Friday, December 2, 2011

Ancient South Indian Spiritual Kungfu, pushing one's limits, and relaxation

Sometimes I'm embarrassed to tell people I do yoga. Why am I embarrassed? Because I think most people out there see yoga as this gentle activity which relaxes you: Picture a yoga studio with a teacher at the front, giving out directions in a soft, yoga-teacher voice ("Extend your arms towards the heavens, feel your heart open. Allow the warm fuzziness of your freshly opened heart to radiate forth..."), complete with incense, soft music, and all kinds of feel-good affirmations.

Ashtanga, as most of you who are reading this know, is nothing like this. Somehow, when I tell these people that I practice yoga, I see something in their eyes that lets me know that they have in mind the kind of picture I just painted above. I don't know how to explain this; I just know. At times like this, I almost feel that I would be giving them a better picture of what I do if I simply leave out the word "yoga", and tell them that I practice this set of intense ancient mind-body exercises that pushes and challenges one's mind and body to the limits of what one thinks possible. But if I say this, then they'll probably ask, "Oh, you practice kungfu?" And then I might reply, "Yeah, ancient South Indian spiritual kungfu; the kind that might bust your left knee if you are not careful doing it." Maybe I should rename my class "Ancient South Indian Spiritual Kungfu." I might get more students this way :-)

But seriously, have you ever wondered why this Ashtanga practice causes us to sweat and physically challenge ourselves so much? Isn't asana supposed to be Sthira Sukham Asanam (Nicki Doane's translation: "Asana is effort with ease, relaxation without dullness."). Where is the Sukha if one is constantly pushing one's limits, sweating like a pig, and leaving the mat with sore muscles? I found something on this blog that might shed some light on this question. At a recent conference in Mysore, somebody asked Sharath the following:

"Question: 'Sharath, why if we're supposed to be relaxed in a posture do you push our limits?'

Answer: [Smiling] You're misunderstanding relaxation. Relaxation in a posture means that if I count it for 2 hours you can stay. You have to reach your limitations longer. You should steadily take to your posture. Bring stability then you can hold for long time.  

[laughing] I feel happy for you Guruji is not there."

Now this is something to think about... Can you imagine holding Kapotasana for 2 hours?


  1. I really enjoyed this post. You know, you do practice kung fu ("energy + time", i.e. any discipline you put effort into over time) just like those of us in the martial arts practice (or should be practicing) yoga in the sense of the uniting & harmonizing of body, mind & spirit. "...effort with ease, relaxation without dullness," is a good ideal for both streams of practice. And the sweat and humility that come from really pushing yourself are key parts of the process. But anyway, the best thing I can say about your post is that it makes me want to go train some more. Thanks!

    1. I'm glad my post inspires you to go train some more :-) Yes, I have always believed that yoga is a form of kungfu and kungfu is a form of yoga.