Tias Little is one of our longtime mentors-from-afar and friends. In fact, I interviewed him for the first time…way back…back when I was first getting involved in this racket, some 6.5 years ago, through my dear friend and Yoga in the Rockies pal Travis Robinson and Alison Litchfield. The second time, we sat in the grass up at Estes Park, at a Yoga Journal conference, and later used that interview as a feature in elephant.
From Form to Formlessness
…via Tias Little.
Yoga postures are just postures. There is nothing inherently important about a posture (in fact, sometimes I cringe to think that I make my living teaching them!) Asanas are simply forms that give access to the formless—to spaciousness and freedom of mind.
And yet it is crucial to cultivate form.
Of course in the Buddhist tradition, it is a precious opportunity to be born into a human form. We utilize the body and the mind to cultivate insight and deep understanding into the nature of reality. So it is imperative to assume a form in order to—over time—deconstruct and let go of that same form, or self.
In the Tibetan ritual of sand mandala painting, monks spend hours and hours delineating all of the guardians and deities and Buddha families, one grain of sand at a time. The form of the mandala manifests in painstaking detail. Like an asana, the cosmic design is constructed with great care. Once the form is complete, once the expression of the mandala has been fully awakened and all the powers that it conveys fully aroused…then it is ceremoniously destroyed and dissolved into nothingness. This art of sand painting captures the essential nature of all beings that are brought into existence. Things are created and their essential energies aroused, only to, in turn, be taken apart and dissolved to naught.
In a similar fashion, we meticulously create an asana through mindful detail. For instance, in Triangle Pose, we anchor down the root of the big toe, draw up the inside of the knee, draw the posterior sacrum down and lengthen the anterior sacrum upward in order to cultivate the mandala or sacred design of the pose. It is imperative to apply one’s whole being to the process of creating the form—whether it be a yoga pose, building a home or starting a new business. As one stakes one’s whole being, there must be a profound and subtle knowing that the form, like the mandala of sand, is insubstantial.
We must all be prepared to let go of our hold on what we have so painstakingly created.
The art of practicing asana, meditation and pranayama is an exercise in preparing to let go. The great spin within the classical paradigm of the model of yogic enlightenment involves a reconciliation of opposites. Paradoxes are coupled together in such a way that the practitioner moves in opposing directions at the same time. For instance, within a yoga pose, one presses the heel down and lifts the arch of the foot upward. This is an example of opposing action within a pose. But stepping back for a moment and regarding the execution of the asana as a whole, the art of practice is to create the form in order to let go of the form, and yet still have the form.
The best comparison may be with the mastery of a concert pianist or professional tennis player. The performer gains mastery over the execution of his/her scales or strokes. Through the power of repetition, he or she masters the fundamentals—embodies the techniques with such proficiency that during the course of a concert or match the player can articulate his or her play far outside the range established by the fundamentals. It is not that one abandons technique, it is that the techniques are embodied to the extent that they dissolve. There is not a “doing” of technique but a “being” of the technique.
In the practice of yoga, one cultivates the precision of alignment in order to construct the form. Once the form is created, one must practice letting go of the form. It takes practice to let go, for the pose—any form—is seductive and we think we ought to keep it! By emptying the form, one is drawn into the formless, just as an outgoing tide pulls a shell back into the sea. This “being pulled in” is that mysterious, luminous, delightful moment that is the yoga—the yoking of form to emptiness.
There is a sense of immediacy that comes about with dropping off the technique required to taste the formlessness within the form. The poet/calligrapher Kohad in the Zen tradition wrote:
I cast the brush aside
From here on
I’ll speak to the moon
Face to face.
This passage suggests the fearlessness, and suddenness, required to drop any formula or technique that might stand in the way of seeing things straight up, for what they are. In Kohad’s poem, this is symbolized by the moon, which is a metaphor in yoga training for a reflective mind. A wonderful sense of intimacy and immediacy comes about when “speaking to the moon face to face”. A mantra, a sutra, an asana, a calligraphy stroke, the name of a god are all ways to mediate our experience of the formless, the unspeakable, the indivisible.
So in a sense, all that we learn in our spiritual training, all the techniques we practice, all the formulas we follow must, at some point, be sloughed off and discarded…until, as Marcel Proust said, “we see things with fresh eyes.”
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