Sunday, September 2, 2012

Faith vs Objectivity

It is the nature of this age of Kali Yuga, that even practices designed to move us towards sattva and spiritual awakening are engaged in with a religious fervor or obsessive faith. Ashtanga Yoga is no exception. Any word spoken by Guruji or Sharath may become the object of a religious fanaticism amongst the aspiring Ashtanga practitioners of today.

It is the role of a teacher to inspire faith in and devotion to his method, but an objective and inquiring mind is also a requisite characteristic for anyone treading the spiritual path. We need to be able to judge for ourselves whether we are moving in the right direction. This is certainly very difficult in the beginning when we plunge into a practice which is completely unfamiliar. But questioning the Guru is frowned upon and from a certain point of view it is unproductive and may be undermining of practice.

Many people wanted to take Guruji on as a "guru" - a teacher who could lead us to the ultimate self realization. This was something I myself was looking for and the conflict between faith in his words and my experience or what I observed, was ongoing throughout my time of practice with him.

Manju Jois: "... (learning yoga) in India is just like learning music or something like that: the family knows music and they become teachers. So for us, it is just like that: you do not have to be a guru or go to hide in a cave, it is just one of those professions we learn."

The word guru means teacher. A mathematics teacher is a guru, so is a music teacher - it does not necessarily have any mystical connotation or imply the teacher is realized, or can bring a student to realization. The word Guruji is an affectionate or respectful derivation of the word.

My first teacher gave me the belief that this yoga system was somehow a direct path to transcendence and that practicing the series would make me super-human, completely eliminate all diseases, correct the alignment of my spine and result in self realization. Of course we all hear what we want to hear, but Guruji often said that this yoga would eliminate all diseases and give perfect health.

Ten years ago, after the birth of my daughter, our family was offered a free consultation with a chiropractor. The consultation involved a spinal X-ray and an infra red scan of the back's muscular structure. I had been experiencing an ongoing relationship with chiropractors throughout my yoga practice but this was the first time I had seen an X-ray of my spine, and it was rather shocking. As the years have gone by my discomfort has reduced significantly and is absent most of the time, but from time to time I still experience minor discomfort, however, for the first decade of practice I would always have back pain when sitting in padmasana at the end of practice, though this has completely gone in the last ten years.

The X-ray showed some significant issues with my spinal structure and some of the vertebral discs. I now understand that this is not so unusual, but the chiropractor was of course trying to sell his services and so did not explain this to me. But he was much more surprised to read the infra red scan which indicates the state of the muscular tone - he had never seen anything like it before and was surprised I could function so well without significant pain. In spite of the vertebral issues which had stemmed from congenital problems and childhood accidents, the muscular scan showed perfect balance - this was the result of yoga practice. But yoga practice has worked mainly on the muscles and has not eliminated spinal and disc problems.

After more than twenty years of practice and having interviewed some of the most experienced and long serving practitioners, I have concluded that Guruji's claims for the system are only partially true. Unfortunately we have seen advanced practitioners succumb to severe illness, psychological distress and even premature death in spite of the fact that they have been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for decades. We can also observe that asana practice alone does not make one much more intelligent or sattvic or produce enlightenment unless one engages in other practices as well.

Of course Guruji taught Ashtanga Yoga as a complete system but today there are few teachers who are able to adequately do this, nor is there so much interest in learning the complete yoga system. There is much more interest in learning how to do a handstand or an advanced asana.

So the religious obsession with six days a week practice, no practice on Saturdays or moondays, or "Guruji said this" or "Sharath said this" amongst the devoted - though a sign of the tamasic times - is not necessarily very productive. In fact this kind of obsession is rather counter-productive for many reasons. Personally, I love my Saturday practice and have been recently enjoying moonday practices also. These are days for the teacher to take rest from teaching, and on such days I can fully enjoy my practice without being concerned about conserving my energy or time for teaching. Patanjali defines practice as "without interruption" - that means every day. The benefit of practice is only 24 hrs, in fact it's impact is already reduced by 50% within 12 hrs, so some kind of evening practice, not necessarily asana, is also very beneficial.

I think rather than believing this practice is a panacea for all ills and a direct path to transcendence, we can conclude that given a particular body or bodily constitution or karma, yoga practice can give us the best health within these limitations, and that further progress beyond health requires other avenues of study and development. A severe illness (such as cancer) can strike at any moment and some chronic conditions can only be reduced and not eliminated completely. Yoga practice should help us to accept what comes to us with equanimity but it is not a guarantee of health, wealth or protection from what life will throw at us.