Asana and “Direct Experience”

Part 3 of a three-part series

I have a love-hate relationship with writing. It was excruciating to write this blog post. I procrastinated. I started and stopped. I killed time watching the Olympics. I deleted hard-won paragraphs that ultimately didn’t fit. I took breaks to watch Ted Lasso. I might not have finished if I hadn’t promised a “three-part series.”

So, why do I do it?

For the very struggle that I hate.

By struggling to do something, I go through my own little drama. There’s a beginning and an end, with ups and downs and little lessons along the way.

Writing is about more than writing. When I resist checking my messages or skimming the day’s headlines, it’s about discipline. When I want to give up, it’s about perseverence and finishing what I start. When I finally feel satisfied with every paragraph, every sentence, I feel as if I’ve climbed a mountain.

But, even after I publish a post—what a relief—I might face a snag: The post might not bring the response I want or, much worse, might garner no response. I must remind myself to write for its own sake, not for further reward—a theme in the Bhagavad Gita:

“You have the right to work, but for work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for reward must never be your motive for working. Never give way to laziness either.”

In little ways, writing forces on me such lessons—or so I realized when Abhijata repeatedly linked Iyengar yoga and “direct experience.”

Words Versus Experience

“One of the phenomenal things about Iyengar yoga,” Abhi said, “is that it gives you direct experience.” Abhi was referring to asana, which is a significant element of Iyengar yoga.

“We know we should have greater stamina and strength, face life with positivity, be fresh, not be lazy, be engaged and absorbed. Theoretical concepts are easy to utter from the mouth. The beauty of Iyengar yoga is that it gives direct cognitive experience of these concepts.”

That’s it, I thought. She’s articulated the link between asana and “something more”—which could be Patanjali’s yoga sutras and eight limbs of yoga. Or your own belief system. Or living more meaningfully, whatever that means to you.

She was also differentiating between studying philosophy through words (books, lectures) and through the body (asana).

When BKS Iyengar first began teaching, words were extremely important and highly valued. “In Indian culture, we have such a rich tradition of words available,” she said. “The Vedas, the Upanishads… There were many pundits, learned people, yogis who could speak well, who could put you in a trance.”

In contrast, her grandfather’s focus was asana. “I had to fight to break the myth,” he told Abhi. “It was a big struggle to break the conditioning, to break the tendency of the audience. Words are not of value. It’s the experience.”

“Let experience be the teacher,” Abhi repeated. “Do not be led by words. These days, especially, words are available so easily. They’re all around us, so we’re misled into thinking that if we know [something from] words, we’ve experienced it.

“If I describe the Himalayas, would you be satisfied or would you want to see for yourself? In asana, do words satisfy?”

Learning Versus Teaching

But isn’t the Iyengar method driven by words? Don’t teachers need to use words? Abhi received a Zoom chat message along these lines.

Without missing a beat, Abhi said, “To understand an experience, you don’t need words. To convey the experience, you need words.”

She proceeded to differentiate between a teacher’s practice (experience) and teaching (words). “Our practice must for ourselves, not to teach better,” she said. “Teaching is one thing [extra] that we do. Practice must be primary. For Guruji, practice was the key, practice was primary. And he did teach because he wanted to uplift all of us. But he never gave up on his practice.

“It’s a teacher’s duty to have a deep, authentic practice, to deliver to students the truth of asana. Teaching is not just about giving information. In this age of technological advancements, information is all over. You can feed Light on Yoga into your laptop and do speech to text and do a class… Impart experience!”

What a great point. Teachers must be learners first—and teach only what they know from direct experience.

Silver Lining of the Struggle

“Never complain if you’re stiff,” Abhi said. “Only if you’re stiff are you able to explore the asana. Those who are flexible immediately get the pose. But it is more difficult for them to explore because there is no obstacle. Stiffness can be a great gift if you know how to explore.”

She turned a struggle (stiffness) from negative to positive. To me, her underlying point is that struggle facilitates direct experience—of something beyond elastic hamstrings and textbook poses.

If we do asana with an eye toward “something more,” our experience is multidimensional. Our learning goes beyond the obvious subject. We learn about ourselves.

Note: The quotations in this blog post are not verbatim. They are based on my memory and thus subject to my interpretation and creative license.

I took these photos in late summer 2014, when I spent five weeks in Pune and Mumbai. To a foreignor as I was, India is intense. Even a simple thing, such as crossing the street, can be a mini drama. Life there is fraught with direct experience.

8 comments

  1. So glad you tackled the mountain and wrote this third part. As a writer, I needed to hear much of this. I especially like “To understand an experience, you don’t need words. To convey the experience, you need words.” These sentences will remain with me for a long time. Thanks, Luci.

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    1. From my first years trying to write, I realized that the experience part is more important than the writing part. Someone like you has no shortage of life experience, so go for it with your writing!

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  2. So true, Luci. No matter how many videos I watch, podcasts I listen to, and blogs I read, let alone books and articles, nothing teaches me the subtle arts and sciences of, say, gardening, massaging, and yoga than doing it over and over again… slowly, quickly, methodically, absent-mindedly, strictly, experimentally. Over time, after many mistakes and failures, there always seems to be an aha moment that gives me the return on investment I’d been practicing and praying for. Sometimes, the clues to the aha come not from they physical side, but from a sensual side… like hearing, smelling or just sensing that something is wrong or right. And, by the way, just as many bloggers have a love/hate relationship with writing, I think many readers have a love/hate or love/fear of commenting. Nothing like direct experience to help to overcome that fear.

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  3. This is so thoughtful and thought provoking. I’m not teaching any longer, but I take lots of classes. After classes I have to take the words I heard from my teachers back to my own mat to get more of the experience as the the words translate into my own body to get those aha! moments. I love your writing and always relate to so many of your yoga observations. Thank you.

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  4. Hi Luci – another thought-provoking post! I remember Abhi’s comment about seeing the Himalayas rather than being told about them. What an apt analogy. And I strive to embrace her advice that stiffness is a gift that allows us to explore the asana – it gives me encouragement on certain days!

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