Cornel West and BKS Iyengar: joy, suffering, and moral constipation

As I’m reading BKS Iyengar’s Light on Life, I’m teaching the koshas to my classes, one a week. But as he points out, the koshas, or sheaths of being, are not one then another, they are interpenetrating, mapping and remapping the same topography. The notion of the koshas moving from outside in, or even the use of the words layer or sheath, refers to the experience of discovering them, not the relative placement of them within the body.

Iyengar says:

“The demarcation of the different sheaths is essentially hypothetical. We are unique and integral. Nevertheless, in order to achieve the integrity and wholeness we desire, there must be communication from the inner to the outer and the outer to the inner as each sheath blends with the next. Only then are we bound together as one functional human being. If not, we experience dissolution and fragmentation, which makes life uncomfortable and confusing. (p.5)”

The first project is to draw the awareness down into the whole body’s flesh from its distracted perch up in the head. Iyengar writes, “We generally think of the mind as being in our head. In asana our consciousness spreads throughout the body, eventually diffusing in every cell, creating a complete awareness. (p.15)” This resonated with a phrase Cornel West used when I saw him speak at Everett Community College a few weeks ago: moral constipation. Beginning with four questions from W. E. B. DuBois’s The Ordeal of Mansart, he exhorted the audience to cultivate their ethical lives. The questions are:

How does integrity face oppression?

What does honesty do in the face of deception?

What does decency do in the face of insult?

How does virtue meet brute force?

His portrait of the dominant culture was scathing and precise: he called the contemporary west a death dodging society, said that the logical conclusion to our pursuits and values would be to hook ourselves up to an orgasm machine forever to end our joyless quest for pleasure. The illusion of comfort or pleasure is only possible when your awareness has fled your body and gone up to reside in the head. From there it receives only irregular and hyperbolic communication from the body. Iyengar puts it this way:

“Strength and flexibility allow us to keep an inner balance, but man is trying more and more to dominate the environment rather than control himself. Central heating, air conditioning, cars that we take out to drive 300 yards, towns that stay lit up all night, and food imported from around the world out of season are all examples of how we try to circumvent our duty to adapt to nature, and instead force nature to adapt to us. In the process, we become both weak and brittle. (p.25)”

West described the condition of moral constipation: your mind knows what’s right and wrong, but it won’t let that knowledge flow, because you’re greedy. He and Iyengar are talking almost the same language, although West doesn’t linger on the gross physical. His devotion to music, and to finding one’s own voice is his interpretation of an embodiment practice.

He says “ the condition of truth is allowing suffering to speak,” that we have to hear, and to feel in our bodies, to turn knowledge into ethical wisdom. Iyengar describes it this way:

“[A yogi] does not gain dominion over wide lands and restless seas, but over his own recalcitrant flesh and febrile mind. This is the power of compassionate truth. The presence of truth can make us feel naked, but compassion takes all our shame away. It is this inner quest for growth and evolution, or ‘involution,’ that is the profound and transformational yogic journey that awaits the seeker after Truth. (p.19)”

My experience of truth has shifted radically as I’ve come to know my body, both in the accuracy of my self-perception and in the clarity of my understanding of dynamics playing out around me. It is in moments of suffering, within the controlled environment of asana practice, that I see my own artifice, my own prejudice, my wish for things to be other than they are. The less I repress or ignore discomfort, whether it arises physiologically or psychologically, the more it bears useful meaning, and paradoxically, the less of it there is. Repeated exposure to reality eases its suffering.

There’s a meditation practice in which you inhale and picture good things: nourishment, warm colors, etc., exhale and imagine the harmful, unnecessary, cold colors, and so on flowing out and away. I was practicing this once with my teacher Gabriel, and he mentioned that this was a beginning exercise. The advanced practice was the reverse: breathe in the bad, transform it, and give good away on the exhale. West called the blues ‘the centrality of catastrophe’: a practice of internal alchemy that transforms one’s suffering at the hands of a monstrous system into a communion with others, a gift to share. Iyengar says (remember the joyless quest for pleasure),

“Most people want to take joy without suffering. I will take both. See how far suffering takes me. When you do not resist suffering, you will make friends with other people who suffer…. Pain comes to guide you. When you have known pain, you will be compassionate. Shared joys cannot teach us this. (p.52)”

In practice I’m having to return to some basic breath attention to appreciate prana’s flow throughout my body, not just the short trip of breath between my nose and lungs. I’m in no state of equilibrium to practice retentions right now. Iyengar says “if we still ricochet between behavioral, emotional, and mental extremes, we are not ready for pranayama. If we have a reasonable strength of body and nerves and stability of emotions and mind, then we are.” I feel pulled in too many directions, too much unpredictability in this moment of my life. So I focus on the foundations for now.

In last Friday’s class, rather than teach a pranayama, I set up the meditative pose and described the shape of the pose as the house of the breath. I read Iyengar’s inspired metaphor of the voltage in a house:

“Since prana is energy and life force, pranayama means the extension and expansion of all our vital energy. It has to be clear that you cannot just increase the volume of anything as volatile and explosive as pure energy without taking steps to contain, harness, and direct it. If you were suddenly to triple the strength of the electrical current arriving in your house, you would not think the kettle would boil in a third of the usual time and your lights burn three times brighter. You know you would immediately burn out all the circuits and be left with nothing. Why should our body be different? This is why Patanjali clearly stated that between the practice of asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breath control), there is a step up. There has to exist, through proficiency in asana, strength and stability in the circuitry of the body to withstand the increase of current that pranayama practice will bring.”

 I said that an aware posture creates the conditions for the flow of energy. At the same time as I think my teaching is getting more sophisticated, that I’m able to operate within more layers of meaning, my own practice needs a correction: not what I’m doing, but the way I’m doing it. From the what to the how of it. On the mat in gomukasana today I let go of something and was stunned by the size of its absence. I had been pushing, clenching so hard. I let it go and found the easy, full breath, and when I came out it was champagne bubbles throughout my body. I found the bubbly kosha, I assume it’s anandamaya. It’s funny what you find when you’re not looking for pleasure.

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