Ashtanga yoga vs. Albert Einstein

As we toyed with what “traditional” Ashtanga might mean and whether it is good to hold students back, a commenter added a terrific limb to the discussion by writing this:

For example – something like Mari D. A very easy asana to avoid, but if you come to the practice like I did, where that posture took A LOT of patience then, there is much more to be learned by working through it than avoiding it. That is where the real essence of the practice lies. If the sequence is too loose then it misses the point. From my understanding, if we’re talking “traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa asana”, then the foundation of the physical sequence does not change. We don’t skip something just because it’s hard or we don’t like it. … Otherwise, our natural tendency to avoid that which makes us uncomfortable, becomes our guiding light and again, we miss the point.

That gets to something else we posted recently, based on last weekend’s Tim Miller workshop: Ashtanga as Sadhana, as self-study. Or, to put it another way, Ashtanga is a metaphor for life — or a series of lessons on how to live.

One of the lessons — I think we’ll all agree — we take from Ashtanga is learning to apply right effort in difficult situations, without losing our cool. The commenter went right to one of those poses where we can lose our cool: Marichyasana D. It can hurt (in the “good” Ashtanga way), it can be frustrating, it can be intimidating. Like a lot of life, in other words. And so it is good preparation for all our time off the mat.

A point of Ashtanga is to not give up, right? “Avoidance is not the answer,” Tim would say. “You do,” Guruji would say.

Here’s the counter:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

That’s Albert Einstein, of course. (At least, most people attribute it to him; I’m not sure it’s 100% definite, but we’ll roll with the punches.) And it leads to this thought: Is there a point when doing that asana over and over and over again because insane? I’m never — I’m pretty sure — going to bind in Marichyasana D. But I’ve also not gone as deeply into it as I suspect I can. (Right now, with my right knee again acting up, I’m farther away from the bind than normal.) If there comes a point, though, when I can say, honestly, “That’s as far as I’m going to get,” then what?

One answer is, of course, to keep at it to the extent I can do it. But that’s different from twisting into the pose with the intent on — finally! — getting the bind.

Another answer might be: We aren’t always doing the poses the same way. We find new areas of flexibility or better approaches into them. Is that true, though? (I’m honestly not sure.)

I wonder whether this point is where Ashtanga leaves off being a neat metaphor for life. Or does the Ashtanga practice suggest Einstein was wrong on this?

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

10 thoughts on “Ashtanga yoga vs. Albert Einstein”

  1. This dilemma is exactly why we rely on the instructions of a qualified teacher such as Tim, Richard, Maty, Annie, David G, David S., David K, Sharath, Saraswati, Kino or Eddie. This takes all the guess work out of it.

    I think the real lesson to be learned here is that if you want to become a recognized ashtanga teacher, it is best to be named David.

  2. Hi, I’ve been reading for a little while and never commented.
    I think the supposedly Albert quote is really addressing activities that are results oriented. If there is a practical goal and one strategy has failed it is better to try something new.
    Ashtanga is explicitly not results oriented so the same logic doesn’t apply. Every day you try to get in to mari D with the honest intention of getting the bind even if you never get the bind. The point is to do the pose with intention and focus, not the exact details of the asana you achieve from day to day. Similarly when you feel you have ‘gotten’ a pose you don’t necessarily stop doing it.

    1. Hi Jean. Thanks for commenting.

      I think you’re right about Ashtanga’s not being results-oriented, which might be part of what we’re debating given the whole “getting another pose” or the next series, etc. In some ways, is it extremely results oriented — the trick being to approach it without being attached to those results?


  3. This discussion ignores some basic biology. Over the course of a repeated physical activity, you are actually remodeling your musculoskeletal system. The rapidity and extent of remodeling is a function of the frequency, intensity, and repetition of the stimuli that signal such remodeling. There are some scientific publications that suggest that consistent repetitive signaling (e.g., applying a specific level of tension to a muscle or ligament) will maximize the rate of such remodeling. So . . . repeating the same pose on a daily basis may in time have a much greater effect than varying approaches. (As an added note — your body replaces essentially everything about every 7-9 years. This is consistent with another observation in sports medicine — That it takes on average about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve basic mastery of a particular sport/activity).

    1. I suppose the discussion then becomes whether one thinks we should first be thinking of Ashtanga’s impact on us biologically/physically versus a … dare I say … “deeper level”?

      That aside, do you think this kind of biology you’re talking about argues *for* doing things over and over the same way… insane or not? 🙂


  4. I’d suggest that both Ashtanga and Einstein are correct when looked at from a wider perspective. If you view the results of practicing the asana as; a strong and healthy body, a clear and peaceful mind, a deeper connection with the divine in all things etc etc, and that these things can occur from day 1 of your practice, then practicing over and over again should indeed get you more and more of the same results……..right?
    Suddenly, whether or not you can bind in supta parvrtta viparita mari H becomes irrelevant, no!?!

  5. I’m sure there’s some school of philosophy that would argue that you can never do the same pose twice, because you are never the same person when you step on the mat. Different day, different pose, etc. However as nice as that is to contemplate, I do think it’s important to recognise that everybody is working with a different body and we are not all going to end up the same. For instance, I have a student with two fused lumbar discs and a partially fused hip as the result of a childhood car accident. This student is never even going to get INTO Mari D, nonetheless bind. Now, she is not an ashtangi, but if she were, surely she would not be stopped from ever practicing baddha konasana or supta padangusthasana? Poses like Urdvha Dhanurasana are not an option for her, but shalabasana is a fantastic backbend for her. So I like your interpretation of everyone going to their own limits in a pose but not being held to an arbitrarily applied standard. May we all find good teachers to guide us there!

    1. Your point about teachers, I think, is key. I know I’ve been referring to the story about Guruji’s working with a girl with very limited physical motion (I can’t remember if she was sick, in an accident or what… and, yes, I should probably Google it and get it straight). The Ashtanga practice should be something that helps us get closer to … whatever you want to call it. And a teacher is key to making that happen.

      In that sense, there may be an argument for more variation under solid teacher guidance — which is probably hard as more and more students come to Ashtanga.


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