January 5, 2011

What’s Your Yoga Origin Story?

Every practice starts somewhere. What motivated yours still motivates it, and knowing that is a deep form of svatantrya.

Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi's version of Spider-Man: Peter Parker will spend his whole career in atonement.

A story is contained in its beginning.

After I saw The Social Network with my dear friend Rosemarie, a self-described vagabond academic who has a social scientist’s deep insights, she pointed out that all the issues of facebook are told in the story of its origins: it begins as an attempt both to impress and to shame a girl, out of a genesis fraught with class anxiety. As a gambit to impress the members of the old-money clubs of Harvard, the project is a social climber’s attempt both to insinuate himself into that society but also, out of spite and vengeance, to render that society null and void. Facebook is borne out of late-adolescent insecurity and angst and because of that, Rosemarie observed, it will always carry insecurity and angst with it.

Facebook devolves even mature adults back to highschool in some regard: obsessed with how many friends we have and what our friends are doing and what our relationship status is; it has also introduced to adult life the punitive horror of ‘defriending.’ Facebook might evolve but the issues inherent in it are inherent in the manner of its creation and are therefore in some way inescapable. Try to think of how facebook would be different if it had been invented by a middle-aged self-satisfied comfortable person and you die of boredom before you can get there. What powers facebook, what makes it addictive and fascinating, are the problems that sprung it from the mind of its creator. It might evolve to be more than those anxieties, but it will always carry them at its core.

Our yoga practices are like that. Their origin stories are important. Comic-book superhero fans know what an origin story is: the story of how the superhero came to be. Movie studios launch and reboot their superhero franchises with origin stories, so you are likely familiar with them! And while Mark Zuckerberg being a superhero is a matter of perspective, The Social Network is an origin story.

Superhero origin stories are part of our cultural mythology, and they are worth paying attention to, just as you can tell what the issues of good novels are most of the time by looking at their first paragraph, sometimes the first sentence. Sometimes they are there only in a ghost form, a poetic form, an allusive form, but they are there, a capsule of potential energy waiting to be unspooled in the narrative. The origin is the problem that the story—or the practice—is trying to solve. You can tell most what most stories are going to be about by looking at the origin. Although characters might evolve to be more than their origins, they never transcend them, because what those characters are is made in the story’s beginning: Batman’s psychotic break into well-financed vigilantism; Spider-Man’s intense sense of responsibility and failure to his Uncle Ben that melodramatically dogs him like the stain of original sin; Kal-El as the survivor of a dying planet which as a baby he could not save, so he becomes the protector of ours; Wonder Woman’s parthenogenetic birth that dictates that she will in some way always be alone.

It’s interesting to me that no matter how long we practice, what our practice is about is implicit in its origin story. If you want to know about a person’s practice, ask him why he began it. If you want to know where both your triumphs and your issues come from, look at your practice’s beginning.

If you began Yoga because you wanted to perfect yourself, your practice is always going to be about perfection, either achieving it or deliberately abjuring it, but it will always have perfection as a touchstone. If you began the practice because you wanted to have superpowers, your Yoga is always going to be in some right about acquiring and displaying power and achievement.If you began Yoga because you are a generational yogi and one of your parents did it, your practice will always have your parents about it. If you began Yoga to be a rebel? To heal from body image issues or disease or addiction? To find religion? To have a great ass? You get the picture. And your practice will always carry with it some signature of the phase of your life when you began it: as a child innocence; as a teenager bold exploration; or at any time putting yourself back together after disease or harm; or as a mature person a questing after wisdom.

True that you will discover other things along the way: I started Yoga to treat a chronic immunological diagnosis I live with, and shortly after I began my practice all sorts of other glories began to reveal themselves: bhakti aspects; fun physical aspects that were not immediately about healing, but in some regard my Yoga will always be about my health. I am married to it for life because I need it, and being without it is not an option.

If you are going to understand your practice, understand its origins. Yoga comes to us when we are ready for it, ready for the practice. It can’t stick otherwise. So many people go to a yoga class and don’t ‘get’ it; don’t go back because on that day, that particular class, that particular teacher, wasn’t the one that would do it. My guess is also that they didn’t have a good reason for going, because if they had had a good reason, the practice would have leapt up to answer it in whatever form. No matter what your reason was, if you stuck with the practice, it’s a good one.

What hooks us is also what we most need, but not always in the way we might think so. Yoga gives us what we need but sometimes is speaking to us in ways that we might not have the apparatus to decipher. It is both a door and a mirror. To really go through it, you have to look at what brought you to it, because that will begin the answer to the riddle that your Yoga was put in your life to solve. Great stories begin with a question, and the story itself is the answering of that question. At the beginning of this New Year 2011, go back and try to remember what your question was. If you remember that, you will remember the rest of the way to go.

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