The following is an excerpt from Matthew Remski’s Threads of Yoga: A Remix of Patanjali’s Sutras, With Commentary and Reverie, a new translation using contemporary philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience to “remix” the ancient text for the modern age.
From the epilogue:
8.5 how I got here
In the section “what is meditation for”, I described how I’d spent about ten years with meditation instructions that dissociated me from my ecology. But I’ve just remembered that that’s not how it all started, exactly. I first began to meditate, and then do āsana, because I was in love.
I was twenty-three and living a long way from home with my ex-wife. I felt I’d lost all direction. Dublin was lonelier to me and far colder than Canada. I drank and smoked and worked on my very painful first novel while the rain battered the slate roof day after day. One day my ex heard that a meditation teacher was coming through town, and suggested that we go to hear what he had to say. Depression makes one intensely reluctant, but I trusted her, and I wanted to please her. I wanted to be a better person for her. If I could learn meditation, perhaps I could calm the whirlwind of confusion that seemed to swirl within me, between us, and resolve it into the love I knew lay underneath.
The organizers rented a cold stony room in the Kilmainham Gaol. I was introduced to meditation in an old jail that had been turned into a museum.
The teacher was Tibetan. I didn’t know anything about Tibet, and didn’t really care. His English was poor. I can’t remember what he talked about. But after a while he said, “Okay: now we meditate. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Through your nose is best.” I did what I was told, feeling anxiety rise. After a few minutes, he said, “Okay: when you inhale, ask—Who am I? And when you exhale, give the honest answer—Don’t know.”
I followed the instructions and almost immediately felt tears and snot streaming down my face. I didn’t know what had happened to me. Somehow, in a single question and answer on a single inhale and exhale, I had begun to undo the knots of consciousness that had since early childhood kept me abstracted from my flesh and isolated into a rigid and self-protective identity. I walked home with my ex in the rain. For me, meditation began through relationship. And through becoming honest about not-knowing. I didn’t stop weeping for days.
There was no one to follow up with. But what was there to follow up? The instruction was so simple and profound and left me reeling and unsure how to practice it. A few years later I met the teacher who taught me abstract meditation techniques. Somehow I thought that his more measured and intellectual approach would put that first experience in Dublin into perspective and open its mystery to me. It didn’t. Rather, it triggered all of my latent convictions of low self-worth. My mind could never focus clearly enough. There was always another bit of dharma to learn and obey. I should always recite more prayers.
Abstract practice amplified my self-abstraction. I followed the instructions for a long time, but I remained disconnected from the flesh and heart. I lost weight and libido, and my joints began to crack. I got smarter in the head and stiffer in the spine. I studied and meditated voraciously, trying always to rise up out of my inadequacy, to wash away my original sin. I tried to believe I was happier, or becoming more integrated.
Years later we were in Manhattan. I was at another very low point. My body was in pain. My emotions were tangled, suppressed, and volatile. It was raining. She looked at me and said, “Let’s go to a yoga class.” She grabbed my hand and we went.
I remember rising up out of savāsana and looking at my hand, by which I had been led to this room, and crying in gratitude for simply having a hand, a wrist, hairs on my forearm. I was flesh, and here, and breathing held a secret joy I had forgotten, and there was a rush of warm blood from my heart to my fingertips.
We walked home through the rain. For me, yoga began through relationship, and rain:
The exalted is common, and the common exalted, and living feels like a summer downpour. Standing in it washes away alienating thoughts and isolated footprints. (YS 4.30)
Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, novelist, and poet. He is the co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto, a coalition of yoga practitioners dedicated to equality, accessibility, progressive spirituality, and student-centered learning. Read his articles on yoga philosophy and ayurvedic practice at matthewremski.com. Find him on twitter @matthewremski.