They say that everyone moves too fast here but everywhere I look people are standing still. In the elevator, in the MTR, in the queue for dumplings. I was stood waiting to cross the street outside my hotel when I noticed a man opposite sat on a stool. His back was bowed due to the passing of time and his face wore little expression. His gaze was low and unwavering. Sat waiting for the next customer, or not waiting at all. Bodies busied around him and yet he remained unmoved sat amongst his suitcases. On the 12-hour flight I consumed the whole first season of Sex and the City (in lieu of sleep it felt like a sedative to the brain). There’s a scene where Carrie and Mr Big meet in a park late at night. ‘Don’t you want to stand still with me?’ Carrie asks.’You dragged me out to a park at three in the morning to ask me if I want to stand still with you?’, replies Mr Big, bemused. Staying attuned to your environment means the mundane can hold all sorts of revelations. Inspiration comes from US TV dramas or the Chinese man sat in front of a heap of suitcases. Either way the theme of standing still has been repeating itself in different forms. (In the same way other recent repetitions of thought have included: contamination, zombies, anxious environments and the always already). That’s how academic analysis works for me, no coding schemas or computerised software, it’s watching for the signs and seeing how things emerge. Anyway, the pedestrian crossing flashed green and like a confused herd we set our bodies in motion and bled out into the road in every which direction.
I’ve been stretching the days out too long here. Too much conferencing has led to an over-indulgence in sugar and E numbers in order to keep me level. The academic conference layers words on you, one after the other. Sometimes things sit easily and other times they get stuck and repeat uncomfortably over and over. And sometimes listening just takes a little bit too much energy. It’s a task that’s hard to quantify and it can feel light or dense in equal measure. To listen is not just allowing things to flow through or over but a mode of processing.
Whenever I go somewhere that moves me I leave a little bit of my self and place it inside a bottle and seal it tightly. I let it sail away and when I return I’m never quite what I was. And I can’t explain it. I can’t build a coherent narrative that reads this happened then that led to this happening. It is just a string of moments and encounters and feeling changed.
When I returned I buried myself in literature to remedy my flat affect. I lay outside to read but the sun bore down on my back and it burned. The cats became regular visitors that broke up my muted day.
I know that I should get on my mat and practice. But at times not practicing can feel as good as practicing but only if you practice frequently enough to understand how sometimes not practicing feels really really good for the soul.
With my soul feeling half-empty I had an idea: ‘I’m gonna stop practicing for a while’. The following morning I took myself to class where I was assisting for the first hour or so and just watched the room of bodies moving through their own sequence, listening to only breath and chastised myself for ever contemplating such a thing. (That’s what E numbers do to the brain).
But I started to wonder whether there is a point where an ashtanga practice becomes incompatible with living a life in the terms we define it in modern industrial societies.
I’ve always sought out the connections between the two because that’s what desire does, it’s always seeking more connections. And writing, reading, and ashtanga work in flows. But there’s a lot of academic forms of work that have no flow. They have rigid structures and timetables and formats and charts and routine and rigor.
I grew up with delusions that I wanted to be everything because I had nothing and so I always take on more than I can handle; that’s why I’m doing a PhD and a daily ashtanga practice. It’s not about gaining achievement, it’s just that if I stand still, I’m not quite sure who I am. It might be one of the many contradictions in my stars that I want to dissolve as much as I want to be tangible.
A yoga practice is one of the many things people see as a strategy for getting by in the world we deem ‘real’. Amongst my PhD colleagues we discuss what we do to de-stress ourselves from the slog of doctoral research. Perhaps my ashtanga practice began as such a strategy. Concentrated non-thought is like water to a dehydrated over-thinking mind.
Sure I could propose some of the benefits of a yoga practice to an academic career but that’s not how it works. Its not a supplement to my work, it might not even keep me particularly calm most of the time. And waking up at dawn means I always space out in conferences in the afternoon and fall asleep on the train home.
So this is the point of incompatibility: where the escapist strategy becomes something not that helps you adjust to the ‘real world’ but something to which the rest of your life must now adjust.
It’s curious how you can be bound to something but still feel free. It’s not a proposal that is very popular anymore: monogamy. ‘Why should I when I don’t have to?’ That’s the sentiment. I am often asked how/why I wake up early if I don’t have to, or how do I keep motivated working independently. I didn’t realise I had to have someone else telling me what to do (or do things only for the purpose of monetary reward) in order to actually do and create something, or make a choice. But there’s many ways to live a life, most of which will contain some portion of ‘having to do’ and ‘shoulds’ and that portion will be lesser or greater depending on your good fortune, how acclimatised you are to the environment in which you live, and whether or not you keep your eyes wide open.
I’ve always retained what I considered a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to monogamous relationships. If you have spent long periods alone – and by alone I mean a solitude that includes extended periods of not talking to other people, where to talk is to feel alienated from a voice you have not heard for so long, where space and time feel so slow and yet so light from no plans, dates, meetings, phone calls, when you have dwelled within the shadowy spaces inside yourself that you know their shape and form – you find that sort of dependence irrational and even a display of weak character. Commitment feels like a curse word, and ‘settling down’ describes itself: evening out, ordering, fixing, resolving, sorting out, agreeing for less.
But being bound to something, whether an ashtanga practice or a person, might not necessarily be about limiting your options in some way (as though we are born with an always already limitless amount of potential) nor does it stifle flows of desire. The mind can travel far in one place. Being bound is just about standing still for a moment. And that moment can last five breaths or a lifetime.