A Letter to my Teacher
The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.
— Keats, in a letter to his brother George, 1819
A couple of days ago you gave a dharma talk. It was primarily about aparigraha, or the cultivation of intense focus that leads one closer to Realization, or at least a glimpse of it. In your singularly wry manner you mentioned the fact that your guru, Mr. Iyengar, believed that with disciplined practice and total dedication, it should take one about 3 and a half years to master the entire canon of the asanas. And although your students treated this statement with laughing disbelief, the idea of mastery, what it means, and perhaps more importantly what it does not mean, caught my attention enough that I have thought of little else since.
It is commonly thought that the creation of a ballet dancer, particularly a girl, takes a full 10 years, and these 10 years must have behind them almost impossible prerequisites of talent, correct character, shape of limb, length of muscle, resistance to injury etc. When I think of the technique necessary for the speed, the lift, and the precision of ballet, it does seem true that Terpsichore more than stage mothers grant the gift of this art.
Here, however, is the poignant tragedy of dance, and, perhaps, almost all art: a girl at 18, perfectly trained, is ready to dance. But she cannot understand the secret meanings within technique; these are insights granted only with the passage of time, the softening and opening of the mind as it passes from the ecstasies of narcissistic youth to a slower pace that makes way, if one is lucky, for a comprehension and appreciation of the subtleties of art and existence itself. Such awakening is available only to an intellect that has the capacity for patience, for stillness.
Great dancers who have the luck and temerity to make it to “the end,” never later than her mid-40’s, often say the same thing: My mind understands now, and my body cannot express the understanding.
This is, of course, a parable for the manner in which we all live and age, no matter what the gifts of our life: first the coming forth, then the shading of color between the lines of character, personality, a life lived; then the fading away, often just when the colors seem their richest.
I think this is one of the exquisite jewels of the yoga given to us by Mr. Iyengar and, now, by you. Perhaps a practitioner, armed with great intensity, ego, vigor, physical capacity, can master the asanas presented in Light on Yoga, but the essence of the practice does not align itself with physical mastery so much as the far more difficult inward (some, myself included, would say spiritual) understanding of what the practice is, why it is, and in how many infinite ways it can be approached, no matter one’s age or health. In an odd way, the yoga you teach, as sophisticated as it is, and as demanding as it is of one’s physical and spiritual attention, is also the most open and embracing, despite its reputation for exactly the opposite qualities.
Yoga seen from its purely physical perspective is analogous to many of the arts that have a poignantly limited life. There are the inevitable failures of the body, even as sensitivity deepens. Taken as the truly internal practice it is, however, and the fading away of the body, of health, of the people in one’s life, finally of life itself: this is the vast, intricate tapestry of Yoga. And in this way, the practice you teach is an encompassing one, like an ouroboros: here is the body, what insight can we gain from it; here is the breath, what can it teach us; here is the departure, and what have we learned, truly, as we leave it all behind?
your student, R