Monday, May 16, 2011

More Meditations on the Core

"The stillness in stillness is not the real stillness; only when there is stillness in movement does the universal rhythm manifest."

Bruce Lee 

I have gotten some very thoughtful and insightful responses to my previous post about whether the Ashtanga practice is sufficient by itself for a core-centered practice. As such, I feel that this topic deserves further exploration.

At least a couple of commenters (among them Christine and Helena) on my previous post have mentioned that through practicing Ashtanga, one is able to slowly go from the outside to the inside, so to speak. When one first begins practicing Ashtanga, one might be lacking in muscular strength, and might try to make up for this lack of muscular strength by muscling through postures; which is, of course, ironic, but both life and practice are full of ironies, as we know...

But as one becomes stronger on the muscular-skeletal level, one also begins to realize that moving and working solely from the muscular-skeletal level is not the most effective or safe way to practice; one then begins to pay more attention to engaging the bandhas more intensively, and not just "part-time." To me, this represents one of the most beautiful paradoxes of the practice: Once one becomes "good" at doing something a certain way, one also discovers that there is in fact a "better" way of doing the same thing. One then has to discard what was previously thought to be the "good" way, and begin again as a beginner at trying to master the "better" way. In this way, the practice makes perpetual beginners of us all.

Indeed, I think it is even possible to distinguish the various different series of postures in the Ashtanga method by the progressive demands that they place on bandha engagement; as the practitioner progresses further in the Ashtanga series, she needs to engage her bandhas more intensely and constantly if she is to be able to perform the postures safely and effectively. On this note, David Garrigues relates the following story that Sharath shared in a recent conference: 

"Sharath related a story about how he asked Guruji about the difficulties he was having with a challenging section of an advanced series postures. This set of postures requires you to alternate between opposing postural patterns (ie extreme extension to flexion etc) without a warm up, without the hand holding type of continuity of first or second or even third series offers. Guruji told Sharath it was only possible to master this sequence by achieving a strong Mula Bandha. This story lit up the point that you practice Mula Bandha to strengthen your base, your center so as to be able to choose more freely both physically and psychologically,  and thus not get caught in one kind of pattern or groove. You become oriented and strong in the middle, in your core, and become capable of switching between patterns, even extreme opposites with relative ease."

There might seem to be a chicken-and-egg issue here: If bandha control is required in order to do the Ashtanga practice safely and effectively, wouldn't the beginning Ashtangi who has little or no control of the bandhas be setting herself up for strain and injury? We need to engage the bandhas to practice safely and effectively, but we will never be able to learn how to engage the bandhas effectively and safely unless we step on the mat and practice. So what is a good Ashtangi to do?   

I think this is where the inherent wisdom of mysore-style practice becomes apparent. Mysore-style practice is designed in such a way as to enable the practitioner to progressively move from postures that one can somewhat safely do using only muscle power (I emphasize "somewhat safely", because I believe that in order to do even these relatively basic postures safely in the long term, one needs to engage one's bandhas) to postures that demand more and more constant core/bandha work from the practitioner. In this sense, the practice is truly a practice: It is an ongoing practice in progressively gaining more and more control over one's core, both on and off the mat.    

I can go on and on, but I guess I'll stop here. It's getting late in the day, and man does not live on blogging alone: He also needs to eat and get some sleep. What might be the moral of this whole story? I don't know... maybe this means that it is better for an absolute beginner to Ashtanga to go to a mysore class than to a led class?

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