A few more thoughts on ‘traditional’ Ashtanga and holding students back
We heard “off line” — in this case meaning via email and on the Facebook — from a greater-than-usual number of readers that they enjoyed the discussions and comments on our posts about holding students back and what’s “Ashtanga enough.”
That’s very satisfying. Among our goals, providing a space for people to discuss Ashtanga and Ashtanga-related matters is high on the list. Posts are far richer if they include multiple perspectives.
At the risk of beating this topic more — and making all those nice folks who contacted us say, “Enough already!” — here are a few more thoughts on these matters after attending the backbending workshop Bobbie posted about over the weekend.
The importance of the Ashtanga sequence
Going through the backbending workshop helped illuminate a few more ideas around the “Ashtanga enough” topic. When I wrote that, it had been a while since I’d done a not very straight-forward Ashtanga practice. (Tim Miller’s improv class doesn’t count because when I practice with Tim, one of my “essential elements” for a practice to be Ashtanga is there in overdrive: tapasya. I’m working so hard under Tim’s eye that I could be playing Beer Pong and it would still work up Sacred Fire and be, in my mind, Ashtanga.) The backbending workshop, while based on Ashtanga principles, moved away from the usual vinyasa sequence.
I understand why some commenters were intent on the sequence — First, Second, vinyasas in between poses — being a core part of Ashtanga. Doing several poses all on one side felt very different, very un-Ashtanga.
But, in the end, the exact sequence still doesn’t make my “fundamental” list because the workshop also illustrated that what’s happening with the practice is happening inside me. (I talked in my earlier post about how I thought I was speaking about things beneath our first kosha.) With the right intention, married to the right breathing, focus on bandhas, clear dristi — the Tristana, I guess it’s called in some circles — I think you’re doing Ashtanga regardless of the sequence of poses you move through. That said, you have to have learned Ashtanga Vinyasas as we all think of it, so the parampara or tradition of it is critical.
I think, though, that I could walk into any yoga class and focus my intention and “do Ashtanga,” if that makes sense. (Also: Did your pomposity alarm go off?) It isn’t those particular poses, but it is what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) from those poses that’s important. (And so in that sense, it is those particular poses…)
The value of play
Another aspect to our recent discussions has been the importance of adhering to the Ashtanga sequence. Having just tried some advanced backbends — with varying degree of success, but, I hope, not a varying degree of effort — I’m more convinced that there is value to exploring at least occasionally other poses.
One analogy I can think of is being a high school student who is thinking about college. It makes sense to let that student visit a college, including sitting in on a college class. The class might be way beyond the student’s knowledge or experience, but getting that taste will leave a (hopefully positive) mark. And who knows what might slip in and remains. That student shouldn’t just suddenly spend all his or her time in those classes; the mental soil needs to be tilled. But getting a taste can inspire and it can help improve the work or thinking that student is doing in high school.
Or to a specific pose: backbend. (Makes sense out of a backbending workshop, right?) I think a key argument against keeping students stuck in First Series is the emphasis on forward folding. As we discussed, constantly flexing the front of the body helps build those muscles but, while stretching the backside, it doesn’t do anything to strenghtened the muscles. Adding in some Second Series poses is a nice counter.
There’s a good argument to be made that the updogs of First Series should be enough of a counter. I’m highly sympathetic to this, but as I suggested I think the problem is that updogs still lack the muscle building needed to be a true counter to all those forward folds. Yes, you are doing a backbend, but the movement is being led by the arms, shoulders and chest that push you up. If someone could really fold up into updog, it would be a better counter pose. But how many of us manage that?
I don’t mean toss everything out
In suggesting there’s value to expanding and exploring other aspects to Ashtanga, I don’t mean everyone should just be their own guide. As I suggested above, I think I could walk into a basic flow or power yoga class and bring my Ashtanga fundamentals with me and get much of Ashtanga’s benefits thanks to doing the poses and sequences so many times now. (Imagine the benefits from years or decades more of Ashtanga!) Ashtanga as we “know” it clearly should be the vast, vast, vast part of one’s practice, I think. And if that practice can be under a trusted teacher’s eye, all the better. And if they have a lead you can follow — say, an improv class a week or something like that — it might be worth following.
Posted by Steve