The Angri Yogi by Amber Fogel
It’s Friday led class and I’m sitting on my mat, waiting out setu bandhasana (I have neck issues so I skip that pose.). I close my eyes and pray that the next command I hear will be urdhva dhanurasana. Nope. Taylor says, “Pasasana.” Today we are adding intermediate series up to kapotasana. Shit.
I was tired. “But Friday is supposed to be the easier day where I don’t have to do this,” I said to myself, but I wasn’t going to not do it, so in my head I went to the only place I knew to get myself through it. I went to that place that said, “Get mean.” If I get mean, get angry, and use that fire, I thought, then I can make it through this.
I read an article in a yoga journal recently that stated newer students have rajastic tendencies. One of the three gunas or qualities of personality that we are all born with, rajas is an energetic, creative quality. In the journal it was described as “the feeling you get when you’ve had a bit too much coffee.” It can motivate you, but it can also make your mind race. Rajas is associated with the color red, which ties to anger for me. The other two are tamas (black, a heavy feeling, makes it hard to want to practice) and sattva (white, a state of equanimity and calm). A steady practice allows us to move first out of tamas, then rajas, toward sattva, but to move beyond sattva is the goal. Beyond sattva is purusha or nirguna where we are no longer affected by any qualities, or where there are no longer distinctions between the observer and the observed, where we attain pure consciousness.
I was obviously very far from nirguna on this day. Firmly rooted in rajas, I drew on my American experience of sport and competitiveness. In this country we are taught to push through pain, to go hard, to “get mean” to get it done. No doubt that mindset has helped me in past efforts – to push heavy weight or to finish a marathon. The rajastic person “acts through desire, attached to the fruits of action, desirous of recognition and ostentation, i.e. perfection of asana.” This would be revealed to me clearly on this day, but it was this next phrase in the journal that stopped me in my tracks: “If one lets passion take over in yoga practice, and lets one’s anger or desire overwhelm and build, rajas can actually be increased through practice.”
That day’s practice was proof of this. I moved through the poses of the intermediate series, listening to the count, breathing and telling myself I could do this. Holding the count in laghu vajrasana was excruciating. My quadriceps were on fire. I set my jaw (not good), took a deep breath and tried to set myself up for kapo. The count. It’s the count that’s giving me anxiety. I’m used to setting up, giving myself a little pep talk, slowly going into the pose – fidgeting, as Taylor would say. The count is not something that I’ve incorporated into my practice yet. Subconsciously I’ve been telling myself, “Once I figure out how to grab my heels I’ll worry about the count.” This is rajas. I arched back, got my hands as far in as I could, then felt Taylor give me the adjust to actually reach my heels. The count . . . was . . . so . . .slow. I tried to force it all to happen and of course fell out of the pose before the count was done. I was pissed.
I knew right as I fell out of the pose that I’d gone to the wrong place. I wasn’t just angry about the poses, I was angry at myself. I’d amplified it all. Then the tears came. Judgement of myself was swift and immediate. “You did that all wrong.” “You fell out of the pose with everyone watching.” “You made a spectacle of yourself.” Instead of telling myself to “get mean” I would have been better off to say “get kind” or “let go” or “go with the count and see where you end up.” This is what yoga is meant to do. How we approach life is revealed to us on our mat. Steady practice helps us understand where we get stuck. Every once in a while we get a little smidge of sattva, and we understand. The journal says, “Over time, these moments grow closer and closer together. The steadiness of a long-term practice comes from keeping the mind calm and present, whatever arises. The gunas don’t disappear, but one gets more used to the fluctuations, and doesn’t let them take over as easily.”
I finished the rest of the class, sniffling and wiping away tears. There were a few more waves of emotion on the drive home. Even as I let the emotion come I knew that I could let the judgement go, eventually. The tears were just an outward sign of the lesson that day’s practice taught me. I don’t want to be an angry yogi. My rajastic tendencies will never completely disappear, but I know what the result will be if I let them take over. Practice and all is coming. It really is true.
(The journal reference is “Natures Web: The Gunas of Prakrti in the Bhȧgavad Gītā and Yogasūtra” by Zoë Slatoff-Ponté in the Spring/Summer edition of Pushpam.)