Hello dear readers,
This is part 2 in a series of guest posts written by Thaddeus, the wise and wonderful Boyfriend Yogi. If you have not read part 1 yet – click HERE!
There is a scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” which animates this point. Luke has traveled across the galaxy to find the last remaining Jedi master, Yoda, on the distant planet of Dagobah. After a rough start, Yoda finally accepts Luke for Jedi training and we find Luke deep in the swamps with Yoda on his back when he stumbles upon a cave. A fledgling on the path, Luke perceives a “disturbance in the Force” surrounding the cave. Yoda confirms Luke’s intuition, saying that the cave is strong with the “Dark Side,” but that his young apprentice must enter. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” Yoda responds, “Only what you take with you.” At this point, like any good neophyte fresh to a path, Luke resorts to his old ways. He literally, and metaphorically, reaches for his guns. Yoda warns, “Your weapons, you will not need them.” With an incredulous roll of his eyes Luke chooses to ignore Yoda’s instruction and proceeds headlong into the cave. Suddenly, Luke finds himself face to face with Darth Vader, the embodiment of evil, and in the battle which ensues uncovers deep within himself the seeds of the very same evil he seeks to destroy.
It goes without saying that ideally our paths toward self-realization would be simple and straightforward. But, this is not the nature of the journey. Arguably all paths that engage their participants in an authentic search for the self are riddled with pitfalls akin to the “Dark Side.” To complicate matters further, we embark on our journey flawed and laden with our old baggage. This is why we need to seek the guidance of those who have traversed the troubled waters before us, because we can’t do it on our own. However, this seeking does not solve the issue.
Powerful as they are our guides and masters cannot wave their magic wands and lead us from temptation. Those expert guides and gurus, try as they might, cannot walk the path for us. They can merely show us the way and hope and pray we are wise enough to follow their guidance. And yet, despite our most sincere desire and efforts to listen and understand, so many of us, probably all of us on some level, come to our mats very much like Luke, with our guns/old ways drawn to fight the enemy within. It is this attitude that opens us up to the influence of the “Dark Side,” which lies inherently hidden within the practice, but even more poignantly within our very selves. And it is this blending of “what we bring” and the actual practice that results in our encounter with the “Dark Side.”
So, you may ask, what is the “Dark Side” of Ashtanga? Undoubtedly there are as many as there are practitioners, but I would say that there is one which beguiles more Ashtanga practitioners than others. From the very beginning of one’s Ashtanga practice there is no denying the focus on the body. You step on your mat and from the first Suryanamaskar you are breathing, twisting, jumping, lifting, contorting and sweating through every minute. Clearly, with practice one can find peace, calm, control and even surrender therein, but the body is always there. In this regard, the tantric quality of Ashtanga is most apparent. You are learning to transcend the body by going deeper and deeper within it, and herein lays the trap.
According to yoga, the source of our suffering is our ignorance regarding our true selves. In short, we are ignorant of the fact that we are not material beings, but spirit souls embodied in the material world. With the practice of yoga, our “liberation” lies in coming to understand and realize our constitutional position as spiritual beings. Ashtanga’s rootedness in the body serves to easily capture those who fail to see through the allure of the material to the point where they can find themselves becoming very powerfully enticed, swayed and influenced in the direction of the body, the very thing we are meant to realize we are not. This can lead one to become further and further entangled in the sources of their suffering until it might be said that one is actually hurting himself with the practice. Here I have in mind something beyond the occasional injury which accompanies any strenuous activity, although this is a very real possibility, but more a desire, subconscious or otherwise, to punish oneself with a gruelingly intense physical practice.
The manifestation of this can take many forms, some so subtle that the practitioner may remain blissfully unaware until he finally awakens to find himself deeply mired in the muck of material existence yet again. In this journey, one may discover the practice actually spurs on chatter of the already overactive mind instead of leading one away from it. So, instead of being led toward an inner peace, the practice creates a relentless barrage of “you are not good enough,” “you are not strong enough,” “you are not thin enough,” “you are not flexible enough,” reinforcing the self-fulfilling prophecies marketed to us by society at large. This, in turn, serves to solidify the grip of the ego on the already fragile mind creating a situation in which the practice supports false notions of the self resulting in identification with the outward manifestation of the practice. Your identity becomes entangled with the practice until you and your practice become non-different. In this condition, the practice affords the practitioner a daily opportunity to indulge himself fully in the bodily self. Often, one find himself wrestling with this on a day when the practice has failed to live up to his expectations and the rest of the day is ruined.
Finally, it is at this point in the search for perfection and identification with Ashtanga that one begins to push and push because “progress” is essential to satisfy the lust and longing of the self to always “be better.” Burdened, and now subtly guided by, the original misgivings and attitudes which brought one to the practice in the first place, it becomes a test of wills against the practice. One feels he must push himself in the practice. It no longer is sufficient to practice only primary series. In order to be worthy one must advance and most importantly be seen as advanced. This means doing second or third or fourth series regardless of whether one is actually ready for such an undertaking. It is this push which typically results in physical injury of some sort.
Now, this scenario that I have detailed is by no means the experience of every practitioner, let alone the experience of those attracted to Ashtanga for all the wrong reasons. But, it is a scenario that has played itself out over and over throughout yoga shalas worldwide. It is not my place to sit in judgment of another’s practice or path. I am not afforded an objective perspective pedestal or qualification from which to do so. And I recognize the value with which each of us comes to our mat, knowing full well that for some it will be necessary to throw themselves against the rock of Ashtanga, and yoga in general, in order to ultimately find their way back to the Divine. I mean even Darth Vader ultimately found his way back home in the end. And so, it is to serve the higher ideals of yoga and the “Force” that I feel it is important to bring forth these potential pitfalls. As it has been said before, “where there is light, darkness cannot exist.” To acknowledge that Ashtanga has a “Dark Side” is not to discount or disqualify it. In fact, I think it speaks to the importance and potency of the practice that it possesses this quality. In the Vedic literature engaging in the practice of yoga is attributed to declaring war on Maya. Maya will not go quiet into that good night and seeks to re-capture us at any cost. Even being so bold as to walk the same grounds of transcendence in order to keep us attached to our sense of selves.
And so, in closing what are we to take away from this discussion. Well, two things. The first, we have already discussed and it pertains to the role of the teacher or guru. We have seen with Yoda that the guru is in some sense helpless to help us. Our teachers and gurus can only show us the path; they cannot force us to walk it. This fact directly leads to the second. With yoga practice comes radical self-responsibility. It is our obligation, and ours alone, to choose the path we walk. When we step on our mats the only things we find are what we brought with us. Thus, when we step on our mats we have the chose to choose the light or the dark side. We can choose to continue to believe that we know best, or we can humbly approach and accept the guidance of our learned guides. We can open ourselves up to the guidance of the “Force” or we can allow our old selves situated in fear to remain operative. Although, as Yoda points out, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” And so, we can choose to come from a place of fear or love, but whichever way we go, we cannot avoid the responsibility that it is our choice. And so, how do we ensure the correct choice?
A dear friend told me a story from a Native American tradition which provides the clearest answer. He said, “You know that there are two dogs in your heart. One’s a bad dog. He barks and growls, bites, you know, he makes a big mess. He’s real loud, obnoxious and mean. The other one is a good dog. He sits there real quiet, doesn’t make a fuss. He licks your hand and wags his tail. He’s always happy to see you. His eyes sparkle. Now, these two dogs are fighting for your attention. You know which one is gonna win?” “No,” I said. He looked me dead in the eyes, “The one you feed more.”