What is discipline, really?
Discipline is a tricky little devil. Ideally, it can be the fire that gets us on the mat so that we can strip away the illusions and misidentifications that cause us to suffer. As Iyengar explains, “wood must be heated to ignite it and bring out the hidden fire within.”Not so ideally, it can also be a confusing agent of self-hatred and punishment. When we commit ourselves to a disciplined daily practice (and since there is no need to preach to the converted, we know this has benefits) we can also be mistakenly committing ourselves to a desire to achieve aesthetically based fitness goals and an addiction to the ability to perform complicated party-trick asana. When I miss a practice or feel that I’ve just sort of lazily stretched for an hour, a niggle in the back of my mind warns that perhaps I’ll soon slip back into adolescent pudginess and its maelstrom of related emotional entanglements if I don’t step up and get myself back into shape. I have to remember that there is a balance of health to be maintained between body, mind, and heart – which of course are fundamentally intertwined – while on the sometimes difficult and circuitous path of yoga. A path that we hope leads us through a life liberated from cycles of suffering.
The Obstacle Course
Sticking with yoga day after day through the ups and downs of life can be like navigating an obstacle course. Often, teachers will tell us that in times of change and difficulty we should listen to our bodies and give ourselves what we need. But sometimes our bodies and minds are damn liars and want us to wallow on the sofa in Netflix binges and avoid practice. This can be our ego’s way of avoiding working with challenge. Unchecked, at least for me, this can spiral into feeling a lot shittier over time as the self-care routines I try to keep in place with discipline get stymied by whatever obstacle is in my face. Flashback to me in a phys-ed class staring at a rope I’ve been told to climb up and wondering if I can just go back to listening to Ethel Merman on my Walkman happily hidden in the bleachers.
There are numerous obstacles to practice, which I have become intimately acquainted with over the years. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali details these distractions and obstacles in the path of yoga. As Desikachar summarises, the “nine obstacles listed by Patanjali are illness, lethargy, doubt, haste or impatience, resignation or fatigue, distraction, ignorance or arrogance, inability to take a new step, and loss of confidence. They are manifested in symptoms like feeling sorry for oneself, a negative attitude, physical problems, and breathing difficulties.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about these obstacles lately, particularly illness and lethargy, as I feel my practice has been diminishing and plateauing. Not out of lack of care, but because I’ve been sick on and off for the last few months (nothing too serious – but enough to be inconvenient). I haven’t found much reassurance about working with this obstacle in the classic texts. BKS Iyengar, in Light on Yoga, explains more:
[The] first obstacle is ill-health or sickness. To the yogi his body is the prime instrument of attainment. If his vehicle breaks down, the traveller cannot go far. If the body is broken by ill-health, the aspirant can achieve little. When the body is sick or the nervous system is affected, the mind becomes restless or dull and inert and concentration or meditation becomes impossibleâ€¦ A person suffering from languor has no goal, no path to follow, and no enthusiasm. His mind and intellect become dull due to inactivity and their faculties rust. Constant flow keeps a mountain stream pure, but water in a ditch stagnates and nothing good can flourish in it.
This feels like a polite way of saying “Tough titty. You’ll have to wait it out.” But I guess there is no rush when you have a lifetime, or even lifetimes, to seek liberation.
What is your priority?
To lay it out on the table and then get past it, of course yoga is in some ways exercise and contributes to health, fitness, and a more positive experience of embodiment. But most of that work is very simple, can be achieved with relatively simple and low impact sequences, and is not to be confused with body sculpting you might do for an entirely different rationale in a gym environment.
We have to remember that the fitness of the body is, of course, a priority, but it is not the only priority. When we over-emphasise the physical and fetishise asana we then equate discipline with relentless and unyielding execution of physically demanding daily asana no matter what is going on in our lives. Asana through its challenge can reveal much in our psyches, but we shouldn’t bully ourselves into only one way of executing it all the time.
When you’re sick or unwell and you can’t be physical, and your priority is fitness, you can get super discouraged and pissed off. The discipline of daily practice can be redefined into simply getting on our mat and working with asana to contribute to wellness of body, mind, and heart. This can liberate you to be a bit more free in what you end up doing on your mat. Maybe instead of your normal rigorous sun-salutations you just enjoy some stillness and release.
Let yoga bend to you. Do not force yourself to bend to yoga.
Finding the cheerleader
To avoid feeling too sorry for ourselves when we cannot do what we think we need to or want to do, we need to find an inner cheerleader. Iyengar, avoiding my cheerleader simplification, more elegantly explains:
To remove the obstacle of laziness, unflagging enthusiasm is needed. The attitude of the aspirant is lie that of a lover ever yearning to meet the beloved but never giving way to despair. Hope should be his shield and courage his sword. He should be free from hate and sorrow. With faith and enthusiasm he should overcome the inertia of the body and the mind.
This inner cheerleader is compassionate, kind, and patient. This cheerleader has hope that no matter what we can work with these obstacles, get through them, and continue on our path. No need for bullying, shaming, or beating ourselves up in any way for not meeting some arbitrarily decided goal.
Riding the Waves
While thinking about this blog I had in my mind a quote I had once read about the ups and downs of practice and discipline. I could see its outlines perfectly formed on a page I once read but couldn’t quite make out the actual words. I rummaged through my Iyengar, my Erich Schiffmann, and left myself reminders to look through that Stephen Cope book when I got home after dinner. Tellingly, I didn’t quite trust my own intuition on the subject. But I think I found what I was looking for in a couple of Donna Farhi’s books.
There will inevitably be times when progress is slow, when injury or illness or life circumstances limit our ability to do the outward forms. But this doesn’t limit our ability to plumb the depths of our inner life.
Throughout our lives, we cycle through times of expansion, times of contraction, and times of being suspended in a pause or plateau where we are assimilating and integrating our experience. These rhythmic changes are as natural to us as is our breath. As the internal metronome of rhythm, our breath mirrors this life process of taking in and absorbing, letting go and relinquishing, and resting in the moments in between. When we suppress any one of these rhythms in our Yoga practice, our time on the mat will serve to freeze our way of being rather than afford us a way of adapting and changing in response to our deepest needs.
So there will be waves, seasons, u-turns, and detours in your practice, but that is part of the wonderful chaos of life.
You will get sick. You will get tired. You will age. You will lose flexibility and strength. You will gain some of it back. You will get emotional. You will get depressed. You will get tired. You will get over it. Or you won’t. But that has no bearing on your ability to practice.
In a moment I’m going to stop writing and whining and actually get on to my mat and do something to make me feel good. But, I will leave you with a refined approach to discipline from Judith Lasater:
To me, discipline is not something that I force upon myself. It is something that I cultivate and which arises in me as a result of two things: my clarity of intention and my commitment. To lessen your resistance to practice, spend some time with this question of clarity. For just a few moments before you step onto the mat, ask yourself what your yoga practice is about today. Let your first focus be on clarity, not action. Whether your answer leads you to choose a physically challenging practice or a restful one, you will be more present with it if you are acting from a place of clarity. When you practice from clarity, you diminish the time you spend caught up in doubt and questioning. With your energy more focused, I predict you will enjoy your practice more-and thus, over time your resistance will decrease.