Yoga without philosophy

As you’ve gathered from the intrepid return to the blog by Steve, we’re back from our pilgrimage to India. The jet lag is slowly backing off, work routines have started once again, and normalcy makes its inevitable reappearance.

Well, sort of. Both of us are walking around with the strong sense that something fundamental has irrevocably changed. While we’ve both promised to write more sustained meditations for Robert Moses and Namarupa, I thought I’d try to hash something out briefly here, in the tiny confines of our blog.

It should be said that Robert’s guidance led us on a journey that was not yoga tourism. While we did practice, and had wonderful instruction, that was not the emphasis of our journey–we didn’t practice every day, and I didn’t practice at all the last third of the trip. Our emphasis was on going to temples–we were, like many of the Indians around us, religious tourists, pilgrims. So what I’d like to meditate on here, in our Ashtanga blog, and within site of the next Confluence, is the difference that emphasis has made in my asana practice.

I was as much prepared for our temple visits as I possibly could have been by Robert’s reading list. But there’s an innocence in a lack of experience that only the experience itself can augment, and I’m actually re-reading some of the things we read before we left, now that I’ve seen these places first hand. When we stood in Chidambaram in front of India’s only central Shiva Nataraj murti (Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer), and among the proverbial sea of worshippers, the only Westerners, I knew that change was coming for me, and I’d better be ready.

The company we kept. Robert, second from the left.
The company we kept. Robert, second from the left.

Since then, I’ve seen many temples, and participated in many puja performed by skilled and loving hands. I have had satsang (talks with the guru) and debated with swamis. Among many other things I’ve learned that I’m only beginning to process, I’ve come to a conclusion about the practice of Ashtanga.

For me, there is no practice of yoga without philosophy. I won’t use the word religion, because…well, because I think it’s the wrong word. In some circles, the path I’ve taken is considered atheistic—it depends on your point of view, whether or not we’re talking religion. I’m not against the “accusation” of religion as crucial to the practice of yoga; it’s just not how I’m thinking about it. (NPR is currently doing a timely series on religion in America if you’re looking for some thoughtful opinions on it.)

My journey’s made me sentimental, and I’m looking back across the years to my first Ashtanga class, to what made me fall in love. It was the Sanskrit names for the poses, something that I now recognize is rooted in the distinction between sruti (“that which is heard”) and smriti (“that which is remembered”): It’s the fundamental basis for Sanskrit texts, that Sanskrit spoken is itself holy. It’s no wonder I fell in love. And it was just the beginning of what I now see has been long study.

It’s just one example, those amazing Sanskrit names. The name of my form of yoga is itself Sanskrit, of course. Ashtanga, from Patanjali. “Ashtanga yoga is Patanjali yoga,” Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is often quoted as saying. To practice Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is to practice yoga philosophy. (I’m also aware of the varying “99% practice” dictum—the exact kind of deliciously loose pronouncement I make as a teacher all the time.)  So one of the many shifts that have happened, one of the first ones since our return that I can articulate, is the shift on the mat.

There is a new support for my asana practice, an unlooked for purpose. I now hear the words I’m saying in our two opening mantras in a fresh light, and I carry them into the breath, so that a stronger body may support my study, my efforts to work out my purpose in life. I also recognize my constant failure to do so, and that part of the purpose of the practice is to continually practice.

Even Tim Miller’s lessons are coming back to me in a fresh light. Tim tells this story: In the early days of practice with Guruji, after hearing, “Practice, and all is coming,” he finally summoned the courage to ask, “Guruji, what is coming?” The answer was not a stronger body, better breath, and a clearer mind (although those things might be prerequisites). The answer Guruji gave? “Samadhi!”

I can hope.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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