What Happens if we Keep Doing This?

The frequency of the Ashtanga hatha yoga practice that I’ve undertaken, as per tradition, averages out to a little more than ten practices every two weeks, or 5.2 practices a week.  I estimate the number of days I take off per year comes to an average of two weeks- some vacations I’ve kept practicing, others I haven’t. All told as of the latest edit of this writing, working through my twenty fourth year of practice, I’ve recently passed the 12,000th hour of actual mat time doing my Ashtanga practice. In terms of actual floor time as a teacher with people coming to class, I’m now pushing into 21,000 hours.

The “10,000 hour rule” has captured the interest of the public, with journalist Daniel Coyle claiming it went “mainstream” 9 years ago. By that he is referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Much of Gladwell’s inspiration seems to come from this paper, written in 2002 by Canadian Physical Educators. Prominent developers of the theory are K. Anders Ericsson in the early nineties, with earlier foundations by Chase and Simon-  who called it the ten year rule-  from 1973. Both groups of researchers  did studies on how experts develop powerful working memories for the kind of data that shows up in their circumscribed fields.  ( The essence of working memory is the ability to temporarily hold pieces of information in mind bearing on the situation at hand.)  Coyle also conveys the disappointment of some prominent voices in sports training on the subject:

It’s absolutely nuts,” the head of one nation’s soccer federation told me. “Coaches are tracking practice hours and the athletes are clocking in and out with time cards like they’re working on an assembly line. There’s no ownership, no creativity.”

So, obviously,  although learning happens through dumb repetition, just logging the hours won’t necessarily cut it. In his fine little book  Mastery, by Esalen founder George Leonard, we find four learning curves for those who undertake a discipline, in his case, Aikido. The first and of course the best is the master, who gradually develops from plateau to plateau, each one a little higher than the  previous. The plateau is where outward progress isn’t overtly visible, but where inward things are developing physically, neurologically and psychically, and they typically emerge and become evident in surprisingly mature form in a sudden rush. Leonard contends that those who are inclined toward mastery love the plateau.

The next three types: the dabbler, who goes from one thing to the next and always quits when he hits a plateau; the obsessive, who goes like crazy and then burns out and burns her bridges; and then, the great bummer for our soccer coach above, the hacker, “after sort of getting the hang of the thing, he is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely”  a guy who loves “hacking around with other hackers”(p. 23). So, even after 10,000 hours, the hacker is still hacking because he isn’t really focusing during this lifetime.  Why?  Well, one possible reason: staying with a practice over time will eventually ram us directly into ourselves, including our shadows, the places where the light doesn’t easily go. Keep hacking and these difficult uncomfortable things can be avoided. If we stay in the moment with focus (which is not hacking)  at some point we’re going to discover  the facts of our limitations, which are often surrounded and shrouded by unresolved emotional content. Not everybody is up for that.

So, we have to pay attention while we practice if we want to get to a place which could be called mastery. And if we look at this from a yogic perspective, paying attention is the point and it leads us somewhere, more important than the skills gained in the gross realm by the practice. And if we keep paying attention we get better at paying attention. I’ll get into these last two points in a bit.

The literature of 10,000 hours is by and large one of gaining abilities at competitive human endeavors, such as sports, chess, music, law, business. Gladwell’s outliers are almost entirely those who have achieved fame and wealth, with a major character in the book, the Montana-raised-fighter-bouncer-elite-elite-elite-genius-writer-of-a-theory-of-everything Chris Langan being portrayed as a failure because he didn’t make it in academia. If you glance at my previous post (August 2012), such abilities would by-and-large be deemed as development of “vertical” lines  by the Wilber-Combs Lattice: they exist mostly in the gross realm of existence, in a cosmic map that also articulates spiritual levels subtler than the gross. These subtler levels become relevant when we’re talking about mastery and yoga.

From the worldview expressed by the W-C Lattice, (which expresses the larger view of Integral Institute, which builds immense things on the bones of  the Perennial Philosophy and  in particular Sri Aurobindo’s worldview which was offered in all its glory in The Life Divine, finished way back in 1940 [The book is astonishing but needs to be taken one word at a time, a tall order indeed considering it’s length: 1109 pages]), gross level mastery, fame and wealth are all fine, but they are not the whole story, not by a long shot.

One way of looking at Patanjali’s yoga sutras, that quiet brooding living text still hiding there behind the profusion of market-place yogas, is one long celebration of what happens when we focus our attention, allowing it to turn itself inward. The sutras are also a guide to what we will find if we do. Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Ashtanga Yoga is Patanjali Yoga.” Which is to imply: 10,000 hours of focused hatha yoga practice will do something to us, will take us somewhere, other than just getting  better at the asanas.

However, we can begin our discussion in the gross realm, because physical changes to the body are important in themselves as well as laying the foundation for the special whole-person transformation that sincere hatha yoga can make possible. From a fitness perspective, hatha yoga as it is in Ashtanga-  which is a root form for most of the hatha yoga in the world at this point in time-  offers primarily strengthening and stretching in about equal measure, the strength coming from weight-bearing movement and static holds, the stretching sustained in a stable manner between five and eight breaths. To a lesser but still significant extent, Ashtanga also develops balance and coordination, and it has us turn the body upside-down and stay there multiple times per practice. The breath in yoga never gets as deep into aerobic conditioning as the classic aerobic endeavors such as running, but Ashtanga’s emphasis on Ujjayi pranayama develops awareness and intelligence in the lungs and respiration process. These are the basic physical exercise categories in Ashtanga.

Like any other kind of physical training,  the muscle exercise over time does many amazing things. The following is a list of the main discoveries on the subject from exercise physiology. To begin: the enzyme systems that get nutrients and oxygen into the muscle cells will genetically upgrade, which progressively allows the whole muscle to generate more energy.  Mitochondria, the engines in the muscle cells that burn the nutrients, will increase in size and number. This will up the energy consumption of the body, speeding metabolism, which, among other benefits, burns excess fat: fit muscles burn fat. New capillaries will grow, surrounding the muscle fibers, allowing greater blood supply. Likewise, the myoglobin content of the cells will increase, which allows faster transfer of oxygen to the mitochondria (the “fire” which puts energy to use in the mitochondria needs oxygen, just like a flame does). The nerves which control the muscles will steadily improve their synchronization at the the level of the motor units (a motor unit is the group of fibers that one nerve controls). Coordination between agonist and antagonist muscles is refined. The muscles will grow both the size of their existing fibers as well as the number of fibers, i.e.: muscles will get bigger. The filaments that force movement between the fibers within the muscle-  the basis for muscle contraction-  will increase in number. To sum all that up: the muscles have multiple responses to regular exertion, they are just waiting for it to show up.

These gains are temporary: muscles worked on Monday will typically peak in their growth response by Wednesday and will begin to degrade thereafter, so if one practices on Monday and then goes on bedrest, he will be back to where he was somewhere around Saturday. Which is to say, to keep the muscles on an upgrade curve, they need to be worked at least twice a week, and with progressively greater loads. If one works up to a certain level of asana intensity, and keeps it there, the muscles will improve up to that level and stop. If the yogi quits asana and just lives a daily life without specific exercise, the muscles will downgrade to the level that is required of them, lots of chores, couch potato, whatever.

Ligaments, the collagen bands that connect bone to bone,  and tendons, the collagen bands that connect muscle to bone, will also upgrade. The repeated strains on these bands will stimulate an increase in collagen production. The fibers within the bands will organize with maximum alignment advantage in terms of strength in the direction of the forces being asked of them. If exercise stops, the advantageous fiber alignment gets disrupted, and the “band width” decreases.

The same goes for bones. Exercise makes them stronger, more durable, less brittle. In particular, bones need at minimum the weight bearing loads of the earth’s gravitational force to be healthy. There is a unique page in Wikipedia called “Spaceflight Osteopenia”, which is the unforeseen calamity of gradual bone deterioration that astronauts suffer from the mere fact of no gravity in the final frontier for the bones to work against. Fittingly, the best bone workouts are load bearing, which yoga covers quite nicely, for upper and lower body bones. If you are hiking, it is the downhill part that really convinces them to upgrade.  The cells that make up bones are called osteoblasts and they need movement and stress to even function. Bones will be most dense in exactly the areas where the most stress is received. And similar to the muscles, when the exertion routine is stopped over time, the bones, as well as tendons and ligaments, will return to the strength of what is asked of them, and they will become more brittle.

Surprisingly, most of the fitness gains that happen to athletes are covered above. Believe it or not, this is even the case for distance runners, with whom most of us would associate strong hearts and lungs. The heart, as a muscle, does upgrade  like other muscles, but apparently not as much; a very fit individual will have larger stroke volume than he did before he began exercising, which is the amount of blood his heart can pump per beat. But this has been described as a “drop in the bucket” compared to what happens to the muscles that are primarily used in the exercise, i.e.: for runners, legs and hips (Hahn, 2003). As for lungs,  they barely change at all, with endurance atheletes primarily gaining greater neurological skill at using the lungs. We know that this also happens to yogis who regularly engage pranayamas: the lungs get “smarter”, but, as per the literature, they really don’t change much. What does change is blood volume in the entire body, which goes up with exercise, as well as  the chemistry that delivers the oxygen to the cells, as mentioned above.

All of these strength gains happen equally across gender. Of course, mature women have a special hormonal situation with their bones, but if a woman is dealing with bone loss, the more exercise she can get the better, as long as nothing gets too rough. Interestingly enough, as far as muscle strength, women’s muscles are exactly the same strength as men’s on a fiber to fiber basis. The difference is that women have more adipose tissue (fat) mixed in to a muscle with the same area as that of a man. Women’s muscles are also usually smaller than men’s. Otherwise, the training curve and ultimate limit per fiber are exactly the same.

That’s all strength conditioning stuff. Yoga also obviously has the stretching part. Intelligent stretching will lengthen the fibers of muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as creating a little more space between fibers. Modulus is a mathematical term used in exercise science to express the elasticity of tissues; increasing the modulus of muscles, tendons and ligaments will allow them to receive a blow by warping but not snapping. Stretching will increase the modulus of these parts. (Modulus will be increased in bones as well, but primarily through the strengthening work.)

A primary indicator of stretching’s benefits is that of increased joint mobility.  Such gains allow freedom of movement and far greater options for movement, which, in addition to the obvious physical advantage,  has big psychological benefits in terms of felt interior spaciousness. This last benefit is a major aspect of hatha yoga’s greater intent of reformatting the body and opening it up, allowing the soul to reside deeply within it, which provides a foundation for an approach to the timeless pursuit of the spiritual life, more on this in a bit. 

Range of motion gains by stretching seem to go on the rule that 6 weeks of practice will be lost after 4 weeks off. (The published physiological studies primarily reflect stretching effects on dabblers [or maybe even hackers] check this one, surely a good study, but 6 weeks is not long-term; I’ve found that those of us who do this over years eventually gain a very durable flexibility once we’re warmed up.) Regardless, if you stop stretching, the body will become less flexible.

All of these are essentially the body’s incredible evolved need to not just receive the shock and awe of life on earth but actually dial up its abilities in the face of such challenges. All of it happens completely unconsciously, higher mind and deeper awareness not needed. Millennia of nasty brutishness for cavemen and women bequeathed us moderns a set of genes prepared for messages of stress and strain, genes that respond by sending out developmental materials that won’t be forthcoming otherwise. Couch potato cavemen got assimilated into the bellies of saber-toothed cats and did not pass on their genes.

With that in mind, the statistics on total bed rest are astonishing. Complete bed rest such as a coma, where the body doesn’t move at all, shows that just getting up to putz around in the bathroom for a few minutes before getting back in bed does a lot. Twelve weeks in bed and the bones will be half their beginning density and strength, tendons and ligaments will be sixty percent. All three will greatly lose elasticity. Muscles will atrophy at twelve percent a week-  after twelve weeks that’s not much left. Nerves will die back and lose their capacity to organize motor function. All told, not a pretty picture.

So, keeping all this science in mind, I’d like to move on to a deeper dimension of exercise, that which physiology terms the training effect. It is one step up on the consciousness/evolutionary ladder, although it too shows up on its own as a response to experience, it’s just that it can also be subjected to degrees of conscious awareness and assistance. That is to say,  it will happen unconsciously if need be, but awareness can make it happen more and better. It is primarily neurological and is likely a function of receptor processes in other types of cells as well. It can be exemplified by the phenomenon of learning to ride a bicycle.

We can see two parts of  bicycle training, one obviously being the fact of learning how to ride the bike itself, the other being the building up of strength and stamina through training. The latter comes and goes, as per the conditioning factors considered above. The former is rarely ever lost once gained. I’ve noticed that women who logged long hours in dance studios as girls have better balance than most everybody else, even though  few of them are still practicing dance. And in my own experience, once I’ve discovered a solution to an Ashtanga challenge, I don’t lose it. On inwardly hazy days I may lose sight of it, but once clarity returns, it’s still there. This is a problem for the aging ex-basketball player: his nerves still remember how to slam dunk, but after doing so, his body says to him, “What the hell did you…?”

In developmental psychology, once a cognitive level has been attained by the child, it is not lost except under situations of regression. Once the stressor that caused the regression is resolved, the highest attained level is regained. It then becomes the foundation upon which development eventually proceeds to the next level. So, the general conclusion here: muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones come and go; barring illness, nerves are relatively permanent. Once laid down, a nerve circuit  will lose a nerve or two (or million), will lose details and refinement with non-use, will be subject to potentially constant modification according to experience; but the basic foundations of the overall circuit will remain in place, even  if rarely used. (Sequential cognitive levels of development, as mentioned above,  can be likened to computer operating systems; they remain cutting edge and constantly updated because they are the software running the background engine which powers the entire mental show moment to moment. As we go through life, particularly in the earlier years, just gathering experiences and data-   doesn’t really matter what kind of experiences-   the bodymind will eventually gather enough information and stimulus to get the wherewithal to self-update its own operating system in a relatively sudden process, into something more adequate to the life complexity encountered. For adults who choose “the road less traveled”, this can continue throughout life.)

Recent lab findings have also added a new dimension to the neurological picture: that of exercise’s incredibly positive effect on the brain. The brain is like the muscles, in that its training and use will positively condition it. There are those who see a hill to walk up and they do not want to do it and they don’t. Likewise, there are those who sense intellectual and developmental challenges and they don’t want to accept them and they don’t. Body and mind not used up to their capacity.

Fortunately, the more common problem for your typical person is on the other side of that equation: she is too stressed out and feels daunted by life’s difficulties. Her mind and emotional chemistry are over-taxed. Such a situation releases crisis chemicals into the body and brain, such as cortisol. Put a neuron in cortisol and it tends to shrink back its dendrites, which are the branches that connect it to the rest of the brain. The unhappy conclusion: too much stress causes brain damage. So, inconveniently, the  mental exercise which helps the mind develop now crosses over into too much, which becomes stress, which starts to break the brain down, whereby one needs to find a way to rest the brain so that it can be ready to receive such strong inputs and translate them towards mental fitness. The stressed muscle, when rested and fed, will become stronger. The same with the brain. The only problem is that resting the stressed brain isn’t always easy to do. (Enter yoga.)

But cortisol is  not the whole story. There is another chemical called Bone-Derived-Neurotropic-Factor (BDNF). Put a neuron in it, and it grows dendrites. One of the best ways to release BDNF is exercise. A way to release more BDNF: stronger exercise. And BDNF has cousin chemicals, also released by physical exertion and with similar effects. There is lots of research on this, and a good starting point for it is in John Ratey’s book Spark, where he outlines the ways in which nature has set us up so that exercise allows incredible optimum chemistry for both brain health and mood. Up to a point, the stronger the exercise the better in this regard. Most of the research is based on aerobic studies. My personal experience was that as a competitive runner, I knew the joys of relaxing after the workout; I also discovered that different kinds of exercise had different “cocktails”, all of them pretty good. When I got to hatha yoga, I couldn’t believe it-  it was by far the best. Studies still need to be done to get into what yoga’s exact chemistry is, but the consensus is clear: yoga helps you feel really good, you even begin to take such a state for granted.

So, 10,000 hours: any discipline taken up with focus, Ashtanga, ballet, piano, chess, will exercise in emphasis  a specific set of nerve circuits. Put in the 10,000, and those circuits will be utterly robust, bushy, fleshed out, ramified, with huge numbers of connections within the circuit as well as to the rest of the brain and nervous system. Play chess with a 10,000 hour guy, and you will not be seeing the same board as he sees. Not only does each piece pattern fire off actual experientially learned circuits for him-  not speculation, but actual, hard knocks been-there, seen-that memory- but also, for the less clear strategic part of chess, as per the literature, he has an ability to hold more options in his working memory than you do in yours, even if you have a better than average working memory. In piano playing, he will not have that working memory advantage. In chess, he does.

How does this operate in yoga? Well, for one thing, by the time one has done 10,000 hours of focused hatha yoga, she will no longer view the practice simply as physical fitness. Depending on her inclination, she will have varying degrees of achievement in the subtler spheres of existence by then. If one does Ashtanga, and settles year after year into pose after pose, staying in each one for at least 5 breaths, focusing, noticing, there will be some results from the universal human need to remain on our evolutionary edge, our creative edge, our interested curious alive edge. One would have to actively fight to stay down to avoid this. And 10,000 hours is way too long for someone who doesn’t want to go in this direction. They’d already be onto video games, yoga mat forgotten in the corner.

This human trait will take us on  a particular path in Hatha Yoga. Specifically, all that time in feeling and breathing and somatic noticing, and attempting to quiet the surface mind to get at the authentic process-in-the-now, will take us from grosser to subtler experiences. Following bodily felt sensation, which presents itself prominently in hatha yoga, the gross sensation-  that hamstring stretch- will give rise to subtler energetic currents that flow throughout the body, with stronger concentrations in the areas recognized  by subtle tantric physiology as the chakras, the most prominent emphasis winding up in the heart and the brain, and eventually flowing out beyond the physical body into the transpersonal subtle realms, outside of the body but still clearly and obviously felt, in a progression that gets ever subtler, without end as to how subtle it can get.

So the above paragraph’s sequence went from gross to subtle in a straight journey. Such a description is an ideal and illustrative model, basically accurate. But most people come to yoga as full fledged adults, having already passed through the gross younger realms by whatever walks  life has taken them, many of them already with some spiritual experience, basically all of them intellectually developed to lesser or greater degrees. I came to hatha yoga as a buddhist meditator, seeking somatic grounding, which is to say that I was already out there, and wanted to turn my body into a vessel which would help me realize the gifts, abilities and profundities of the subtler spheres in a manageable way. And, as mentioned above, many people come to yoga seeking tools to handle their stress. Anybody with a reasonably developed intellect is already flirting around with at least the denser regions of the subtle realm.

So I would put the hatha yoga master-  different than the chess master-  in this category: someone who can navigate the subtler spheres of existence while firmly and powerfully grounded in the gross realm. It should be noted here that one of the common themes of sages and yogis through the ages is that the individual’s path along the great chain of being, and specifically through the higher stages of spiritual life- through the subtle realms-  is one of movement toward something less illusory and more real, from an individual experiential perspective. Note right away that this puts the scientific-materialist realm exactly on its head, with science only accepting gross realm phenomena that can get through their labs as real. Physics is getting pretty small with bosons and gluons, but even these become knowledge as a result of “outward/ it” investigations, gigantic incredibly expensive machines devoted to getting a material measurement.

From the yogic perspective, the subtle realms begin to carry more weight, and become more interesting, than gross level experiences. If our yogi from above stays on her mat for 10,000 hours, she hopefully will not devalue the hamstring stretch, although that tack has been taken heavily in the history of the world’s spiritual life. Rather, it is more likely that she will eventually be unable to ignore how interesting the subtle currents themselves are, especially when the more she does it, the more they become very very real. One of the reasons the higher realms are so compelling is the organizational possibilities and organizational power they offer to the more normal spheres of life, the fact that a larger perspective can greatly help one’s work in smaller realms (see the previous post).

Alas, for most of us coming to hatha yoga, staying with the hamstring actually won’t be the easy thing to do, in fact, trying to keep attention on the gross somatic field presented by the asana will be the first great value of the “spiritual” aspect to yoga, because it will be a focusing point, an alter if you will, for the mental process she had when she walked in. That mental process will be wanting to simply carry on with business as usual, and it takes some determination at first-  and periodically thereafter-  to drag the consciousness in the yoga practice direction. If instructed or instinctively  inclined to put the focus on the sensations in her body during practice, she will notice a force that not only organizes the mind but also matures the emotions, so that after practice that mind stream she walked in with will be clearer, a little further along, less wacky, less tortured. If she goes through an hour and half yoga class where she struggles and at times succeeds in focusing on her body and surrendering to her breath, this will be the beneficial cumulative effect, to greater or lesser degrees, pretty much guaranteed.

This is active mind-body integration, and the process of getting it in place on a regular basis is the beginning of “what happens to us if we keep doing this.” As per the training effect from above, if this is done over time, much of it will begin to become stably established and habitual, a gaining of fluency at the skills which use the experienced-in-the-moment body to benefit the life of the conscious mind. When things get hard or confusing, or awful, we will have a resource in place to draw upon. And like muscles, practicing that very resource will make it into an even stronger resource.

The physiologic benefits discussed above, from muscles to ligaments to tendons to bones, will become the body’s way of reformatting itself towards greater capacity to embrace and contain the stream of the mind. As we all know, the mind stream has stretches in time where all is well and easy; it has other times that are not not easy, stretches of fear, despair, hurt, anxiety, misery, the various and sundry things that have always bugged us and still bug us. These difficult feelings have a depth to them that can make them seem insurmountable, they reach so far down and come in so strong. The ever-more-fit regularly practiced hatha yoga body can begin to become a resonation chamber big and robust enough to handle the intensity of these feelings.

Many of our challenges, many of the ones we brought with us into our yoga practice, can be classed along a spectrum from gross to subtle, and again, most people who are functioning and intelligent have several things already going in the subtler realms, even people who have done no overt spiritual practice whatsoever. Working at the gross level can offer a firm foundation for bringing these challenges to fruitful resolution, but finally, issues need to be resolved at the level on which they exist.

If we stay with yoga, moving towards mastery, we will eventually rise through all levels from gross to incredibly subtle, allowing environments to form within ourselves which can potentially contain any and all existential dilemmas (except for the one final big one, more on that in a moment.) Following the natural current of our experience while we practice, continually returning our attention to the work of the asana but noticing how eventually the mind floats away. Bringing it back. Noticing that it is not always thoughts that pull us away from our gross level focus but sometimes it is an unspoken, authentic energetic current surge. When we go with this energy we begin registering phenomena that we didn’t notice before. Very interesting phenomena. These are the subtle currents and they will begin to beckon. And when we are ready, we will willingly go, they are that essential. Eventually we will be led into a different environment, one that needs to be learned like any other. We won’t lose what we had, but we will be integrating something more.

The gross realm is what our senses see, hear, smell, taste, touch in the concrete outside world, not an illusion, very real, right there. In turn, a spectrum expressing the realm of finer-stuff-than-the-gross, can be labeled psychic on one end of the spectrum and subtle on the other, with subtle disappearing into the ether in its endlessly increasing subtle-ness. Common spiritual wisdom points to this realm as the same place we go when we dream at night. Like dreams, it can be very vivid, unbelievably beautiful-  more so than the gross realm-  deliciously exciting, terrifying like a nightmare, full of resonant meaning, totally absorbing, weird. Occasional peak experiences are one thing, but to live from there, one needs a very strong yoga body, which I would call a body that has capacities from the gross to the subtle.

The subtle end of this yogabody is like a telescope. It is not easy to maintain in full consciousness. At first we just get glimpses, and we become curious about them. The spiritually inclined will want to pursue them. Beginner yogis can start building a framework which will bring meaning to these experiences. Nevertheless, as we get stronger and manage to sustain the subtle life for a while, eventually we will run into something over our heads, either as a result of what is happening in our lives, or due to the potency of what is coming in. Even if we’ve done the 10,000. At which point, the telescope will retract, and we will keep our awareness closer to the gross body. But as the yoga practice continues, we will be able to stay out in the subtle regions longer, eventually centering our gravity at a higher state, ready to get curious about the ones above it.

Movement along this path, into the subtler spheres of existence, is not a new found discovery. The sages have been clearly or mysteriously talking about it for millennia. Some have been yelling about it. And it has been universally described as a path of increasing scope and increasing bliss. Just in case you as reader had any questions as to why one would want to go there. It arises inevitably and authentically and irresistibly from the matrix of our regular practice which already brought good things in the way of mind-body integration. The rise of the subtle currents is only more good things. Following their path will put many of our previous dreadful crises into perspective, they will loose their awful bite. Delights will be felt more delightfully, meaning will resonate powerfully, humor begins to lurk around every corner, the grim drama turns to heartfelt sorrow expressed by healing tears.

I mentioned above the “one final big one” and it is this: the great sages in history have merged their identity with what Patanjali calls the “drashtuh”, the seer. Like it or not, he is already on to this eleven words into his sutras. One need not get all the way through the subtle realms to reach this state. Several traditions bypass a percentage of  “all this yogi stuff” and through variation on inquiry and perspective altering techniques, get the practitioners to realize that the awareness behind the eyes by which you see these words right now is that very drashtu, you are already there as we speak, it can’t be attained because it’s already in place, always was…yes the language of the ultimate perspective sounds like that. Anything less than that solution brings about issues of division. If you can survive the first 200 pages of Aurobindo’s Life Divine, you will understand something of division (it will be pounded into your head, really), and I won’t belabor it here, so much as to say that the entire gross-realm-into-the-subtle-realm which is the subject of this entire piece until now , all of it is in the divided realm. This brings a paradox that the deepest sages have felt a need to resolve. For these saints, and zen masters, and yogis, this incompletion was unbearable, and it spurred them on to the non-dual, which is another story and not one which I am currently telling.

Why? Because I want to affirm an integral yoga which does not in any way negate the subtle currents, or even the gross currents. The dream realm is the way the sleeping mind prepares itself to go into deep sleep. The gross mind opening up to the subtle mind is a way of following the path from waking to dreaming while still awake. A tiny percentage of those who center themselves at the subtle level will want to press on, and will succeed at it, largely through an act of grace. Others will get to the nidra state-  deep sleep while still wide awake-  and then into sahaja, the no-taste, without needing to get the subtle realm worked out too much. My proposition is that a stably grounded residence in the subtle realm is a good idea in and of itself, as well as for those who plan to go onward, partly because to remain there on a consistent basis one has to clean oneself out and get through one’s stuff, shadows and all. Also, it is the most likely place from which to realize non-dual reality. And also…because it is such a wonderful place, the muse lives there, the gods and goddesses, they periodically peek through in bliss hints which have stirred sensitive artists throughout history. The perennial poet’s longing instincts through the ages haven’t been wrong-  it is a place of haunting beauty and awesome aliveness.

On the incredible journey of hatha yoga, 10,000 hours is just the beginning. And the adventure into bliss that awaits is very real. If I were your teacher, I would try to help you get out there stably first, with deep strength. From there, the divine may claim you. At which point, we will become one, you and I.

This entry was posted on Saturday, February 8th, 2014 at 1:10 pm and is filed under Ashtanga Yoga. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “What Happens if we Keep Doing This?”

  1. Michelle Says:

    Steve, I appreciate your writing and am inspired by your essays on the practice. Thanks for taking the time to get these important insights and helpful teachings out there for aspirants. I’m about 6000 hours into my practice life, conservatively, and have experienced the “noticing” that you refer to, “the universal human need to remain on our evolutionary edge, our creative edge, our interested curious alive edge.” The experience of practice makes me curious – and awed. “What comes next?!” A blissful exploration to even higher states? Sign me up.

    You might be interested to peruse the following article from the excellent site Brainpickings, which addresses the 10,000 hours phenomenon and points out that doing 10,000 hours of a discipline doesn’t necessarily lead to its mastery, but that most students require a good teacher/coach/mentor to get beyond the inevitable plateaus.


    Here’s an interesting excerpt from the book it quotes:

    “PAYING FULL ATTENTION [my emphasis] seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing. At least at first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless. At that point you don’t need to think about it — you can do the routine well enough on automatic.”

    While I don’t like the negative connotations of the word “automatic”, it’s what happens after it becomes, perhaps, second nature to the practitioner that the cool stuff you’ve described above really begins to manifest. The moving beyond “just exercise” into higher stages, eventually, to the realm “where we become one.” Thanks.

  2. Jeff Says:

    This sort of deep-focus edification would, if I had a sufficiently influential scepter, be the default on the innertube, or whatever the world-wide-waterwiggle is called these days. Steve, thanks for taking your loving time explicating things of such integral importance. Slowing down the forced rate of temporal rotation is step one. Your writing and casual eloquence are likely part of step two!

  3. JJ Flowers (Novels Jennifer Horsman) Says:

    Dear Steve: (please don’t post; private.)

    I cannot express how exciting it was to read your latest essay on the struggle to reconcile the spiritual with the scientific from a person who obviously has a deep appreciation for the long and fruitful tradition of the philosophy of science as well as the spiritual grace brought to long practicing yogis. I thought I was the only one.
    You are so thoughtful! Intellectually gifted, which is a huge blessing, and not just for you, but for your students as well.
    Briefly, my mom gave me yoga books when I was seven to help with my gymnastics and while gymnastics went the way of all things, I have been a serious yogi most of my life, an Ashtangi for the last two decades. I practice with Diana, and have had the honor of practicing at your studio twice. My late husband was a research scientist, a charismatic professor of clinical psychology, with another advanced degree in the philosophy of science and more importantly, a voracious, lifelong reader and hands down, the smartest person in the room, any room. My late son, too, who left eleven months after his dad was a Richard Dawkins atheist, Sam Harris’s biggest fan, another serious reader, mostly of science but also fiction and at least as sharp as his Dad. Together over the years they convinced me (always with an abundance of love, affection and amusement) that all the mystical experiences, which as you know pile up in a yogis life, were products of my imagination. At times they had almost convinced me.
    O, the discussions we had over our lives together!
    The point is this is a big theme in my life. When I read your essay, it almost exactly reflected my own understandings until the year these two bright lights transitioned and then, boom, the door to the spiritual realm burst open for good and I found myself walking through. I am a writer (most of my published novels are historical romances; sigh) but also children’s stories and quite a few screenplays and until this momentous year I had never been remotely interested in writing about my relatively modest life experience, but now, the things that happened before they left and the things that happened afterwards are worth the telling, I think. If only for the humor of life. (Harper One expressed interest in the first draft.
    One event that I’d like to share with you, but with no one else involves Pattabhi Jois himself. Just after the door busted open, but when I was still questioning the reality of a spiritual realm that interacts with our material world in meaningful ways, I was practicing alone in the Shala, which is a rare event, being alone there. Diana has a small picture of Pattabhi Jois on the wall and I suddenly felt as if he was smiling at me. I don’t know why! But I stop practice and to my surprise, acting on an inexplicable impulse, I find myself asking him if he would send Diana more students. I am thinking, She is such a wonderful teacher and she deserves more students.
    Clear as a bell I get his response. “She needs a bigger picture.”
    My eyes widen with shock, but I am tickled almost senseless. I start laughing. He is laughing too. It seems the funniest response.
    Next, I think, Omg, I am losing my mind. That’s it. I am going crazy.
    With determination, I return to my practice and all of a sudden, pranayama, as I have never experienced it before. The energy running through me. I am flying. High as a kite. I am not at all myself; I am somehow much more and much less, too.
    And then it is over.
    These types of experiences continue to pile up.
    Then I am directed to start a mette-meditation practice. This is so powerful. Using a strong ujji breath, I send love to everyone I know, then their families, then even people I don’t know. Afterwards, I feel as if I am vibrating. Third eye stuff starts happening that I still don’t understand completely.
    One night after mediating, I see an Indian woman. She is smiling at me; there is so much love emanating from her, tears wet my eyes; I am overwhelmed. I have never seen her before but I know who she is. Ama. Appearing in sympathy, because she too, lost her beloved son; she understands my broken heart.
    O Steve! This is the point: Your writing needs a bigger audience. It should be a book; it really should. Just know you already have a fan base.


  4. Steve Says:

    Thank you JJ. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I believe Pattabhi Jois lived quite a bit in the subtle realm, was steeped in a culture that presumed it was true, and learned many of its contours by habit. He conveyed subtle information.
    Wish I could have met your husband and son.
    I’ll keep an eye out for your book.
    o Steve

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