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Fire and Steel

A few years ago I decided to make knives for some friends of mine with whom I regularly backpack. I spent a few months researching what I would need, acquired the appropriate supplies and tools, and then worked the leather, wood, antler, brass, and steel into five different knives. These were custom knives, each one different from the others and made for the specific man to whom I was gifting it. I really love the whole process and I’ve continued making knives for other people. I’ve started to consider taking orders and selling knives.

At this point you might be wondering, “What does this have to do with yoga?” What I would like to share is why I wanted to make knives to begin with and what has kept me so fascinated with the process.

I have long been a student of male spirituality, studying the writings and teachings of men like Robert Bly, Richard Rohr, Robert Moore, and many others. One of the key aspects of these teachings that has appealed to me has been balance. The concept of balance is woven throughout so many traditions, and certainly when I started practicing yoga years ago the central theme of balance was attractive. To hold two opposing concepts or forces at once is a skill that takes practice and discipline. Examples are easy to come by in the physical practice of yoga—so many poses require physical balance, in addition to the balance between effort and ease or the balance between strength and flexibility.

In our actions and thoughts, we can hold other balances. A great example of this is the balance of truth and love. To quote Eberhard Arnold, a resister of the Nazi party in Germany, “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” This is a balancing act that we all perform every day in nearly every interaction we have. The extremes are the stereotypical doctor with a horrible bedside manner, giving terrible news truthfully but without kindness, versus the over supportive parents or teachers telling kids that they are the best at everything they try. The doctor shouldn’t lie to the patient, but compassion (love) goes such a long way in helping a person hear what is being said and start the healing process. Children’s self-confidence will be strong enough to last into adulthood with the loving truth of a realistic reflection of themselves from their parents and other adults in their lives.

Another fascinating example of balance is from the writings of Robert Moore and the Jungian archetypes he develops. I won’t go into each of the archetypes themselves but rather the way they are thought about or studied. In a broad sense, each of the archetypes can be understood as a triune or triangle, a three-part concept. The fullness appears at the top and the two shadow sides appear on the bottom, one being the active shadow side and the other the passive. So there is still a balance concept here; however, rather than the simple idea of two opposing ideas with the best path in the middle, there is instead a single virtue and two ways to be out of balance. The active shadow side would consist of putting effort in the wrong place or straying from the path, whereas the passive shadow side would mean not putting in effort anywhere or sitting still on the path. There is a right way to act, a wrong way, and not acting at all.

Let’s get back to the knives and, most importantly, the steel. A proper knife is a blend of hardness and strength; it has to be both to be useful. The process for getting steel to have those characteristics changes the properties of the steel—at an atomic level the steel is realigned. It is still steel but it’s been forced or changed into a balanced state and becomes what it is designed for.

I work with high-carbon steel. After shaping the material to my design, the steel is very soft. In this state it could be sharpened, but it wouldn’t hold an edge and would be easy to bend. In the first process, hardening, the steel is heated to its critical temperature, the steel is no longer magnetic and is approximately 1500 degrees. The iron in the steel has changed phase and is ready to absorb the carbon present in the steel. Then the hot steel is plunged into an oil or water bath and is forced to cool extremely rapidly. Within seconds the temperature drops below 400 degrees. Now the crystalline structure of the iron and carbon is set and the steel is very hard. So hard and brittle that if it were dropped onto the floor it would shatter like glass. If I were to stop the process here, the knife would be as useless as if I never hardened it. As soon as I put some stress on the knife, it would break.

The next process, called tempering, is a controlled releasing of that hardness. By applying much less heat, the crystalline structure is allowed to relax and the knife becomes extremely tough and flexible. The hardness is drawn out and relaxed and I end up with an extremely useful tool that is the balance between hardness (or sharpness) and toughness (or flexibility).

It is said that iron sharpens iron, but fire hardens it and makes it tough. So, too, in our spiritual journeys we can be content to be the soft steel that is worn away by all the other steel that we come into contact with. We may get sharp as we struggle to stay balanced but we won’t be able to hold an edge. Instead we need to seek the fires that will change us into something new and the tempering that will allow us to hold together.

Utkatasana, or the chair pose, requires you to be both sharp and flexible like a knife. Going into the fire of the pose combines your sharp core strength and your flexibility to balance yourself and be still. You become both strong and flexible as your body transforms.

When I was a young man my father passed away. I spent years trying to find balance and calm rather than facing my grief, pain, and loss. I remained unchanged and I continued to have to work to maintain balance. Then something popped up that reminded me of the loss. The constant grinding against those soft places in my life was wearing me away, and eventually the rest of my life crashed in on me and I had to face the pain. Going into that fire of grief and pain changed me, burned away things that I didn’t need, hardened me enough to build back up things that had been worn down. I was then able to find tempering relationships that I could relax into and soften. We need to pass through the fiery places, but staying there leaves us hardened and brittle. Relaxation is required, but too much leaves us soft and fragile. With wisdom, we move back and forth between effort and relaxation, becoming tempered people.

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