Not long ago a whole group of kids were playing after school in the neighborhood park. All of sudden, two kids came tearing out of the wooded area at top speed, screaming their heads off.
“A snake! A snake! A SNAKE!”
Predictably, my two boys – Jack and Will – immediately dashed up the hill in the direction of the snake with an eager look in their eyes.
Standing on the playground area it was hard to see exactly what was happening. Both of them bent down. Jack pick up a stick. There was a collective gasp among the kids and parents as he gingerly poked with the stick. Then he tossed the stick aside, reach down, and picked up…
What happened is an example of a avidya. (And in fact, a classic Indian example often told to explain the concept!)
Avidya is sometimes translated as the English word ignorance.
My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ignorance as “lack of knowledge, education, or awareness”. But it wasn’t that a lack of education or unsophistication that caused the first two kids to think they had seen a snake. Of course they know what a snake is and looks like.
However, in order for them to have seen that ‘snake’ in the first place, their minds discarded the possibility that it was a rope. Then their minds filled in the blank so they saw a snake in the rope’s place.
It was a kind of confusion or mistaken identity that caused the problem.
Avidya as not ignorance as Merriam-Webster defines it but more like a false impression.
The correct information or understanding is still there, it just gets obscured by something else. When all of the kids finally saw the rope as a rope, the snake was gone and everyone had a good laugh.
This kind of mistaken identity happens all the time, and not just to elementary school kids. We see situations, experiences, and other people unclearly all the time.
I’d even argue that we rarely see ourselves clearly.
So yoga is giving us the opportunities to figure out if we are seeing clearly or identifying with our misconceptions. It’s only with dedicated practice and a healthy dose of non-attachment that we can cultivate correct “sight” and see the ropes and snakes as they really are.
Not too long ago, Sadie, my 3-year old asked me for a drink. When I gave her the cup, she threw the most epic tantrum to ever be thrown. She stomped and shouted:
“I can NOT drink from a green cup!”
I rolled my eyes and nearly lost my temper but we worked it out and I brushed it off as typical three-year old drama.
Not too long after that, I was telling one of my teachers about a time when I attended a workshop with a very famous yoga teacher. I described how this very famous yoga teacher turned me off because she was sitting up on a throne (literally a throne!) to teach and she would make some very big shows of normal things like drinking water. I was also put off by the way she would make these big dramatic pauses when she was speaking, as if to make sure everyone was really paying attention to her.
I said to my teacher, “I prefer when teachers are a more down to earth, not so much pomp and circumstance.”
My teacher replied, “I prefer when teachers know what they are talking about whether there is pomp and circumstance or not.”
Touche. My own green cup moment.
Attractions (rāga) and aversions (dveṣa) can be impediments on the way toward manifesting intentions or fulfilling desires, or getting the experience or knowledge we seek.
Of course just like there are no categorically bad actions, attractions and aversions are situationally dependent.
We can experience this in asana practice. Everyone has attachments or aversions to practicing particular poses or practicing poses in particular ways. When presented with a different variation or way to practice, those attractions and aversions might prevent the practitioner from accessing the benefits of the pose.
The only way to tell whether or not attachments or aversions are impediments is to be really clear about exactly what it is that we want from our practice.
It also helps to continuously inquire about each time we encounter something in practice that we immediately like or don’t like.
Need help figuring out if you are caught in the trap of attractions and aversions? Spring is the perfect time to sort out your intentions, your attractions and aversions, and to renew your commitment to practicing. Come see me on the mat and we’ll sort it out together.
Namaste, yogis, and happy almost-spring!
During recovery from surgery, a student of mine asked her doctor when she would be able to return to her asana practice, adding, “I love yoga!” Her doctor simply replied, “Does yoga love you?”
It’s a question worth asking.
How many times have you come to your mat as a way to “fix” something that’s “wrong”?
How many times have you come to your mat to practice as a celebration of love for whatever is happening in your body, your mind, your emotional self?
And how many times have you come to your mat to achieve, to “own”, a particular pose?
For a long time, my asana practice was comprised of wholly corrective measures.
Savasana to make up for my chronic lack of sleep…Handstands (and caffeine!) to get me amped up for big presentations in my former office worker life… A punishing vinyasa practice to make me feel better about eating that pint of ice cream.
I also had my fair share of yoga practicing simply to achieve a particular pose.
I wasn’t doing these poses to understand body mechanics or to celebrate the amazing possibilities of human movement.
Nope. This was just me doing crazy stuff for the sake of crazy stuff. This was me, consuming and commodifying yoga postures.
Don’t get me wrong. Asana is incredibly good and helping you right the ship, so to speak, to help you strengthen and mobilize the body when you are off kilter. And it’s also really fun to be able to do arm balances and big backbends! Sometimes those poses are the kinds of things you need to motivate you to get to your practice.
But yoga asana is also offering you more than all of that.
As you know have by now noticed and perhaps experience firsthand, the postures in asana practice are never really done. There’s always something more to explore, another step to take, a different variation to try.
When I figured this out, I felt a little disheartened at first. I had this moment where I thought, “Wait, you mean I’ll never be done with this!?” But as time went on, I realized this is one of the most fantastic things about asana and the whole reason we call it a practice.
Yoga in all of its forms, not just asana, is a continual process of discovery.
There is always something more to consider, something else to try, some other way to contemplate what you discover. Simultaneously each asana you practice, in whatever form you do it, is always complete.
It is as if yoga is saying to you, yes, there are another 27 version of this pose but what about the one you are doing right? THIS pose. THIS version.THIS moment. Why are you doing this? Are you fully present to what is happening here? Can find steadiness and ease in body and mind, just as it is? If so, this pose is just as much yoga as all of the others. This pose is not lacking.
And by extension, YOU are not lacking. You are whole. You are complete.
Purna is a Sanskrit word that means ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ or even sometimes it is translated as ‘perfection’.
Purna in asana practice is a call to be really present at each stage and each moment as you are experience it. Because this stage, this moment, is totally and completely whole. Only in experiencing it fully can you see clearly for what the pose or the experience might have to teach you.
So does yoga asana love you? The answer is yes. Yoga always loves you when you practice from a space of curiosity and celebration of the wholeness that is inherently you.
The thing I love the most about home makeover shows is where they find something really valuable and unexpected under some badly designed wall or worn out carpet or boarded up fireplace. That stuff that’s over the top of the hidden treasure, like that old ugly carpet, is just like the yogic concept of prakriti.
Prakriti is the stuff of the material world. You can think about it as layers of forces or energy. The Sanskrit word for these forces/energies is guna. The word guna literally means strand or string or thread. So you can think about the gunas as the threads that make up a cloth. That cloth is prakriti.
In The Bhagavad Gita, the gunas are described as the threads of the cloth that make a mask or a veil. And that veil, like the bad 70’s shag carpet in the Fixer Upper house, is disguising something amazing.
One way to apply this in a more practical way is to start to consider what is underneath, out of sight for you. What is behind your desire to practice yoga? What is happening in your yoga poses that is more than just the outward appearance of the shape of the pose? What motivates you on (and off!) your mat? What is the intention that informs and underpins your yoga practice?
The fall is the perfect time to start to ask these questions and settle into the ways that yoga practice can serve you best through the colder and darker months ahead.