The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana

The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana

“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.” – Oscar Wilde, letter to young artist

“What’s the difference between the ‘functional mover’ and the productive citizen?”Theodora Wildcroft, via Skype

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In this highly polished Iyengar tutorial, the instructor is obviously hyperextending her knees. She leans back, exquisitely, into her ligaments. She rests there for an appropriately penitential interval. Distended and refreshed, she eases out. The students follow suit. Continue reading “The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana”

The Problem of Pain in Yoga

The Problem of Pain in Yoga | El problema del dolor en el yoga

This essay first appeared in Yoga International: thank you to Kat Heagburg for editorial help. 

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You’ve probably heard a number of translations for the haṭha part of haṭhayoga.

“Forceful” is commonly cited. Others prefer a more esoteric take: they say that ha- and -ṭha stand for “sun and moon,” or “inhale and exhale.” They propose that practice is aimed at the integration of opposing forces.

According to yoga scholar Jason Birch, the esoteric translation is probably a later addition to the early literature of haṭhayoga. “Forceful” is the older meaning.

But what kind of “force” were the originators of haṭhayoga describing?

Birch writes that the hugely influential 19th century Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams, along with other European Indologists of his era, “confounded haṭhayoga with extreme practices of asceticism (tapas) that appear in the purāṇas” or epic literature. Together, they put forward the notion that haṭha implied the force of violent exertion or self-mortification.

Traces of this meaning elide with the “no pain, no gain” heroism of the modern fitness era—and with the notion of moving, or being pushed by teachers, toward the “edge” of tolerance—usually at the end-range of a joint’s motion. The edge is typically viewed as a potential threshold of revelation, perhaps because its shadow is the threshold of injury.

But as Birch carefully points out, the consistent refrain of the early haṭhayoga manuals is that if practices are done śanaiḥ, śanaiḥ —”gently, gently”— spiritual awakening will inevitably occur. In other words, with enough gentleness in your practice, you’d be forced to wake up. Continue reading “The Problem of Pain in Yoga”

WAWADIA Update #18: One Hundred Years of Yoga in One Big Apple Day

Please consider supporting the fundraising campaign to support the book that is emerging from this research.

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I spent October 13th in Manhattan, doing two interviews for the #WAWADIA project. I’ll tell the story of that day here, and then publish excerpts from some of the source interviews soon.

My first meeting was in the morning with Lindsey Clennell, a 40-year practitioner of yoga from Britain, and an award-winning film maker to boot. I wanted to ask him about the documentary that he’s making with his son Jake, called “Sadhaka”. The film is an homage to the legacy of his teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar. I was especially interested in asking about the visual metaphor that opens the gorgeous trailer they’ve released to help promote their project. (The trailer is linked below.) In the metaphor, Lindsey and Jake compare the work of Mr. Iyengar on the human body to the work of a local stonecutter carving an icon of Hanuman.

The first words of the trailer belong to the grizzled artist:

One cannot begin work on a sculpture without courage. The nature of a stone is that it is strong. To transform it into a sculpture, and see God within it, requires immense strength. If one gives up or is daunted by the strength of the stone or injuries, the sculpture will never come to life.

Continue reading “WAWADIA Update #18: One Hundred Years of Yoga in One Big Apple Day”