Articles Tagged with: Physical practice
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”


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