There may be nothing more heartrending than the sound of a suffering animal. It is the raw expression of pain that cracks empathy right open. When you feel like a small, suffering animal in your practice or your life, it is tempting to try to avoid the pain. However, the Ashtanga Yoga method asks you to train your inner animal to work with certain types of pain on the road to purification. If you quit each time your inner animal suffers, then you will quit on every hard and challenging pose.
We all have our sounds of suffering, whether it’s a grunt, a whimper, or an exhalation through the mouth. Or it may not be a sound at all, but just a slouchy posture or a pouting face. When these arise as a knee-jerk reaction to what you experience and you allow that reaction to guide your actions, then the pattern has a dangerous hold over you. It is, in essence, a deep samskara that has developed into a vasana. Once these patterns take root, they run on automatic pilot in your citta. The lesson of the Intermediate Series is about gaining control over the nervous system when you stand in the face of panic, pain, stress, and challenge. In this way, yoga trains the mind to face adversity with a balanced emotional state.
If you have energy to make noise, then you have energy to redirect to the posture or movement. Instead of just releasing the potency of the moment in a sound, try to direct your energy to the inner body and use the urgency of the moment to dive deeper within. What you do when faced with these feelings will largely determine how well you are able to adapt and move forward in your life. If you collapse, quit, give up, and give in to the suffering animal inside rather than train your mind to be steady and calm in the face of pain or danger, then you are setting yourself up for failure. To work through painful and difficult circumstances, the mind must learn how to be strong, balanced, clear, and compassionate. You may find your greatest test in the Intermediate Series.
I am not above all this. As a student of yoga, I experienced this testing repeatedly. More recently, as I was learning the Ashtanga Yoga Fourth Series, a pose called Parivrttasana (Turning Round and Round Posture) A and B pushed me to the point of doubt, panic, confusion, and pain. The suffering animal inside me cried out. Parivrttasana A and B broke my conception of spatial orientation, challenged what I believed possible for my body, disturbed my breathing, and destroyed the boundaries of what I thought the practice is. I could never have done it without being guided by my teacher, R. Sharath Jois, in Mysore.
When I first did these two poses, I remember literally not knowing up from down, right from left, inhalation from exhalation, and feeling only fear, panic, and uncertainty. To be honest, sometimes when practicing alone, I used to let myself grunt and whine a bit. But the intensive movement of Parivrttasana A and B has strengthened my back and evened out my slight scoliosis. Learning this movement brought up deep emotions that sometimes frightened me, but I kept going, and now I feel much more clarity. You may experience something equally intense when confronting the deep backbends of the Intermediate Series.