Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jin Kazama, avatars in practice, jumping back/through, and moving from the gross to the subtle

A number of bloggers have been talking lately about the rigors (and often, frustrations) of maintaining a home practice without a shala or teacher. This really speaks to me, as I practice mostly by myself here in the upper midwest. I have found that it is very helpful to have a personal motif/avatar that one can relate to. Having such a personal motif/avatar can really help one to feel a sense of purpose, and to continue to go it alone. Some people choose a deity (Hanuman, Shiva, etc.) for their avatar, but I personally don't think it has to be a religious or mythological figure. Anything that gets you on the mat, that makes you feel that practice means something important to you, works.

For me, my personal avatar is a martial arts master. I sometimes think of myself as a martial arts master who is quietly practicing in an obscure, cold (this part is literally true!) corner of the world, waiting for the right moment to unleash his powers on the universe! The character that often comes up in my head is Jin Kazama from the video game Tekken (see video above for more details). This character practices Shotokan Karate, which is a very traditional, "old-school" form of karate with lots of linear movements and straight punches and kicks, as you can see in the video (sorry for the poor quality, couldn't find a better video on Youtube). Actually, there is an interesting analogy to ashtanga, since ashtanga is widely regarded by many to be a very traditional, "old-school" form of yoga.

I just thought I'd share my avatar with you. Feel free to use whatever avatar that rocks your boat. Sometimes I wonder if I may be suffering from delusions of grandeur (is there a name for this mental condition?) by imagining myself to be a martial arts master. But then again, I feel that whatever gets my ass on the mat is a good thing.


Actually, there's more in common between martial arts and yoga practice than meets the eye. Here's something that I've been thinking about the last couple of days. In his recent post, Grimmly suggests that it might be possible to understand Krishnamacharya to intend the jumpbacks and jumpthroughs as a form of kriya. To be sure that I am representing what Grimmy is saying accurately, I'm going to quote him directly:

"Of particular interest to the Ashtangis might be where Krishnamacharya mentions Plavana as a Kriya... Plavana might be translated as flying or floating. Here he mentions lifting up out of an asana and stretching the legs back and forth before bringing the legs back in and lowering but it seems likely that this would also cover the jump back and jump through that is so familiar to Mysore Ashtanga practice.

Jump back as a a kriya, interesting, no?"
Yes, very interesting indeed, Grimmly! This post sparked a few comments (one of which is by yours truly). Roselil goes on to suggest that perhaps, when Krishnamacharya says "'lifting' and 'floating', he means 'lifting' and 'floating' and not 'jumping'"; what this means is that the practitioner should have the ability to "stop at any point midair and keep the body in that position."
I certainly am not at the point in my jumpbacks and jumpthroughs where I can stop at any point midair and keep my body in that position (although I can jump back and jump through without touching my toes to the ground). Does this mean that one can achieve the kriya effect only when one gets to the point when one can stop at any point midair and keep the body in that position? If so, then I am very far from achieving the kriya.
But here's something else to think about. In the "hard", "external" styles of martial arts (both Shotokan Karate and Shaolin kungfu are considered to be such "hard" styles), there is a well-known maxim among practitioners: "Practice proceeds from the outside to the inside." What this means is that in the early stages of practice, the kungfu practitioner works on developing muscular strength, power, endurance, stamina, and all of the other attributes that involve the gross muscular skeletal structure. As one progresses in practice, one begins to place more emphasis on developing chi and using breathwork and internal strength to direct one's movements and techniques rather than sheer muscular power.
I believe a similar process occurs in yoga practice. When I was studying with him, Eddie Modestini said on more than one occasion, "Yoga practice begins with working on the gross body and proceeds to the subtle body." I think this is a very apt description of what happens when we are working on jumpbacks and jumpthroughs. In the beginning, one tries to lift oneself off the mat using sheer muscular strength. At the same time, one is encouraged to coordinate the breath with the movement ("Inhale, lift; exhale, extend back and land in chaturanga.") The purpose of this breath-movement coordination, I believe, is to gradually inculcate in the practitioner the realization that the practice is first and foremost a breath-driven practice, and that if one has perfect control of the breath, one will, over time, attain perfect control of the body, getting to the point where one can stop one's movements at any point in midair and keep the body in that position. 

In this sense, I believe that both yoga and the martial arts are ultimately chi/prana practices that develop the practitioner's ability to move "from the inside", in a very concrete and real sense.
This, at any rate, is my very non-expert two cents' on this matter. I would love to hear your views on this. 
May the Force/Chi/Prana be with you.  


  1. Interesting. Though I have to say, that though ashtanga practice does begin with the 'gross body', it very quickly turns to being a case of focussing on consistent ujiyi breathing, and asana 'progress' follows from that ... I've been told this by Hamish Hendry in London, and read David Robson (Canada) also saying this. I know nothing about martian arts, so I'm afraid I have no idea how this relates to that ... :) Interesting thoughts though!

  2. Hello susiegb, thanks for your contributions. Although I've never studied with either Hamish Hendry or David Robson, my own practice seems to attest to the truth of everything you say about their teaching.

  3. I think martial arts and yoga are similar in that both work on gross body strengthening as well as subtle body balancing / breath coordinations. However in martial arts we also work on reading the opponents' prana flow/weaknesses in balance and try to redirect their prana + set them off-balance. Yoga classes don't really teach that aspect unfortunately. However, yoga teachers are trained to read students' prana flow and imbalances. So if I want to "go to the dark side" through yoga rather than through martial arts, I should take up teacher training :)

  4. @Yyogini, interesting. I have never thought about martial arts in terms of reading the opponents' prana flow and detecting weaknesses in it, and trying to use this knowledge to set them off-balance. This sounds right to me. Actually, Bruce Lee did say in an early scene in Enter the Dragon that at the highest level, martial arts is a dance between the practitioner and his opponent (a very deadly dance, at that!). Maybe he had this prana-reading/setting-off-balance thing in mind.

    The way I see it, yoga teachers also read their students' prana flow and detect weaknesses in it, only in this case, they use this knowledge to benefit the student rather than harm him or her. Which shows that the same thing (knowledge and awareness of prana/chi flow) can be used for both good and evil. How intriguing!

    Well, if you have been following all the recent conversations about teacher training and the Yoga Alliance, you might well be getting into the dark side in more ways than one if you take up teacher training :-)

  5. I never thought of it before, but the comparison between karate and ashtanga is quite a striking one. I used to train karate while I lived in Japan and a while after and used to love doing kata in a similar way to how I love going through the set series of postures in Ashtanga. And I think both karate and Ashtanga do start on the outside and work their way in in similar ways - I found the kata and the routines and the practice of karate meditative in some ways similar to the yoga. I finally quit karate (and began Ashtanga soon after) because I couldn't find the same brand in Norway as I practiced in Japan - but also because I couldn't find the same discipline (as in how people practiced - I guess I'm a sucker for tradition and hard work, hello Ashtanga...!) in Norway as I found in Japan. I guess the fighting part of it wasn't really my thing either in the end. But there are certain similarities, definitely - strange, I would never have thought of that myself.