The pros and cons of being a disciplined person, and the way yoga can bring comfort and clarity
By Adam Grossi
I am an intense person, and always have been. Intensity is in my family genome — on both sides. Each member of my family benefits (and suffers) from this shared trait. My father, an office worker by day, became a self-taught, expert woodworker and then remodeled much of my childhood home in Reston, Va. Many of us are drawn to mechanics, carpentry and craft disciplines. We’re good with our hands and we enjoy quiet, focused detail work.
The shadow side of our propensity for excellence in a honed, intricate skill is a surging yet aimless anxiety. I’ve seen family members struggle with catastrophic thinking, compulsive pacing, list-making and all manner of neurotic tics. And of us all, I am perhaps the hardest hit.
At age 20, I was at the top of my class in art school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. My anxiety careened out of the realm of the manageable, and I spiraled into psychosis. I spent a month in a mental hospital, years on powerful medication and much of the ensuing decade licking my wounds and carefully piecing back together my sense of self.
As intricate woodcraft channeled my father’s intensity, a daily rigorous yoga practice slowly brought me to a place of comfort and clarity. Yoga has been a somatic therapy and a powerful intellectual tonic. In the philosophy at the heart of yoga practice, I have found inspiration and effective visions of what pure discipline looks and feels like.
As a child, I had grasped intuitively the importance of using discipline to ground myself. I coped by building an identity out of distinction. I was good at things. I mastered skills easily. This strategy served me well as I became an accomplished artist and designer. As the march of time layered my experiences, emotions and traumas, my survival strategy began to reveal its brittleness.
When I was suffering internally, I simply worked harder. Activating my work ethic was just what I did. I set my sights on the next project, accomplishment and milestone. Our American culture reveres hard work, and I was able to dupe everyone, including myself. Instead of sailing in a sturdy vessel fueled by my absorption in work, my inspiration was running towards empty. I became scattered in my pursuits and started to feel the exhaustion of compulsive, constant effort. Terrified of not working but unclear of purpose, my system was caving in on itself. The floor beneath me dropped out.
Yoga was a radical lifestyle change, a proactive form of mental health care. The physical practice of asana (postures) was effective immediately. I was surprised by how well vinyasa practice — linking the movement of the breath and the body — soothed my nervous system and released mental and emotional tension. It felt like magic. I became curious about the theory that supported these physical methods, and sought out the underlying tenets. I studied the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, and commentaries of luminaries such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Richard Freeman. Eventually, I reconceived the meanings of work and discipline.
From a yogic perspective, we work towards a singular purpose: connection with the divine nature or highest intelligence that is both at our core and all around us. As the Bhagavad Gita articulates, the nature of this work is varied according to the disposition of each individual. The physical practice of asana and focused awareness is, among other things, a way of giving the restless striving of the mind a clear context in the living, breathing body. This is therapeutic. And pragmatic.
No profound work can be accomplished without the skillful application of the entire human organism: intellect, body, emotion and spirit. From the Yoga Sutra (1:12-16), I have learned that working itself is a highly refined art form, comprised of opposing qualities like abhyasa (continuous practice) and vairagya (dispassion or detachment). Work is fueled by tapas, a special kind of discipline that provokes inner fire and stimulates transformation (2:1). The Sutra offers a map of specific obstacles we will encounter in our work and practical methods of mitigating their influence.
My shift in orientation regarding discipline and work has been liberating, but it has taken some time to sort out. When my outmoded approach no longer sustained me, I felt destabilized. Staying patient while the tectonic plates of my life re-aligned has been a difficult and unnerving process.
Passion does not require crippling anxiety as its fuel for growth and success. My professional artistic practices survived the reorientation and ultimately benefit from letting go of a reliance on destructive psychological patterns. I’ve grown slowly but in marked ways. I am more sensitive to the means of working. I am more patient about the ends of the work.
The scope of what I call “my work” has expanded dramatically. My work is still painting, drawing and teaching, but my work is also nurturing my relationships, refining my asana and pranayama (breath) practice, enjoying life and finding inspiration in the world around me. Goals can be motivating, but when narrow and egocentric, goals can also be obstacles.
Through my practice, I’ve learned that enjoying work for what it is and softening the focus on achievement allows the work to progress and evolve with ease. Often the work is headed toward destinations much more fulfilling than the ones for which I had initially set out. I am the same intense man that I always have been, with the same double-edged genetic makeup, but I am less anxious. My work breathes — sometimes with hot steam and sometimes with a cool breeze. My discipline has softened, and yet also has become more effective and more expansive.
For more from Adam Grossi, please visit: adamgrossi.com