Over the last weekend, I was with friends who had moved into a lovely new apartment, and I got swept into a small project of turning an old wooden table into a bit of homemade art. A compass was purchased, along with a pencil and a selection of paints, the table was portioned into concentric circles, the first seven of which made up the seed, the rest that followed blossomed into what was to be the flower of life–though from my up-close perspective of the table, I couldn’t really see it. I saw the circles, and the folds between circles, I could see patterns, but not the thing itself. Even as I painted, I focused mostly on the surface of each petal that I chose. My vision was narrow, but it needed to be. The few times I tried to look at the entire table, it was disorienting. So, I stuck to the task. I carefully stayed within the lines drawn up in pencil, painting the color evenly in the allotted spaces. It wasn’t until later, when I looked at it from a distance with more of the petals painted that I could see what we were actually working on. I was genuinely surprised and impressed by our efforts. There I was, painting blue petals, spaces between circles, but really we were creating an entire flower.
It’s the beginning of week 2 of teaching in Cairo and at Nūn, here, we have a few beginners, as well as some practitioners who are reviving their practice. These days, I realize, are about painting petals.
I have asked students to breathe and move with the same sort of methodical brushstrokes, to simply focus and stay within the lines. When they are done, I ask them to do it again, committing it to memory.
Perhaps this is true with our practice in general. When we start learning ashtanga, we have a suspicion that there is a great framework, or perhaps we were told of this alleged intelligent design that connects everything, but we don’t really “know” it, not in a way that we understand it, or can even know what it looks like, not when we’re learning to breathe and not pass out through sun salutations.
We enter a room and it’s obvious that there’s some sort of pattern that repeats itself, but we don’t really see it as it is, mistaking it too often as its form, asana like acrobatics. It’s probably best that we don’t see the big picture, which is always potentially growing as long as we practice. It’s overwhelming, too much information. Seeing too much, also, we get caught in wanting to look ahead–and then we steal from ourselves the opportunity to participate in the great unfolding. So we learn the practice piece by piece, bit by bit.
This is a great way of learning. Each posture, or even element of a posture, is a digestible module to be learned and digested before moving on to another unit of learning. Still, nothing is ever lost because everything is reviewed and repeated. The body is maintained, the mind is continuously purified. The mind and muscle memory are sharpened together. Before we ourselves know it, we have a pretty full bodied practice. A complex system of breath, attention, movement and postures that all work in harmony with each other. So many seeds grown into a garden.
Whether one is a beginner or a long time practitioner, the planting of seeds, the painting of petals, the growing, the tending of garden never ceases. For me, this is what keeps Ashtanga interesting. I am constantly growing, constantly finding myself surprised to see the ever evolving “big picture.” The practice keeps my focused on the details, invites me into the nitty grittiness of it, gives me work to do in tidy digestible bits that are just the right size for me. It keeps me engaged in that work, just enough, that I don’t get distracted by the usual stuff and, also, don’t get hung up on the big picture itself.
This is one of the great gifts of this method–also, one of its challenges for practitioners, and, yes, but for teachers too. I am constantly having to check my desire to share, which may be born out of the best of intentions, but may also be feeding off some need to indulge my own ego (that to be a good teacher, I should perform, deliver, yadahyadah…), against the integrity of the practice.
I may leave my friend to finish painting her table, but I take with me the reminders it has given me in relation to practice: the magic of economy (how less is really more), that seeds grow when properly grounded and showered with patience, attention and love, that everything comes in due time, usually with incredible and surprising results.
Am excited and grateful to be currently sharing at Nūn Center here in Zamalek, Cairo. I will be here for two months, teaching a Sunday-Thursday Mysore, 7:30-10am. For more information: http://www.nuncenter.com.