For a couple of years when I was young I worked on the San Francisco docks as a longshoreman, loading and off-loading cargo from freighters. This was before the days of container-ships, so you’d actually climb down into the ship’s hold to man-handle the crates and drums. I’d already done different kinds of manual labor – digging ditches, hauling lumber, that kind of thing. One year I picked walnuts. Another year I bought myself an old sewing–machine and did piece-work sewing blouses for a smart Union Street Boutique, my own little one-man sweat-shop. Later I got several years’ on-the-job training as a carpenter.
Somewhere in the middle of all this I picked up a Bachelor’s degree in creative writing and a Master’s degree in art. I was doing wood sculpture, stained glass, drawing and painting.
What all of these jobs — or career-avoidance strategies really — had in common was the confrontation with actual stubborn material stuff — recalcitrant and sometimes heavy stuff that often seemed to have its own plans. So sometimes the job consisted largely of outsmarting, or, when that didn’t work, out-wrestling the materials at hand. The outcome was not guaranteed. At the end of the day, either the newly-installed door swung freely on its hinges or it didn’t; either the 150-pound sacks of coffee beans that you & your buddy had stacked so carefully in an interlocking grid pattern stayed put on the pallet as it was being winched out of the ship’s hold, or the load cascaded apart & coffee beans came raining down. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for argument.
Then I became a yoga teacher.
Before I go further, here’s the famous story of Samuel Johnson refuting Bishop Berkeley’s sermon, in about 1785:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal [ie, only a mental fabrication, an idea without material substance]. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”
(I happily imagine Johnson kicking the rock so hard he gets knocked flat on his own ass.)
There really are stones, and asanas, and practices, out there. They are real, and stubborn, and they kick back. That kicking us back is their beauty and usefulness, and I think we should not explain that away with our clever arguments.
250 years after Samuel Johnson, our favorite argument today, the favorite “ingenious sophistry” of our age, is a self-regard so thorough it’s almost hermetic: “What comes up for me is….” “No, really, it works differently for me than for anybody else….” “Well, in my opinion…” But you don’t get any points just for having an opinion. You can’t help but have an opinion, some kind of opinion. Having an opinion is like breathing: if you’re alive you’re probably doing it.
But what about my creativity? Things change, we have to adapt, etc.
With truly ripe practices, mature practices, most innovation is trivial or damaging. Take any organism that is well-fitted to its surroundings and thriving: most mutations to that organism will be either worthless or lethal. Very few will actually enhance that organism, fit that organism any closer to its environment than it was before.
So don’t rush to contest the practice, instead test yourself against the practice. I once heard BKS Iyengar say words to the effect “I change my body to suit the poses, you people change the poses to suit your body.”
Or as the old carpenter said, “Measure twice, cut once.”