Category: Blog
Ashtanga: Tradition, Dogma and Modifying the Practice

On first reading this article by Chad Herst, on tradition versus dogma in Ashtanga Yoga, largely I agreed with the thrust of what he was trying to say. However, having reflected upon it for a day or two there are a few points which I think it is important to make. For the most part I still think it’s an eminently sensible article but, that being said, I would like to add my two cents. The reason I am compelled to write is to avoid the above article being used as justification for teachers who wish to change the Ashtanga system to suit themselves, and in doing so, throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Mr. Herst asks the question “Do I uphold the tradition or honour the well-being of my student?”. The answer is obvious; you honour the well-being of the student. But the two are not mutually exclusive. One can uphold the tradition and honour the well-being of the student. He goes on to explain how, early on in his practice he “discovered that in order to bind my legs in a lotus posture (padmasasna), I had to dislocate the meniscus”. Wouldn’t it have been better to discover that you don’t have to take padmasana if it is going to damage the cartilage in your knee.

I have had two very suspect knees since I was a child and, having spent the last five years travelling fairly regularly to Mysore I have never once been told to take padmasana. Never. The tradition is to honour the well-being of the student. Sharath has always been my teacher so perhaps it was different when Chad Herst was in Mysore. It depends who is doing the telling. Many Irish practitioners have had the honour of meeting Peter Sanson (who was in Mysore at around the same time as Chad Herst in the early 90s) on his trips to Dublin, and his message is just that; the tradition does honour the well-being of the student above all else.

It is very easy for us to get ahead of ourselves with the Ashtanga Yoga practice and to think that if we can do certain postures that we are further down the path of yoga. If somebody hurts their knee by taking padmasana (or any other asana) it is because they wanted to be able to ‘do’ padmasana. They wanted to achieve something. It is not because the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga says that you must take padmasana even if you can’t walk home afterwards. It seems that Mr. Herst was caught in this familiar trap on occasion;

“When I reflect on almost twenty years of practice, it seems to me that there have been periods of time when I’ve gotten stuck in the literal. I have, at times, been lured by the trajectory of progressing from the primary series, to intermediate, and then, eventually to the advanced series. Early on as a neophyte practitioner, I’d even hoped that as I advanced along the series, somehow life would take on a new shine, that samadhi was right around the corner.”

The above problem cannot be blamed on an adherence to tradition but, rather, to a misguided interpretation of that tradition. In essence, however, I do agree with the sentiment behind the article, which I read as, ‘don’t get bogged down in dogma which leads to suffering’.

That being said, it is not easy to know when to change the practice and when to rigidly stick with the tradition. That knowledge takes a long long time. We know that Guruji himself changed the practice over the years (read this by Nancy Gilgoff to see many examples). Sharath, it seems to me, has also made some subtle changes as have Richard Freeman and Tim Miller (or so I am told). The common thread amongst these teachers is that they are steeped in the tradition to begin with. From an outsider’s perspective the system seems very rigid but with further inquiry and practice it becomes obvious that it is a flexible system. As an example of this, on my last trip to Mysore Sharath got me to practice some postures out of sequence to help with those cursed knees of mine! A lot of people a very surprised when I tell them that. They seem to think that there is only one way to practise in Mysore. This is a misconception driven by the students, not by the Jois family.

It is my opinion that someone who wishes to teach the practice of Ashtanga Yoga must first learn all there is to learn about the tradition. Only then can they decide whether it works for them or not. Guruji wrote this letter to the Yoga Journal in 1995;

I was disappointed to find that so many novice students have taken Ashtanga yoga and have turned it into a circus for their own fame and profit (Power Yoga, Jan/Feb 1995). The title “Power Yoga” itself degrades the depth, purpose and method of the system that I received from my guru, Sri. T. Krishnamacharya. Power is the property of God. It is not something to be collected for one’s ego. Partial yoga methods out of line with their internal purpose can build up the “six enemies” (desire, anger, greed, illusion, infatuation and envy) around the heart. The full ashtanga system practiced with devotion leads to freedom within one’s heart. The Yoga Sutra II.28 confirms this “Yogaanganusthanat asuddiksaye jnanadiptih avivekakhyateh”, which means “practicing all the aspects of yoga destroys the impurities so that the light of knowledge and discrimination shines”. It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out the essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations.
The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with “power yoga” or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga shastras (scriptures). It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant body building.
-K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore, South India

 So before a teacher decides to alter the practice in any way they should be sure that they have matured in their own practice. How can you change what you don’t understand? That is why it takes such a long time to become an authorised or certified Ashtanga teacher. Dedication is required.

Part of the practice of yoga is to surrender. Surrender means acceptance. Acceptance of tradition, acceptance of the current limitations of one’s body and mind, and acceptance of the authority of somebody who has more knowledge than you. I am not suggesting that anyone takes Guruji, Sharath or anyone else as their teacher. A student should spend a long time finding a teacher who’s teaching resonates with them. It is important to choose your teacher very carefully. However, having done this, surrender is then required. Otherwise, one could just teach one’s-self.

All that being said, one is under absolutely no obligation to follow the Ashtanga tradition. There are many paths to enlightenment. It is my feeling, however, that if one is to follow this tradition, then one should follow it with as much faith and devotion as possible (let me reiterate that this does not mean putting your leg behind your head if it is going to cause injury). If one chooses to alter the method without fully understanding the tradition then it ceases to be Ashtanga Yoga. How can one decide what is wrong with the method, if one doesn’t fully understand it in the first place?

The Ashtanga tradition is one of discipline but also flexibility. Let us not blame our own failings on the tradition.

John

I should add that Chad Herst is a dedicated teacher and practitioner of traditional Ashtanga Yoga. See his website here.


Articles, blogs and tweets of the week

Guy Donahaye’s article on food for yoga practitioners is well worth a read.

Neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb wrote this article about effects of yoga practice on brain function. Yoga: Changing the brain’s stressful habits. And you thought it was just stretching!

@yogadork posted this interview with Tom Myers in which he speaks about yoga, rolfing and the medicine of the future

And finally,

This video advertising something (I’m not sure what) caused a bit of a stir. Some thought it was beautiful and others thought it was disgusting/degrading. Michael A. Stusser liked it enough to make his own version. We prefer the second one, just for the record.

 

 


Moving to a new Yoga Studio

Dear all,

It is with great sadness but also excitement that I write to you today.

I won’t bore you with the details of how this has come about but I have come to the realisation that it is time for me to move on from Greystones Yoga Studio.

I want to tell you all that it has been an amazing experience for me to meet and teach all of the wonderful students in Greystones. It has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling years of my life so far, but, the time has come for me to stand on my own two feet and take complete control of running my own classes.

I leave on very good terms with Rionach and Greystones Yoga Studio and wish her the very best for the future of the studio. Rionach has decided to continue the early morning classes herself. Having discussed it at length with Rionach, we have decided that she will take over the classes from this Friday (the 27th of January). I apologise for the short notice but it seems to be the simplest and least messy solution for everybody.

From Sunday, February the 5th at 9am, I will begin my new life at Oscailt on Pembroke Road, Dublin 4 (Pembroke Road is a continuation of Baggot Street). Here is a map to the studio and a link to the Oscailt website. The schedule of morning classes will be the same as it was in Greystones (Monday to Friday from 7am to 9am, Sundays from 9am to 11am). We will be updating our website over the next day or two with all the details of the new space, times, prices etc.

I’d like to thank you all for your amazing support over the last year and for making it so easy for me to get up at 4am every day!

Best wishes and gratitude

Suzanne


Mysore Magic – Yoga at the Source

A new documentary, about Yoga at the KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, has just been released. Sharath showed the film to his students this week at his weekly conference so we can rest assured that it has his approval.

The film has many interviews with students at the Shala, articulating their reasons for travelling around the world to be there, at the source of the Ashtanga Yoga practice. Sharath appears in the film, speaking about his Grandfather Sri K Pattabhi Jois and also a little about ‘what is yoga’. The film-maker (Alex Medin) also interviews other residents of Mysore; officials and historians from the palace where Guruji and Krishnamcharya were teaching and members of the faculty at the Sanskrit College (where Guruji was a professor for many years).

Anytime we get to hear directly from Mysore, and in particular from our teacher Sharath, it is a blessing for us, here, on the other side of the world. It is great to see that Ashtanga Yoga is spreading to many corners of the world and films like this can only help in bringing the worldwide Ashtanga community together.

Watch the trailer or stream/download Mysore Magic – Yoga at the Source


Articles, Blogs and Tweets of the week

This is the first of a weekly roundup of some of the best yoga-related goings-on around the worldwide web.

  • Great notes from Sharath’s conference in Mysore, via Suzanne El-Safty’s blog. Many thanks to her for her great posts.


  • From @ayvic The Sages & Ancient Yogi Seers Knew This before Science could validate it. Youtube


  •  There’s been a storm (in a teacup?) over the last week due to a certain article which appeared in the New York Times. Many teachers have given their responses and @yogadork has kindly collated them all for us here along with a link to the original article.


  • David Robson of the Ashtanga Yoga centre of Toronto wrote a blog about Ujjayi breath, or lack of it. You may be surprised, I was.

 

  • Yoga Stops Traffick is an amazing worlwide event which is coming into its third year. This year it will be taking place on the 10th of March. Make a donation, roll out your mats and join us in 108 sun salutations (or as many as you can manage). You’ll really feel like your making an effort for those less fortunate than yourself. There’s a story from one of the founders of Odanadi here



Guruji and Ashtanga Yoga in the 1970s

I have just come across this, which seems to have done the rounds of a few teachers already. I got it from Ashtanga Yoga Victoria on twitter, who credit Tim Feldman of the Miami Life Centre. As you can see below it seems to have been shared by Christopher Conn in the first instance and written, of course, by Nancy Gilgoff.

‎”Ashtanga Yoga As It Was” by Nancy Gilgoff (via christopher conn)

Not much has been written down about the early days of Ashtanga Yoga when people like Nancy Gilgoff and David Williams, first generation of American Ashtanga Yoga practitioners, learned Ashtanga from Sri K Pattabhi Jois, affectionally known as Guruji. Nancy sent this out a few days ago and it’s very interesting to read what and how she was taught. This has been posted with Nancy’s permission. “Ashtanga Yoga As It Was (The Long and Short of It)” By Nancy Gilgoff.

The following is the way in which Guruji taught me, Nancy Gilgoff, the Primary and Intermediate series of Ashtanga Yoga during my first trip to Mysore, in 1973. David Williams and I stayed for four months that trip, and had two classes per day (excluding Saturdays and Moon days).

In the first class, I was taught to do five Surya Namaskara A, plus the three finishing postures – Yoga Mudrasana, Padmasana, and Tolasana. The second class, later that day, was five Surya Namaskara A and five Surya Namaskara B, plus the three finishing. In the next class, Guruji told me to only do three each of Surya Namaskara A and B, and to keep it that way in my practice, and then began adding on at least two postures per class, always with the three finishing at the end. Guruji taught me the standing postures through Parsvottanasana, with no Parivritta Trikonasana or Parivritta Parsvakonasana. After Parsvottanasana he had me jump through to Dandasana.

In the seated postures, there were a minimal number of vinyasas. There were no vinyasas between sides. Moreover, there were no vinyasas between variations – so all of Janu Sirsasana A, B, and C were done together (right side, left side of A, right, left of B, right, left of C), then a vinyasa before Marichyasana. Then all of the Marichyasana variations, A, B, C, and D, were done together, without vinyasas between sides or variations; then a vinyasa before three Navasana. Baddha Konasana, Upavishta Konasana, and Supta Konasana were also grouped together without vinyasas between them. Ubhaya Padangusthasana and Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana were also done together, with no vinyasa between – we were taught to simply change the hand position after Ubhaya Padangusthasana and go right into Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana.

After Setu Bandhasana, Guruji added in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana – but to be put in the series back in the standing sequence, after Parsvottanasana. (Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana were not in the series at this point, nor were Parivritta Trikonasana or Parivritta Parsvakonasana, all of which were added in later.) Once Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana were taught and added into their place in the standing sequence, after Setu Bandhasana, Intermediate began immediately with Pashasana. In fact, David and I had no idea that there were two separate series until the end of that first four-month trip, when we were leaving, at which point Guruji gave us a sheet of paper with a list of the postures, which were listed as Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, and Advanced B. At this point he told us to practice one series a day, and only once a day. While we had been with him in Mysore, we had learned both Primary and Intermediate series in the first two months. He had us practice both series, together, in entirety, twice a day.

Intermediate Series also contained fewer vinyasas back then. There were no vinyasas between sides (in Krounchasana, Bharadvajasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana, Eka Pada Sirsasana, Parighasana, and Gomukhasana). From Shalabhasana through Parsva Dhanurasana, the asanas were done in a group, with a vinyasa only at the end. Ushtrasana through Kapotasana also were done all together, with a vinyasa only after Kapotasana. The same went for Eka Pada Sirsasana through Yoganidrasana – there were no vinyasas until the Chakrasana after Yoganidrasana.

The Intermediate series, as Guruji taught it to us during that first trip, included Vrishchikasana after Karandavasana. We were taught to hold Pincha Mayurasana for five breaths, bring the legs into lotus and lower down into Karandavasana, hold five breaths, inhale up, and then exhale right into Vrishchikasana for five breaths. The series ended with Gomukhasana. David asked for more, and so, per his request, Guruji added Supta Urdhva Pada Vajrasana as well as the seven headstands –Baddha Hasta Sirsasana A, B, C, and D were taught first, with Mukta Hasta Sirsasana A, B, and C following. Guruji said these were from Fourth Series.

Backbends from both the floor (Urdhva Dhanurasana) and standing (“drop-backs”) were taught after Intermediate Series, as was the rest of the finishing sequence (Paschimottanasana, Salamba Sarvangasana, Halasana, Karnapidasana, Urdhva Padmasana, Pindasana, Matsyasana, Uttana Padasana, and Sirsasana). Up until this point, we had just been doing Yoga Mudrasana, Padmasana, and Tolasana at the end of our practice.

Guruji taught us Pranayama after we had learned the entire Intermediate Series (at the end of our third month in Mysore, about a month after learning all of Intermediate). I think it was when Guruji came to teach on Maui in 1980 (in Paia) that he added in so many vinyasas, while teaching led classes. When I asked him whether or not to do them in my own practice, as I had been practicing without – as he had taught me, he told me to add in the vinyasas to build my strength. By that trip in 1980 there was still no Parivritta Trikonasana, Parivritta Parsvakonasana, Utkatasana, or Virabhadrasana in the practice. (During another, later trip to the States, Guruji added in Parivritta Trikonasana and Parivritta Parsvakonasana. The next time he came back to Maui to teach, he saw us doing Parivritta Parsvakonasana, asked why we were doing it, and said that this was “crazy posture” and that we should take it out. But the whole Maui crew loved it so much that he said we could leave it in. (Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana were perhaps added in at some point in the late 1980’s.)

Originally there were five series: Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, Advanced B, and the fifth was the “rishi” series.

 

So what are your thoughts on this? I’m very interested to hear what you all have to say about it – John

 


Saturday is oil-bath day!

Pattabhi Jois always recommended that students of Ashtanga Yoga take an oil-bath on their rest day (usually Saturday). Castor-oil, when applied to the head and body, removes the excess heat from the body. This heat builds up over the week of daily practice and, according to the Ayurvedic tradition, excess heat can cause disease in the body.

The name ‘oil-bath’ can be a little misleading to westerners as it’s not a bath as we would think of it. Rather, the oil is applied to the head and body and later removed in the shower. It is more akin to an Indian-style bucket-bath, but we don’t need to go there in this post.

Kimberley (Kiki) Flynn has written an excellent article on how to do the oil-bath and has even made a couple of videos which I’ve included below, so I won’t go into the details here (she has explained it perfectly already). I should just mention that I have found it impossible to get soap-nut powder and ‘green powder’ in this part of the world, but that pure neem soap works almost as well for removing the oil (almost!).  Please do follow her guidelines on the length of time you leave the oil on for, as this is very important.

If you don’t want to use castor oil then Pattabhi Jois also recommended almond oil, which is a lighter oil and is easier to remove (normal soap is ok for this), but I think the castor-oil, if you can get it, is the best. The process can be a little bit messy but the benefits are really great. Sesame-oil is also recommended by many ayurvedic doctors but that is lighter than almond-oil and is more for daily-use rather than what we are talking about here (removal of excess heat built up over the week). If you do use almond-oil or sesame-oil make sure it’s not the toasted kind.

Castor oil is available at most health food shops as is the neem soap (get the max strength stuff).

Happy oil-bath-day!


A beautiful verse from 2,500 years ago

As the year draws to a close I thought I’d share one of the most beautiful verses from Indian scripture which I have read. This verse comes from the Isa Upanishad, which is part of the Yajur Veda (the Vedas are the oldest of all Indian scripture).

All is perfect, so perfectly perfect!

Whatever being lives, moves

And breathes on Earth

At every level from atom

To galaxy is absolutely perfect in its place

Precise and choreographed,

Because “That” flows from the Glory of the Infinite

The Lord

The Self

Consciousness,

The Source,

Awareness, Peace, and Love,

And is therefore perfect.

When you have surrendered your ego

To “That”

You will find true happiness.

Never ever envy the place of

Any other man or woman

(Translation by Alan Jacobs)


Yoga and the Isle of Man TT races

I watched quite a compelling film yesterday evening; “TT: Closer to the Edge”. You can watch the trailer here but I can just explain the gist of it to you.

It’s a documentary film which follows some of the competitors in the Isle of Man TT races. The TT races are a series of five motorbike races which take place every year around the winding and narrow roads of the Isle of Man at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. A lot of the riders are injured every year and there have been a lot of deaths over the history of the races.

So why do they do it? Well, obviously, it’s thrilling to take your life in your hands. And of course it takes a certain type of personality to decide to dedicate their lives to the sport. But as I was watching, it dawned on me that the attraction these people have to the sport is not just for thrills. No doubt they are ‘adrenaline junkies’ but it goes much deeper than that.

There is certainly, to my mind, an equivalent here to the practice of yoga. On some level the riders are approaching Patanjali’s definition of Yoga.

Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind

(Sūtra I:2)

Let me put it another way, thanks to a translation by TKV Desikachar; “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards an object and sustain focus in that direction without any distractions”.

Whether or not the riders would use that type of terminology is irrelevant. There is a level at which all thought is absent.

In the film “Senna” (about one of the greatest formula 1 racing drivers of all time)  Ayrton Senna relates an experience he had in the Monaco Grand Prix  in 1988, in which  he had built up an enormous lead over his closest rival, “That day I suddenly realised that I was no longer driving it… conscious, and I was in a different dimension. The circuit for me was a tunnel, which I was just going, going, going and I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding”.

Many sports require such an effort (whether it’s true sheer physical exertion or total concentration) that these experiences can spontaneously come about. The cyclist Sean Kelly comes to my mind, in particular his famous 1985 time trial in the nissan classic. And also snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan’s record-breaking maximum break in just over 5 minutes at the 1997 world championships.

My experience as a musician has given me glimpses of this level of absorption too. One can sometimes completely forget one’s-self and be momentarily caught-up in the in the act of creating something. Many artists, including painters, musicians, authors, playwrights and dancers are compelled to continue with the pursuit of their art in the hope that they can tap into this level of total concentration. It is the process of creating the art, rather than beholding the finished product, that drives the greatest artists.

So what is this state of consciousness?

It could be described as the seventh limb of yoga. Dhyana. That is ‘the state of consciousness in which concentration (dharana) is continuous’. The reason some of us are compelled to seek out these experiences over and over is that they are fleeting. If we could abide in total absorption that would be the blissful state of Samadhi. Through the creation of art or through focussing our minds via sport we are only ever going to get one step below the pinnacle of human consciousness.

The ultimate goal of Yoga practice is a continuous state of Samadhi. If we don’t know what we’re looking for that then how can we achieve it? The riders of the TT races may think that they are thrill seekers but I believe that, actually, they are truth seekers. They are, perhaps unwittingly, tapping into something of the truth about the nature of consciousness and temporarily stopping all conscious thought. They are willing, it seems, to put their lives on the line to do it.


Ashtanga Yoga: The no-frills approach

Sometimes I wonder what people think when I tell them that I practise Yoga. I think very few of them would have a clear picture in their heads of exactly what it is that I do while they are all still sleeping.

It is my guess that the predominant mental picture that people have, is that I do a few stretches and maybe some deep breathing, sniffing incense, sitting serenely, buddha-like, on my yoga mat and chanting Oooooooooommmmmmmmmmm.

The truth is that, actually, that is a small part of yoga practice but it paints a much-too-comfortable picture.

Ashtanga Yoga is hard work.

It’s not all lavender-scented eye-pillows and getting-in-touch-with-your-emotions.

It is not for pampering yourself. The purpose of Yoga is not relaxation. Some days I feel extremely relaxed after practice, some days I don’t.

People tell me that they’d like to try Yoga but they prefer things that are more physical, or that make them fit, or that make them sweat. Let me just say, for the record, that I have run, cycled, rowed, lifted weights and done thousands of sit-ups in my time. Nothing I have done has been more physical than Ashtanga Yoga. Nothing I have done has produced a more profuse sweat than Ashtanga Yoga has. And nothing I have done has matched the physical benefits I have received from this practice.

This yoga method is a method of hard work and discipline, which is designed to result in the purification of body and mind, through the practice of physical postures and breath control. Purification of body and breath in this way leads to the purification of the mind. The ultimate goal of yoga is to escape from the constant mental chatter, which is going on in all of our minds.

Ashtanga Yoga differs from new-agey spirituality because it is based on something that is very real (we could even say mundane); the body. There is nothing wishy-washy about this practice. You either do or don’t do (to paraphrase Yoda). It is not escapism. You are forced to face yourself every day and observe your own reactions. In this way you get to know yourself a little more all the time. When it becomes clear what your habitual thought-processes are then you can begin to see through them towards the true Self (note the capital ‘S’). This, ultimately, is called self-realisation or enlightenment.

Ashtanga Yoga has great physical benefits but that is not the ‘point’ of the practice. Pattabhi Jois said, “This yoga is not for exercise. Yoga is showing where to look for the soul – that is all”.

So the reason for the title of this blog is that I see that yoga is being marketed as the ultimate in relaxation and serenity, and yes that can sometimes be a pleasant by-product of the practice. But do not be completely fooled. In the Ashtanga practice we are encouraged to take the ‘no-frills’ approach.

You will not be told to ‘feel like you are floating like a cloud’ or to ‘feel like their is a rainbow coming out of your chest’ in a traditional Ashtanga class. But what you will receive is an extremely powerful method, which it is then up to you to practice. As Sharath is so fond of saying; “Anyone can practise”. Eddie Stern adds, “Not everyone wants to practise”.

I can only encourage you to get onto your mat every day and see what happens. If you feel like there’s a rainbow coming out of our chest then let me know. I know a good doctor!

John

No frills in Guruji’s old shala in Mysore