Articles Tagged with: Mysore
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!


Fanning the spark

I’m a regular listener  to the Rich Roll podcast. It’s a very popular podcast and I’m sure some of you will have heard of it. For those of you who haven’t, Rich Roll is an endurance triathlete who has a background in competing at ultra-ironman distance triathlons. “Ultraman” is a three-day race consisting of (day 1): a 10km swim followed by a 145km bike ride, (day 2): a 276km bike ride, and (day 3): an 84km double marathon! And I thought primary series was hard…

I think his podcast is great; long-form interviews with some of the world’s most interesting and inspirational figures in sport, health, diet, politics, business and more.

I was listening to a panel discussion the other day between Rich Roll and Marco Borges in which they were talking about veganism (Rich Roll also happens to be a vegan and an advocate for following a plant-based diet). It’s a point that I have heard Rich make on a good few occasions on the podcast and I wanted to share it with you and how it relates to ashtanga yoga.

The point is that, within the vegan movement, there are many people who take a very hard line on what other people should and shouldn’t be doing. For example if a celebrity says they are going to follow a vegan diet for 30 days they get abuse online for only doing it for 30 days. If someone starts to follow a plant-based diet but doesn’t immediately throw out all of their leather shoes they get called a disgrace. The list goes on.

The point the two speakers were making is that, rather than pointing fingers and judging each other, what the vegan movement needs to do in order to grow is to ‘fan the spark’ of anyone who comes to it with any sort of interest.

I feel like this is very closely related to ashtanga yoga. I have seen so many teachers and students of this method judging other people based on the various criteria of what they personally consider to be ‘correct method’ (how often they practice, how they practise, even how far along in the series they are… seriously!).

I would like to propose to the wider ashtanga yoga teaching community that we need to make more effort to ‘fan the spark’ of practitioners who are coming to ashtanga yoga and Mysore-style regardless of their background, who their last teacher was, what they practised before (anti-Bikram snobs I’m looking at you), and even their level of apparent commitment.

Not everyone is going to walk into a Mysore-style class, love it, and then commit to practising every day for the rest of their lives. We need to meet people where they are at and not judge them for trying and failing to establish their practice in a way that we deem valuable. The beauty of ashtanga yoga is that it is a useful tool for many of the afflictions that humans are susceptible to. It is useful to practise regularly and it is less useful to practise sporadically but, even sporadic practice, if done in the right way, has huge benefits on many levels.

If we fan the spark, rather than pouring cold water on it, the potential for practitioners to develop a practice over a number of years is hugely increased. Then we might see the practice spreading even wider and, who knows, even becoming a mainstream thing. If that happens we all know that the world will be a happier, healthier place.


The value of learning a practice

A couple of times over the past few weeks I had the new experience of being confronted by first-time students over the value of Mysore-style method of practising. Both of these new students had already done a lot of ashtanga yoga classes before (I didn’t ask where) but they had never done a Mysore-style class.

So, as I almost always do, I spent a lot of time carefully explaining exactly what our approach is and then I proceeded to teach the sun salutations and the beginning of the primary series (any of you out there who teach Mysore-style will know that you have to give a lot of attention to new students, both so that they learn the practice correctly and also so that you can get to know them and their bodies). It is always our intention to send new students away with something that they can practice at home, even if it’s just Surya Namaskara A. Most students appreciate this, and see the value in learning the practice for themselves.

But occasionally you can see that this way of teaching doesn’t sit well with certain students. In my experience it’s usually the ones who have already attended a lot of led classes and are new to Mysore-style who end up having problems with it.

Here is the main problem: When you go regularly to a led ashtanga class for a long time you end up getting through quite a lot, or even all, of the primary series. But, unless you’re exceptionally switched-on and have a really good memory, you don’t actually memorise any of the sequences of poses (let alone the correct vinyasa for each one). Then, when you come to a Mysore-style class we get you to memorise the beginning of the series (we could, of course, bring you through the entire primary series but that’s not really the idea behind Mysore-style) and you are limited in how far you get by how good your memory is, not by how much stamina you have or by how flexible or strong you are. This can be frustrating.

The experience in your first few Mysore-style classes can be “I can do waaaay more than what I’m being taught here”, and  “I thought yoga was supposed to be about switching off my mind; they’re making me really think a lot here”. Then, after the class, these two particular students who I mentioned at the beginning both said that they didn’t feel that great feeling that they usually get after doing their ‘regular’ class. Well, of course not, they only practised the sun salutations and the first few poses of the series.

It’s a tricky thing sometimes, trying to sell people on the benefits of this way of practising when they don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way they were doing it before. But here are my thoughts on why you need to persevere and get over that initial resistance:

Please don’t get me wrong here, there are some great teachers out there who, for one reason or another, are only teaching led ashtanga classes but the majority of ashtanga led classes are, in my opinion ‘exercise’ classes as opposed to ‘yoga’ classes. The ashtanga yoga primary series is a fantastic exercise routine and so there is, of course, huge benefit to practising it in any setting. However, if we are ever to go deeper with the practice so that it affects not only our bodies but our minds, emotions, and way of life we are eventually going to need to go much deeper than is possible in the typical led class. When we learn the series ourselves and remove the external stimulus of having to be talked through the whole series, we are narrowing our focus considerably. Then ekāgratā (single-pointed focus) has more potential to arise.

Once you learn the ashtanga yoga method for yourself it is yours forever. It is a practice which you can do for decades, slowly refining and going deeper into its many aspects. And you’ll still get all the physical benefits that you were getting before in the led classes.

If you practice for a long time, without interruption the potential is there for you to experience quiet and stillness on a profound level and even to get a glimpse of your real self, the self that is untouched by modern existence. This is spelled out for us very clearly by Patanjali in the first 16 verses of the first chapter of the yoga sutras.

  • 1:2 Yoga is the stilling of the mind.
  • 1:3 When the mind is still the seer sees his/her true self.
  • 1:4 At all other times the seer identifies themselves with their thoughts.
  • 1:14 The mind can be stilled through practice and detachment.
  • 1:16 Practice is firmly established when done for a long time without interruption and with a positive attitude.

I’m not saying that none of this is possible in a led class but I am saying it is much more possible to experience what Patanjali is describing when we take ownership of and responsibility for our own practice.

Some people, of course, will disagree.

If you are thinking of transitioning from led classes to Mysore-style remember:

  • The object of yoga practice is to quiet the mind. At the very beginning of your experience with Mysore-style you will find that your mind is busier than it was in the led classes, because you are having to think and remember all the vinyasas. After a short while of practising in this way you will find, however, that it is possible to go much deeper into the experience of stillness as there are much less external stimuli.
  • You will generally do less than what your body is able for in the first few classes. This is so that you can remember everything that you need to. We could teach you the whole series but, if we did that, you wouldn’t remember any of it. Be patient.
  • You might not feel that post-yoga-glow that you experienced in the led classes right away. After only a few classes you’ll be back up to the same number of poses that you did before but, this time, you’ll know it yourself and will be able to recreate that feeling anytime and anywhere by practising alone wherever you are.
  • Yoga is a personal practice. It becomes personal when you take ownership of it.

 


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

 


Building energy through ashtanga yoga

It’s nice to be back at the shala after over a week away. I had a lot of rehearsals and concerts as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival and I enjoyed the change of scene. Suzanne brought our girls down to Kilmuckridge, Co. Wexford (accompanied by her Auntie, who owns a holiday home there). They had a nice break, building sand-castles, swimming in the sea, and bouncing on the big trampoline that Suzanne’s Auntie has in the garden.

I missed my little family a lot while we were separated but the uninterrupted sleeps I was getting almost made up for it! I had a lot of energy for practice and playing in the orchestra; much more than I have become accustomed to. This week, of course, I have had to transition back into having less quality sleep and this, in turn, affects how I practise yoga.

Last night, for example, I was woken four times and when my alarm went off I felt like there was no way I could face my yoga mat. I dragged myself out of bed though (after a few internal arguments) and rolled out the mat. I always find, on mornings when my energy is low, that to step outside and get some fresh air is the best way to wake up fully. So out I went onto the little patio at the front of our apartment. Normally I step out onto the our balcony, which overlooks the sea, but this morning Molly, our 3 year old, was in the bed with me (the solution to being woken up four times!) and I didn’t want to wake again her by opening the door. By the time I had taken ten deep, conscious breaths outside I was ready to go.

Slowly, as I went through the surya namaskara my energy started to build. Every time this happens I am amazed at how much energy can be cultivated by this ashtanga yoga practice. My practice was shortened (by dint of not getting up straight away when the alarm went off) to just the standing asanas before I had to wake Anna (our 10-month old) and start our normal breakfast ritual. But even after those few asanas I felt brand new. The night’s tribulations had been all but washed away.

This is almost always my experience with this practice. On days when I feel like I couldn’t possibly practise, rolling out the mat with the intention of doing just a few surya namaskara leads easily to continuing with the rest of the practice. There are of course rare days on which my energy doesn’t build through the practice, and on those days, I now know just to sit down and do some deep breathing; the next day will bring another opportunity to practice.

So, since having two children in the last three years and also since picking up a spinal injury my approach to practice has changed considerably. I am no longer trying to ‘achieve’ anything with the asanas. I just use the practice as a way to build energy. Changing the intention with which I practise has made a big difference to the way I practise.

That is what I think the real intention behind this ashtanga system is, just building your energy.

The great yoga teachers would say that this energy can be used to further your progress towards enlightenment, but it is available to you for whatever you need; work, family, relationships, the pursuit of enlightenment, or just leading a full life.

So when you step onto your mat next don’t get tricked into thinking that success in yoga comes by achieving difficult asanas, try to cultivate a practice that will build energy for you and see how much positive change it can cause in your daily life.


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.


Ashtanga Yoga as therapy

Ashtanga Yoga has a bit of a reputation amongst the uninitiated for being strict, rigid, uncompromising. It is not generally seen as a practice which anyone can do. It is said that one has to be fit, able-bodied and energetic. You might have had the experience of being asked “Oh Ashtanga, that’s the really hard one isn’t it?” (that’s usually the second question though, the first is “Is that the one in the hot room?” – after I say no to that one, most people lose interest; I don’t know why)

However, those of us who have been practising for a while (and have therefore had a chance not just to practise but also to reflect a little on its nature) realise that this is a fluid practice which changes on a daily basis for all practitioners. We also cannot help but notice that the way we practise (and even the way we learn the method of practice) is different for each individual, even for Surya Namaskara A. The practice is for anyone who wants to do it. And everyone practises it differently.

We also realise through practice that this primary series is a fantastic therapy. Before the “first, second, third series” etc. became the usual way to refer to the different sequences, the ‘primary’ series was known as Yoga Chikitsa (Yoga Therapy). The primary series is intended to heal the body. This is a practice which can be learned by anyone.

I have heard Sharath repeat this (or variations on it) many times:

“Young man can practise.

Old man, he can practise.

Very old man, he can practise.

Man who is sick, he can practise.

Man who does not have strength, he can practise.

Only lazy people can’t practise.”

Then he cracks up laughing.

Every time.

Before there were so many western yoga students travelling to Mysore, Guruji had many many therapy cases; very sick and even partly paralysed students would go to him and he would slowly help them to regain their health and mobility bit by bit, getting warm blood flowing in their bodies. Even in our limited experience of teaching this yoga we have seen the therapeutic power of the asanas both in a general sense and for aiding with specific injuries and illnesses.

The therapeutic effect is also there on a mental and emotional level. We have heard many times of students whose mental health has improved through the practice of asanas (such as help with depression or addiction) or of people who feel like they have gained enough clarity in their lives and in their minds to begin making healthier choices (like leaving destructive relationships, gaining control over their diet or starting a new career). There is something about practising Ashtanga every day that makes everything else seem more straightforward.

I am a very firm believer in the adage that if you can breathe you can practice. Spread the word.

Ekam, inhale. Dwe, exhale. Trini, inhale.

Just those first three vinyasas might be enough to change the course of somebody’s life. The rest of the asanas are just embellishments of that.

 

 


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.

 

 

 


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.