The study and practice of Ashtanga

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing. We’ll see if we have an experience this time around similar to the one detailed below.

***

I’m what you might call a semi-academic. Years ago, I deliberately walked away from a tenure-track job in my field (British Romanticism), profoundly unhappy and unfulfilled by academic scholarship. I went back to poetry writing. I took some time off, wrote some poems, worked some retail. Which meant, essentially, that I burned the bridge back to my academic career. With some distance in time, I realize it was the disconnect between academic study and academic teaching that made me so disgusted with the whole thing—-the disconnect between study and practice.

It’s possible that, initially, it was the extreme physicality of Ashtanga that drew me to it. It was as far away from study as I thought I could get. It was all body. Or so I thought.

The study, or sadhana, aspect of Ashtanga is sneaky, though. You want to learn the pose. Nobody is really telling you how to do the pose. What’s a former academic to do? Buy a book, of course. Thank you, David Swenson. Still, it’s not technically a book; it’s a “practice manual.” Right?

But that was just the beginning; it was years ago, some teacher trainings with the great reader, Tim Miller, and lots of books later when along came Eddie Stern, and Robert Moses, and theirsadhana yatra (which we are going on again in a few months). Along came many more books to prepare, and a much broader understanding of yoga, with deeper context. Somewhere in all of this, we learned of the existence of Namarupa, Robert and Eddie’s journal.

“Name and form.” That’s what the name of their journal means. Subtitled, “categories of Indian thought.”

When Steve and I went on the last pilgrimage, we took along volumes and volumes of Namarupaon our iPad, and tried to catch up with years of amazing articles, photos, and art. The new issue is out (catch it here), and it dedicates a number of its articles to. . .asana!

Why do I say it like this, you ask, as if I’m shocked? If you look at the covers of the slender offerings (pun intended) of American yoga journals, without doubt asana is the focus—the physical practice takes a front seat, with the thought in the back. Even meditative practices are almost always linked to physical benefits. In Namarupa, thought’s in the front seat, and “practice” means something totally different. Asana is for the most part absent. The focus is on Indian thought.

Most recent cover. All Hanuman, no asana.

After we  got over the bitter taste academia left in our mouths, Steve and I were hungry for this. (I include Steve here because it’s a well-kept secret that he’s also a reformed academic–he has two Masters degrees, and had even finished his Ph.D. coursework in English when he decided to become a journalist.) (I guess it’s now a poorly-kept secret.)

For those of us who roll out the mat every day, though, there’s always the question of how to integrate study into practice in a healthy way.

This issue, for instance, has an article written by Eddie Stern, and illustrated with photos by Sharath. You would think you’d get a sense there, from two of the world’s leading Ashtanga teachers, and pioneers in the field.

It’s a beautiful article. But it, too, is about pilgrimage—you will have to wait to the end to get an insight from Eddie on integration of pilgrimage into practice (and you’ll also have to read it yourself–”Pilgrimage to Srigeri” by Eddie Stern with a photo essay by R. Sharath Jois).

But hold on. There’s more: An extended meditation on a single pose, and, for me, the hardest pose of all:  “Shavasana: the Corpse Pose” by Jan Schmidt-Garre. There’s also a story-telling description of the asanas influenced by Hanuman—with advice on how to put yourself in Hanuman’s mental place as you practice them (“Hanuman’s Influence on Yoga Asanas” by Mayanak Dhingra). Many of these Tim Miller teaches as research poses for the practice, and it was right up Steve’s alley. Be Hanuman!

For me, though, the article with the most resonance is the “Teachings of Professor Krishnamacharya” by Claude Marechal. Marechal is a long-time student of TKV Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son.

At his workshop with Robert Moses in New York, Eddie Stern pointed out that Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was lured away from Krishnamacharya by an academic job, to teach yoga at the Sanskrit college in Mysore.

What’s the first thing you need, Eddie asked, when you get hired to teach a college class?

It was like he was asking me personally. “A syllabus!” I said. If you’re going to teach a class, you have to have lesson plans. A syllabus is expected of you. You can’t just walk in and improvise a bunch of stuff. The syllabus is your contract with the student. It outlines what you’re promising to teach the student, as well as policies and practices, what’s expected from the student. So Guruji took what he learned from Krishnamacharya, and framed a course.

Marechal’s article is an extended analysis and summary of the elements that Guruji drew upon as a young teacher, formulating what would become Ashtanga yoga–although Marchal doesn’t mention Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga at all. As his title suggests, Marechal considers these things first and foremost the teachings of a professor of yoga. Because the nature of academic research is to advance the field, he also outlines the innovations that belong to Krishnamacharya. The practitioner of Ashtanga can clearly see these in the article; among them is teaching to women, something that allowed Guruji to welcome Nancy Gilgoff into his school, and the many women who followed.

The article also outlines the strong integration of practice and study, at the same time recognizing that there are different emphases in the practice at different times in our lives. It also outlines the correct attitude of the teacher toward the student, and the student toward the teacher. The role of mental attitude in our daily lives is why we practice, and practice is why we study: “Dhyana is asana,” Marechal writes,

The state of concentration arising from the practice of asana and pranayama is presented by Professor Krishnamacharya as a unifying movement between the body, the breath, the senses and the mind (kaya prana indriya citta samgati). This idea of junction, of connection, is an essential aspect of the teaching of the master.

And, arguably, of his student, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

Pick it up, and all the many other Namarupa gold mines, here.

Posted by Bobbie

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theconfluencecountdown

Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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