The Elephant In The Room
As a student who knows Ganesh or Ashtanga, or someone who wants to know what sets us apart, the answer is always the same and so profound. It’s spiritual. There is something that is offered in the space and the practice that is so much deeper. There is no curtailing or sugar-coating. The work we do can be uncomfortable and challenging but it absolutely is the most rewarding.
So what is the work? What is the hardest part? It’s not Garbha Pindasana, though that is hard. It’s not all the vinyasas or binds, though they are challenging. It’s the last Niyama, and it’s one I believe we so often like to sweep under the rug.
Ishvara Pranidhana means surrender, or devotion to the Supreme. I think we struggle with this a lot because yoga is not a religion. We also want to make our business successful so we don’t want to turn people off, and talking about God makes a lot of people uncomfortable and defensive. However, there is no way you can delineate from this concept, and still consider the practice yoga. Asana makes up .02% of the practice, so just because you go through the motions does not make it yoga.
Patanjali makes it a startling point to reiterate over and over again the difference between correct and false knowledge. If you are working from a place of ignorance it is false knowledge. Now whether that ignorance is willful (your fault) or circumstantial (your teacher’s fault) makes no difference. There cannot be yoga with false knowledge.
If you see someone posting on social media, doing advanced asana and they look fit and healthy, you start to think “if I do that hard asana, THEN I’ll finally be fit and healthy.” You begin to work obsessively to attain the asana. Eventually, you nail the pose and you feel great (for a time). But as any practitioner knows, nailing an asana doesn’t make you a good person. It doesn’t quiet your mental chatter and it doesn’t lead you to enlightenment. Yet, we still see the picture or feel the pressure in our class and we still think “if only.” This is false knowledge.
From this idea of Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender/devotion) and the first way of attaining correct knowledge (direct experience/practice) we begin to see how we can remove false knowledge. It’s inevitable that you will have asana envy. And if even not envy, just desire: “I wish even down-dog wouldn’t be so hard.” But we eventually attain that “mastery” and still we find ourselves searching and yearning. If we can identify that misconception early on, then we can eradicate future pit-falls. It’s also inevitable that we feed our ego. “Look what I can do” or to the previous example “If I could do this, I would be a better person.” The moment you surrender to the Supreme, or devote your actions and the fruits of your labor to the Supreme, your whole paradigm shifts. It’s no longer about “me” but instead about something greater than yourself. Your practice moves from self-serving to self-less. A difficult concept when we’re only working on our individual body and individual mind, that it’s not about “me.”
With Ashtanga at Ganesh every practice is an amazingly delicious slice of humble pie. We begin the practice by offering our sincerest gratitude to the practice and it’s ability to remove false knowledge and to the teachers that came before us. At the end of the practice, we pray for peace and freedom of every living creature. Throughout the practice we are constantly reminded that the asana is temporary, that we never master it, and this physical body is truly not who we are. We have to sit with our thoughts when they’re uncomfortable. We laugh and empathize with our fellow practitioners because we have been there. We all are a part of this difficult and amazing journey called human existence. We cultivate compassion and gratitude, not because we can attain an advanced asana, but because we are SO grateful for every breath and for our community. This is surrender and devotion. This is making a way to experience direct knowledge with God, the universal life force, the Supreme. This is Ganesh.