Into the same river twice, we both do and do not step. —Heraclitus
As many of you know, my sister is a Greek philosophy professor and a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. During one of our conversations about teaching, philosophy and yoga, I said, "It’s kinda like that saying, you can’t step into the same river twice.”
She said, “Actually, the more accurate translation from Greek is into the same river twice, you both do and do not step.”
I mused, "You know, that translation is better when it comes to practice and teaching. On the one hand, down dog is always down dog. Same river. On the other hand, every day is different, our bodies are constantly changing, we are learning more all the time about ourselves, our needs, our students, and the poses. Different river.”
I could come up with endless examples to elaborate on the point. I am sure you can also. In a very real way, this inquiry is at the heart of practice and at the heart of teaching. If you have been in my classes and courses for any length of time, a point comes where you know most of my jokes, examples, and tricks of the trade as it is impossible to have new material ALL the time and some things are so good they bear repeating. So there are always some “same river moments” to be expected, no matter how creative your teacher is and no matter how diligent your studentship is..
Even if you are newer to me and my teaching, you will probably hear me say and teach principles, poses, and techniques that are familiar to you. Once again, same river.
And yet, I am always refining my perspectives, continuing my education, enlarging my reference points and so are you. No matter how long we have known each other and how many urdhva dhanurasanas, we have shared, I know there will also be many “new river” moments throughout the course of a class, workshop, intensive or training. Perhaps the "new river" will be a physical accomplishment. Maybe the "new river" will be a new understanding, a clarifying explanation, or a surrender of a limiting belief or a contracting emotional pattern. However, they come, I encourage you to acknowledge your "new river moments" and celebrate the many ways that the same river is also a different river.
On a deeper level, this teaching about the river is an invitation to non-dual thinking that is a crucial perspective to embrace on the yoga learning journey. In the same way that Heraclitus invites us into the paradox of “same river, different river," yoga is an invitation to explore the inherent paradoxical principles that live in yoga philosophy, practice, teaching and that each of us hold within ourselves.
Is yoga a path of self acceptance or a path of transformation and change? Is yoga a path of surrender or a path of effort? Is yoga a path of spirit or a path of physicality? Is yoga a path of transcendence or embodiment? Is asana about the flow or about the details? The experience or the analysis? The muscles and bones or the energy?
I have been thinking about these distinctions as I have been preparing my upcoming year-long, in-depth program, Studies in Form and Flow. The underlying assumption of the course is that yoga is a both/and proposition where one can learn to hold two apparent opposites in a creative, dynamic tension without collapsing the distinctions inherent to each. From this vantage point, non-duality can be seen, not so much as a merging, but as the capacity to live in a place of reconciliation or creative relationship with seemingly contradictory principles. So, not black or white, but black and white. The “and” is a place of the middle, sometimes known as The Heart-- not the heart as a physical organ, but the Heart as an organ of spiritual perception.
The mind naturally functions like a computer, in a binary way. And, our waking consensual reality is a lot like that also— we have night and day, inhales and exhales, sleeping and waking, doors that are open or shut, republicans and democrats, etc. Knowing these differences is important and clarity is key for successful functioning in the world. And, knowing how to hold both aspects in their differences is the key to the advanced yoga of non-duality where unity arises out of difference, not as a result of those differences being negated.
Not only might this capacity to hold the tension of paradoxical forces help us as yoga practitioners and teachers to “play better with others” and respect the various traditions, approaches, and perspectives that are in play in our industry, I believe practicing this perspective could help us navigate the binary, win-lose, us-against-them, increasingly divisive world in which we find ourselves.
For instance, is it possible to care about black lives and police officers? Certainly.
Is it possible to recognize, validate and express our various racial, ethic, and cultural differences and also recognize our unity as a human species. Yes.
Can we care about human life and also care about the right for someone to have legal agency over their body and their decisions? I think so.
Again, there are endless examples— that take us far away from the yoga classroom— where the kind of philosophical viewpoint we will practice in regards to yoga is relevant and applicable.
I should also say that part of putting this philosophy into practice involves recognizing when we fall into the binary nature of our own thinking and to offer ourselves honesty ("I am doing it again, making their way wrong and my way right!") as well as compassion. ("Wow, well, of course I have unconscious assumptions, biases, and I want to be right-- its the nature of my mind. Perfectly natural and yet, I want to evolve beyond these limitations,")
So, these are big topics and we are going to dance around them all year-long together in the course and well, the rest of our lives from what I can tell. I personally believe that flow and form is another one of those binaries that creates what philosophers call a false dichotomy. You can have alignment in flow. You can have dynamic movement in alignment. And while there are differences in the marketplace which are important to remain clear about, my premise for this course is that they are not in an essential conflict with one another. In fact, these two different approaches have a lot to offer us in physical conditioning, instructive metaphors for living, and as lenses through which to view reality.
Want to jump in the river with me and some other amazing folks? Find out more here--
photo by Andrea Killam
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."