The Work of the Light: Why I Went to India to Not Do Yoga

The Work of the Light: Why I Went to India to Not Do Yoga

June 25, 2014

In that wonderful fashion in which life often operates – giving you just what you need despite you feverishly desiring the opposite – it was, ultimately, my attachment to the pose that was to burn...

There’s a reason why Westerners go to India to find themselves.  Something about being in such a profoundly foreign place that lubricates the process, makes slipping off old skins easier. Colliding with every possible sensation – an incessant barrage of scent, sight, sound – chips away all that isn’t you.  India strips you bare, sometimes not so gently, and you’re left raw and vulnerable--the perfect state for realization of true Self.

During the first trip across that wild land, I became myself.  Landing on Indian soil a handful of seeds; rooted in seven months of sun, monsoon rain, asana, meditation, service, injury, insight, prayer, sickness, adventure...I blossomed.

I returned this past December to complete my 500 hour teacher training with the same teacher with whom I’d become initially certified four years ago. It’s a strange, awesome thing, to return to a place so vital in shaping the person you’ve become.  Yet, to paraphrase Heracles: no woman ever returns to the same south Indian town, for neither is she the same woman, nor the town the same town.  

Walking Mysore’s streets again, I felt her walking with me: the spirit of my younger self still roams in (my memory of) the place.  I remember the me that first set foot. She’d just cut off all her hair. She craved anonymity, and intimacy.  Seeking, hoping she’d find it – this mysterious “it” – stumble across it in a moment of meditation, in the salutation of a cave-dwelling guru, in the fever of a mosquito-borne illness—somewhere she’d find the it that would soothe the restlessness.   

I felt her walking with me, down that same Mysore block to the yoga shala, past coconut wallas, tea shops, eventually deaf to the persistent calls of rickshaw drivers, blind (though never, really) to begging, to shocking deformity, avoiding collisions with cows, careening cars and scooters, attacks of roving dogs, past curious children and gawking adults.  She marched, shoulders uncovered, defiant of custom, relishing the scorn of locals, and westerners more demure than she.  She found it, the thing she was looking for. It ended up being right where everyone great had ever suggested she look: within; my younger self didn’t know that that first, blessed, hard-won finding of it...is only the beginning.

I haven’t changed.  Still defiant, still seeking. And also, as poet Thomas Merton wrote, “Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am.”  

I originally went to Mysore, India, to learn how to do the pose.  I remember telling a friend before I left: I want to learn to do all it perfectly.  Ashtanga has the fire.  I want the fire.  I found the fire, caught ablaze.  And in that wonderful fashion in which life often operates – giving you just what you need despite you feverishly desiring the opposite – it was, ultimately, my attachment to the pose that was to burn.

The story of that first trip in 2010 is rich: from Vipassana, to my first real yoga-induced injury, to the end of a love affair, to becoming a teacher.  I’ve written some about it, mostly on my time teaching art in an anti-human trafficking organization.  Future writings will surely unearth the bones of that first trip’s memories, spill them onto the page for dusting and cataloguing.  These next paragraphs, though, are more about this most recent foray into that terribly wonderful, wonderfully terrible land, and why I went to India to not do yoga.

THE MUD

A week before beginning training I went to Thailand.  Where India is abrasive, Thailand is embracing.  I felt gloriously open, uncorked by salt air, warm breeze, too beautiful sunsets; I’ve since taught one retreat there, and am planning another.  I was, perhaps though, a bit too open; some time during my week’s stay, I injured my hip.  It might have been the hours-long walks along the beach on the heels of some four days of airplane, taxi, and bus travel that caused my hip to tear.  More likely, it was the Universe saying, Here you go, Sister, just what you need before your intensive teacher training: an injury. Now you gotta actually do some real yoga.

I could barely lift my knee to my chest. Any flexion in the hip sent a shot of pain up my spine and down my leg. I couldn’t bloody forward fold.  I had 28 days of what was described as “advanced asana” training ahead, and I couldn’t put my pants on without wincing.

It wasn’t my first injury, by any means.  In fact it was, undoubtedly, the ill-timed progeny of a host of previous injuries. I like to say that yoga is a full-contact sport: with your own damn ego.  The thing is, I’m a really worthy opponent.

And thusly, my training began. Before roosters set their sights on sunrise, the alarm would rip me from jetlagged slumber.  I’d roll to standing, rinse the sleep from my eyes and gingerly dress, careful to avoid too much hip flexion, for fear of awakening the injury so early in the day. Most scootered to the shala; despite the pain, I walked, my body in desperate need for movement other than asana. In the thick dark of the rural Indian night, the only business awake was the tea shop, patroned by a handful of late night/ early morning rickshaw drivers.  Even though I craved a bubbling cup of the sweet, steaming chai, I never stopped in.  I was already too achy to bear the discomfort of being the only woman in the room.

And so commenced another day in the month of 14 hour-long days. I’d arrive to the shala, nodding silent hellos to my fellow trainees.  Photos of my teacher hang on the walls: the most advanced twists, binds, and balances into which a body could contort. Those poses, according to this training, were “advanced yoga,” and what we were theoretically there to learn. A brief meditation, opening prayer, and two plus hours of asana; all relatively seasoned practitioners, practice was self-led. At first I my ego said:you must practice like the rest, moving through the sequence with breath-linking speed, pushing further, always deeper. It soon became apparent that practicing with any kind of speed or depth would be impossible.

THE LOTUS

And so, I practiced the only thing I could practice: I practiced not doing the pose. I practiced not forward folding. I practiced (as I had advised thousands of yoga students to do themselves throughout my 4 previous years teaching) not going too far.  I practiced seeking and finding my edge (much closer now), and staying there and breathing. And, most importantly, I practiced compassion for myself. I practiced love, and humility, and contentment.  While the rest of my teacher training cohort jammed knee to nose in janu sirsasana, I sat upright.  I practiced noticing what it felt like when I lifted upward in the pelvic floor, when I engaged my core, my quadricep, flexed my foot.  I breathed deep.  So much richness to the present moment! I noticed – because I wasn’t straining to get anywhere – what it felt like to be here, now, as I am.

I love asana, and the experience of my body within it. To see muscles stretch and tense, to feel graceful, and strong. I had a damn hard time not doing the pose.  Others moved easily into deep backbends, extreme hip openers just as my body, amped on the ego’s fuel, adrenaline, did once. But during that December training, I simply couldn’t. My body said please stop, and I was forced to listen.

In the silence of the space, the ego persisted.  Where it once said: look at how awesome you are, it now proclaimed: you’re weak, you’re old, you shouldn’t even be a teacher!  But, gratefully, because during the years since my first training I have actively made my practice yoga – and not asana – I knew I didn’t need to react to the ego's taunts. I knew my ego's force and loudness was inversely relative to its diminishing power over me.  I had actively practiced the glorious truth that I am not the mind, not the body, and certainly not defined by the silly pose—and it had worked!  Unchallenged, great lessons are like barren trees; only when tested do they bear fruit. My month on the mat not doing asana was evidence that I had, indeed, embodied the practice of yoga.

And so, instead of reacting to the blows of my internal dialogue, I simply returned to the breath, to arising sensations. And I experienced the deeply empowering truth of yoga: When you don't feed the mind, when you don't let it pull you into a vicious cycle of self judgment, eventually, it quiets. And in that space, in the ease and peace of that stillness, I heard my body saying, thank you.  And my soul saying,you’re welcome.

I made a pledge on that mat during the training, to myself, and to my students: I commit to simple, practical, breath-linking movement, the kind of movement that will inform a healthy, joyful life. We yoga practitioners are not weightlifters, simply building muscle to lift more weight! We are not contortionists, after medals and applause! We are practical, insightful beings who want to use our bodies for practical purposes! If I've got to carry something heavy, I want the muscles and the body awareness to do so! I want to help others strengthen in the same vital ways, building muscles of body – and mind – that enlighten life's heaviest moments.  No more poses for the sake of the pose, nor the gratification of the ego. 

Therefore, if you’re looking for some tricks, you won’t find them in my class.  I can’t teach what I don’t embody.  I can teach you the process of engendering joyfulness, because that, I am practicing embodying fully.

Today, this is my fire—the thing with which I’d like to set the world ablaze.  To share with all who are willing to listen: yoga is process, one of continual refinement, by which we practice ways of thinking that engender more joyfulness than suffering. Moreover, the greater practice is the conscious reframing of the things to which we attach as vehicles for the practice of non-attachment...for practicing, instead of the pose, compassionate witnessing of the moment, as it is. And that practice, to be sure, is the most advanced practice of all.

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