Here an article from me that was published in the August issue of YOGA Magazine https://www.yogamagazine.com/ashtanga-vinyasa-yoga/. I was asked to give an update of my work since the publication of Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, whether I had developed any new perspectives and how that would have influenced my teaching style.
“In the 13 years since the publication of Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy I followed up with the release of four more textbooks, Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series, Pranayama The Breath of Yoga, Yoga Meditation: Through Chakras, Mantra and Kundalini to Spiritual Freedom and Samadhi the Great Freedom. Following this trajectory while I maintained my asana practice my focus shifted more and more towards the higher or inner limbs. In this article I focus on how my asana practice has changed and what yoga has given me.
I am practicing yoga for 40 years and of those the last 30 years my asana practice has been Ashtanga, which I do practice 6-days per week. I certainly found that practicing yoga was getting easier and easier with each decade of practice coming and going. I have a vague memory of the first decade including some element of hardship. That was mainly due to the fact that I was raised in a culture that believed in success, sensory gratification, self-abuse, self-denial and self-torture, ambition and competition and that I initially imported all of this cultural baggage into yoga.
When Westerners turn yogis they often sabotage themselves by not letting go of goal-orientation. A major break-through in my practice was the letting go of seeking progress and success. I understood that I needed to simply do the practices rather than doing them to succeed and to progress. Consider the following: You may have about 10 or 20 years of progress in your asana practice in you. Then another 10 years give and take of stagnation and then (hopefully) several decades of going backwards, which is simply a result of your aging body decreasing strength and flexibility despite your practice. The myth that yoga is about improving, succeeding and progressing is just that, a myth.
The next layer I needed to shed related to self-abuse, self-denial and self-torture. It is very inbuilt in our culture. In order to get that next academic degree, to achieve that next business or investment success we need to spend long nights, work hard, deny our needs, burn our eyes in front of the screen, etc. Exactly this attitude stared me in my face on the mat. The monkey on my back told me to abuse, torture and deny myself in order to conquer that next asana, that next series. But beneath that first loud voice I found another gentler one: This other voice told me that self-abuse, self-torture and self-denial with all its hardness, exhaustion and high expectations was really a function of my lack of self-love and self-acceptance.
As I wrote this last sentence I marveled at the fact how easy it is to type it on the keyboard but how hard it can be to really deeply feel it. Look at the five-thousand-year history of our wars, our conflicts, our delight in seeing the defeated writhing on the floor and in beholding our own glory in victory, our adversarialism, our love for controversy, our relishing in having conflicting opinions even down to our belief that we ourselves are different, better, greater or at least right (and the others wrong) and we will prove it… I found that I had imported this cultural narrative, i.e. that I was not good enough as I was, into my practice. The second, gentler voice, let’s call it the voice of yoga, told me that I needed to let go of all of that and to begin with that I needed to totally love and accept myself.
It is not always easy to completely love and accept oneself. It entails forgiveness for all one’s shortcomings. The reason why it can be so hard is because we as a humanity have been so embroiled in thoughts of retribution, sin, punishment, revenge, etc. that a strong habit and tendency has been formed. According to yoga every sensation experienced leaves a residue behind. No pain (but no joy either) is ever lost. To love and accept oneself includes letting go of cultural and ancestral memories and concepts.
When describing my Ashtanga practice today I would use the terms soft, joyful, playful, loving, caring, nurturing, rejuvenating and it is getting easier every year. I remember that there were times when it was harder, challenging (the ego was challenging the body), possibly even tiring. While the surrender of internal conflict may initially benefit us yogis on the mat through the disappearance of all hardness and exhaustion from our practice, it has another, more important result. In the beginning I felt it to be almost wrong to love and accept myself. But then I found that when loving and accepting oneself it is almost impossible to not love whoever your gaze falls on. In fact, self-love is the precursor to dropping the concept of the “other”. The idea of “other”, i.e. the belief that you are a separated, isolated entity is needed to maintain the externalization of inner conflicts. Once this is let go of we can admit that we are all the same atman (self). Then inner conflict and its sibling outer conflict have come to an end.
Our philosophies of life, whether we follow a religious or scientific paradigm, are based on the belief that we are limited beings and that “out there” is the “other,” whether this be other people, the environment, or the infidels, immigrants, etc. In most cases, it is an “other” that we have to defend ourselves against. In the Old Testament this belief metaphorically started with us eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When we ate from this metaphorical tree, we started to believe there is something other than the Divine, and we became aware of our nakedness. We had to cover up and were expelled from the Garden of Eden and the whole multi-millennia warfare of Kain versus Abel started, which is nothing but war against ourselves.
These are powerful beliefs, and while some may say they are not religious and have a scientific worldview, this acceptance of our evil and sinful nature expelled us from paradise, our symbiotic oneness with nature. Because of that, we could no longer live naked within nature and in harmony with its laws but had to overcome, subdue, control, and exploit nature. This led to the whole Gallilean-Cartesian-Newtonian trajectory of rising above and controlling nature and now is finally leading us to the abyss of ecocide and the threat of our own extinction. This trajectory is based on the subject-object split and the belief that we live in a hostile (the Hobbesian “nature is red in tooth and claw”) or at least indifferent cosmos (the Darwinian ‘life is a purposeless accident”).
Experiencing that all matter, all beings and everything that exists is nothing but the crystallized body of the Divine in the symbolic language of the Bible is to eat from that other tree that grew in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Eternal Life. We ejected ourselves from the Garden by eating from the Tree of Good and Evil, by accepting that there is a force that effectively neutralizes the Divine, nature. Admitting that this was an error, that there is only the Divine, re-admits us to the Garden or what indigenous people call, “We are the land”. This would radically change our current trajectory, the conflict of Kain against Abel, the war against ourselves, and the belief in our own evil. It means accepting our own nakedness, which means we are not to overcome and control nature but live in symbiotic exchange with it. It means we admit there is no “other” and and that we have left the Garden of Eden only in our imagination. It is still around us and we are welcome to take off the blindfold and start to see again.
An important part of giving up “othering” is to practice forgiveness. Forgiveness has two important aspects, which go hand in hand, to forgive oneself and to forgive others. Ultimately, they will both merge into one but when we begin the practice of forgiveness we notice that we specialize either in holding grudges against ourselves or against others. Some individuals may find that they need to first forgive themselves to be able to forgive others or vice versa.
Of course, our tendency to hold grudges against either ourselves or others comes both from the same psychological entity. It is what Freud called the superego. We have all heard advise such as “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged and by your standard of measure it will be meted out to you.” This passage contains a profound psychological understanding. It is the Freudian superego that performs both judgment of ourselves and others and ultimately both cannot be suspended without the other because both are performed by the superego.
Scriptural passages that talk about final judgment have an important psychological component. Here the judgment is not performed by a God that has nothing better to do than holding court proceedings against each individual but by ourselves in the moment of death (and of course to a lesser extent during each breath we take). I came to this understanding not through philosophical speculation but when one day I was hit by a semitrailer while travelling on a motorcycle at about 120km/h. Later I reconstructed that the time from impact to my body hitting the bitumen could not have taken more than a few seconds but subjectively the time took longer than the 18 years of my life to date. While I was seemingly suspended in mid-air my subconscious pulled up every single situation I had encountered during my young life. The so-called superego then gave its judgment on how I had fared, which meant I was condemned on almost all counts. While this happened, I noticed that I was judged and condemned according to the same merciless rules that I had previously only ever smugly applied to others.
It was later only that I understood that in death or near-death-experiences identification with body and mind is suspended or transcended. In these moments our ability to be hypocritical ceases and the same rules and judgments that we have meted out to others are now served up to ourselves. This is due to the simple fact that the subconscious acts like a recorder. It simply plays back what you have recorded and during no time is this more important than during the moment of death. Meanwhile my body propelled by the impact of a 40-ton truck was still sailing through the air ready to meet the bitumen and potentially its maker. It became now crystal clear to me that if I had the chance to do it all again I would do it all completely different. I would not judge others lest I should be judged myself…
In these moments I rediscovered something that changed my life. While I was hurled through the air I looked at my entire life seemingly still-shot after still-shot. It appeared to me that the presence to which these still-shots occurred was unchanged from the time when all these life situations initially took place to now when they were recalled. I also noticed that this entity seemed the same, equal unaffected and unperturbed in all situations of my life.
I suddenly rediscovered and recognized that there was this entity present in myself that was completely independent of the body and mind. It did not judge and compare situations but was simply aware … And because it was not busy judging, comparing and sentencing people it made me capable of seeing that the sky was blue, the forest green and the flowers red. It made me capable of feeling, seeing and sensing a world of incredible beauty and most incredible the fact that I was alive, that I was a living embodied being…alive still at least at this moment … as the impact with the bitumen drew closer.
I was thinking then that should I be able to live I would complete change and be of service to all beings that I would meet. I then noticed that this presence within me was not afraid of the impact. In this presence there was no difference between body, bitumen or you and me… This presence was the awareness, the consciousness within all of us. It was pure love. It did not know fear since awareness is without beginning and end, it is not limited by time nor by space but time and space are notions occurring within it.
I did let myself fall into this presence, which I recognized as my essence. In this ocean of infinite consciousness, of pure love, somewhere the notion of impact occurred. Then further notions of ambulance, hospital, doctors, bandages, etc., occurred.
Eventually the body had sufficiently recovered that I could take walks in nature. I felt that within me that made me aware of the blue of the ocean, the green of the forest and the red of the flowers. It loves all beings evenly and does not judge. It does not hold grudges and does not hold on to anything. It forgives all and everything.
Yes, forgiveness is the beginning of self-love. If you do not love yourself you cannot truly love others. You may behave lovely but only to get love from them. Needing and therefore wanting love from others determines your actions only if you don’t really love yourself. Also, if you truly love yourself you don’t need to show it by spoiling, pampering and treating yourself. All that just shows that one still come from neediness, from needing to receive. The sacred heart of Divine Love does not worry about receiving. It is so overflowing that it always wants to give, has to give. In the moment when you are one with love you do not need to prove it by being pampered. The need for treating yourself arises only if there is doubt, if there is emptiness where there can be fullness and overflowing.
Yoga’s goal is letting this internal quality of love shine through your being out into the world providing healing for others and meaning for you. Because for this heart there is only one purpose to life and that is to make a valid contribution to the life of others.