So this piece constitutes the last of the yoga related writings that I have had in the bank. Time to get crackin on more new material! Enjoy!
About five years ago my brother was visiting me in Washington DC. He lives in Japan and we get to see each other only once or twice a year. When we do get to see each other we often have to catch up on almost a years worth of information over the course of a few days. There was a conversation that we had on this occasion that I remember quite clearly and have thought about many times. A conversation that I have since found echoed in the experience of both my students and some of the very ancient Vedic texts! A conversation about choices.
We were having a family dinner at a favorite Tex-Mex restaurant in DC and catching up a bit. As we began to order, my brother was somewhat astonished to hear me order an entirely vegetarian option from the menu. As a side note, I grew up and ate mostly steak, potatoes, chips and salsa, and little else. I hated veggies and have always loved a big juicy steak. My being mainly vegetarian came as a huge shock to him as it was something that just hadn’t come up before. I remember him asking, “You don’t eat steak anymore? How can you not eat steak? It was your favorite! It’s my favorite!”. I answered by stating that I was practicing Ashtanga every morning six days a week. If I ate steak, it felt like I was practicing with a brick in my stomach in the morning. We all know the practice is hard enough without a meat brick in the stomach! It was his next comment that has been the inspiration of this piece. Perplexed, he looked at me and said, “Well why the heck would you do a practice (yoga) that makes you so sensitive that you give up something you love?” Wow. I have to admit, the logic of his question stopped me for a moment. I hadn’t really thought about it from that direction. I was beginning to make conscious and unconscious choices that revolved around my practice. Even shedding things I loved!
I come back to this experience due to a recent rereading of both the Uppanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. There is a sanskrit term found in these texts that I think is a brilliant concept, Prajnaparadha. This term is commonly translated as a mistake or improper use of the intellect (buddhi)–having just enough knowledge to make a conscious or unconscious poor decision! For example, knowing the effects of smoking but still deciding to smoke; driving without a seatbelt because accidents happen to other people; eating all those yummy hot peppers that you know will give you indigestion; drinking that first, second, and maybe third martini! In the practice of Ayurveda, Prajnaparadha is seen as one of the three causes of disease in the mental, physical, and spiritual bodies. The good news is that this imbalance is correctable with self observation and better decision making. In my yoga practice I was becoming aware of things in my life that I could change and thus feel better as a result. The notion that we, as yogis, can make the powerful choice to give up even the things we enjoy is stunning to me. It is a concept very much at odds with a world caught up in the practice of indulgence, a world that often prizes quantity over quality and appearances over substance.
As our yoga practice becomes more and more dear to us we begin to make decisions. Only with the fire of knowledge (jnana agni) can we begin to burn off the things in our lives we no longer need. In the Gita wisdom is called the “greatest purifier on earth.” In asking any of my students who have been practicing for a few years, I find that they have all changed parts of their behavior due to their practice and are happier and healthier for it! With practice and observance comes this wisdom. With the heat and movement of the Ashtanga system we multiply this purification process, building tapas (physical and/or spiritual heat) and burning off that which we don’t need.
What in you life resembles prajnaparadha? What in your life have you already changed? Endear yourself to the the work of the practice and enjoy observing the changes you’ve made over time!
Matt’s Disclaimer: By no means do I mean to tell anyone to go veg or not drink. These are only meant as examples from my own personal experience! Seatbelts, though…