I am the product of extensive research. Research requires an attitude that is a generous mix of curiosity and tenacity, and a willingness to accept that dead ends are never wasted—just part of the process. Above all, the researcher needs embrace the fact that research—if you’re lucky—never ends, because the point of research is to advance study. Research must continuously advance the field, making it deeper, better, more interesting.
True in life, true in Ashtanga.
My teacher Tim Miller has a deep and abiding love of research poses. Not all teachers believe in them or will even allow them. Tim does, and integrates them into his teacher trainings. Viva la research!
They’re especially useful for those of awkward dorks like myself who weren’t athletic before we started the practice. To give you a sense of scope, the first research pose I remember learning was for sirsasana: head on the floor facing a wall, walking my legs up it, then lifting one leg at a time into space.
This freaked me out. I mean, I freaked. But I kept at it until I wasn’t freaked anymore; I turned around, and did the pose with my back close to the wall. I slowly moved away from the wall, arriving at the end of my mat, no longer afraid of falling and strong enough to hold myself up. That took about a year, I think. Throughout those first years of practice, I learned research poses for, heck, most of the First Series.
You can see in this short video Kino offering up some research possibilities that can go three ways: help for supta kurmasana in First, eka and dwa pada sirsasana (and yoganidrasana) in Second, along with any number of frightening feet-behind-the head poses in Third. And this “research” is really a variation on a Third series pose; although I wonder what would happen if we did these in the practice room in Mysore, or the anjaniasana sequence that’s also research for similar poses.
But I practice at home, or at Tim’s, so that’s not a problem for me. Some days, I just start busting them out–one after the other–the research poses I’ve learned from Tim and his students who teach. Among these are the hanumanasana sequence after prasarita padottansana, variations on viparita dandasana—one of the many preparations for kapotasana. I do these along with a sequence that one of my teachers called “the trifecta of doom.” That little nickname highlights the fact that sometimes the research poses are more difficult than the actual pose. Which is major motivation to get proficient enough that you no longer need them.
It’s definitely a line of thought in Ashtanga that the pure practice itself should be enough—the
literal interpretation of Guruji’s famous line, “Practice and all is coming.” But I’m sure Guruji didn’t mean “practice and Advanced A is coming”; he meant samadhi—freedom.
There’s no doubt in my mind if I hadn’t been taught a way to get to stability and happiness in the difficult poses—given the sense of possibility—I wouldn’t have done Ashtanga at all. I was weak, sick, and in pain when I started. It was the research pose that gave me a sense of hope. And with any new skill, there must be hope as you practice.
It was research that allowed me to believe I could learn.
This isn’t the first time I’ve trumpeted the virtues of research, and of course there are strong voices in Ashtanga that advocate for it (David Swenson, for instance). But it struck me the other day as I was researching mayurasana that I took it for granted, and that it may be time for me to recognize how significant research poses have been in my learning not just the physical practice, but the mental tenacity needed in my life.
If the practice of the series of Ashtanga is so difficult that it often turns people away, it may be the research that invites them to stay, giving it potential to improve the diversity and scope of the practice and its practitioners, shooing away the stagnation that comes with elitism.
“Don’t freak,” Tim said to me once, while I was trying to drop back. It’s strange, but I often hear that advice off the mat, where it resonates like a kind of bell. The research instilled that in me, the calmness in the face of difficulty, the confidence that I can find a way to learn.
Post update: My teacher Maria Zavala, one of Tim’s students (who not only taught me Second, but also most of the Second Series research poses) added this to our Facebook page. I thought it was worth sharing:
Research postures keep Ashtanga practice safe and accessible for a lot of people. You have to teach this practice to the individual. Different people need different things at various points in their practice. All the research postures that Timji taught were beneficial to me in my practice. Especially for all the lovely feet behind the head poses. To add a bit of yoga trivia, he got the Hanumanasa / Somakonasana sequence from John Scott, who learned it from Derek Ireland, who I originally learned it from in Greece.
Posted by Bobbie