Articles Tagged with: Yoga Sutras
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.

 


A great question

Those of you who come to the shala regularly will know Joanne. She’s there a lot, and she’s very chatty!

Anyway I love the way Joanne thinks about the practice, and about life in general, and she asked this great question just before we went on our retreat last weekend:

“Whilst struggling with marichasana A Suzanne said to me, “this is preparation for putting your leg behind your head”. Since then I’ve been asking myself, why on earth does one need to be able to put their leg behind their head?”

Before you read on, I’d like you just to have a think about that. It’s easy to get so caught up in this ashtanga yoga practice that we stop questioning it at all. You might think to yourself, “well it’s so that you can do supta kurmasana when you get to it” or “it opens up your hips”.

But that doesn’t answer the question really. It just creates another question: “why do you want to open up your hips?” for example.

We could ask a similar question about every yoga posture really, and the range of answers from most people would be the same: So that you can do the next posture , or so that you can lengthen the hamstrings/open the hips/build more strength etc.

But doing the next posture isn’t really the point of yoga practice. Neither is lengthening the hamstrings or making your back more flexible. Not really anyway. Not really really.

Patanjali is very clear right at the beginning of the yoga sutras. In the second sutra he says:

“Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ”

Yoga is the stilling of the mind

So, in that context why would we want to get our leg behind our head?

Because it takes such a monumental effort of concentration (it’s not something one does absent-mindedly is it!) that we have the potential, in that moment, to come closer to stilling our minds than ever before.

The same applies to every other posture. And that is why, as one posture starts to become easy we are given the next challenge along the road. The postures are simply tools that we can use to still our minds. When this becomes our focus it all starts to make more sense.

So go forth and be still!

Thanks Joanne.


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”


Yoga and the Isle of Man TT races

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

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

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

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

Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind

(Sūtra I:2)

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

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

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

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

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

So what is this state of consciousness?

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

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


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