Please note that the below article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Existential Gamer, a games website which is now sadly defunct.
Praise the Sun: On Yoga & Dark Souls
Confession time. I’m pretty much a newcomer to the Dark Souls world, having previously only played a teensy little bit of the first game. That said, Dark Souls III has absolutely dominated this filthy casual’s days and nights for the last three weeks. I am certainly prone to my little obsessions, but this one ... this one’s different. I’ve never felt so alive playing a game, especially considering how much it revolves around death. And while I’ve been playing and dying and playing and dying, I’ve noticed a familiar feeling growing within me. Familiar, because I’ve felt it before, in yoga.
EXPERIENCE AS ARBITER
I love reading fiction more than any other activity on earth. Nothing thrills me more than coming across an exquisitely-phrased sentence or the just-right word used to describe something. Yet, while reading can reflect me back to myself and show potential paths I might take in life, it lacks the experiential angle that allows me to really feel what taking certain actions and making certain choices will do to me: in my mind and in my body.
I only truly discovered the importance of experience a few years ago when I started taking yoga seriously and dedicating regular time and energy to it. I’ve always been a very fantastical person, living more often in fantasy than reality, my head up in the clouds. I need yoga to help me live in my body, to anchor me to the ground beneath my feet.
FOCUS AS CHANGE AGENT
Yoga can be described as the focus of the mind to achieve what was previously impossible. In the asana practice of yoga, we practice this physically on the mat, then try to take that awareness and discipline into our lives in the world. It can help us to harness that inner pause that allows us to access a different response to challenging situations than the tired old one born out of habit. And living in that pause helps us to fire the changes we desire in life.
I’ve started to think that Dark Souls III can open up a similar pause, a similar harness for training your mind. And, you know, there are a million ways to play Dark Souls and an infinity of ways to practice yoga, so I’m really only talking about my own personal experience here. But maybe, if you are within the same tiny tiny niche crossover of humanity as me … it might mirror a few of yours too.
REDEMPTION THROUGH SUFFERING
Everyone has their own philosophical take on the world. Mine has come to revolve heavily around “redemption through suffering”. Like everyone, I’ve had tough times in my life: loss, addiction, nervous breakdown. I never want to go back. But I firmly believe (I have to believe) that these times were necessary for me to grow in some way. Transformation hurts.
I remember when I first started yoga. I was so incredibly unfit and inflexible. I could not sit with my legs straight in front of me and my back straight at the same time, not even for one second. I used to be so ashamed and full of dread at that moment in class. It felt like I would never be able to achieve this simple pose that everybody around me seemed to accomplish with ease. The voices in my head would be chattering a mile a minute about how useless I was. But bit by bit, over time, the impossible became difficult. And eventually, the difficult became manageable. And now, I still feel this tiny surge of pride every time I sit in that pose, a pose most human beings can just do naturally … because, weak as I am, I earned it.
It’s the same with Dark Souls. Start the game, annihilated by the first guy in one hit. YOU DIED. OK, next go, obliterated by the second guy. YOU DIED. Third time, you make it as far as the fourth guy, a bitter little smile on your face as you see those hateful words again. YOU DIED. Every time you break through a wall, there's always a new wall ahead of you...
Keep hitting the wall. With your fists, with your face, with your bloodied little soul. Because that wall is not the game, or the yoga pose … that wall is yourself. And every time you break through it, you are teaching yourself anew that you cannot be contained, that you can transform.
CHALLENGE & AVERSION
All I ever heard about Dark Souls games before was how difficult they are. But “difficult” is the wrong word. Stern, yes. Uncompromising, yes. But never unfair. There is a structure there which can be learned and understood, a grand order. As Chris Dahlen stated in a 2012 Kotaku article about the first Dark Souls: “Things are only difficult until we understand them.” Opening yourself to the challenge is the only path to understanding.
Is it not true that all that is great about humanity came from people facing down challenges and not shying away? In yoga and related disciplines, there is a concept called “dvesha” that describes how we reject all of the things that have caused us pain before. If we have a difficult experience in life we are naturally afraid of repeating that pain, so we develop an aversion to anything even tangentially related to that experience. But this completely understandable attitude cannot lead us to success, it is something to be overcome. Instead of rejecting the things that challenge us, with effort (yes, often painful effort) we can discover how to accept our discomfort and learn from the situation in order to move past it.
Even after several years of yoga practice, I thought I would never be able to do a headstand. Clumsy and unbalanced, I thought I would break my neck. Every time I practiced the preparatory poses surrounded by my seemingly flawless classmates, I felt like I was wasting my time on a pointless exercise designed to make me feel bad: “this … is impossible.” But, I listened to my teacher’s voice and I just kept trying. And eventually, with diligence and time, it turned from impossible to difficult, and from difficult to achievable.
In a similar manner, flinging ourselves against the walls of Dark Souls III can teach us to confront our fears and to boldly face our challenges. And from the stern criticism it dishes out, we can learn how to beat those challenges. I am pounced on by a resurrecting skeleton and I die. I fight a little too close to an edge and fall to my death into a chasm. I forget to check the roofs for things and get one right in the face.
“No”, Dark Souls says firmly, “that is not the way.”
So you try and try and try again, teased by possibility. And the great thing is, you are not alone in this.
You can see the ghosts of others shadowing in and out of your world. You can see the bloodstains of your fallen fellows, their last movements a dance of caution. You can see the memories other travellers have taken the time to scrawl on the ground to warn you of dangers or treasures ahead … some of them tricksy, some of them true.
You listen to the past masters. You listen to the pain in your own body … and if you keep being brave and flinging yourself at the challenge with the learning you are accruing from each failure … you will succeed in breaking through the next wall. Failure - heeded and respected as a necessary facet of learning - over a long enough time frame, will become success. Not easy - never easy - but possible.
HUBRIS IS DEATH
That respect is crucial. For hubris is the ultimate killer. It’s not all rushing ahead with fire in your belly, is it? You know that if you get too powered by adrenaline, too het up with needing to win, you can no longer play properly. You must know your limits, must not overstretch yourself to injury.
If we need a rest, we take one. Rest recharges us. The bonfire is much like the corpse pose in yoga - savasana - a place to rest in safety, integrating all of the lessons we have learned in the last run or session. The importance of rest - of home - is built in deeply. We take a moment at Firelink Shrine to decompress, burning undead bone shards and upgrading estus flasks before returning to the world to face down challenge again.
These moments of pause are necessary. Breathe. Cultivate a meditative mind, because the hardest thing to overcome is the self. The self wants to run away. The self freezes in panic when in a difficult pose, when up close and personal with a Mad Ghru trying to gnaw your face off. Breathe. Amidst disgusting crunching noises, the Ghru succeeds and you see the words that you’ve seen ~700 times over the past few weeks, so much that they are seared into your retinas: YOU DIED. Breathe.
Are you going to throw the controller across the room and go get ice cream? No! You’re going to breathe. You’re going to get the fuck up and try again! And again! Breathe. You will feel the fear and you will do it anyway, a little better each time. Breathe. And that sweet euphoria that rushes through your hyper-vigilant system when you eventually do succeed - after many attempts - will convince you that magic is possible, that you can do anything.
And you know what? I believe that euphoric voice is right. You can. I am a person filled with constant terror and anxiety and fear of failure, and I will agree with you that everything is hard … and yet I still believe that if you have the mental stamina to tackle Dark Souls or yoga and break a few of the walls ahead of you, you can do anything else you set your mind to.
And if you hit a wall that you Just. Can’t. Break? Call on the strength of another to aid you. The deepest joys of Dark Souls must lie within multiplayer. I cannot describe how beautiful it is to me to experience a pure connection with another person stripped back from language, culture, personality, politics. As a wannabe sunbro, I bow in respect to the yogic beauty of the “jolly cooperation” ideals of the Warriors of Sunlight. They live to serve others, reminding us with each glorious summon that sun salutations are the perfect beginning to any day.
I marvel at the splendour of a system which can seem like a crushing grind, a cruel mistress snarling at you "again, again!" until one day you realise that there are other people struggling at the very beginning, where you were once. Look back. Now, that area is peanuts for you and you can help them. Just imagine the confidence within that transition in yourself, when “Hold my hand, I’m a baby!” turns into “Come with me, I’ll take care of you!”
Like yoga, the pupil becomes the teacher for the next generation, while still being a neophyte who feels they know nothing. There is no moment at which you know it all and cannot learn from another who is further along the path. But! As soon as you take the first step on the path, you are in a position to help those who come along behind you. We evolve, we build upon the work of other souls to improve ourselves. And while we may be disastrous noobs to those ahead of us, know that our feeble hands can still always help someone up from the path behind us.
KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN
We never know what will happen next, which is why it’s important to be aware. Whether things get better or worse for us often depends on our own actions and reactions to the things we notice. Pay attention! Keep your eyes open so you don’t miss anything.
To operate as our optimal selves, we must live in the moment, from breath to breath. Not to mention listening out for the breath of others. Living (and playing) in this way gives a feeling of being viscerally alive. Considering Dark Souls, it is strange to say, but it feels like I most notice that I am alive when I am constantly dying … which in real life we all are, all the time.
But, even though we creep towards death with every step, another valuable training that Dark Souls offers is appreciating the beauty in the midst of torment ... just look at that view! Sure, life has its horrifying enemies, but we only get to live once, so we might as well notice and appreciate the good stuff right in the moment, right when we are experiencing it. And then … eyes front, raise that shield up and keep inching forward, Ashen One.
YOU CAN DO IT
This is not an elite club. This is not something reserved for others. Anyone can practice yoga. Anyone can play Dark Souls. You can do anything if you are prepared to invest your time and your self into it
Time. Practice. Discipline. Balance. These things are a prayer to yourself that will slowly chip away the resistance of your body and mind, resurrecting you with rekindled purpose, leaving you ready for anything. Is it easy? No. Is it impossible? Maybe now it is. But you can turn that impossible into difficult, and that difficult into achievable.
Remember that enemy you were once terrified of who you can now defeat in three hits? Remember that pose you once laughed at the very idea of doing?
Now … what’s the version of that in your real life?
You can do it.
You know you can do it.
Just … remember to breathe … and try again.