Steve has asked me to take over the very popular Friday Asana Aid post, and I hope to do him proud this week with shoulder stand–a much neglected pose. I struggle with teaching this pose in my Intro class–things are moving fast, students are tired from back bending. And they’ve been cautioned not to look to the side to see what’s up–bad things will happen. At the same time, I can’t go all Iyengar on them and bring out the chairs and the piles of blankets (we only have three blankets at my shala). It took me a long time to enjoy this pose, to find its therapeutic qualities. Some help is needed. So we begin with the excellent David Garrigues and his wonderful Asana Kitchen:
And here’s Chris Croft’s take:
Here’s David again, showing two adjustments. His instructions let you know where the action of the pose is. Note the blanket with the rolled up sticky mat. Also, the tone of a serious workshop, with notes scattered everywhere:
Next, Kino. Because this is an older video on “eHow” (how quickly things change and become dinosaur-like), you’ll need to click though the link (it’s worth it). Here’s Kino MacGregor, framing shoulder stand as a therapeutic for the thyroid. You’ll want to navigate back for the finale.
The finale, worth it for the green screen (that’s the California coast, people!) and jazzy music:
A few days ago, I suggested one very good reason not to do Ashtanga: It will mess with your insides. (The “insides” you can’t really find unless you use your imagination or expand your consciousness.)
That, of course, is the point to yoga, if you boil it down to its overly nitty-gritty.
But we all also know that a lot of the yoga classes and yoga teachers in America aren’t focused much, if at all, on the subtle body. It’s all asana, all the time. (Yes, as Tim Miller might say, that gives us plenty of times to make asanas of ourselves.) It’s about sculpted abs, a taunt butt and lean muscles.
In other words, in America yoga pretty much equals asana (stretches, poses, maybe some movement). How else would you explain what “paddleboard yoga” or “anti-gravity yoga” are? Any chance those get toward Dhyana? (Don’t believe they exist? Internet search, my friend.)
The question this focus poses is: Is yoga in America, in the West, losing part of its core?
That’s the subject of yet another Huffington Post piece (I promise we aren’t going to link to HuffPo every day, and the last one was for a good cause!), this one by Philip Goldberg, author of “America Veda.” In it, he writes:
That yoga might become permanently identified with asana alone troubles many practitioners and teachers. It concerns me too, but I think it is unlikely to happen. For one thing, yoga’s deeper, more profound purpose is so compelling, so enticing, so embedded in the core of our being, that a large percentage of practitioners find their way to it, regardless of their initial motivation. For another, leaders in the yoga community are taking steps to ensure that the full array of yogic teachings remains in the forefront, even while accommodating the immediate needs and desires of beginning students.
He goes on to suggest that some people (i.e. Yoga Alliance) are considering a two-step sort of accreditation (let’s save the argument about that subject for another day): one is for people specializing in the physical side of yoga and another for those who have a mastery of all eight limbs of yoga.
He actually writes “those with a firm grasp of all eight limbs of classical yoga.” So, quick digression. I know the intent of this. But, then I think: Wait, who is going to judge that? What’s the test for having a “firm grasp” of Samadhi, let alone Dhyana? Would some of the celebrity yogis get this, shall we say, “higher” level of accreditation? What if Seane Corn gets it, but Shiva Rea doesn’t?
And: Who judges?
OK, I know that’s not the real intent; we are talking practicality here, we’re talking capitalism. If you’ve studied Patanjali and are able to discuss the Vedas and maybe the symbolic meaning of the Ramayana, you’ll probably be eligible for the “eight-limb OK.”
My point is: Would that really address the issue? Who would the audience be for this accreditation? And would it really define “true yoga” for “asana yoga”?
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.
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.”