Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve

Well, here I am on New Year's Eve, finished with my dinner of curried veggies and basmati rice and settling down with a cup of tea to relax a bit and unwind. My plans for the evening are pretty simple- drink this tea, write this entry, maybe watch a little TV and then hunker down with my book and get to bed early.  I know it doesn't sound like a thrilling evening but it sounds completely decadent to me!

We have had two great days of strong asana classes here in Tucson. We started the first day with me teaching a class on the Four Pillars of Advanced Back Bends. This is a notion I learned about through George Purvis who is an awesome Senior Iyengar teacher, currently teaching in Dallas, TX. IN a workshop with him a few years ago, he said that Mr. Iyengar said one time that there are four pillars for advanced back bends: urdhva danurasana, kapotasana, dwi pada viparita dandasana (with the head down) and mandalasana.  So we worked with this as a structure for the opening class.

Given that theses are the pillars, one could consider that they are like the gateway, or that they live on the threshold of more advanced postures. Now, truth be told, its easier for a lot of people to get into a semblance of eka pada rajakapotasana than kapotasana, but for many of us in that category, you will also see that we  are not able to sit firmly against the floor in eka pada rajakapotasana and therefore our backs are not bending evenly which over time might compromise the quadratus lumborum and so on. So its not that other poses can not be achieved without these four pillars in place, its just that these four poses, when executed well, indicate that one is prepared well to go beyond them.  That's my understanding at any rate.

So, we talked about these poses as the poses that live on the threshold of the advanced postures and how this intensive comes at the time of year when we are the threshold of a new cycle and so we contemplated the theme of threshold on Day One.  Darren and I talked about having recently walked through a very intense threshold and that it held some very surprising lessons and outcomes that could not have been predicted from the other side of the gateway. And even more than that, I could see that the insight could not only not have been predicted but actually could not have even been known on the other side.

I think, truth be told, that is what the threshold is all about. I mean, in some way, transformation has this unknowable aspect to it. It may be an overused metaphor but the one that always comes to my mind has to do with how the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. There is a stage in the transformational process where the caterpillar is not a caterpillar anymore and it is certainly not a butterfly yet. It is in the in-between-stage of things, in a, shall we say, threshold, kind of time. It is in that time that doubt, worry, insecurities and fears arise. When we no longer have a grasp on the things we have always known to be true- about ourselves, each other, the world, etc. that we are the most vulnerable to fears' many voices. What if it is always like this? Maybe I never should have walked through the gateway of this change. Maybe there is nothing on the other side. Who am I if I am not what I was. Who will I be? What if I don't like it? etc. etc. etc.

So the gestation process takes its own  time. It can't be rushed. We  must, like the caterpillar persevere for, like the caterpillar, we must be undone in some way. The new must be formed from the dissolving or disillusionment of what used to be and there is no way to make the process happen one second faster than it takes.

And the metaphor gets even better because the coolest part is that, after the period of gestation, after the the caterpillar is formed inside the chrysalis it is finally ready to spread its wings and fly, right? No. Turns out that  in order to become strong enough to fly free as a butterfly, the newly formed creature  must actually break out of the chrysalis all on its own. If we were to try to break into the chrysallis and help the butterfly  out, it would be crippled for life and unable to fly.  It is in the breaking out of the shell that the strength is formed to actually be what it is meant to be.

I think the threshold place is like that in inner work also. Whenever I have walked through a certain kind of change or empowering shift, it was the walking through, the leap of faith, and the process itself that was the teacher and the agent of the shift or change. If, for instance, the process was never scary, how would we learn the depth of our courage? If we were never at risk of being betrayed, how  would we understand trust?  We can not, for instance, ever learn patience quickly. Patience only has meaning when something takes a long time to manifest.

So skill in the threshold is the thing-- We can cultivate faith in the face of fear, confidence in the face of doubt, etc. And one great way to get this teaching integrated physically is to practice hard poses. Every hard pose is a threshold training- uniquely designed to knock us out of alignment and to take us to an edge where something old is revealed and something new gets a chance to rise up within us.  And the real fun starts when, in a threshold moment off that mat, we remember the Teaching.

One of the things Lee said one time was that we can know how our sadhana is going by observing where we turn when we are in crisis. Do we run to old patterns or do we turn to the Beloved? Do we take refuge in fear and patterned behaviors or do we see refuge in the the company of seekers?  Do we look to society to validate our inner life or do we take refuge in the truth of our hearts and the wisdom of the teachings that we study and practice? And its not some kind of all-or-nothing game because he also said that we are not responsible for our first thought, only our second thought and our resulting behaviors! Part of this game is simply knowing our tendencies when we are in the threshold. That kind of clarity and skillful observation  can move inner mountains.

So my point is that I do not think that hard poses necessarily make us more able to live in our hearts off the mat. It's no guarantee at all. Nor do I do think hard poses make us better people or that being stiff or tight makes us less spiritual or any such nonsense like that. I do, however,  think that hard poses  hold in them very  potent lessons and  since those lessons come to us in and through the body, the lessons get integrated in such a particularly powerful way that it might just give us a slight advantage in remembering the truth of the teaching when we get knocked off our center or when we are on the threshold of growth and change off that mat.

So like that.


Anne-Marie Schultz said...

my favorite quote about threshold experience, is from Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain. He begins his autobiographical account of worshipping with the Snake Handlers of Eastern Tennessee by recounting just such a moment. He writes, “There are moments when you stand on the brink of a new experience and understand that you have no choice about it. Either you walk into the experience or you turn away from it, but you know that no matter what you choose, you will have altered your life in a permanent way. Either way, there will be consequences.”

Hard poses are like that. I remember the first time I dropped back. Manouso just left me alone saying it was your last chance... and he looked right at me later and said... did you do it? I was so happy that I had, even though I totally felt unready.

Happy new year

kwajnman said...

It is not that I have not heard your argument before, and I know you have on several occasions pointed out that there is great potency in the form, but I still get a little upset and think 'why the h... am I doing yoga when all these strong poses are clearly inaccessible to me?' If the spiritual gain is from the strong practice a lot of people are excluded.

Christina Sell said...

Karen, hard poses that are inaccessible are different than hard poses that are accessible but not familiar. The threshold isn't about specific postures but about a certain edge. Depending on someone's capacity and experience it could be a long hold in down dog not a big crazy back bend. This is an advanced intensive where that is the context. It's not the only context for asana practice and not the only way to benefit from asana study and practice. I do not teach advanced postures to people for whom they would be inappropriate. Not do we do them all the time. You are right- you should not be practicing poses that are inaccessible! That is called dangerous. This kind of Intensive is NOT recommended for everyone. Be that as it may be, the threshold of challenge can be worked by everyone and the lessons of difficulty can be mined on the mat and off.

kwajnman said...

I am sorry if I misunderstood your context. It reminded me of what I was told ( told, because I never read a line on the subject and operate from a basis of ignorance) some years ago about Tantra, that because the play of Shiva / Shakti in the body is so powerful, in order to attain liberation and be a part of the unification of these forces, one needs to be very strong and resilient. This would exclude the physically weak and people who are unable to have a physically advanced practice. This point of view always challenged my sense of justice and equality. A system for the elite. This was why I reacted.

Christina Sell said...

Yes, that makes sense. I think reading some of the yogic texts and commentaries can be very challenging because they sound value-based, elitist, etc. (In fact, truth be told, a lot of those yoga schools and traditions were quite elitist!)

I am not expert on yogic texts but once again context is a big thing- like who was reading it then, who was it meant for, what was happening in the time and place it was written, etc. Obviously, if we are women in modern times in the West and we read an ancient Indian text meant for renunciate men, we are going to have to keep that in mind or the advice won't make much sense for us!

Having said all that, I am happy you asked about the advanced poses because your question showed me that I hadn't clearly articulated my context and I would not want people to think I was all about "hard poses no matter what." I am so not into that.

In fact, a very good case could be made about only doing relaxing yoga where we learn contentment, acceptance and surrender. Given that so many of us are driven, over-achieving, stressed-out types, that is a useful consideration and would be a completely valid approach!

Anyway, thanks for the conversation. Happy New Year.