For 40,00 years people have apprenticed themselves, usually to other, more seasoned humans than themselves, in order to learn useful everyday skills – how to gather herbs, how to cook a fish, how to change the oil in the pick-up truck. How to read a book.
I assume that our ancestors made a lot of mistakes along the way, getting lost in the woods, poisoning themselves with toxic greens, drowning in the river because they hadn’t caulked their boat properly.
Along the way, they learned.
Some skills are quick to learn, like how to strike a match. Others are more complex or subtle, and take a lot more tutelage, like maybe weaving a ceremonial basket, or building a teahouse, or playing a Bach violin sonata. Some skills take many years of committed, focused attention, and can take on the qualities of a journey or quest.
One thing they all share, if you truly want to learn, has to be the willingness to subject yourself for a while to the constraints or demands of the task at hand. (And often too, to the constraints and demands of the taskmaster you are learning from.) You can’t play music until you can play your instrument. You have to be able to find the keys on the piano, you have to be able to play the scales and achieve melodies and chords, before you can make the hair on the back of their necks stand up!
Let’s imagine that I invited Yo-Yo Ma to come to my class and improvise some tunes on his cello. Probably within a few minutes we would all be listening raptly, open-mouthed and maybe even open hearted. And then if I were to say “Yo, man, give me that cello, let me see what I can do,” well, I’m willing to bet that within about 30 seconds most of my students would be covering their ears and ducking their heads in embarrassment for me, or more likely running out of the room, since I know nothing about playing the cello!
So too in modern asana-based yoga practice. Yes, the practice is meant to lead us to liberation, or at least give us some solace, but first we have to learn our instrument. And although we can all agree that ultimately your heart/mind is your instrument, to start with you have to address the bodily asanas. The asanas and pranayamas are your tutors, and they come with certain pre-dispositions, certain built-in demands. And it is by testing yourself against those demands that, hopefully, and over time, you come to a clearer understanding of just who and how you are in this world. We might say that it is by rehearsing the poses that you will someday grow beyond them. The word “re-hearse” comes from an old Anglo-Latin word meaning to harrow or till the soil in order to plant a crop. You have to re-hearse the poses before you can reap the harvest.
Unfortunately these days there is a very strong tendency in some corners (and main boulevards, too) of the American yoga world to see the yoga poses as tyrants or some kind of jailer, stifling students’ curiosity or creativity, keeping students from “expressing themselves.” So all too often students are encouraged to “explore” before they have a sufficient grasp of the basics of the poses as they already exist, having been passed down by many earlier generations of practitioners. Most of the modern repertoire of poses has been well-vetted; downward-dog pose has been performed millions of times here in America in the last 50 years, and it’s depth and nuances are well-understood by experienced practitioners.
In any natural system that is ripe or mature, where a bird, let’s say, is already well-adapted to its environment, most mutations are going to be useless or damaging, or even lethal, and only a tiny fraction of those will actually benefit the creature. So it’s a risky business to innovate too fast, and most of us would probably be better off to proceed a little more slowly, at least in the beginning. How long is the beginning? The time-tested answer would be, “You know, the first 15 or 20 years.”
Many years ago I asked an elderly Chinese Chi Gong master - now long gone I am sure - if older generations of practitioners - our practice ancestors - had any secrets or talents that we moderns might have lost. He thought for a moment and then said:
“No. Only one thing. They were more patient.”