Smooth Sailing

By on Jun 23, 2015 in The Unruly Ascetic

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One of my all time favorite analogies comes from Sharath (surprise, surprise).  He says that Yoga is like the ocean (off to a good start, who doesn’t like the ocean?).  If we sail on the ocean and experience it from above, meaning intellectual study that does not include a true practice, we can only see a few feet below the surface. We can only make inferences about what happens below.  We can not know how the ocean feels, or tastes, or looks in all its glory from the deck of a ship. The only real way to know the ocean is to jump in.

I love this analogy.  It’s poetic and beautiful. I’ll come back to it later.

I was having a discussion with a student the other day (holla Ted!) about how I struggle with finding balance of effort in my personal practice and my daily life.  It is frustrating to feel like I constantly struggle with this, knowing that too little effort will not help my body learn and change, but too much effort drains the rest of my day and courts injury.

Sometimes I have periods of time when I can dedicate a majority of my energy to practice.  I don’t need to reserve energy for many other responsibilities and can leave it on my mat.  I make a lot of progress and learn new things more quickly. I have lots of gratifying ‘aha!’ moments.  Mysore tends to be this way, not just for me but everybody.  I think this is a lot of the ‘magic’ that you hear so much about, the leave-it-on-your-mat possibility that results from few other responsibilities.

On the other hand, back in the real world, if I work steadily and sustainably (lazily?) I don’t make much discernible progress. In fact, I often will ‘backslide’ as a result of travel, illness, seasonal changes and the like.  At least it feels that way, but when I look at my practice compared to a few years ago, change has happened, progress has been made.  Maybe not quickly or in a way I can really put my finger on, but it happens.

So, while chatting with Ted about effort on a scale from 1 to Kino, I remembered that change is inevitable.  Whether it’s sustainable and balanced or all balls-to-the-wall, change is going to happen.  Sometimes it’s noticeable and sometimes it’s little teeny things that only add up to tangible progress months or years down the line.  This is one of the main lessons of the practice (as far as I can tell); change is happening, constantly, and the more effort we put toward guiding that change the more we will be able to influence the outcome.  We certainly can’t control the change but we can often effectively guide it.

The Ashtanga practice is a culmination of everything that has come before. It is climbing stairs until you can’t climb any more, then trying again the next day.  It is not changing the route or taking an elevator to a floor you like, but a steady plodding and acceptance of the need to hit every step along the path (that’s a freebie analogy for you). It is a practice based on surrender to effort rather than acceptance of limits as fixed entities.

We are not the yogis who encourage each other to ‘let go’ of things we can’t do or tell each other that if we don’t like something we can look away from it.  We are the yoga of NO, the yoga of DO, the yoga of facing your fears, limitations, and deep, dark secrets.

This forward movement, this one-step-after-another approach, is what makes it so hard when a willingness to put in the effort is not enough to make something happen. I had a health scare last year.  If you know me IRL you probably heard my stories about poor tattoo-man having to carry me around our house at night and my certainty that I would never walk without a limp again.  It sucked, more than having to do dwi pada, more than feeling like I wasn’t trying hard enough.  Not being able to try was much worse than not wanting to try. It boiled down to the need to accept that things were as they were and they might never go back to being as they had been.

Sometimes the balance of effort, awareness, and ability don’t line up and all we need is more practice… but sometimes it’s a little more grim than that. Eventually we will face something that we will never succeed in doing (and we’ll lose the ability to do things that once came easily).  Maybe it’s a physical limitation that can not be overcome, like a damaged joint resulting in limited movement.  Maybe it’s an illness that causes damage to the muscles or joints in a way they can’t or won’t recover from.  Maybe we just don’t have enough time in the course of our years to teach our body what we want it to learn.

The reality of practicing Ashtanga in these bodies is that we will not be able to do everything.  We will all suffer setbacks, whether injury, illness, or just the process of aging that will limit what we can ask of our bodies, regardless of the effort we are willing to exert.  The choice we have is whether those limits cause us to suffer or allow us to observe the experience.  We will rarely be able to tell, with certainty, if something we struggle with will be attainable through consistent practice or completely impossible for us in this lifetime.  In fact, we tend to keep working toward a potentially impossible goal for what it can teach us, whether it is perseverance and equanimity in the face of adversity, or that the impossible will sometimes become possible.

Whatever results, we have to keep trying, knowing we might fail.

In the end, we try for the sake of trying.  We try for what the attempt will teach us and not because success is necessary.

And 6 years into my Yoga practice I have taken a dip into the ocean of Abhyasa and Vairagya, practice and non attachment.  I thought, 10 years ago, reading a translation of Patanjali, that I understood what this meant.  Turns out I was gazing out from the bow of a ship, congratulating myself on my awareness of the sea.  It took my own experience of practice, progress, exhaustions, illness, defeat and surrender to get some time under water.