Integrating Study and Practice

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 their sadhana 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 Namarupa on 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.
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

Important new document from Guruji: Yoga and Therapy

Eddie Stern has posted a transcript of a very important lecture given by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois on the mind/body connection, providing us with invaluable insight into Guruji’s thinking about the role of yoga in well-being. Here’s Eddie’s description of the context (from his Facebook page):

In 1977, Guruji was invited to give a presentation at a Yoga Conference that was organized by Swami Vishnu Devananda in Bangalore. The papers were all collected and published in a book called “Yoga and Science”, and the title of his presentation was “Yoga and Therapy”. I had looked for the book for many years, but to no avail. Then this past fall, almost miraculously, the son of Leslie Kaminoff – who I knew from my pre-yoga days – found the book in India, and Leslie gave it to me.

It’s a wonderful read. Particularly enjoyable if, like me, you have Guruji’s voice in your ear as you follow along. All my understanding of Guruji comes from Tim Miller, and my eyes welled up with tears at how directly he has passed along to me his teacher’s understanding of yoga as a therapy for the mind as well as for the body. This is a must-read.

Posted with gratitude by Bobbie

Picking up mats, putting down guns

We mentioned earlier that Eddie Stern was going to head with his Urban Yogis compatriots to a TedX talk.

It is now up and worth the time to watch:

Here’s a little bit of what Eddie had to say on his blog and his new Facebook page:

In any case, I am super, amazingly proud of the Urban Yogis – their dedication, bravery, and spirit of inquiry are truly praiseworthy and beautiful. Please watch if you would. They deserve the time. And a very big thank you to Todd Gailun, for inviting us to be a part of his conference.

There you go. I’ll admit my favorite part is the look on Eddie’s face as the Urban Yogi speaks around the 10:30 mark.

Posted by Steve

A long weekend at Ashtanga Yoga New York? Yes, please.

There’s been a lot of deep and heavy discussion here at The Confluence Countdown household about one thing: Are we going to the next Ashtanga Yoga Confluence in San Diego?

Since we started this blog, our purposes and inspirations have changed. Steve’s tapped into his natural inclinations (and serious training) as a journalist, and focused on covering Ashtanga news. His own practice has changed, so he’s also found his groove as a kind of voice for the stiff yoga guy.

I’ve enjoyed it as an outlet for the prose essay, something I don’t normally write. Inspiration doesn’t come often, but when it does, it’s a blast to do.

Now, we’ve got two Ashtanga Yoga Confluences behind us. A totally transformative yatra to India also shook things up, and in a big way. Plus our Ashtanga practice also became a home practice, with trips once a month or so to San Diego environs to see our teacher, Tim Miller.

The things we write about now, three years later, don’t have much to do with the annual Ashtanga convention; it became its own kind of confluence, something we learned all about on our pilgrimage to India. So we kept the name. But we were on the fence about going this year.

Then our friend Robert Moses announced that he’d be doing a workshop with Eddie Stern at Ashtanga Yoga New York. Steve and I looked at each other and just knew. Well. We must go. Here’s the schedule (January 17-20):

6-9 pm Puja
Freedom (moksha) as the essential aim of all actions.
7-11 am Mysore Practice
12-12:45 pm Meditation
12:45 – 2 pm Meditation, Chanting & Yoga Sutras Study
2-4 pm Break for lunch
4-6 Talk: Spiritual Landscape of India
7-11 am Mysore Practice
11am -1pm Break for lunch
1- 3 pm Talk: Essentials of Vedanta
3-4 pm Tea break
4-6 pm Talk: Yoga: Traditions & Lineages
7-11 am Mysore Practice
11am-2 pm Ganesha Temple Yatra – Flushing, Queens

MLK-Day-Retreat-Flier-edit3One of the things we learned on our pilgrimage to India is the value of knowledgeable leaders as travel companions. We had five swamis traveling with us, and satsang with them was amazing. The deepest discussions I had on the trip came at or after visiting holy sites—over dinner, on the bus, or standing right there, in the moment. One of our fondest wishes from our trip is that we would get more time hearing Robert speak about Vedanta, and there it is, right on the agenda.

We also appreciate Eddie’s alchemic combination of playful humor and  mind-blowing philosophy—right up our heavily ironic alley. After the last two meetings in San Diego, we found ourselves wishing we could visit his shala. So here it is. A chance to get both Eddie and Robert at the same time.

To New York City we go!

Posted by Bobbie

Now’s your chance: Bid on private yoga lessons with Eddie Stern

Here’s an offer that doesn’t come around every lifetime.

Eddie Stern has offered up two private yoga classes and a one-year membership to Ashtanga Yoga New York as part of a fundraiser for the Gordon Parks Foundation.

Here’s the link to the bidding location. By the way, the estimated value? $4,200. As of this posting, there’s no bid yet. So get at it!

Here’s more:

Learn from the master during 2 private yoga classes with Eddie Stern in either your New York City home or Eddie’s studio in Soho. You will also receive a 1-year membership to Ashtanga Yoga in Soho, New York.

Eddie has been teaching yoga since 1989, and is very active in bringing yoga to youths in public schools and at-risk communities in collaboration with Donna Karan, Deepak Chopra, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Mike D. Your 2 private classes will include yoga tailored for your needs, breathing exercises, meditation, and a routine for you to follow after the 2 sessions are complete.

If y’all in New York and its environs don’t bid soon, I might have to — I’m going to go right now and figure out the cost of a plane ticket and a hotel room, and then I’ll factor that in. How Hollywood of me to make Eddie come to my hotel for my yoga classes.

So be a friend to him and save him from that fate by bidding. The clock is ticketing — you only have hours to bid from right now.

Posted by Steve

‘Keep it simple and sing:’ Robert Svoboda on Ojas

We met Robert Svoboda briefly on our Yatra; he has deep roots with both Robert Moses and Eddie Stern and Namarupa.

Here’s a pretty great talk by him; I think I’ve got the videos in the proper order:

I especially like his suggestion to “sing discretely.”

You can find out more about Svoboda here.

Final FYI: I’m going to try to seek out some “deeper” pieces — either video or writing — in the coming days and weeks. It can’t be all coffee, all the time. Well, at least until the Encinitas yoga trial resume in two weeks, then “deeper” is probably not happening.

Posted by Steve

The crowd at AYNY for Saraswati and Sharath, plus Sanskrit e-books galore

Last night, Saraswati and Sharath lectured at Ashtanga Yoga New York. It was, as you might expect, a full house. Here’s a photo from the AYNY website:


Look a little deeper and you’ll find that Eddie Stern knocked out three new blog posts, including about the story — which I think we briefly rolled into something, as well — about the White House embracing yoga as a non-religious, or at least non-specifically spiritual — physical practice. He also found a wonderful photo from the Guardian in the U.K. of Orthodox Jews practicing yoga in Israel that further illustrates the point that yoga isn’t necessarily a Hindu religious activity:

Via the Guardian

But what I really want to highlight is the site Eddie links to with Sanskrit e-books, including Shakespeare and the Bible as well as Sanskrit primers and other books with English translations. You know, for all of us who can read Sanskrit. But if you’re among those who can, this seems like a great resource.

Posted by Steve