The Art of the Answer-Sutra (+ commentary), part 2

How do you know when your body is anatomically not built for a certain pose (and when to accept this)?Here’s another from my Instagram Stories Q&A, plus a bit more exposition:

Q: How do you know when you’re (sic) body is anatomically not built for a certain pose (and when to accept this)?
A: This is a key question that involves a deep practice of swadhyaya (self-inquiry), and it never has any final solution, because as our body ages, the answers will constantly change.

My expanded commentary: Some questions cut right to the heart of yoga, and this is one of them. The second chapter (Sadhana Pada) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra offers a brilliant, succinct three-part definition of yoga practice (Kriya Yoga). Two of those parts (tapas and isvara pranidhana) are referenced in this question and the third (swadhyaya) is in my answer.

The practice of poses (asana) can be seen as a kind of tapas. Although the term tapas is usually translated as “austerity,” a more useful view derives from its primary meaning of “warmth” or “heat.” My teacher T.K.V. Desikachar described the heat of tapas as a fire which removes impurities. Asana practice accomplishes this by working our physical body and breath against the grain of our embedded habits (samskaras). The assumption behind this idea is that we are working with something that actually is changeable – like how we breathe or hold tension in certain muscles – and this is how our bodies adapt to the practice. By contrast, we sometimes discover that some poses are made difficult (if not impossible) by some aspect of our body that is not going to change – like the proportional relationship of our arm-to-torso length, or the orientation of our hip joints – and this is when we must adapt the practice to our bodies.

Through practice and self-reflection (swadhyaya) we can discover some things about ourselves that are not subject to change – that’s when acceptance of that reality needs to become our focus. This is isvara pranidhana, a surrender to that which is not changeable or within our control.  Or, as Desikachar put it: “…in the final analysis, we are not the masters of everything we do.” (from Heart of Yoga)

To re-state what I said in my original answer, everything about our embodied existence is subject to some kind of change, so we must always maintain a self-reflective attitude that allows us to constantly re-evaluate what we are working to change, and what we need to stop trying to change.  Surrender is itself an act of will.

Another well-known formulation of this principle is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer which seeks to find “the strength to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Stay tuned for more Q&A sutras with commentary, and if you have yoga anatomy questions please ask them on Instagram, or email me.

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I was asked “What is your favorite quote?”

You know those Facebook quizzes…the ones that ask a bunch of questions and then deliver what is supposed to be some insightful truth about you, which you’re then supposed to post for all the world to see? I hate those. If you invite me to take one (or to play Candy Crush) I will unfriend you.

That’s why I was surprised at how deeply I responded to a series of philosophical questions posed by the folks at Triyoga in London, where I’ll be teaching at the end of June. As it happens, the key question they asked me was “What is your favourite quote?” I instantly knew the answer.

Even before I was attracted to yoga in my late teens, I had been very curious about fundamental world views. My readings at the time tended toward the mystical as well as the philosophical. As part of my yoga training with the Sivananda organization, I got a big dose of Vedanta and Yoga philosophy, which I continued to study for many years.  In spite of the fact that I ended up teaching the basic tenets of Yoga/Vedanta, I developed deep misgivings about what I saw as the disembodied nature of the teachings. Years later, I stumbled on a quote in the book Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand:

Humans are beings of self-made soul.

That one devastating statement shattered any remnants of the mystical thinking I had inherited from my days at the ashram. It awakened me to the fact that the fundamental essence of my being is my own creation, and it belongs to me, and no one else. In other words, my soul is not on temporary loan from god or some great undifferentiated cloud of consciousness. Through the accumulation of the countless free-will choices I’ve made ever since I’ve existed, I have created the kind of person I have become.

I came to realize that mystical teachings get it backwards when they insist that existence emerges from consciousness. Rather, consciousness can only exist as an emergent attribute of a physical entity. This is a fundamental point of divergence between my view and that of most other yoga teachers. The issue has been called the primacy of existence vs. the primacy of consciousness. The primacy of consciousness view allows for the separability of body and soul. My yoga is grounded in the indivisibility of body and soul – the primacy of existence.

The dualistic roots of yoga philosophy can easily reinforce disembodied thinking by reducing a person to two fundamentally incompatible elements: Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (physical nature). This is reminiscent of another Ayn Rand quote from her book Atlas Shrugged when she wrote that proponents of the soul-body dichotomy “…have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost.” Similarly, Samkhya (the darshanic partner of Yoga) famously describes a human as a lame man who can see (Purusha) being carried around by a blind man who can walk (Prakriti). By asserting the indivisibility of body and soul, I reject both models.  Humans are not the ghost of a consciousness somehow being carried around by a dead lump of matter.

I’m grateful that the questions sent me by Triyoga for their blog post created an opportunity to consider these and other issues. I’ll be offering a special 90 minute donation-based program while in London: Free Will and The Nature of the Soul: A Philosophical Inquiry with Leslie Kaminoff with all profits going to a favorite charity of mine, The Africa Yoga Project. This will be on Facebook Live too, so we hope to see you there!

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