What shall I Write in My Notebook? – Concepts, Attachments and Iyengar Yoga

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In a monastery, two monks argued about a point regarding their master’s teaching. One said yes and the other said no. Finally, they came to their master to explain their understanding of the teaching.
After the first monk explained why he said yes, the master nodded his head and said that he was correct. The first monk was then very happy and left. The other monk, of course, was not happy. He also explained to the master why he said no. Thinking for a while, the master also nodded his head and said that he was also correct. The monk was then satisfied and left.
A little monk who was sitting beside the master was very puzzled. He said to his master, “Master, I do not understand. It is obvious that only one of them is correct. They cannot be both right. Why did you say that they are both correct?”
The master replied calmly, “Hm, you are correct too!”
Zen Story

Important Note:
This article is intended for teachers of the Iyengar method and deals with the practice of advanced students. I would like to emphasize that while teaching beginners you must present them with clear and non-contradictory instructions. For a beginner there should be only one correct option, and any confusion must be avoided.

We, westerners consider ourselves to be very rational, efficient and logical. It is hard for us to accept that an instruction can be correct when its opposite is also correct. We find such seemingly contradictory instructions very confusing; they disturb our sense of order and logic: how can something be right, when its opposite is also right?
In the Iyengar yoga world we are eager to learn new instructions and ‘points’ about the asanas. When we attend a workshop conducted by a knowledgeable, senior teacher, we sincerely study the new points and adjustments. Often these new instructions are fine and precise, and they create something new in our experience of the poses. This teacher will typically not claim for originality but rather quote Guruji (B.K.S. Iyengar). He would present himself as a conveyer of the instructions learnt in RIMYI[1] from Guruji himself or from his son (Prashant) or daughter (Geeta).
As teachers, we adopt these instructions enthusiastically; we feel that we have learnt something new and deep about the asanas. So we write the new instructions in our notebooks and teach them to our students as if they were written ‘in stone’.
When, a few months later, another knowledgeable, senior teacher comes to conduct another workshop – we register, in hopes of enforcing the knowledge we already have. However, often, the new teacher gives just the opposite instructions. Surprisingly, lo and behold, again, we feel that these new instructions are very deep and correct, and they also give us a new experience of the same known poses.
I am sure that these teachers are all sincere and truthful and that they really learnt their teachings from Guruji. But we are left with the problems: which teacher is right? And more importantly: What should I write in my notebook???
It may be good advice not to write anything in the notebook at this stage, and instead practice and test these new instructions several times to see how they can fit in our own personal practice. Once these new instructions are absorbed and assimilated into the framework of our cellular, embodied knowledge, they will probably not seem so contradictory to what we already know.
You must also remember that in an asana there are actions and counter-actions that work in different directions. Often, in order to create stability and balance you have to perform a set of actions that complement each other. So it could be that, for clarity’s sake, each teacher emphasizes just one action, and neglects the corresponding counter-action.
However, I think that the source of the confusion is much deeper than that, and it has to do with our relying on concepts and conceptual thinking. Now, concepts are very useful as thinking tools and as means of communication. Concepts create order in the chaos of the phenomenal reality; they are useful tools that help us to organize the infinite number of stimulus we receive from our environment and to build a coherent world view that enables us to function. But once a concept created, it has its own magical power; concepts tend to hide the flowing, ever-changing nature of reality; they give us the illusion of permanency. Concepts tend to be fixed and to exist independent of other phenomena. It is convenient to stick to a mental concept, and to believe that it reflects the actual reality. But in truth, a concept can never be the reality itself – but at most – a representation which is an approximation that reflects some aspects of reality. This is useful because reality itself is too complex and cannot be contained in our mental containers, let alone, formulated in our notebooks.
Anyone who had the privilege of studying at RIMYI repeatedly for several years could see that the teaching there is like a river – and that river constantly flows and changes: “You can never enter the same river twice”. It seemed that for Guruji consistency was not so important; in his teaching he related to the current situation of the person in front of him and gave the instructions that could help that person in the best way. And if these instructions seemed opposite to some instructions he gave some other time – well, that is not much of a concern. As Prashantji often reminds us, there cannot be a standard, fixed set of instructions that will fit everybody at all times. Our practice and teaching should be adapted to the circumstances. It is impossible to enforce just one mode of teaching on all types of students and on all circumstances and situations.
Moreover, asanas are not movements but actions. When we stay in an asana we can create different internal actions in order to get different results. Some of these actions may seem to contradict other actions, but at certain times and for a certain purpose they may be just adequate. So you have to perform the actions according to the purpose of doing the asana. Sometimes, you may practice to get stability; at other times to get lightness and agility. Sometimes you may wish to relax and restore yourself, while other times you perform the asana to increase your vigor and potential.
Let’s make a simple experiment; stand in Tadasana, join your legs and move the inner legs down to the inner feet and press on the inner heels and the big toe mounds. Lift your arms to Urdhva Hastasana and sense the stability you have and the extension you can create in the sides of the body. Now release the pose and after a few seconds do it again, this time lift the inner arches of the feet and from there lift the inner legs toward the inner groins. Lift your arms to Urdhva Hastasana and see how the lower abdomen is easily lifted. Do you feel a sense of lightness in the pose?
So, should we lift the inner legs or move them down? What shell I put in my notebook?
Why should we have one answer? Why can’t we accept the reality that different actions that seem opposite when articulated verbally can co-exist very well in the actual experience of the asana and give different internal effects?
I think these are the most important questions we should ask ourselves. If we want to observe reality as it is, we must detach from any fixed set of concepts. Attachment to preconceived concepts leads to dogmatism, which is a big obstacle in our spiritual progress.
The fine, detailed instructions in the Iyengar method are just tools, gates to help us get inside and connect to ourselves. They are not meant to block our sensitivity and our ability to perceive the asana as it is, from moment to moment. They should not be treated so seriously. So often it is better to discard our notebooks, or at least to forget everything that is written there, and to set our minds free from any preconceived ideas or known instructions. That instruction may have worked well in the past, but is not necessarily appropriate for our current situation, or for the students we are facing right now.
If the confusion created in our minds by contradictory instructions will lead us to a realization that no instruction, or for that matter, no permanent concept, can adequately serve us in all situations and that we should keep our minds free and open, then that confusion is worthwhile. I even suspect that Guruji had intentionally planted some contradictions in his teaching in order to confuse us, to shake our habits and our very ‘logical’ mental settings. To shake our conceptual mode of thinking and to open our minds to the Reality itself! This is a well-known strategy in Zen, in which monks are faced with some paradox (a Koan) like: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This serves to shake the intellectual conception in order to take the leap required for the direct perception of Reality.

[1] Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute – the home and center of the Iyengars in Pune

6 replies
  1. Kavita Patel
    Kavita Patel says:

    I really enjoyed this article. It is true, different adjustments create shifts in our practice and perception. Each moment is a fresh and new, our bodies are not stagnant. So the direction cannot always be the same. I do think as a teacher and student, it is easy to get caught in the details and forget what it is we are doing here. The adjustments, the shift in perception takes us deeper- into a higher state of awareness and connection with ourselves and the infinite.

    Reply
  2. Delphine Vann
    Delphine Vann says:

    Dear Eyal,

    I am so happy to read your article.. at times I also feel that teachers forget the purpose of their teaching, which is not to force a set of beliefs over their students, but rather enable a space for students to experience by themselves. What you write resonates a lot to me: “If we want to observe reality as it is, we must detach from any fixed set of concepts. Attachment to preconceived concepts leads to dogmatism, which is a big obstacle in our spiritual progress.”
    Thank you
    Delphine

    Reply
  3. Veronique Tsui
    Veronique Tsui says:

    Really appreciate it! It’s indeed one of the most important point for any spiritual practice. Mind opener!

    Namaste
    Veronique

    Reply

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