September 29, 2015 tylandrum

Tasting the Poison

photo by Barbara Suss

Truth is simple, but ignorance takes many forms.
– Socrates

In the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, practice is said to be the antidote for the poison of conditioned existence. According to the teachings of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, this poison can take six forms: desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and pride (kama, krodha, moha, lobha, matsarya and mada). These are six forms of ignorance that derange our senses and deform our perceptions of the world.

These poisons are familiar to all Ashtanga practitioners. They appear in the most inopportune moments, twisting our sensation patterns, breaking our focus, and casting us down into lower states of mind. The practice makes these poisons obvious because we are prone to tense around them, and in that tension, we find it difficult to settle into the postures.

Many of us regard these poisons as obstacles to the practice, as things that we would rather practice without. This is certainly understandable. Since we come to the practice seeking respite from the anguish of the mind, quiet naturally becomes one of the standards by which we assess the practice. As Pattabhi used to say “When the mind is quiet, the asana is correct.” So when poisonous thoughts or feelings rise to the surface of our conscious minds, we often become discouraged, impatient, provoked, ashamed or humiliated, and we lose the delicate thread of the breath. Then we scold ourselves for having a “bad practice.”

These poisons, however, are not mere distractions. On the contrary, they provide something essential to the practice, without which the practice would not be as revealing, as fascinating, or as potent as it is.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that the two elements of yoga are abhyasa and vairagya, or practice and dispassion. These elements are mutually supportive and depend upon one another. The eight limbs of Ashtanga fall under abhyasa, but they must be done with vairagya or dispassion to work. That is, they must be done with coolness and equanimity, without attachment to results, and with an open acceptance of whatever arises.

The practice of Ashtanga is a particularly potent opportunity for cultivating dispassion, precisely because it brings the six poisons to the surface, exposing all of the poisonous thoughts and feelings that swarm around in our minds. Dispassion allows us to bear these thoughts and feelings calmly, cooly and without emotional reaction. The premise of Ashtanga is that, if we can allow these poisons to arise, and we can hold them in our awareness without either resisting them or acting them out, they will slowly lose their potency. That is, they will lose some of their power to influence in our minds, and our minds will become lighter in the process.

So according to the Ashtanga approach, we can neutralize the six poisons, but not without tasting them first. This idea is enshrined in the mythical story of how the gods and demons once worked together to churn the cosmic ocean in order to extract the amrita, or the nectar of immortality. As they began to churn, the first thing to arise on the surface of the ocean was a thick, black and putrid sludge, with all kinds of ugly and deformed creatures inside.

The gods and demons writhed and moaned in disgust. They were all so repulsed that they could not carry on with their work, and everyone was at a loss about what to do. Then down came Śiva, the patron of yoga, to the shore. He gathered the sludge into his hand, raised it to his mouth, and slowly sipped it up. But rather than swallow, he let the sludge slide down into his throat, where it then began to neutralize, turning his throat a radiant blue.

This story is a metaphor for practice. When we start to practice, we start to churn our minds, and the first thing to arise is the poison of our conditioning. This is a crucial and unavoidable moment in the process of inquiry, and everything depends on how we respond. Just as Śiva took the sludge from the cosmic ocean and held it in his throat, so we have to draw the six poisons from our minds down into our mouths, and then hold it there, without swallowing or spitting out. In other words, we have to hold an open space of compassionate awareness for the various manifestations of the six poisons to appear, change form and dissolve, without indulging or suppressing them.

This is the inner practice of Ashtanga Yoga. It is a practice of compassion, or complete openness to what is. It demands the improbable collaboration of both divine and demonic forces within us, which is to say, of the most beautiful and repulsive parts of our minds, which, contrary to our conceptions of ourselves, are closely allied. These forces must work together to expose us to ourselves as we are. And once they make themselves apparent, the practice demands a caring but dispassionate acceptance of their interdependence, so that we can face ourselves as we actually are, without attachment or aversion to any part of ourselves.

This practice creates a positive tendency to recognize and suspend our cascading reactions to our own poisonous thoughts and feelings. And the more we suspend these reactions, the more the poisons lose their potency. The structures of ego to which they give rise gradually begin to break down, leaving a clearing in our minds for insight. In this clearing, we can see ourselves, and other beings, as we actually are, and we can appreciate the intimate nature of our relations to them, feeling closer and more connected to them than ever before. Then the amrita, or the nectar of yoga, flows spontaneously from within us, saturating our minds and senses with compassion, or complete openness to reality.

So the practice, in a way, is supposed to hurt. It is supposed to wound our pride and offend our vanity. It is supposed to sting us with the thorns of our own jealousies and resentments, while exposing us to our fears and anxieties. In the context of practice, none of these things are a distraction. On the contrary, they are the very material on which the practice works. When we contemplate the presence of these things within ourselves, and we trace their influence over our thoughts, feelings and actions, we begin an authentic inquiry into the state of our minds, an inquiry that can slowly unravel the threads of our conditioning.

So instead of a hoping for a “good practice” in which we encounter no resistance, we should embrace resistance as part of the material of yoga practice itself. And when the poison comes into our mouths, we should feel gratitude for the opportunity of tasting our humanness, and meeting ourselves with compassion.