Sunday, 12 December 2010

Yoga, health is a byproduct.

Was irritated the other day and vomited out this post. I never intended to actually post it, kind of like a love letter you never intend to send. And yet, reading it back, I'm kind of stunned by the venom, the ferociousness of it, is this what I really think yoga is about. Thing is, on reading it again, I kind of do. Every now and again, when I reflect on what I suspect yoga is supposed to be about, the questions it asks of you, then yes, it is terrifying and as I say below, so it should be.

So here it is, feel free to dismiss it as a rant.

Something has been bugging me all week. I mentioned that I was exploring the old 'Yogi's eat once a day' adage and the response was basically questioning if this was healthy! There's this assumption that yoga is about health. Not surprising I guess, the whole health, fitness happiness thing. Is that then all this is about? really? Just getting healthy and having a better quality of life?

I started yoga/ashtanga to gain some mental clarity, some peace after being burgled, a response to rage. I'm fitter and healthier as a result but surely that's just a byproduct. Sure, yoga can help you get healthier and if that's what your after then fine, it'll do it. It'll make you think about your diet and your general outlook on life, it may well lead to an improved state of well being but is that all yoga is about really? getting healthy?

Yoga is terrifying. And so it should be. Isn't it about questioning everything you think you are, a rejection of everything you are, a denial of all that you are or at least what you believe you are?It's a confrontation. The discipline, and it's a harsh, cruel, discipline, is a preparation for that confrontation. The asana is a discipline, the pranayama is a discipline, the meditation a discipline and yes, so is the diet, the yamas, the niyamas and for my money, most of all, the pratyaharas, all discipline.

You can practice some asana to lose a little weight, to get fitter, a little healthier, such that you can go about your life a little more comfortably but yoga, surely, is a rejection, a tearing up, a destruction, denial, rejection of life itself, an attempt to transcend not just who you are but what you are, it's ontological damn it.

We know this, we've read the sutras, Upanishads, we've studied our Gita, what we're we thinking, that we could just play with asana? Just visit?

* told you it was a bit of a rant but don't take it personally, it's directed as much at myself as anyone else, It's saying Grimmly, did you think it was just about the pretty asana.

* Oh and despite the rant, I did appreciated the concern for my health and well being in the comments to the 'The Pandava's, like the yogi's, ate once a day' post


  1. Hear, hear and right on, Grimm. Loved it!

    I've always considered the health and the yoga bod to be bonus byproducts of the practice, not the main event. That isn't why I came to the practice, and while I was pleasantly surprised when I started feeling and looking better after a short while, it hasn't changed my motivations.

  2. It's to discriminate between the self and the koshas, yes? Thinking it's *about* annamaya kosha is kinda funny, actually.

  3. Really interesting post! Are you a little uneasy because yoga is the first activity that is making you go through this "question everything" state? I'm the opposite of you. I've been pursuing discipline after discipline, having confrontations with myself all my life. Everyone seems to want me to get over it and just focus on getting better at whatever it is I'm working on. Yoga is the first discipline where it's okay to question myself and examine what I'm made of, instead of dismissing this doubt as low-self esteem and try to put on a fake brave face. It's true this journey can be scary but I believe it'll all clear up at the end. I have seen it in many senior yoga teachers' eyes. They are such lovely, genuine human beings who have found clarity and purpose through this practice.

  4. Very nice post. I risk coming across as being immodest by saying this, but I think that the spirit of your post, and the words that you have chosen to describe the practice ("tearing up", "destruction", "cruel", "harsh") resonate with the spirit of my November 19th post, "Is the practice a controlled form of torture?" That post stirred up quite a bit of stuff (how else should I put this) among my readers. Maybe the fault lies with my choice of using such a sensitive word as "torture". But it still seems to me that, unless one wants to insist that torture is not something that can be self-inflicted, one will get to a certain point in the practice where the practice itself challenges one to willfully confront one's deepest fears in a way that is harsh, cruel, and (if I may be permitted to use the word) torturous.

    I agree with you that the essence of yoga goes beyond simply being healthy/losing weight/looking good/achieving a certain level of flexibility. I think Kino wrote somewhere that as you go further in the asana practice, you do things that western medical science might not consider healthy (such as eating one meal a day, or contorting one's body into kapotasana or viranchyasana). But then, why should we believe that western medical science is right about all or even most of its prescriptions? After all, as recently as the sixties, medical textbooks were saying that smoking is a healthy habit!

    Well, I'm ranting too...

  5. Too right Grimmly !

    Your post reminded me of a story my teacher was telling in class today:

    At a conference with Sharath, one student was asking him about gym yoga - no chanting, whole emphasis about fitness/health/getting a great body, and whether it is possible to have yoga without all the spiritual ideals.

    Apparently all Sharath did was screwed his face up, completely perplexed, kept saying he couldn't understand the question despite the student repeatly pestering him !


  6. Oh, Grimmly! Love this post, your best yet! I read it in one breath! Keep the rant coming!

  7. Nice one, made me smaile. Think it resonates with us all. Iyengar said yoga purely for health and happiness is infact Bhoga, making a hell of a lot of Bhogies out there ; )

  8. Loved in Grimmly!

    I took up the practice because my life is one huge ontological battle! The body definately came as a bi-product. I've never understood people who say they 'do yoga' just for the health aspect and don't care for the airy-fairy stuff that comes with it... If you ask me, the deeper you go within your practice the less you can get away from it, and in my opinion, if that doesn't happen, you ain't doin it properly!! ;o)

  9. Being one of the people that challenged you on the "one meal a day" idea, I would like to respond.

    I don't think the whole objective of yoga is becoming healthy, or fit for that matter, but there is an element of getting the body to a healthy state so that you can evolve the mind. Being sick takes a lot of mental energy; a healthy body gives you a much better opportunity; for example, allows you to sit in lotus and meditate.

    While we are at it, I'm going to go all balls out. In the Ashtanga circles I often see "the dark side of yoga", as Richard Freeman calls it: people that get a little bit too obsessed or take things a bit too far. I've seen a good share of anorexic Ashtangis, and they always justify their starvation: they are doing a cleanse, or they have Delhi belly (if in Mysore), or they can't eat X hours before practice, or they want to lose some weight for Pasasana, and so on and so forth.

    Given that you weigh yourself every day and that you tend to be a bit intense about things, I wanted to bring attention to the one meal a day thing as something that might not benefit you and could start you down a very dangerous road.

    That's all.

  10. Hi
    Very interesting post ! I think it questions very well the role of asana practice.
    I agree with you, but I can't help thinking that the practice we're doing (at least Ashtanga, I don't know enough about Vinyasa Krama), with it's strong emphasis on asana, primary goal is health.
    We all know the stories of Krishnamacharya who cured the Maharadja of Mysore, or BKS Iyengar who was terribly ill when he was young, and was cured by asana practice.
    The primary sequence isn't called the Yoga Chikitsa?
    What is the role asana practice according to the Yoga Sutra or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika ? I understand it as a discipline to control the body and being healthy in order to be able to meditate etc. ?
    Having said that health is not why I personnaly practice, or rather it's not what keeps me practicing, but if I had to expain what is the role of asanas in the Yoga discipline, that’s what I would emphasize.
    And personnaly 80% of my "Yoga activity" is Asana.
    There many things to say, I would love to discuss this around a drink!

  11. Wow, lot's of Comments, thank you all for the encouragement.

    Thanks for the link Karen will have a listen, have downloaded them and will put them on my itouch.

    Studied single hons Philosophy Yyoginini so no, not the first time. Heidegger is my guy and if that's not questioning everything I don't know what is. Certainly not something to 'get over', don't listen to them.

  12. V, Alesk and Arturo too if you read this. I appreciated the concern for my health in your comments to the 'diet' post (have added a note at the bottom of this one). The rant wasn't direct at you guys or your comments but at the extent of the focus on health in general, hope you see that. And yes V I agree about the importance of health to the yogi, it's something Ramaswami stresses, the health giving benefits of the asana being one of the great discoveries of the yogis. Just that it starts to overshadow everything else, as does asana.

    The weighing myself everyday is just while I'm doing this, part of the 'experiment' aspect. It's also to keep a check that I don't start losing too much weight, in which case I would obviously stop or adapt it. You really don't have to worry about me becoming an AA but thank you though.

    Yes Alesk over a drink would be great for all these discussions, less chance of misunderstanding and you can all let rip for a little before calming down and parting still friends. BTW, Ramaswami recommends, in an hour lesson, twenty minutes asana, twenty for pranayama and another twenty for meditation, so more like 30% asana

  13. Your post makes me think of those old yogis, these skinny powerhouses covered in the ashes of the dead.

  14. Dear Grimmly
    Somehow, it might feel like a rant to you, but it does not feel like a rant to me. It seems like honest reflections.

    Oh, and yes, I'm reading. I am one of the calorie restricters. And one that can explain I do calorie restriction so that I can bind in Marichyasana- at least that was my reason for beginning calorie restriction. I was fat all of my life. Actually, you have to read my history about why I do CR to understand me- I come from a family where all of my siblings have been morbidly obese to the point of them nearly dying many times- and they spend a fortune on medical bills because of their ill health brought on by being overweight. But anyway, CR is not a good topic for a blog because it brings out rage in people. There is nothing that will get people more upset with each other than eating habits. And when people are talking about denying food, it drives people nuts.

    But since Grimmly was trying to change his eating habits, it made me alarmed because in the CR lists we ususally have these newbies who just start calorie restriction and say that they are going to be eating x amount of calories. The old schoolers have to point out that they are going to harm themselves because they can't sustain themselves on such low calories.

    So my writing is from love for Grimmly- to protect him- suggesting that he get software to track his nutrition- at least for a while when starting on that path- so that he does not end eating less than is healthy. Or that he may supplement with vitamis for where he might be deficient.

    Restricting calories has given me great health. My bloodwork is great. And I am lighter and able to do yoga. There is no mystery to that zen priest, Mark, being able to do so much ashtanga yoga in that video gracefully- he is very thin.


  15. I have to disagree with your statement, Arturo:

    "There is no mystery to that zen priest, Mark, being able to do so much ashtanga yoga in that video gracefully- he is very thin."

    Being thin is not a necessary or sufficient condition for advanced asana practice. There are many stiff thin yogis and there are others who are on the not too skinny side and still quite capable (I include myself in this group).

    Being thin has health advantages, but I wouldn't explain someone's proficiency at asana purely by their weight. I think this, in fact, sends a relatively dangerous message - might make people go on crazy diets to get, say, the bind in Pasasana.

  16. Dear V
    Agreed. I am not advocating that people go on crazy diets. It was my path to start reducing calories very slowly over an entire year in 2003. It was the the only path that allowed me to progress in yoga. I am not concerned about our discussion among yogis on this topic surrounding nutrition. It's people who practice neither yoga nor proper nutrition who get emotional about the subject. I too know stiff skinny people and flexible heavier people. The majority of people I have seen doing Third and Advanced Series where thin and wiry, though.

  17. Well maybe for the householder proper it is all about health and fitness.

    On once a day eating: check out Ori Hofmekler's work. Some of his points re:diets in Graeco-Roman world are a little contentious but some strong arguments fusing physical hardiness and mental clarity not out of keeping with yoga as you are practising it.

  18. Third Series is Advance A.

    Third = Advanced A
    Fourth = Advanced B
    Fifth = Advanced C
    Sixth = Advanced D

    At my shala there are several women doing Third and although we are all on the small side, none of us are wiry (and a few have actually completed Third).

  19. Good point Anon. and thanksfor the reference to Ori Hofmekler's , i'd heard of him but not that his work was based on the Graeco-Roman world.

    V, forgot to say, happy Birthday (it is today isn't it?), hope your having a good day.

    I get that your clarifying Arturo's comment here re 3rd series being Advanced A, but just in case anyone comes across this, it's fair to say that they don't/didn't equate exactly though near as damn it perhaps (splitting hairs?). Always wondered where Advanced C and D/5th and 6th series sprung from, was just reading this on Davind Williams site

    'When I arrived in Mysore in 1973, the "Ashtanga Yoga Syllabus" was framed and hung on the wall of Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. Pattabhi Jois told me the syllabus was the list of the four series of postures and pranayama from the Yoga Korunta, written in the 12th century by the yogi, Vamana. He explained to me that this ancient text was taught orally to his guru, T.Krishnamacharya, by his guru in Tibet, Rama Mohan Brahmachari. Several years later, Krishnamacharya, following the directions of his guru, found a written copy of the Yoga Korunta in the library of the Maharaja of Calcutta. Krishnamacharya madea copy of the manuscript.

    Had never heard that about a poster of all four series on the wall before.

    Have just bought DW's.

  20. I tend to agree with V on this, never felt that you needed to be particularly skinny for Ashtanga, I'm pretty stocky and I remember Touchdown Ted from the Rocket Series DVD, huge US football player.

    I'd have thought that it's only a few of the binds that it might ever be a consideration, mari D in Primary, Pasasana in 2nd Purna matsyendrasana in 3rd, perhaps the Mari's in 4th but if you can do Mari D then you can do all the others. You probably do get pretty slim/fit just as a result of such an intense practice, it's a byproduct not a requirement. I lost a lot of weight when I first started, that first year, just because it was a hot, sweaty, full on practice every morning but then I settled down into pretty much the weight I am now.

  21. Yeah yeah, I know, there were Third and Fourth series and they got re-jigged and split into Advanced A, B, C, D. But my point, really, is that at the moment, Third series is Advanced A. I've heard Arturo a few times say that Advanced A goes after Third and that is just not the case.



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from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included. "So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta