The two types of Ashtanga, Part II

It’s all Ashtanga, right?

That’s the intended bottom-line of our last post — and it seems to be reflected for the most part in the comments.

It’s a serious topic, though. And so here’s my counter pose/post, still on the same topic: the two types of Ashtanga.


It hit me during my third Surya Namaskara B. Or, really, it washed over me like a warm wave on a sandy shoreline.

I am still so sleepy, I realized. I am fuzzy-headed.


Being fuzzy-headed isn’t new during an Ashtanga practice. (I’m sure someone will argue it is my defacto state of mind.) But this morning, after a bad night’s sleep that almost ended in my turning off the alarm, it felt in stark contrast to Sunday’s practice, after a full night’s sleep and later in the morning.

It’s going to be one of these practices, I realized. The sleepy one, the somnambulant type.

As opposed to the awake type, the lively one.

Two very different states of Ashtanga.

The sleepy one benefits from a certain lack of awareness; but I don’t mean that in a bad way. It keeps the defenses and the doubts from flooding ahead. By default, almost, you can find yourself deeper in a pose, beyond your own expectations. Your self sometimes is too sleepy to get in the way.

You don’t get caught up in the wrong awarenesses, hung up on distractions. You may go through a few motions (not the best thing, obviously) and wake up to discover you’re where you wouldn’t have thought you could reach.

The sleepy one, of course, has plenty of problems. For one, you’re sleepy! (You may hear a voice say, “Eyes closed, sleep is coming.”) You are likely to miss things as you flow on a bit of autopilot through your poses.

Sleepy does not encourage drishti.

The awake Ashtanga is full of energy and movement and vigor. Both of body, which is good, and of mind, which can be bad. During an awake practice, the mind can dart about, flitting from this thought to that, resisting the intent of the practice: to slow things down toward a focus.

The awake practice also can get caught up in doubt. Or fear. And it can be confronted by possibility because the body of the awake practice can be warm, looser. More inclined to the twists and turns of the practice. Embracing of movement.

The body of the sleepy practice may be stiff, unpliable. Resistant. But you may not notice that, and so you just carry on.

The best practice (ah, the beauty of judgement there) combines both in some alchemical mix.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

4 thoughts on “The two types of Ashtanga, Part II”

  1. My Friend Noelle posted this quote on her FB wall and I believe it applies to the Two Types of Ashtanga posts, both I & II:

    “Correct yoga practice entails a sense of gratitude for the direct experience of living, and a deep appreciation of the (often surprising) potential for healing. We should practice with a patient acceptance of our current state (which is the foundation of future states) while remaining open to the possibility of positive change. Anxiety breeds anxiety, and calm produces calm.” I believe she quotes Ellen Williams Kympton from Richmond Private Yoga
    because lets add private yoga to the other types ( I kid, I kid).

  2. I believe detailed understanding of anatomy and physiology of practice is important here and misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Astanga Yoga (and postural Yoga generally) are common. For example, deep back bends, such as Urdhva Dhanurasana, were not included in the primary series as codified by Krishnamacharya in his book Yogasanagalu (1941). I believe this was for good reason. Deep back bends are risky. They tend to produce stress fractures to the pars interarticularis, the part of vertebra between the inferior and superior articular processes of the facet joint. This is called spondylolysis and practitioners of other physical disciplines such as gymnastics, ballet, and cricket fast bowling also tend to develop the same condition, often at a comparatively young age.

    Does anyone have a reference for the purpose of each of the astanga series? That is, that the primary series was “for life”, the 2nd for teaching, and the 3rd for demonstration? If so can you please post the reference for me?

    There are no images I can find of either Krishnamacharya or Patabhi Jois doing Urdhva Dhanurasana, but there are many of B.K.S Iyengar doing it and other even deeper back bends.

    Mark Singleton (2010; 192) indicated in chapter nine of his book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice that part of Krishnamacharya’s duty was to “…put his students … through their paces and showing off their ability to stretch and bend their bodies into the most impressive and astonishing postures”. This almost certainly included the deep back bends featured in the third series.

    This suggests that deep back bends were an aesthetic display of excess strength and flexibility and that they weren’t meant “for life”. If the dozens of photographs of Krishnamacharya (and Patabhi Jois) are any evidence, deep back bends weren’t part of the regular practice of either of these masters either.

    It seems that Urdhva Dhanurasana became part of the primary series under the influence of Westerners some time in the mid 1970s. Does any one have any references to when and why this pose was slotted into the primary series? If so, can you please post them?

    What about the rest of the primary series? In my experience it mostly contains forward bends, which if performed intelligently are safe and even beneficial in maintaining spinal health.

    The primary series (and the other series too) also contains the vinyasa or linking sequence, which, if performed as Patabhi Jois said with an inhalation during the lolasana phase, obliges a practitioner to perform what my teacher, Simon Borg-Olivier, called “Tha-mula Bhanda”, which, in my opinion is arguably the most ‘alchemical’ component of Astanga Yoga. Tha-mula Bhanda involves activation of the rectus abdominis muscle with a relative relaxation of the other abdominal muscles, which allows the respiratory diaphragm to move its full excursion. This allows for spinal stabilization and trunk strength with the profound relaxation of diaphragmatic breathing (for more information see my facebook page page and look for the “Tha-Mula Bhanda an Asana Master Key” video post)

    Possibly because lolasana is difficult for beginners to master, all traces of it seem to have been omitted from other schools of postural Yoga. Simon Borg-Olivier, who trained with Patabhi Jois, recommends doing easier ‘plank’ like poses that provide the benefits of Tha-mula Bhanda and Lolasana without the strength requirements of the full posture / vinyasa sequence.

    It seems to me that most non Astanga forms of postural Yoga have failed to grasp the value of Astanga’s vinyasa sequence including Tha-mula Bhanda and have turned yoga into more a stretching and strengthening class that increases the tone / tension of the thoraco-lumbar erector spinae often to painful levels.

    So yes I believe there are two types of Astanga Yoga at least, but insight and attention to the details of practice really matter regardless of which type you practice or teach.


    Ben Gaffney

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