Friday, August 26, 2011


I received a great question from Matthew, who asks:

"I read the book Yoga Body by Singleton. The entire last chapter seems to try to disprove the validity of the order of the series in our style. How do you feel about that? I don't care whether or not the Yoga Korunta is responsible for the order of the postures, but I feel that there is a wonderful logic to it because of the way my body responds. I used to do "arbitrary" yoga and it doesn't come close in effectiveness for me. What are your thoughts on this matter?"

My response:

I don't feel Singleton's book disproves the validity of the various series of Ashtanga Vinyasa, nor does it raise questions about its efficacy.

What the book does do, however, is pretty well demolish any link between the specific series and either Yoga practices of antiquity (as in the Vedas, Upanishads) or medieval periods (the Sutras, Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, et al).

The Yoga scholarship of the last 15 years supports the theory that the modern body practices go no further back than modern, 20th century authors. This means we are not practicing techniques handed down in an unbroken lineage from days of yore.

Like I said, though, this does not discredit the efficacy or power of the sequences, or of practicing a set, determined series.

Rather, it means we have to acknowledge they, like all practices, have evolved to meet our needs and conditions as they are now.

What's more, this idea frees us from the notion that we are simply and merely trying to recreate some ancient yogi's experience.

I hope this is useful to you.

Enjoy your practice!

Thursday, August 25, 2011


I saw the following on John Gruber's Daring Fireball this morning: "Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 interview with Playboy: The most terrifying fact of the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light." I submit that what Kubrick refers to here as a "fact" — that the universe is inherently "indifferent" — is nothing more than the meaning he himself has ascribed. I also suggest that we can expand out Kubrick's perspective to view three possible perspectives, postures or "seats" (asanas) one can take on the universe: 1. The universe is against us. This is the belief that the forces of the universe are deeply inimical, antithetical, or opposed to our desires, dreams, and very being. I have known people like this in my life (for example, my own brother) and have, at times embodied this view myself. Ah, the teenage years, when I thought, in alphabetical order, that Bierce, Bukowski, Camus, Celine and Sartre, among others, had really figured it all out, and were offering the best way of thinking about my life. There is a victim mentality that seems to accompany this posture. This asana reminds me of Abel, of Cain and Abel fame, a story that, among other things, tells us that there are predators and there are victims. One of life's questions then becomes, which one are you? 2. The universe is indifferent to us. Kubrick's quote above is typical of this view, though it seems to me there's underlying this asana is the idea that the universe is in fact a "vast darkness." It also seems this view is typical of what's considered the modern Western materialist view — that the universe is reducible to tiny components that inhabit a separate space through which we move. On a mythic level, I think of Sisyphus: we are here to roll the rock up the hill again and again, an inherently futile effort, yet one in which we must find beauty and meaning. 3. The universe supports us. As emanations of the universe, the "one turning," we are in fact not and never separate from everything else. Different, yes; separate, no. From the perspective of this asana, we are here to move in synchrony with and to participate in it. In this way a Yoga practice becomes the practice of not freeing ourselves from life or overcoming it. Ram, Sita and Hanuman embody this: conditional love, unconditional love, and the agent that re-unifies them, each moving according to their capacities, desires and duties. I think it's important to know how your system of Yoga addresses these postures, as each one does so differently. To look at these three views as asanas is helpful, as the implication of a consciously chosen seat implies personal choice and the power of our intention and attention. Which of the three views do you choose to invest in, knowing that in turn, this view will inform and infuse your life? I think it's also possible to hold opposing seats at different times, too. What situations cause fluctuations in your asana? Family, work, relationships? For example, how does spending an afternoon at the DMV (to choose one of my favorite examples) affect your asana? To return to Stanley Kubrick: his perspective, that of the vast indifference of the universe, infused his films, from Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon to The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. So while his films are among those I respect, admire and am moved by, I find I can't love them like I love Truffaut (and not Godard), Renoir, Pasolini, Anderson.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I came across copies of Sir John Woodroffe’s books Sakti and Sakta, Kundalini Yoga, and Mahanirvana Tantra back in 2006 at the Community Resource Center in Encinitas.

The CRC is one of my favorite thrift stores in the world, if only because the books were (and, to my knowledge, still are) between $1 and $2, which means I spent $4.50 for all three.

It wasn't until this year, however, that I finally got around to reading these dense and weighty books. They are chock full of gems. I’ve been especially inspired by Woodroffe’s analysis of the differences and similarities between Samkhya Yoga, Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, and Shakta Tantrism.

One of Woodroffe’s explications of an aspect of Mantra Sadhana, or practice, was especially relevant to those of us who practice the breath/movement-based practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa:
“Japa is recital of Mantra ... One of the great Mantras is the physical act of breathing. As this is done of itself so many times a day, now through the right, and then through the left nostril automatically, it is called the Ajapa Mantra — that is, the mantra which is said to be without Japa or willed effort on man’s part.”
(page 454, Sakti and Sakta)
As Dr. Douglas Brooks has mentioned, to add the prefix “a” before a Sanskrit word often means “not” or “without.”

So to add an "a" to “vidya” or knowledge, for example, turns the word into its opposite, “avidya,” or ignorance.

However, occasionally, as in the case of japa/ajapa above, the prefix “a” can also mean “never without.”

Dr. Brooks cited “ghora” and “aghora.” If ghora means terrifying, why then is Kali, considered the most terrifying, called aghora? She is not "without terror." In this instance, she is “never without” absolute terror.

As Woodroffe states, the breath is considered Ajapa because it is continuous, and we are “never without.”

In the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, the volume of the breath is turned up ever so slightly using the ujjayi breath technique, and as a result, attention comes to one place. In so doing, the breath comes to have specific meaning and intentionality during the time we have chosen to turn up on our Yoga mats.

The Japa of the ujjayi breath allows engagement in Nyasa. As Woodroffe says:
“Nyasa ... means the “placing” of the hands of the worshipper on different [body parts], imagining at the same time that thereby the corresponding parts of the body of her Istadevata are being there placed. It terminates with a movement, 'spreading' the Divinity all over the body.”
(page 454, Sakti and Sakta)
The idea that the asanas, and the transitions between them, are the process of the "meaningful application" — or vi-nyasa — of my intentions and Japa onto my body is one that adds an expansive and progressive richness to my own Ashtanga Vinyasa practice.

Woodroffe is quick to observe that Brahman/Absolute/Source/Istadevata — or the archetype, quality, or icon of choice — is, of course, not something that can be physically spread:
“[W]hat may be and is spread is the mind of the worshipper, who by his thought and act is taught to remember and realize that she is pervaded by Divinity, and to affirm this by bodily gesture.”
(page 454, Sakti and Sakta)

Saturday, August 13, 2011


An Ashtanga practitioner named Norman Blair has written a three-part op-ed on Ashtanga Vinyasa that's now on Elephant Journal. 

Two narrative strands run throughout the piece. The first is Blair's disenchantment with Ashtanga Vinyasa as a vehicle to get him where he thought it might take him, a presentation of the model of enlightenment to which he subscribes.

The second strand is Blair's criticism of Ashtanga Vinyasa both as a system and as the current lineage-holders, Sharath and Saraswati, are carrying it forth.

I was disappointed that his discussion of the latter are full of speculation, rumor, and the re-presentation of third- or fourth-hand quotes, stories, and oft-repeated Ashtanga Vinyasa cliches.

So while he introduces general quotes about the nature of practice from people like, for example, the Zen Buddhist Dogen and a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Blair's criticism of Ashtanga lacks the citation of any sources, the attribution of any direct quotes, and any of the statistics to support any of his more serious claims.

For example, a teacher of Ashtanga Vinyasa broke someone's femur? Really? Who, when, and how? The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa breaks knees? How many, how frequently, and in comparison to what other systems of Yoga?

In effect, how do I know that any of the anonymous quotes or sentiments he uses were in fact made by real, valid, and most importantly, sane people? There's absolutely no context.

What's more, in any statements that might be taken as critical of Sharath and Saraswati, Blair engages in verbal distancing and does not directly mention them, the Mysore Jois Center, or the Jois Centers now opening worldwide.

The Box: Being Outside, Looking Inside: An Ashtanga Story