When Did Discipline Become a Bad Word? ~ Charlotte Bell.

Via on Mar 29, 2011
(Photo Courtesy of Hugger Mugger)

Sometime in the last 50 years, “discipline” became a bad word. I’m not sure when this happened, but I suspect my generation had something to do with it. Born into a world of ease built by the “Greatest Generation,” we baby boomers grew up in the most prosperous of times. Our parents, driven by the experience of material lack and no social safety net, worked tirelessly to rise above their circumstances. We boomers reaped the benefits of their hard work.

While many of us grew up in households that imposed discipline, we did not see the need for it, and many of us rebelled against it. Freedom is what we were after. Freedom is, of course, a worthy goal, but what we didn’t understand is that freedom does not come to us for the mere asking. Freedom actually comes from its seeming nemesis—discipline.

I’m aware that the word “discipline” is charged. Discipline often conjures the image of a harsh, imposed practice, often inspired by a whip or paddle. I’d like to clarify that it doesn’t have to be so. The Latin root of the word “discipline,” disciplina means “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge,” concepts that inspire rather than crush.

I’m motivated to write about discipline because of the recent flap about Shiva Rea’s appearance and subsequent negative press in India. I will say at the outset that I am familiar with Shiva Rea’s name but not her work. I do not wish to comment on her or her work, as I am completely unqualified to do so. The incident, as it was reported and analyzed, was my motivation, not Shiva.

According to international media, Shiva Rea’s free-flowing yoga angered yoga traditionalists at the conference, who were quoted as saying her demonstration was merely a “performance.” YogaDork’s blog wrote about the incident, and posted a video of Shiva Rea’s “Yoga Trance Dance.” The post generated many spirited comments, both pro and con.

I contributed a comment and kept up with the conversation for a few days. One comment in particular stuck with me. The commenter, in defense of Shiva’s trance dance, stated that the dance was “more natural than standing in triangle for five minutes.” Something about the comment bothered me, but until a few days ago, I was unable to understand exactly what it was.

It wasn’t that the comment was wrong. In fact it was absolutely right:  Free form dancing is much more natural than setting oneself in triangle—or for that matter most yoga asanas—and holding it for several minutes. I can’t argue with this.

It took a particularly intense orchestra rehearsal for me to understand my discomfort with the blog comment. After blowing to the point of head rushes through a tiny oboe reed while we rehearsed the stirring finale of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony several times, I was reminded that playing a musical instrument is anything but “natural.” Whether you play violin, flute, horn, trumpet, cello, bass, harp, guitar—whatever—no instrument is natural to play.

Playing any instrument, as well as practicing—and especially mastering—any art, requires that you step out of your comfort zone and teach your body/mind skills that are not natural. It is only with discipline, commitment and practice that these skills eventually become natural to you. And the transcendent rewards of sitting in the midst of an orchestra playing a masterwork such as Shostakovich’s 5th —head rushes notwithstanding—are well worth the years of practice it took to get there.

So many of the things that lift our lives are inherently unnatural—formal dance, acting, mastering musical instruments, excelling at sports, mountain biking, reading, writing. Anything you can master requires that you practice something that is not natural to you. Over time, practice allows the skills that were once awkward to become an effortless part of you. This is mastery.

Free form dancing like Yoga Trance Dance yields a particular effect in the body. As a veteran of 40 Grateful Dead shows back in the day, I can attest to its joys. Yoga practice (all eight limbs) yields a different effect. And much of what the eight limbs ask us to practice may not feel “natural” at first. Think about just a few of them:  non-harming in all its subtle forms, wise use of sexuality, cultivating contentment, self-study and study of inspiring texts, breathing exercises, one-pointedness. In order to master these, we are required to act not from our first impulses—those impulses that feel natural to us—but to look deeper, and explore different and often uncomfortable ways of being in the world. But it is in this deep looking, the wood-shedding that is neither comfortable nor easy, that we learn and grow.

Years ago I heard both Béla Fleck and David Grisman talk about their creative processes. Both are known as innovators on their instruments, and have distinguished themselves by developing ways of playing that were never before considered. Both agreed that what solidified their ability to explore new territory was their years of focusing on the basics. Béla’s ground was learning all of Earl Scruggs’ music inside and out. For David, it was practicing Bill Monroe’s entire catalog until it became automatic. When we have practiced our scales to the point of effortlessness—or have done our thousandth triangle pose with mindful alignment—then we can let go of form and release into freedom.

Sutra 2.47 says, “[Asana] is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” Taken without Sutra 2.46, it might seem that traveling the easy route is the quickest way to mastery. But Sutra 2.47’s inspiration is based in Sutra 2.46, which says, “The physical posture should be steady and comfortable.” It is steadiness that allows for comfort, grounding that allows for freedom.

The same is true for the other limbs of yoga. Truthful and nonviolent speech has been a practice for me for many years. I’ve worked very hard at it and have failed many times. Despite my commitment to right speech, I’ve spoken or written in haste before I’ve really thought about what I was saying more often than I like to remember. Even now, it’s often tempting to respond to Facebook and blog posts with less than sensitive language and intention. Biting wit is natural for me. But my practice of right speech asks me to look deeper, and to find a way to disagree respectfully. It takes much more time, and often requires a great deal of discipline. But I always learn something from looking more deeply and trying on different sides of an issue. Sometimes I notice that an entire dialog will shift to a more respectful tone after my comments. That is when I know the discipline it took not to fall into easy sniping was worth the extra effort.

There is a place for discipline and a place for throwing structure to the wind. If the Grateful Dead were still touring I’d be there, occasionally, to enjoy the wild ride. But my deepest, most satisfying experiences are with those things I’ve practiced with diligence—music, asana, pranayama and meditation. May your passion lead you to the freedom of discipline.

Charlotte Bell has taught yoga and meditation in Salt Lake City and the Intermountain West since 1986. She writes a monthly column for Catalyst Magazine, and is the author of the book, Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, published by Rodmell Press. She spends her days gardening, cooking, playing with her cats and endlessly carving reeds for her oboe and English horn, which she plays in the Salt Lake Symphony and Red Rock Rondo. You can find her at her site and you can find clips from Red Rock Rondo’s Emmy-winning DVD on YouTube.

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28 Responses to “When Did Discipline Become a Bad Word? ~ Charlotte Bell.”

  1. boulderwind says:

    I agree absolutely with this! I tell my son "nothing is much fun until you get good at it". I am also a musician and I can pick out a "wannabee" from a mile away. There are many with natural talent that did not do the disciplined practice. It may come off as arrogant to some who do not believe in focus and discipline, but there IS a difference between a trained musician for example and someone noodling around. Same with education levels (schooled, educated
    healers vs. unschooled healers for example), and same with a yoga practice. I can tell that someone with a stiffer body who has been diligent for years practicing yoga has a deeper practice than someone who is naturally flexible who can whip off an intermediate series. There are some things that one cannot fake. And yes, I went to lots of Grateful Dead shows too and they were a blast back in the day!

  2. arathi says:

    Thank you for writing this insightful article.

  3. athayoganusasanam says:

    I commend you Charlotte for this intelligent, grounded and compassionate piece. Yoga is an ancient practice of discipline, rooted in the Shastras, and as such, it should be respected. This post is a testament to your practice of right speech. Thank you for sharing. http://athayoganusasanam.wordpress.com/

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks! I feel that my practice has only become richer through the discipline of practicing all the limbs of yoga. The framework inspires me to look outside my own well-worn mind grooves, and it does require effort. Tapas is, after all, one of the niyamas.

  4. NotSoSure says:

    This is the kind of article which brings me back to EJ. Another EJ post by a woman who is way smarter than I am.

    Recently, I made a transition from a "free flowing" form of yoga to an alignment based structured style of yoga. I've been practicing Shiva's Prana Flow happily for a number of years at a local studio owned by people who happen to be students of Shiva herself. What I have found is that the discipline of my Iyengar teachers is much more freeing than the "do whatever feels good" styles of yoga I concentrated on in the past. I like being a student of yoga again. I like the richness that is found within the discipline of the practice.

    I often feel sorry for people who believe Iyengar or other alignment based styles are about "cookie cutter" or "perfect" poses. Those people are completely missing the point. Alignment is not about being perfect, it is about building awareness in the body and challenging boundaries in a safe environment. The hard work and discipline for me , at this time, is the perfect framework to support a practice which I find much more intellectually and physically satisfying.

    • Charlotte says:

      Thank you so much. I totally agree with you about Iyengar yoga. I started practicing in 1982. I studied briefly with a teacher who was a student of Indra Devi, and when I moved to Salt Lake a few months later, I was introduced to Iyengar-style yoga. I totally resisted the discipline of it at first because my body is naturally flexible and I could easily perform the more relaxed poses. I absolutely hated the standing poses, which of course are staples of Iyengar practice. They were hard for me and didn't feed my ego the same way the seated poses and backbends did. But after a while, thanks to Mary Dunn, I started learning why the standing poses were so hard for me. I practiced remedial versions of them for a year until I had the strength and alignment to do them with at least a modicum of grace. Because I had to start at square one, I really know how to teach them!

      I agree with you about the misconceptions about alignment-based yoga. It's not at all about cookie cutter poses. It's about building a foundation that will allow for the free flow of prana and the stilling of the mind. I love it when I learn some subtle alignment piece that completely changes how I feel in a pose.

      • NotSoSure says:

        BTW, I was a double reed muscian. Played bassoon (and flute and sax). Gave it all up in college because I no longer had the will to practice anymore, my musical discipline just evaporated. The loss of discipline meant that I would never be able to go pro and I knew it. I tried playing oboe a number of times. It was like blowing into a brick. My head hurts just thinking about it.

    • More hometown stories. Did you catch this one? May look familiar .http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/03/drifting-across-the-white-line/

      I'd like to add, as someone with an Iyengar backround who brought asana into African dance classes with live music long before that became popular and just because it seemed natural, that you can do both. You can offer students a venue where they use alignment based yoga in a release class.

  5. Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

    Hi Charlotte: Great post & I agree with it completely. However just to complicate things a bit, I'd like to add that I think that part of the huge appeal (and value) of something like Trance Dance is that so many people are so cut off from (and fearful of connecting with) what seems so "natural" for their bodies. After 40 Dead shows, sure, such dancing would come super-easily . . . but I can attest from experience that there are many yoga practitioners out there who never cut loose in this way. For them, Trance Dance (or the equivalent) can be a transformative experience – and perhaps one that helps them in a way that a very disciplined practice might not. It is all about balance, I think . . .

    Also I would add that ecstatic dance and similarly expressive collective ritual or ritual-like experiences are practices that have traditionally nurtured human beings and that are largely missing from our society today. This is another reason that I think that contemporary yoga "add-ons" like Kirtan and Trance Dance have an important and integrity all their own that's quite different from (but complementary to) asana practice.

    (P.S. In the interest of full disclosure – I've done a teacher training unit that included a Trance Dance session with Shiva Rea and can testify that I found both to be fantastic!)

  6. Excellent work, Charlotte. Really enjoyed this one, and obviously a lot of other people are as well.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  7. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  8. Charlotte,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and illuminating post. This relationship of discipline and freedom comes up all the time while teaching the Alexander Technique. Students will "complain" that the new movement patterns feel somewhat restricted or formal, and I counter with, "yes, it's not a free-for-all in your body, right now". In other words, some discipline or form must be understood at first to create a foundation from which improvisation and freedom can come about.
    I also want to comment on discipline in music. I am a new musician and disciplining myself to stick to basics and practice my scales is difficult; I want to practice the more advanced techniques, but I'm not ready. Disciplining myself to do anything new does allow me to reap the benefits of learning that new skill. No one said it was going to be easy. Damn it!
    Thank you for inspiring me to think deeply about this ( and many other topics you address), Charlotte!
    Maaaow.

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks, Cathy. The Alexander Technique is the perfect example of an exacting practice that, when done with diligence, can gently but powerfully change unhealthy habits—the ones that often feel natural. I firmly believe that yoga has that same power for students, but only if a teacher is knowledgeable and experienced enough to perceive imbalances in someone else's body. This can only happen in classes that are small enough, and people move slowly enough that a teacher can actually see what's going on.

      Congratulations on understanding the importance of practicing scales! Boring as they seem, they are really important. I resisted scales and exercises when I was young, but they truly build the foundation for your body to integrate new patterns that will be helpful for anything you play in the future. Thanks for your comment!

      maaooww.

  9. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  10. [...] When Did Discipline Become a Bad Word? ~ Charlotte Bell. [...]

  11. Named to Top 10 Elephant Yoga Blogs of the Week.

    Congratulations.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  12. ARCreated says:

    as gorgeous as you! blessings. I sort of believe you have to do the discipline work to get to the freedom and only once your body is trained, toned and you are totally in touch can you free form.
    I think Shiva has a achieved that for herself and that others want to skip to where she is… that's my story for now ;)

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  16. Charlotte says:

    Thank you, Piximon. I love the quote from one of the most electrifying composers ever. I'll have to use that one!

  17. Hi Piximon, Did you read http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/03/drifting-a…. I wonder as the post was about Schoenberg's lesson that inspired Stravinsky's comment that you posted!

  18. Charlotte says:

    Thanks, Hilary! I loved your post too. Funny that we wrote about similar subjects from different angles. It's so true that you have to step out of your conditioning to facilitate change, and what we think of as natural is often just what we've grown to be comfortable with.

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