August 9, 2012

Ashtanga & the Leap to Faith. ~ Bobbie Jo Allen

I’ve been thinking a lot about faith—“faith” in all its broad range of contexts.

I’ve been thinking about it in my practice: while working with me in pincha mayurasana last week, my teacher Maria Zavala simply said to me, “The wall’s not there,” and the pose happened without the wall. I could feel her faith in me, and so I had faith myself. But did I have faith in myself?

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Then, there’s my upcoming pilgrimage to India in December; the last email from our guide Robert Moses informs us that we will be required to sign a Declaration of Faith before entering the temple of Tirumala to have darshan.

Signed declaration or no, darshan itself—seeing and being seen by God—requires faith.

If it could be said that I had faith before I began the practice of Ashtanga, it was what you might call “poetic faith.”

The term comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poet who coined the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief,” which is actually the feeling you get when you’re reading or watching a movie, and you forget the rules of time and reality. For the moment, you believe a man can fly. Coleridge believed this was an important way of thinking, because it “awakened the mind from the lethargy of custom, ” or habitual patterns of thought.

As I’ve learned more about the other seven limbs of the practice, my initial faith has been challenged.

I’m aware, for instance, that when I drop back into a backbend—something I thought would be physically impossible for me because of the ruptured disks in my spine—I know that it’s the full complexity of the practice that made this happen.

I didn’t do it: my teachers, leading back to Sri K. Pattahbi Jois and beyond, got me there.

I know this. So I’m aware in that moment that faith happened without my willing it. It was an unwilling suspension of disbelief. Faith without will.

I’ve often heard the dropback described by teachers as a “leap of faith.” The phrase is from a Christian philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, but he actually said it was a “leap to faith.”

I remember one of my early teachers describing what he meant in this way.

You’re being asked to jump into a deep pit. Not only is there no net, but you know there’s no net. No net will appear. In order for there to be faith, it has to be a matter of indifference to you if you will be saved or fall. You can’t, in other words, believe a net will appear (that’s a leap of faith—you already have it) you have to leap even if you don’t believe.

A leap to faith.

In order to even get there—the moment of faith—you have to know not that you can do it, but that you will fall, and do it anyway. Once you know you can do it, faith is no longer part of the practice of that asana. And the process of “the lethargy of custom” begins.

So it occurred to me that part of the amazing thing about this practice is there is always a physical challenge to our faith—there is no totalizing the practice, no closure.

I have to admit that this realization caused me a certain amount of “fear and trembling” (another phrase from Kierkegaard)—and no doubt will keep doing so, every time I roll out the mat, if I stay awake, aware and looking for faith.


Bobbie Jo Allen began practicing yoga fifteen years ago, after a degenerative condition left her walking with a cane. Ten years ago, she came to Ashtanga accidentally, when an Iyengar class was full. She has been practicing Ashtanga exclusively ever since, and threw her cane away. She began studying with Diana Christinson and Tim Miller, and currently practices in Los Angeles with Jörgen Christiansson.

Bobbie also teaches writing, which she says has a lot in common with yoga (“practice and all is coming”), at the University of California, Irvine. You can read samples of her poetry at www.bobbieallen.com. She and her husband blog at http://theconfluencecountdown.com/.


Editor: Thaddeus Haas

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