‘What is Ashtanga?’

Blake, Jerusalem
William Blake's version of kundalini yoga. From "Jerusalem."

I’m back in physical therapy for my blown knee.

But, it’s not a bad thing, because I’m seeing my friend Tom Hendrickx, who rehabed my shoulder back to shoulder perfection, so it’s like coming home. Tom knows what I do, so I don’t have to answer that annoying “what is Ashtanga” question all over again. I showed him a YouTube video of kapotasana, and said “That’s when it finally went,” and we were off. It feels better already.

Working with him has got me thinking about the practice in new ways, though. And Steve mentioned in his recent post that there’s some big thinking floating around our house right now, between American Veda and Tantra in Practice. Steve actually asked me the other night another potentially troubling question to answer: “Why do you practice?”

“Oh, sure, you’ll get a great body,” Gwyneth Paltrow says in Ashtanga New Yorkwith the proper disdain for such superficial concerns. I started practicing for one reason: I was in pain, and I wanted it to stop.

Then, what happened? Alchemy. The sanskrit seduced me like a spell. The impossibility of it all was intriguing (“I’ll never be able to do that!“). The sweat was epic (along with the resulting sense of, “I can’t believe I just did that”). My teachers had a tendency to read poetry at the end of class. (Poetry!) And the poses had stories, good ones. The people around me were…friendlier than in other yoga classes I’d been in (not to mention the sour pusses in gyms). I found there was an entire philosophy underpinning the practice–a place for my mind to go. I am asthmatic, and I learned to control my breath. I am an atheist, and I began each practice with a prayer.

Everything incrementally, slowly changed. Last night, I noticed in the essay I was reading that the author kept using the word “confluence” for the places where the three channels of energy meet, the cakras. The author was explaining the work of a Bengali poet, Ramprasad Sen. In his poems, the mind often takes a pilgrimage through the body, on its way to the center. The mind has to move, to search, in order to find the unity that was already there. That may be why I do Ashtanga–it’s movement on many levels, movement in defiance of the inertia of the mind, of the body. Ramprasad Sen writes,

There’s always air around a fan,

but only when you move it

do you feel the wind.

But that still doesn’t explain what Ashtanga is.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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