Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Some Frank comments and rants from an Ashtanga Fundamentalist

An interesting conversation has sprung up on Claudia's blog in response to her latest post about the poll that she recently conducted about the popularity of Ashtanga. As usual, I will jump in here with my two cents'.

Frank, one of the commenters on Claudia's post, said some really interesting and thought-provoking things, so I'm going to "steal" his words here (and in the process, "violate" Asteya :-)), and use them as a jumping-off point to express my own views. Frank observes:

"Ashtanga requires a committment to some extent. It also requires getting over the idea that it is or will be boring because you're doing the "same thing" every day. This might be the biggest issue. People like creativity and mixing things up... People generally don't want to have to put in months or years of work just to be "allowed" to practice Pincha Mayurasana or Handstanding (in particular) or the cool arm balances of 3rd Series..."

I really relate to this. One of the things that kept me from becoming a full-time Ashtangi for so long was my perception that doing the same thing everyday was boring and probably unbalanced as well. The idea of doing the same thing everyday goes against much of the conventional wisdom of sports medicine, which holds that one should work different muscle groups everyday. It was only when I met my teacher and decided to just "take the plunge" into doing primary everyday that I began to see that repetition is the only way to cultivate perfection and a spirit of equanimity in the face of whatever the practice (and life) has to throw at us. So I can understand why people would see this "Ashtanga thing" as boring. It literally took me a leap of faith to be able to see things from the other side, so to speak, and appreciate the beauty of this practice.

Frank continues: 

"Most people who like working on those things I mentioned have a certain amount of shoulder strength (which I've always lacked), which makes those things easier for them (thus why they like doing them), but it makes back-bends harder, and practing arm balances/handstands only makes back-bends even more difficult.... If you have strong shoulders and can do Pincha or free-standing handstand without a problem, why do Ashtanga, a practice that will likely force you to be stopped at Kapotasana (or earlier) for months or even years? Unless you're willing to "detach" from those arm balances and allow your shoulders to open up for back-bends first, Ashtanga is going to be a really hard sell."

This is a very well-taken and thoughtful point. I have never been particularly attached to arm balances, but I do have a certain amount of upper-body strength and some openness in the hips, which means that those fancy arm balances in 3rd (Vasisthasana, Visvamitrasana, Astavakrasana etc.) came quite easily to me. I still have pictures of me in Astavakrasana from my pre-Ashtanga days (no, you won't get to see them here :-)), and at the risk of sounding very immodest, they're not half-bad.

On the other hand, I've never been a natural back-bender, and never had a desire to be "good" at backbends. Probably because of this, I could never understand why people were so obsessed over, say, grabbing their heels in kapotasana or touching the foot to the back of the head in Ekapada Rajakapotasana. This, combined with my facility in those fancy arm-balances, made me feel for the longest time that Ashtanga had nothing to offer me. However, as I related in an earlier post, one can only make so much progress doing only those postures one is "good" at. At some point, I hit a "stuck" point in my yoga practice beyond which I couldn't progress. And then I met my teacher, and decided to just give this "Ashtanga thing" a shot. The rest, as they say, is history... Well, not quite, but you know what I'm saying :-)

Frank continues,

"Really, people in the West don't want a system or a method; they just want to do a bunch of fun things and sweat out last night's pizza and ice cream in the process.. I think many people had bad experiences with super-hard-ass teachers. If those people came across Ashtanga teachers who were more welcoming (not needing to change or dumb-down the practice, but just not having a drill-sergeant or otherwise nasty attitude from the first moment), I think many more of those people would stick with it."

Well, I know at least one Ashtanga teacher who is neither super-hard-ass nor has a drill sergeant attitude: Kino! At the risk of sounding like a shameless Kino groupie, I have to say, from having taken two of her workshops, that she has a very accommodating attitude, and is willing to work with whatever issues people have (injuries, etc.) and challenge them to grow their practice where they are at.

As for doing a bunch of fun things and sweating out last night's pizza and ice-cream... At the risk of sounding like a fundamentalist, I'm going to say a couple of things that I have observed about some yoga practitioners in this country. I think many yogis see yoga as a welcome break from the rigidity of "conventional" fitness modalities (aerobics, running, etc.). They find the accommodating and all-embracing atmosphere in many yoga classes to be a welcome change from the sort of drill-sergeant fitness classes that they had previously been exposed to before they came to yoga.

Which is very well and good. More power to yoga for this. But as I said, at the risk of sounding like a Yoga-Sutra-thumping yoga fundamentalist, I venture to speculate that these yogis may have overlooked two things:

(1) Like anything else that is worth doing in life, yoga practice demands great disciplined effort on the part of the practitioner.

(2) Any yoga tradition worth its salt encompasses a great body of wisdom that is beyond the limited intellect of the individual practitioner. In order to access this great body of wisdom, it is important to embrace the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to God) and to have a guru. Without Ishvara Pranidhana, one's practice can easily degenerate into an ego-boosting exercise. The guru, being somebody who has seen the light of ultimate reality even if only for a moment, is somebody who has the capacity to lead the practitioner from the darkness of ego to the light of liberation.

If we put (1) and (2) together, we'll see that although yoga is an accommodating and all-embracing practice, it is not ultimately an "anything goes" or a "you can do whatever you like so long as it feels good or right for you" system. True freedom -- freedom from fear, freedom from the limitations of one's ego -- cannot come about just by having the liberty to do whatever the heck we want.

My apologies if this is beginning to sound like an angry rant, but I think there exists this fundamental misunderstanding of what yoga is about in the hearts and minds of many a yogi and yogini. As I understand it, the purpose of the Ashtanga practice is not to bore or torture us with its fixed sequences, but to give us a fixed space within which we can take a hard look at various aspects of our selves as they arise. Because the practice is so fixed, there is no place to escape to when things come up, and one is made to face them and work through them in a creative and productive way. In this sense, the physical constraints of the practice might very well be its greatest gift to us. I'm not sure if this same effect can be achieved by a "do whatever feels good/right to you" type of vinyasa practice.

Whew! That was quite a rant, wasn't it?        


  1. I guess it depends if people take up yoga to find peace or to feel good. The way to achieve long-lasting peace is to learn to be okay with all the comfortable and uncomfortable moments of life. The rigidity of Ashtanga allows us to learn this. The feel-good yoga styles are more like any other recreational activities.

    Although I have to say when I took up a Power class with a new yoga teacher who focused on giving students a work out than allowing students to breath with the movements I felt intense aversion towards the class. Maybe if I had an established morning home-practice I wouldn't have had such a strong negative feeling; I'd just treat it as a strict work out challenge class. But I was expecting a breathing practice and I didn't get one, and that triggered an emotional response.

  2. Just have to add: there are yogis in other styles that push just as hard as Ashtanga though (while maintaining proper breathing practice). Good yoga teachers make all the difference, regardless of style of yoga.

  3. Nobel it does not violate asteya if you tell him that you are touched by his comment which you did and then give him full credit... I would not be so hard on you...

    I am still in awe at all the conversation around this, it is so interesting to see everyone's point of view!

  4. Yes, I agree with Claudia. And as I mentioned on her blog, I will have to keep in mind that what I post may be quoted at any time. LOL!

    Nobel, you are certainly correct: Kino is great--I have worked with her both in a weekend workshop she travelled to and at MLC (and yes, she even gave me a modification for a pose that I had not figured out what to do with due to a knee injury I had sustained). She is certainly not the type of teacher I was referring to. In fact, most of the authorized and certified teachers I've encountered are super nice and pretty realistic (and I have dropped in on a number local shalas when on vacation or away for the weekend). I think it's other, less-qualified teachers who have been the problem. People who took to Ashtanga because they like that it can be taught with the utmost rigidity and who like the extreme drill-sergeant approach. People who bark--loudly--at brand new students for bringing a water bottle into class or grabbing a yoga block/strap, both of which they've been taught to do in other styles (and the latter of which is not always off limits in Asthanga, depending on the teacher). Why would you yell at someone for doing something they didn't know you didn't want them to do? People who do that are turning people off not only their own classes but Ashtanga as a whole; it's the rare student who will put up with that--and rightfully so, I believe. It's one thing to "surrender" to your teacher; it's quite another to submit to verbal abuse or condescension. Civility should be paramount.

  5. I agree with you, Nobel, that there is confusion among practitioners as to the structure and purpose of yoga. Practicing only in a way that feels good will not incite the internal growth that we are ultimately in need of, but as someone who maintained a challenging vinyasa practice at home for years before coming to Ashtanga, I do think that the value of Ashtanga is available in other forms of yoga.

    Just because I practiced according to the needs of my body on any given day, and occasionally still do, doesn't mean that I only did what felt good. I challenged myself. I sat in the discomfort until it was not discomfort any longer. I have grown in ways I never could have dreamed through my vinyasa practice, but this is only because I approached the practice with dedication and an earnest desire to break through the illusions.

    So, yes, a fundamental approach to Ashtanga is a powerful practice, but it's not the postures or the sequence that make it so. It's the tapas.

  6. Many thanks for all your thoughtful comments.

    Yyogini, I agree with you that in the end, it's probably not the style per se, but the intention and attitude of both the instructor and the student, that determines whether the class reaches somebody on a deep level, or whether it is just a "kick-ass workout". Having been a vinyasa teacher before, I am definitely guilty of having this kick-ass workout mentality during particular periods of my teaching. I guess I'm fortunate to now have the opportunity to engage in mainly self-practice: Since there is now nobody to compare myself to on most days, and I have other responsibilities to take care of, the practice becomes more like this introspective space within which I can look into and understand myself better.

  7. Yes, Claudia, this has been a most awesome conversation. Thank you for starting this :-)

    Frank, I agree with you. I have yet to meet an authorized or certified teacher who behaves in that drill-sergeant way you described. Sometimes I think that the teachers who tend to teach in this fashion tend not to be Ashtanga teachers per se, but are teachers who may have attended a few Ashtanga classes, and teach sequences that are "Ashtangafied": I suspect that, due to their rather short and superficial encounter with Ashtanga, they have this understanding of Ashtanga as being "drill-sergeant yoga." At least, this is my perception. Yes, I definitely agree that "It's one thing to "surrender" to your teacher; it's quite another to submit to verbal abuse or condescension. Civility should be paramount."

  8. Megan, I think you are right that there is a difference between practicing in a way that respects one's needs on any given day, and simply practicing in a way that feels good (although I also think that it is not always easy to see this distinction, which is why we need teachers :-)). Simply practicing in a way that feels good will not generate the tapas needed for real change. Whereas it is possible to find the space within the Ashtanga system itself to practice in a way that respects one's needs on any given day. But maybe I'm not the best person to speak on this matter; like you, I did not start out practicing Ashtanga.

  9. This is not an angry rant at all, I'm really loving the discussion! This practice has shown me the value of #1 - an important, priceless lesson that can be applied to virtually any endeavor in life. My hope is that through a consistent effort at #1, #2 will work itself out in my practice eventually.

  10. Yes, savasanaaddict, I think that #1 leads to #2 eventually. If one practices consistently with sufficient intensity, one realizes that there is nowhere to go but inwards.

  11. I saw you wrote about Ishvara Pranidhana (here and before) and mentioned you were Buddhist in an earlier post- been thinking about this stuff a lot myself the last few months. The Yoga Sutras were written in a cultural context based on Vedic and Brahmanic traditions, and although yoga is a very generic term in Indian culture, today it is synonymous with physical postures and related philosophies of the Samkhyas and Patanjali, etc. Yoga is a commonly used term in Jainism and Buddhism, for example, however it means something completely different than what it did for Patanjali. For example, when a Buddhist practitioner attains the state of an arya bodhisattva, they attain yogic direct perception (yogipratyaksa). The yogic path in Buddhism is to attain enlightenment by realizing the lack of the atman, the opposite to what Patanjali explained!

    I have been a Buddhist since I was quite young and started doing yogasana because of back problems while writing a long thesis in Buddhist studies. I also studied Patanjali and to me there is a clearly incompatible thing here. Buddhist philosophy clearly refutes concepts such as purusa and prakti AND Ishvara. Ishvara generally refers to god, "the controller". Even if one wanted to interpret it as something else, then how would a Buddhist come to terms with Patanjali's emphasis on other incompatible concepts?? Buddhist literature is replete with examples of works debating against Samkhya related philosophies (eg Patanjali). Purusha/atman, is the main thing to be refuted- the Buddha's first teaching is the Truth of Suffering, the main reason for this suffering is the concept of atman. All Buddhists agree on this.

    Physical yoga today is religiously pluralistic and one will find people from various religions, or none, doing suryanamaskar together. Although called yoga, it doesn't qualify as yoga as taught by Patanjali without the philosophy as the exercises are just a small part.

    Suryanamaskar is another example of this philosophical incompatibility. One basically prostrates to Surya, and in advanced versions (in all traditions stemming from Krishnamacharya- even in Sri P Jois' Ashtanga Vinyasa), one recites the associated mantra (om mitraya namah, etc..)- a form of worship and taking refuge in Surya. In Buddhist this type of practice is reserved for the 3 Jewels- Namo Buddhaya, etc.

    Ishavara Pranidhana is also problematic in the same way. Ishavara refers to a god. I don't know what classical commentarial literature on Patanjali explains otherwise. This is clear in even more recent texts like Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Makaranda. "Ishvara" does not equate with concepts such as "universe" or "energy"- it refers to a type of purusha, purusha vishesha, a god. The Buddha explained that there is no Ishvara. Even if one doesn't take the term "Ishvara" literally, there is still the concept of pranidhana. In Buddhism one doesn't depend or surrender to anything, you depend on yourself for liberation. Depending on tradition, even following a guru isn’t essential in Buddhism. Pratyekabuddhas, for example, attain enlightenment even without a teacher in that specific lifetime.

    If asked about this, a contemporary Indian yoga teacher following Patanjali would say that Buddha can be Ishvara. From a modern Hindu perspective Buddha is god, so are the Jinas, you can make anything god. In India people have images of Hindu gods, cows, Jesus, Sufi saints, anything, on their altars. BUT this is from their theological perspective and is a view based on Brahmanism. Jains and Buddhists would strongly disagree with this view- neither is theistic.

    I still practice several series stemming from Krishnamacharya but I personally limit it to physical aspects and also as a tool to strengthen skills in concentration- both of which I find very helpful in meditation- Samadhi is a necessary tool for Buddhist practice ofcourse.


  12. Hello Joona,
    thank you for taking the time to write this very well-thought-out response. My understanding of Buddhist (or, for that matter, yoga) philosophy is definitely nowhere near as profound as yours, so what I'm about to say is going to have a very shoot-from-the-hip quality to it. Please bear with me.

    I think it was the Infinite Meanings (Muryogi in Japanese) sutra that says, "Infinite Meanings derive from the one law." As I understand it, what this means is that the dharma, or mystic law manifests itself in all phenomena in different ways to different individuals. One person may understand this manifestation in terms of, say, atman, and somebody else may choose to understand it in terms of Christ. Again, as I understand it, there is nothing inherently wrong with holding such understandings. The problem arises when individuals become overly attached to their individual understandings, and fail to perceive the value in others' understandings.

    As for Pranidhana... perhaps "surrender" is a problematic term. What we need is a term that connotes the opposite of being attached to something due to one's own egoistic conceptions (being detached, maybe?). The way i understand it, the concept of Pranidhana is to be taken as implying that although one is not dependent on others for liberation, one should also be open to giving up or "surrendering" one's own possibly limited conception of the truth when one is confronted with something that transcends it.

    I honestly do not know if my understanding of Pranidhana agrees with Krishnamcharya's in the Yoga Makaranda. But I remained attached to it, unless a more fruitful interpretation that works better for me comes along :-)

    Actually, for that matter, I don't know if my own interpretation of how my Buddhist practice squares with yoga philosophy agrees with anybody's. But I honestly don't really care, so long as it works and creates value for me.

    I also don't know if it is ultimately possible to practice the yoga practices of the Krishnamacharya lineage while limiting it to only the physical aspects and "also as a tool to strengthen skills in concentration"; I have the feeling that one can't do the physical practice without being drawn into the spiritual aspects somewhere along the line (I think this is how Krishnamacharya and the yogis before him intended the practice to work anyway). But I don't think this is problematic. Whatever works :-)

    I hope you don't find my response frustrating. But I can only share what I feel and have some understanding of, however limited that may be.

  13. I think debating about these issues is good, not frustrating, because we all learn from them, getting each others ideas and solutions. I think definitely if you practice Krishnamacharya’s lineage you will get interested in the philosophy- which is why I studied it more- my understanding of Samkhya before I did that was only based on Buddhist refutations of this philosophy and now, although I still don’t agree with Patanjali’s philosophical view, I see much value in it and really really appreciate it.

    I think you make some good points and I do think that it is possible to make use of teachings which one finds useful and abandon those one doesn’t. The term “Buddhist” doesn’t exist in any Buddhist culture- in Tibetan, for example, the term in “nangpa”, which means something like “someone who looks inside.” So I would agree that many of the teachings of Patanjali on ahmisa, yama, samadhi and even those of Jesus can be equated with the Buddha-Dharma.

    The line from the Ananta Nirdesa Sutra, the Mahayana sutra which you quoted (I’m guessing you follow a Nichiren school ) means that the Buddha teaches in different ways to train varied students- for example many would find the teachings of the Theravada and Mahayana schools to have many opposing views. This is the Buddha’s skilful means. But the Buddha taught differently to different people depending on their capacity. The Dalai Lama has said, for example, that he believes Jesus was a bodhisattva- so in that case one could believe that he was taming students through skilful means. I guess the same could be applied to Patanjali or Krishnamacharya, who were undoubtedly great teachers as well. From an official general world-wide Buddhist view this is certainly not the case though as the only being who is recognised as fully enlightened being is the Buddha Shakyamuni- there is no Buddhist tradition which accepts Jesus as an enlightened being. Also, vitally, accepting the existence of a supreme, permanent god, as all of these teachers taught, and the existence of the guna, purusa and prakti (vital to Patanjali), just cannot equate with the Buddhadharma as these views, from the perspective of the Buddhadharma, represent false view, which will cause suffering an bind you to samsara, and have been refuted by Buddhist scholars and teachers of all traditions. The ultimate philosophical view as described in all of the Buddha’s teachings (incl. the Lotus Sutra and the Ananta Nirdesa), is that of the ultimate nature of reality- emptiness, anatman, and that clinging to the self is the main cause of suffering. This is what any well-trained Buddhist teacher would say. Ahimsa, ethics, samdahi, “love thy neighbour” etc… on the other hand, are not false views and are causes for liberation.

    In every Buddhist country local religions have mixed with Buddhism- so even though one takes bits from Shinto or Patanjali, for example, it is important for a Buddhist, to abandon views which are not in accordance with the Buddhadharma. But despite this, in reality the thing about Indian traditions is they are non-dogmatic, and I think that if combining several philosophies (as many of my friends even do) makes one grow and into a more virtuous person then that is the most important thing as both Brahamanic and Buddhist traditions will agree that even merely engaging in virtuous and positive actions, without a set out philosophical view, will eventually get you to ultimate realisation if continued.