In Praise of Suffering
(Do we really need a Part Two?)
Experience suggests that the consistent, homeopathic doses (Non-GMO, and Organic of course) of discomfort and adversity administered by the regular practice of Iyengar Yoga may result in long-term immunity to misery . . .
Misery . . . discomfort . . . suffering . . . The very words themselves seem stark. Saying them seems to fill the mouth with a certain darkness—almost a taste—that is difficult to get rid of. The words themselves are somehow repellent. Somehow wrong. Something to be feared.
In my practice lately, I have been working through the practice sequences at the back of Light on Yoga. For those of you who don’t know, three asana “courses” are laid out in this section: the primary, intermediate and advanced courses, comprising a 300-week program (that’s six year’s worth of practice, by the way, with two weeks’ annual vacation). I have heard that, when asked, Mr. Iyengar said he should have added a “0” to each week in the program (thus making it a 3,000-week program). Nonetheless, the 300 weeks are divided into, mostly, four- or five-week blocks with certain postures and sequences laid out for extensive practice during these periods.
Being a somewhat experienced (or so I imagine) Iyengar yoga practitioner, I pretty much cruised through the first twenty weeks or so. Then, in week 22, along comes padmasana, or the “lotus” posture. Now, I do not mean to turn this article into an essay on my epic journey with padmasana, but it is a very significant posture for me. First off, it is a posture I have coveted (more on that soon) since I began yoga in 1997. It is a movement, a position, and entity that, for me, seemed to contain the quintessence of all things yogic—exotic, uniquely graceful, full of other-worldly beauty, power, and soulfulness. To this day, I see the posture and something in me delights and falls half in love with bearer of this ability. In fact, during the national Iyengar Yoga teachers convention I recently attended in San Diego, I had a couple of profound encounters with padmasana.
First was the teacher of the convention, Birjoo Mehta. Birjoo was basically born into Iyengar Yoga, his mother being an avid student of Guruji’s. He began him formal practice of Iyengar Yoga at the age of eight. Now in his early-fifties, Birjoo shows some signs of age—certain limitations in the mobility of his hamstrings, a noticeable rigidity in his spine when backbending. However, he began class each session by walking quietly to the center of the teaching platform, sitting for a moment in swastikasana (a simple cross-legged posture), and then, in about three swift, strong movements, locked (or, really, more like snapped) his legs into padmasana. My knees ached just thinking about those movements. As you can imagine, this instantly endeared Birjoo to some fundamental part of me. His brilliant, mystical, brain-scrambling instructions were really just bonus material for the presence of the padmasana, and its execution.
After the conclusion of the convention, I spent some time visiting with two veteran Iyengar Yoga instructors from San Diego, Amman and Sunny Keays. They took me to their yoga studio, Full Circle yoga, the first yoga studio in San Diego, for an afternoon of conversation and practice. After we had completed some practice, I was waiting for them to finish up a couple of tasks at the studio and happened to pick up a newsletter from their regional Iyengar Yoga association. I opened it and flipped to a page with the picture of a man in a beautiful padmasana—soles of the feet pointing backwards not skywards, heels nearer the side of the pelvis than the navel, hips as though they swiveled on ball-bearings. Really, picture-perfect. It would give Guruji’s a run for its money, in fact. In the article that accompanied the picture, the man was discussing that he had learned from his teachers that there are postures that are “God-given,” that will be particularly suited to that person’s body type, design, and aptitudes. He was sharing how he had always held padmasana in a particularly high-regard, how he had been captivated by it and how it represented all things yogic for him. Sound familiar? Yes, well, the resemblance ends there, because padmasana was one of the “God-given” postures for this man. He was able to perform it right from the start of his practice, and it was clearly highly refined by this point.
I must have been somewhere else when God was handing out padmasana. I am not complaining about that or bemoaning my fate, just stating the facts. For example, as a child even, rather than sit on the floor “Indian-style” and play, I would sit, I don’t know what you’d call it, “W-style” (with my knees almost touching and my feet off to the side, resting on the instep and pointing away from my hips—the reverse of Indian-style) Like this: That’s my son, Lucas demonstrating. Recognize it? This is the posture physicians now adamantly encourage parents to prevent their children from sitting in (sorry Lucas, this is why we keep bugging you about sitting cross-legged). When story- or movie- time would come around in elementary school, I would remember the mixture of excitement to have a break from the monotony of the classroom with agony as I tried to sit cross-legged like the rest of the kids. My hips ached even them from tightness, as my knees were up around my armpits in that position. That’s where they were when I began yoga as well, by the way.
The texts I’ve read on Yoga, mainly the Bhagavad-Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras speak of fear and desire as major obstacles to the practice of yoga and the attainment of inner peace and serenity. The Yoga Sutras in particular lists aparigraha, or “absence of greed for possessions beyond one’s needs,”[i] as one of the five “moral observances” foundational to the practice of yoga. Its practice, it is said leads to a certain sense of freedom and immunity from grief related to attachment. When one is firmly established in its practice, it yields knowledge of one’s past and future lives (and, I’d imagine, essentially frees one from two of the most negative emotions a human being can experience: worry and regret). In my understanding, aparigraha (or “greed” as it is sometimes translated) ignites a kind of restlessness, which leads to disturbance and ultimately affliction. In fact, desire is said to be one of the five major afflictions which a human being may be plagued by.
Thanks to padmasana, these ideas are no longer theories to me. Nobody needs to warn me that if I try to feed my “greed for possessions beyond my needs” I’m likely to end up in some kind of physical or psychic danger. Because that’s where I have found myself (and, admittedly, still find myself) with padmasana. I don’t know why, but the beauty and grace of this posture have made me hanker after it. So many other things have happened, so many profound changes have occurred, in my practice of yoga. I inhabit a dramatically different body and mind today than the one I came to yoga with. For example, I couldn’t touch my toes, my hamstrings were so stiff. I can now put my face on my shins in the same forward bend; I couldn’t stand on my head for more than a minute or so, now I am working my way toward fifteen minutes; I had some pretty significant upper back and neck pain when I came to yoga, now I can push up with straight arms and legs into Urdhva Dhanurasana (or “Wheel” posture). I am not saying this to brag. Really, these are minor achievements compared to the true yogic triumphs of being friendly to all regardless of their attitude towards me, rejoicing in the good fortune and successes of others, even if this same good fortune and success seems to elude me, having an attitude of tolerance and serenity in the face of others’ faults and vices, and having boundless love and compassion for all beings, friend or foe. I am simply mentioning these things to show the profound transformation that can occur on a very practical level.
Many of these changes occurred, and very radical changes, occurred for me within the first six months to one year of practice. Since then, it seems like progress has occurred much more incrementally. Padmasana, however, is one posture that seems to have plateau-ed for the longest period of time. Surely my hips have opened dramatically. My knees are no longer up around my armpits in swastikasana, but now lay with ease on the ground. It has been a quest. Many times to this day, I will elect to sit on the floor, or somehow cram myself into swastikasana on a chair to continue the process of being able to “sit.” It hasn’t come easy, this ability to sit with ease, on the ground, in a cross-legged position—in other words, this ability to do what countless human beings from other cultures around the world do quite effortlessly and without deliberation; in other words, to do what is “natural” in many cases. And, if you are reading this and suspect you are immune from this challenge, try sitting still of a half-hour or so in swastikasana without uncrossing or changing the crossing of your legs . . . not so easy, is it? You may be comforted, like I was, to know that learning to sit is a process—a process that captures the quintessence of yoga and, some say, is the reason why we have all the other postures besides padmasana. Asana, often translated as “posture” or “pose” also is translated as “seat.” So there is a real parallel between the practice of yogasana and what in some traditions of Buddhist meditation practice is called “the process of gaining your seat.” The process of gaining your seat is, in my understanding a boundless mental and physical quest to learn to be still and comfortable in the midst of any experience. It is the process by which I come to embody stira sukham asanam, or “perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.”[ii]
Back to padmasana: as I said, after many years of practice, I am still unable to “snap” or “pop” myself into it, though I have snapped and popped myself in attempts to do so. Within two years of my (undoubtedly covetous) attempts to “attain” the posture—in other words, after two years of insensitively forcing padmasana on my body (a force surely driven by parigraha/ greed), I had injured both knees. Within about four years, my right knee would “clunk” rather loudly when I brought it out of any seated position in which the knee was bent and the hip externally rotated. Looking back, I am amazed at how well my knees are doing. These injuries, however, still make themselves known nearly fifteen years later. Though I have learned from yoga not to jump to any conclusions, that my perceptions are unreliable, and that I never know what’s going to happen next, I’m going to say that, in my estimation, I am a long way from being able to “snap” into padmasana in a few quick movements. I now practice padmasana or ardha padmasana (“half-lotus”) pretty much daily, I enter it through a pretty elaborate process (the injuries very un-forgivingly reminding me of past missteps) to ensure I don’t inflict further injury.
If you have read this far (does anyone do that anymore?), you may be saying, “What are you complaining about? I’ve never even been close to padmasana.” Others might be saying, “What’s the big deal, padmasana is just a posture and you’re saying it’s not even about the posture anyway. Besides, I thought this article was supposed to be praising suffering.” Okay, so I didn’t expect this article to be about padmasana. In fact, I still don’t mean it to be . . . I have used all this detail about padmasana to illustrate that transformation can come from where it’s least expected. Transformation can be happening—positive transformation, that is—even when it looks like something unfortunate is happening. I might go as far as to assert positive transformation occurs much more readily and deeply in the midst of discomfort, not in spite of it. I have seen so many well-intentioned yoga students, myself included, zealously (if not obsessively) putting themselves through the rigors of their practice with the hope that somehow they could work themselves out of adversity. I am not saying anything new when I acknowledge how preoccupied our culture is with comfort and convenience, that is, with extinguishing adversity, with avoiding suffering at all costs. I am writing this, in part to remind myself that I am on a quest for growth, for rising to the highest possibility for my life and my humanity. It is very likely that if I am comfortable and experiencing any adversity, that I will be compelled to grow. In fact, I know that when I am comfortable, when my life situation is what I would call pleasant, I am least likely to have any inspiration to inquire into what I must change about myself to move to a higher expression of my life. This only happens when some discomfort drives me to move. I am sure there is another way to grow than this, but for me it is working.
From what I can tell, yoga practices are designed with very little interest in making one comfortable. Certainly padmasana (arguably the quintessential yoga posture) is not. Mr. Iyengar himself states, “At the start [students] will feel excruciating pains around the knees.”[iii] This doesn’t mean that comfort isn’t at all important. What could be more comfortable than being “undisturbed by the dualities”[iv] of life, of being able to be at ease in the midst of both pleasure and pain, gain and loss, joy or sorrow, success or failure, praise or abuse? Though at times fraught with discomfort, discouragement, and even despair the practice of yoga, when sustained with devotion, has led me to live with greater ease. Again, to quote Guruji: “After the initial knee pains have been overcome, padmasana is one of the most relaxing poses.” [v] So comfort, in the yoga sense, relates very little to the ideas about comfort that I have learned. So many messages seem to suggest that comfort exists somewhere outside me, waiting to infuse my life with peace and ecstasy the moment I possess the thing which gives it—the next achievement, the next vacation, the next medication, the next purchase, the next amusement.
And this is what I have learned from padmasana (or in other words from the practice of yoga) and even more so from the “adversity” I have encountered in my quest for it: that the process of “gaining my seat” is much more profound and dynamic and spiritually transformative than any picture can capture; that this process may or may not be reflected by the “picture perfect padmasana:” that just because I can sit in a so-called picture-perfect padmasana, it doesn’t mean that I have found any real stability or fortitude within myself. How I look in padmasana has nothing to do with my ability to face life with equanimity and joy no matter what the circumstances. It is what I have had to do and who I have had to “be” to “look” that way. Gaining my seat (padmasana being the truest of seats) has been more like riding a wild bull than settling onto a magic carpet. From what I can tell from the stories and lessons from the great yogis and teachers I have encountered, that is right on target.
So, to conclude, consider this: Encounter the adversity you experience in your practice of yoga as a victory, as a gift you give yourself. Consider your practice as a way of immunizing yourself, very gently, homeopathically (organically and without G.M.O.s of course), one small (daily) dose at a time to adversity, to the suffering that stems from all the dualities that are part of the nature of life on Earth. The side effects (namely freedom from affliction and misery in the face of any circumstances, in addition to feeling pretty great in your body) are pretty nice too.