Ashtanga is a strong practice and without diligently observing the changes we are going through, it is easy to influence the mind to develop as strong a mindset. Just as the physical practice builds strength in the body, so too can it colour our thoughts, perception and experience of the world in a very black/white, right/wrong, good/bad kind of way.
I had spent some time thinking about this and how, such a beautiful and beneficial practice can pull out some angry ugly demons from within ourselves that we never knew existed (I mean that figuratively of course, and not like in an excorcism kind of way, just so we are clear!). Was this part of what some practitioners call “tapas”? The burning away of toxins from the emotional and physical bodies? Or is there something else?
In the last couple of months I had been fortunate to somehow been introduced to the work of Stephen Cope, scholar in residence and Kripalu ambassador as well as an accomplished psychoanalyst before committing to the path of yoga. I had many lightbulb moments reading his book “Yoga and the Quest for the True Self” and finally received an answer.
There was a section in which he speaks of developing awareness and equanimity as the two wings of practice. He wrote of his own experience and the experience of others that had spent some time at Kripalu. As one begins to intensify their own practice, be it an asana practice or other kinds of meditative practice, they will begin to experience heighten awareness. This totally made sense to me. When you spend enough time doing postures on your mat every single day, you are bound to get to know your body a little better than before; the sensations and behaviour of your body, and the ensuing thoughts and emotions that arise from it. Stephen recounts a few instances when his close friends or students at Kripalu began to go into a phase of panic. What do you do when this new awareness suddenly shows you whatever you believed of your life and worldview was actually not entirely true? What happens when your understanding of the world is being turned around onto its head?
If awareness is one part of the equation towards understanding ourselves better, then equanimity is the other essential part of the equation. He calls it the calm abiding self or equanimity. A term familiar in Buddhist teachings and often taught to many beginner meditators. So when your perspective of the world is being challenged from every direction, instead of going into a state of panic, hopelessness or depression, we use this as an opportunity to develop the calm abiding self. That precious skill of being able to remain in the calm centre of the storm while everything else around you sort of just spins madly in circles.
Therein lies the answer to this pondering I had and what relief it was finally to be able to make sense of it all! There are many ways to learn and develop equanimity in our thoughts and reaction to the ever changing world around us. Meditation is one way. So is prayers and chants. I have always believed that the act of zikr in Islam, which involves silently repeating short prayers to incite constant remembrance of God can induce a state of calmness, helping one to discover that sweet, yet fleeting spot of equanimity whilst at it. Same too for those who chose to chant mantras and others who have their own way of remembering that there is always a greater power beyond ourselves and that surrendering to this could perhaps be the seed to developing the calm abiding self.
And what of Ashtanga practice in this context? Can you develop equanimity on your mat every day? Definitely! Plenty of opportunities arise especially in those postures we have a natural aversion to, or when we are in pain or injured and have to modify our practice. Ashtanga is indeed a powerful practice, and it gives us the opportunity to both gain awareness of our thought patterns and develop equanimity to it.