Monday, 14 May 2012

Besting the Mind Killer

The physical practice of yoga, asana, is at it's core about improving one's posture, or from another perspective, your physical fitness. As goes the condition of the body, so goes the physical health of the brain. Neurobiology research is now showing most mental disorders are a result of specific pathologies of brain cells and not old-school notions of ego, id, and super-ego.  Thus it's straight-forward to believe from a scientific perspective that the physical practice of yoga can improve one's mental and spiritual well-being.

At some point, however, it's hard to envision a circumstance where being able to put your foot behind your head improves your fitness to survive and excel. Bernadette Birney recently wrote a blog, where she talked about how being awesome at asana doesn't automatically make you a good person.  She poses the following questions:
How much is advanced asana worth to you? How much are you willing to invest? What are you unwilling to invest?
My perspective is it's not about how advanced your asana practice is, but the path you took to get there. What's hard for me, might be easy for someone else; what's easy for me, might be hard for most people. Take a look at the story of Arthur Boorman who couldn't walk until he started studying yoga with Diamond Dallas Page.

If you watch the inspirational video of Arthur's story on YouTube (below), you might get the impression that the story is about how Arthur was crippled and obese but his yoga practice saved him and now he's running Tabata sprints. That's not the real story, the real story is about fear, uncertainty, and doubt. For Arthur Boorman, bending over to touch his toes was scary. Now it's not.

For myself, and most others, we're not in any danger of falling flat on our faces trying to bend over to touch our toes. As a juxtaposition, take Tao Berman, who greatly enjoys running over waterfalls in a polyethylene tube and a Red Bull brain bucket:

Tao is not afraid, but he is probably at a much higher risk level despite his bravado, because once you get to a certain level, fear is protecting you from danger regardless of how talented you are. For a lot of people, Kapotasana is probably scary enough. However I do believe that for the vast majority of us pampered, soft, first-world types, we could benefit a lot from facing some fear and defeating the mind-killer. As Tao shows, humans are massively impressive animals who are capable of incredible feats. I encounter far too many people with a "can't do" attitude towards life. Is an extreme athlete's path of Raja Yoga any less valid than a practice based on stretching?

To get back to the question of why some advanced yogis are rock-stars and why some are humble nobodies, let's note that there is confidence and there is arrogance.  Confidence is the absence of fear, uncertainty and doubt whereas arrogance is facade one erects to hide fear, uncertainty, and doubt from others. So there are two paths to the 'advanced asana' as it were but how do you know which one the rock-star yogi has taken?  How do you know what the intention in their heart is?  Do they truly love themselves or are they just good at faking it? Does someone have to pretend to be less than they are to avoid the 'arrogant' tag? These are the questions I would ask.

From an evolutionary perspective, our brains have three partitions: the instinctive (reptilian) brain, the emotional (mammalian) brain, and the rational (sapient) brain. What truly separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to use our rational brain to overcome and act in spite of our emotions. All sports are 80 % mental, 20 % physical and yoga is no exception to that.  Any sport that is (wo)man-versus-nature is fundamentally a test of a person against themselves and their insecurities. In that fashion, yoga is a better self-improvement tool compared to competitive sports like hockey.  Eventually you might get so good at challenging yourself that you take your yoga asana practice off the mat.

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