As Bobbie and I thought in recent posts about the guidelines that hold Ashtanga students back from more poses and the positive effects of stretching beyond the usual sequence, a topic came up that did not surprise me: the “traditional Ashtanga method.” The rules and regulations, so to speak, of our particular form of yoga were hovering around the recent discussion here.
One commenter paraphrased the description from the Jois website; but even that, as a 2012 version, is it the “traditional” method? Traditional suggests having stood the test of time. One hears pretty regularly of something “new” being taught in Mysore these days.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that even “the source” has changed — and always has. And as we’ve argued here before, in the first years after Westerners first encountered Pattabhi Jois, the practice changed due to research. It even was part of Guruji’s institute’s name. That also allowed for different individual practices suited for different students’ needs.
Rather than getting hung up on “traditional” versus “not traditional,” I’ve been thinking about what’s fundamental to Ashtanga, what makes it Ashtanga and not, say, Power Yoga, flow or even Iyengar.
For me — and I emphasize for me, although I assume that’s understood, and that I’m no way claiming to be an authority — the fundamentals, the things that need to be present (or at least sought after) for a yoga practice to be Ashtanga, are:
- Controlled, slow, audible breath through the nose. It’s critical that our breathing during Ashtanga be different from our normal breath; that’s part of what makes the practice something else, something extra. We’re working with prana here, after all.
- Activated bandhas. This goes with the breathing, and with our engagement with our energetic body.
- Moving in time with the breath. Not quite vinyasa, but close.
- A focus on drishti and trying to see God in all things.
That’s it. The poses and sequence we know as Ashtanga — beginning with Sun Salutes, moving through the standing poses, etc. — almost make the list, but don’t. And that’s because of the example of someone with severe physical limitations who perhaps can only sit in a chair and raise his/her hands up in time with the breath, and does so with right intent and as part of Sadhana.
That person is doing something I’d describe as Ashtanga — more so than many people. I’ve seen a lot of folks doing acrobatics, with no regards to the quality of their breath or whether it is linked to movement. These people might be doing First Series or Second (or beyond) in the proper order, but if we’re going to get all judgmental about it (which we already are), I say they are missing the point of the practice. They are getting a good workout, though. (My snap judgment way of sensing these not-doing-Ashtanga practices? If I don’t enjoy practicing next to the person.)
I suppose I’m leaving out an obvious element: Being taught by an Ashtanga teacher or considering yourself part of the Ashtanga tradition. Probably important, true. But I think someone could essentially stumble upon the key elements of Ashtanga independently, and so it may not be a requirement. (That said, I’m very much a believer in the importance in getting the Parampara from a teacher and being part of a teacher-student relationship. But you have to account for autogenesis.)
What I note as I look at my list is I’m clearly talking about a practice that isn’t rooting in Prakriti. It’s about the energy body (or deeper). And it’s about seeking yoga, or as Guruji is said to have put it: “Seeing God in all things.” That may explain why I’m not sure Ashtanga yoga can be taught in schools in the U.S. without violating the First Amendment. It operates on other levels, which much of the yoga-as-exercise (as practiced in the West) ignores.
I’ll also add that I explicitly say these four features at least need to be sought after, because otherwise I’d have to drop myself from the list of Ashtangis — and plenty of other folks, too. Who gets it perfect every time? My breathing often is too quick and thin; my bandhas don’t stay engaged enough. But when I notice these shortcomings, I do try to reapply myself. The Ashtanga practice is one big reapplication, in a sense.
Or there’s another way to look at this: The old saying about pornography holds true to Ashtanga for me: I know it when I see it. If someone is breathing and moving properly and has a focused gaze … it’s probably Ashtanga, or “Ashtanga enough.” For me, anyway.
Posted by Steve