Book Cover: ©Tupelo Press
Kazim Ali Shares Notes From A Spiritual Practice
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Who am I then, uncoupled from the basic foundational human desire: To feed oneself, the root of any desire. Am I still human? Or is a part of me reaching to the arena that isn’t?
And if that’s the case, then the fact that the fast is a daily routine, ending each twilight, does seem like spiritual ADD. Reach for what’s beyond, come back, reach for what’s beyond, come back.
In yoga practice we learn to associate an inhale and an exhale with each movement through a vinyasa, but in held postures we also find the flow of breath – inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Inhale lengthen, exhale stretch deeper. There is a constant pulse to breath, as there is to the constant circulation of blood through the human body: rush out, rush back, rush out, rush back.
If our entire life is one side, our entire death another, if the entire daylight fast is one side, the entire night another, what if the shifting between spiritual attention and physical attention to the facts of the world, and the ability to maintain that balance, is the entire point?
In Fasting for Ramadan, poet and yoga teacher Kazim Ali gives us so beautiful and quiet a book, we turn its pages with a willing hush, at once meditative and philosophic. Surrender and resistance change shape and change places in this journal of a month-long fast. Fasting for Ramadan yields the reader an intimacy Ali shapes from his practice, indeed from his own body, sheltering our self-observations in the shade of his spare words.
Fasting for Ramadan is also an important and compelling work for contemporary yoga practitioners. It liberates the frustratingly polarized discussion of practice from ideological and historical turf wars.
“Yoga is a practice,” Ali writes, “not unlike fasting, that allows us to link the inside – the private experiences of the body and the mind – with the outside – the pulsing, breathing, actual world.”
Fasting for Ramadan reaffirms the significance of spirituality in the body and in human culture, as an active journey through which those of many faiths seek meaning and a purposeful life. A Muslim yogi born to Indian parents living in England and raised in Canada and the United States, Ali shares his personal experience in a context of yoga as practiced by contemporary people whose cultural and spiritual heritage is rich and many layered.
An elegant construction mirrors a complex truth
In addition to his books of poetry, the prolific Ali is the founding editor of Nightboat Books, teaches creative writing at Oberlin College and has written three much-praised books of prose. He is, therefore, someone who knows his way around literary form as a creative force in the content of his words.
The pages of Fasting for Ramadan are spaciously laid in elegant verses of memoir, observations about writing, careful reportage of the fluctuation of energy and its effects on his yoga practice and social interactions. Though the fast is physically and emotionally demanding, there is still housework to do, there are talks to give, roommates and friends to speak with, lost house keys to locate. And through it all, an awareness of emptiness.
Absence inside absence, you walk the streets.
What is cleaner than fire, more brilliant than the awareness of how large the moon is, how heart-breaking that people have been there.
The hunger inside you, hold it.
Every time you pass someone or speak to them you know you have it.
Your body knows it’s alive, you do not forget.
Ali composes the month of fasting with breathing room between the mood of spiritual ardor and the inquisitiveness of a soul aware of solitude and temporality as the signature of bodily practice. He feels his body as his condition. In its direct gaze, Fasting for Ramadan encompasses the beauty and mystery of existence.
This morning, third into the month, I ran. For about four miles. And in the run I felt, I really felt, my body: the way it moved, as a physical and kinetic thing, breath and blood moving through.
I came to a dark place in the road, not illuminated by streetlights. I came to a part of the song that was about death. I thought: Here I go – at a place in my life, now or some point years from now, where I will never know – I will round a corner from life into death. Like that.
Self as a hologram of time
There’s a temporal conceit at the heart of Kazim Ali’s exploration, a recognition of the voice that narrates even spiritual reflection as separate from the voice of the body and the inner life of the self in the privacy of the body.
It’s his gift in this to present two journals in Fasting for Ramadan and to allow their inescapable corporate-ness to bear witness to the physical and psychological embodiment of self.
The first part of this book originated as a blog that was posted daily. In this form of immediacy I tried to think about fasting, spiritual discipline, and my ideas about these.
But several years earlier I had kept a little fasting journal in a spiral notebook, writing privately, just for myself.
If the first (and written later) portion of this book is read as the mind’s reaching out, with the intention of external communication, then the second (and written earlier) portion could be understood as grounded in the body and the body’s experience, which was internal, a practice of reflection.
Of course, always there is traffic between reflection and expression -
Take one route going and another, different, to return
This traffic is eidetic. By placing the earlier written notebook after the more recently composed blog based journal, Ali positions the voice of the body to resist the assimilation of the philosophical bent of practice. The past is not a preface to the present, it is a prismatic truth that shifts the light on whom we have come to be.
One of the realizations I wrote about in that old notebook that rises to the surface always: that the fasting month, based on the lunar calendar, moves backward and backward in position across the calendar in successive years because the annual lunar cycle is ten days shorter than the annual solar cycle.
Ten years ago, the last time my mother and I fasted each day together, I was living in Buffalo, New York, and Ramadan was in the dead of winter.
When I did my very first fast, I was nine years old and the fast was in July. Every thirty-six years you revisit your old life through the fast. And through out your life the conditions and experiences of the fast change.
This is like the inhale and the exhale, or like the fast itself, which changes from the beginning of the month through to the end of the month.
But honestly, doesn’t the fast change during each day? Sometimes easier, sometimes harder, but always you have to bring your whole attention to fasting.
There is something about you that changes with every minute, with every second, your physical body refining and replacing itself in a constant state of combustion.
And something about you that does not change.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.