Our good (albeit virtual) friend Robbie Norris just pointed us in the direction of a really thoughtful and wonderful piece on yoga and asana. It’s by his friend, and now teacher at Richard Freeman’s Yoga Workshop, Ty Landrum. Here’s a link to Ty’s piece and some excerpts to queue up your interest:
Modern Yoga is obsessed with Asana, the practice of postural forms. Traditionalists often complain that what we now call “Yoga” is just another trend in physical culture, barren of spiritual substance. It reflects an obsession with the body, and it shackles the mind to a lower plane of existence. In light of the Asana studios springing up on every corner, with their loud music and expensive boutiques, the critics seem to have a point. What they fail to appreciate, however, is the potential of Asana to hold the full spectrum of classical Yoga within its scope.
In the Krishnamacharya lineage (which includes the contemporary Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Svasta Yoga styles), Asana is practiced according to an art of sequencing called Vinyasa Krama. The origin of this art is uncertain, and Krishnamacharya gave mixed reports. When asked where he learned his sequencing principles, he sometimes cited Brahmachari, while at other times, he cited the Yoga Korunta, a medieval Hatha text that he discovered in the library at the University of Calcutta. This text was written on banana leaves and, to Krishnamacharya’s dismay, was being eaten by ants. He was able to read the text, but he was not able to restore it, and although he made a transcription, it was misplaced. Some biographers have speculated that while the Yoga Korunta was an important influence on Krishnamacharya, the art of Vinyasa Krama was his own innovation. He cited other sources, however, because he refused credit for yogic knowledge on principle. He held that yogic knowledge has a divine origin, and yogic sages are but media of this knowledge.
Whatever the origin of Vinyasa Krama may be, there can be no doubt that it represents an important development in the history of Yoga, and that its transmission to the modern world owes nearly everything to Krishnamacharya and Bramachari. To place this development in relation to the classical Yoga tradition, we must look closely at the Ashtanga system described in the Yoga Sutras by the Patanjali. Then we can see how the art of Vinyasa Krama relates to the experiences of absolute reality that classical Yoga is designed to induce.
The eight practices of Ashtanga Yoga can be thought of as successive stages in the refinement of awareness. They make our awareness more subtle by extracting it from its cruder forms, and dropping it into more subtle layers of being. The deeper it runs, the more subtle it becomes, and once thoroughly refined, it becomes subtle enough to permeate the entire psychophysical beings. When saturated with awareness, the mind becomes transparent. The light of awareness illumines its entire sphere and the Seer thus bathes in its own light, realizing its sovereignty over the mind and, indeed, over all conditioned existence. This is how the classical Ashtanga system induces Samadhi or Raja Yoga.
The Vinyasa Krama system integrates posture, breath and gaze. It therefore appears to combine the three techniques of classical Ashtanga that stabilize the biological body, thus Asana (posture), Pranayama (expansion of breath) and Pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses). These are the third, fourth and fifth limbs, respectively, of the Ashtanga system. They stand above the two lower limbs of Yama (ethical restraints) and Niyama (ethical observances), and under the three higher limbs of Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi. It may seem, therefore, particularly to the unwary and unimaginative, that the practice of Vinyasa Krama is simply an intermediary or bridge practice, covering the space between the lower and higher limbs.
By the way, here’s a little bit of background on Landrum via Robbie:
About six years ago I met Ty Landrum at a Tim Miller workshop at Jennifer Elliott’s “Barn” in Charlottesville. Ty had been practicing yoga for only a year or so, but already his practice was remarkably strong, fluid, precise and imbued with a beautiful meditative quality. Subsequently, we became acquainted in a friendly way, seeing each other at workshops in Charlottesville and Richmond. Ty has been encouraging of my work with inmates, and became interested in visiting the Richmond City Jail yoga class, but it hasn’t happened yet due to conflicting commitments. He’s had a full schedule: teaching yoga in Charlottesville; maintaining a steadfast commitment to daily practice; attending lots of workshops that often entail travel; and, completing his Ph.D. in Philosophy at UVA in 2011, his research focusing on human worth, individuality, love, and virtue.
I’ll admit that I don’t have time right now to give Landrum’s piece the full attention it deserves. But a resting Saturday seems a perfect time to sit back and reflect. Thoughts? Feel free to put them below!
Posted by Steve
Confession: I sneak Hanumanasana into my practice after the Prasaritas. Why? Because I need all the stretching I can get.
Yes, its an advanced pose, but it isn’t necessarily a tough one — if you have the flexibility. Which I don’t. Yet another way I don’t live up to Hanuman’s ideal.
But here’s some help for me (and you). First up, well, how about Kino MacGregor?
With Tiffany Cruikshank:
One with props!
Aside from Kino’s, this one looks to be the most viewed:
Now, you just need to add the flying.
Posted by Steve
We’re done with the Encinitas yoga trial. For now.
As a few commenters have noted, interesting issues are at the center of the case, some Ashtanga-specific and others more broadly related to yoga here in America.
I suspect we’ll touch on them between now and when the trial resume in a month or so.
For now, though, back to another fav topic: yoga and aging. The New York Times has posted the third and final part of its Q&A on the topic. One excerpt:
Q. Can you recommend a suite of yoga poses that concentrates on breathing and balance (easier to harder) for older yoga folks? Thanks. — Steve G., Baltimore
A. Steve G. of Baltimore, I would begin with the tree (vrksasana), breathing in as you raise your arms, culminating as your hands meet above your head, and exhaling as your arms come down, is a very good start. Use a wall behind you or a chair in front of you if you need it at first. You might follow this with warrior I (virabhadrasana I), inhaling as the arms rise. The downward and upward dog (adho mukha and urdhva mukha svanasana) are good, and reasonably gentle. Then you might try twisting poses like marichyasana and matsyendrasana, where your job is to try to equalize the inflation of right and left lung. Finally, headstand (mirsasana), also with suitable props, is another good balance and breathing posture. For every variation, exhale as you bring your legs down; inhale as they come up.
There are a lot more questions to be read. But are there any topics over the trio of posts that got missed, do you think? Are there Ashtanga-specific issues? (Maybe from all those chaturangas?) Perhaps if you raise a question, someone will be able to provide some useful insight in the comments.
Posted by Steve
A commenter had wondered who might be on the witness list for the Encinitas Union School District in the case of the yoga program gone bad. (I think that should be said in the voice of the guy who did the voice overs for the People’s Court. Speaking of which, shouldn’t this case have ended up on one of the TV courts?)
Well, we have a name: Andrea Silver. According to the latest (and I’m assuming last for a while) U-T San Diego piece, she testified on behalf of the defense and spoke about teaching yoga:
Peck asked Silver if she had heard of a “secret agenda” by yoga instructors to spread Hinduism and whether she has ever worshiped the sun, an elephant or a monkey, all names associated with yoga poses. Peck later asked Jennifer Brown if she was part of an agenda to indoctrinate children in Hinduism or Buddhism.
Both women said no in response.
Andrea came to yoga after a career in the fashion Industry and raising a family. After 15 years of practice and teaching she is now well established in the Winnipeg yoga community. She certified at Yoga Centre Winnipeg in 1999 and taught there for many years. She studies regularily with Donald Moyer and Mary Lou Weprin of The Yoga Room (Berkeley CA) and gratefully thanks all of her many teachers - Father Joe Periera, Ramanand Patel, Lynne Minton and Hart Lazer (to name a few!) for helping her on her way. Andie, guides her students with a light hearted approach in a safe and encouraging environment. Known for her creative sequencing, attention to alignment & breath she teaches the fundementals of asana, encouraging students of all levels with a firm but gentle touch. She provides personal attention to small groups at Om Practice, her warm and welcoming home studio.
I can’t find anything online to suggest why she was the chosen witness. Anyone more enlightened than I? (A trick question?)
OK, and one more exchange we need to pass on from the trial coverage:
Responding to questions from Broyles about a poster that was briefly in her classroom and depicted Sanskrit terms related to yoga poses, Jennifer Brown said she did not see any religious references in it.
She responded similarly to several questions from Broyles about religious terms.
“Have you ever attained Samadhi?” he asked, referring to a high spiritual state in Hinduism.
“Since I don’t know what that is, I would say no,” she said.
Also, for those with deeper pockets than ours, here is a link to the online case filing. You just have to enter the following: “00035910-CU-MC-CTL”. Thing is, each one costs like $7.50.
Maybe we can get back to a Friday asana aid next.
Posted by Steve
So much for any blockbuster decision.
The trial in the lawsuit to stop the Encinitas Union School District from teaching a Jois Foundation-backed yoga course to students concluded Wednesday without concluding. Both sides had been promised it would go just two or three days, and when those three days were up without a resolution, the trial got put on hiatus until at least June, according to reports.
As we posted earlier, teacher Jennifer Brown testified on Wednesday, and she even demonstrated a few poses. (Our post links to video of that.)
Both sides plan to call additional witnesses when the trial resumes (with the district finally getting its chance), so expect another two or three days when things get going again.
The focus on Wednesday was Jennifer Brown (as opposed to the opponent’s main witness, religious studies professor Candy Brown, no relation), who teaches in the program. Keep in mind, she was subpoenaed by the program opponents; she wasn’t there as a witness for the district. (She may come back as one, we’ll see.) Here is what the U-T reports:
While acknowledging that she has read to students part of the book “Myths of the Asanas,” which some have described as a religious text, Brown said it’s more of a collection of stories on the origin of yoga poses. She also said she leaves out the word “God” whenever it appears because she doesn’t think it’s appropriate for a classroom.
The Coast probably has the more thorough coverage today, although I am sure a few folks will roll their eyes at this sentence: “She added that she doesn’t worship Hinduism.” But other than that:
Not long after, Broyles caused a stir in the courtroom by asking Brown to exhibit a series of poses. Upon returning to the witness stand, Broyles inquired whether the series references Hinduism. Brown answered that the order of the sequence is the best way to “warm up the body.” As taught, the series doesn’t have any spiritual or religious significance.
Brown noted one fourth grader expressed her mom’s concerns with the program.
“She shared with me that her mom asked if we were going to be talking about the Buddha,” Brown said.
“I assured her — no, we’re not going to be talking the Buddha,” Brown said. “We’re going to breathe; we’re going to move; we’re going to relax.”
If I get a chance later today, I’ll try to track down court records and determine who, exactly, might be on the witness list — as some have asked. I’m not 100% sure it will be the same folks who filed briefs.
Posted by Steve
I was going to hold off on any more coverage of the Encinitas yoga trial — try to wait and see what Wednesday holds — but then I checked out other coverage of Tuesday’s expert testimony by religious studies professor Candy Brown.
And, man, I don’t want to dis the U-T San Diego, but it didn’t capture nearly the best parts. But the local Fox TV station did (and fun fact, I went to high school with this reporter; she was a few years ahead of me):
Controversy over the program erupted last year as the district began to develop a health and wellness curriculum that includes
“This is very intentional marketing,” said expert witness Dr. Candy Brown. “We lead with physical then introduce the spiritual aspect. I can give you quotations where people admit to this.”
Calling it camouflage and conspiracy, Dr. Brown described the practice of yoga. She’s testifying in a case brought against the Encinitas School District by a small group of parents who want to stop the district’s new program that offers Ashtanga yoga in place of physical education.
“If you asked me what’s the most religious form of yoga, I would pick Ashtanga as my number one,” Dr. Brown said without answering the question asked, which was are all forms of yoga religious? Judge John Meyer reminded her she could answer with a yes or no answer, to which she replied after some time, “I will say no to that question as phrased.”
But that’s not the best — to use that word loosely — part. This is:
Dr. Brown testified she believes there’s a conspiracy at work trick students into a spiritual practice.
Judge Meyer asked for clarification, “these Jois trained instructors are just the foot soldier?”
“It’s para para – submitting to one,” Dr. Brown said.
The judge cutting her off said, “you think they have been planted in the district?”
“Well, I think that is the case, yeah,” she answered.
There you have it. (I should also note that some of the reports are suggesting the trial could go on hiatus — i.e. not finish today or tomorrow — and so we may not get resolution soon.)
I’m honestly not sure how to respond to that. I’ll admit that some of the most exuberant Jois Yoga material is a bit zealous, and I suppose this lawsuit is proof that there wasn’t enough clear separation between the yoga program in schools and Jois Yoga (and maybe Ashtanga more broadly). But I also think that, from what I’ve been reading — and you probably figured out I’ve been reading whatever I can find so I can pass it on — the strongest argument of the opponents has been that Ashtanga is, as Brown said, a particularly religious yoga practice. (We all know that paddleboard and acro-yoga aren’t that religious, in general.) I can see where, if the point is argued well, someone could decide that Ashtanga yoga in schools violates the First Amendment. But yoga more generally? I don’t think so. (To set that precedent would be significant, and I suspect we’d be seeing this case heading toward higher courts. We may regardless.)
But that’s still Ashtanga as practiced broadly; a single class or set of classes, or just the emphasis on the asana, the movement and breath, doesn’t strike me as having a religious element. It is when the Yoga Sutras are added in (even though I think it can be argued there’s no God in those), or when other Hindu elements — Siva or Hanuman, maybe even talk of karma and dharma — are discussed that Ashtanga strikes me as drifting toward religion. (I’m not willing to say it is absolutely religious, but I think it certainly can reach a point where one easily could relate to it in a religious way. Even paddleboard yoga, done with religious intent, could be religious. But in that case it rests with the individual, not the practice. I don’t see how one can legislate that away. What if I decided everything I did was religious? Could I not be allowed in school because my learning was “religious?” See where that argument falls apart?)
Speaking of the religious aspects, here’s something to clear your mental palate: Tim Miller’s latest post.
Update: Link to a news story with video of Jennifer Brown’s testimony and her yoga demonstration. (I can’t get it to embed here.)
Posted by Steve
Day two of the Encinitas yoga trial featured testimony from the opponents’ main expert witness: religious studies professor Candy Brown.
Here’s the heart of things via the U-T San Diego’s coverage:
“The purpose of Ashtanga yoga is to become one with Brahma,” she said, referring to a Hindu deity.
Brown also said there is no distinction between the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga. Children in the district’s program do not chant or use terms associated with Hinduism, but Brown said that does not make the yoga secular.
“Jois is very, very clear that the practice may appear physical, but that is very, very wrong,” she said. “It produces spiritual transformation.”
Citing written statements from teachers in the district, Brown said there is evidence that some children have chanted while performing poses. Judge John Meyer suggested that those students may have learned the chants outside of school, but Brown said it still demonstrates that they have an understanding of yoga’s spiritual ties.
Brown also said there is anecdotal evidence that even conservative Christians who begin practicing yoga and have no interest in other faiths gradually begin to accept that all religions are equal.
If I’m not mistaken, that anecdotal evidence comes from Brown’s own research. (Should we add: Oh, the horror! All religions are equal! And should we add: How to you control for other things that might be the catalyst for the change in opinion, such as being exposed to a more diverse group of people?)
As I’ve suspected, the more explicitly “religious” nature of Ashtanga (the Jois version, not Patanjali) as compared to exercise programs that seem just to market themselves off of the word “yoga” is coming to the front during this trial. I’m not sure this lawsuit would have happened if it had involved a Iyengar foundation or, certainly, Power Yoga to the People or something along those lines. Brown’s pretrial statements for the court focused on quotes from Pattabhi Jois and others about “seeing God in all things” and similar.
Does Bikram ever talk about stuff like that?
You’ll note, for instance, that her quote in the text above focuses on the purpose of “Ashtanga yoga.” The potential upside to this is that this trial might not end up setting precedent about yoga, more generally, being practiced in schools. I’m not judicial expert, but my sense is it will come down to whether the opponents can convincingly argue that Ashtanga yoga is inherently religious and that the program in the Encinitas schools is, also, inherently based on Ashtanga yoga.
If I had to guess, I’d say the former of those points will be easier to prove, judging by the material I’ve seen. To extend that to all yoga seems a tougher case. It then will be up to the judge to decide whether the program being taught in the schools is more Ashtanga or more “yoga.”
Again, what we saw at the Confluence seemed more exercise-based.
Update: Final version of the U-T story (also in comments below) is here.
Posted by Steve