Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Practice on the path of recovery, some thoughts about the opening and closing chants in Ashtanga Yoga

Since I haven't posted for a week (why have I been so unmotivated to blog lately?), I suppose I'll start by saying a couple of things about my practice here. My strained trapezius (see previous post) is recovering slowly but steadily. I had to cut out chakrasana for a couple of weeks; a few days ago, I "regained" this beautiful transition pose. After not being able to do the pose for a couple of weeks, the sensation of rolling through the pose smoothly without the least bit of pain or strain on the upper back feels simply heavenly. It feels like getting to know and feel the pose all over again. From reading Ashtanga blogs over the past couple of years, I know that there are lots of Ashtangis out there who really dislike chakrasana: Many people think that it is very flashy and "show-offy", but is ultimately a useless pose that doesn't serve much purpose except get you from a supine position to downdog in a flashy, "show-offy" kind of way...

Well, I'm not going to mount any kind of defense of chakrasana here. I really don't know enough about the ins and outs and origins of chakrasana to say anything much about it. But I'll just say this: If something feels good, and also has the added advantage of making you look "cool" or "glamorous" or whatnot, why not do it? As it stands, very few postures in the primary series are really cool-looking or glamorous anyway; so why not take what you can get? :-)

But back to my injury recovery. As I was saying, I've pretty much re-introduced everything, except for the fact that I am still modifying chaturanga: I basically bend my elbows to whatever extent possible to lower into the pose, and then bring my knees to the ground to rise up into a modified updog. It seems that it will take a little longer for my arms to be able to bear weight with my elbows fully bent. The interesting thing is that, weight-bearing postures with arms straight (Bhujapidasana, Kukkutasana, etc.) are not a problem at all. Oh well. It is what it is.


Enough of my practice for now. I understand that there are folks in the blogosphere who think that blogging in detail about practice is not cool, not enlightened, or not-whatever. But with us Ashtangis, the physical practice is the starting point of the yoga journey. If one doesn't talk about the practice at least some of the time, one would risk throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, wouldn't one?

But maybe it is not a good idea to bore you with extended talking about the practice. Well, let's talk about something else that we do everyday: The opening and closing chants in Ashtanga. Over the weekend, I had a little discussion with a friend about the relationship between my Buddhist practice and my Ashtanga Yoga practice. One thing that came up was the issue of whether doing the opening and closing chants conflicts with the spirit of the Buddhist practice, which is essentially a practice that does not endorse the worshiping of gods or particular figures. I explained that the purpose of the opening chant is not to worship Patanjali, but to acknowledge, honor and offer thanks to him for making it possible for us to practice this wonderful yoga, and that the purpose of the closing chant is for us to set a clear intention to use this practice to do good in the world once we get off the mat. I'm not writing this because I feel any particular need to justify my practices, but maybe some of you out there may also face this kind of inquiry from curious friends. And maybe my experience here may be useful to you here in this regard.

Earlier today, I also read this article on Elephant Journal about making sense of Ashtanga chants. The author, Rocco Marinelli, argues that doing the opening and closing chants is not just a matter of going through the motions and getting it over with; what you feel when you do the chants can make a big difference to your experience of the practice. He writes:

"The opening chant is a prayer of gratitude and cultivating these feelings leads to more positive emotions. It sets a foundation of mindfulness and compassion on which we practice. We pause to give thanks to our teachers and to reflect on the poison of conditioned existence. Complementing this is the closing chant when we should be cultivating loving kindness and compassion.

It’s one thing to read a translation and to understand the words, but to recite it in class and to feel its meaning can be more difficult. If we become self-conscious because of a fear of correct pronunciation, we can feel ill at ease, doubt may kick in, rendering the chant vacuous...

The words we chant have as much effect on our mind as asana does to our body. They stretch the brain like utthanasana (forward bend) stretches the hamstrings. In that sense, if we’re not feeling anything as we chant then we’re not practicing at our edge."

Marinelli then goes on to suggest a Memory Palace visualization technique that involves bringing up certain images while doing the chant; images that can help us to cultivate these feelings of gratitude and loving kindness. Personally, I find this technique to be rather cumbersome and unwieldy; the whole idea of having to visualize particular images with particular lines of the opening chant strikes me as being rather tedious and mentally exhausting! But maybe it'll work for you: Read the end of his article for details about how to use this technique.

But I definitely agree with Marinelli's general point that "[t]he words we chant have as much effect on our mind as asana does to our body." Although time-wise, the opening and closing chants take up a much shorter proportion of our practice than the performance of the asanas, they are no less important on this account: They remind us that we did not invent the practice, and that the practice is ultimately more than just physical exercise, that we have a responsibility to use the practice and its benefits in a way that bring happiness to all living beings rather than the opposite. Easier said than done, I must say, but I suppose the chants are there to remind us to keep trying :-)          


  1. I always thought the opening chant acknowledged Patanjali but also all teachers that you have had in your yoga least that is the way I like to think about it!

    1. Yes, this is true, the opening chant does acknowledge all the teachers we have had, not just Patanjali. But for some reason, Patanjali always comes into my mind first :-)

  2. This is great - thanks for sharing it, Nobel!

    re: chakrasana - yes, it's terribly fun and looks awesome. But, I also feel that it gives you a little surge of energy for the last portion of the practice. I always feel energized after doing it. In fact, when I can't do it, I have less energy when going into the backbends.

    But, maybe that's just me.

    Still, there's something in a name, isn't there? Chakrasana - wheel posture, yes, but maybe it's referring to our chakras?! The spine/shusumna gets stimulated from behind, from bottom to top, too, when the posture is done correctly. You roll over all the vertebrae, and right over the crown/sahashra chakra. Maybe this is magical thinking on my part, as I have never read this anywhere, but, my intuition tells me that it does something beneficial to our shushumna nadi.

    Like running your hands down the keys of a keyboard, the resulting energy is uplifting, and energizing.

    1. Your interpretation of chakrasana in terms of the energetic stimulation of the susumna is very interesting and unique, Michelle. I've never thought about it this way; I've always thought that Chakrasana is simply there to help you to transit smoothly from a supine position to downdog without losing the vinyasa count. But although I have never read what you wrote here anywhere else, I really think it makes a lot of sense, and is a very beautiful explanation.

    2. Thanks! It's completely conjecture on my part. I don't have copies of Yoga Mala or Light on Yoga in front of me (both of which have sections on the benefits of the postures in them) to verify my sense of it, which has come intuitively to me through practice. But, I like the idea of the keys of the piano, too. It just feels that way when I do it. Or unfurling a rolled up mat or rug, releasing the energy through the whole length of the body with dynamism as the head unfurls and the body extends fully into chaturanga. Very fun!

      This reminds me of something Nancy Gilgoff said once about nakrasana - another posture that falls under the fun and showy side of practice. She said she didn't know if it had any benefit, but that it was fun and made Guruji laugh when everyone would do it in the shala :)