A Thought Illuminating Itself: On Freedom and Identity

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Growing up in Israel I always hated Passover. Not the three week spring break that came with it, mind you, that I loved (what child wouldn’t?). Just the long extended family meal and reading of the Haggadah. Though it was always presented and is thought of as a holiday of freedom, I wasn’t particularly impressed. There were parts in Aramaic, very pale looking food (except the horseradish and apple sauce), and when you listened more carefully to the jolly songs we were singing, turns out we were saying someone wants to kill us in every generation and thanking god for KILLING EVERY FIRST BORN on the other side while passing us over. Something that bloody in Aramaic sounds more like Mel Gibson material and at the time I was more of a Ralph Macchio kind of a guy.

Also to be honest growing up in the Middle East and eating matzoh instead of freshly baked pitta bread for a whole week seemed to me to be a strategic and tragic mistake. Couldn’t we inflict that on our enemies instead of the first born thing? You try having hummus and matzoh and see what I mean. Constipation for a week is no way to celebrate freedom, so I thought.

Now that I am in the States and my family is in Israel I just usually skip the whole thing when I can.  Which is often. Except every now and again some of my students manage to make me feel guilty enough so that I go to theirs. Usually with an expression not so different than the one I spotted on our president while he was sung to, implored and patronized at the same moment the way only my people can manage.     

This year I went to the Seder of two of my lovely students who are originally from Russia and were under the Communists until they came to the States in the Nineties. There were three generations at the table including a baby under one year and in the midst of it all my student tells her Passover story. How they had to celebrate Passover in secret at home. How they had to get their own matzoh in secret. Of course they didn’t have the text to sing and read, that would be illegal, and so they had to make the whole thing up. They knew there is a part when the youngest child asks the elders questions but they didn’t know which, so they told their son ask a question. “What should  I ask?” said the child  “I already know everything.” Proving that boys all over the world are the same!

Boom, it hit me: in this house, for this family, this was a real celebration, a ceremony that is as real a celebration of freedom as I can imagine. Issues of identity and freedom which I often take for granted and find to be kind of cliché are of course very real for many people all over the world and in many cases a real life and death issue.

Yoga of course looks quite differently on the relationship between freedom and identity. B.K.S Iyengar summed it up beautifully when he said that the preamble to the Declaration  of Independence was slightly off,  and that according to Yoga we should have the right to life, happiness and the pursuit of liberty. Real freedom, real liberty is not something that is or could ever be given to us by a state, it is an inner quest. In many ways those things that we consider to be our identity are as a matter of fact exactly what’s in the way of our liberation. In the chapter in The Yoga Sutras on liberation Patanjali says, “Thought (and in some translations: the mind) is an object and therefore cannot illuminate itself.”

A thing (iPhones excluded) cannot illuminate itself, and thoughts (and identities) are things. They are not imagined, they are real things, but at the end of the day they are not what allows us freedom, they are what we need to free ourselves of.

Sounds fine on paper except when in India practicing Savasana those two different approaches came into a pretty serious collision for me when Geeta Iyengar instructed us to physically let go of our facial features so that we become expressionless and identity-less. Maybe my thoughts or my identity are just a thing but that material thing was something I was gripping to very hard and had very little real interest in freeing myself from.

Practicing yoga (and whether that’s really what we do when we do asana is not a box I am going to open right now) can become a thing in itself. Instead of being a door to a room where big questions can be asked, it can become a room in itself, full of little but a bunch of new habits.  We can get lost in sequence, props, alignment, “method” certifications and sometimes things even less meaningful than that. After all the “yoga community” just spent a good amount of time this week discussing how sheer lululemon leggings are.

Practice both as a student and a teacher has many ceremonies and traditions folded into it. It’s always good to reflect on whether they are there to keep us diligent in our “pursuit of freedom” or whether they are there to keep us from trying.

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