“Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” ― Leonard Cohen Last year I made my first trip to India. I am currently gearing up for my 2nd trip in the fall and, in addition to making housing arrangements and skulking around on the internet for the cheapest fares currently available, I’ve been looking at my journal entries from last year. Because I was and am once again going to Mysore to study at the KPJAYI there was a sizable amount of information available on everything from where to eat and what to pay for lodging to the concept of “shala time” and what the phrase “one more, small” means. I was nervous getting off the plane all by myself in Bangalore, to be certain, but there was never a sense that I was moving into truly unknown territory. I had carefully insulated myself in a bubble of information to ensure that I would never feel out of control. The first and only time I felt truly unprepared (and as a result, truly open) for an experience was my first day of chanting and philosophy with Dr. MA Jayashree. Their website is blessedly basic and the method of teaching is decidedly traditional. She calls, you respond. You stumble and feel whatever you feel as a result (joyful, foolish, frustrated, disappointed, even angry.) When there are new students in the room she tells them that it’s OK. She doesn’t expect perfection, just that you sincerely try and then you come back tomorrow to try again.
We live in a culture of competence. A world where we want to know and show that we know by doing it right. The information age means smart phones, You Tube videos and Google searches that quickly give us facts that can be memorized (thereby creating an image of a thing before its even been experienced, let alone internalized.) I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. Videos have certainly helped me figure a few things out here and there, provided me with some inspiration, and I’ve occasionally been known to practice on Fridays with a led primary recording or DVD when I don’t have access to a weekly led class. These bits of information are a spring board. They are where we start, not finish, our journey into practice. Do not let information close you off from true experience. Well before being taught a new asana, for example, we have already formed some notions of not only what that asana is, but what it should look like. Whether or not we realize it, this information can close us off to some degree from the actual experience of the pose and from finding our individual understanding and expression of said asana. Sometimes it is good to fall flat on our faces (figuratively and – very gently – literally.) The ego’s got to take its lumps if it’s ever going to be destroyed, right? If you can “do it right” the first time you try something, then the possibility to learn from the process is sadly lost.
Then there are words. Words often used in order to avoid the actual experience that comes with doing something. We are constantly inundated by so many words. (And yes, I see the irony of me contributing to the glut of language by simply writing and sharing this.) Words are tools, but tools need to be put to the correct task to be useful. Just as a carpenter wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to tighten a screw, thinking and talking are often not the correct tools for the job where the practice of yoga is concerned. A friend of mine recently said, “There’s a difference between information and knowledge.” She’s a smart cookie.
In other words: “Before practice theory is useless; after practice theory is obvious.” -Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.
Yoga, as described by Patanjali (as the cessation of the turnings of the mind) cannot be found in information. Information on how to perform the asana, the breath and where the correct drishti lies, these are our map to guide us as we look. It is up to each individual to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to experience it. It is scary. To have your own authentic experience of anything and not rely on another person to validate it can be absolutely terrifying, although ultimately liberating. So what does all this have to do with perfection? It goes back to this ideal of being competent that is so pervasive in the modern world. (I dare say it is a cultural samskara.) I am using asana as an example because there is so much to be learned by our relationship to our asana practice. Also, it’s an easy point of reference for me given that I spend a significant amount of time with the asana practice, both doing my own and helping others with theirs. However, this doesn’t just apply to an asana practice. It seems as though there is an almost universal fear of making mistakes and in almost all areas of life a prescribed “correct way” of doing things, ranging from educational choices, to careers and family. A one size fits all road map of where we should be at each point in our lives.
One of the things that I love the most about the Ashtanga Vinyasa system is the way that form really does follow function, and each individual will have their own unique experience. Catch the toes in trikonasana even if your front leg needs to bend, look for your navel in down dog to gaze inside regardless of the photo shoot ready appearance, let the edge of the back foot come up, shorten your stance and come from your center. It’s OK. It’s not about being pretty or achieving some aesthetic. Internal alignment through engagement of the bandhas, the movement of energy, and the act of going more and more inside. In other words, just breathe and be. Yet we are so quick to apologize, qualify or self criticize. “Is it okay that my hip drops here?” “Sorry, I can’t seem to get my leg there today.” “My stupid tight shoulders.” “I still can’t jump back. What am I doing wrong?” Judgements and qualifiers. As if there’s an ideal to live up to. There’s not. You are where you are and it’s just right.
When I first started to understand this, and understand that what it looks like is beside the point is when I really fell in love with this system. This is not to say the structural integrity of the asana is ignored and the practice therefore becomes unsafe. It’s not that at all. Unsafe and unsound movement patterns repeated over and over lead to injury and that’s absolutely not the point or method of the practice. It’s simply that this idea of living up to a pre-existing ideal of how the asana should look is missing the forest for the trees. All that is required is you begin to feel the energy moving for yourself, in your own body. That you breathe and stay with your breath. That you just show up, just inhabit yourself and the moment as fully as you are capable of doing. Make your perfectly imperfect offering. No excuses are necessary. No explanation is needed. Respect and love the cracks. Let the light in, let it illuminate your gifts, so you can shine your own light back out.