A Conversation with Nancy Cantwell and Henry Wudl
When approached to make a contribution IYALA, a sutra column, my first reaction was to run. A flat “no” would have sufficed, then as all things Iyengar yoga, the idea took seed and began to flourish. Working alone, however, was out of the question. I needed a co-conspirator to consider this text and give it it’s proper due. More importantly I didn’t know if I could stick to a commitment of isolation in study and feel comfortable as a singular voice of veracity. A conversation was needed and I remembered a great one that had taken place at a recent Christmas party with a young gentleman, but an old friend, Henry. He had become an Iyengar practitioner two years ago. His enthusiasm for the practice and his training in linguistics and library science made him the perfect “conversationalist”. Over dinner a plan was set in motion to explore this format, to develop a dialogue, see what the other has to say and build a discourse based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
We agreed that this discussion would include all the following materials and linguistic attributes. Sanskrit and Pali spellings would be included. References to the Upanishads, the Mahabharta, Bhagavad Gita, Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā and other Tantric texts are used to complete the picture as the Sutras cannot stand alone in the canon. And as between the two of us we have a substantial inventory of books - reading recommendations will be made.
I encourage all to join in the conversation. We are a community of adherents. Feeling grounded in the whole is an important support mechanism to any individual on this journey.
Henry Wudl: The second chapter of the Yoga Sūtras, Sādhana Pāda, just spells everything out. It starts by making an introductory statement that sums up a lot of what yoga is in practice: “tapas svadhyāya iśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyayogaḥ”: the “action-yoga” consists of accepting pain (tapas), self-study (svadhyāya) and surrender to God (iśvara-pranidhana). These are all things I find myself needing to do in my daily life. First, there is pain, which at a certain level is unavoidable. This includes the physical pain of doing asanas, which are difficult, and emotional pain which we experience all the time in our daily lives- in our interactions with people, in watching the news and reading things people post on social media etc. Yoga tells us that if we want to overcome this pain, and get to a place where we aren’t bothered by it, we need to first accept it and resist the impulse to fight it. This is hard to do, but when we succeed in doing it, we find that the pain is cathartic, and accepting it helps us grow as human beings, and helps us learn to do the asanas better. Have you ever noticed how, after a cathartic moment, you feel really “clean” inside? That’s what yoga refers to as “purification”. Similarly, have you noticed how, after a strenuous yoga session, where you’ve really worked your body hard (but not beyond your limits), you also feel really good and clean inside? Same thing going on.
The second thing is svadhyāya: self-study. This has two aspects: 1) studying sacred scriptures which contain spiritual insights that we can apply directly to our lives, and 2) studying ourselves and becoming more aware of who we are and what we actually need to do. The two aspects are, of course, interrelated. Studying the scriptures helps us to understand ourselves, and studying ourselves helps to understand the scriptures.
NC: Henry, I find your ideas about “Tapas” of interest here. While most would agree that “Tapas” refers to the heat of purification or the practice of asceticism or austerities that would lead the practitioner to gain the discipline necessary for the yogi to become devout, I think that you are probably striking a chord with equating the pain that all that might entail. The practice of asana indeed can be painful and that pain can also be worked through to gain greater understanding within the body as well as the mind. One might also think of tapas as deep meditation on Atman or ritualistic worship. Non-attachment to the self can be a painful letting go. Who are we afterall? Which I think you address nicely when you speak of iśvara-pranidhana.
HW: The pain of the physical practice is part of the spiritual purification. The pain tells you that your body is working, and it’s also a reminder to be humble, because the perfection of an asana is attained when you can do it effortlessly (Patanjali says this when he discusses asana, and BKS Iyengar in his commentary expands on the idea). For me, as someone for whom many, if not most, asanas can still be quite strenuous and painful, it shows me that I still have a long way to go. It’s humbling when you’re in class and you need more props to do an asana than everyone else in the class- when you’re doing, say, Prasarita Padottanasa, and you need two blocks under your head, where everyone else can use one or can bring their head all the way to the floor. And you know you can’t cheat, because if you do you’ll either do the pose incorrectly or hurt yourself (or both). Accepting that that’s where you are physically I think is also tapas; as it creates humility in you, it effects psychological purification. The physical and spiritual are inter-related. And yes, the commitment aspect is also tapas, because staying committed to anything, I think, is something that goes against our natural inclinations; resisting the inclination to slack off is also tapas, because it is part of the process of burning away obstacles to progress, since slacking off would constitute an obstacle to progress.
NC: I think that you have hit upon an important idea in “acceptance” being a part of tapas. I tracked down a fairly apt citation in the Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda “How to Know God”, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In there they quote Swami Brahmananda as saying, “It is of vital importance, that a man begin his spiritual journey from where he is.” Now, I have taken this slightly out of context as he is really referring to the practices of ritual, but I do think that this true knowing of where you stand within the practice is what binds together tapas, svadhyāya and iśvara-pranidhana. It is here where the physical and spiritual become connected. I also believe that this knowing of “where he is.” can be appreciated as the complement of or the ramp up to sutra 1.3 “Then man abides in his true nature.”
I remember a lecture I attended where Georg Feuerstein, a man I consider to have been a great yogi, who when asked about asana practice confessed he had none. His body was not what his vehicle for awakening. His efforts in meditation and devotion to the study and translations of the great texts were what embodied his practice.
But returning to acceptance, humility, non-attachment and “practical psychology” for a moment. One ( I italicize here to emphasize that there are many more than this singularity) of the great gifts of Iyengar yoga is the use of props to facilitate asana practice. They allow for investigation and greater svadhyāya of where one stands, where one “is”, at the beginning, middle and end of the journey. You may need two blocks to facilitate Prasarita Padottanasa to begin then one then none or not! My greatest challenge today is truly the non-attachment to the fruits of practice that I am no longer facile within. I recently purchased a halasana bench and wondered why I waited so long. Delicious! And then when I was instructed in how to use it for backbend practice a whole new world opened up for me. Freedom I thought completely lost, was rediscovered.
You have to come over and give it a test drive!
HW: OK, yes, I’ll come over and try the halasana bench. And I agree with you about props in general.
The next thing Sādhana Pāda talks about are the five kleshas, the basic sources of affliction and pain, which were a revelation to me when I first read about them: they essentially say that any psychological suffering can be traced back to one of these five factors: ignorance (avidyā), ego, attachment, aversion or fear of death and the desire to cling to life (abhiniveśa).
II.2 samādhi-bhāvana-arthaḥ kleśa-tanū-karaṇa-arthaś-ca samādhi
II.3 avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhinveśāḥ pañca-kleśāḥ
Particularly significant for me was the attachment, psychological attachment to pleasurable experiences, as in wanting to cling to such experiences and repeat them even after they are over. It is important to point out here that yoga is not saying that pleasure is bad and a source of suffering, it’s that clinging to pleasure, and craving it is bad and a source of suffering. It’s not saying “Don’t enjoy yourself.” It’s saying “Enjoy yourself. When a pleasurable experience comes to you, enjoy it to your heart’s content. Just don’t try to hold onto it once it’s over, and don’t expect to be able to repeat it and feel it again the exact same way- that is where you will get yourself into trouble, because once an experience is in the past, it’s in the past, you can’t have it the exact same way again.” The message is not one of harsh asceticism but of practical advice that can actually make a real difference.
For more discussion, go to George Feuerstein http://www.traditionalyogastudies.com/about-us/georg-feuerstein/
Nancy Cantwell is Publisher of Times Quotidian and a 30 year Iyengar Practitioner
Henry Wudl is a writer, librarian and Iyengar Yoga Practitioner