exhausted sovereignty.

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.

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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.

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Under the Skin.

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. – Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus.

Sometimes yoga talk throws around bad science. I’m not a scientist so I find this amusing. People might start a practice wanting to transcend these fleshy casings we call bodies: lose weight, get fit, heal injuries, ease the pain. But the daily practice soon gets wearing when it confronts you with your too fat, too stiff, too old body over and over again. It hurts. Focussing too much on alignment, talking about anatomy, and god forbid, using props, this is all just distractions, laziness. We’re turning our bodies inside out to uncover the subtle body – to become a body-without-organs. How can we become enlightened when that block is cushioning our fall, or if we can’t mentally overcome our back pain.

But it makes sense: get the body out the way and you can concentrate on ‘things that matter’. I was laughing with a friend the other day over our relative poverty. “I can’t keep my concentration”, he said, “I’m concerned about money all the time. I can’t pay attention.”

Yoga talk also gets it confused when it starts talking about sacrifice. The practice should be a matter of desire, not cultivating indifference. We can loosen those attachments and still desire. There’s no good and bad morals here. This is about being vigilant: it’s about developing an ethical practice.

The practice is wearing because there’s no remedy for all the stuff that gets under the skin. We just get hyper aware of how the outside gets in. Sometimes this starts as a fixation on food, or keeping a strict sleep cycle; distancing the self from ‘bad’ toxins: late nights out, casual sex, pollution, noise.

Mastery over the body can be a helpful illusion, but denial is just as toxic. I can’t help but bristle at talk of human nature, instinct, biological urges (this is what Foucault did to me). And yet I find myself invested in agreeing upon some type of biological consistency that makes us identifiably human. But this has little to do with things we often attribute to human nature: power, greed, selfishness. These are just relics from too many Sunday school lessons. This is the type of stuff we should be aiming to relinquish in all our backbending: the learnt ideas of the people we think we should be.

I’m captivated by the process of losing, though it took me some time to figure out why. It’s a question of rupture, what it means to experience disruption. But more so it is about what is in the nature of being that it is possible to rupture. In the daily Ashtanga practice the body can feel so very translucent, so very precariously thin. It can feel like a slow dissipating, dissolving.

I’m captivated too by the process of loving, though it took me some time to figure out I was speaking about the same thing. It’s a question of wanting to become different; about violating your attachment to intentionality without being anti-intentional. That’s why yoga is such a good model for love and vice versa. (I can see the book cover now: ‘Why Yoga Can Make Us Better Lovers’).

Desires always have an object as a stand-in, whether a person, pair of shoes, or a political ideal. That doesn’t make them bad or wrong, it’s just that the object can never return on the intention. That’s how desire works. Some theorists talk about desire as an affect that exists independently (prior to and outside) of consciousness and the mind’s control. It’s an intensity between bodies in which we get caught up. This is an exchange of energy, not words. You only have to enter the atmosphere of a full mysore self-practice Ashtanga room to feel this for yourself. That’s what feeds all the bodies in Mysore, and why people return with a serious consciousness lag.

Affect doesn’t owe you anything and desire has misguided intentions. This is the price of entering into relationality, the space of unknowingness. Unknowingness is necessary if we want to utilise our capacity to affect and be affected. This is where loss and love come in. It’s an opportunity to be affected, to come undone. If this is a sketching of a theory, it’s a theory that states: I don’t know.

Somewhere too far down this line though we start to lose the body. The opening up that happens through practice or a external rupture makes the body suggestible. The self performs, imitates, repeats itself. This might manifest in myriad ways: self-destructive behaviours, hoarding, militant monitoring. Injecting incoherence, ambivalence, resistance into the subject, welcomes liminality. And yet it’s only by unravelling you might catch a glimpse at what it is that holds you together. Or to take a Deleuzian line: how do we hang together when we are multiple?

I don’t see the point in dispensing with the body, with the flesh. Nor attachments. They are both messy and inconsistent. I rather like that. Even if the not knowing, the insecurity of the attachment can feel unbearable. Its only by situating ourselves in a space of unknowingness can we experience desire in a way that escapes the banal, commercial, crass or conventional. These common objects make viable our desiring that somehow circumvents our desires by emptying them out of substance and returning them to us in a safer form. This is not about being against the superficial, but perhaps it is about making better choices.

Its not about getting to the truth either. Or uncovering ‘real’ desires. Its just to point out that the root of that something, that something that whether you want to call it human nature, or affect, or love, or enlightened consciousness, might not be found somewhere deep and obscure. You might not have to wander distant lands, or practice six series of Ashtanga, or live like a nun, or read all the texts on neurobiology you can find in the University library to find it. It might just be lying softly there, right under the skin.

It’s life on the edge, but not over it.

How do you keep motivated? Ha, motivation is not my problem. Motivation to get on the mat each morning. Motivation to read and write at will. These are acts of desire. It’s simple. How do you keep motivated? Do we really need to be told how to live a life. I think when we need to coach ourselves to laugh and force strangers to hug us, we’ve lost something vital, this is obvious.

Rather the question that occurs to me is: how do I stay adequately attached to the world in order to pass as human? It’s not a coincidence that Ashtangis start to befriend and surround themselves with other Ashtangis. No to the midweek drinking. Yes I have to wake at 5.30am. But why? Here the gulf becomes apparent. They just never knew how well you were playing their game before.

Whatever gets you through the day. This is not a chore. Rolling out my mat seems a modest ritual, virtuous to some, ridiculous to others, but both miss the point. Practice is a necessary action fueled by desire, desire for what? What do we desire in anything we feel addicted to? Addiction in this sense is an addiction to life: the addict is not self-destructing per se, they do not want to die, rather the addiction is a ritual that ties, binds the self to life. It’s a mode of survival – whatever gets you through the day – the desire to get through the day is the desire for a future. But hold up I’m not about to compare a daily Ashtanga practice to getting high: but simply to point towards the fact both promise a future through the repetition of actions. Here’s where the two depart, for some rituals are bad attachments with false promises. Ritual acts are a mode of holding oneself together, of survival, but instead bad rituals cause an unravelling, they offer no future.

This is where limits are reached or the bottom is hit and if you’re lucky you might just step over a threshold. Getting on the mat is to enter into such a space of liminality. The reiteration of the same in the Ashtanga practice is a funny way to reach the radically new. But the practice is never the same, the asanas repeat but it is not sameness that is our talisman. Rather the repetition provokes a becoming. To practice is to be constantly in process. Not a self-defined but a self always on the verge of encountering new potentials, limits, boundaries. The reiteration of the physical poses are the footholds in this process of ebbs and flows. They literally keep us grounded.

Practice as a liminal process is then a form of resistance. Liminality is that space in which order is suspended: where new ways of being and alternatives can be configured. But it is not just that. Liminal spaces emerge out of resistance. A resistance to the normative structures (strictures) of living. Liminal spaces are entered both consciously but also through force. It’s a space you find yourself if you decide to reject the choices offered and remake the foundations of those very choices. To practice then is to actively resist too much order (stiffness in body, rigidity in mind – not ‘letting go’) but also to react against the haunting underbelly of chaos (a world empty of meaning, or non-meaning). We are seeking meaning through the practice just as we are detaching ourselves from our dependence on that very same meaning.

And that discomfort is not just in your lower back, its unsettling and troubling in that liminal space of the mat. And that’s why we roll it away in order to dissolve back into our day, re-collecting the dust of trivialities and frustrations to be re-shed the next morning. It’s an ambivalent relationship at times – that’s the desire – it’s life on the edge, but never quite over it.

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Title stolen from Rosi Braidotti (2006) Transpositions, p163.