Progress, and thinking about bowel movements (and naps, and oil baths, and diets …)

In Mysore, it seems like your whole life revolves around your body. Its needs dictate your schedule, and resting it and feeding it and lubricating it properly fill the day so effectively that, by the time comes for you to put your body to bed, you are exhausted. The asana is physical, of course, but that is done quietly so it is a different thing. What comes after the asana, though, are pains and hunger and fever and what Sharath called “asana diarrhoea”. (It’s cleansing, he reassured us). Ministering to these needs, and discussing how to best minister to those needs, is what we do when we are meant to be practicing the other seven limbs of ashtanga yoga.

Of course, talking about these things doesn’t seem to bring us any closer to any sort of solution. Despite the talking, people are still seeking out panchakarma, ayurvedic consultations, massage. They are still eliminating dairy or wheat or cold foods or cooked foods from their already superclean diets. They have not figured out a way to surpass the pain, the fatigue, the hunger and transcend the bodies that they spend so much time caring for.

Ashtanga practitioners in their real lives talk about their bodies a lot, but those who come to Mysore find a whole community of people with the exact same concerns about keeping joints lubricated with fat, observing ahimsa with vegetarianism/veganism/pescetarianism/ethical meet consumption, and satisfying the overwhelming hunger that follows a two hour practice that leaves your clothes soaked with sweat. All of a sudden, they don’t have to worry that their particular concerns are bizarre or that telling the truth about what the yoga is doing to your body will make friends and family worry that your spiritual journey is starting to look more like self-destruction than introspection. So it isn’t surprising we spend a lot of time talking about our bodies.

A friend who is particularly devout about her practice asked me this week if it had ever occurred to me that there would be an end to the asana practice. Would we ever advance, spiritually, to the point where we don’t need it anymore? I told her it hadn’t occurred to me, that it wasn’t something I was thinking of for the future. But the question followed me, I kept revisiting it, thinking about what it would look like to move beyond the practice. I found I couldn’t visualise that point, couldn’t visualise this particular commitment working without the body bit. I am certain some people move on from asana practice, find that they are no longer served by the daily routine of exertion and sweat and coconut water rehydration. I am also certain others get tired of it, find that their body can no longer sustain it, or find other commitments that demand enough of them to make daily asana practice an unsustainable drain on their energy. There are loads of reasons to give up asana. We can call them all progress, really – none of us is moving backward in time, we’re all moving toward more information if not more consciousness.

Personally, though, I think there is something spiritual in the physicality of asana. The fact of choosing a road to a higher quality existence that goes through your diet, sleep, and body motion seems like a really excellent cosmic framing. Making mula bandha the root of the whole thing is the elegant final touch. If you want to do this life properly, your first step is eating in a way that doesn’t resemble farm animals at a trough, sleeping on a predictable schedule, and spending a couple of hours every morning making sure all the bits of your body are moving together in working order. Once you have that down, you graduate to being compassionate, telling the truth, not being greedy, exercising restraint, and quitting constantly comparing what you have to what you wish you had. Keep your mind and your body clean, be happy, learn some discipline, gain some knowledge through your own efforts, and think about what is divine in the world. Plenty to work on there for the moment, and if you start to think you’re beyond it, see what you are like when you have to speak to a customer service representative.

I had an exchange with PayPal this week that reminded me just how academic the question of moving beyond asana is for me at this point, so I think that for now I will try to forgive myself and everyone else for failing to be enlightened and being just a human being who cares about things like eating and sleeping.

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