Monday, August 20, 2007

Apropos of an EZ Board Thread
Are we merely working muscle groups when we practice the yoga? Are we just working out?

Or is the point of the yoga to manipulate our energy bodies?

Let's go with what Pattabhi Jois has always maintained, that, (imagine an Indian man shouting): "Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is Patanjali yoga!" The guy's been doing it for 60-plus years, so we ought to give some credence to that experience.

So then, what does our friend Patanali say about yoga? He cuts to the chase in the second sutra of the very first book. For those who haven't yet had it drummed into their heads: "Yogas citta vrtti nirodha." The translation that I'll use: "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind."

Not much there about "energy bodies" or "muscle groups." Patanali then goes on to detail the various techniques one can use to still the whirpool of the mind, and again, none mention energy bodies or muscle groups. Or asana, for that matter.

Patanali goes on to lists several obstructions, or antarayah, to yoga, and the very first one he lists is vyadi, or sickness. This is the first obstruction he lists because it is the obstruction that must be dealt with immediately and before the ones that follow, for if your body is sick, it is very difficult to address the later limbs of ashtanga.

Although the practice of the ashtanga vinyasa system addresses the entirety of Patanjali's list of antarayah (i.e. styana, samsaya, pramada, etc, etc), right off the bat it will help ameliorate vyadi, and it will do this in several ways. On a mundane or merely physical level (i.e. "working muscle groups), the practice will make one stronger and more flexible. It will help establish a physical sense of well-being from which the limbs of the yoga can grow.

On a more profound level, the discipline or tapas will begin to burn clean the indriyas, or organs of perception, helping to eliminate physical sickness by making one more attentive to how one feeds and maintains the body. To deny or ignore the purely physical aspect of the yoga is to deny the profound healing and sense of well-being that a yoga asana practice can bring.

Pattabhi Jois also used to talk frequently of the pancha koshas, the five sheaths, the outermost being the annamaya kosha, or the gross body. According to this conception, contained within that are the pranamaya kosha, and within that the manomaya kosha, the vijnanamaya kosha, and ultimately, the anandamaya kosha.

The systems of poses in the ashtanga yoga directly engages the annamaya kosha with asana, but couples the asanas with the breath to engage the pranamaya kosha as a vehicle or link between the other koshas. The koshas do not exist independently of each other, and particularly with ashtanga vinyasa, we directly employ several koshas to work with the others.

Key to this idea of the sheaths is that they all effect change on the others --- except for the anandamaya kosha, which is that which is changeless. The energy body includes and is part of the physical body, and we use the physical body to engage the energy body ... and ideally we engage both the physical body and the energy body to engage other, more profound bodies.

We don't want to reduce the yoga to mere exercise, because that strands it in the gross, physical realm. But we also don't want to strand it in the subtle or energy realm, either, because that both denies the profound physical effect of the practice and leads to the trap of thinking that working with the subtle body is the chief aim of the yoga.

So is ashtanga yoga a physical system that works muscle groups, much as an aerobics or gymnastics class? The answer is yes. Is it a system that allows us to experience and manipulate "energy," however one conceives of it? The answer is also yes. Both of these these results are only side-effects of a practice, and not the aim or the purpose. The physical body and the subtle body change over time, while the yoga seeks to reunite us with that which does not change, and that which is beyond time.