“Yoga’s not easy” David Swenson told the eager yogis sitting silently encircled around him during this past Easter weekend’s Ashtanga workshop at yogaview in Lincoln Park. Swenson was quoting Pattahbi Jois, the guru of Ashtanga yoga and the teacher from whose lineage Swenson hails. Swenson explored this topic in numerous ways over the course of the weekend, but always with the intention to make yoga just a little bit more accessible despite the difficulty of the practice.
Swenson found the most eclectic and silly ways to contemporize yoga, but mostly it was his personality and demeanor that made the would-be intimidating workshop so available to students of all levels. Sprinkled with personal anecdotes and pop culture references, Swenson’s classes were more than just asana (postural) classes, they were explorations into Swenson’s own psyche and past, and were often a comedic act of sorts.
In his session introducing the second series of the Ashtanga practice, we were all in camel pose (a back bending posture where you are positioned on your knees and arch your back to reach your fingers toward your heels), when Swenson asked students to “think James Brown.” Swenson was referencing the performances in which “The Godfather of Soul” would fall into the splits and then simply pop out of the splits shouting “I feel good.”
Swenson assured everyone that if we kept that image in our minds and attempted the same zipping up action of our own legs, we would all “feel good. “ The seeming absurdity of this comment was entirely destroyed once we all “thought James Brown” and squeezed our legs together. “A ha” could be heard all around the room as we collectively agreed that it felt as if a string were pulling each of us out of the posture from the heart center. Many students were able to spring up from their backbends with ease who had never been able to do so before.
Asana, though, was only one part of the weekend workshop and is in fact only one part of the whole yoga tradition. Swenson spent an entire session discussing the principles of yogic philosophy on Easter Sunday afternoon. He stated that the asana is simply a moving meditation, and that it is the breath, bandhas (energy locks), and dristhi (gazing point) that act as tools to aid us in this meditative act. Each of the aforementioned tools can be used as a point of focus in order to keep the mind from wandering into distraction.
Meditation all on its own, Swenson stated, can easily become a “rabbit hole of nothingness.” Swenson described this very relatable experience as follows: “all too often when we try too hard to think of nothing, we begin to start thinking about thinking about nothing, at which point we are no longer thinking about nothing, because thinking about thinking about nothing is in fact thinking about something, not nothing….”(I think I got that right). Swenson instead suggested “mono-tasking” and focusing our concentration on one thing rather than letting our thoughts scatter as can often happen in meditation and in daily life.
Another of the most profound subjects which Swenson discussed was death. He wove molecular biology into his discussion by hearkening to the fact that every seven years our cells are completely different than they were seven years prior. Swenson pointed out that by virtue of this theory we are constantly changing bodies. Hence, by the time someone like me is 24 years old, she’s already inhabited three bodies and working on her fourth. Death, Swenson stated, is simply another “change of body.”
If our bodies are entirely different every seven years, what is it that remains? What is it that demarcates each of us is an individuals beyond our bodies? Swenson didn’t have a definitive answer to this question, though breath and aparigraha (non-attachment) were central to the discussion. “Yoga,” Swenson stressed, is “training to understand that you are not this body.” He noted that with the practice of yoga, we can begin to understand that our current bodies are only our current vehicles, and nothing more.
This assertion matched perfectly with Swenson’s emphasis on the fact that without the application of yogic principles in daily life, yoga itself is useless and becomes only “a collection of data.” Swenson was not only talking about the asana, but the philosophy as well. He argued that yoga is not about memorizing sutras (axioms) or performing postures; rather, a yogi “is someone who leaves a place nicer than when s/he got there.”
Swenson’s jovial personality and quick wit kept every student present, not only literally, but mentally as well. There was an abundance of laughter and paradoxically a pervasive seriousness that filtered throughout the classroom over the course of the weekend. Swenson was somehow able to marry the very difficult practice of yoga with a sense that we could all access this practice in some way and on some level.
The Chicago yoga community was lucky to experience the delightful robustness that is David Swenson. A big “thank you” to Tom Quinn and Quinn Kearney of yogaview, and of course to David for coming out and sharing such a vast array of knowledge with us all.