Art and Science

By on Dec 9, 2014 in The Unruly Ascetic

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I found myself in a coffee shop this morning (as I do many mornings) talking to some kids about Yoga. I don’t mean children. I mean kids, young minds and bodies who are fresh to the practice of Yoga in general. Just the interested, motivated types to have recently completed Vinyasa teacher trainings. I like people and chatting in general, so I frequently find myself getting into a particular discussion. It inevitably follows with well intentioned Ashtanga curious Vinyasa kids: the push-pull of Ashtanga verses Vinyasa in the minds of new teachers who want to study and share and invest in their experience of practice.

Cutie hipster Yogi likened teaching Vinyasa to teaching Jazz.  A musician might teach Jazz, but when he practices he works with Classical music, for the foundation. For him, practicing Ashtanga works like scales that he can create Vinyasa music from. Pretty ponytail yogi teased me about my attempt to thwart an obvious eye roll.

But I really do try not to be an arrogant jerk (and these kids were looking for an informed opinion), so I thought about it and reminded them that music is art. From the perspective of the Ashtanga yoga method, practice is science.  One does not shuffle science around and create more science, not without long years of study and contemplation. But (I went on, in a continued attempt to not be discouraging or the typical ashtanga nut)… one can shuffle science around and create art. and art can do wonderful things to heal and uplift and teach. Certainly no one is going to tell an artist they should give up art and start studying science.

So that lead to the rapid fire processing of an idea that I thought was worth something, but hadn’t verbally tested out on my ever patient Ashtanga sounding board (boyfriend)… meaning, I had to think fast to not be a jerk, since snark and sarcasm are my go to responses when people think they’re “improving” on the Ashtanga Yoga method.

I am not an artist.  Art is amazing and inspiring to me in a way that I can hardly express.  But that’s not how my brain works.  My brain is methodical; it likes tangible connections and trial and error methodology. I couldn’t teach through art because I don’t learn through art. I study a method where I can count on those who have studied and research and tested to know the reality of things.  I am encouraged to find out for myself what has already been learned because it can not be communicated in words or pictures, but only through direct experience and very personal study.

The Ashtanga practices teaches via the investigation of all the pieces and how they work together to form a cohesive whole.  No one posture will teach you any specific lesson.  The information is stored in the relationship between the postures, between student and teacher, and the body and mind’s reactions to it all. The work becomes powerful because of the surrender to the repetition of the whole, and the opportunity for observation of the microcosm of the posture within the macrocosm of the system.

Vinyasa seems to me to be a stringing together of microcosm experiences.  Single moments of change and experience, each asana (at best each class) its own little world of information.  The scientific investigation that my mind sought from Yoga practice seemed impossible in a Vinyasa class.  To look at a posture or movement and try to investigate the lessons it has to teach when approached differently each day (or some days not at all) would take a level of awareness and presence of mind that I was not capable of.

It was too hard.

For many, I think, Vinyasa is more an expression of art than of science. The sheer emotion of the experience, the energetic responses of the body and mind is enough to inspire personal growth and there is no need to break down or categorize these responses. Maybe I’m not that smart or maybe I’m too methodical. Either way, it didn’t work. It left me feeling overwhelmed and confused when it leaves others feeling inspired and uplifted.

I know I risk unpopularity with this, but my practice is not about having fun and being uplifted.  It’s about doing the hard work necessary to overcome the intangible suffering that we all live with; not to distract myself from it, but to truly understand how I create and reinforce (and eventually overcome) it. So, I will give cutie hipster and pretty ponytail the benefit of the doubt that they are getting more out of a Vinyasa practice than I could, but in the meantime I’m going to struggle through the same old practice again to tomorrow and see if it teaches me anything new.