July 8, 2013

Ashtanga as a Path to Shamanism.

An interview with certified Ashtanga teacher David Garrigues and filmmaker Joy Marzec.

Joy: I’ve always been drawn to ideas, places, objects that have the potential to transform me into an artistic void. I believe that it’s the reason why I was drawn to Ashtanga. Even from the beginning, I felt its depth. I’ve always admired the yogis who practice in caves or the Jack Kerouac’s that go and live in the mountains and write for months in solitude. Today you said to me, ‘Ashtanga is a path of shamanism.’ This piqued my interest. What did you mean by that?

David: For one thing, I meant that the practical application of the practice is the same as a shamanic rite. They both have the same ingredients that can be used for the same purposes.

Joy: What are the ingredients?

David: The ingredients are rhythm, dance, intense internal focus, fire, prayer, and a period of withdrawal away from what is ordinary. When you practice Ashtanga all of those ingredients are there. And breath! Breath is a huge key to a shamanic rite, and gazing. And another ingredient for a shamanic rite that Ashtanga shares is that there has to be an aspect of endurance, an undergoing of struggle and hardship, an arduous toil, a passing through a sacrificial fire.

A shamanic rite has a few different purposes and one of them is to go into another realm and bring something back. There are at least three things to bring back:

1) self healing

2) healing of others, or cultural healing and lastly,

3) an offering of creativity that somehow transforms the way people see a particular aspect of the world. 

You bring back some kind of new perspective that somehow restores balance in the world in a small or large way. From a soul perspective, we are partly surrounded by widespread imbalance because not enough people journey inside themselves for self knowledge. There is a lack of turning inward for even such basic knowledge as how to simply live, how to conduct yourself or how to be truly creative or original. Ultimately, both the successful shaman and yogi learn to individuate themselves to the point where they have something unique to offer to their culture and to the world.

Joy: So why aren’t there more Ashtangi shamans?

David: That is a trick question. There might be more than you think. But also the practice doesn’t necessarily have to be used in a shamanic way. And also, it can be a very slow process to unfold. I think there are stages, and self-healing is the first stage in both Ashtanga and shamanism. I think a lot of people are involved in self-healing. But it takes such a commitment within yourself to really heal internally and then move to the next stage of contributing to the healing of others.

Of course these lines are somewhat arbitrary. A person can need self-healing and still be effective in healing others. But in general, I think people underestimate the degree of difficulty that it takes to journey within to a place of depth where something significant comes forth from you to share. It’s more difficult than we think, and that is true for progress in Ashtanga and for becoming an artist, a visionary or a shaman. It requires more participation in those ingredients that we spoke of above. There needs to be a nearly impossible amount of devotion and dedication to developing your inner life, more than what people are generally giving.

I also think that the potency of Ashtanga is also overlooked or not fully comprehended. People may not really comprehend the nearly limitless transformational capabilities of combining those simple ingredients. The potential for what that sort of practice can give or how it can transform you is undeniable. This lack of comprehension is partly due to the amount of fear that is present inside each of us when it comes to following our solitary path to where it might lead us.

Joy: So that’s why people don’t become shaman? Because of fear?

David: Yes, the fear of walking the solitary path, the utter aloneness that is required.

Joy: So what does the solitary path look like?

David: The word that is coming to mind is abyss. It looks like an abyss. It looks terrifying; it feels menacing and impenetrable and like there’s no way you can understand it, go through it and no way you are strong enough, gifted enough, creative enough to penetrate it to get it to yield its secrets. It looks like a chasm, a gulf of blackness that is endlessly vast and impenetrable and you don’t belong there. It’s so enveloping and yet so colossal that even your most heartfelt roar or most terrified scream can’t be effective, heard or regarded. That’s how it feels but that is not how it actually is once you surrender and become to receptive to it.

Joy: And you’re saying a shaman can go there?

David: Yes, I am. I’m saying the shaman has the courage to stand there nakedly and face that and refuse to turn away.

Joy: Lately, at the end of my practice, I’ve noticed that the space I’m taken to feels similar to when I’m lucid dreaming. It’s when I lucid dream that my most interesting ideas come to me. So what do you think of this lucid dreaming idea?

David: I think you have to pursue it and you have to take it very seriously. You don’t force it but you have a notebook and when something comes to mind, you write it down.

Joy: Mostly the ideas that I think are fruitful are the artistic ones about story line or an image for a film. Do you think those are base ideas?

David: No, I think that’s very relevant and it doesn’t have to be all grand. It can be small hints, images and pieces that add up to make a whole story that then has the type of potency your envisioning.

Joy: Do you think everyone has this lucid dream moment in their practice?

David: I think everyone has the potential. And students should take advantage of this time. The notebook is an essential. It gets into a different area, but it’s the perfect blend (journaling) of East and West. To extract images or useful things from your thoughts or feelings by way of your practice is a distinctly Western idea, but it’s the perfect way to get the best out of your Eastern yoga practice.

Joy: So was Guruji a shaman?

David: Yes, most definitely.

Joy: Why?

David: Because he was a visionary, a healer, someone who went deep inside himself and brought back a whole healing system, a means for restless, hungry, dissatisfied, intense people to attain spirituality. He was such an effective shaman that he was able give certain people a means of confronting the impenetrable void.

But even more, he did it by bringing to the world a practice that is nearly impossible to maintain and somehow inspired people to do it anyway. Somehow his vision was strong enough, his charisma was strong enough that his method with all its challenges and its built in shamanic ingredients spread all over the world, has outlasted him and is still going strong.

Joy: Okay, can we talk about what we mean by ‘shamanic state’? When I say ‘shamanic state,’ I mean a withdrawal and the withdrawal inwards is a slow process, right?

David: Yes, it is a painfully slow process to win the ability to do what we are talking about.

Joy: So if people are crazy enough to want to use their practice as a shamanic practice, what do you suggest?

David: I suggest they search inside themselves as to what is the means to self-healing. You must have tremendous inner strength and confidence and without profound and thorough self-healing, it is nearly impossible to have that kind of inner power. You must ask and ask within yourself until you find the answers to such questions as, what do you care about with nearly insane passion? What do you want to give to the world? What do you want to leave behind you when you leave this world?

The passion that comes from searching for the answers to those kinds of questions has to feed you and cause creativity to come out of you. You have to discover that inside yourself and follow up on it daily by taking small, steady steps. And also, you want to link up that the practice can help you to access those places inside yourself.

Joy: What do you mean ‘places’?

David: The internal experience of yourself, your reality, and what the experience of yourself that is called up within you.

Joy: But what is that reality?

David: Why do you want to make films? Do you know why? There’s something inside of you that you can’t explain, but it’s part of what is giving you this incredible drive to do that. Its deeper than words or explanation.

I can’t tell you what that is, but I can tell you that it is in each person and it’s just a matter of how long you’re willing to look for it and how intensely you are willing to trust that its there inside of you. And how courageous are you really? Will you be able to put it out there and to fail miserably again and again privately and publicly? How long can you continue to trust that eventually something significant, something that belongs is going to come? Are you sure enough, do you care enough to wait and work for something important to come to you?

Joy: So what you’re saying is that a shaman is someone who… ?

David: A shaman is a boundary smasher. Someone who brings something new to the world. Something different. Something that the world is not accustomed to seeing or isn’t open to seeing. You, as a shaman, devote yourself to expressing that thing; whatever it is, you must bring it into the world even though it is usually a struggle to get people to accept or recognize it. You will be going against the grain, against the norm, against the majority, the popular, against the laws and rules. That’s the important part, the part about bringing a new psychology, a new spirituality, a new physical reality, something that forces change. And initially it’s a matter of the soul. It’s not a matter of commerce, business, acquisition, of wealth, political power; it’s a matter of the soul, a deep matter of  consciousness.

Joy: I think that a shaman doesn’t set out to be a shaman. I don’t think that Guruji saw himself as a shaman at 25. I actually think that even at 85, he had throngs of people–

David: You’re mistaking the result for the inward state that ignited it all and eventually brought the result. The thing that drove him was that inward state that he honed in on within himself. Somehow he had a compass for it. Of course he was surprised at the result because you do it because of inner prompting, because you have to, not because of a result that will come much later.

You’re right, you don’t set out to go against the culture, or to be a rebel—that comes because it’s in the nature of newness and originality of what you’re experiencing. You’re seeing it different than what has come before. What can you do but move forward against the grain?

Joy: So in terms of the ingredients… so you need to use the ingredients in a more potent way, correct?

David: Correct. I mean this is in a very practical and literal sense. You go into your breathing more, into your concentrative absorption, into the rhythm and the repetition. You take the entire process more seriously and are clear on where you can go within yourself using the ingredients.

Joy: So speaking to someone who has some experience in Ashtanga, not a beginner, how would you use the ingredients differently than the average Ashtangi?

David: You see the profound healing potential of the practice and you work to bring that out in yourself. For example Uddhyana bandha is a nearly miraculous technique, the Hatha Yoga pradipika states that by practicing it, the yogi conquers death. This is not a major exaggeration, it is only a small exaggeration. You enter a deeper, more profound relationship with the nuts and bolts aspects of the practice. You perceive that what you are doing is much more than exercise and so you do not reduce it to those terms. What is your vision of the practice? When you sound your vision there has to be a nearly fathomless bottom and a nearly limitless ceiling.

You also have to see your yoga as fitting into a much broader context. Your whole life begins to match up with what is happening on your mat.

As you go through your day, the events of your day are more cause for awareness and reflection. Your practice leads the awareness and reflection process, but any situation can also feed your development and evolution. Practice constitutes an intensified time of internal awareness, but the process continues throughout the day. You want to deepen your relationship to the practice in a more overall way. You also want to observe the way you are spending your time and energy. More and more, you want what you do and think to be part of walking you along your chosen path.  You are constantly discovering and reorienting your self-direction. You want to continue to choose and clarify your direction to bring self knowledge and its application more into focus so that you can make your visions come into reality.

Joy: That’s hard.

David: Definitely, it is painstaking, slow, and relentless. But it is what you were made to do, and so once you submit to the process, bliss, contentment and ease do enter the equation. Following the awareness and reflection process in your daily life will help you use the yogic ingredients during practice to enter into shamanic states more easily. It can potentially build upon itself.  The self reflection piece is huge.

You’re going to dispute that?

Joy: No.

David: To match the self-reflection piece with the action piece is also huge. You can’t just self-reflect it has to lead to action, swift action. At certain times, action has to occupy more of your time and energy than reflection. You continually reflect but this doesn’t dull you to action. When it is time to act, you are ready and you act decisively.

Joy: What I’m talking about is not the normal way? Most people won’t want to do what you’re talking about. If anything to think that Ashtanga is a shamanic state and to use it as a shamanic state is weird and scary. ‘Why would you want to do that?’ And when you practice Ashtanga you have to give up so much and when you practice art, you give up so much. So for the few people that like this idea, why would you tell them to go for it and use the practice in this method?

David: For one thing, if the idea that practicing Ashtanga can help you enter shamanic states is scary or distasteful to you, then drop the idea. The practice is very wide in its application. A student can benefit from the practice on so many different levels and nearly all of them have at least some validity and importance. The shamanic application won’t be for everyone and it doesn’t have to be for everyone. But if you resonant with the idea, then the answer to why you would use Ashtanga in this way is so obvious. It only takes a one line answer… because it helps.

Joy: Helps what?

David: It helps you to become what you want to become and to do what you want to do. And how many things out there give you that kind of access to your power?


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Ed: B. Bemel

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