Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sharath on asanas

I just read the conference notes from the last two conferences with Sharath (September 9th and September 2nd) in Mysore that Megan has very judiciously taken, and which Claudia has very generously shared in a recent post.

Sharath says a lot about a whole bunch of topics, including asana, pranayama, kriya techniques and japa. Since my personal practice is wholly an asana practice, I found myself focusing more on what he has to say about asana. I guess I'm one of those people in the blogosphere who are still in the asana-obsession stage... Well, whatever. I fully embrace my obsession :-).  I did read the rest, and found them interesting, but since I don't practice these other things, they are, at this point, merely of academic interest to me. So, in order to be in good faith, I'll just share what Sharath says about asana in bold below, along with some of my own thoughts and commentary. If you want to read the rest of the conference notes, read Claudia's post.

"There are millions of asanas and only God knows them all.  They are named for many living beings.  We know only a few but think we are masters. The asanas in our practice are divided into three different levels—primary series, intermediate series, and advanced series.  Sharath explained that a new student can’t just begin with advanced series.  Preliminary asanas are there first to gain good health and flexibility.  Changes come to prepare us for the next asana, the next series.  We should be patient.  Sometimes we seek out teachers who give many asanas quickly and think they will be very good teachers but it’s all just marketing."

"Sharath referred to Abhyasa, a daily and consistent practice, as a reason we can develop stability in the body and mind. Some students come in flexible as noodles but have no strength.  Others need flexibility.  Guruji said if we did an asana 1,000 times we can perfect that asana.  Backbending drop backs are important first because they require much strength in the back and the legs.  This prepares us to do intermediate backbending like Kapotasana.  We should not rush these openings.  We should give it time because rushing will always cause injuries.  Sharath relayed that he was in one asana for two years.  Guruji would sit on a stool and do his prayers near Sharath while he practiced.  For two years he ended at the same posture.  One day Guruji looked up and said he should do the next one.  Being patient gives us time to get balanced. If we begin doing handstands too soon, it makes the shoulders too tight for Kapotasana, for example."

I think I can relate to at least some of what Sharath is saying here. Due to certain circumstances, I have been practicing the same postures (full primary plus second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana) for almost a year now. From a purely external point of view, there may not seem to be much progress. But over the last year or so, I have come to feel that doing a daily asana practice is very much like cooking something in a slow cooker (ha! another food analogy. I seem to be using food analogies a lot lately ;-)): The longer you "cook" your body in a particular sequence of asanas, the more the juices and spices and all that good stuff gets absorbed by the body, and your body (and mind) will attain a particular "fragrance" and "good taste." Moreover, doing the same sequence of postures for an extended period of time also allows your body to understand the postures on a very visceral level; in this way, one gradually develops the intelligence of the body.

Here's another way to think about this. There will be times in one's practice journey when one is given a whole bunch of postures by one's teacher in a short time. But after a certain period of time, one will naturally reach a "saturation point" where one cannot receive any more new postures safely without first "digesting" and incorporating the postures one already has, by practicing these postures repeatedly for a period of time. From my experience, it is not always easy to discern when exactly one has reached such a point. Ideally, if one is practicing with great self-awareness under the guidance of a capable teacher, one will be able to see this point coming before one even gets there, and know when to stop trying to master new postures that are beyond one's grasp. But things don't always work out so nicely: Very often, either the student or the teacher (or both) are overzealous, and try to squeeze too many postures into the student's practice before the student is ready for them. When this happens, the universe will tell the student that he or she has reached this point in no uncertain and often painful terms: Injury, pain, or a general sense of unease and imbalance results. (Gee, how do I know this?...) Which is unfortunate. But on the flip side, this also means that we shouldn't allow ourselves to be discouraged by pain or injury or other such obstacles in the asana practice. Rather, we should heed the message that these obstacles are sending us, and adjust our practice accordingly. In fact, Sharath himself has such an experience to share, as we will see in the following:

"Due to the things we’ve done to the body before our asana practice, we might be working through a lot of stiffness.  Asana makes us free from all of this but during the transition there may be aches and pains in the body. We should practice but we should be careful.  Do not push too much until we feel better.  We don’t respect asana sometimes.  Using himself as an example, he recounted his earlier days in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana.  He thought he could do deeper and deeper until he injured his shoulder.  He demoed for Guruji the next day even though he was injured.  After that day he practiced slowly and was very careful.  It healed and he became more flexible.  He cautioned that we should go slowly, let the body change, and don’t rush it.  Flexibility will come.  When doing this practice, exercises and sports can make us more stiff and susceptible to injury.  He joked that there is no need for other activity unless we really like it and, then, we can do that once in awhile.  He said, in his experience, injuries or pains that we get by asana, asana can heal." 

I suspect that that last sentence ("injuries or pains that we get by asana, asana can heal") is the sort of thing that gets misinterpreted by many Ashtanga-bashers out there, giving Ashtanga a bad rep. But, although I obviously have a lot less experience in this area than Sharath, I can also attest to the truth of this sentence in my own way. When I first started Kapotasana, I had quite a bit of pain in my lower back. Through persistent and careful practice, the pain went away. here's another example: Last year, I injured my left knee. Through a gradual process of bringing more awareness to the surroundings muscles (external rotators, adductors and quadriceps), I was able to heal the injury while opening the eyes of these surrounding muscles, allowing me to create greater opening in many postures. For instance, over the last couple of weeks, as I was getting in Mari D on the first side, my left hip felt so open that I can almost believe that I can get the non-half-lotus foot across to the other side of the knee that is in half-lotus, and get into Purna Matsyendrasana. Not that I'm going to try, of course... :-) But I guess what I'm trying to say here is that injury can become the doorway to greater opening, if one doesn't get discouraged, and works patiently with one's body.

Well, that was quite a lot of asana-talk for one post, wasn't it? I guess I'll end here with my favorite bit from the conference notes. Sharath says:

"Everyone wants to rush now, get authorization quickly, but our aim should be to learn first, and this is why self-study becomes important.  Now we may see someone do handstands on a DVD and think they know what they are doing.  He pointed out that even his young son can do handstands." 

'Nuff said. 


  1. yes, patience, slow, patience slow, yeah...

    Like the food analogies too. One cannot "diggest" if poses come too fast, body needs to "cook" in the asana for a while... nice.

    1. Yes, slow cooking is good :-) Eat too fast, indigestion coming...

      Once again, thanks for posting the conference notes!

  2. Hi Nobel,
    I enjoyed your food analogy:

    "The longer you "cook" your body in a particular sequence of asanas, the more the juices and spices and all that good stuff gets absorbed by the body, and your body (and mind) will attain a particular "fragrance" and "good taste."

    From practicing Mysore style, I notice that many new students to asthanga come in and are given sun salutations to master their first class. As they return, they are given a few more poses in primary - slowly building, slowly cooking. I did not have this experience, since beginner or not, I like many other students start by dropping into a full primary guided class. This can be quite a bit of digesting for the body.

    This is far off, but what are your thoughts or assumptions about student progression/advancement in asana for those who start in full primary guided and are lunged into a lot of asana digestion vs. those who start in Mysore and are given poses in primary with ample time.

    1. Hi Dimitri,
      actually, I also did not learn Ashtanga in the traditional mysore way. Before I started practicing Ashtanga, I was doing my own Iyengar-inspired practice for a couple of years, and was already familiar with all the postures in the primary series, although I could not remember the order. At mt first mysore class, the teacher saw this, and simply kept feeding me postures. So I ended up doing full primary at my first mysore class!

      Actually, I also get the sense that the majority of Ashtangis in the west also did not start with the traditional method: They just came to led primary for a while, and then figured out the order of the postures along the way, and then "graduated" to mysore class. I wrote a post about this last year: