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When Yoga Asanas Do Not Deliver . . . What Then?

The desire to “get” a yoga asana can be overwhelming. Certain poses seem to create insurmountable blocks, generating incredible energy in the psyche that gets expressed as frustration or jealousy or obsessive desire. The ashtanga sequences, because of their linear nature, particularly seem to foster this attitude of mind. Practitioners can attach to a particular identity defined by where they are in the sequences. There are those who can bind in Marichyasana D and those who cannot. Coming up from drop backs presents another classic hurdle, as does kapotasana, karandavasana, and the ever-elusive vinyasas. Those who float through with the lightness of a bee, hovering in midair before softly alighting, can generate in the hearts of those who cannot passions to rival what Shakespeare called the green-eyed monster.

An Indian masseur in Mysore once told me how so many Western yoga students exhorted him during treatments “to go deep and hard and MAKE them able to bind in D”. Recently during a discussion about the kleshas–the five components of ordinary mind that Patajanli understands as the source of the vrittis (those thought waves of the mind that yoga strives to quieten)–a student mentioned the “desire to GET a pose” as an example of raga or “attraction”. Indeed, it is true that the desire to master a certain asana serves this function of ordinary mind. Attraction (and its counterpart aversion) feed asmita or ego-identity. These components of ordinary mind–essentially “I want and can get” or “I don’t want and avoid”–become reified as the “me-identity”. They create that false sense of individual “doership”, which is the essence of avidya or spiritual ignorance. Lord Krishna in the Gita thoroughly deconstructs this misconception as he makes clear to Arjuna that the individual “me” is merely an instrument and that it is divine consciousness that is the source of all action that was, is and will be for all eternity.

Remember too that “ego” or the “me-identity” is inherently neither positive nor negative. It is merely consciousness misidentifying as a particular “body-mind” organism. The yoga student who identifies with their inability to “get” a pose is just as attached as the one who identifies as a practitioner of 4th series! It is a rich cosmic joke that the very practice itself (or one’s attitude towards it!) can create some of the greatest obstacles to the realisation of yoga.

Over the years, I have experienced my fair share of this desire in asana practice. It is exhilarating, finally, to “get” a difficult pose; Puja picit is frustrating to keep coming up against a wall. A deep, strong powerful asana practice feels amazing. I love it. All this belongs to the human condition.

This is where I was when suddenly, in my personal yogic journey, the cosmos revealed something extraordinary. It happened through loss, through a profoundly difficult “gift” that I would not wish upon anyone. The deep truth of the “via negativa” was unfolding in my life, and it turned everything I had known before on its head. What if I could no longer do ANY pose? What if my body, which I had always felt to be an instrument under MY control, became disabled? This reality I had never entertained before. A lifetime of perfecting physical movement, first through ballet and later through yoga asana, had reinforced quite profoundly the sense that “I” was in control of my body. (Even though, yogic theory had been telling me otherwise, in the deepest corner of my heart, I never totally believed it.) But quite clearly, I was not in charge.

When my hips failed entirely, that beloved asana practice slipped away from me, until all “I could do” was shoulder stand and sitting practice. Pranayama and meditation went deep. Pain restricted all movement, so I sat in stillness, compelled by circumstances to yield into surrender. Yet the biggest surprise to me was that it was still all O.K. Even in the darkest moments, joy still flowed as a steady undercurrent. How could this be??? The ups and downs of treatments continued, with their respective hopes and disappointments. On one level, suffering was there, but on another there was peace. The universe had thrown me what I once would have considered the worst hand of fate, so why was I still so happy???

My identity had received a profound jolt. I was no longer the one who could get both feet behind the head, but I wasn’t the one hobbling around on crutches either! Truly, I was none of these passing forms, and that realisation was a lived experience. It just was. What a great cosmic joke once again! For so long I had been striving to “get better at yoga”, yet it wasn’t until I had “lost everything” that it really happened.

On the physical level, the long saga of my hip disease is culminating now as romance, not tragedy. It is three months since my surgery, and that beloved asana practice is coming back. What was lost is returning. At the one-month marker I crossed into lotus (though I could still not walk properly!). Yoga asana has helped my progress. Standing balancing poses brought strength back into my legs. Bit by bit, poses are returning. I do not know how far that return will go . . . and truly it does not matter any more.

As the life force once again propels me forward into more and more asana practice, I have to admit . . . I am loving it. But with it is the knowledge that not everything has returned to its former state. There is no going backwards in the flow of time. The hips I had since birth have completed their life span, returning to the elemental matrix to be reformed into some new shape and existence, far from my body. My new hips are French and ceramic. How absurd! But they feel entirely natural, and for this, on the one hand, I am infinitely grateful. It is wonderful to walk and skip and do asana practice again. At the same time, I am also acutely and forever aware of the provisional nature of everything that belongs to time and space. Lord Krishna speaks of Time as the great devourer. It is true: my new hips, indeed my entire body, and yours as well, are even now being consumed by Kala or time, that force which devours all, transforms all.

This is the point I want to make. Asana practice can become a vehicle for transformation only as it serves this attitude of surrender to higher power. That power goes by many names . . . pure consciousness, ultimate reality, Brahman, the Source, God, the absolute, the One, pure Being . . . though actually no name can define it. “You” are not doing asana, and you do not “get” poses. You are an instrument played by this higher power, by pure consciousness.

It does not matter in the slightest which poses happen and which don’t, even as the apparent effort to deepen in asana practice moves you forward through time. Eventually, all that belongs to this physical realm returns to the elemental matrix. Any practice that reinforces identification with passing forms–no matter how subtly–is counter-productive. It is when practice serves to dissolve that identification that it becomes of benefit. It is when the “doing” happens, and the “me” understands that it is object not subject that yoga becomes efficacious. Yoga means the deconstruction of the “me”, and whatever happens to bring that realisation into clarity is yoga. May it enlighten your practice now!

Ramesh wrote a beautiful prayer pointing to this truth. If anything is “to be desired”, it is this:
“O Lord, Grant me that state of mind so filled with Your Being that I would not need anything from anyone anymore, not even from you.”

4 thoughts on “When Yoga Asanas Do Not Deliver . . . What Then?”

  1. This article is stunning marianne I have thought about you so much I seen your you tube documentary and my heart broke for you as im new to yoga but the thought of something stopping me from doing it frightens me but I kept thinking this is mariannes life how will she get through this but here yiu are inspiring me once again with the way you deal with change… thank you for being you and learning us all how to evolve through trying times in our life… love and light x val

    1. Thank you, Val, for your kind words. Suffering can be a great teacher, but it does not necessarily bring misery. Peace comes from accepting what is and facing each new day with gratitude. Wishing you peace. Marianne x

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