Curiously, the word alchemy aptly describes an important, even magical part of what happens as you go through this (at times) torturous process of acquiring yoga knowledge.
Alchemy is defined as “a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way.”
Tapas, the concentrative friction and body heat that you cultivate on your mat, is a form of alchemy, a heating that causes a transformation of one material into another.
In the case of yoga, the transformation is of material to spirit, a realization that your body, thoughts, senses, perceptions do not define you. Rather these are simply materials that are meant to help you reveal the spiritual Self that you are. Success in this realization requires that you stick to the fundamental yogic recipe, and that is to conduct long term practice with religious regularity, without interruption, and with great enthusiasm (YS I-14).
Remember the three essential ingredients to the alchemical recipe:
1) long term
3) with great vitality and ardor.
And the recipe works; I have repeatedly witnessed alchemical transformations in those who truly dive into ashtanga and wholly submit themselves to its guidelines.
When transformations happen they can seem to happen as if by magic, to come all of a sudden, to sneak up on you from out of nowhere. The changes in your body or the new ability to swiftly and skillfully concentrate your mind can surprise you even though you have worked so hard to win these powers (siddhis). It can happen that one day your back bend felt restricted or your jump back felt heavy and the next day there came an unknown freedom or a surprising new strength.
You look up for a moment, take your head out of the toil, and you find that you are stronger than you were, perhaps stronger than you have ever been. Or your back now bends like never before.
These transformations are not at all limited to changes in the body and in your ability to perform asanas. You also come to transform your perceptions, your self limiting thoughts and behaviors, self identity. You enter into new relationship with both your inner and the outer worlds.
You find that you can do, think, create and be what you never dreamed possible for you.
But this feeling that magic happened to create these transformations can be a slippery slope that you must not fall down. An illusion is ultimately a false appearance made to look real, the conjuring trick of a magician. And when your practice begins to yield many such transformations, you can unsuspectingly fall into the illusion that these are prizes for your ego or that it is magic that is creating these changes instead of grace combined with your hard work.
Progress, positive change or success does not come from out of the blue, but rather from a lifetime spent in the tedious, painstaking work of repeating. With each small victory along the way you return to the same practice that you did before, and you return to the challenges of feeling that you are not getting anywhere.
And thus when change finally comes, when you definitively experience that you have won something bodily and/or internally significant to you, there is a brief moment of acknowledgement and a bowing down.
But this is not the time to think that you have finally arrived, not the time to rest.
And this is true no matter if you are just beginning to learn first series or have completed fourth. Rather it is important for you to remember how your success came, and also to remember the pure reasons that you have chosen to undergo this strict discipline and training.
You must acknowledge your progress and also endeavor to continue to apply the techniques carefully in order to reach the next more subtle stage, and there is always a next more subtle stage, a new, internal, more central soulful, illuminative horizon.
Even the most momentous, seemingly large shifts and improvements, the ones increase your physical and mental capacity are mostly only small benchmarks along the way to the most important internal mastery of realizing So Ham (I am That).
The yoga sutras list as one of nine obstacles the failure to maintain a stage that you have attained (YS I-30 ).
It defies logic how swiftly and irrevocably the powers and openings that you win can vanish if not tended to with proper respect, care, and humility. If your breathing improves, your back opens or new strength comes to you remain thankful, intense, earnest and devoted to your practice. That way you will ensure that you will have these gifts in your arsenal to use in long term, in your gradual preparation to strike the internal target that is ever in your sights.
And the sutras also stipulate that the siddhis, powers that you develop through the magical alchemy of practice, become obstacles to progress if they are merely enjoyed superficially or taken too literally (YS III-37).
It serves you to remember that ultimately you are not practicing to get strong muscles or a flexible spine.
Sure, getting stronger or doing a deep back bend can be fun and helpful.
But accessing the internal world that becomes open to you through these hard won powers is infinitely more satisfying.
When your back begins to open, or you can finally bind well in Marichasana D or you begin to develop the strength of an elephant, you remain humble and endeavor to curb your ego. You learn to chuckle at and see through the wily, pompous inner Mr. Toad who wants to claim honors for your great victory.
Instead, become even more introspective, keep your sights on the more important targets of Self knowledge, being in harmonious relationship with yourself and others, generosity and expressing your true original creativity.
Here I am reminded of the story of the slow plodding tortoise versus the fast, nimble, overconfident hare.
Being satisfied with attaining some minor powers and thus losing your commitment to serious practice or falling into mindless repetition is symbolized in the hare. He has all confidence that he is going to crush the painfully slow tortoise.
To the hare the race is nothing more than a cruel joke being played on the tortoise. And of course he jumps out to an impressive seemingly uncatchable lead.
But his cockiness and pride lead him to become overly tamasic, to lose energy and focus. And over the course of the race he decides he needs and deserves a big, fat nap.
The tortoise eventually triumphs as he makes his way to the finish line slowly passing the hare who sleeps in the bushes next to the road just short of the goal. And oblivious of defeat the hare wakes up too late.
The tortoise represents the one who yokes him self to the system, accepts his limits, accepts the long plateaus, the seeming interminable phases of inertia, withstands the nearly continual feelings of failure and of not measuring up.
He endeavors to work for success by remembering to appreciate and savor the small victories, using thoughtful, constructive repetition, and by plodding along progressing inch by inch without forgetting the straight forward practice ingredients that bring success.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: elephant digital archives, CarbonNYC/Flickr.