Pushpam 3 - Suffering

Suffering: We All Go Through It

Pushpam 3 | A Magazine Review

Suffering is the focus of Pushpam 3 – and pain is certainly nothing to take lightly. Still, in reading through this latest compilation from Ashtanga Yoga London, it was the playful tune of a little childhood ditty that kept humming through my mind:

We’re goin’ on a bear hunt. We’re gonna catch a big one. I’m not scared!

Oh Look! A (insert obstacle)!

Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Can’t go around it. Got to go through it!

Still, I feel like publisher, Hamish Hendry, might approve. Because he’s one of those rare and brilliant writers who doesn’t share material to show how much he knows, but takes a complicated subject matter (just as he did with the Bhagavad Gita in Pushpam 2) and presents it in a way even a child (like me) could understand. Of course, suffering (duḥkha) is something we all experience in varying degrees and why Hendry contends, it may very well be the one thing that connects us all:

“One thing that unites all humanity is that every one of us has suffered. Everyone. When we realize this, we can start to have compassion for others and ourselves. Sometimes we are hard on ourselves. Life is hard enough.”

Indeed, life IS hard enough. And why pain isn’t what we’re hunting but in all likelihood, it is what’s brought us to this hunt. And so we come to threshold of our own inner forest, as the yoga leads our search for liberation, for truth, for God.

What is Suffering?
I’m not scared!

When I think of suffering, I think of pain that is intense and ongoing. And that is kind of scary. I know pain is a great teacher but at the same time, I’m not really wishing for those kinds of lessons at the moment. Though suffering, as Ruth Westoby explains in her article, Tales of Suffering, is perhaps too strong a word. She describes it more as “the unease, sorrow, and difficulty that touch our lives.”

In fact, the Sanskrit word duḥkha, simply means “bad space,” says Zoë Slatoff in Freedom from Suffering.

Though the irony for me (and maybe for you too) is the longer I practice, the more sensitive I become of these bad spaces and the less tolerant I am of the ones within my control. I’ll never forget when my daughter, Meghan, went through some allergy testing in high school – it was hard for me to believe how many foods her body did not react well to. I was shocked – like, how could we not have noticed? I remember the doctor told me, she probably just doesn’t know what it’s like to feel really good. Once those foods were minimized, the difference was dramatic. He was right, she didn’t. But she does now.

In other words, this unease and difficulty could actually be something we become used to and no longer recognize as suffering. But through practice, we start noticing the difference. And why we often make changes along the way because of this new sensitivity. You see, some of this suffering we do isn’t necessary and is well within our control. Or as Slatoff puts it, at least some of our suffering is optional.

Why Do We Suffer?
Oh Look! A Kleśa!

Our forest is full of obstacles. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras call these kleśas and lists five:

  1. Ignorance (avidyā): We don’t know what we don’t know – thus the root of all our suffering.
  2. Ego (asmitā): We confuse our material self as real – it isn’t. So we miss our own divinity.
  3. Attachment (rāga): We chase what makes us happy – but nothing is permanent.
  4. Avoidance (dveṣa): We avoid what makes us unhappy – yeah, good luck with that!
  5. Fear of death (abhiniveśa): We cling to this life.

Patrick Nolan || photo by Meghan Powell

These things that stand in our way of happiness are all detailed with far better explanations in Pushpam 3, including two heartfelt essays on loss from both Joan Foster and Patrick Nolan (who is also featured in the third edition of the Ashtanga Dispatch Magazine). These both hit me hard. I can accept and explore my own ignorance, my ego, my tendency to both chase and avoid what I like and don’t like – but death? This one is tough. I highlight Nolan’s words, feeling his pain still in the loss of his father:

“I have found some measure of peace lately. The ripples have abated somewhat, you could say, but the cracks still remain.”

How Can We Free Ourselves from Suffering?
We Gotta Go Through it! (But yoga can help!)

We are all suffering, even if we’re not overtly aware of it. There’s really no way over, under, or around this at the moment. But if we are to believe Patanjali, future suffering is something we can avoid.

heyaṁ duḥkham-anāgatam || Y.S. 2.16

Suffering that has yet to manifest is to be avoided.

Again, that’s why we’ve come to yoga, right? As Valters Negribs explains in his article, Asceticism and Yoga, “The goal of yoga is to remove the impurities so that the divine can shine forth.” And this is the bliss we’re here to sniff out.

Luckily, we have been given a map. The Ashtanga yoga method gives us three places to focus  as we move through our forest. Lest we get distracted or lost, the tristhāna method acts as a compass, directing our attention to our breath, the pose, and our gaze.

Breath

I loved the article, Breath and Health, by Dr. Andy Field. Because yes, we know breath (prānāyāma) is key to mind control in the yoga tradition, but it is just as critical a key to our own physical and emotional health as well. I don’t profess to be the best breather, especially as someone who has suffered from asthma. My inability to breathe properly killed my swimming career (if ability didn’t already) and made me the recipient of my family’s all-time slowest hiker award (over and over again).

But guess what? I haven’t had to use an inhaler for many years now. I don’t even own one now. This is huge and it’s thanks to the yoga practice. So yeah, breathing is a wonderful place to focus.

Asana

The āsana is a tougher call for me. Hard to imagine how we can somehow dissolve our little self in a shape-making exercise that often seems to elevate it instead. But according to Jack Sidnell in his article, Getting Rid of the I, the āsana remains a critical piece of the equation considering our whole body serves as our center of consciousness.

In āsana, the individual practitioner animates bodily movements, breath patterns, and a focus of attention, which he or she did not author … such that it is not an expression of the individual practitioner but rather of a collective tradition.”

Which is why, I imagine, I’ve heard Guruji would quote the Yoga Korunta: “Vina vinyasa yogena asanadin ne karaye.” (Without vinyasa – don’t do asana) Because it really all comes down to the vinyāsa, and not just the shape in isolation.

Gaze

This is a point Pushpam editor and contributor, Genny Wilkinson Priest, hopes to make clear as one place she hopes we NOT look is perhaps, Instagram. In her article, Yoga in the Age of Social Media, Priest admits to once being the poster girl of social media’s condemnation. Though even softened, as she describes herself now, it’s still easy to read the discomfort that is still very much present in her as it is in many of us. But that’s okay, because according to Karen O’Brien-Kop – this hunt is far from over.

In fact, while meditation and yoga might be able to free us from our more obvious pain, the kind we bring on ourselves – it’s not going to be enough to catch us that bear. In Pratiprasava as an Antidote to Suffering, O’Brien-Kop explains the deeper and lengthier process of detaching our sense of self from the material world. Let’s just say, I’ve got a long way to go.

In the Meantime …
Happy Hunting!

Pushpam 3 gives us plenty more food for thought along the way including a comforting Indian recipe from Gokulam’s beloved host and cook, Anu Ganesh, presented by Tom Norrington-Davies … a lovely dialogue between Hendry and fellow certified teacher, Lucia Andrade … and a book recommendation from Inna Costantini  (Don’t be a Jerk – my daughter has already begun reading).

But I’ll leave you with one final nugget, a stand-alone sentence I both highlighted and wrote in my more personal journal. It comes from Hendry and may very well be the most useful piece of guidance in regards to suffering – or anything else, for that matter:

“Keep compassion in mind.”

 

Pushpam is a bi-annual (or so) yoga magazine that focuses on yoga beyond asana.

You can find all three issues of Pushpam, plus Yoga Dharma, here.