I am writing right now from Mysore, South India, the home to my teacher Yogacharya Venkatesha.
Being in India is not just about being in the kutira, but seva (volunteer work) and experiencing the people. India itself starts from the filth, beggars and smell of urine to and the proceeds to the beautiful flowers, a child’s face, the crowded streets and lack of personal space.
Today, before self-practice, the attendant at the apartment commanded, “Mad’am, you open ‘de door.”
He wanted to start the washing machine to do my laundry. He sailed into my apartment, took out a pair of scissors and opened the soap packet. Once he finished loading the machine he commanded, “Mad’am, you close ‘de door!” and left.
I’ve been making an annual trip to Mysore since 1999 to rekindle my on-going education of yoga. People often think the more advanced one becomes the less this is necessary. Yet, the truth is the more demanding it becomes, the more I need to be immersed in the never-ending path of learning. There is no better plan than to get myself organized with my responsibilities at home so I can go to India to do my sadhana. This doesn’t come easily, as many sacrifices are made including, working harder to afford the time off and saving money.
As student of yoga, the path is for life and I remind my students of the same. Whenever I am asked how long it takes to master a posture, I know they are doubting the process. I always say it will take the rest of their life and I mean it. Because mastering the physical is one thing while understanding how it affects you mentally and emotionally is another.
The doubt that surfaces during practice, however, is not one that can be worked out on an intellectual level. It demands practice not discussions. My own doubt has taken me to Mysore many times and if I am lucky many more.
Pralahda, one of my first teachers at the Sivananda ashram, said to me, “You always think you cannot do it.”
But I know it is not only me; there are lots of people who experience doubt being one of the deepest psychological barriers to overcome. So it is going to be incredibly helpful to get to know your doubt, work with it and use it as a catalyst for your practice. Most of the time we think of doubt as an negative aspect and something to get rid of. But true sadhana (practice) uses it like fertilizer in a field.
BKS Iyengar says, “Doubt is [you] seeking greater clarity and knowledge.” (Astadala Yogamala, Vol. 8)
Doubt (one of the nine kleshas), as laid out by Sage Patajalim in the Yoga Sutras, is known as “samsaya.” Patanjalim discusses it as affliction or mental obstacle. As my teacher Yogacharya says, it is best to deal with it sooner rather than later. This is not to imply, however, that once you do it, it is over. In fact, doubt is intermingled with sticky feelings like frustration, pain, recklessness, irritation and arrogance. It is neither pleasant nor personal, but part of the human dilemma.
One clear way of seeing it at work in the practice is when you want to squirm out of a pose—my teacher will ask is it your body or mind. And/or is there the thought of: “this pose has something wrong with it and it’s not for me”?
The funny aspect of doubt is the way it elicits discursive thinking and sheds light on the two extremes the mind jumps between. That is, the subjective length of time (expressed mentally as,” there is only so much time to try to get this”) and having a lack of faith in the process (often articulated as excuses as to why this is not coming sooner).
Case in point is a recent email I received from a yoga teacher who asked me about backbending. He had encountered many teachers who could bend backward, but lacked an ability to explain it or understand why they were able to do so. He was doubtful he could do it and pointed a jealous finger to the naturally “bendy back.” I have been asked many times if my back was flexible and the answer is “no.” It came from years of practice, hard work, understanding the process and working through doubt as well as pain. This is why it is important to study under a real teacher. Photos, videos and images only tell you so much. They lack the depth and hide the struggle involved by “show-casing” the physical asana.
In the end and from a series of e-mails, the teacher concluded he had simply not put the work/effort into it. This is a good example of the power of practice and working through your doubt.
Ultimately, the hardest thing to understand is that touching your feet to your head is not yoga. It is about learning to see through the body and into the scattered nature of the mind.
This doesn’t always equal the flexible back, but it will certainly open your own body, mind and emotions.
Many years ago, my teacher told me to “think,” which is not as easy as it sounds.
However, this instruction is not to be taken literally. What he means is to think using your body and not your ego. Stop thinking you know everything. Be embarrassed if need be…and then…
“After all these years you ‘might’ understand what yoga is.” ~ Yogacharya
On a practical level, how do you use doubt and believe it is possible?
For the last few years I’ve been exploring a practice in which I hold postures longer than five to eight breaths. This allows the mental fluctuations, body attachments and other distractions to surface as well as to strengthen the mind (aka, work with doubt).
I watch, breathe and try to understand. Understand what? Understand why one side is painful and another is not. Why my shoulder drops here and it is straight on the other side. One of the greatest things to be clear about from the start is that I am working on “my” mind by using my body and not working on my body by using my mind.
Since the holding time is longer, it gets uncomfortable and painful. Acharya’s suggestion, which is not the conventional method, is to respond with, “You feel pain?. . . Relax.”
He does not mean sit there and hang out. He means stay there and learn to watch it. I use the breath and breathe with my body. It might sound trite but breathing your whole body is not the same as breathing with your lungs. That is, breathing from the head to the feet. To open all the closed areas can be painful, so developing faith in the process is necessary. Faith (the counterpart of doubt) is not in the religious sense, but the kind of belief that ignites and excites you. This is the other side of doubt because, and to borrow from Kahlil Gibran,”Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother” (1883-1931).
Developing faith makes you believe you could could have stayed a second longer. And when your mind would love to skip the sequence, doubt has a funny way of keeping you there. This is something I personally have learned to be grateful for because the practice does not let you bullsh*t yourself (and don’t we have enough of this already?).
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said it best when he wrote,
“And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers—perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”
~ Letters to a Young Poet
I first read this when I was 19-years-old on the train from New York City to Toronto. I have reread Rilke countless times and it’s as true then as it is now. I always understand something differently.
Practice also demands this: to understand.
Test, question, inquire and ask about your doubt. It is not a radical way of practicing, but a way to look at things as they are and work through them.
Editor: Brianna Bemel
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