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First, a bit of old business:  I suppose I ought to say that you can hurt yourself doing yoga.  It’s just that you aren’t nearly as likely to as in any other discipline or sport.  There are always accidents.  Be sure, when you’re practicing, that there’s nothing you can fall on but floor and mat.  And simply do not yield to the pressure to push until you hurt yourself.  It’s a lot better to wimp out and do a less strenuous asana that leads in the right direction than to keep trying one you just can’t do yet.  There is no penalty for staying safe.  Take it e-easy.

Yes, you should push yourself a little.  But only a little.

Secondly, I’m digressing today.  Instead of what I told you I would talk about, watsonasana, I’m planning to tell you a little true story.

I was watching a food show with Alex, my El Salvadoran son-in-law.  I was basically watching because there was nothing else I wanted to do.  Alex himself has turned into quite the cook and gourmet—somehow it doesn’t seem right to call him a “foodie,” the way they do nowadays.  Seems to trivialize his passion.

Anyway, we were watching this food show, maybe Anthony Bourdain, since that one involves a lot of traveling, a lot of folk byways.

This was India, at the market.  Hot, brilliant sun, and dusty.  There seem to be a presence of glistening dust in the very air, and all the street performers and many of the vendors and buyers wore a dirty coat of it.

This particular street performer specialized in incredible limberness.  He did some sort of wrapped-around-himself knot I can’t even visualize in my memory, but as I remember he was standing on his hands with his head dangling loosely and his legs folded in the lotus.

He was a tall skinny fellow, grimy with dust, and he wore only a tiny covering over his genitals.

His next performance was even more amazing.

First he cinched his balls and scotum with a cord.  Then he pulled the cord between his buttocks, pulling his genitia between and through his legs.  Then he cinched the cord around his waste.

Then he started a series of rapid deep-bends, literally bouncing up and down.  This showed how limber he was, because other wise, he would have torn his business from his body.

I still smile to remember Alex’s reaction.  Every time the fellow did one of those deep knee-bends—and remember he was doing at least two or three per second, Alex emitted a loud burst that somehow combined violent alarm and incredulous laughter—Alex laughs when he gets hurt.  It’s his way of coping with the pain.  In fact, my daughter, who has learned to tell the pain laugh from his many other laughs, worries when she hears the sound.

It was easy to tell that Alex has loads of empathy.  He couldn’t help thinking what would have happened to him—or to most men—if they had tried it.

The man was smiling insanely, but completely relaxed.  Bouncing.

I do love Alex and the genuineness of his responses.

Anyhow, the performance caused me several days of confusion.  This fellow was a master far beyond anything I would ever be able to do.  Surely such a master—he must have done yoga since he was a child, to develop such loosenes and flexibility—had reached enlightenment?  Surely he merely appeared to be a dust-covered street performer because such a master didn’t care about appearances, didn’t care what others thought of him?

Gradually my opinion changed.  I came to realize that no, despite his mastery, no doubt enabled by having done yoga since he was a small child, he was not a master—he was a street performer.

He had absolutely mastered yoga, yes.  To a level that’s incredible unless you see it, and then it’s still hard to believe your eyes.

But the best thing he could think of to do with it was use it for his act as a street performer.

There’s a yogic lesson to be learned here.  Mastery of the body does not imply mastery of the spirit.  No surprise.  I’ve met a number of people who could practice yoga at an extremely advanced level, who even taught the science, but who were horrible humans, rude and competitive.

The point of yoga is within its name:  The name means “yoking,” uniting that which is unnecessarily divided.  In our country it’s typical to be almost entirely unconscious of the body (unless of course it’s in such bad condition it causes you pain).  In my view, that means being unconscious of the “spirit,” too, since what we divide into “body” and “spirit” is not two things, but one.  We walk around, as I noted in my first column, thinking of our bodies as “machines” into which a spirit, or “soul” has somehow been decanted.

But if we approach yoga in a competitive and purely physical sense only—how many “tricks” we can do as compared to how many others around us can do—then we’re in exactly the situation of that street performer.

At some point, if yoga is to continue making a difference to your life, you will have to begin to think of its application to spirit.

Think of it otherwise, and you will eventually become a mere performer, using one of the more helpful and wonderful disciplines there is as a mere trick, a way to get what you want, a mere ploy in your plans, like someone writing a blog who chooses his or her content according to how many clicks it will generate, not according to how much good it will do.

Our desire is less than yoga.  It’s better to let yoga gradually influence your perception of desire, helping yourself to become more sane and more gentle.

It’s getting the cart before the horse to think of yoga as a means to go after what you want, as a way to be healthier, a way to impress your friends, a way to look better in the mirror.  Oh, you can get what you want that way—yoga works, and if that’s what you want from it that’s what you can get.

At the price of showing what you desire to be vapid and common and completely mistaken.

I don’t know what that street performer wanted—to make enough to live on, I would imagine—but it was a shame to see such mastery dedicated to so mere and so ignominious an end.

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