adam keen yoga asana

Quality Over Quantity in Practice – Less is More

The trouble is, from every angle in the modern-world these days we are given to believe that more is, indeed, always, more. We have been encouraged to think that value in life can only be found as to degree. Whether this is in the amount we can accumulate or the visible amount we can seem to stretch, there is no place for what cannot be demonstrated, visibly proven, in the world outside of us. Indeed, we have reached the point where something is only seen as worthy of effort towards it if it can be most literally be seen; then, shared as a value and generally competed for. So, we can most literally see that we are adequate opposed to those that are proven to be lower to us. Evidently, this is the very uncomfortable approach we would usually like to get rid of with the practice of yoga. Inevitably, however, it quickly creeps in again under the influence of yoga’s synthesis to being a popular social activity as opposed to a method for something very different.

Instead, advertising, as well as modern-science, now leave us with little to no idea of ‘meaning’ other than the visible. We have been provided, outside, perhaps, of our ultimate wishes, with an objective world in which to live where only the measurable, the quantifiable, can be seen as ‘true’. In contrast, what cannot be immediately pointed to, agreed on through the most basic standards of verification, is now of very little value to us. Moreover, it is often disdained or even vilified as it poses a deep threat for this sanitized and controllable social-order. It is simply not in the interests of society that people learn to trust the value of their own feelings; this is hardly predictable and hence cannot be used for the benefit of those that find themselves in power. Here, it must be said, I am not claiming we don’t need a degree of social-cohesiveness. Rather that society has become so powerful, it has overshadowed our sense of ourselves pretty-much altogether.

Obviously, we are social animals. We need some source of agreed external standards. On the other hand, these have become so strong, moreover, so exclusive as to what is and what isn’t ‘right’, valid or worthy of attention, that the modern individual is left with nothing of their own. All meaning exists on the outside of us now; anything that might not be able to be seen and shared in a most visible way in this world is now seen at best as imagination. Increasingly, however, as subversive, even ‘dangerous’. It is truly concerning how little we are allowed now to experience our inner-life. For, whether it is denied or not, it cannot be taken away from us, and so remains as something we must then constantly exert our will to suppress.

It is exactly the same with yoga then. It has become about anatomy, alignment, and degrees of mobility. Basically, some objective value criterion have been conceived around it, so as it can be placed in its obedient role within society as a kind of value-added exercise, where we get to feel like we are ‘nicer-people’; calmer, more aware, as well as working-out. However, yoga is nothing to do with any sense of worldly achievement whatsoever. It really offers nothing graspable in material terms of which we may gain any sign of progression that will really be able to be seen by anyone else. These days, then, that lands yoga in very ambiguous and confusing territory, for if it cannot offer something universally acknowledged, in the current perspective, it can’t be said to exist, let alone have any benefit without the ability to use it to exert ourselves over the world in comparison.

Indeed, this is the case, for yoga is not about achieving a quantity of anything, as in more, rather, a quality of experience that is uniquely personal. In terms of ‘normal’ standards then, it is wholly meaningless. For, it is about equilibrium, or the regulation of opposing forces within the body to create a balance, essentially stasis; one could say ‘peace’. The problem is, although we say we value it, stillness does really have a place in the modern-mind.  Unless any external idea of progression and development are present, towards which we are now so habituated to giving our full-focus, any other point of interest has become more or less unintelligible.  Yet, this is what yoga is really about; putting sole emphasis on an inner-experience, it is quite useless to the outer world. In which case, we have set about converting it so as it provides a more obvious goal.

We may be quite used to the understanding that feeling calmer or more centred may be of help in daily-life, but, there is no essential place for a greater awareness, honesty, or clarity to our experience, which is to do with the deeper dimensions of yoga. Actually, it’s quite the opposite with real yoga; much of the time it will only hinder our material-life.  Yet, this is the other-wordly, one could even say ‘anti-wordly’ goal of authentic practice. It has no aim other than to deliver a private sense of meaning, found in simply being content with experience, as it is, in the present. It has, to repeat, no aim in front of itself, so it has been often said here that the very journey is the goal. We practice, for the sake of practice itself, or, for the sake or the pure experience of self alone, encumbered by definitions, hopes and fears that only tend really to impede our living, though they are taken as otherwise.

With this in mind, the postures must also be approached very differently. Instead of doing them as a kind of external performance then; in other words, to see their achievement in a sense of degree, from someone else eyes (even if this is a generalised sense of ‘other’), an inner-standard must be learnt to be trusted, that is quite apart from any discernable ‘value’. Indeed, the practice of yoga is the value.  Evidently, in light of our current discouragement, even prohibition, against any trust in any subjectively experience, this is to really ‘beg the question’ as to what this value might lie in; for we have little suggestion or criterion upon which to structure any inner-reference points currently.

Put most obviously, to approach the argument from the other side; we cannot stretch ourselves into oblivion, so then, where, really and truly, are we going with our yoga practice?  Pulling our bodies further and further apart to demonstrate our essential worthiness is not only a sad, but also, futile project. We will never ascertain this endorsement from outside of us; for it is a never- ending task, involving us in constant and un-ending competition. One which, even, if we do make it to the top, ends up feeling hollow anyway; for, at what point was there said to be any significance, in and of itself, as regards to any inherent meaning in a stretchy-body?

There is nothing, to repeat, inherently ‘happy’ in working on a quantity, a degree of stretch. Instead, it always promotes dissatisfaction.  This is rather like the “problem of the hare and the tortoise”. Here, the tortoise is given a head-start and, if the distances apart are measured, the hare will always be behind, for the distance can be infinitely divided. It is the same for us, if we pursue yoga as an obvious ‘achievement’ in worldly terms; we can never catch-up to enough. Our standards must then be of a different kind, as to a quality that cannot be made relevant to anyone but ourselves. From this perspective the postures would also be rendered differently.

This is not to say that we may not make the more obvious, physical progression (indeed, it is actually more likely, when we stop pushing against ourselves, and rather work with ourselves). In contrast, we are inquiring into what the practitioner of yoga as a deeper practice would be looking for if, indeed, there was one to be had. If this is to be considered as a search for meaning; a feeling of our body as the goal, not the incessant struggle to conform to arbitrary standards outside of us, stretching to escape our current limitations is not a comfortable or acceptable experience that would really command our aim. This experiential sense of Self cannot be come by, learnt to be valued, if the eyes are pointed forward. Instead, the significant experience that yoga is aiming at is a cyclical-one; one that turns on itself in quiet, yet dynamic balance of exerting movement in stillness.

It is only here that the resolution between our active and passive aspects may be finally made, which is taken in yoga-texts as its true goal.  This means, when we learn to be as well as simply to do, or express. Hence, the definition of practice offered in The Yoga Sutras as “effort and non-attachment”, or “the attempt towards steadiness”. This must be considered in the context of the modern attitude on yoga; a very linear and visual one that has forgotten its very roots or reason for existence in the first place. Yoga has been rendered ‘safe’; nothing much at all different to a regular workout. Our aim has become incredibly low with it. Which, it has to be said, is fair enough, other than we still want something else out of it, which is why we now do it en masse, instead of more conventional forms of ‘exercise’.

Finally then, no other conclusion can be reached other than that we both want the objectively verifiable, as well as the inner-meaning as well. However, the two can only ever remain in contradiction, mutual-opposition to each other; for where one gives the known, the other, does nor provide any sense of knowing, quite the opposite; it demands of us an emptying. For, true meaning is the space where we can exist, not as an object that has to constantly try to prove itself good-enough against objective standards; judging and comparing; instead, as an organic experience which is always adequate in the absence of any reference points as to a measurable value. In contrast, true value or meaning just is.  The experience of Self, needs no further justification.

Sometimes, we make forays towards this, try and do both things at once.  Discover the freedom from putting away internalized social-judgments as well as carry on practice as ‘normal’, using yoga, and viewing our yoga with the eyes of the world. With this approach, it is often assumed that the postures cannot be understood then. But, this is also looking in the wrong-place. For, it is not in its exotic, or mystical form of stretching that yoga derives its value, but its self-referential endeavour; of seeking balance as progression, rather than still looking for normal progression as such. The postures can be known fairly objectively, what cannot be, is us.  It is not that the externally unfamiliar and strange movements are a harbinger of meaning alone.

Opposed to this, meaning only comes from our personal effort to understand what cannot be understood in the attempt at the inward-look. Whereas, the outer can be performed intently so as it does not exist as a source of distraction against doing this, but not so intently in a physical way, that it becomes the focus. In this sense, we need not under attend or over attend to it; making the path of yoga, truly a subtle and narrow path to walk, but one that we must learn to trust and take ourselves as our only true source of guidance.

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