Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pavlov and the Ashtanga Gene

In his latest post, Grimmly describes his somewhat on-and-off relationship with Ashtanga as a Pavlovian one. Grimmly, for those of you who do not read his blog regularly (I highly recommend it; he offers a wealth of information on asana, and a lot of insightful meditations on the other limbs of yoga practice), originally started out as an Ashtanga practitioner. Somewhere along the line, he encountered Vinyasa Krama (VK) and the teachings of Srivatsa Ramaswami, whom he now regards as his primary teacher. For a while, he practiced both VK and Ashtanga at the same time. Recently, he has declared his move away from Ashtanga, and has declared himself to have committed full-time (more or less) to VK.

However, like a former lover who has left deep impressions (scars?) in the depths of one's being, the ghost of Ashtanga refuses to be so easily exorcised from his life, and Grimmly now experiences an almost-subconscious Pavlovian pull towards Ashtanga. In his latest post, he writes:

"I felt like one of old Pavlov's dogs with Virabhadrasana as the little bell... Now, as a rule, in VK [Vinyasa Krama] you tend to do the asymmetric postures before the Seated paschimottanasana ( actually not a rule at all, very few rules in VK) but no, virabhadrasana and you just HAVE to jump through into paschimottanasana anything else feels wrong, just plain wrong... I'm brainwashed, one warrior pose, OK two, and I'm salivating for those paschi endorphins, gimmi my treat and gimmi it now master Pavlov."

Hmm. Well, Grimmly, if I may be permitted to offer some unsolicited advice regarding your, uh, predicament: Do not resist. For resistance, as the Trekkies would say, is futile. Embrace the fold of Ashtanga, and thou shalt live long and prosper ;-)

[Image taken from here]
But joking aside, I really think that Grimmly is onto something when he describes the pull of the Ashtanga practice as a Pavlovian thing. Over the course of my Ashtanga practice career (which is not long at all), I have heard stories of people who practiced Ashtanga for a while, and then jumped ship to some other style (Anusara seems to be a favorite ship to jump to, from the accounts I have heard. I don't know why this is so.) However, for every "jump-ship" story that I have heard, I have also heard at least one other story of some Ashtangi who got burnt-out/sick/disillusioned with the practice (either due to injury, changes in personal life circumstances which made it difficult to get up at stupid o'clock to practice, or sickness at the repetitive nature of the practice), stopped practicing Ashtanga for a while, but then felt the draw of the practice again, and came back to practicing Ashtanga. 
So it seems that there really is something to this supposedly "boring" Ashtanga that nevertheless draws many people (including me) to the mat regularly. Perhaps the Ashtanga sequence is like a funny "Yoga-DNA-mirroring sequence", in which different postures or combinations thereof trigger the "Ashtanga gene" in different people. For example, perhaps Grimmly has a "Virabhadrasana-followed-by-Paschimottasana" gene. For Grimmly, perhaps, doing Virabhadrasana I and II triggers something in his "yoga-DNA" which compels him to have to do Paschimottanasana. And doing Paschimottanasana unlocks the rest of the "Ashtanga gene sequence" buried in his yoga-DNA, so that, almost without knowing it, he kind of goes on autopilot and continues doing the rest of primary series from there. 
And perhaps many other Ashtangis also possess a similar "Ashtanga gene" which is triggered by their unique "favorite" postures or posture combinations within the Ashtanga sequence. For one person, the triggering combination might be the Viras followed by Paschimottanasana; for somebody else, it might be, say, the Parsvakonasanas followed by the Prasaritas. For yet another Ashtangi who does second series, it might be Parsvottanasana followed by Pasasana. So that no matter how burnt-out/sick/disillusioned these Ashtangis get, there is always that particular combination of postures to which they alone are susceptible to, lurking in some corner of their yoga-DNA waiting to be triggered. And once it is triggered, the Ashtangi finds himself or herself going back to doing Ashtanga, despite his or her conscious protestations to the contrary. 
This, at any rate, is my theory: Once you have done Ashtanga for even a short while, it quite literally gets under your skin, all the way to your DNA structure. So that, no matter how you try to avoid doing it, one way or the other, it gets you :-) So really, why resist? Resistance is futile. You will only be assimilated ;-)       


  1. Yes - agreed. Resistance is futile.

    I personally have responded recently to the ringing of the bell. What I'm noticing is that I'm coming back a lot more tempered and can see/feel where the foundations of poses that come down the line are within primary (which I am willingly and gladly lingering in until I can sort out some personal weaknesses).

  2. When I go to a non-Ashtanga class, I always find my my feet step back together despite the teacher's constant cue of feet hip distance apart. When Anusaris (or just yogis of other styles) come to try out a led primary class you'll pick them out when their palms are almost always shoulder distance apart in warror I, and it's really hard to get them to try it with palms together. It's just an acquired habit. I actually can't even take Rocket yoga classes casually any more because the rearranged Ashtanga poses mess up my mojo. I'd actually rather go to a completely non-Ashtanga-based yoga class(e.g. Hot yoga class) and play with different poses.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Portside. I totally hear you when you observe that coming back to Ashtanga (or a particular sequence within it) after a break allows us to understand a posture better. I feel it too when I came back to second after going back to primary only for a while.

    Hello Yyogini, I think I have become a little sheltered from taking only Ashtanga classes for the last year or so. Now I don't even know what I'll look like in a non-Ashtanga class :-)