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.