Articles Tagged with: Guruji
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

 


Benefits of Primary Series Asanas

This week we’re including (almost word for word) the benefits of each asana of primary series as specified by Pattabhi Jois in his Yoga Mala.

The Surya Namaskara (sun-salutations) are essential in the practice of yoga as they help to gather the strength of the mind in one direction, control the breath and help mental focus.

The first 2 standing poses (thumbs to feet and hands to feet) Padangushtasana and Padahastasana: They dissolve the fat of the lower abdomen and purify the egg shaped nerve plexus in the anal region and rectum as well as purifying the kidneys.

Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle): Dissolves the bad fat around the waist and brings the body into shape. It also expands the narrow portion of the breathing channel and strengthens the spine.

Uthitta Parshvakonasana: Purifies the ribs and lower abdomen, dissolves the bad fat at the waist and softens the limbs so that the subsequent asanas can be practiced more easily.

Prasarita Padottanasana A to D (The 4 wide legged forward bends): These asanas cure constipation, purify the top part of the spinal column and the waist. The anal canal is purified and the bad fat in the lower abdomen is dissolved.

Parshvottanasana (Prayer position behind the back): Like the asana above.

Basically all the above asanas loosen the limbs of the body. For people who suffer from rheumatic or joint pain, the sun salutations and first six asanas are especially important. If they are practiced properly with the correct breathing method, the pain that occurs in the joints will be eliminated and the body will become light and healthy.

Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana (The leg balancing pose that you really realy don’t like): This asana loosens the hip joints, destroys defects of the testicles and male organs of generation, strengthens and purifies the vertebral column, waist, hips and lower abdomen. It also eliminates constipation.

Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (half bound lotus): This purifies the rectum and liver. It also prevents gas in the stomach and prevents diarrhea.

Utkatasana: Strengthens the waist and makes the body light.

Virabhadrasana (warrior): All the joints of the body, as well as the lower abdomen, spinal column and organ of generation are purified. Pain associated with the knees as well as the pain from standing or sitting all day while working, is eliminated.

Paschimattanasana (the first seated pose): this pose eliminates gas problems in the stomach, it strengthens the organs of the digestive systems.

Purvatanasana: Purifies and strengthens the heart, anus, spinal column and waist.

Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimattanasana (seated, half bound lotus): Alleviates the enlargement of the liver and spleen. Also cures abdominal distention due to bad food and actiities. Constipation is also cured.

Tiriangmukhaaikapada paschimattanasana (right, then left foot back): Cures a number of afflictions including: body fat, water retention, thighs swollen out of proportion to the size of the body (elephant leg!!), piles and sciatica. Also makes the body symmetrical.

Janu Shirshasana: This posture cures cystitis. There’s a lot more in the yoga mala about the benefits of this asana but too much to reproduce here.

Marichyasana A to D: The benefits of all four are different, though all cure diseases in accordance with one’s physical nature. They each cure gaseous movements in the stomach and intestines, as well as the rectum, such as diarrhoea, and restore digestive power. With that, flatulence, indigestion and constipation are eliminated. Abdominal pain during menstruation is removed. The womb becomes powerful and enables a woman to carry a child strongly. The vata pitta kosha (large intestine and gall bladder) are purified, as is the manicure chakra (the third chakra at the navel centre), and the body gains strength and power.

Navasana (boat pose): The anal channel, spinal column, ribs and lower abdomen are purified. The digestive fire is increased and the waist gains strength.

Bhujapidasana: Purifies the oesophagus. The body becomes light, and the shoulders and waist become strong.

Kurmasana: Purifies the nerve plexus in the anal region from which all 72,000 nadis grow. Also purifies the heart and lungs, and eliminates ailments caused by an imbalance of kapha. The chest becomes broad, bad fat is dissolved, and the spinal column becomes strong. Chest pain due to over-tiredness is cured, disorders from bad food remedied and the fat in the lower abdomen is dissolved, allowing the body to become healthy.

Garbha Pindasana: Dissolves fat of the lower abdomen, purifies the manipura (third) chakra, and wards off diseases of the liver and spleen.

Kukkutasana: The intestines are purified, the fat of the lower abdomen is dissolved, and diseases affecting the bowels and urinary tract, as well as excess phlegm, are cured.

Baddha Konasana: Constipation and piles will be destroyed and indigestion will no longer haunt an aspirant. There is a lot more information relating to Baddha Konasana in the Yoga Mala.

Upavishta Konasana: The grdhrasi nadi (sciatic nerve) will be strengthened, gaseous movements in the stomach will no longer occur and peristalsis will be resolved.

Supta Konasana: Same as Baddha Konasana and Upavishta Konasana

Supta Padangushtasana: Purifies and strengthens the waist region, knees, food and anal channels, and the sperm passageway (virya nala). It dissolves bad fat on the sides of the body and the waist, making the waist slender and strong, and the body light.

Ubhaya Padangushtasana: Purifies the anus, waist, stomach, genital organs and the granthi traya (three knots) which begin at the anal canal. It also eliminates the burning sensation that can occur during urination.

Urdhva Mukha Pascimattanasana: Purifies the lower back and oesophagus, and the swadishtana chakra (region between the anus and navel). When the swadishtana chakra is purified, bodily activities become light, all physical activities are free and easy, and impediments such as disease, do not torture one.

Setu Bandhasana: Purifies and strengthens the waist and neck, purifies the muladhara (root) chakra and increases the digestive fire. It also purifies the oesophagus, heart, and lungs, making them strong.

Next time: Finishing asanas.

Pattabhi Jois specifies (in the notes on the benefits of Baddha Konasana):

A point must be made to readers and aspirants that they should be careful to remember. When one follows the methods of asana and pranayama, there is no doubt that all diseases will be cured. But if an aspirant thinks that this will occur by his merely practising asanas while continuing to eat rajasic (stimulating) and tamasic (heavy) foods, then he is misguided. Such a course will actually lead to an increase in sickness.

If you’re interested in reading more about the practice you could pick up a copy of Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. It’s the first book I ever read on Ashtanga yoga.

 

 

 


The best yoga-related snippets from the web part 3

Lets jump straight in this week and start with a video from the New York Times in which Eddie Stern talks a little bit about Ashtanga Yoga. From what we see of Eddie on the web, we really like him.

Canadian teacher, Paul Gold, asks an important question in this article. Fewer practice days or less practice every day? Sharath was asked this same question in London last August and he said ‘You just have to do what you can’.

Two videos of Guruji in Copenhagen in 2006. I’ve already posted these on our facebook page but here they are again for those of you who missed them. First, a short video documenting Guruji’s visit to Copenhagen followed by a 17 minute conference given by Guruji with Sharath and Saraswathi.

We came across this film about bio-dynamic/organic farming in India. It raises a lot of questions about working with nature (as opposed to trying to conquer nature) to produce food. Peter Proctor (the father of modern biodynamics) is a New-Zealander who now lives just outside Mysore at the Bhaktivedanta Academy for Sustainable Integrated Living. We are told in the film that he knows more about soil than probably anyone else on the planet. This is well worth a watch.

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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.


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


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

 


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


What does ‘Ashtanga’ mean

The word Ashtanga in the Sanskrit language means eight limbs (astau means eight and anga means limb).

These eight limbs are

  • Yama
  • Niyama
  • Asana
  • Pranayama
  • Pratyahara
  • Dharana
  • Dhyana
  • Samadhi

Ok, I know, they’re in Sanskrit too so that’s no help. Well, I’ll try to explain what each of these words mean without getting too technical.

Yama

There are five yama (or yamas, if we follow the incorrect custom of pluralising them using the English language ‘s’).

  • Ahimsa
  • Satya
  • Asteya
  • Brahmacharya
  • Aparigraha

Yes, Sanskrit again!

Translated into English they mean,

  • Non-violence
  • Truthfulness
  • Not stealing
  • Temperance
  • Not coveting

I won’t go into any further explanations of yama here but as you can see they form a basic guide to living harmoniously with the world outside our-selves.

Niyama

 Niyama is also five-fold

  • Saucha
  • Santosha
  • Tapas
  • Swadhyaya
  • Ishwarapranidhana

 That is,

  • Cleanliness/Purity
  • Contentment
  • Self-discipline
  • Study (self study and study of yogic texts)
  • Devotion to a power greater than our-selves

Again, a detailed commentary is not what I’m going for here, so it will suffice to point out that niyama form a basic guide to living harmoniously within our-selves

Asana

Asana is what most people think of when they think of Yoga. Asana  is the physical practice of yoga postures. Guruji (Pattabhi Jois) recommended that we start our yoga practice with this, the third limb, because the first two limbs are very difficult. If we try to take even one of the yama or niyama and practise it in its purest form we will see how right he was. Mahatma Gandhi is an shining example of somebody who practised absolute non-violence (ahimsa) and he changed the course of history.

It is more realistic and practical for most of us to start with asana.

First we must make our bodies healthy. Otherwise, how can we think of purifying our minds and gaining enlightenment? If illness is in the body we are pre-occupied with that and there is no space for spiritual practice. When asana becomes firmly grounded then yama and niyama happen automatically.

Pranayama

The practice of breath control taught in many yoga traditions is pranayama. In his Yoga Sutras (the cornerstone of yoga practice and philosophy) Patanjali states

Tasmin sati svasa prasvasayor gati vicchedah pranayamah

 That being acquired, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama.

(Sutra II:49)

The word ‘that’ refers to steadiness in the practice of asana.  So we should take it that pranayama is not to be practised until we have firmly established our asana practice. Guruji did not teach pranayama until the student had completed the second series of the ashtanga vinyasa method.

With reference to pranayama Patanjali also states

Tatah ksiyate prakasavaranam

As its result, the veil over the inner Light is destroyed

(Sutra II:52)

Dharanasu ca yogyata manasah

And the mind becomes fit for concentration

(Sutra II:53)

Pratyahara

 Pratyahara is the bridge between the previous four, external, limbs and the following three, internal, limbs. It can be translated as the withdrawal of the senses. In other words our senses turn inwards and our minds are no longer distracted by the outside world. All of our focus is internal.

Tatah parama vasyatendriyanam

Then follows complete mastery over the senses

(Sutra II:55)

Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi

The last three limbs are inseparable and follow on from each other. Dharana is usually translated as ‘concentration’ and technically it is the state of consciousness in which the mind is aware of only one object or idea. Dhyana is translated as ‘meditation’ and it is the state of consciousness in which concentration (dharana) is continuous. Samadhi is the state of consciousness in which the mind and the object of meditation are as one. The student in the state of samadhi ‘forgets themselves’. This is sometimes translated as ‘bliss’ and is the highest form of Yoga practice.

Above is a very brief explanation of the eight limbs. There are thousands of books written on the subject of Yoga from both a philosophical and a practical point of view and it is a vast subject. However, theoretical knowledge is useless unless we have practical knowledge. Guruji was famous for saying that yoga is “99% practice and 1% theory”. We can practise asana and, following that, pranayama. According to Guruji, if we do this, then “all is coming”. He was telling us that all of the other limbs will spontaneously happen (provided we are conscious of yama and niyama) and we will experience that state of yoga called samadhi.

John

 To hear Guruji speak a little about this you can watch this video