Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A few scattered thoughts on change and evolution in the Ashtanga practice

A lively conversation has sprung up in response to both Claudia's and Megan's recent posts on changes in the way Ashtanga (in particular, the primary series) is practiced. I thought I'll jump in here as well, and give my two cents' on this matter.

I have noticed these changes as well (particularly, the change from nine rolls to five in Garbha Pindasana), but I have never found them to be shocking or dramatic. But then again, that's probably because I am a relatively new Ashtanga practitioner (I only became a "full time Ashtangi" sometime in the middle of 2009), and my teacher (now you know who he is, he who shall not be named :-)) only got authorized a couple of years ago. By that time, the five-rolls-instead-of-nine rule in Garbha was already well-established. And although I had dabbled in Ashtanga before 2009, and vaguely remembered that it used to be nine rolls and not five (doesn't this sound delicious? Rolls? As in bread? :-)), since I was only a dabbler, the change did not really bother me much.

Actually, come to think of it, the change that bothered me more was the change in drishti in the primary series forward bends from the navel to the toes. I clearly remember being at Tim Miller's workshop in Miami in May 2008, and being told by him that the drishti in Paschimottasana and all the primary series forward bends is the navel, so that in all those postures, one ends up doing a semi-Jalandhara Bandha with the chin and the chest. This agreed with what I had been doing in my own Iyengar-inspired practice up to that point. Mr Iyengar doesn't talk about drishti in his Light on Yoga, but I'm quite sure that in Paschimottasana, he is photographed with his chin down towards his chest.

And then I met my teacher in 2009, and one of the first things he corrected me on was the drishti in all those forward bends, telling me that I should be looking at the toes. I told him about what Tim said, and his response was, "I always go with what Sharath says." End of conversation.

It took me a while to get used to this looking-at-the-toes-in-the-forward-bends thing, but I eventually got used to it. And once I got used to it, I saw that it made a lot of sense from an energetic point of view. I feel that looking forward (as opposed to looking down) has the effect of lifting one's energy, making it easier to transition to the next pose, whereas looking down has the effect of drawing the energy down/inward, so that one has to exert more of a psychic effort to draw the energy back up to transition to the next posture. I don't know if any of this makes sense from any objective point of view, it's just how I feel subjectively.

As to Megan's question, "Why and how does the series get changed?", well, I honestly don't have any answer to this question. My own take on all of this is quite un-Ashtangic, "If something works for you, do it. If it doesn't, try to make it work. If it still doesn't work, well... then do whatever it is that works for you." I mean, what's the worst that can happen? :-) It's not as if some Ashtanga Police are going to barge into your practice room/shala and strip you of your Ashtangic powers if you don't do things the "right way"... 

19 comments:

  1. It's not as if some Ashtanga Police are going to barge into your practice room/shala and strip you of your Ashtangic powers if you don't do things the "right way"...

    HA HA HA, needed that laugh, like the detached attitude!

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  2. 5 rolls for Garbha! I just started getting it in 9! I never heard 5 but I dont have a teacher in Las Vegas. I think Kino says 9 in her dvd. Im going to have to check.

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  3. Thanks for weighing in on the issue, Nobel. And GREAT point about the dristhi in forward bends. I get confused where to look because I've been instructed to do it both ways. Swenson looks to the toes in the Practice Manual. Maehle and his beautiful wife tuck the chin in his Practice & Philosophy. So you're saying it's officially, at time of press, drishti to the toes?

    I guess the larger point is that it doesn't really matter. Since my core practice is at home, as I believe yours is also, I have the room the choose the best method for me when I practice at home, but I'll respect the teacher's method when I practice in their room.

    PS: I dare the Ashtanga Police to try and strip me of my powers. ;)

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  4. Claudia, :-)

    Laura, I won't be surprised if Kino says 9 in her DVD. Kino is a very interesting teacher; she has described herself as a bridge between the "older-generation" of Ashtanga teachers and the "newer-generation". There are many things in her teaching that are old-school (9 rolls in Garbha, and she also appears to be flexible about that no-second-series-before-standing-up-from-dropping-back rule, etc.), but she also seems to go with Sharath on many things (doing the long vinyasa count, for instance).

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  5. Megan, yes, at time of press, to the best of my knowledge (i.e. according to what my teacher says Sharath says), the drishti to the toes.

    I always adopt the "when in a teacher's shala, do as the teacher says" policy, which is what I think you do too. After all, if something doesn't work for me, I'll just revert to my own thing later :-)

    Btw, I like the ekapada bakasana exit from Mari A too. I think it's really elegant and economical movement-wise. I did it the entire year I spent at my teacher's shala, and he didn't correct me. Assuming that what he says is "kosher" is what Sharath says is "kosher", we can probably infer from this that Sharath is probably cool with this exit too.

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  6. I used to look to the toe in forward folds and that strained my neck (maybe coz I'm pretty far down but not all the way flat against my foot?) So now I faceplant on my leg just to reduce neck strain. I also focus more on neck lengthening instead of looking up to finger tips in my trikonasanas. Neck health first; proper drishi will have to come later.

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  7. Well, I must go and read Claudia's and Megan's blogs, but ... 5 rolls in garbha pindasana?!!!! I have never heard this! I have enough trouble getting round in 9!!! Maybe this hasn't come to Australia yet - or at least the part that I live in

    As far as drishti goes - I've always used toe drishti in the forward bends so that's not a shock, but ... 5 rolls?!! How does anyone do that??!!

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  8. Basically, what Susie said. I've finally got round in 9 rolls the very first time this week, 5 feels so unreachable!

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  9. Yyogini, I sometimes think that a lot of neck strain in looking foward occurs because we tend to unconsciously "scrunge" our neck muscles up when we look up or forward in forward bends. So maybe you can try looking forward, and see if your neck muscles "scrunge" up. If they do, try to consciously release them. Just a suggestion. But you are right: "Neck health first; proper drishti will have to come later."

    susiegb, sometimes I have this hunch that different teachers kind of decide on their own what changes from Sharath to incorporate into their teaching, and what not to. Perhaps your teacher has decided to stick to 9 rolls, for whatever reason.

    It's actually possible to do 5 rolls: I just did it this morning. You just have to kind of make yourself cover a bigger angle with each roll. Some days, I have to do 6 rolls because I don't cover enough angle, but it's possible.

    Ragdoll: See my response to susiegb.

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  10. Eka pada bakasana A exit from marichi A, huh? I lift up my marichi A and jump from there, but that isn't EPBA. I know that because I'm at EPBA in 3s and can't do it at all yet, whereas the jumpback is easy :)

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  11. Hello Susan,
    yes, we are probably playing fast and loose with the nomenclature here: I really don't know what the proper name is for that posture which you lift up into from Mari A. Do you?

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  12. Absolutely love the last line, and am beyond intimidated about the 5 rolls in Garbha P. I'm still working through my 15-ish rolls....

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  13. There is no posture, it's just a transition :)

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  14. Savasanaaddict, keep working on it. You will definitely get to five rolls. But now I'm really curious: Why the change from 9 rolls to 5? Maybe somebody should ask Sharath while he's in this country... Will any of you people out there in NY who are going to practice with Sharath tomorrow ask him? :-)

    Susan: Ah... isn't it funny how many of the most elegant movements and transitions have no names? :-)

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  15. I agree, it's a lovely movement!

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  16. your teacher exhibits great strength and amazing flexibility at the same time in the photos of his practice.

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  17. Arturo: My teacher says thanks! :-)

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