Prerequisites for success in yoga, and the yoga marathon

According to the ??Hatha Yoga Pradipika?? (16):

bq. Success depends on a cheerful disposition, perseverance, courage, self−knowledge, unshakable faith in the word of the guru, and the avoidance of all [superfluous] company.

I’ve started reading the ??HYP(Hatha Yoga Pradipika)?? with commentary. It’s quite an eye-opener. For one thing, it names the poses different from the modern, Iyengar-based naming system. For example, Kurmasana is really Tarasana (or maybe what we call “Omega Pose”), where you sit on the floor with your feet together and bring your head to your feet. So I can do Kurmasana 🙂 (Background: modern Kurmasana, meaning “tortoise pose,” involves placing your chest on the ground between your legs and placing your legs over your shoulders. I cannot do this pose.)

Of course, there’s the admonition to do the preparation for hatha yoga, which is the _yamas_ and _niyamas_ that Patañjali spoke about in the ??Yoga Sutras??. And there are specific instructions for how to set up a space, right down to a daily application of cow dung. (The commenter says you can probably get away with skipping the cow dung.)

So this brings me to an interesting point. In the West, at least in the Bible Belt, we are taught to venerate the ??Bible?? as infallible and literal. Carrying this attitude over to a reading of the classical yoga texts clearly isn’t going to work out very well, for not everyone has or need easy access to a fresh daily application of cow dung to their tranquil yoga space. So the question is what do we take metaphorically and what do we take literally? Most explanations I’ve seen of the classical stories involving the Hindu deities are metaphors. For example, there was a legendary war between the gods and the demons, and Brahma, interceding on behalf of the gods, asked Vishnu what to do. Vishnu’s response was that the gods make peace with the demons. (There’s more to the story, but this will do to illustrate my point.)

Literally, it’s just a story. Metaphorically, (and taken as a parable) it has immediate application to spiritual growth — making peace and harmony between our bodies or even our darker human tendencies and our divine aspirations. Our whole person has to work in harmony, even if it involves the darker parts of ourselves that we’d rather see fade away.

At any rate, I definitely had time to practice the first four prerequisites for success in yoga (cheerful disposition, perseverance, courage, self−knowledge). For today, after having had my butt kicked in advanced Anusara last night, did 3 hours tonight. The first 1.5 hours was much like last night, but the last 1.5 hours was a lot easier. It was very nice to go back to basics after pushing my edge with a couple of intense, advanced practices. I did manage, even if briefly, _visvamitrasana_. I nailed _astavakrasana_, though I opted out of jumping into the pose from down dog (there’s that self-knowledge). Both of these are examples of courage, after I bombed the poses (with a little sadness, and a little mirth) last night. I even tried the handstand transition to _chaturanga dandasana_ and nailed that, even though I had to use a wall to steady myself.

However, I drove right up to my edge, and I had to realize I was there and back off until I was just beyond my comfort zone and could sustain a 3-hour practice. I might have pushed myself too hard a couple of times. We did 5 — 5! — _urdhva dhanurasanas_ (or wheel) poses tonight; I managed 4 and wisely sat one out. I did two ab-busting exercises tonight, but had to tone the second one way down because I was just too tired. Even while I was doing the hard stuff, or backed off, I smiled and enjoyed the practice. I’ve learned a lot about myself this week through 4.5 hours of practice, a lot of which involved learning what I’ve de-emphasized lately in favor of other practices. And I’ve definately perservered, at least in this short term. I’ve also perservered in the long term, because I keep coming back to this practice even when other responsibilities don’t permit as full a yoga practice as I’d like. (This week is certainly anomalous in that respect.)

Tonight, I went back to the basics. Set the foundation. Work the legs. Pulse outward in the pose. Check the foundation again. Pulse outward. I was glad to go back to a basic practice after going through the more fancy poses. I was tired (and had to work with steadiness through breath), but open. I found this very helpful.

I guess there’s a couple of others that the ??Pradipika?? mentions that I haven’t touched on. Behind unshakeable faith in the guru there is a lot of years of testing and making sure the guru and the student are a good match. (At least this is supposed to be how it works.) The skepticism is done up front, and then once the skepticism is satisfied the student is free to have this unshakeable faith. Of course, in the West, we don’t have easy access to a guru. We have yoga teachers which are very good but probably have not undergone the mystical transformations that mark the path to enlightenment. So we really do miss that aspect of study and devotion and, since our thinking in the West really glorifies skepticism and it’s darker cousin paranoid mistrust, we find devotion to a guru a strange concept. On the other hand, I think it should be clear from a survey of a variety of the classical texts that a guru is very helpful, but not required, for enlightenment. (Tantra practitioners probably disagree with me on this.)

The other is avoiding superfluous company. This is always wise if we can manage it. There are simply some people who affirm who we are, and some whose presence detracts from it. We should minimize contact with these people, and seek company with life-affirming people. (This doesn’t mean people who always cheer you on. Sometimes life-affirming people may challenge you and make you struggle.) This is a topic that probably deserves a lot more of my attention.

Ok, let’s see if I can make it this Friday at 6am.

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