Articles Tagged with: ashtanga yoga
Ashtanga Yoga’s Bad Rep

I see it as part of my role as a teacher of ashtanga yoga to change the reputation it has gained of being ‘the hard yoga’.

We get so many students that arrive into the shala (who have done lots of yoga before) who say they are a bit nervous about trying out Mysore-style ashtanga yoga. A lot of the time they have done ashtanga yoga before but only led classes. That’s when I know that I am going to have to work hard to change their opinion of the practice.

Starting with led classes is the absolute hardest possible way to start with ashtanga yoga. A new student goes along to the class and goes through all, or at least half, of the primary series on the first day! It would be like joining a boxing club and being expected to fight for 12 rounds on day one. The main impression new students will get from that is that ashtanga yoga is really hard.

Then, when they first hear about Mysore-style (or ‘self-practice’), they think “Ok, that’s already hard, and now I have to memorise the sequence too!?” You can see why that would be a little intimidating for a new student.

I want to put this on the record once and for all…

Ashtanga yoga was NEVER intended to be taught that way.

It takes most people years to learn the whole of the primary series. And many never even get all the way to the end of that. That’s absolutely fine.

The idea of the traditional Mysore-style method is that each student can start (and continue) at their own pace with the practice. The postures are taught one by one, at a sensible pace, so that the student can build up strength, flexibility, stamina and concentration over a long period of time. In that way, not only is it so much easier for a student to build up towards doing the primary series but it actually feels good along the way, and it’s a lot safer for the body.

Almost all of us have the desire to learn more and more postures but it doesn’t take very long in this practice to get out of our depth. Sometimes it’s fun to try a few of the later postures, beyond what we have learned. If, though, we were to suddenly decide that we were gong to do that every day we would end up sore, injured and worn out pretty quickly.

Ashtanga yoga, learnt and practised in the way it was intended, is a beautiful practice that can give us so many incredible benefits.

It saddens me to see that people are intimidated by the practice because of the way it has been taught to them in the past.

How many more students would come to ashtanga yoga and gain its benefits if they didn’t have misconceptions about what it really is?

Spread the word!


Seeking and avoiding sensation

I had a discussion with Luke Jordan last week after his visit about his overall approach to the practice and, more specifically, to teaching. Luke said that his main focus when teaching is towards keeping the students fully present, connected and engaged with the practice from one moment to the next. One way that he does this is by getting the students to focus on the sensations that they are feeling in the body. Pretty simple but very effective.

That set me thinking about our individual relationships to sensation in the body during yoga practice.

Like almost everything in life there is a balance to be found between seeking out sensation in the asanas and avoiding sensation altogether. We can end up in trouble if we favour either.

My experience of seeking out, and going further into, bodily sensations in the asanas is that there is potential for injury and for creating unhealthy patterns of movement, especially in the joints (notice I only say potential here). The idea that we should be feeling discomfort in the asanas is not quite right. Conversely, it is almost impossible to feel totally comfortable all the time, especially when we are learning a new asana (as Sharath always says, “You get a new asana, you get a new pain”!).

If, however, we avoid uncomfortable sensations in the body there is potential for us to get stuck into old physiological patterns that are not really useful or healthy. Most of us, when we are doing asanas, try to do them in a way that is most comfortable for our particular body (naturally). But the policy of sensation-avoidance can result in us never really experiencing the full benefits of each asana. That is, when we practise the same asana for many years without bringing our full awareness to where the restrictions are in the body, we can limit the transformative potential of each asana.

So, there’s a trade off here between seeking and avoiding ‘feelings’ in the body.

Where does that leave us? Confused, probably. It’s not an easy conundrum to solve.

I would suggest that becoming aware of our own patterns is the first step. Become aware of whether you are seeking out or avoiding sensation in the body in each asana that you practice. You’ll usually find that this varies from asana to asana because we all have different areas of physical tension and physical freedom. If you can become fully aware of these habits then they will automatically stop. There’s no need for you to actively try to go deeper into comfort or discomfort, it will happen once you shine the light of awareness on your tendencies.

I talk a lot about the more subtle aspects of yoga practice but we must not forget that we are using the physical asanas as the tool to gain the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of the practice. That means that, if we can bring the full power of our attention to what we are feeling and experiencing in the asanas in each moment, then the inner benefits of the practice will come to us automatically.

I’ll leave you with more words of wisdom from Luke:

“We spend so much of our lives up in our heads. We need to become aware of what is happening in the body”.

And don’t forget to breathe.

Patanjali Yoga Sutras II:46

Sthira sukham asanam

Asana should be steady/stable/firm and comfortable

 

 


Cultivating Joy

I can’t take any credit for formulating the concept I’m writing about this week, but it’s something that I want to share with you all anyway.

It’s a very simple idea and it is this:

Joy is the default setting of our minds and if we can get rid of mental chatter we will experience abundant joy.

When we enter a state in which our minds are both relaxed and alert a profound sense of joy spontaneously arises. This has been experienced and has been spoken and/or written about for centuries by many great teachers.

This state of mind can be practised and cultivated so that it becomes easy to experience joy without any external stimulus. We often feel like our happiness and joyfulness depends on external circumstances. We feel happy or sad when we are appreciated/unappreciated by our boss in work, when we experience pleasure/pain, or when our football team wins/loses.

This realisation that joy is available to us independently of anything outside ourselves is an antidote to greed. So often we are chasing money, pleasure, power, love in order to bring us joy and happiness but if we realise that joy really does come from within (and in a very concrete, practical and ‘practisable’ way) then contentment will also arise spontaneously.

So how to practise this?

There are so many ways to cultivate a relaxed and alert mind and the mindfulness movement is making great strides towards bringing these practices into the zeitgeist. But even during our ashtanga yoga practice we can aim to still the mind. The tools are all there inside the ashtanga system; breath, bandha, drishti and asanas. If we can let go of the striving to achieve this posture or that posture we can really start to experience this state where are minds are clear. It just takes a little bit more focus on the more subtle aspects of the ashtanga practice. Then joy, happiness and contentment will come.

Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.

Inspiration for this blog post comes from the Finding Mastery podcast


What does being ‘good at yoga’ even mean?

The winner of the prize for “most meaningless phrase used by yoga students” is:

“Good At Yoga”

I have heard people use this phrase so many times over the years. It’s always in reference to someone who finds the yoga asanas easy to do. In other words the person who uses the phrase “good at yoga” believes that it is important to be strong, flexible and (usually) lean. They see yoga as being equivalent to football, gymnastics or playing a musical instrument, and in order to be proficient in yoga one has to display talent and ability in achieving the asanas.

To be clear, I do believe that it’s important to cultivate flexibility, strength and to live a healthy lifestyle (that usually results in a lean body) but (as I have realised through my own yoga practice and through having a few hundred yoga students walk in our door over the last few years) many of us will never find the asanas to be easy.

The level of ease that we experience in the ashtanga yoga practice is dependant on many factors. Genetics, age, previous injuries and illnesses, and diet are all very big factors in determining whether we’ll find the asanas easy or difficult (or even impossible).

I’ll try to illustrate what I’m trying to get at by way of two hypothetical examples:

Patrick is a 63 year old man who has a history of lower back pain. He ate a diet of rich and refined foods for many years, causing him to gain a lot of excess weight, and he has had reconstructive surgery on both knees after a car accident. He has been practising ashtanga yoga for 2 years and has found that it has given him a new lease of life; greater energy, more mobility, better concentration, and a general feeling of being a bit more in control of his life.

Because of his physical limitations, age, and previous history Patrick is very limited in which asanas he can currently do. Some days, if he feels his energy is low, he does even less than he has been taught, but he does practise every day.

When Patrick is practising yoga he is very conscious of focusing on his breath, he maintains uddiyana and mula bandha as much as possible and his drishti never wavers. If you see him practising you can tell immediately that he is a very focused practitioner. 

Jenny is a 32 year old woman who has a background in dance. She has also been practising for two years. She was able to do all of the poses of the primary series within about two weeks of starting and now practises about half of the intermediate series too. She can drop back into a backbend and catch her ankles easily. She is flexible, strong and lean.

When Jenny is practising it is hard to tell whether or not she is breathing. She often looks around the room to see what the other students are doing and whenever someone walks into the shala she looks up to see who it is.

Which of these students is “good at yoga”?

In the context of the (quite obvious) thrust of this blog post it is easy to recognise that Patrick is really practising yoga in a more productive way, despite being dealt a set of cards which restrict him in lots of ways. However, if most of us were to witness these two practitioners side-by-side doing their practice then we might suggest that Jenny is “better at yoga”.

I have heard so many people over the years suggest that they would like to start to do yoga but they’re just so inflexible that they’d be “awful at it”. “I can’t even touch my toes”, they say, as if that fact alone somehow instantly disqualifies them from beginning a yoga practice. This would be the equivalent of saying “I can’t take piano lessons because I really can’t play the piano at all”. It’s nonsensical.

Yoga practice is purely a means to gaining health, calming the mental chatter of the mind, and ultimately (if we’re really on the right track) gaining some knowledge of ourselves. The asanas, breath, bandhas and drishti are tools to achieve that.

Let us please retire the phrase “good at yoga”.

“Yoga is a spiritual practice. The rest is just a circus”-Pattabhi Jois

 


What are we trying to do here?

Thanks to everyone who came to the class yesterday and participated in the filming. It seemed like having a camera in the room upped the intensity of the whole experience a notch. As if it wasn’t intense enough already!

Quintin (the producer/cameraman) asked us a few questions after the class so that he could capture our thoughts and feelings about ashtanga yoga on camera. One simple question really got me thinking.

“What are you trying to do here at the shala?”

I don’t think I’ve ever had to explain exactly what it is we do, and why; our “mission statement”, I suppose you could call it. Of course I have an underlying sense of what we are trying to create at the shala but to put it into words has never been necessary before. On reflection, this is what I think. It’s pretty simple:

Our intention is to hold a space where we can facilitate yoga practice and therefore create an environment in which people can come and have an experience of stillness.

That is all. We see ourselves as facilitators of practice rather than teachers. The practice itself is the teacher.

If we can succeed in the above mission then we will have created something very rare and truly beautiful.


Why daily practice is the best practice

I’ve been thinking this week about the Ashtanga tradition of practising six days a week and whether, if we’re not on that roll of getting on our mats every day, we are getting the full benefit of the practice.

It seems to me that the majority of yoga teachers who I meet don’t practise daily or necessarily encourage their students to do so. I don’t have enough knowledge of other yoga traditions to say if sporadic or irregular practice is prescribed by other schools as part of their system, but I would be very surprised if anything less than daily practice was recommended by any yoga traditions. We can, in some respects, consider ourselves lucky to have such clear guidelines in the Ashtanga tradition, which sets down six days a week as the ideal amount of formal asana practice. Of course, this is not possible for everyone, but at least it leaves little room for confusion.

So, as yoga students, what should we expect of ourselves?

Well I am of the opinion that we should practice as regularly as possible. That does not mean that every day we have to practise every asana we have ever learned, but as far as is possible, we should get on our mats (except for Saturday, because Saturday is oil-bath day!). Guruji was very clear about that. Ashtanga is meant as a daily practice.

Now, that is not to say that we should abandon our other responsibilities in the pursuit of advancing our asana practice. Yoga practice should improve one’s life, not hinder it. Most yoga students have to go to work every day (without falling asleep at their desk), look after their family, and function normally in society. Few, if any, of us have absolutely no responsibilities at all. In the lineage of Krishnamacharya (Pattabhi Jois’s teacher) yoga practice is said to be for householders (as opposed to renunciates), so it is possible to be a committed yoga practitioner and to maintain a normal life too (that’s a relief eh?).

But why should we practise every day?

Well the benefits of asana practice are first of all experienced physically. But as we go deeper and practice more regularly the more subtle aspects of the practice become apparent to us. Sharath, in the conferences we attended in Mysore, many times reiterated the point that, through the practice of yoga, “change should happen within you”. A daily commitment to practice accelerates that change and, in a very practical way, encourages the yoga student to make healthy choices in their life.

Simply knowing that you have to get on your mat every morning (or afternoon or evening) means that you have to treat your body and mind well for the rest of the day. Otherwise, as we all know only too well, the experience that we have on our mats the next morning is not a fulfilling one. If, on a daily basis we decide whether to practise or not, then we let ourselves off the hook of having to live a healthy life. Every time we have mistreated ourselves – physically, mentally or emotionally – we have the excuse to not bother with our practice the next day, because we don’t feel good and couldn’t possibly face that hour and half of contorting our bodies. So with the commitment already made that we will practice every day, regardless of whether we feel like it or not, then the choice is no longer “will I practise today or not?” but rather “what should I do (or avoid doing) today so that I will be ready, willing and able to practise in the morning?”. Heathy choices become part of your life. And when healthy choices become the norm we really begin to feel that we are in control of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

So I recommend making a commitment to regular, or even daily, practice (at home or at class) and seeing what benefits it brings to your daily life. Even if your practice ends up being only twenty minutes on any given day, try to get on your mat. Peter Sanson, one of the most inspirational and experienced teachers I have had the good fortune to meet, puts it nicely. He suggests that we start with Surya Namaskara A each day and se how it develops from there.


Rehashing!

I have decided to re-publish some of the moon-day newsletters here on our website in order to give them a permanent home. Many of you who are newer students of ours will not have been on our e-mail list when we wrote them anyway so they’ll be new to you.

Apologies in advance to any of you who have already read them. Just ignore. Or re-read them if you so wish.

Love

John


A very difficult subject

I think one of our neighbours killed himself at the weekend. He was a couple of years older than Suzanne. I can’t be sure (and I might be putting two and two together and getting five) and so, out of respect, I won’t go any further in any details.

Something like that happening so close to your home really makes you think a lot. And, regardless of whether or not I’m right about him (may he rest in peace), suicide in our country is at epidemic proportions. So I felt like I wanted to talk about it. I don’t really know why but I did.

Different people practise yoga for many different reasons and, even individually, there’s usually a broad spectrum of reasons why we “take practice”. But the two most compelling reasons that I can think of (just off the top of my head) are:

(1) the student is extremely unhealthy and/or obese and needs to regain their health in order to avoid an early demise
(2) the student suffers from acute or chronic depression and regular (or even sporadic) yoga practice can help to lighten their outlook on life

It’s the second reason I want to talk about. And I’m going to keep it short (partly because I have no clinical knowledge or expertise about the subject and partly because I want you to read to the end).

Not being a sufferer of clinical depression myself I must also add that I am not speaking from any personal experience and I must apologise in advance to any sufferers if my words trivialise or demean the condition. I just hope that the more this conversation is brought into the open then the less people will feel stigmatised about seeking help (rather than resorting to suicide). That is my sole intention here.

I have been told more than once by sufferers of depression that coming to practice regularly is a huge  part of keeping that black dog from their doors. I think it works in a few different ways.

First of all yoga practice (and other exercise) releases endorphins and these, as you probably all know, are nature’s anti-depressants.

Secondly (and I think this is the beauty of the model of daily, morning, mysore-style practice that we and others around the world are practising) the sense that there is somewhere to go every day where one can potentially get some stillness of mind in a welcoming and, hopefully, non-judgemental community (and become an integral part of that community) can be hugely beneficial. “I don’t know what I would do or where I would be without this place or this practice” is what we have been told by a few different students over the last few years of running our daily classes. I have no doubt it is the same the world over.

It is the community and the shared intention to practice which is important here. And that is what is so satisfying on a personal level for us; that our small community is growing and nurturing the individuals within it. We’re not solving the greater problem of suicide or depression by any means but it’s a little drop in the ocean and we are all a part of it.

So don’t underestimate your contribution to this growing group of yoga practitioners. Your presence there in the mornings could be a small part of keeping someone on the straight and narrow, and you might not even know that they need you.

Apologies if I have rambled on a bit; it’s hard to discuss something so serious and I just sat down and wrote this in one go. If any of this resonates with you please send it on or get in touch. Likewise, if you have any objections to it let me know that too.


Are we practising yoga?

Suzanne absolutely loves her pregnancy yoga class. She goes every Saturday afternoon and I know it’s going to be invaluable to her when it comes to her going into labour.

I asked her last week what sort of things they do in the class. She said, “we practise a lot of different positions for giving birth, we discuss different concerns that we have, we practise breathing for labour… it’s basically just to prepare you for giving birth. Helen (the teacher) is brilliant”

“That’s cool”, I said.

Then I thought “Is it yoga?… or is it more like a labour preparation class?” We agreed that it wasn’t really yoga but it was excellent none the less.

What is yoga then?

The yoga sutras tell us: yogas citta vrtti nirodhah

Yoga is the stilling of the mind.

So are we practising yoga in our Mysore Style practice?

Think about it….

It’s hard to say for sure isn’t it? Are we stilling our minds? Are we practising stilling our minds? Do we even have the intention of stilling our minds when we are practising? Or do we practise purely for good health and a nice ass? Be honest.

Patanjali says that yoga (that state in which the mind is completely still) is achieved through two things:

Abhyasa (practice) and Vairagya (non-attachment).

So we’re getting there with the practice bit right. We practice, In fact if there’s one thing Ashtanga students take very seriously it’s Abhyasa. And although it seems on a daily basis that this practice is hard and takes a lot of devotion it’s a lot easier than non-attachment. Non-attachment is a difficult concept. I’m going to park it here though, because I want to get to the bottom of whether or not we are practising yoga in our mysore style practice. Are we even doing the Abhyasa part?

Well I think the answer is that it depends on our intention. And the intention of each individual day of asana practice (or tristhana practice for those of you who read the last moon-day news!) makes a difference to the tone of each practice session.

Take, for example, a day on which you feel physically tired. It could be (and sometimes is) the day on which you go deepest into the stillness in your practice. Other times you could feel in tip-top condition but your mind is busy planning, reviewing and thinking; your having a constant little internal conversation with yourself but your performing the asanas as well as you have ever done. The first example brings you much closer to Patanjalai’s definition of yoga. The second one brings you closer to good health and a nice ass!

So are we practising yoga every morning at class (or in our home-practice)? I think that the answer is:

SOMETIMES

It’s quite an unsatisfactory answer but there it is. We have to admit that sometimes, even in this venerated lineage of Ashtanga Yoga (note the capital letters and everything!) that we’re often doing the exact same thing as the labour preparation class.

So the moral of the story is: Just because a class you go to is called yoga, it doesn’t mean that there is any yoga happening there. And that includes our classes. You have to bring the intention to allow yoga to happen. Otherwise it’s just a really good exercise class.

Guruji puts it better:

“Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus”


Tristhana

When a friend or family-member says, “Hey, you’re into yoga aren’t you; what’s the story with that?”, I bet you say “Yeah, it’s ASHTANGA yoga. It’s not like NORMAL yoga classes”. In other words, you don’t want them to think that you go to this class where it’s you and a load of grandmothers in leotards (especially if he or she is an attractive member of the opposite sex; or same sex if that’s how you roll). But what is Ashtanga Yoga?

The answer is: Tristhana.

Tristhana is what constitutes the Ashtanga Yoga practice but it’s possible you might never have heard the word.

There are three elements to Tristhana (as you might guess from the ‘tri’ part of the word):

Asana

We all know this one. It’s the postures. The most obvious/least subtle part of the practice. Asanas purify, strengthen and give flexibility to the body.

Breath

We know about this too because we can hear all of our fellow practitioners “breathing with sound”. The sound is very important for two reasons. First, the sound of our own breath draws our attention inwards and makes it easier to achieve pratyahara (the fifth of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga) or withdrawal of the senses. Second, when we can hear straining or unevenness in our breath it acts as a warning sign that we may be pushing too hard and could potentially be about to injure ourselves. The inhale and the exhale should be of equal length and should be as steady as possible.

Breath deeply and slowly, with attention to, and interest in, each breath and you will go deeper into yoga practice.

Correct breathing purifies the nervous system.

The kpjayi.org website says

For cleaning the body internally two factors are necessary, air and fire. The place of fire in our bodies is four inches below the navel. This is the standing place of our life force. In order for fire to burn, air is necessary, hence the necessity of the breath. If you stoke a fire with a blower, evenness is required so that the flame is not smothered out, or blown out of control.

The same method stands for the breath. Long even breaths will strengthen our internal fire, increasing heat in the body which in turn heats the blood for physical purification, and burns away impurities in the nervous system as well. Long even breathing increases the internal fire and strengthens the nervous system in a controlled manner and at an even pace. When this fire is strengthened, our digestion, health and life span all increase. Uneven inhalation and exhalation, or breathing too rapidly, will imbalance the beating of the heart, throwing off both the physical body and autonomic nervous system.

An important component of the breathing system is mula and uddiyana bandha. These are the anal and lower abdominal locks which seal in energy, give lightness, strength and health to the body, and help to build a strong internal fire. Without bandhas, breathing will not be correct, and the asanas will give no benefit. When mula bandha is perfect, mind control is automatic.
Note that bandhas are considered an extension of the breath, not as a separate technique in themselves. If you can try to mentally connect breath and bandhas you will find strength which you never knew you had.

Dristhi

Dristhi means ‘looking place’ and it is just as important as the asanas and the correct breathing method. To maintain consistent and correct dristhi through the entire practice is a huge challenge, and one which is really interesting to try. You may have heard people (including Suzanne and I) refering to the Ashtanga method as ‘like a moving meditation’. The mediatation part is very unlikely to happen without observance of dristhi.

There are nine dristhis: the tip of the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, tip of the thumb, tip of the middle finger, tip of the big toe, up, right side and left side.

From kpjayi.org:

Dristhi purifies and stabilizes the functioning of the mind.

I have heard Sharath mention also that the practice of dristhi can greatly aid people suffering from depression.

So these three elements are equally important in the practice. It is easy to neglect dristhi and breath in favour of focusing all of our energy on the asanas but without all three elements in place the practice will have much less benefit.

So maybe, instead of saying that we are doing ‘yoga practice’ or even ‘asana practice’, we should say that we are doing ‘tristhana practice’.