So (what seems like) a thousand years ago when I was working at the New York Stock Exchange, I started getting a sharp pain in the back of my mouth one afternoon. I thought maybe it was strep throat. At that time we had medical services in the building, so I went down a few floors and after a while I was in the office of this rather odd doctor, we’ll call him Dr. Silver. The office was pretty dark, and I was put in mind of rumors that the NYSE docs were rejects from other practices. Shady guys. But I thought I’d give him a shot, no pun intended; it was immediate and cheaper onsite.
Dr. Silver examined me, had me open my mouth and all that, and then declared that I had an abscess. I didn’t quite know what that meant, it reminded me of the word “abyss.” You can put it into Google images these days and see, but I don’t recommend that. Anyway, then he slid his wheely chair over to me and said, “Open your mouth,” and then I saw the longest needle I’ve ever seen in my life.
I didn’t panic, but I didn’t jump for joy either. This guy, this possible quack, wanted me to open my mouth, which is an extremely vulnerable concatenation of dear tissue, and let him poke around in the back of my throat. And let me say again, this was the mother of all syringes. Yet I think of that moment with amusement, because after a brief, understandable hesitation, I actually opened my mouth and let shady Doc Silver thrust this horrible implement of doom and destruction into me, while my mind worked on quelling, sitting on, suppressing, and beating down a desperate desire to punch him in the face and bolt. Because what self-respecting mammal wouldn’t do exactly that?
But that’s my point. Because I’m a human, and I have what in yoga is called mind-stuff, particularly the vijnanamayakosha, the discerning mind, I have -- at least sometimes! -- been able to say to myself, you are about to suffer, but it’s really for your own good. I know that sounds like something an abusive schoolteacher might tell you, nonetheless it can be true in certain circumstances.
Today I decided to take a yoga class with Tzahi Moskovitz. You can find my interview with him on this very site, however I haven’t taken class with Tzahi since the interview. I’ve been trying to find a good time for that, and I was going to Astoria today anyway, and he was teaching an Iyengar class at The Yoga Room at 11:30… perfect.
I arrived early. It’s such a lovely space. I arranged a blanket under the arch of my back and stared at the beautiful white industrial ceiling. And it was a rainy morning, but there were, I’d say, about 20 students, maybe more, I didn’t count. And Tzahi greeted me warmly, and after class began, I really started to feel at home. He is so present, so clever, so involved, so sharp. There are no clichés, no easy fall-back lines. But this time I was more curious about something else, the way he communicated with the students, which is to say, caring and cajoling at the same time. Now I know he’s spent time with B.K.S. Iyengar, so maybe that’s where he gets some of it, but it’s also just his particular intensity: he doesn’t take any shit. By which I mean, he doesn’t allow you to get away with stuff. He stands firm. When you’re doing something wrong, he lets you know, and sometimes it can feel a bit castigating. But my karate sensei is the same, and I know it’s made me a better kareteka. If I screw up or don’t fully understand, I want to know about it, even if the whole class is watching me. And I know that at the bottom of their hearts, these guys care, and that’s what makes it a true teaching. But that’s not to say it isn’t challenging at time.
And I’m not the only one being challenged. We did handstand early on, and then a very intricately woven bit on Gomukhasan (Cow-Faced Pose), during which I got cramps in the groins, first on one side, then switching legs, the other! But that was okay, it was hard for a moment but my groins survived, and then we were doing Lolasana. This is “earring pose,” hanging with hands on blocks and dangling the whole body, rocking back and forth like an earring, with the heels up toward the buttocks. And that wasn’t so hard for me because it involves upper body strength, I loved this one, I’d done it before but not exactly this way, but many were feeling challenged, and at some point in the process he said this might be difficult now but perhaps it will prevent suffering later, quoted Patanjali in Sanskrit, Sutra 2.16, “Heyam dukham anagatam… the pain that has not come is to be avoided...” I thought that this was most applicable. In a larger sense, it might be a question of karma, of working with today’s samskara (or karmic impression; quoted in the previous Sutra 2.15) in an intelligent way in order to not be attached, because through attachment we become vulnerable to suffering. And that’s pretty highfalutin’, but back here in the moment it’s just about devoting oneself to the pose even if it causes discomfort, even if one “fails” and feels the sweet wind of humiliation for a moment.
Because sometimes yoga is tough. We went to Shoulderstand and held it for quite some time. And I was thinking how I tell my classes to stay with the discomfort, to send the prana or chi into the discomfort (if your belief frames it that way), and stay with your breath. And so in the tough moments I kept with my breathing, thinking, hey, maybe if I make it through this, I am avoiding suffering in the future. Today’s effort in yoga class or whatever class or at the job will be something that makes us stronger. Because when we just give in to our desire to sit on the couch, we are comfortable now, but in fact are we not just accumulating future sorrow? (And to be clear, I’m not sayin’ I don’t slack sometimes, but one tries to minimize it, right?…) So the paradox is that to avoid pain, we have to confront it, hunt it, and move through it.Sometimes we can allow ourselves to experience what Mr. Iyengar calls good pain, because we are yogis, because we are seekers, and human beings. As humans, we let the doctor insert the needle now, because we don’t want to suffer illness later. (My abscess did disappear after the treatment) We even plan to suffer, in order to avoid suffering in the future. So in the future I’m going back to Tzahi’s class, even though sometimes I will suffer there, because I know it will make me a better yogi, teacher, and person.
And yes in a way such planning is also a paradox, because as yoga students, we are always told to live in the now, we want to live in the now, we are told that attachment to the future is illusion. But as humans, we have to plan for the future. Yet isn’t the paradox here that we can bring ourselves into the planning moment, knowing that we have to be present as we plan? And maybe that’s a kind of yoga, unifying our present moment and our future moment, for the sake of our wellbeing and our health.
I left the class feeling great. Those moments of temporary dukham paying off already!
By the way, in his brilliant lower-case entitled book, “the yoga sutras of patanjali -- illuminations through image, commentary and design,” Gary Kissiah quotes Thich Nhat Hanh to elucidate Sutra 2.16, and I think it bears repeating: “The Buddha said, ‘I only teach two things: I teach about suffering and the way out of suffering.’ Your time should be devoted to the study of and practice of these two things. And when we are able to liberate ourselves from suffering our mind becomes clear, then our mind can reflect the ultimate reality without any intellectual searching. Your mind will become like a mirror that can reflect reality as it is, without any distortion.”
[And one last note, a kind of disclaimer. The only complaints I’ve gotten about the contents of the first issue of the magazine that there was a lot of YogaWorks and a lot of Iyengar. I realize that quoting Iyengar as I have above and telling a story about an Iyengar class may contribute to the latter notion. However I have always thought that the teacher is more important than the school, and Tzahi’s just a great teacher. And I want to add that I will make a devoted effort with this magazine to represent and illuminate as many of the strands or flavors of genuine yoga as I can. There is so much to cover, and as noted above, we are only human, but I promise we will make that effort and hopefully avoid any sorrow for our readers!]