Just before the pandemic, there was a palpable sense that something was dying within our tradition. Our delusion of belonging to an altogether charmed lineage, with enlightened leaders and an enchanted past, had been dispelled by disturbing revelations. Many of us were thrown into confusion, then saddled with sorrow, over the accusations of abuse against our founder, and we were stunned by the silence of prominent teachers and friends. Many of us began to doubt the tradition, to doubt our teachers, to doubt the practice, and to wonder, with a certain agonized air, what we are doing, and why we are doing it.
Many people gave up on Ashtanga altogether. Then came the pandemic. Studios around the world closed down, retreats were cancelled, and the theater of Ashtanga was suddenly confined to little backlit squares on Zoom. This sudden suspension of ordinary life shifted our attention away from the scandal, away from the conversation about what the scandal has to reveal, not only about our founder, but about our own patterns of projection. And many of us were understandably relieved, for those patterns are hard to confront, and the public conversation was painful and sadly divisive.
But this has not been a time of stagnation. On the contrary, the stillness of the last year allowed many of us to mourn what we lost, and also to contemplate it more deeply, more personally, without all the pageantry of Ashtanga to distract us. And for so many of us, our primary way of contemplating has been to drop into depths of the practice itself, and rediscover its profound potency.
This year has been a time of death. And one of the things that seems to be dying, at least in the hearts and minds of many of the Ashtanga practitioners that I know is an old allegiance to a certain kind of power dynamic between students and teachers, a dynamic that may have once seemed so natural, so well-intentioned, so exciting and potent, but which now seems empty, confused, and full of delusion and fantasy. This relationship long been characterized by emotional distance, opaque instruction, paternalistic mystique, unrequited reverence and a quiet presumption that certain yoga teachers hold the the power and insight to mediate our relationship with ourselves. That was all part of the pageantry, part of the theater surrounding our ritual, and it gave the experience a certain edge, perhaps a certain potency, but we have all now seen the destruction that it can bring.
There are delusions on both sides. These stilted relationships give everyone involved a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging to something magical and profound, of being personally connected to something sacred and sublime, something that can make us whole, if only we can set aside our resistance and embrace it. The truth is that we really are connected to such a thing, and it really does spread itself out in the community that surrounds us, and really does hold the potential to make us whole. But no single being can hold it, and each one of us must rediscover our own unique way to relate to it.
That enigmatic something abides in the depths of our own hearts. And we are so afraid of turning and facing that thing, (which is really no thing at all) that we would rather dance around it, perform rituals, bow down to one another, precisely so that we don’t have to look each other in the eyes, and risk seeing ourselves in a moment of genuine reflection. Though that is precisely the kind of intimacy for which we all long.
The pandemic put an end to all that, by forcing us into isolation, and effectively closing the curtain on the pageantry. We found ourselves practicing alone, in little rooms and hallways, staring in to our closets, and listening to the flattened voices of our esteemed teachers on Zoom, where no one can appear to stand any higher than anyone else. This brought us together in a new, perhaps more tender and equalizing way, where we were all pressed to recognize how badly we need each other, and how we need this practice, to stay grounded and sane.
And now the opportunity is coming to do that most precious thing—commune again around the wisdom of these breathing bodies. And the question is whether we will do that in a way that shows we have learned anything.
Unless we would fall again to the dangers of idolatry, the dangers of putting others upon a pedestal, and then suffering all the mental distortions that brings, we must shudder, very deeply, to throw off our projections and carry on with with clarity, with dignity, with courage, lest we lose ourselves to the fantasies of our lost and confused hearts. This will be a shudder of death, but also then a shudder that makes space for renewal.
When we throw off our idols, we can begin to see them as human beings, love them for who they are, and forgive them for being so much like us. We can be grateful for all the inspiration and insight they bring, without forming distorted images of them in our minds, and drawing ourselves into the useless drama of romance and resentment. And we can do the same thing with the practice. That is, we can embrace the practice, and use it to explore the depth and potency of our own bodies and minds, without forming distorted projections about the outward form of the ritual.
What will determine the shape of things when we reemerge from the shadows, when we come out of the lockdown, out of isolation, and look each other in the eye? Many of us will rush out to remake things as they were, hoping that we have not lost too much ground. And that is perhaps as it must be. But if we spend all our energies trying to reclaim things, we miss the real opportunity of the moment, which is to reimagine the way we explore this practice, and the way we share it with others.
This must be something that each of us do—not just for ourselves, but for the sake of those who will inherit this tradition when our short time is up. Indeed, we must do this for the sake of renewing our tradition from the inside, and allowing it to serve us all in the deepest possible way. The richness of our tradition depends upon what we give to it, and the time is ripe to give with true generosity.
This cannot be an endeavor for any one charismatic figure. Charismatic figures tend to impose their thoughts on others, and their brilliance of vision can easily eclipse the whole. And factions only create more division. They weaken communities from the inside. Instead, this must be an endeavor for everyone who belongs to the global Ashtanga community. And that means each and every one of us who practice this fine internal art with any regularity, regardless of our allegiances, our signs of proficiency, our preconceptions about technique, or our diverse philosophical references.
There is tremendous wisdom within every one of us, and the practice helps awaken it. As our wisdom awakens, we can elaborate the richness of what we experience in turn, for the sake of expressing the sublime wonder of engaging ourselves so deeply. The elaboration of the practice invites the participation of us all, just as it invites us to express the practice in our own unique way. After all, it is only through us, and the community that we form around yoga, that the living currents of the tradition can flow.
As we know, these currents do not all flow in the same direction, nor do they circle back to the same teacher. As with any rich and authentic lineage, they branch in an array of directions, which each branch producing its own fragrant blossoms and colorful fruits. But what unites these branches is a common root. And though some of us may bother to argue about how to define that root, a more inclusive and embracing perspective finds no need to bother with any of that. We do not need to define ourselves any more than we need to separate ourselves out from others. On the contrary, we could stand to lose a little of that rigidity. And that will go much further toward helping us reveal what this yoga is all about.
To me, what seems crucial is to clarify our sense of what we have presently, at the end of this potent period of isolation, when so many delusions have been shattered, and the pageantry has been on pause, so we can see what remains after certain delusions are gone, after we have give up the idea that we stand on the shoulders of figures who are beyond reproach, and that our full potential as human beings will be realized if we practice asana according to the opaque prescriptions of this or that guru, with unrelenting dedication and devotion. And most importantly, after we have been given the time and space to reconnect to the practice in our own personal and intimate way, and rediscover the potency for ourselves.
This is a time for us to see the essence of the practice, beyond our delusions, to see what really matters, so that as this time of isolation ends, we can enact our clarity in the way that we gather, the way that we share space, the way that we relate to those who hold that space, the way that we relate to the other people within our tradition who have different ideas about how to tap the potency of the practice, and the way that we all commune together around the shared experience of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
And to do so without projecting our ideas, so to speak, to fill the void, we must set aside the question of what Ashtanga should be. That question leads into radical and delusive fantasies. The question to ask is what Ashtanga Vinyasa is, not to the thinking, studying, critical mind, but to the part of ourselves that is somehow drawn out by the practice, the kind and generous part that comes alive, and pulsates with vibrance, when we immerse ourselves in the practice with passion and trust. This is not meant to be a metaphysical question, or a question of philosophy, but an experiential question about the sweetness, the richness that we all taste when we dip our cups into the well.
And if we want to really listen, to really hear the currents of the tradition, we must leave room for a diversity of answers wherever we create the culture of yoga, but most of all, in the open expanse of our won bodies and minds, where the currents of yoga actually flow. If we listen carefully, we may be overwhelmed with gratitude at what we actually have—beyond the cult of discipline, beyond the guru delusions, beyond the vain athleticism, the diluting popularization, the narcissism, the aggression, the moral and spiritual pageantry, there is something brilliant, potent, rare, delicate, and impossibly sweet.
That sweetness is the nectar we must all learn to share. And sharing should be the most natural thing. Indeed, the only sane response to tasting that nectar is to pass it around, and then to watch with mounting joy as the faces of others light up, and to listen to them, with riveted attention, as they describe what they have tasted.
So here are my thoughts.
What we have is a practice that is grounded in tradition, but also young and virile, a practice that magnetizes our devotional spirit, but also calls us back to ourselves, and reminds us to trust the natural wisdom of our bodies, a practice that calls for outstanding effort, but also dissolves our discipline, by gently undermining our delusive sense of being in control, a practice that is precise but malleable, definite but adaptable, demanding but forgiving, a practice that reminds us to get over ourselves, but nourishes and soothes our souls, a practice that welcomes us in, without words, no matter where in the world we happen to be, and invites us to come home, a practice that draws us together in the darkness before dawn, to make ourselves vulnerable, to lay ourselves down, to open ourselves up, completely, to the unfolding miracle of the present moment, and then to smile gently, to bow, to feel humbled but exhilarated by the opportunity to touch something so tenderly, so sweetly, in the depths of our shared humanness. Above all, a practice that reminds us to see one another through open and loving eyes.