Friday, February 17, 2012

The Right Tool for the Job

Yogic science and technique and culinary science and technique are parallel disciplines.  So, once upon a time, at culinary school…..

I was assigned to fish station in the busiest on-campus restaurant.  During the first week of Lent.  Although a learning environment and a classroom, this was a fully-functional restaurant.  Real guests paying real money (and lots of it), expecting nothing less than excellence in the execution of the food, the service, and the overall experience.  

The fish was finished by a technique called “Buerre Poêlé.”  Butter is added to the sauté pan and allowed to brown slightly.  The hot butter is spooned over the fish.  Done correctly, the butter foams when it hits the skin of the fish, frying it slightly.  This is a time consuming technique, requiring all one’s attention.  Great results, but frankly a real PITA when plating several at one time.

I was finishing a fish in the middle of a hectic service.  I grabbed a teaspoon to butter poêlé.  Immediately Chef was at my station.

“Ronald,” he said.
“Yes, Chef!”
“Do you know what you look like when you use a teaspoon to butter poêlé that fish?”
“No, Chef!”
“A f*&%ing housewife.  Use the right tool for the job.” And he walked away.

A bit of explanation is necessary here for those who have never worked in a professional kitchen.  The expletive, although rather awakening coming from a college teacher, is common in kitchens.  As is the negative designation of being called a “housewife,” as this implies that one is not acting as a professional should.  [NOTE: I personally feel that housewives have a much tougher job and perform it with a much better attitude than most professionals do.]

Chef said a lot with those 10 words. He let me know I was not paying attention to what I was doing.  He let me know I was not economizing my movements (10 passes with a teaspoon rather than 3 with a serving spoon when selling 20 portions during lunch service adds up to a lot of time guests are waiting for their food).  He let me know that I was not performing as I was shown.  He let me know he was watching.  He let me know that no BS excuse was going to be accepted.

And he was 100% right.

We need to use the right tool for the job in our yoga practice as well.  A great many of us discover this practice through the practice of asanas (postures).  This makes a lot of sense.  According to yogic philosophy, all nature (you, me, mosquitoes, that tree, rocks, the ring top from that Tab can) is governed by 3 qualities: tamas, dullness/inertia; rajas, action/passion; and sattva, purity/clarity.  These qualities govern in differing amounts at various times.  The goal of the yogi is to transcend these qualities and join with Truth.  To overcome tamas (inertia), rajas (action) is needed.  To overcome rajas (action), sattva (clarity) is needed. 

The sages tell us that we are living in a cycle dominated by tamas.  Yogic practices have been developed for this cycle which are based upon physical postures and breathing techniques.  The general energy of the time is inertia, so we transcend that through activity.

This is where many get stuck. I certainly include myself in this category.

We forget that the practice of postures is a tool, a useful one to be sure, but a tool only. NOT the goal.  So we keep plugging along, trying to add more and more postures, thinking that if we can only do that we will reach Truth. Suddenly, we do not get the same results we once did.

We may be suffering from disease, inertia, doubt, heedlessness, laziness, indiscipline of the senses, erroneous views, inability to reach a state of concentration, and the inability to hold onto that state of concentration.  These manifest as sorrow, despair, unsteadiness of body, and irregular breathing. (PYS 1.30-31)

These are signs that the tools we have been using are no longer correct, given our current situation. Having overcome inertia with action, we must now overcome the very action which had helped us to progress in the first place.  How do we do that?


Not headstand.  Not warrior 1.  Not internally spiraling your spleen loop charka. These are teaspoons.

Meditation is the serving spoon.

In the roughly 200 verses of The Yoga Sutras, 3 are dedicated to postures.  The first 5 of the 8 limbs take up only about 25 verses, roughly 1/8 of the work.  The rest boils down to meditation.  That is the tool which moves the dedicated forward. Yet we spend 98% of our time on something that we are directed to spend 2% on, and 2% on what we are directed to spend 98% of our time on.

As a practice, sitting still for meditation is infinitely more difficult than contorting our bodies.  Most of the time I would rather try Urdhva Dhanurasana with one foot behind the head than try to figure out how to sit still and STF up. But if we want to progress, we must accept this challenge.  Like cooking, yogic practice requires a firm foundation—we cannot make any forward progress without first training the preliminaries.  Then we build upon the basics by using tools and techniques that are appropriate for the evolving situation.

Keep practicing, we will get there.

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