Practice of Pieces 

 

 

 

Should you come to a “mysore” self-practice class with me for the first time, I’ll most likely ask you to close your eyes and breathe. First, with your ordinary breath. And from there, we start to extend each inhale and exhale, sipping the air from our nostrils until we create a soft sound, which slowly heats the body. We’ll probably do a few sun salutations, maybe some standing postures, but the real lesson on that first day is breathing. It is the most basic unit of learning in the traditional ashtanga method.

Over time, we introduce other units: the engagement of our core muscles or energy locks called bandha. vinyasa or movement-breath, and various postures that condition and open the body differently. On a more subtle level, there are lessons in focus and awareness, effort and conservation of energy, dedication, devotion and self-love–all these units are actually inexhaustible, we return to them over and over, each time more in-depth. Slowly but surely the lessons expand over time.

When we start, it’s a little like learning something in pieces and it’s hard to see the big picture. Many get impatient or frustrated that they can’t see where it’s all going. People get bored of the pace, or angry at the level of concentration we often ask from beginners, or afraid of the level of commitment we ask from all students.

I ask new students to commit for the month, recommending them to practice the 5 teaching days, at the barest minimum 3. And here, in Egypt, I’ve actually seen people physically recoil at my suggestion as if I were some yoga sadist. Yes, I do know life is hard here, that Cairo traffic is ridiculous, that a morning practice is counterflow the nocturnal rhythms of the city. I totally understand. And yet…

I also know that people want to be healthier, they want to have better habits, they want to be more flexible and strong, they want to have peace and focus. So I ask anyway, daring aversion to such structure because I know that this is a formula for change that really works. For those who practice regularly, the pieces come together relatively quickly, and the yoga practice becomes wholesome, full and giving.

As I approach March and another month of teaching here in Cairo, the questions I want to ask from new and old students are the following: Are you willing to show up for yourself on a regular basis? Are you willing to breathe and move, everyday learning something new about the practice and maybe about yourself, everyday recognizing that you are this amazing creature that can get stronger and more flexible not just in the body but in the mind and heart too? Are you willing to stand before the difficulties so that we can piece the practice together?

 

Regular Teaching continues here at Nūn Center:
Mysore Mornings is Sunday to Thursday, 7-10:30am.
Evenings are Monday & Wednesday, 8-9:30pm.

We have some special programs at the start of this month at Nūn:
Full Led Primary
Friday, March 4, 9-10:30pm

Ashtanga Yoga: Tool For Change
Saturday, March 4, 11am-1pm

Inner Dance, Sound and Movement Meditation
Saturday, March 4, 6-8pm

 

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In Mystery

 

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Headstand within the Red Pyramid in Dashour. Photo by Yasmine Abdul Aziz.


We inhale and exhale, sweeping our bodies from one direction to the next, moving from one posture to another, we are making shapes, we are moving energy, we are slowly shaving off the excess with painstaking compulsion, the way an archeologist might excavate ancient ruins with a soft bristle brush, one careful stroke at a time, determined but wary of damaging the unknowable treasures that possibility lie beneath…

At least that’s how I feel on the days that I am patient with myself and with the practice–that each breath is a soft breeze blowing on my massive pile of dirt, gently carving out the me underneath it all, the one I’d really like to get to. The other times, well…I’m actually shoveling away, pushing and prodding, making new mounds of dirt before getting bored and starting at a new spot. It’s tough work this business of personal excavation.

After years of yoga practice, I can honestly say that as much as I’ve uncovered (and the amount of discoveries have been significant!) there always seems to be more underneath the surface, more evidence, more history, and with every find, more questions. I’ve been big on digging deep, on self-inquiry and detective work. And because I can be quite heady and I like to figure things out, I’ve taken it all very seriously.

But even this noble intention of self-discovery has its pitfalls. Expectations are laced with disappointments. To look ahead towards a future destination pulls us away from the journey at hand and, ultimately, the present moment. I often wonder, if by throwing myself so doggedly into “process,” I have also pulled myself away from the spirit of practice, true sadhana.

On a recent retreat to Ardi in Dashour, Egypt, a group of us went to visit the nearby Red Pyramid. We went in and walked around, all of us in quiet awe of the 104 meter-tall (341-feet) structure built around 2600BCE, a precursor to the Giza pyramids. Archeologists, historians and Egyptologists have studied the pyramid extensively, they know its dimensions, what it’s made of, who built it and for what purpose, and yet we continue to marvel at the mystery of it, its strangeness, its un-fathomability.

What if practice were less about unlocking the mysteries and more about seeing them and acknowledging them? What if I simply accepted that I am my mound of dirt, my hidden treasures, my ancient stories, my lost city, or that there might not be much there at all, and went on to breathe into the whole lot of it anyway, enjoying the mystery of being, rather than constantly trying to figure it out? What if I looked at myself, not as a problem to be solved but a puzzle to revel in and dive into. The destination might be the same in the end, but I reckon the journey would be different.

Personally, I vacillate between the pull of my own ego and the spiritual practice. I know the lessons, not to grasp and not to reach. But I’ve also been taught to put in appropriate effort, to cultivate discipline and a healthy attachment towards my practice–a little too much effort, however, and I cross a line between willfulness and surrender, and there I struggle. And where is the joy in that?

In the end, practice is practice. We’ll shift and move even if we don’t mean to.

The ongoing excavations are unlikely to stop for me, not only have I been at it a while, I actually like digging. But I also want to cultivate more contentment being In Mystery. I want to understand that I  don’t have to understand everything about myself, that not knowing has a function, that uncertainty contains magic and possibility.  Once again, here is the recurring lesson, think less and just practice; all is still coming.