I occasionally have to travel to different places to say something and come back to say something else. Fortunately I’ve always enjoyed staying nights alone in cheap hotel rooms. Last week I checked into a room with a decor so revolting, windows that wouldn’t open, and a view of an industrial rooftop framed by dulled grey skies. I was effectively nowhere, a non-space. Television with 5 channels, hair and body wash in one stuck to the wall, towels too white and too stiff. I check in, empty my belongings, shower, roam naked, eat, space out.
Non-spaces are good company when you feel like being non, when the work of gathering oneself for one more round of being who you are just feels too much. Exhausted sovereignty: it’s something I can’t stop thinking about.
Adjusting other bodies I’ve become hyper-aware of others’ practice, bodies, how people feel one day to the next. It’s hard sometimes to switch that off and immerse myself back into my practice. There’s a lag – I’m still in other people not yet centred back into my own skin.
I’m still unsure if I would ever make a good teacher (whatever good is used as a measure). I know assisting in class makes my day. Which seems a good enough measure to me. Giving is tiring though. And my practice is less selfish than it was. Which is exhausting. I liked my selfish practice.
Regular practice might come across as militant or self-denying, as if I’m trying to cultivate an ascetic lifestyle rather than thinking about my selfish desires. But it’s only ever been about desire. When I use the term desire I’m not talking about love or sex or any of those modern conventions we tend to attach to desire but more about desire as flow between things that may be a person or an object, or something more abstract, an ideal or a philosophy, or for us ashtangis, samadhi.
The best I can describe my desire to practice is (to paraphrase Sara Ahmed) as a desire to escape the daily exhaustion of insisting in normalcy in order to exist. There’s a labour to remaining within the bounds of normal, of which some feel more acutely than others. And yet there’s also a comfort to passing as normal because it means staying under the radar. The tale of romantic love for example tells a story where love is a placeholder for the normal good life. Love, we are told, brings stability, happiness, absolves us and makes us complete. Yet the tale of romantic love like any normative structure constrains possibilities that desire may lead us to; it constrains imagining the yet to be imagined. Desire is often contradictory, it might even feel unbearable and rarely takes you to your predestined location. Desire is never reducible to one thing.
The ashtanga sequence is a created order which makes it an extraordinary tool for enabling a sense of security from which we can deal with the world and its precarity. The daily repetition, ritual, the sameness of motion acts like a holding ground. Sometimes that’s what feels necessary to keep your head above water; its the bare minimum; a coping strategy. It can help make things feel bearable even when you remain at a distance from what society describes as normality. I haven’t yet figured out how this works. So I keep going back curious, trying to figure it out.
I tend to believe it works by undoing privilege, attachments, and a sense of sovereignty. We might not realise how we inhabit these structures until we start trying to wear them down. In a yoga practice this is felt physically first – visceral signs are useful in pointing out bodily fragility. Illness, dying slowly, grief and loss are all ways of finding possibilities in deterioration – sometimes the only conceivable way to become something other than what you already are.
That’s if you want things to change though, because it doesn’t have to. Not everyone works with a conception of the self as incoherent and ambivalent, nor do they feel comfortable with that. Nor do I expect anyone to accept the desire to experience the edge of what is bearable as a form of reasoning for undertaking a yoga practice. But maybe through the structure of the practice it is possible to discover a form elastic enough to manage what living throws at us. And undertaking the risk of believing in utopian ideals like samadhi or love provides some traction for us in the somewhat lacklustre present.
In thinking about exhausted sovereignty I have been thinking about what it might mean to construct a world where the means of reproduction does not depend on the wearing out of bodies. Or where our objects (like love) do not destabilize the world they are disciplined to organize. The bodily wearing out we feel in practice is a radically new experience of the bodies we inhabit all too often decayed and desensitised by substances and stimulants the world offers to us as modes of getting by. In my academic life I often ponder the idea of building space for flourishing. This is easily dismissed as naive or trivial, it’s what happens when you spend too much time staring at clouds and doing yoga-stuff.
Yet when I speak of allowing space for flourishing I am suggesting allowing space to be incoherent, inconsistent, and ambivalent; to desire without a clear object (or to desire for bad objects, or dead objects); to think about the self as one who fluctuates and normativity as a man-made rhythm and not an obligation; to think about capaciousness; for optimism not to be devalued; to have freedom to feel things for no reason and to give room for the inassimilable.
Last night I read this story about solitude. In it the author describes how when travelling on a commuter rail line he sits in a rear-facing seat. “I like the illusion of being drawn from the present into the future. To sit there is to withdraw.”
It’s an ongoing project, to retrieve the residue.