here’s where the dance gets interesting. Where do we draw the line between honoring the system our teacher shares with us and yet remain flexible enough to honor our individuality? I remember having this same conversation with an Orthodox Jew over a meal many years ago. I asked her why she followed all 613 commandments with such stringency. Her deadpan response was: “What am I going to do, follow 400 and then drop the other 213? That’s a slippery slope. Who am I decide? That’s in Ha Shem’s [trans. The Name, which is code for God] hands.” If we were to follow the Ashtanga tradition with the same stringency, then men could only have sex during the nighttime. Not only that, if “the breath is felt to be moving through the surya nadi [the right nostril], then that is to be regarded as the daytime, and during that period, copulation and the like are not to occur.” (p. 10, Yoga Mala, P. Jois)
Yoga Practice As a Metaphor
The problem, as I see it, is that we’re facing the issue of a literal reading, as opposed to a metaphorical reading of “the practice.” Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, says that myth and the ritual that accompanies it: “ denotes something transcendent…so that you always feel accord with the universal being.” Myth uses metaphor to denote one kind of object or idea but used in place of another to suggest a likeness. When we fall into the trap of reading myth or ritual and its accompanying symbols literally, we miss the deeper, wider, and higher spiritual implications that they have the potential to put us in touch with. All ritual--including the practice of Ashtanga Yoga with its precise vinyasas, victorious breathing (ujayi), internal locks (bandhas), and gazing points (dristis)—are pointing to an inner experience, to fields of consciousness that reflect our inner most being. However, in the practice of Ashtanga, we often mistake the literal for the metaphorical; the form for the formless; the act for the way of being that that act is pointing to.
When I reflect on almost twenty years of practice, it seems to me that there have been periods of time when I’ve gotten stuck in the literal. I have, at times, been lured by the trajectory of progressing from the primary series, to intermediate, and then, eventually to the advanced series. Early on as a neophyte practitioner, I’d even hoped that as I advanced along the series, somehow life would take on a new shine, that samadhi was right around the corner. But this approach led to nothing more than physical feats that contortionists from Cirque du Soleil do much better than I ever could.
The Trap of Focusing on 'Correct Method' and 'Incorrect Method'
Really, what I discovered was that “correct method” and “incorrect method” really missed the point and only calcified and petrified aspects of my psyche that needed the light of consciousness. After all, as a young man of nineteen years old, I came to the practice with the hopes of being more connected to something greater, to overcome feelings of smallness, fear, and grief. But as I progressed along the path laid out for me, instead of becoming more spacious, more connected, my orientation became focused on doing it “correctly.” I got stuck in a myopic vision of the path of yoga being about attainment of some image of perfection. In essence, my practice became another place where I had to struggle.
Oh, and what a mistake that was because it lead me away from the essence of the practice. I mistook the tools at my disposal--like the postures (asanas) or the internal locks (bandhas)--as the path. In other words, instead of using these points of focus as metaphors that pointed to more profound states of consciousness, I read them literally and used them to be “good,” so that my teachers and the community of yogis would recognize and like me. In addition, my practice, at times, became purely physical.
What Mula Bandha Can Show Us
If, for example, I performed the root lock (mula bandha) throughout the practice, I told myself that I would be able to jump back and jump through with greater ease. Indeed, the engagement of the core muscles does increase strength and agility. But that literal reading kept that act of yoga simply a bodily feat. Mula bandha, can also be read metaphorically. Its magic isn’t just in the physical mastery of it. Its magic also lies in where it points consciousness. Given that it is at the base of the body, it points us in the direction of the earth, the part of us that is earth element. Engaging mula bandha might remind the yogi to be connected to the earth no matter how contorted life becomes. In addition, mula bandha might encourage us that while consciousness has a propensity to disconnect, that the path of the yogi is to stay in form, to use the body as a tool to experience both inner and outer fields of consciousness. Mula bandha itself might be a meditation into the root of our being, who we are at the most base level: the part of us that is simply a tube eating, digesting, and defecating.
The essence of what I am saying is that as teachers and practitioners of this method, when we get too literal with the practice, we miss the deeper inquiry that the practice offers us. If it becomes about progressing along the series, doing it “correctly”, only doing it the way it’s done in Mysore, etc. then the depth and breadth that is the promise of yoga might never be tasted or known. Honestly, having been down that road, I can say with certainty, there is no pot of gold at the end of the primary, intermediate or advanced series, nor is there any great boon from doing it “correctly” or even “traditionally.”
Why Do You Practice?
I like what Cambell says about what we’re after in life. “People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” (Campbell, J, The Power of Myth, 1998, episode 2, chapter 4, PBS television series, Mystic Fire Video) Some may dispute this, but I, personally, sense that the essence of practice is to access this aliveness. Nobody and no system has a better clue about how to do that than we, personally. It helps to try out lots of different tools and stick to the systems and teachers that offer them, but in the end, each of us has to become the final arbiter. We have to have the courage to ask ourselves, does this resonate? Is it bringing me closer to truth? Is it deepening my consciousness? And if the answer is, “no,” and it doesn’t jibe with the tradition or the teacher, we have to be courageous enough to stand on our own and to continue to seek and discover an access points that do.