Prashant on Pranayama: Cultivating the Literary Arts
We had another wonderful pranayama experience with Prashant yesterday morning. He picked up again on the theme of creating literacy in our practice. It is not enough to be sensitive to all the things that go on “in” us as we do pranayama. We have to develop the ability to be articulate or literate about our practice. Yesterday, he extended that metaphor further in several interesting ways. We need to develop the capacity not only to describe and analyze, but also to offer commentary. To be a commentator on our own experience. Prashant would ask us to do this silently and then say, “okay, now take a break from commenting because you are not used to the practice.”
He did not use this metaphor himself but I came up with it as I was reflecting on the class yesterday in the library. Each pranayama or each breath (however far you want to extend the unit of analysis, maybe even to each cell) is like a sutra. We seek to understand the words of the sutra and how they relate and what meaning they convey, but ultimately part of the majesty of the sutra tradition is the commentary tradition that grew up along side it. We must become our own Vyasa and our own Patanajli.
Laurie Blakeney talks a lot about cultivating the ability to be literate in our practice. I see this comes directly from Prashant. Another thing I remember that Laurie said many years ago, that stuck with me, is that basically you are paying a Senior teacher to translate their experience of the Iyengars for you. I think this way of putting it spoke to me because I work so much with texts and texts that are translated. it is so clear that translation is not direct transmission. So much of how we interpret a text depends on how we translate. We place an enormous amount of faith in our senior teachers just as we place an enormous amount of faith in translators. Every translation is an interpretation (I am drawing a blank on the source of that famous quote). So translation too is a part of that literacy cultivation. One of the many nice things about coming to Pune is that you do get to see the source of that translation for yourself. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to do a good job reading the primary text of “Pune” on your own at first, but at least you begin to see the aspects of the text that gets translated as Iyengar yoga in America.
Also, this way of looking at what senior teachers offer us explains why we might like one teacher more than another. We might come to prefer Edwin Bryant’s translation of the Sutras over another one, or we might love Guruji’s precisely because it his is own and conveys his own particular eloquence. We might like Chapple’s interpretation of the Gita. Some of that is preference. Some of that might be based on knowledge of scholarly accuracy.
Another teacher came to Dallas once and got at the point of transmission of Pune in a similar way saying, basically she was providing the “Pune download.” Anyway, listening to Prashant I was struck by the way that those two metaphors play with the idea of literacy. In some ways, getting the “download” seems better in that we have “what really happened.” We might want a recording of an excellent class to make sure we have a record of what really happened, but that doesn’t really get creating this ability to become literate about our own practice. In fact, we might depend on the download and not learn how to read our own experience.
Yesterday, Prashant also went further to talk not only about literacy but also eloquence. We need to become beautiful speakers of our own experience. That is part of the “enchantment of yoga.” In many ways, we are casting a spell on ourselves (and on our students, by extension). For yogic purposes (his phrase).
There’s this wonderful description of love in Plato’s Symposium. Love is a “genius with enchantments and clever pleadings.” It sort of makes love sound like a sophist- someone who “just” enchants with words” and so the “for yogic purpose is important.
Plato deals with this difference between good rhetoric and pernicious rhetoric throughout the dialogues. Philosophers, those oriented toward truth (those who have yogic purpose) also need eloquence. We have to persuade people to truth, but there are also those who can simply persuade. In Platonic terms, those who “can make the weaker argument seem the stronger.” Prashant talked about this dimension of eloquence also say that those who have that gift for public speaking depend on an audience. In front of an audience, the words flow, but behind closed doors, in the confines of their own mind they have nothing.
Prashant also noted that we are more eloquent as listeners than we are as speakers. We can experience the beauty of Shakespeare or Wordsworth, but we can’t speak or write as they write. We might have a large listening vocabulary but a very small vocal vocabulary. Articulate yoga practice asks us to develop our capacity to hear more minutely but also to become better speakers of the experience. He said, “you might begin to understand Prashant, but can you speak like Prashant?” That was quite funny.
Prashant related this issue of translation and eloquence to Patanjali and his teaching of “grammar.” He said thinking of Patanjali writing a grammar is a huge misunderstanding (based on a mistranslation, I assume). Really whatever word people translate as grammar (I missed the original Sanskrit here) means something more like sound with meaning. There’s sound with meaning and sound without meaning.
He used the example of a baby crying. To the outsider, it might just sound like “noise.” But a good mother knows that the crying means I want to sleep or I am hungry etc. That’s the job of the good mother to know the meaning in the sound, so Patanjali was really studying the meaning of sound, not how to conjugate verbs.
There’s more, but it is time to shower and get to class for another round of eloquence.