I started practicing Ashtanga about the same time that I began a PhD program in Philosophy. I was studying theories of human development in Plato, Rousseau, Kant, and their modern detractors. I was particularly interested in the role of eros or love in the formation of the psyche. That interest of course was intensely personal. It was bound up in my own struggle with tragic loss.
Yoga held no interest for me. I imagined it as something superficial, for people with stilted taste who did not know what else to do with their bodies. But I was afflicted with a deep and immovable sadness, which had been upon me for a long time. Someone urged me to try Ashtanga, and recommended a local teacher. Having worn out my other options, I gave it a chance, and the impact was staggering.
Ashtanga broke into me. It touched my wounds, made me shiver. It made me want to melt. It made me want to live again. Until I tried Ashtanga, I imagined my grief as something intangible, remote and quite removed from my body. But Ashtanga woke me up to my body, and showed me that it was filled with grief. It showed me that my body was the center of everything that I was feeling. It even showed me how and where my sorrows were held. And as I breathed into them, I heaved and sighed heavily, but here and there, I could feel something trying to release. This was something of profound depth and beauty, a true revelation.
Though I could barely endure it, I undertook a full daily practice, and I never looked back. The practice was painful. There were a lot of difficult moments, of memory, recognition, confrontation. I had a series of emotional and perceptual experiences that shifted my basic relationship with myself, and allowed me to meet myself, at least in certain high moments, with loving kindness. And in those moments, the darkness gave way to insight.
In the beginning, I did not want to look too closely into the philosophy of yoga, because I knew all too well how philosophy could ruin things. I just wanted to feel it. And what I was feeling was as much as I could handle. But as time progressed, and I started to feel the ground beneath my feet, I started yearning to understand more about what was happening to me in yoga. And as soon as I started studying the wisdom of the tradition, it turned my intellectual life around as well.
Unexpectedly, the yoga philosophy threw light on the Western philosophy that I had been reading, and it was deeply illuminating. Though the languages were different, they were working through many of the same archetypal problems, and often with very similar solutions. I came to see certain ancient philosophers like Socrates and Plotinus, and even certain modern philosophers like Rousseau and Wittgenstein, as aspiring if often tortured yogis.
At the same time, I started to distance myself from the relentless reeling of the intellect. The more I practiced yoga, the more I saw through certain problems of philosophy, not that I saw how to answer them, but saw how to let go of the premises that made them seem once so perplexing. Eventually, yoga taught me how to keep the intellect in perspective, and how to seek guidance from other parts of myself.
After completing my PhD, and spending a year as a postdoctoral fellow, ruminating on my next move, I came to Boulder to study for the summer with Richard Freeman. On the first day, I met the woman who is now my wife, and the mother of my children. At the end of the summer, Richard and Mary asked me to teach yoga at their studio, so I declined my previously accepted offer to start an assistant professor position teaching philosophy at the University of Virginia, and stayed in Boulder to teach yoga. It was the best irresponsible decision I ever made.
Yoga continues to be the guiding principle of my life. I have come to see yoga as a practice of opening to the fullness of experience, and so to the excess, effulgence, and irreducibility of creative reality. Yoga teaches me to be present both within myself, and in my relationships. This is not something over which I pretend any kind of mastery, but yoga is slowly revealing to me the blissful secret of compassion, as perfect openness to reality. This is the central theme of my love affair with yoga.
Photos: Alessandro Sigismondi