Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Asana practice lends itself to different lenses of varying depths and utility.

It’s easy to get trapped on the materialist and reductionist side of the map, a place where asanas are mere assemblages of body parts.

Consequently, there then follows a tendency to view our personal list of physical injuries, tendencies, and idiosyncrasies as problems to be solved, or obstacles to be overcome, through Yoga. This view in effect reduces Yoga asana to physical therapy.

The subtler and trickier thinking that accompanies this reduction is the deep cherishment of these idiosyncrasies and injuries, and their acceptance as limiting beliefs.

A.G. Mohan writes that Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois’ teacher, had a useful multi-level framework to view asana practice: as spiritual practice (upasana), therapy (chikitsa), and fitness (shiksa).

So this means we're not shallow for our curiosity about anatomy and physical expression, as though we're somehow less “serious” for not seeing Yoga asana practice only in “spiritual” terms.

I believe an intense focus and interest in the mechanics of asana and anatomy is a stage through which we who practice this system for longer lengths of time must pass.

Also, it's useful to observe that Patanjali suggests that attention to our body (sauca) is essential, and that sickness (vyadhi) is an obstacle.

The Taittriya Upanishad, which Guruji loved to quote, suggests that our food-body (anna maya kosha) is the first of five nested shells or sheaths.

Both Patanjali and the Panchakosha map of our experience suggest that our bodies are vital, important, and inextricably related with other, subtler levels and layers.

So while I don’t necessarily believe one needs to be an anatomist to teach asana, it can still enrich one’s practice to pay attention to the physical food-body realm.

I’ve been fortunate to hold space for Mysore-style classes since 2004, and most of the gift of that time has been quite simply to watch and observe hundreds (thousands?) of bodies as they move through the same ritualized sequence of interlinked postures.

In that time I’ve come to observe a couple common tendencies, whether in people off the street/couch, athletes, dancers or performers, or long-time yoginis.

These are broad generalizations, of course, and don’t apply to all equally.

Also, I have chosen to ignore medical terminology.

Humans are an anterior and front-facing species.

So it’s pretty much inevitable that the muscles on the front of our body are stronger than the muscles on the back, especially on our grabby bits.

We push and pull with our chest and the front and sides of our arms.

So generally, this means our upper back, as well as the the backs of the shoulders and arms, are a bit weaker.

There is the belief that Ashtanga Vinyasa people have hurt shoulders. Given the high repetitions of chaturangas, lolasanas, uth pluthis, jump-backs and urdvha dhanurasanas, this is definitely a shadow element of which we ought to be aware.

Generally when a person tells me they have shoulder pain, I watch them lower into chaturanga and, nine times out of 10, the top of their arm bone rolls forward in their shoulder --- the muscles that support the wing-bone and the backs of the shoulder are unable to keep the arm centered in its socket.

This imbalance is also why, for example, your hands slide together in pinche mayurasana, or you have a hard time keeping the elbows in when pushing up into urdvha dhanurasana.

I’m not sure why I see this so frequently. Maybe if we all squatted a lot this wouldn’t be an issue.

This generally is not an issue in former ballerinas or martial artists, that is, people who have done a lot of kicking and leg swings.

This is why you have to pay conscious attention to make sure your knee tracks your toes during virabadrasana.

Usually I see the knee waggle inward and the foot flatten.

Generally, we sit a lot, so the front of our hips shorten and the backs of our legs get weak.

We do no hip extension in the Primary Series until backbends, so this one's harder to untangle, though tiraing mukkha eka pada paschimattanasana is sometimes a good clue.

I didn’t want to present a problem and then not offer a solution; however, I wrote five pages of postural suggestions that, upon re-reading, caused my eyes to dry up and fall out of my skull from boredom.

So there’re a lot of great technical manuals out there: Maehle’s book, if for nothing but the technical info. Swenson's book is also always great simply because it's simple.

The act of writing out the alignment suggestions was therapeutic for me, though, because look, let’s face it: you just have to show up consistently and practice the Primary Series with a teacher/friend who has a good eye for energy lines --- or at the very least, has practiced for a little while themselves and can tell when something may hurt further on down the line.

To get too worried about correcting structural imbalances and we drift into the realm of physical therapy and denude the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice of its inherent power, and also become mired in the problem/solution dialectic.

I think this can be okay for a period of time because it can also reveal a lot about our expectations of a Yoga practice.

Do we expect it to take us from one state to another, one totally unlike the one before?

Do we consider life a problem to be solved?

Are we inherently broken and in need of fixing?

These feel like more important questions to savor ... they just have to be asked before they can be contemplated.