Monday, December 16, 2013

Hot spring Ashtanga talk, the place of alignment in Ashtanga

Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from grading papers and exams, and went with a group consisting of a few colleagues from various other departments to a mineral hot spring about 45 minutes from where I am in Idaho. It's funny how it took me almost a year of being here in Idaho to finally make it to a hot spring. But, as they say, better late than never, right? :-)

It was a pleasant afternoon. We spent more than three hours soaking in the spring and chatting about many things. As the only philosophy person in the group, the "responsibility" has fallen upon me over the last few months to be the provider of witty semi-philosophical banter whenever we meet up (the group of us meet together regularly for drinks at a local brewery). Hmm... come to think of it, this may be one of the main reasons why I haven't been blogging much lately: Perhaps most of the verbal-expressive energies that I previously expended on this blog are now taken up with providing witty banter for those around me, so that there is less wit left to spare for this blog.

Anyway, during those three hours in the spring yesterday, one interesting and unexpected topic of conversation came up... yes, you guessed it: Yoga! I don't normally talk about yoga to my students or colleagues, but sometime in the course of those three hours, one of my colleagues started doing some yoga-like stretches in the water (at one point, she looked like she would probably have gone into the full expression of Prasarita Padottanasana A in the water, if it weren't for the fact that she couldn't breathe underwater...), so I couldn't help remarking that she seemed to be doing some yoga poses. Upon further questioning, it turns out that her sister is a yoga teacher in a major city in the Pacific Northwest, so she knew a few things about the ins and outs and ups and downs of the typical yoga scene in a big city (too many teachers running around all over the place trying to scrap together a living by teaching too many classes, possibly compromising one's own yoga practice in so doing, etc., etc.).

As the conversation progressed, I also let on that I used to teach yoga in a studio in Florida. This prompted my colleague to ask, "Oh... do you intend to teach yoga again sometime in the future?" I replied, "Well, ever since I started doing Ashtanga full-time, I have been feeling less and less qualified to be a yoga teacher." This reply drew puzzled expressions from her and her husband, so I had to basically start from square one, and explain the ins and outs of traditional Ashtanga practice (what Mysore style practice is, how it is different from "conventional" yoga classes, how the only way to really get authorized to teach Ashtanga is by going to KPJAYI and getting authorized, and so on and so forth). I like to think that I succeeded, through this explanation, in conveying to them the spirit and the gravitas of traditional Ashtanga instruction and practice, because they seemed impressed by my dedication to this powerful tradition (at least, I think they looked like they were; I'm not always the best reader of people's facial expressions...).

The husband then asked me whether Ashtanga pays a lot of attention to precise and proper alignment. "Well, we believe that alignment is important, but we don't quite make such a big issue of it as Iyengar." And then, of course, I had to go on to explain to him the main differences in emphasis between Iyengar and Ashtanga.

Who would have thought that my first visit to a hot spring in Idaho would have consisted of me giving a talk on Ashtanga yoga? Life is pretty strange, isn't it? :-)


Oh, and speaking of alignment, after I came back from the spring yesterday, I went on Kino's FB page, and watched this instructional video by Sharath on the proper vinyasa for Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana A and B that she had posted there. I wanted to re-post the video here, but for some reason, it wouldn't show up on my Youtube search. But the video has been around for, like, a thousand years by now (I just haven't had much time to watch, post, or review yoga videos lately, due to the real-world demands for my services as a wit ;-)), so I'm guessing most of you know which video I'm talking about here. If you don't, just go to Kino's FB page; it's in one of her posts from yesterday.

I'm sure that anybody who has even so much as taken a glance at Yoga Journal covers over the last ten years of that illustrious publication's history would know that Sharath's physical alignment in the video is not going to put him on the cover of YJ anytime soon (and that, I suspect, is putting it rather mildly). And this fact is certainly not lost on Kino's Facebook readers either, as a couple of commenters have quite unceremoniously noted. I don't normally quote FB comments on this blog, but these couple of comments are so hilarious, I just can't resist "sharing" them here:

One commenter writes: " different than what we do in America. if I stayed up that high in any of my warrior poses my instructor would be on my ass like a fly on poop. he sure does float forward and back gracefully though."

A second commenter, piggy-backing on the first, continues: "Clearly he is the expert but I'm with the other person, he's on his toes in urdhva mukha svanasana, his arms aren't straight above his head, his knee is past his ankle and not at a 90 degree angle in virabhadrasana and the outside blade of his foot is clearly not down, his utkatasana is really's hard seeing this video when I struggle and have instructors drill proper form in class. Is form not as important as it's made out to be or is the form im being taught not really correct? Or bc he's just so awesome he can afford to cheat a lil? :-)"

Well, Sharath, as we all know, is quite awesome. But even so --and I'm not saying any of this with any intention of starting an Ashtanga-vs-Iyengar blog war here--we still can't deny that if Sharath had performed the same Utkatasanas and Virabhadrasanas in any "conventional" yoga class here in this beautiful land of America, any YA-certified teacher worth his or her salt would have descended on Sharath like "a fly on poop", as the above commenter so eloquently put it (nothing like a good poop reference to get a point across ;-)), and it is doubtful that he would have made it through even the first five minutes of class without being the butt of many a well-intentioned adjustment. 

So, the million-dollar question: Just what is the place of "proper" alignment in Ashtanga? Is alignment also important in Ashtanga, only maybe not as important as in Iyengar? Or is the idea that drishti and bandhas have so much more primacy in Ashtanga, so that, so long as one is really focusing on those things, transgressions in alignment (even major ones, if Sharath's video is anything to go by) can be overlooked? I suspect that maybe the only person who can really speak to these questions is Sharath himself. But since it is really unlikely that I will be able to get him to comment on this post, I'll just leave you with these questions. If you have anything to say on this, please do. I'd love to hear from you.     


  1. Interesting post. First I short intro of myself. I work at a desk job in a bank but studied philosophy (and economics) in undergrad with a focus on 20th century continental philosophy so I highly appreciate your wit. Especially you posting after reading Sartre. I google search a lot on Ashtanga and your posts come up often.

    Now, regarding the above Sarath video, I think it highlights the often sited observation that western yoga is associated mainly with asana and to an almost obsessive level. The asanas are a tool to the process and its the internal work of moving through asanas and the daily dedication to the practice that is more important than proper alignment (in my opinion). Alignment is important because we don't want people to get hurt. But perfect alignment says very little a out how far a person is in their yoga practice. My two cent as in the Ashtanga journey I am a complete beginner :)


  2. Thanks for commenting, Mary. Good to know that you appreciate my wit :-) Yes, I am in agreement with you that alignment is an important tool in the process of yoga practice, but it is ultimately only a tool and not an end in itself (for more details, see my latest post quoting Kino's comments on this issue).