We don’t have anything but ordinary things. It’s just a bunch of stuff, you know. Quite ordinary. But the ordinary can seem extraordinary or extraordinarily special all of a sudden because of the ability of mind to make it so. This is the way things become sacred, which is good. But it is also the way things—sometimes even sacred things—become exclusive or symbols and objects of power.
What happens is we identify something as sacred, special, extraordinary and almost instantaneously the ego takes over trying to prove its importance—one’s own importance. It happens easily in the context of yoga and yoga schools, which, like any tradition, are prone to go into battle with other yoga schools to prove how much better their teacher or their teachings are than everyone else’s.
So for a yoga studio this is how it happens. In order to establish the school, we find a room; a separate space that we designate as the shala or the school. We paint the walls mellow colors, maybe some warm orange or pink walls like we saw on buildings in India when we were last there. Maybe a little gold trim here and there. And we decorate it with flowers and statues placed in special niches we’ve constructed in the walls. Yes, we find beautiful statues of Indian gods and install them in our studio. Which is really lovely.
Unless we take it all so seriously that when a brand new, eager student comes in and does an arm balance against the wall, kicking up with feet in the Ganesh niche, we go crazy and ban the student from ever coming back to our studio because they disrespected the stature. How were they to know? They were just enthusiastic and doing a handstand for the first time. Nobody bothered to tell them about the rituals they were supposed to follow in order to show their respects to a statue they didn’t even recognize as anything more than a cute elephant.
We set up our studio carefully to make it special, so we can teach yoga in peace. The secular world or the ordinary world is outside, but in here we are quiet and reflective and very, very special. It’s almost like we have drawn a circle of infinite space around the studio and anything inside the circle is no longer ordinary. We define that which is sacred as being inside the circle, and with flawed logic we conclude that whatever is outside of the circle must not be sacred. At first we say whatever is outside is just not part of the studio, but after a while we forget that we, ourselves, drew the circle defining and separating the “sacred” inside from the “ordinary” outside. And we start to believe that the ratty space we rented and remodeled has some sort of divine sacredness about it that makes everything associated with it—especially us—particularly sacred. That’s where the ego shines and problems begin.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I remember when I was a child, in the ‘50’s. We’d go on family vacations and drive out west from St. Louis. Sometimes we’d drive to Colorado, and that’s actually how I learned about this place. We would camp on the way, before camping was all that popular. Big, heavy canvas tents and felt-lined sleeping bags. Gear back then was cumbersome and not much of it was waterproofed at all. Maybe that’s why camping wasn’t so popular. We would go to Yellowstone in July and there would be maybe two other tents. With my father driving, I’d sit in the back seat and I would just stare out the windows at the mountains and the trees. I’d count telephone poles. To me telephone poles were really cool because they were trees and they had these wires and electricity and I didn’t separate man-made objects from natural objects; they were beautiful. Now I look at telephone poles and I say, “Oh my god! The ecological crisis is just terrible. Human beings are a disaster. I can’t see the forest because of the telephone poles!”
After you do yoga for a while, once again you can occasionally experience things like a child; with that same sense of innocence. You can perceive things with awe for a split second before the mind creates all types of associations with whatever it is you’re perceiving. Most of the time we perceive things by, in a sense, pulling them completely out of their background and context. It’s a tool our mind skillfully uses to sort things out and understand them; to focus exclusively on one thing, which can make it appear separate from it’s background. And that’s where we get stuck sometimes, forgetting that it’s only special and not part of its background because we arbitrarily pulled it out of context in order for our tiny little mind to understand it. But because we do yoga and within the practices we viscerally experience the interconnected nature of everything, when we’ve pulled something (like ourselves) out of context and imagine it to be extraordinary, special, above and beyond everything else, if we’re lucky we see the silliness of it all and realize what we’ve pulled out is actually quite ordinary.
Until all of a sudden when we’ve completely, viscerally understood the interpenetrating nature of all things—that everything is sacred—there is a switchover! Then you can actually start to appreciate whatever it is in its full context, which is everything and what you finally realized was ordinary, becomes extraordinary after all. You experience it as a child might. You have insight into the reality that all you can perceive is what you are capable of perceiving. Yet everything around it—even those things you cannot perceive—flow into it and support it so that it is not something that is separate, yet is extraordinary.
So yoga works paradoxically—you separate things out in order to discover that it is impossible to really separate anything from the rest. When you tear something out of its background and really examine it, it is almost as if there is this magnetic force that pulls it back in, realigning it with everything rather than just the few things that you could originally perceive. So this is what vinyasa means. I just thought you might like to know.