Is Asana Enough?

There are many aspects of the current practice of yoga that are brand new to the modern age, and as a result, require additional awareness and consideration. This blog is an example of that: Two students with an unprecedented platform to advance our practice in a non-traditional way (i.e., writing about it). The access teachers have to social media is another. A number of Senior Western Teachers have weblogs (Tim Miller and Eddie Stern are on our regular reading lists), as do a number of the younger teachers. One of my former teachers, Diana Christinson, is even a newspaper columnist.

Philadelphia Ashtanga teacher David Garrigues keeps a regular blog, and his most recent post about asana practice caught our attention. In it, David attempts to correct a tendency he’s noticing out in the Ashtanga world of a kind of devaluing of asana practice. As he puts it:

I am hearing people say that an asana practice will not ultimately address the needs of a seasoned student, as though part of progressing in yoga is to come to value asana less and something else more.

Without knowing who’s saying what, I can’t really respond directly, or know what kinds of things they’re saying, but I can respond to David. (In journalistic terms, this is known as an “echo chamber” and it has its own dangers. Steve can say more about that, but I’ll just leave it there.)

David points out a very important aspect of Ashtanga as I was taught, something that was imparted to me by my teachers from the very beginning of my practice:

The yoga sutra’s [sic] emphasize techniques for harnessing, controlling, and transcending the mind, and this is why it is possible to wrongly conclude that the sutra’s have more to do with meditation than with asana. But part of the reframing of asana is in recognizing that asana has everything to do with a study of the mind. The truth is that nearly every sutra pertains directly to asana practice and has a direct application to your practice. You must gradually shape your asana practice to address the workings of your mind.

I’d like to insert a subtle difference here. My study of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (with Tim Miller and others) has taught me that indeed there is very little (almost no) emphasis in Patanjali on asana as we know it—that’s rather indisputable. What David points out here is something that Tim does in all of his trainings: You must pull the Yoga Sutras into the practice of Ashtanga (“reframing”) asanas in order for asana practice to be used in the way Patanjali essentially uses meditation. That, David says, is the practice. That asana practice in and of itself, and for its own sake, is enough.

I have a few cautions I’d like to insert here. I don’t believe that the teachings of Guruji should be literalized. Things like “99 percent practice, 1 percent theory,” “Practice and all is coming,” and “Ashtanga Yoga is Patanjali yoga” have a bumper-sticker quality when too often repeated, and become drained of meaning. But more importantly, I believe that all good teachers tailor their teaching to the individual student. The lesson may be the same, but how it’s imparted is in a very specific context: to that student in that moment for a teacher’s specific purposes and goals for that particular student. I’ve heard the same saying by Guruji interpreted very differently by each senior teacher. I think this is healthy. Dogma=Death.

So while I agree with David that one does not “graduate” from asana practice to meditation, I disagree with David that the practice of asana is enough, and that is the practice as it has been given to us. At the same time, I don’t doubt that is exactly what Guruji imparted to him.

David looks to B.K.S. Iyengar as his model, that asana can be a lifetime practice. May that be so for us all. But Guruji himself did not practice asana during the last decades of his life. (If you don’t know that story…Well, it’s not my place to tell it. You’ll need to ask your teacher.) Personally, I have to be very careful the weight I place on asana for my enlightenment. My spine’s being held together with spit and duct tape right now, and something could happen tomorrow that will make asana practice impossible for me. Then what will I have, if all my samadhi eggs are in that physical basket? Actually, if you think about it, the same is true for us all.

I can only learn the way I was taught, and I’ve learned many aspects of the practice from Tim. I’ve learned study, and devotion. I have learned about worship from Eddie and Robert Moses. I can, while I can, bring those things to the mat. But I can also bring the mat to those things, so to speak. Because asana is a precarious study for me, that is the place where I have most strongly learned to detach from the body that practices. It is, paradoxically, the practice of asana that allows me to detach from the practice of asana. I perform austerities. They allow me to have a clear mind (well, a clearer mind anyway). That is all.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “Is Asana Enough?”

  1. Personally I find that ANYthing that gets me to focus and breathe and concentrate more does the job of ashtanga asana in some ways, whether it’s another form of exercise (physical aspect) or another form of concentration exercise like art (cerebral aspect). I understand the value of being devoted to one method, at least for a certain span of time, but I agree with you that you’re right in the risk factor.

    The type of person who gets SO fixated on one method is the type of person who might (for example) completely detach a shoulder muscle during asana & require surgery & a year’s rehabilitation. It’s also the type of person who becomes so self identified with a particular way that they will FREAK OUT if suddenly forced to change gears, and you never know when that might or might not happen. There are health conditions. There are unanticipated accidents. There is normal aging.

    I like the idea of a flexible attitude and approach.

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