Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How Ashtangic does one's practice have to be in order to qualify as Ashtanga?

Before I try to answer the question in the title of this post, let me just say a couple of things about this morning's practice. I did second only up to Karandavasana this morning (probably will be doing this for a while; at least till the next time I see Kino, and she (maybe?) gives me some more postures to work on, or till I go to Mysore, whichever is the earlier).

In any case, practice this morning was powerful, and I took my time with the more challenging postures. In both Pincha Mayurasana and Karandavasana, I paused in downward dog and took three big breaths before kicking up into the posture. Why? Because I was feeling a bit winded from doing all the postures that came before. Why was I winded? Good question... One possible answer: Because I'm 35, and not, say, 18? Another possible answer: Because of the bottle of beer and the chips that I consumed last night while watching the Maltese Falcon (yes, I'm a big Humphrey Bogart fan :-))?

In any case, despite my windedness, there were two pleasant surprises: (1) I landed the duck in Karandavasana on the first attempt, so no need to repeat the posture. Still can't get back up, though. Working on that now. (2) Despite the deviation from the standard vinyasa count in a few postures (Pincha Mayurasana and Karandavasana among them), when I looked at the time at the end of practice, I discovered that I finished in an hour and twenty minutes. Probably no big deal for many of you out there, but it's a very decent time for me.

Looking around the blogosphere, I see that Grimmly has changed the name of his blog to (Ex) Ashtangi's Yoga at home. Grimmly's name change, as I understand it, is motivated by the fact that most of his daily practice now consists of Vinyasa Krama (VK), and not Ashtanga. As Grimmly himself puts it, the move away from Ashtanga is:

...kind of like breaking up with a lover, slow and torturous, each time you give it 'one more try' you realise you've grown further and further apart... Ashtanga is a kind of all or nothing gig, thought i could get away with once or twice a week given that the structure of my VK practice is similar."

Hmm... "Ashtanga is a kind of all or nothing gig". But is it, really? Sure, I suppose that if one is practicing VK more days of the week than Ashtanga (even then, Grimmly still keeps the Ashtanga Sandwich structure: Standing, main body, finishing), there might be an argument for saying that one has "moved away" from Ashtanga. But just where does one draw the line? What about somebody who does all the postures in primary in their prescribed sequence, but holds every posture for 10 breaths instead of the prescribed 5? Is this person doing Vinyasa Kramafied Ashtanga, or is he doing Ashtangafied Vinyasa Krama? What about if you modify postures in the Ashtanga sequence due to injury or other circumstances? Heck, what about my practice this morning? Does the fact that I took those couple of extra breaths in downdog before Pincha and Karandavasana mean that my practice is less Ashtanga than somebody who stuck to the strict vinyasa count? And what gives anyway? I mean, Lord Shiva did not descend from the heavens during practice this morning and say, "Bad Ashtangi! Thou shalt be banished to the land of Ashtanga Limbo!" Nor did the dreaded Ashtanga Police storm into the practice room and zap me with the Ashtanga-Powers-Neutralizing Ray Gun (last time I checked, I could still touch my toes :-)).

And really, Grimmly, can you imagine what you would have to do if you should decide one day to revert to practicing Ashtanga five or six days a week? Are you then going to rename your blog Ex[(Ex) Ashtangi's Yoga at home]? As Woody Allen might say with a certain wag of his hand, "Think about it; no, really." What's in a name, anyway?

"Think about it; no, really."
[Image taken from here]


  1. The thing I love about Ashtanga is that the practice is a vehicle that embodies firmness and flexibility, strength and yielding. For me the idea that the practice must conform to the traditional count and all that errs too much on the side of rigidity.

    The real benefit of the practice comes not from being able to perform the sequence by rote (i.e.: from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way); this totally misses the point for me. To me the real benefit is having that set sequence there to serve as a beacon, or measuring stick; as we go through the practice we watch ourselves perform the routine and we see where we are in our body and our mind at that moment. The practice is simply a vehicle to abide as the seer.

    The teacher who taught me primary said it this way: "we perform the same routine every day so we can watch the changes in ourselves." For me, that is perfect.

  2. Hello Tom,
    thanks for taking the time to write these insightful comments. I agree with much of what you say here, and I am by no means suggesting that only a practice that conforms to a "traditional" count is the "correct" practice. In any case, what is "traditional" changes all the time...

    The beauty of Ashtanga, in my opinion, lies in the fact that, having done a certain amount of memory work ("rote", if you will), the mind does not have to worry about what posture is supposed to come next, and is then freed up to observe sensations and thoughts that arise as one moves through the practice. I think we are in agreement here :-)

  3. to me astanga is exactly like woodshedding (which means practicing an instrument). you do scales or rhythms (in my case since i'm a drummer) over & over & over again & eventually you can play, which is extremely life-enhancing. like maude says in "harold & maude" when she hands harold a banjo-"EVERYONE should play SOMETHING!"

    that's how i see it. i have tried other styles along this path - hot yoga (which is disgusting to me but is similar in that it's the same thing over & over again) & iyengar - to learn more in-depth about allignment & the use of props, which ended up being valuable to my teaching. that's the only other style that i'm currently "open" to. i'm comfortable knowing that bks & jois had the same guru, which is important.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Bindy. I like your woodshedding example. As a rather unsuccessful ex-piano student, I totally see what you are saying.

    I think David Swenson once said somewhere that Ashtanga is like a running movie, whereas Iyengar is like the still frames from that movie. So in this way, they are like two different aspects of the same phenomenon.