The last thing I expected was for one of my yoga teachers to sound a Socratic note. After a six hour session, he made a disconcerting remark: “I hope this workshop has raised more questions than provided answers. I hope it has made you realize how lost you really are.”

Krishnamacharya vinyasa krama sequenceThis comment came after a grueling week-long workshop in the traditional practice of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, which entails memorizing sequences of physical postures. In this practice of breath-synchronized movement, every movement is counted as it is performed, and this count is the running script that ought to be in a practitioner’s head as she practices, whether that practice is thirty minutes or two hours.

Needless to say, most practitioners neither learn nor practice the traditional vinyasa count. This teacher insisted on privileging it above all else. More than this, he suggested something of its radical and paradoxical quality, namely that the discipline of learning the traditional count enabled genuine autonomy.

Practicing Autonomy

Autonomy combines auto and nomos. To be autonomous means to act according to a law you give yourself, to be self-legislating. Each count in the Ashtanga vinyasa system is a law to be executed. It sets the intention, inaugurating the breath that calls a particular movement into being.

When you count for yourself, you become your own legislator. You understand why the conventional count is the way it is, and how to change it if necessary. And that is why traditional study dictates self-practice rather than being led through a sequence by a teacher.

The more I practice this kind of yoga, the more I recognize it as a practice of freedom in the most radical and robust sense. It constantly forces practitioners to step back and take note of their deeply entrenched patterns as they play out in the body and mind, to resist the all too familiar forces of inertia and momentum. It is humbling to realize just how profoundly habituated we are, how little control we have over something as intimately ours as our own body.

Yet it is also exciting to see how we can gain awareness and, with enough practice and consistency, move against the grain of our own tendencies. Each body – each self – has an intelligence of its own, which needs to be invited to surface and coaxed into service. And this requires liberating oneself from the conditioned responses, holding patterns, and well-trodden paths that consign us to automaticity.

Freedom and Tradition

The paradox of this education in freedom, as it were, is that it requires system, structure, tradition, and apprenticeship. For the best embodied practices, like the best liberal arts education, continually negotiate the productive tensions between tradition and innovation, consistency and creativity, constraint and openness, heteronomy and autonomy.

It is a running joke among yoga enthusiasts that Ashtanga practitioners are Type A overachievers with an almost masochistic attraction to rigor and discipline. From this caricature emerge some serious questions: How do certain kinds of discipline and structure facilitate the exercise of freedom? How can tradition ground life-serving inquiry and experimentation rather than authorize unthinking conservatism?

One way to explore these questions is to concentrate on the central place of systematically choreographed movements – e.g. kata in the martial arts and vinyasa sequences in yoga – in the pedagogy of embodied practices. How might a tradition of repetitive physical exercises handed down over time constitute a resource for fostering freedom and facilitating inquiry?

Repetition and Foundations

The first thing to note is that these sequences, outgrowths of collective wisdom, originate from the experiences and observations of a long line of students and teachers. As the best practices of a given moment, they are often transmitted as complete systems, although also subject to revision and reworking. The product of trial and error, testing and retesting, they reflect – among other things – a concern for efficacy.

Practitioners perform sequences appropriate to their level of learning. Through repetition, they internalize a repertoire of movements. Sequences are learned gradually, with students gaining competence in one posture or movement before moving onto the next. Repeated practice sets up a sustained encounter between the practitioner and an object of concentration, a certain posture in the case of yoga. Practitioners, in seeking to understand the object, learn to approach it with curiosity and respect, to discern its significance and particularities, to listen to what it has to teach. They acquire the capacity to read a posture and to examine it from different angles.

Practitioners become good learners if they persist. And that is partly due to the fact that sequences are deliberately and subtly ordered in ways that become intelligible to the practitioner over time. Movements build upon movements, sequences upon sequences. Individual postures inform, draw on, and refine each other, and they are often arranged in ways that test the practitioner’s grasp of foundations. That is, later difficulties often reveal that a practitioner has not truly achieved competence in earlier postures.

As in music, such repetition is not meant to effect permanent rigidity. Rather, it is a temporary imposition. Just as one dutifully performs scales and arpeggios before learning compositions, repeating choreographed physical movements provides the groundwork for achieving proficiency and ultimately creative experimentation. Enigmatic as they are, brilliant improvisations showcase skillful judgment and sustained intimacy. Both are the consequences of regular practice.

Practice as Inquiry

While repeated practice clearly reflects and affirms the practitioner’s development and refinement of skill, it also reveals that one is always a beginner. Repetition suggests the impossibility of mastery. The periodic experience of feeling as if one is encountering a posture for the first time, despite years of daily practice, is a reminder of its inexhaustible depths and enduring – albeit ever changing – significance. Postures become conversation partners within a practice that habituates receptivity and attentiveness. One becomes more steadfast and inquisitive.

The performance of vinyasa sequences over time enables greater subtlety of attention and discernment. Memorization and repetition allow for the refinement of attention and, eventually, self-interrogation and methodical inquiry. It is invariably the case that practitioners bring preexisting desires, questions, and sensibilities to the practice, all of which determine how they practice. With repetition, the consequences manifest in the body and mind, perhaps in sensations of pain or pleasure, ease or difficulty of breath, agitation or stillness, boredom or keenness.

The practice begins its interrogation quietly but persistently: Are there imbalances that need to be addressed? What challenges prove most formidable and what do they signify? How do you relate to individual postures? Where are you lacking in sensitivity or sensibility? Are you practicing in sustainable ways? Is this practice appropriate for you? What are you doing and why are you doing it? Repeated practice thus compels a practitioner toward self-examination. The sequences provide the structure necessary for this kind of reflective inquiry to take place.

Practice as Teacher

I have had the privilege of studying with some extraordinary teachers. It is a testament to their virtue that I consider the practice my most important guide. It teaches me how to discern the patterns, drives, and operative values that govern my way of being, whether on the mat or in the world. By compelling me to reflect on whether these things serve me well, the practice fuels a salutary sort of self-reflection.

It teaches me the art of gentle observation, how to strike a balance between effort and effortlessness. It teaches physical principles of grounding and extension that have ethical import, for instance, by crystallizing the difference between receptive generosity and unprincipled elasticity or by modeling an exemplary equilibrium between strength and flexibility. It draws my attention to homologous phenomena in the body and body politic, whether it is the occurrence of dissonance or friction, the unjust distribution of responsibility and burdens, or the presence of subtle forms of violence.

Not every practice clarifies relationships or yields momentous insights. More often than not, the knowledge that comes is slower and subtler, the fruit of sheer persistence. The attending shifts that come from such persistence, however, are not without their mystery. Over time, I have observed how systematic, rigorous, and consistent embodied practices constitute a radical mode of inquiry, one capable of begetting profound transformation.

I have witnessed a surprising tendency in my fellow practitioners toward greater thoughtfulness and intentionality, openness and generosity of spirit, and political responsibility. Bodies, diets, habits, vocations, and characters change, not so much by active willing as by learning how to cultivate a certain quality of attention. The regularity of such developments suggests that embodied practices are, at their core and at their height, practices of autonomy and integrity.

* These meditations stem from my wonderful encounters over the years with Kathy Hallen, David Keil, John Scott, Fran Slavich, and Matthew Sweeney and owe much to their teaching.