Sharing The Road: Reflections on Practice, Devotion & Dedication
By: Mitchel Bleier
Tracy sent me a blog by Eddie Stern to read. It was a beautiful blog about the purity of tradition, in this case, the Ashtanga Yoga tradition of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, but he spoke so much more universally and with such wisdom just about the purity of a yoga practice and what that is. It’s been many years since I’ve read or thought about Eddie or what’s happening in the Ashtanga world, but throughout all my years as a practitioner, I have always admired, even idolized, what Eddie has done. He is smart, humble, and a visionary who has dedicated himself to one thing with such devotion, skill, and certainty. I am happy for him. He stood by his beliefs and is very well received and respected for it.
As I perused his website that is both a devoted to tradition and creativity and innovation (I was impressed with his social media presence, as this is something I am coming to terms with…finally), what blew me away the most was his utter devotion to his path. It made me think of my own path. Unlike Eddie, I have not stuck with one “style” or path of yoga. At one point, over twenty years ago, I practiced Ashtanga Yoga like Eddie. I lived in Mysore and learned from Pattabhi Jois and his grandson Sharath. I tattooed on my right arm a band in Devanagari that reads, yama-niyama-asana-pranayama-pratyahara-dharana-dhyana-samadhi-ashtovangani. I got it on New Year’s Eve in 1996 with my best friend at the time. He got the same one. I was certain that this was my life path. So certain that I tattooed it on my body - Ashtanga Yoga, nothing else.
I learned relatively soon after that life changes. The irony for me came when was studying in India with Pattabhi Jois and there I decided I wanted something more. Maybe it was my youthfulness. Maybe I have spiritual ADD, but I knew I wanted to learn more. I wanted to help more people. I loved the practice that Ashtanga provided for me, but was it for everyone? Just before going to India I met John Friend and had my first taste of a different kind of yoga. It intrigued me — a lot. Maybe the competitive, combative, and judgmental side of me was a stronger guide than I realized in the way I sought out yoga, but after I met John and learned Anusara, I started to think, “Is this better?”
That’s a dangerous question and a trap, and it wasn’t the first time I asked myself this question as a yogi. When I began yoga at nineteen, I learned Vipassana meditation and studied the Buddhist path for almost two years. Then I felt confused with what I thought I was "supposed" to be doing. I didn't feel successful meditating, so I thought maybe I wasn’t following the Eight-Limbs of Patanjali, and I threw in the Buddhist towel (per say) and went down a Hindu path first to perfect the asanas. I was judgmental to think one way was better than the other, and I am certainly to blame for that, but sadly my environment fostered such thoughts, judgments, and behaviors even in a budding yoga community.
I left India to study Anusara Yoga, and that led for some time to a blessed life as a highly respected and sought-after Anusara Yoga teacher. It deepened my studies (for better and for worse, not that dissimilar to marriage!). I followed John, Anusara Yoga, and the ideas branching out of it with fervent, zealous detail. Until the day came when I was both doing something different as well as being disappointed with what was happening with John and Anusara (and this is many years prior to Anusara's collapse). So I asked again: “Is this better?”
Poof, my world was pulled out from under me, well I sort of jumped off too. And I was free falling and for the first time found myself without: without a teacher, without a system, and it made me learn to fly. Like Rumi’s poem:
How do they learn it? They fall, and falling, they are given wings.
-- Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)
For a while, I soared creating something new (well is there anything that is really new?) and all that time thinking it was best. Years went by, and then the question came unexpectedly back, “Is this better?” Again I was swept up in something new. I abandoned what I created. People told me, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” but I couldn’t hear nor see that that was what I was doing, and what I had always been doing. I lost a lot. But in all that loss was space, and I filled all that space with more knowledge, more practice, more information, and sadly, more judgments. One thing I never did was give up or stop, even at my lowest. And of course as that wheel of suffering makes its way around and around, I too changed once again, and yes that darn question showed up again, and again I fell into its trap.
But this time something different changed within me. I had no choice but to surrender to all that was happening, particularly since I didn’t understand or couldn't explain. My left brain was shutting down, and all that I identified with it was too, including my ability to teach. It wasn’t easy, and I am so grateful for all that supported me during this bizarre transition. But what has come out of it, is yes, another path. Haha! But this isn’t really a different path, its the realization of the path I’ve always been on, the one where I’m following myself and not a “system.” And once I could see that, all those judgments I carried around, all those comparisons, and need to be “better,” vanished. It’s been the most liberating experience I’ve had in my twenty plus years practicing.
I still admire the crap out of people like Eddie who have been committed to one practice for this long. I think it is amazing. And so are so many people with that dedication and devotion. I am no different: I have never lacked dedication or devotion. I look at it similar to the analogy Eddie gave in his blog, “The practice is the vehicle.” At the end of the day, we're all going to end up in the same place. Some of us drive the same car or the same type of car the whole way. Some of us drive different cars, trade it in, drive a different kind until maybe finding one that sticks. Some may end up with a car yet to be invented. But none of these vehicles are better or worse, it’s the person driving who ultimately gets the vehicle to arrive at its destination.
Twenty years, maybe that’s a long time, maybe its a blink of an eye, but I’m ready to share the road without judgement. I'm ready to look out my windshield and see we're all doing it. We're in this together.
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