November 25, 2011

How to Know When it’s Time to Make like a Buddha and Flee the Palace. ~ Kimberly Roberts

When we first come to the path of yoga, we enter through a particular door—a lineage or school of yoga. But, if what initially inspired our discipline becomes regimen, rather than a rigorous practice of observing, if guidelines start changing into rules, freshness can get lost; students may feel inhibited to explore their own experiences if they differ from the group’s culture. There’s a big difference between commitment to yoga practice and attachment to the circumstances the practice is clothed in. When it is no longer about listening to your own experience, but rather about trying to adhere to a set of rules reflecting someone else’s experience, practice can get stale.

I applaud those who have the courage to disentangle themselves from the clan when that happens. It’s not easy to strike out on your own, but if the practice is not helping, chances are it’s holding you back from something juicy.

In 2009, the “guidelines” for teachers of the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga I have practiced since 1992 suddenly shifted and the requirements for teachers to maintain official ties to the lineage changed. Fair enough: with masses of new students, some measure of cohesion is helpful. But suddenly the protocol inhibited elements of practice that had drawn me to it in the first place. My first yoga class ever was Ashtanga. All my teachers were Ashtanga. It’s the only yoga I knew. But the new system felt insincere. As a result, I relinquished my formal affiliation.

These past two years have been tricky. I still teach the same yoga I’ve always taught, but now without the official sanction. The question begs, now what do I call what I do? How do we let go of attachment to a particular lineage without giving up commitment to practice? And how to we maintain integrity while forging our new path?

Once you let go you are forced to really tune in– to ask big, open questions and refrain from judging the response. To let go of achievement, goals, or attaining results. To be a beginner again, and accept that you may stay that way.

Does the fact that I refuse to play the administrative game of keeping my authorization up-to-date undermine my ability to teach? Does it erase the years of intensely dedicated practice behind me? Does it affect the commitment I’ve made to my own practice? I’ve been hesitant to fess up, for fear of alienating people in the clan, but more truthfully, I’ve been afraid of being judged as a quitter. But the truth is that I have not quit, I have simply expanded my repertoire to include other practices. Injury, age and a need for a more expansive vision urged me to find other ways to practice. I couldn’t reconcile how expanding the mind could be achieved by limiting myself to one particular point of view.

I don’t think that my leaving the clan necessarily has to reflect badly on the tradition, or the teachers of the tradition. Ashtanga changed my life for the better—the practice is brilliant. It was certainly a necessary stepping-stone on my path. But once you step on a stone to get to the other side, do you really have to pick up that stone and put it in your backpack? Couldn’t we simply turn around, bow to the stone in reverence and gratitude for having facilitated our passage, and then go on our merry way.

Shakyamuni Buddha gave up his credentials when he left his palace; perhaps, like him, we need to make our own way, despite any resistance from the established tradition. That doesn’t mean giving up the inquiry.

The Buddha’s example helped me expand my view of practice; his path offers a whole set of practices each appropriate to certain periods, phases, aspects of life. There is no “one size fits all” spiritual practice. The Dalai Lama admits that if a practice is not bringing about beneficial results, then we should question whether that practice is the right one for us in the circumstances.

My sole intention these days is to help people develop some connection to practice—a true wisdom practice, allowing genuine inquiry into the big questions about life. My allegiance is not to any particular system, but to the ongoing practice of self-inquiry. I don’t mean to advocate a shopping spree in the spiritual market– you have to stick with something through thick and thin. But commitment is different than attachment.

What is the difference? I would say it comes down to ego. If we hold too tightly to anything, we should be suspicious. Fundamental or ultimate truths of existence are not affected by the categories we create, and awareness of these truths is not exclusive to any particular system. The correct practice is the one that is most appropriate for you.

Practice is a tool, a guide rope along the way through the dark forest so we can make our way. But when a bit of daylight comes, we’ve had some insight, the rope is no longer necessary. We have to trust the inner guide at some point and take responsibility for ourselves. Ultimately, it is up to us.

But this leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Some say it is good to eat meat if you have a certain blood type; some say eating meat is cruel and the primary cause of global warming that harms us all. Some say that all yoga teachers should be authorized through a system of standardized procedures; some say adherence to systemic dissemination of yoga philosophy inhibits or even prevents true yogic awareness from developing. Some advocate relationship as a path to spiritual awakening; some think this is bullshit and a creepy excuse for certain teachers to abuse positions of power while distorting the spirit of the teachings.

Some say following a lineage or a guru is essential to success in any spiritual practice; sometimes charlatans present themselves as wisdom masters and lure students into deception. Some say lineage is necessary, some notice that lineages are often broken by splitting in the sangha, creating devastating scars for its members. This is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the Buddha himself. When he realized that emaciating himself was not getting him any closer to nirvana, the Buddha chose to drink a bowl of milk offered by a well-intentioned girl who saw that he was starving. This benign act earned him the scorn of his five closest disciples, who were convinced that asceticism was the way to go. They publicly renounced him. In the modern world, that might look like giving back your yoga teacher certification.

So who do we believe? How do we find our way?

Perhaps the path comes down to this: a commitment to looking again and again at the present moment, to keep asking the hard questions, and an allegiance to uncovering what is true and good. Even if enlightenment eludes us in this lifetime, can we at least say we have been good people?

Formal practice is very useful as a tool to keep our intentions pure. But once a practice gets systematized, it necessarily develops a culture around it. Some spiritual practices and the format in which they are presented were intended for a vastly different audience in another era. Even if the practice was good for that particular culture, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good for all cultures and at all times.

If we don’t keep our discriminating awareness alive, blindly accepting everything that is served to us, we risk turning a valuable opportunity for spiritual inquiry into a ritual based religion. And religion is at the root of most world wars.

In the end, we come here alone; we leave here alone. No one else knows our inner journey as well as we do. So it is up to us to recognize what works and what doesn’t. Do you have the courage to give up attachment to a preordained path and commit to asking an open question? Perhaps at a certain point, the biggest step we can take on the path to awakening is to trust ourselves.

Photo credit: Buddha

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