pilgrimageMr. Iyengar was a mysterious teacher, a provocative teacher. His granddaughter recently recounted a story about a challenging experience she had one day in the practice hall of the Iyengar Institute, a lesson of sorts that seems timely for us to consider as we enter a new year.   “I was practicing a yoga posture as he had taught me the day before. And in my mind I was going through all the points he had given me to a T. Guruji (Mr. Iyengar) came into the practice hall and asked me ‘When will you learn? You are doing the same thing you did yesterday? Why doesn’t yoga go into your head?’  And he was angry. Then he walked away, and that was a rare thing. Whenever he would teach, he would teach completely. He wouldn’t just leave you like that. And then he retraced his steps and came back and said in a voice with so much concern and intensity ‘Habit is a disease.’ And then he walked away. I was stumped. How can habit be a disease?” Iyengar’s granddaughter was being challenged with a dilemma faced by many long term practitioners of the Iyengar method, the challenge of reconciling what Iyengar said with what he really meant. Did the great yoga master really think that all habits were a disease?  We practice exactly as instructed yet why is this somehow wrong? How can we learn a posture and make it “our own” if we do not repeat it until we learn it?  We practice with our bodies but maybe we are being told that we should simultaneously make the physical work a part of our brains, our thoughts, our way of understanding? This is difficult to do. We practice movements. We observe what we are doing and reflect on it.  We refine the movement in small increments until we make it our own. We are always trying to stay focussed and reflective on what we are doing. Over time there is change, one small step at a time. From one movement comes another. Old habits retreat and new ones are created if we constantly refine what we are doing through observation, reflection and movement. Habits can be useful. They can connect us to our daily lives and create stability in a chaotic world. The danger, a danger that I suspect was behind Iyengar’s words to his granddaughter, is that we can become so wound up in our habits that we do not embrace the new, the unusual, the unknown.  Stretch your mind as well as your body. As we observe the body we see the reaction to new ideas. New ideas, new ways of being can force us to assess what habits of ours we should keep and which ones to leave behind. Habit is a disease when it prevents us from taking those risks in life that bring necessary change, either physical or emotional. Habit is a disease when it leads us to be too afraid to ask certain questions of ourselves because we are too afraid of the answers.   What is the answer to how to come out of the disease of habit that does not lead to anything productive?  I think, the answer is to become more open, sensitive and observant. Sensitivity can come when there is intelligent observation and reflection on our actions. So in this season of out with the old and in with the new let us resolve to practice with openness, sensitivity and a sense of inquiry that will enable us to embrace the new while bringing us to a deeper understanding of yoga and the ways it can change our lives.