Ashtanga vs. Bikram: There’s no contest, Ashtanga wins

There’s a piece over at the venerable elephant journal titled, “Ashtanga vs. Bikram: Which is Elitist?”

You can check it out via this link. The bottom-line, according to the author, is that it is Astanga that’s elitist and too difficult for many people. He also thinks the sequence — he emphasizes the Primary — is not well-rounded and that adds to its being unsuited to “most people,” aka people who aren’t very flexible.

Well, you know if you’ve been reading us here that that strikes a chord with me.

(First, though, a quick side track: Some of the commenters have jumped on the use of the word “elitist,” which obviously is intended to incite people as it is “not yogic.” Arguing about it makes sense, except that it clearly is what the author wants his readers to do. The more compelling arguments, from my perspective, is that yoga isn’t about asana — or at least, it’s only one-eighth about asana.)

Tim Miller doing his best to make Steve's down dog part of the canine species.

Aside from all the mis-characterizations of Ashtanga (it doesn’t take 3.5 hours, for instance, and you can balance the different series in a bunch of ways, as noted here), the piece misses one key item — from my experience, at least.

I found Bikram so rigid — even militant — about how to do the poses correctly (“our way or the highway”) that I got little out of it, other than a lot of sweat. I found it very unwelcoming. As a result, I’ll admit I haven’t taken more than a few handful of Bikram classes.

By comparison, and perhaps it is thanks to the Ashtanga teachers I’ve had, I have found Ashtanga much more flexible in allowing me to modify poses — even the Marichyasanas that the author of the elephant journal piece particularly seems to dislike.

The ability to guide my own practice — certainly in a Mysore room but also during a Led class — is the key difference and what makes Ashtanga work, in my opinion. (I also think Ashtanga’s focus on dristi, bandhas and breath puts it more in line with Patangali’s eight limbs of yoga. My experience with Bikram was not a spiritual one, at all. I suppose this gets us back to the yoga vs. asana question.)

Does this mean I think Bikram is somehow worse or more elitist than Ashtanga? No, it just means that Bikram didn’t work for my body. That doesn’t mean I would generalize from my own experience. (Doing so, in my opinion, is the real problem with the elephant journal piece. “Ashtanga didn’t work for me, therefore it doesn’t work for most people” is not a very valid argument.) It does mean that I’m surprised that in a “which style is better for someone who is stiff” contest, Bikram would ever win. But, again, that’s my experience.

And I will defend Ashtanga. Especially because I’ll put my stiffness up against the elephant journal author’s “relatively stiff dude gym-rat body.” Seriously, if I can keep doing Ashtanga, truly anyone can. (For one really good reason to do so, check this earlier post.) And I think that is because the practitioner has control of the situation and not the teacher wandering around (with a microphone, no less!).

That said, Ashtanga is not without its limitations. I’m on the Primary Series and as a result, I don’t get much stretching of my quads. Solution? I am working on adding in — I know, shocker! — Virasana in certain parts of my practice and trying to sit in Virasana when I can. It’s helping a lot.

There’s also that criticism about a lack of backbends. Another easy answer: Make sure you focus on your Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. If done right, the Primary Series has as many backbends as anyone needs.

In the end, everyone who practices yoga is going to find a particular style (or styles) that suits him or her best. I say I’m proof that Ashtanga can be that style for just about anyone.

Posted by Steve

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Mercury day poetry: ‘The Living Flame of Love’

Bobbie might kill me for this, but I’m pronouncing Wednesdays at The Confluence Countdown as “poetry day.”

St. John of the Cross, via saints.sqpn.com

(Why might she kill me? Well, at the risk of doubling my chances of death, you can check our her online collection of poems here. I’m not sure it was ever her intention to cross the streams of these two sites. Although her earlier post sets the stage.)

Why Wednesday? Well, because Wednesday — in Spanish, miercoles, in French, mercredi — is Mercury’s day. And among his many attributes, he was the god of communication, so, I’m stretching that means a little. (Apologies, Apollo!) So Wednesday seems a good time to do this.

Now, a caveat. I’m not a huge fan of mixing poetry or similarly “deep thoughts” with yoga — necessarily. I’ve been in classes where hearing a Rumi poem works well, strikes just the right chord and enhances my Shavasana. But I’ve been in far more classes where the teacher’s reading is just annoying. (Fortunately, Tim Miller seems to have the gift for knowing when to read and when not to read. Some of the, shall we say, less experienced teachers I’ve had don’t.)

I’ll try to stay away from the Rumi you all already know.

First poem? One I keep waiting to hear in a class. It sounds like yoga, with tapas.

For those unfamiliar with him, St. John of the Cross is one of — in my mind — the two great Christian mystic poets. (We’ll bring you the other next week.) I’ve always been drawn to this poem through the image of the tender wounding. I often feel like yoga is that: it hurts, it tears, it drains, but it does so tenderly, to help us reach a better, more refined, place.

The Living Flame of Love

Songs of the soul in the intimate communication of loving union with God.

1. O living flame of love

that tenderly wounds my soul

in its deepest center! Since

now you are not oppressive,

now consummate! if it be your will:

tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

2. O sweet cautery,

O delightful wound!

O gentle hand! O delicate touch

that tastes of eternal life

and pays every debt!

In killing you changed death to life.

3. O lamps of fire!

in whose splendors

the deep caverns of feeling,

once obscure and blind,

now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,

both warmth and light to their Beloved.

4. How gently and lovingly

you wake in my heart,

where in secret you dwell alone;

and in your sweet breathing,

filled with good and glory,

how tenderly you swell my heart with love.

Posted by Steve

The poetry of Ashtanga

Before I fell in love with the asana practice of Ashtanga, I was seduced by its sound.

It seemed a total mystery of the best kind. The teacher would call out a word I did not know, and tell me to inhale with it, then another and to exhale with it. Certain words would make me move in very specific ways, and I understood none of them. It was like a spell.

What’s more, the words themselves had beats made for poetry. The word Ashtanga is a strong dactyl. “Yoga” is a trochee. Together, what a weird beat: “Ashtanga yoga.” How many times during a led class do we get reminded of its meaning? “Ashto exhale” as we move our limbs to the eighth breath.

The first pose name I learned has this curious rhythmic quality: “triang mukha eka pada paschimottanasana.” I suspect I learned it first because it sounds as off-center as it felt.

The Bhagavad Gita in beautiful Sanskrit

Sanskrit is on my mind because I’m teaching new students, and new students often express a kind of awe at the Sanskrit. It causes some intimidation. Sometimes even distrust (one Venice yoga studio proudly proclaims, “NO SANSKRIT” on its exterior). There’s a lot of burying of Sanskrit in other forms of yoga, even banning. I think that removes the heart of the pose, its lineage.

Maybe it’s because I write poetry myself, and read a lot of poetry, but it seems to me like the Sanskrit is part of the purpose of the practice. The word evokes the pose, makes it complete. Sanskrit philosophy contends there is no distinction between the word and the thing it signifies, something of a point of contention in contemporary Western philosophy, called “the myth of original language.” A “myth,” and so, in Western eyes, not true.

One Sanskrit word for “poet” (“kavi”–but there are many) translates as “one who has supreme knowledge.” Perhaps this is the thing the poets know, the magic of language is in its evocative power. It seems to me that’s what I’m striving to do in the pose, anyway: to know.

Is this why Ashtanga uses Sanskrit so much? Perhaps Tim Miller’s explanation is the best, elegantly true: “The English just sounds stupid.”

Posted by Bobbie

A way easier way to do ‘Ashtanga’

I just happened upon (read: Google pushed into my inbox) a story from the Times of India that runs through the different postures in our beloved Suryanamaskara A.

Only with a twist. A really easy twist that sounds like it wouldn’t leave me absolutely gushing with sweat as I curl myself from Yoga Mudra to Shavasana.

In other words, where was this Ashtanga when I was getting started? And is it too late to jump ship?

Ashtanga Namaskara: While in the prone position, exhale and lower your body to the floor until eight of your body parts touch the floor including your forehead, chest, and two palms, both knees and both feet.

Forget the eight limbs, especially the pesky, tough ones. Put eight parts of your body on the ground (I’ve been going with four, silly me) and, I guess, all is coming.

If only.

Now, admittedly, the article says this is Suryanamaskara for beginners. But it’s still a novel use of the word Ashtanga that, in my more desperate and tired moments, I probably could get behind solidly.

Posted by Steve

The ‘yoga capital of the world’?

Statue of Shiva, in Rishikesh, via the Seattle Times.

A trip to India is, not surprisingly, on Bobbie and my itinerary. Nothing solid yet, but the call of that country grows louder and louder with each Shavasana.

We don’t really have a sense of where, precisely, we will go. Mysore? Sounds like an obvious one, but we all know that things are different there since Guruji’s passing, and we have our teachers here in Encinitas and Los Angeles.

Plus, one of Bobbie’s students in her writing classes at our not-so-local University of California campus, who is from India, perhaps gave us pause with this comment when she mentioned that Mysore was where the Guru was.

“Mysore,” he sneered (according to the version of the story I’ve heard), “that’s like the Arkansas of India.”

So, noted.

What may be the pull, then, is less the yoga — or, precisely, the Ashtanga — and more the spiritual heritage of the country. Does that, then, mean we have to go to Rishikesh?

According to this Seattle Times piece, maybe:

TUCKED INTO a town in India’s Himalaya foothills sits a statue of Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism’s most venerated deities.

Shiva’s legs are crossed as he peacefully meditates, unlike the eager yoga students who clamber up and around the bigger-than-life statue to drape him with garlands.

Yoga and spiritual devotees of every nationality flock to this northern Indian town of Rishikesh along the banks of the Ganges, India’s holy river. The Beatles set off the flow of Western spiritual seekers after their stay in an ashram here in the 1960s.

Now billing itself “the yoga capital of the world,” Rishikesh brims with ashrams, temples and yoga schools, mixing New Age trappings such as juice bars and healing crystals with ancient Hindu teachings.

Actually, that sounds a little like Mt. Shasta, truth be told.

But, we’re very open to suggestions, if anyone has them. (And, if you have specific thoughts on travel agents/guides/etc., we’ll take any comments there, too!)

I assume the Confluence will have “vendors” who will be all about this kind of trip.

Posted by Steve

Yogi diet: No hybrid wheat, being mainly raw

Since Ashtanga is the “yoga of no,” and that leaves us fewer interesting things to talk about — no late night band reviews, can’t try out the newest happening bar, won’t be running down LA’s best donuts anytime soon — we are left to talk about other things: our restricted diets, our curious Saturday regiments and other unmentionables.

We’ve had quite a bit of interest and emails about our giving up wheat, following Bobbie’s foray into the book “Wheat Belly” and her leading a writing course at UC Irvine with a food theme. (It wasn’t a fun food theme, it was a here’s-all-the-terrible-things-we-eat theme.)

So, for those with ongoing interest in this subject, here’s our diet- and wheat-based posts. We’ll add to it as we add new ones.

And, on the benefits of coffee: No coffee, no prana:

Other yoga resources