Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Dialethia of Progress

When you go to 12-step meetings, you encounter various styles of oratory.  Sometimes you get a string of horrific experiences recounted, although this is known as "trading war stories," and is frowned upon.  Other times you hear inspirational messages and it seems as if you're at a Southern Baptist revival in rural Alabama.  At one meeting which burned into my memory the talk was reminiscent of a half-time speech given by a high school football coach.  This guy paced around the front of the room bristling with virile intensity, like a panther in a cage.  At one point he barked out "If you think clean time is no big deal, try getting some!"  What he meant by this and how this is relevant to yoga practice is what I'd like to discuss here.

In 12-step programs, pretty much everybody falls off at some point or another.  When that happens, one (hopefully) gets back on the wagon and tries again.  So there is a duality here.  One tries, earnestly, to do something which is basically impossible.  This leads some to emphasize the process as opposed to the goal.  Indeed, "progress, not perfection" is one of the myriad 12-step slogans.  Another 12-step slogan is "easy does it."  Too much emphasis on process, though, and you can lose sight of the goal completely.  Still another slogan, in rebuttal to the aforementioned one, is "easy does it, but you gotta do it."  For addicts, too much emphasis on the goal can lead to an endless cycle of failure (both actual and perceived), guilt, and then resentment.  On the other hand, addicts who put too much emphasis on process at the expense of the goal might continue to fuck up, harming themselves and others, with no accountability.

In yoga practice, less direly, emphasis on process can mean stagnation and ultimately, resignation.  At this point, and at the risk of redundancy, I guess I should clarify what I mean by yoga practice.  The yoga that I do is Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois.  It is a system of hatha yoga, which means that asana is the point of departure into investigating ethical principles, the mind, spirituality, etc.  Although I don't really practice them any more so I can't say for sure, this should also be true of other systems of hatha yoga as well,eg, Sivananda, Iyengar, Viniyoga, etc., etc.  I'll repeat: asana is the point of departure.  Therefore it behooves a practitioner of any hatha yoga system to be acutely involved in his asana practice. He or she should always strive for improvement and growth.  Progress and striving can be good.  So it confuses me when I keep reading over and over again in places like Recovering Yogi and Elephant Journal complaints about yoga teachers who supposedly place too much emphasis on asana.  The complaints are typically along the lines of: "Yoga isn't just about asana, and anybody who emphasizes asana can only be somebody who doesn't have the intellectual and/or emotional means to get the deeper spiritual dimensions of the tradition."  I find this attitude insulting.  I'm over it.  To paraphrase the speaker at the 12-step meeting:  if you think it's not about asana, try working at asana.  And furthermore, if you have a yoga teacher who says its not about asana, chances are his own asana practice is deficient.  

I've gone on some about the relative merits of goal orientation and process orientation and by now you may be asking yourself, "so, which is it?"  Well, at play here are two examples of what is known as a dialetheia.  A dialetheia is a statement such that both itself and its negation are true.  Remaining sober is essential to recovery.  Continuous progress in asana is essential to  hatha yoga.  Something that is essential cannot be impossible, yet in these two examples that is the case.  True and not true at the same time.

So, having established that work and progress in asana could be both essential and not essential to one's development in hatha yoga, the question is this: given these two options, i.e., goal orientation or process orientation, where do you stand?  You don't even have to think in either/or terms.  Think in terms of a spectrum.  Are you more on the Bartelby the Scrivener end (he is a character from a Melville novella who said "I prefer not" to every task he was asked to do)?  Or are you more like those Olympic gymnasts who launch themselves 30 feet into the air and land on legs that were already broken in half?  Be honest with yourself.  And after you've finished being honest with yourself, check in with your teacher.  Chances are your self-perception is incorrect at least on some levels, if not completely.  When you've sorted that out, put on your Buddhist cap and integrate the notion of friction points.  Find your way to the middle of the spectrum.  Smooth out your friction points and I'll bet you'll grow.  Now get out on you mat and be honest with youreself about where you're at and work!  Or take it easy.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Patrick,
    nice post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wrote a piggy-back post on my blog: