When Practice Turned Upside Down
Yoga and Relationship
Anyone who seriously practices yoga for long periods of time knows what it means to search for something. By the time we find yoga, we have usually looked in many places. Though we all come for ostensibly different reasons, there is nevertheless something that we all want, something that we hope the practice will give us. It is no different for me. In the summer of 1999, a friend of mine had turned me on to a book by a man named Godfrey Devereux. It was really good, better than good: It made me feel lousy.
I had been practicing and studying for several years by the time I read Dynamic Yoga. Seeing my commitment, people who knew me and were interested in Yoga had begun to ask for help with their practices. I knew it was only a matter of time before I quit my job as a professional cook to become a yoga teacher, and then that book came along. It ignited in me this sneaking suspicion that all of my sweat and study had only scratched the surface of an experience of profundity that was somehow just beyond my reach. I began to think that I didn’t know anything about yoga. Something told me that Godfrey might - - it was his book after all. So in late summer of 2000, I left my wife and my children in a small house in Plummerville Arkansas, and traveled to Europe under the pretense of becoming a yoga teacher. Really I went to ask Godfrey one question: what is yoga?
We practiced every day in a small Geodesic Dome - - long sessions, sometimes three hours or more, often in the cold. After practice we sat on the floor and read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which Godfrey had translated. I had studied philosophy in school and really loved the stuff. I knew about the Sutra’s promise of peace and freedom, about its claim that we can escape the trappings of human suffering and attain spiritual realization through the correct practice of Yoga. I took every opportunity to ask Godfrey about some of its finer details - - is consciousness active or passive, and how can the human body, which is limited by time and space, be an expression of infinite wisdom? Godfrey recognized my zeal, and would always listen. But usually he would smile and just say, “It doesn’t matter.” I was learning a lot, but still I had no answer to my question.
I remember very distinctly a day in late October: it was very cold; I could see the steam of my breath on the concrete floor in downward dog. We were working toward a particular posture called Adhomukha -vrikshasana, which means downward - facing - tree. In English it is called handstand, and it is done by jumping the feet and the hips up into the air, straightening the legs, and carefully balancing everything over the hands in a straight line - - very beautiful, and very difficult. I had practiced it for some time, and had gained some proficiency. I was very happy to be studying handstand with a teacher who could give me the specific details of its technique.
On that day it turned out that I was the only one in class who was able to perform it without help. I had jumped up and caught my balance, and Godfrey stopped everyone.
He said “Come on, let’s watch Matthew, he’s got it.” After I had come down, and my compatriots had given a short round of congratulations, Godfrey said, “How does your wife feel about your Handstand?”
I didn’t quite know what to say.
He then said, “In all that time that you spent learning to balance on your hands, could you ever have helped her with the baby?” (He knew that I had a two year old.)
I said, “well. . . I suppose I could have . . . “
Then he said, “Are you enlightened?”
In a rare moment of wisdom, I remained silent.
Godfrey then turned and went back to his place. After he sat down, he looked at me, smiled, and said “big *$:*!@& deal!”
My teacher had not been aggressive or derogatory, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit of embarrassment. I was rather very focused in the situation, my mind had slowed down and I was thinking only of my wife and family, all of my years of hard practice, and how I had left them on the other side of the globe in search of something I hoped yoga would give me. Godfrey had answered my question, not by telling me what yoga was, but by showing me how to look: in the context of relationship. I learned that handstand actually was an expression of many things: of devotion, of neglect, of a deep unfulfilled need ... and infinitely more, if I was willing to look.
It turns out that most of what we did on that cold concrete floor was talk about the nature of relationship and its qualities. We learned that part of what Yoga is about is inquiring into and clarifying the deep, dynamic, multidirectional context of anything that we cared deeply for, or resented, or feared.
The classical system of Yoga outlines the foundation of a practice based around an understanding of the primacy of relationship. This foundation forms the context within which a multitude of techniques must be applied. They are known as Yama - - the five attitudes, and Niyama - - the five internal orientations.
Copyright material, Matthew and Holly Krepps, Circle Yoga Shala