(re-posted from November 2011)
At this Thanksgiving time of year, I often think of BKS Iyengar. Mr. Iyengar, now a world-renowned teacher, was born into the influenza pandemic of 1918, and was a weak and sickly child. He began to practice yoga under the guidance of Sri T Krishnamacharya in the 1930’s, and continues this work even today, in Pune, India. When I read articles and books by Mr. Iyengar, who was my teacher’s teacher for many years, I am aware of the continuous thread of acceptance and relentless inquiry. “In 1979,” he says, “Immediately after my sixtieth birthday, I had two scooter accidents. These set the clock back so much I had to begin yoga all over again as a raw beginner. … It took me more than eight years to fight and regain control over my body-and-mind. This was through my determined effort to get back into yoga, and yoga graced me to embrace it with reverence.” How many of us would bounce back after such a set back? And yet, set backs are a part of life.
In these modern times of short-term plans and thinking, I find it inspiring to reflect upon the experience of people who have a longer term view. Iyengar has practiced for nearly 80 years. My teacher has likewise put over five decades into his practice, and perhaps it is the glimpses of what the practice reveals that keeps them at it, and continues to enliven them as teachers and practitioners.
Something has to enliven us, inspire us, and encourage us, because the practice of yoga is not easy. There are challenges at every turn, and while challenge and work can be invigorating, it can also be tedious and discouraging. Iyengar, in his summary of the Yoga Sutras in the introduction of his classic book, Light on Yoga, reminds us of the distractions and obstacles on the path of yoga: Sickness, languor, laziness, doubt, indifference, sensual desire, invalid understanding, the failure to maintain a continuity of thought, and the inability to maintain that which has been attained through practice. In addition, we may experience pain, despair, and unsteadiness in the body and/or breath. In the face of these obstacles, how to keep going? The answer is found in nearly every yoga book and text: with faith and daily practice.
With a bit of writing each day, you are sure to one day have written a novel. With a few steps you can begin a long journey. Likewise, with a bit of practice each day, you will see a result over time. Commitment and consistent practice are key to success with yoga. By success I mean a rewarding experience from which you will gradually comprehend what is real and what is not, who you are and who you are not, and develop the ability to see and understand clearly.
Consistent practice is also the remedy for lack of tapas. Tapas literally means “to burn”, and in the context of yoga refers to discipline, ardent desire, that which inspires us to dedicate ourselves to a craft such as yoga. The teacher and writer Donna Farhi has compared practice to a fire: it takes a little bit of fuel, added consistently to the fire, to keep it going. A huge log will smother the fire, and smolder. A lack of fuel will cause the fire to go out. When we begin a practice, it is like lighting a fire, which must be tended regularly, lest it go out, but not over-done, in which case we’ll get bogged down with exhaustion or injury.
It is with the burning enthusiasm of tapas that we forge ahead, when we feel too busy, or tired, or happy, or hungry, or distracted, or too bored to practice. We can take these feelings into account, and then proceed with our practice. The rhythm of a consistent practice starts to move forward on its own momentum, so that it is easy to keep going, like a fire that has burned for some time, and has some glowing coals and warmth.
This is one reason that I teach month-long classes: because it is only through the experience of consistent practice that one can see the benefit of it. It is one thing to understand the theory, but another to have the experience. Another reason that I teach this way is that the Shadow Yoga practice is best learned in a series of classes, since in the beginning, students must learn the prelude sequences, and once learned must practice them. Likewise, it allows me to get to know the students in class, which is an essential aspect of the teacher/student relationship.
I am aware that it is a commitment to sign up for a month-long course. Simply this commitment, and the act of getting out of bed, and into the yoga studio each morning are a type of practice. Any challenge to your usual way of doing things and routine requires a bit of tapas to forge a new habit, or at least take a break from the existing one. In some ways, this is the most difficult part. Until we have the experience of practice, it is hard to convince oneself to get up out of a warm bed, or that extra hour of sleep, in order to come to yoga class. Over the long term, it’s worth it. Until a student has that experience, they have to trust me enough to take my word for it, or look to people of wisdom and experience whose example resonates with them.
Once do we begin practice, we are confronted with our own limitations, but also our strengths. We can be grateful that we did find the fortitude to get up and come to class, and we can be grateful that we have the strength and health to participate. It is the things that are going well, and working for us, that will support us to address the things that are not working so well.
My teachers and mentors describe set-backs, missteps, accidents. They recount times when they followed one path, then later saw things differently and changed their direction. A good teacher can save us some time, and some mistakes, but ultimately we are all on the same sort of journey, and when following a new path will sometimes find unexpected things, both difficulties and welcome surprises. Through these ups and downs, we can maintain a steady course, with consistent practice, and acceptance of the inevitable fluctuations between the days when you can’t wait to practice and everything is easy, and the days when it’s the last thing you want to do. Perhaps within the thing perceived at first as a weakness, or set back, we will find a greater strength. Despite doubts, obstacles, and setbacks: Practice anyway, with intelligence and patience.
Yoga is a very real opportunity to experience in a direct and authentic way. It is sometimes a real pain, and it is a great gift.
In Mr. Iyengar’s article, How Yoga Transformed Me, (most of the content of which can also be found in his book, Light on Life), Iyengar says of his early days:
My hard practice caused agony to my body, to my nerves, and to my mind and even to myself. I was tossed from one side to the other; sometimes the body refused to co-operate, and at other times the mind would not bear the pain. This way my body and mind oscillated. My energies were sapped and mental fatigue set in. If I did not try, the self within grew restless: if I tried, failure brought on dejection. Very often exhaustion brought me to the point of collapse. I could neither eat nor drink with comfort. Though I continued practicing yoga for years, dejection and doubt tormented me and my mind found no rest except in renewed effort. Each day was an ordeal but God’s grace forced me to make one more attempt for every failure. As I had no guide, I made enormous mistakes but I learned discrimination from observing my own errors. When circumstances forced me to live on my own, I had to go without food for days. Often I lived only on a cup of tea, but the inner flame kept on goading me to do my daily practice with zeal. Slowly, I began to feel that my body was growing in strength, my restless, agitated mind was gaining stability. Though I started with the practice in 1934, It was only in 1946 that an innate interest in yoga arose in me. ….…. Even though age is telling upon me, I am still experiencing new feelings. I do not hesitate to share the light of my new experiences with my pupils. I live in my cells and I live in my heart. I would like to practice yoga till my last breath, as a humble service to yoga. My only wish is to prostrate before God, surrendering my last breath in a yogic posture.
(this last quotation is from an article by BKS Iyengar: “How Yoga Transformed Me”)