Friday, April 1, 2011

Yoga is Not Normal

I wrote a blog entry a week or so back on aim- March 24 "More on Aim"- and this was a comment I received which has had me thinking a bit more on the topic:

"I am worried that working with attitude and intention means that you take and are given responsibility for your own state of mind and health. Also for the things that were either too big for you to handle or completely out of your hands, happened by accident or caused by other people or by your genetic disposition or because you grew up the wrong place or are unavoidable because you live in the 21.cent in a big city. If it comes down to ‘ it is my own fault because I have not been positive enough’ or if your surroundings blame you for not having the right attitude it can lead to what is happening here in Denmark . People who cannot lose enough weight are not eligible for certain operations. Treatment is withheld from people who can’t stop smoking or drinking. People who can’t find the strength and attitude to change their ways are being penalized this way. I understand that the guy who has lung cancer should stop smoking, but what if he can’t… does that mean he only has himself to blame? What if I am so angry about losing my legs in Iraq war that every day is hell? I probably know that my life would be better with a good attitude but I can’t really get to the point where I thank for having lost my legs and say that I have learned so much from my injuries?
I have never been able to reconcile these ideas. I blogged for a couple of years on Yogajournal and read thousands of messages and blogs from people who thought that working with intention and attitude meant that they had to be upbeat about everything even the worst problems so I know that this is not a negligible problem. But I don't know what can be done either.
All the best and thank you for good provoking blogs."

I have thought about this a lot since it was posted on my blog for a lot of reasons. First, I think I stated this in my entry, but I want to be very clear that aim, in the way I was writing about it and in the way I think about it, isn't about perky, upbeat, new-age strategies for "creating your own reality" or anything like that. I think about aim as a way to respond to life, not as a way to create life "the way that we want it." Aim, to me, is not about having a "good attitude" or "looking on the bright side of things" or any unsatisfying platitude that sounds lovely on a greeting card but when the shit hits the fan lacks real substance and utility.

Aim, as I see it, is a context that we, as yogis, can hold about our life and our responses to all that life brings us. I am talking about aim informing our life as fuel for a yogic response to challenges that come our way, not an ordinary mindset. I sometimes think that as yogis we forget that these yogic teachings and perspectives are NOT ORDINARY and the practices that stem from the teachings are difficult to do and are there to generate tapas and heat and transformation, not to make life easier.

Sure, life may get easier as a result of our yogic choices. It really might. For instance, if we implement the yamas and niyamas into life we might find that in some ways life if going to get a lot easier if we are not harming ourselves and others, if we are not lying, stealing, or blowing all our sexual energy in meaningless trysts. Sure, our life will get easier, if, like this person wrote, we can actually manage to live so righteously! But that life gets easier in some way is an outcome of the virtuous choices, not the reason why we do them.

I am about to say something radical but here goes. We may get happier as a result of our yoga but happiness, in my opinion, is not the point of the yoga either. Nor is comfort, pleasure, ease, lack of misfortune, reduction of pain, and so forth. And I like all of those things and think they are great so its not that I have a thing against happiness. I am into it. I really am but to me the yoga is about tapping into the direct experience of the energy that informs those ups and downs, those perceived positive and negative outcomes and living from that awareness. Yoga has never been aimed at preferences of ego and so forth. It's aimed somewhere else. So read on, but know that I do not think being a yogi is easy and I think that living up to its teachings is one of the most worthwhile yet difficult things we will ever attempt in our lives. But it's not exactly normal.

Back to aim...

Aim, as I see it, is about deciding to enter-to whatever degree we can-into the supreme endeavor of making use of difficulty. Aim rests solidly on the assumption that life is challenging, difficult and full of obstacles to happiness, peace and love. (yes, life is also beautiful, inspiring and creative, potent and full of delight but if we new that fully and could unflinchingly live from that knowledge, well, we wouldn't need to practice this stuff much.just sayin') Aim and attitude to me is NOT abut dressing up blame in a different outfit and fueling our self-hatred further by blaming ourselves or each other for accidents, misfortune, betrayal and abuse. Not at all. Not as I see it anyway.

Aim answers questions such as "What am I going to do with what life has given me? How, as a yogi, will I respond to what is dark, ugly and unseemly inside myself and outside in the world of circumstances?" (of course, pull on that thread more and we do see some pretty good teachings about the idea that those domains are not as distinct as we might think but that is a different post for a different day. ) Aim does not answer questions like "Why did this terrible thing happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does life seem unfair" And so on.

Truth be told, I have never really found a satisfying answer to "why?" I mean, sure, I have read plenty of explanations. It's not that my intellect can't be satisfied by long explanations of karma and the creative potential of the unlimited Sprit and all that. I know I said I haven't heard a satisfying answer to why but it doesn't mean that I haven't heard a lot of explanations. I have. It's just that in the heat of unpleasant events or when faced with tragedy or when I have been betrayed, its not my intellect that needs satisfying. A pithy answer about "why" is of little use to me when my heart is broken. For me, answering questions of the heart and spirit from the vantage point of the intellect is about as satisfying as skim milk.

So, where is the whole milk, heavy cream answer? It lives in the practice of responding. See, I think its in that domain that we can bring the body into the answer and move into the heart through skillful action and begin to glimpse, little by little, with painstaking efforts at times, the truths that live underneath the surface of experience. Aim, is not an answer about why. Its not even attempting to answer that question. Aim is about a heartfelt response to life that is aligned with our Highest Aim and as such can be a tool for guiding us through the very tragic and difficult examples listed at the start of the start of this post.

An example close to home for me- My spiritual teacher passed recently after dealing with throat cancer for three years. As his journey with cancer continued and his symptoms worsened he got more and more fierce as a teacher. He became uncompromising to a near intolerable degree for many of his students. He stopped candy coating everything and told us exactly what was in our way without a shred of concern for being polite or PC. He did the job we had hired him to do- help us see ourselves clearly- with a degree of ruthlessness we had never seen before. He told a student - "I would never have been able to Work like this without the cancer. I am not happy I got the cancer, it has been miserable. But it has served me and my students. I could not have made the shift without it."

That, my friends, is Aim.


Marcia Tullous said...


Thank you,

Kristinn said...

Well said! This reminds of something that our teacher John Friend said about feedback; " All feedback is neutral. It's what you do with it that determines whether it enhances or diminishes your experience."

Why do some people triumph where others falter under similar circumstances. We may not always create our circumstances but we are certainly free to choose how to respond to them. In recognizing that we always have this choice, therein lies the empowerment; the Yoga. My 2 cents.
Thanks Christina

ashley said...

thank you as always,

Dale said...

Many things, very clearly said, and with the arcane references stripped out :-). Bravo!!!

The Problem of Evil doesn't have a satisfying verbal/intellectual answer. The problem is felt emotionally & spiritually, and the understanding is only really enough when we feel it in our gut. And it only makes sense when pain & calamity is seen as a tool that brings about a greater good, like a life-saving operation.

And we only call evil/calamity a problem because it hurts, and of course we naturally prefer pleasure to pain.

I think that life is about more than just pleasure. In some ways, the hard times are more valuable, and the pain more useful.

In my yoga practice, I learn more about me & life from the things that I cannot do, than the things that I can.

I'm not trying to pretend that I enjoy suffering, and I'm in no danger of living an ascetic lifestyle. But the hard times no longer seem wrong or evil or like God made a mistake ;-). The bad times are intended as just as much a blessing as the good times.

My best response is to learn how to use those difficult blessings to come closer to my highest and best.

kwajnman said...

I am very honoured that my musings resulted in such detailed and heartfelt account of your views on aim. And I am very gratified /happy that you so unequivocally and clearly distance yourself from the feelgood use of aim and intention that I have met so often and feel so eerie about. I am partially excused for thinking that this could be the’ Anusara way’, for when John Friend was here ( and here I admit that my experience with him was a single 3 day workshop and therefore very limited and in no way an in depth understanding), he talked a lot about intention and positive thinking exemplified by an elderly injured woman, who seemed to soldier on with enthusiasm, and we were told that she could have chosen to be negative about her limitations and she chose to be positive about them and that he liked that a lot.
So thank you again , it has been very interesting.

Christina Sell said...

Yes, well, I think those kinds of perspectives you describe are super prevalent in yoga/ human potential circles everywhere. I liked your thoughtful response and I liked that it gave me a chance to dig deeper and be more precise in my musings.

For me positive thinking is always balanced with "life as it is" and so on.

On the John Friend reference, like you said, it was a 3-day introduction and obviously, that may be a bit limited. One thing I do like about my relationship with John is that even as a "certified teacher" and all that, I still get to have my own voice, perspectives and opinions and so forth. He and I have always had wonderful intellectual discourse that has never required "group mind" or blind following or towing a company line. I like that being an Anusara Yoga teacher doesn't mean I do not get to be myself. (Of course, if people feel that pressure, that is something else. I know some people do but that's another entry, I suppose!)