āsana and the yoga of cairo

It’s been a spell since leaving Cairo, but this piece inspired by the old city and its people has long been stewing. People often ask me why I keep coming back to Cairo. There are many reasons but one of the big ones is this: it inspires a level of sadhana that is well beyond the body. It’s a place that reminds me to live my yoga practice.

There’s this chair in a room. It’s a small receiving room in an old apartment in Downtown Cairo. The square room is painted red, and despite its tiny floor size, it stretches up and up with high ceilings. The chair is the only real furniture in the room. There’s a desk lamp, that sits on the ground and the three walls of the room are filled with artworks of varying sizes that reaches up the wall.

The seat, a wooden antique reclining chair with white cushions, feels lonely to me, partially lit by the lamp. Framed against the bits of modern art crawling up the red, it feels stoic, but solitary.

Later, my friend, to whom this space belongs, tells me about his life in Cairo. The struggles of ordinary life filled with victory and loss; he speaks of caring for a parent dying of cancer; of the failed revolution; of life in Tahir Square; of the many crazy things he witnessed during that crazy time; he shares the oddness and disparity between the different social stratas which he straddles, because Cairo, the world he lives in, constantly vacillates between extremes.

In yoga, “āsana” is often referred to as the postures we take while we practice. It is the “seat” of yoga.

These days, we mistake āsana as taking shapes in space. There is a proliferation of this on the internet with photos and videos of beautifully performed handstands and human pretzels… The day I started writing this article, a funny spoof on the yoga video phenomenon went viral among my yoga circles. The following day, a number of the same people who shared it online were once again liking yogāsana snap shots on social media. There’s nothing wrong with that, we can, of course, appreciate all sides. But it had me thinking, once again, what it means to be sitting in yoga.

It is truly something awesome to see a human being defy the limits and gravity with his/her body. They definitely inspire. But I wonder, are they accurate representations of āsana?

I do not offer any photos for this post, though originally I wanted to share one of the chair itself. My friend asked that I refrain from doing even that, such things are, after all, private and the delicate practice of our lives is sacred.

My friend and his chair (neither pictured here) move me in a way that I do not feel when seeing some popular representations of yoga. My friend and his chair, his seat, remind me that the essence of yoga cannot fully be captured in a polished physical posture, however amazing, however artistically articulated.

My friend, he’s no expert at Cairo life, certainly not at yoga. He’s simply doing his best to just sit in all the crazy, all the joy and all the disappointment, striving to find peace with all of it. And that feels like yoga practice to me.

When we practice, we are practicing our ability to sit in yoga, to find equanimity in the body, mind, heart. The greater practice is life itself, the challenge of which is to find equanimity in the body, mind and heart amidst the chaos of an ever changing world.

I think one of the reasons I continue to be drawn to Cairo is that the city’s version of the ebb and flow of life is on some serious kind of overdrive: it is a vortex of living, of varying energies, sweet and terrible (political, economic, cultural, social, individual) all swirling rapidly together in this thick soup of a city, layered with modern and ancient civilizations, and with them their countless innovations, numerous mistakes and unfathomable mysteries.

To sit in it, to stand, to walk, to move, to work, to be there, to be well–let alone, thrive there–takes a special kind of practice.

That’s not to say that everyone in Cairo is sitting in yoga, with every challenge there’s a good amount of avoidance or numbing–but the opportunity to practice yoga exists at every turn, every interaction, every bit of gridlock and difficulty. It is easy to see this in the lives of many of the city’s inhabitants, most of whom don’t know what the inside of a yoga studio looks like. Practice is alive in the struggle. It’s inhabitants must simply do what they can, working to find some stillness in all this whirlpool of energy; Cairo is their yoga.

The search for softness or grace or space or peace in the whirlpool of life is both challenging and sublime. I suppose it’s like this everywhere, though the extreme energies of a place like Cairo accentuates the experience. It is the same experience in a mysore room, where practice is alive and well, gritty and difficult, at the edge of some seemingly insurmountable odds, which we learn to overcome little by little.

Ultimately, the āsana of Cairo is that of everyplace, it is the practice of every man. It is about how we sit, stand, move, interact with our environment, with the people we meet, it’s how we rise up to our challenges and it’s how we live up to our victories.

 

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