Luke Jordan

Why I Practise

(available here as a spoken word piece)

You are the hero of your own life.” – Joseph Campbell

You’re original, with your own path. You’re original, got your own way.” – Leftfield

Never try to meet your heroes lest it be found that they have feet of clay” – Old proverb

This year will mark my twentieth birthday. ‘You don’t look that good for twenty!’ I hear you say with a quizzical expression on your face.

No, not that birthday, this year will mark my twentieth birthday as a practitioner of ‘Ashtanga’ yoga.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to impress you with my credentials or to speak as an authority resulting from my years of disciplined asceticism whose sole (soul) focus has been union with the Godhead. To be honest, I really don’t think these years of spiritual stretching have done much to grant me access to realms of divine knowledge unavailable to the otherwise uninitiated and I doubt that I am the exception rather than the rule. Age is, as they say, just a number.

Maybe it is this ‘birthday’, maybe it is the (understandable) milieu of malaise surrounding the yoga scene at the moment, or maybe it is just the necessity to keep justifying why I do this to myself. I’m not sure exactly why, but I have found myself reflecting (a little more than usual) on why, after all this time, perhaps a little more creakily now, I continue pretzeling this mind-body mechanism into positions that shouldn’t be (and sometimes aren’t) possible for someone beginning their mid-life years.

When I first came to Ashtanga Yoga it was without a doubt hot – in the sense of being cool, that is! Strings of high profile celebrities would be paparazzied with rolled up sticky mats under their arms (the way the French carry their baguettes at the campsite). Madonna did it (what hasn’t she done?), Sting, Gywneth, Willem, Woody, Mike, even Pavarotti!… it seemed as if every week another superstar came out of the woodwork, a yogi superhero in disguise.

While popular, it was still underground. Before the days of Facebook and Instagram, images of yoga were few and far between and each time one appeared it was a confirmation, a signpost showing me I was heading in the right direction. Now I have arrived at the place where those signs were pointed, the place where these images abound, like a wallpaper consistently plastered and plastered again on my consciousness by social media algorithms that seem to know exactly how to push my buttons.

Now yoga is truly mainstream. This is no accident. Behind the scenes concerted campaigns of public relations have created and modeled the market, projected their figures and overshot their targets. Yoga is a business, a very big business and like any business there are vested interests who will seek to protect their share of the market at whatever cost. It doesn’t matter if perhaps they don’t tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (so help me God) as long as the money keeps rolling in (um, sorry, I mean, people are being helped).

I have to admit that I owe a certain amount of gratitude to those that have done the dirty work. I am aware of the irony, I get to wash my hands clean and at the same time benefit from the systems they have created. I get to share this very perspective with you now because of the foundation they have laid. I guess I am complicit.

And so it is with the Gurus and teachers of yoga. Any of us who practise what is called yoga are standing on the shoulders of others many of whom, rather than being the giants they have been portrayed and sold as being, are known to have been at times unexemplary in their deeds and behaviours. What we thought was pure has turned out to be sullied. I understand why it has led many honest, inquiring practitioners to question, doubt and perhaps drift away from something that was such a crucial part of their lives.

Everything in our world is tainted. Our food is mostly grown in pesticides that destroy the soils and river life; there are the unimaginable horrors of the factory farms; the oceans the carriers of our plastic wastes; our throw-away fashions made by financial slaves in far-off sweat-shops; the list could go on (and on). Our very society, our security, our comfort, our ability to live a life of luxury is founded on the spilled blood of indigenous peoples and an ongoing history of colonial and now corporate enslavement.

Our consumerist spiritual practices do little to bring attention to this. Instead they have formed a myopia that can perhaps be summed up by the phrase, ‘do your practice and all is coming’. The ostrich syndrome, the ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality, the self-satisfied spiritual seeker’s navel gazing drshti that extends no further than the frog at the end of the Manduka mat. Our spiritual practices have inured us from the difficulties of reality both within and outside ourselves and have blinded us to the inconsistencies and falsehoods within modern spiritual traditions, their mythologies held together by a political priesthood to whom we have looked to tell us the truth. Unfortunately, inevitably, like all politicians, they lied.

With each Guru scandal exposure the political priesthoods deny, cover over and eventually reframe their stories to ensure their position on the right side of opinion and history. Who can blame them, they are only human after all. Despite their years of yoga practice, they have not become Gods. They have remained very much, like all of us, flawed human beings; their vulnerabilities hidden behind a veil of yogic invulnerability, the iron will and discipline of never missing a day’s practice perhaps displacing, denying the needs and wants of a hurt inner child.

For me, there is nothing heroic about the ‘never-missed-a-day’ kind of yoga. Heroism for me lies in being with and healing the deep wounds that accrue from living and as a result loving more deeply and fully. It is not an end goal, but an ongoing process. Yoga practices can even be used as a way to avoid this process, to harden oneself against life’s wake up calls. Many of those, including myself, who are advanced in yoga find themselves beginners in this more difficult realm.

Let’s be done with the silly insistence on a militaristic mythological ‘correct method’. There is not some hegemonic tradition that fits all. Like snowflakes, every person is a one-off, original expression of nature’s creative intelligence. We each have a unique inner voice which is our true guide (guru) from the darkness to the light. The purpose of yoga, as I understand it, is to help us uncover this voice, discerning it from the multitude of authoritative external voices who, from birth onwards, have told us who we are, and have claimed to know what is in our best interests. Having discovered our voice, our truth, our job is then to live it – to unashamedly sing our song, unconcerned with the approval (‘likes’) of peers and society. It is a heroes path that is ours alone.

Our dharmaksetra, the real field of our practice is not that 68×24 inch bit of sticky plastic – it is the world, it is our lives. It is the places, people, relationships, situations that challenge us, infuriate us, bring joy, make us feel alive. Like Arjuna, we want to slink away from the field of battle. Like Arjuna, we want to become renouncers, ascetics, ‘yogis’, to deny the truth that screams in front of our eyes. How much easier it is to retire into spiritual seclusion (especially if commended by others for doing so). How much easier it is to just do one’s practice in the wishful thinking that ‘all is coming’ rather than to really deal with what needs to be dealt with.

But as the Bhagavad Gita shows us this is not the heroes path. Following the highest cosmic revelation available in the universe, Arjuna embraces action in the world rather than renunciation from it (even though that happens to be hacking to death many thousands of people!). Unless it really is your dharma to meditate for the rest of your life in a cave or monastery (in which case what are you doing reading this?), we have lives to lead, wrongs to right, wounds to heal, loves to love, a pathless path to follow.

This is not to say, whether tainted or not, we need to leave the old teachings behind. It is just as when we leave the house of our parents and step out into the world to travail our life path that we realise, perhaps reluctantly, just how much we learned from them. While we may walk that path alone, each of us walks with inherited knowledge, tools that have been shared, gifts that have been given. Using these tools and gifts does not necessitate that we inherit too the ‘sins of the father’. The teachings, whatever they may be, are separable from the teacher. That any particular guru had feet of clay does not invalidate the totality of what he (or she for that matter) shared or sold.

Many of the sublimest teachings of yoga come to us from historically unknown sources. This is probably a good thing lest we were to discover that the revelatory outpourings of the Upanishads or Puranas too were the handiworks of crooks and scoundrels. Luckily we are unable to place the lives of the ancient Rishis and Sages under our microscopes of moralism. Their words, their teachings stand alone, available in the Open Source library of the heritage of humanity. While various priests, scholars and pandits may insist that they have the definitive understanding of their words, we are thankfully free to make up our own minds.

And so it is that the proprietary grip of the yoga lineage holders slips as the practices they advocate fall copyright-free into the hands of the technogically literate masses. No longer solely the heredity of one particular family or teacher, the teachings of Modern Yoga are now truly Open Source. There are more than enough wannabes who will share all of the secret lore with you on YouTube for free. You can even then adapt, recreate, copy and paste it to your heart’s content.

And yet there is still something I love about practising yoga in the so-called ‘traditional’ way. There is a certain asthetic in the ascetic, artful, flowing sequences of asana that form the foundation of the practice I love. There is a precision and meticulous attention to detail in the way this practice has been creatively layered and ritually laid out. It is like an embodied work of art, a spritiualised performance piece worth preserving, inheritately valuable in its own right as living history. In the gallery of yoga systems, whoever the artist may happen to be, it is appreciatable as a masterpiece.

Yet, as the Kena Upanishad reminds us, the various yoga practices (tapas) are but the support (pratishta) of our own neverending journey of yogic self-discovery. They are not the be all and end all. And this is how I now see my ‘Ashtanga’ yoga practise. It is an invaluable, open source work of art which, rather than doing the internal and external work I had once wishfully hoped it would, instead supports me in doing this work for myself. It is the support in my attempt to creatively craft myself as the hero in the story, the adventure, of my life.

Twenty years in and I find myself again as if at the beginning. Without having either departed nor arrived to anywhere in particular I am just here as I am. I don’t know what it is I face, what today will bring. Perhaps it will be, like Odysseus, a storm sent by Poseidon, a tempting song of the Sirens, or the need to navigate between the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis. Maybe nothing so dramatic. I know, however, that whatever it is, I can be ready for it (as much as I can be). I know that I can have my ship in shape. I know that I can, before meeting what the world has to offer, retire to the inner sanctum of my temple and set my intention to boldly go forth attuned settings of my inner compass.

Crazy as it may sound, but my way of doing all these things is by rolling out a 68×24 inch bit of sticky plastic and pretzeling myself into postures that perhaps shouldn’t be (and often aren’t) possible for someone of my years. While I try to, I don’t always do it everyday, and I don’t always follow the sequences exactly the way I learned them. I do feel, however, that every time I embody within myself this living yoga art form I feel just a little bit more like an Arjuna or an Odysseus, I feel like a hero ready for whatever comes.