Well we might be renaming this by the end of this post, we will most definitely be reframing it, but for the moment it’s about suffering.
Those of you in class on Saturday heard Philippe tell a story from his March trip to Mysore, and his experiences with Sharath. I thought that during Sharath’s current visit to San Francisco, the topic was most timely and appropriate.
So Philippe said out of the 250 or so folks that come through the shala, and of the 80 or so on the floor at the same time every morning in Mysore, Sharath seems to have an uncanny knack for keeping track of the people, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they ought to be doing at any given moment. After a number of trips to India I too can attest to this uncanny skill.
One day during Philippe’s practice his neighbor got stuck in a pose, she rolled back onto Philippe’s mat in Garba Pindasana, and couldn’t roll back up. With a Philippe smile he asked in a whisper if she needed help.
Almost instanteneously Sharath had pounced over to Philippe’s corner, eyes blazing.
“No, don’t help her.”
Sharath then helped her, saying matter-of-factly:
“She needs to suffer.”
Sometimes the richest insights emerge from the briefest of phrases.
So to our literal western minds this might not exactly an effective advertisement for studying in India or studying with Sharath. It isn’t exactly an indicator of his kindness or his compassion.
A good friend from India was first to point out the most obvious, the difference of language, ie a more appropriate word for this might not be “suffer,” so much as struggle.
However, in dealing with this practice I find that no matter how sweet I might find it to be, I can’t take away this element of suffering. No matter how I might want to soften it, there is an element of this practice that is about struggle.
Not struggle for the sake of struggle, though, or masochism. But it is struggle just the same.
And this struggle doesn’t go away. From the initial difficulty of the physical postures, to the mental difficulty of getting up to practice daily, to the exponential difficulty of the advanced series, it continues. One could just say we’re crazy to be here doing what we do. Or we could say too that in a world that strives to make our daily lives easier and easier, at the heart of this valley of technology that makes anything possible, maybe there’s something we’ve missed as we’ve strived so hard to do away with the struggle. Maybe this struggle is tied to our essential nature in some mysterious way. Maybe this struggle is something that’s true about life.
And maybe for those who have done yoga for more years than we have, and grown up in a culture who’s goal was not always easier and less pain at all costs, this might be easier for them to see.
I must say, I’m no supporter of suffering, and I don’t think Patanjali is either. We have the simple sweet sutra:
2:16 Heyam duhkham anagatam
“Pain that has not yet come is avoidable.”
There would be no telling us this without the implication that perhaps we can and should learn how not to suffer the suffering we do based on ignorance.
But that being said, when coupled with:
2:1 Tapah swadhyayeshvara pranidhanani kriyaa yogah
“Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books, and surrender to the supreme being constitute yoga in practice.”
We know that there is still a good kind of suffering for Patanjali, and perhaps too for Sharath.
We know that sometimes the yoga for us western helpful people is in not removing all obstacles, and actually allowing someone to figure it out for themselves.
Like every other yogi at one point I asked a now certified teacher how I could jump back.
He didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. He said you need to practice every day.
There are times in Ashtanga yoga where you can wonder for sure, does this ____ teacher really have a clue at all? Or is (s)he just pulling my leg/got a really twisted sense of humor?
But all of these experiences for me do indicate in a cumulative way, in the way the sutras also indicate some of their lessons in a cumulative way, that this yoga isn’t just in how to do things, it’s about the how and when of the learning, and the learning taking the time it needs to take. It’s about the sensing that my teachers have done over the years, not just of what I wanted to know, but what I needed to know when, and what I needed to experience to grow.