Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Two modes of asana practice

An interesting incident happened during practice this morning ("interesting" may not be the best description, but I can't think of anything better, so I'll go with that).  I was just beginning the standing sequence, and my girlfriend (now she's officially banned from reading this blog, hahaha...) also happened to be in the room, doing the morning Buddhist prayers. I got into trikonasana on the first side, and experienced a very satisfying "pop" around the area of my hamstring attachment/tailbone (not very anatomically precise, I know, but I think you know what I'm talking about...).

The "pop" caught her attention. She stopped what she was doing, and said I should try a particular variation of trikonasana she had been practicing. Recently, she had been taking classes with a Kripalu-inspired teacher, and the teacher had been working with her on a sequence that is designed to slowly get her into Hanumanasana. Anyway, she came over, and adjusted me in trikonasana. She got me to raise my torso slightly higher than it usually is, so that my fingers were no longer grabbing my big toe. And then she told me to rotate my torso so that I would have the same hip alignment as I would have in Virabhadrasana I. I was thinking: Why would you want to do Virabhadrasana I in Trikonasana? I mean, if you want to get the effects of Vira I, why not just do Vira I? But I went along with it anyway. The whole thing felt... off. Whatever the merits of trying to do Vira I in Trikonasana, they cannot (in my humble opinion) substitute for the usual hip and chest-opening benefits of my usual Trikonasana. So I told her I prefer the conventional ashtanga Trikonasana instead of this hybrid.

And I so went back to doing my usual Trikonasana. But then she told me that my spine wasn't as straight in the ashtanga Trikonasana (there's a slight S-curve in the lumbar region) as it is in the hybrid. Arrgghh! Why does it matter if my spine isn't freaking straight as a ramrod (or "stiff as a poker", as Mr Iyengar would put it in Light on Yoga). Okay, so my trikonasana probably won't make the cover of Yoga Journal anytime soon. But (again, in my humble opinion) the point of asana practice isn't primarily to look a certain way in postures. The energetic/prana component is just as, if not more important. That's where the flow of the breath, the holding of the big toe, and the drishti come into play.

But I kept all these thoughts to myself, and just went on with the practice. But this incident brings up a related thought. It occurs to me that there are at least two modes of asana practice:

(1) Asana practice as a means to "achieve" a particular desired asana. In this mode of practice, one performs a certain sequence of asanas with the intention of achieving a particular posture (for example, hanumanasana, kapotasana, some arm-balancing posture, or whatever the desired posture is). In this mode, one's practice usually consists of a series of carefully chosen postures, each designed to either strengthen or open the areas of the body needed to perform the desired posture successfully. For example, a sequence that leads up to hanumasana might consist of standing postures, hip/hamstring-openers, and a few backbends. In this mode, one is also likely to "tweak" or "play around" with "traditional" postures (such as Trikonasana) in an attempt to maximize whatever effects one wishes to get out of these postures (whether it is actually effective or not is, of course, an entirely different story..).

(2) Asana practice as a moving meditation/breath practice. Traditional ashtanga practice fits this mode. In this mode, one uses the various challenges of the asana practice to make one focus on the breath and the demands on the mind/body in the particular moment. The performance of a particular posture is an event in and of itself; the posture is not performed in order to "get" some other posture further down the line. So, for example, in performing Marichyasana B, I focus on the demands this posture makes on my mind/body in the moment. I am not doing it in order to get a deeper Marichyasana D, although this might very well be a by-product. In this mode, every moment, every posture is an end in itself, not merely a means to the next more challenging posture.

Of course, modes (1) and (2) are not mutually exclusive. As you probably have noticed, doing Marichyasana B first does actually put one in a better position to do Marichyasana D (imagine doing it the other way around!). So there might be a sense in which mode (1) can help one to perform mode (2) better. Moreover, sometimes being in mode (2) can inadvertently help one to achieve a particular posture: If one focuses more on doing Mari B properly when one is doing Mari B (rather than worrying about Mari D), one is more likely to have achieved the necessary hip-opening when it comes time to do Mari D, all other things being equal. And I don't mean to say that being in either mode is necessarily "better" than the other. I think both are equally respectable ways of approaching asana practice. But I can't help feeling that the effects on one's mind/body are quite different, depending on which mode is the mode that one is more often in. Hmm... so maybe one mode (or at least being in one mode more of the time) might be "better" than the other, after all? Intriguing, intriguing...

If you have any thoughts on this matter, I would love to hear them.      


  1. I do Ashtanga to achieve #2, but when I take a yoga class of a different style and the teacher gives alignment instructions opposing to what I know, or makes us do a variation of a traditional pose, it sometimes brings new sensations to the body, which can be an awakening experience too. So I'll go for #1 not to "achieve" a certain pose, but to experience the sensations and thoughts that come up in the process. #1 places a bit more emphasis on the body and #2 more on the mind. It's good to focus on different things on different days to get a good balance :)

  2. Nice posting. Do you know about these yoga books?


  3. Yyogini, I like your perspective on #1, that it can be a way to experience new and unfamiliar sensations in the body. I never really thought about it that way.

    sfauthor, thanks for letting me know about this site. I know about these yoga books, but I do not know they are available on this website. I'll check it out. Thanks.