Saturday, November 10, 2012

Some thoughts about the possibly cyclical nature of the Ashtanga practice, based on the vinyasa count

I did full primary to Sharath's led primary CD this morning. There is something very calming about doing the practice to his precise count, from the dedication to Guruji that he chants at the beginning, to his beautiful enunciation of the cadence of the opening and closing mantras, and perhaps most importantly, simply letting his vinyasa count guide and move my practice along. No thinking needed, just breathe and do whatever asanas is called out in the moment.

As I was doing the asanas to Sharath's count this morning, a thought occurred to me: There is a very interesting sense in which the practice is not linear, but cyclical. As many of us who have been doing this practice for some time know, Ashtanga has often been criticized by detractors for being very linear in nature, both with regard to the linear progression of the way the postures build on one another, and also with regard to the linear nature of the way the asanas are supposedly performed: Forward bending, backbending, even twisting seems to presuppose fixed lines of motion through space. Which may be why Anusara, with its emphasis on spirals, is more appealing to a lot of people, at least until the fall from grace of Juan Amigos earlier this year...

But I digress. As I was saying, it occurred to me this morning that Ashtanga is not linear, but is in fact cyclical in nature. We can see this if we pay attention to the vinyasa count. Everything "resets" itself at Ekam, so that in the seated postures of primary, you always jump into a posture at Supta. This cyclical nature is even more obvious in the finishing sequence: In the three Urdhva Dhanurasanas, for instance, one lifts up into the backbend at Nawa, brings the head back down to the ground at Desa, and then lifts back up into the backbend at Nawa again. I mean, you would think that if the intention were for the practice to be truly linear in nature, one would be lifting into the second backbend at Eka-desa, and into the third backbend at Trayo-desa...

The same pattern can also be seen in the shoulderstand sequence. Halasana is at Ashtau, if I remember correctly. And the next pose, Karnapidasana, remains at Ashtau. Again, this seems to suggest a cyclical, not linear progression.

Or maybe I'm just reading too much into the nature of the practice from the way the vinyasa count goes. Maybe the vinyasa count doesn't really say anything about the nature of the practice one way or the other. But I can't help feeling that I'm on to something here. Am I? If I'm not (and you have good reason to believe I'm not), just let me know. I'm okay with being wrong :-)  

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