Sunday, December 14, 2008


Let's go big-picture here for a second. Most of us practice ashtanga vinyasa, which is a living tradition. Both parts of that phrase, "living" and "tradition," are important considerations.

It's a "living" tradition in that we are fortunate enough to have Pattabhi Jois still living and (mostly) teaching in Mysore. The system grows, changes and evolves as he sees fit, one hopes based on his years of experience practicing, teaching, and observing.

In this regard, it's important to consider that Yoga Mala is not a shastra. It's a manual, albeit one to which serious practitioners should give serious consideration. However, we ought to remember that it was first published in 1957. Would you want to be treated by a doctor who's reading medical texts and practicing techniques from 1957?

What we can take away from this consideration is the idea that the fundamental techniques and concepts about medicine and anatomy — and vinyasa, bandha, and drishti — have not changed or been transformed since then. They have, however, evolved.

Ashtanga means "eight limbs," after all, and not "eight stairs," or "eight steps," or "eight rungs," and implicit in the word "anga" is the conception of a system that is organic, interrelated, and rhizomatic.

As a living "tradition," ashtanga vinyasa is comprised of established techniques and sequences, to be transmitted by a teacher and practiced in a prescribed manner.

The benefits to practicing within a tradition are many. It's vital to have other people, a teacher or otherwise, say, "You are not the first to experience this. I have been there, I have felt that, too. Now get back to your breathing, bandhas, drishti."

This is helpful beyond the purely physical aspect of the practice. It's more than simple advice on how to press your lotus up into handstand or grab your thighs in a backbend.
When the siddhis manifest, it's having someone to ground you. When Hanuman speaks to you during meditation, it's having someone tell you to focus on your breathing and bandhas. When you walk out of the shala, suffused with Oneness, it's someone to remind you to take your shoes. When you begin teaching, it's someone telling you it's not a good idea to sleep with your students.

The confines of tradition also help one emerge from under the shadow of one's ego. Pattabhi Jois says, "Asana is correct, pain is going." Jois is, like Patanjali, nothing if not pithy. He does not say, "Asana is correct, pleasure is there." This is the same way Shankara uses "neti, neti," because, as when trying to describe Brahman, the affirmative is entirely inadequate to describe the state of an asana.

Often, what feels "good" feels pleasurable. Confusion arises, though, when "feeling good" is conflated with the means and end of yoga, which is Union. "Feeling good" and Union are often parallel pursuits, but they are not the same pursuit. Quite frequently the practice of yoga, the practice of Union, and the sensation of pleasure, not to mention comfort and ease, are entirely at odds.

Let's face it, sometimes yoga can — and should — fucking hurt. There's an autobiography by New York poet John Giorno called You've Got to Burn to Shine. Sometimes, if you're lucky, your most deeply cherished beliefs of self get tossed on the fire, and the tapas of practice consumes them. And that can hurt.

Other common mistakes about the purpose of yoga, all of which stem from transposing two similar but ultimately separate and usually shallower conceptions are: yoga as fitness workout, yoga as stress relief, yoga as a therapeutic tool for physical rehabilitation, even yoga as meditation. These are all pleasant and marketable side effects of a yoga practice, but they are not its purpose or intent.

So if one abandons the confines — and they are confines, make no mistake — of a tradition, and one follows one's inner guru, one holds up the mirror to oneself, what tends to happen? At least in a Mysore room, I've noticed that practices tend to drift towards varying degrees of narcissism. That is, the practice begins to play up the practitioner's strengths and avoids their weaknesses. It only serves to sharpen one's sense of a separate self.

When you hold your own mirror, you open yourself to various blind-spots, pitfalls, and subtle but pervasive and very powerful tendencies. Narcissus held up his own mirror — in the Hellenic version, he kept leaning forward to admire himself in a pool of water until fell in and drowned. In the whirlpool of conditioned existence, one would imagine.

Do you "need" a hands-on teacher, as opposed to, say, practicing from Yoga Mala or As It Is? Or Richard Freeman's or Sharath's DVD? No, of course not. You don't need to live in Spain to learn to speak Spanish — though it sure can accelerate the process. But are you really practicing the teaching as it's laid out in the manual?

Then arises the question as to the legitimacy of the manual you're using, and which texts you choose to pay attention to — again, people tend to cherry-pick texts that support their tendencies, their desires, what they want to believe, and what makes them feel good. A practice manual should support practice, and put words and context around aspects of the practice. Texts are incidental and secondary to the practice, as it's from the practice that the texts are derived, and not the other way around.

A good teacher will serve to hold the mirror into which you gaze. They'll prod you when you're lazy and cuff you about the head when you take pride in your practice.
The different ashtanga vinyasa series can serve as gurus of their own. They are (relatively) unchanging and ever-present, and they hold up a mirror in which one can, if one suffers a serendipitous accident, see one's Self.

It takes discipline to get up every morning to perform them — but then, it takes even greater discipline, one might even say heroic discipline, to surrender to the sequence.

It is so very difficult to abandon the notion that we always know what's best for ourselves. Often, perhaps usually, what's "best" for us tends to be what's pleasurable or self-satisfying. It can become fantastically difficult to discern when we're operating from self-interest when aspects of the practice begin gratifying subtler, deeper psychological notions of self.

The "no pain, no gain" mentality is an example of a person causing themselves actual physical pain in order to meet deeper, more powerfully held ideas of self-worth.

Again, this is where surrender is important. A good teacher will cut the Gordian knot of "Should I or shouldn't I?" by determining when one is ready for another pose. There is a paradox in the inherent freedom of a disciplined practice, and to paraphrase Douglas Brooks, in order to see all points, you must fix your gaze on one point. It can be very liberating to relieve yourself of the idea that you know best for yourself, though this surrender, too, can be a practice in itself if it lacks love and faith in both a teacher and the teachings.

The ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a progressive sequences of asanas. This is an important characteristic to remember. If you skip or gloss over a pose now, the skills you are not developing will return to haunt you later. So there is most often tremendous value in exploring a pose with the attention and focus naturally generated at one's end-pose.

Specific to second series, with regards to kapotasana, people are generally protected by their inflexibility. However, my experience is that if one is unable to grab the heels from day one, kapotasana will be impossible if one cannot rise from laguvajrasana or stand up from a backbend.

The real trouble comes from dwi pada sirsasana, a pose that will destroy your back if you do not address eka pada sirasana. For some people, eight months to a year on eka pada are what may be required.

My wife Tara, for example, spent a year to 16 months on eka pada sirsasana before Tim moved her along to dwi pada. This is a woman who could do full splits in all directions (samakonasana with feet on folding chairs, even), yet needed that length of time to develop the specific hip flexibility for her anatomical proportions.

On a practical level, what to do if you don't have access to a teacher? You can travel to see a teacher, or you can practice with other people, once a week, once a month, twice a year. Attend workshops. Organize daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly self-practice groups on Craig's List

I met people in Mysore who had practiced on their own for years, in their closets, hallways, and kitchens, and whose only exposure to a teacher came once every 14 months or so when they traveled to Mysore.

If you do have access to a teacher, however fleeting, try to establish with them some sort of dialogue regarding certain aspects of your practice. If you're lucky, you can develop a relationship in which you don't get what you think you want. What's gained easily is esteemed lightly, and usually done with poor form and bad technique, both of which are anathema to a definition,
put forth by Krishna in the Gita, of yoga as "skill in action."

I assisted Tim Miller for roughly two years in
his Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga class, held every Monday night at 5:30. During that time, I came to see several of the same people over and over again — but only ever in the Monday night class, never in Mysore, or in any of the other led classes.

I asked Tim his thoughts on the subject of people never moving to other classes.
"Some people are just on the 10-year plan," he responded. Which also in a way sums up his attitudes towards teaching Mysore-style, too.

One can burn through intermediate, even third series, perhaps in the spirit of inventiveness and exploration (though watch out for the craving for novelty).
Perhaps not the most efficient and skillful way to learn and practice, but give it 10, 15 years of daily, consistent practice. It'll smooth out! Or you'll break yourself and be forced to start again.