Thursday, February 16, 2012

Samskaras, tapas, & burning through...

The only way out is through.  Last weekend I took a workshop with Ashtanga badass Kino MacGregor.  One of the main points of focus was about developing agni, or the karmic fire which burns through obstacles we encounter along our path.  Kino talked about tapas, the significance of pleasure & pain, and the importance of burning through samskaras.  She said that if things are uncomfortable enough to make you want to skip practice some days, then you're onto something important, and if things are so uncomfortable that you think about giving up the practice altogether, then you're really onto something important.  It's those times that are absolutely crucial to show up on the mat, to stoke the inner fire and burn through whatever is in the way, be it pain or fear or old emotion or unhealthy habits.  If your practice is comfortable and pleasurable, you may not be doing it correctly, or at least not maximizing its potential for your own transformation.  It's that burning sensation, whether burning muscles or burning emotions, that let's you know you're on the right path.  Kino recently wrote a great article, Let Her Fall.  The entire article is worth a read, but for those short on time, here is one part that particularly resonated with me as it relates to the things I'm confronting in my own practice. 
I recently heard R. Sharath Jois say to his assistants in Mysore, India, to let certain students work on challenging arm balances or backbends for awhile before going over to help them. His actual words were “let him suffer” or “let her fall.”  These two experiences tie directly into the discussion of pain and suffering within the context of our yoga practice, and as such they also offer the most potential for growth and development in the student.  When you learn a new posture you often need the teacher present to go to places inside of the body and mind that bring up fear and pain. After awhile, you will need to strengthen your nervous system and face these places with your own inner resolution. Sometimes, asking for the teacher to help you every day is a kind of escape that prevents you from experiencing exactly what you would need to experience in order to learn the tough lessons contained within some of the most difficult postures in the Ashtanga Yoga method. If you always either go to the wall or ask a teacher to spot you, then you will never develop the kind of self-confidence that it takes to master the posture on your own. You have to learn to…let yourself fall... Learning how to fall is about understanding what suffering is, how to face it, accept it and ultimately make it your friend. This is at the core of yoga’s deepest teaching (Kino MacGregor, Let Her Fall). 
In my last blog, I talked about fear in backbending.  Last weekend in morning mysore practice, I dropped back and stood back up by myself for the first time ever.  Kino was standing there in case I needed help, and I rather shamelessly pleaded with her to spot me, as I'm used to my regular teacher really holding onto me so I know he's there.  But Kino does things differently, and I have to trust her and surrender to whatever it is she is trying to show me.  Honestly, I wanted to run away.  I wanted to tell her to hold my hips so I could feel she was there and feel safe and not be so fucking terrified that I'd fall.  But she stood there, a few feet away, smiling and sweet and a little scary like a stern but tough loving parent all at the same time, and said, "It's ok, I'm here.  Just your fear in the way.  Body, no problem.  Now go."  She was throwing me in the deep end.  I felt like I was about to sink straight to the bottom.  And despite wanting to run and hide, I dropped back anyways.  And I actually did it.  And then I came back up.  Kino was there smiling at me, "Good.  See, you did all by yourself, both ways."

Insofar as I imagined this day would come at some distant point in the future, I imagined I would be ecstatic with joy of the accomplishment.  Like jump for joy happy.  Like feeling as if I could do anything I set my heart and mind to.  Instead, I finished the closing sequence, laid down in savasana, covered my face with my hand towel, and cried.  Sad tears, not happy tears.  After practice, I got in my jeep and cried some more as I drove home.  So much sadness.  When I got home, I drew a super hot salt bath and cried even more.  Bawled, actually.  Big whole body sobbing.  I let it all go into the salt water, got it all out, and then crawled into bed and took a nap until it was time to go to the afternoon workshop.  It felt like some kind of spontaneous combustion happening on an emotional level, like I'd set aflame old things that no longer serve me.  It's the burning through of old emotions, the emotional detritus that accumulates over a lifetime, or even over many lifetimes, and roots itself into the body and heart and mind. 

During my post-practice, post-cry nap, I had a dream.  I was tending a vegetable garden, with big, almost ripe veggies I knew I would be enjoying for dinner in a day or two.  Plump, juicy, sweet, and brightly colored veggies.  Down in the dirt, I see a little thorny weed sprouting up, just barely three inches tall.  I pinch it just below the surface and pull, but it barely moves.  I dig a little further in and start to tug.  It feels like it is starting to move a little but is clear it has roots down deep.  I pull and dig some more, my fingers are covered in thick, dark, sticky mud.  As I dig and pull, I discover a massive, gnarled root, so imbedded in the earth it takes all my strength and focus to get it out.  I don't want to pull too hard too soon because I know I could make the root break and leave part for it to grow up again.  With what seemed like a lot of time, a lot patience, and a heroic effort, I pull the entire root system out in tact and examine it.  The little tiny thorny sprout was growing from a massive, hardened, and mostly dead root clump.  I throw it in the fire pit in the center of the yard and watch it burn.  It hisses and smokes and burns brightly, quickly to ash.  Then I wake up.  

I know I've carried a lot of sadness throughout my life.  Not just my own, we inherit our parents' (and countless generations passed) sadnesses, too.  I have some deeply rooted traumas from my childhood and early adult life.  I grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive family to parents wholly incapable of loving me in the ways I want and need and desire.  Thank god I had a natural capacity for love and empathy, and a proclivity for independent and creative thinking combined with a fierce stubborn streak that served me well enough to keep my head above water during some dark times.  I've dug through and healed much of those traumas over the years, and yet it's an ongoing process and one that continually reveals new and more profound lessons and layers of healing.  The old traumas no longer guide or control my relationships.  If anything, now, they help me hold myself and my relationships to the highest levels of integrity.  And yet, it now feels important to talk about it even more openly as part of burning through those remaining dark spaces.  There are more layers there needing the light, even deeper roots sunk into that thick black earth that need burning, like that big mass of mostly dead root from my dream that needed to be thrown on the fire.

The things that have been coming up in my practice in general, and backbending in particular, feel very much like they're tugging on and uprooting those traumas, whatever remains of them.  All the fear, issues of trust, vulnerability, sadness, anger, pain.  There are also profound moments of joy, love, hope, strength, and glimpses into the depth of my own courage and the opening up of new possibilities.   It's like when we discover a nuance in our asana practice, and then suddenly there is a whole new space that opens up in postures that once were impossible or uncomfortably constricted.  To find courage and hope where there seemed to be absolutely none at all, that's where the work begins.  It is only by confronting the struggle and burning through samskaras that we open up new landscapes within ourselves.

"Think of the yogi as a brave warrior going on a long and epic journey to the center of the soul. Just as in every heroic epic there are fearsome, painful and worrying battles that test the limits of the hero’s ability, so too in yoga are there challenging, difficult and nearly impossible postures that test the limits of your body and mind. But if you are the hero who is committed to the whole journey, then you also have the heart to see the experience all the way through to the end and win your final freedom."
~Kino MacGregor

Check out Kino's website & youtube channel.


  1. I know EXACTLY what your talking about; pulling out the weeds, gently but firmly. By the way, I was at BM that year and watched the sand devils swirling around the burning Temple. Awesome. Peace to you on your journey.

  2. Oh my... Thank you for this amazing piece (and for sharing so much on your blog) Much love :-)

  3. This was my Mysore morning with backbends! It is good to know that I am not the only one who goes through sad day after backbends.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, as I recently had a similar experience with my practice. And I agree, it is reassuring to find that this is all part of the journey :) I am learning to let it flow, this is the power of the practice! Much peace and warmth to you on your journey. xo

  5. Thanks for the comments, y'all. It's good to hear from others who can relate to my experience. The practice is infinitely deep, and I felt compelled to share my experience because it occurs to me others may be going through the same kind of thing. And as I gear up to go to Mysore next week, I'm looking forward to jumping straight into the fire! Yikes! I mean, Yeeeehaaaw!

    In response to the first comment, the 2009 Burning Man Temple (featured in the photos on this post) was built by an amazing crew from Austin, a crew I am proud to have been a part of! That Temple and its burning was a very intense and transformative experience for me. Glad you saw it burn, it was magical.

  6. I haven't been doing the back-bend yet. I am doing the Primary series so far, and I have a similar experience. It was during my self practice one Saturday (I had to change Friday to Saturday)I somehow got stuck in my suryanamaskara A and when I tried to get it right I failed. After about 20 minutes I felt completely useles, and I started to cry and a thunderstorm of emotions flow through my mind. I sat on my mat for more than two ours while this storm went trough my mind. I had all kinds of feelings during this storm, and when it was over I never wanted to see the shala and I never wanted to do yoga anymore.
    Next Tuesday I was there i the shala on my mat and my yoga that day was great. This happened four months ago and now I struggle with my body thats hurt a lot. Right now it feels like I am climbing up a great hill every time I am on my mat in the shala. I practice six days a week following the Mysore tradition I wont give up this incredible journey of Ashtanga yoga
    I hope that one day I will be able to do the whole primary series and perhaps even the intermediate series.
    Great blog by the way


  7. Wow, I actually shed a tear to hear of you conquering that fear and coming out of the backbend under your own steam. Yoga has the power to bring these things to the surface. Imagine how many other knots are lying there untouched, hidden and awaiting their moment to sprout. At least with yoga we have a way of discovering them, and burning them up. All the best with your marathon preparations.

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience :)

  9. Such a lovely post, thank you.

  10. Wow - What an awesome job at describing that space we have in our practice between the tears of joy and sadness. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Oh, wow. This was a great post. I went through an especially weepy time with backbends last Fall.

  12. Thank you for sharing this. I seem to have a similiar problem with legs up the wall pose which I find very bizarre and difficult to understand. It often makes me very anxious but I am persisting.

  13. Great post!! I'm currently learning to drop back in a standing backbend and I am too scared to let myself put my hands on the floor, even though my amazing teacher, who I thoroughly trust, is holding my hips the entire time. I faced a similar challenge when learning to do headstand, but you're right, this has a much more intense emotional tie. Thank you for sharing your experience; I hope to join you in this pose someday soon!

  14. Thanks! Really helpful to read this as I'm wondering who I feel like crap:)