The science of Ashtanga in the Kali Yuga

It’s been a while — nearly a year — but Guy Donahaye is back with a new blog post: Vijnana – The Science of Ashtanga Yoga in the Kali Yuga. It touches on Krishnamacharya, Guruji and Patanjali. A few excerpts to get you to check it out:

Krishnamacharya was a highly religious man, a member of the vaisnavara faith. He believed that in this age of Kali Yuga, the way to realization was only accessible through bhakti – religious devotion. He did not believe that people today were suited to the stages of non-attachment required for the higher levels of Patanjali Yoga.

This perspective, though maybe based on an accurate perception of early 20th century Indian society, was also heavily colored by his Vaishnavara faith. Krishnamacharya was many things but his primary interest was his devotion to god.


Contrary to what Krishnamcharya believed, I think Guruji had great faith in the yoga system as a means to emancipation – at least that is what he taught. He drew on all available scriptural sources including those of Advaita Vedanta and believed that all the scriptures which speak about yoga constitute an integral whole.

Guruji was also religious, but the lineage of Shankaracharya to which he belongs is not quite so passionate in its religious devotion. While Krishnamacharya was an expert in quite a few different fields, Guruji was more exclusively concentrated on the yoga darshana and advaita vedanta.


I believe it was one of Krishnamacharya’s great achievements to re-integrate two paths of yoga which had apparently split off from each other –  Patanjali Yoga and Hatha Yoga. But beyond this, the father of modern yoga leaves us with a meagre philosophical or spiritual legacy. Neither he nor his disciples – Guruji and BKS Iyengar put yoga on the map beyond its expression as asana and pranayama.

As a result there is a lot of unclarity about the path of yoga beyond these physical practices. Indeed, there is almost a fanaticism or obsession with the minutiae of these physical practices which is perhaps what causes blindness to anything beyond them. Today yoga has spread to millions of people around the world but where is the clear enunciation of its deeper meaning as a spiritual practice?

Must we just practice with faith and devotion or is there a guiding light which can help us find the way?

Guy’s thoughts on why asana came to dominate Guruji’s teachings are, in a word, really interesting. OK, in two words.

Check it all out.

Posted by Steve

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

Getting just a taste of Sukham

I mentioned a while back that I’d had my first official private yoga class with our friend, longtime teacher and fellow student of Tim Miller, Maria Zavala.

On Sunday, it was round two (of a planned four). We ran through — I guess this is where I add my usual warning that this is a post about my own practice, a type of writing I like to avoid, but I promise to try to find something “universal” out of an experience I think is often really, really individualized — most of Primary, again, but then ventured into some research poses that might be useful for my own limitations.

It was a great lesson, producing an effect that, I think it safe to say, cannot be captured in a selfie.

And here’s the universal takeaway or the “greater Ah Ha” moment.

It came, perhaps coincidentally, almost in the pose I wrote about a month ago, about how Parivritta Parshvakonasana was and is teaching me a little about handling suffering. This time, it was Utthita Parshvakonasana where the lesson came. First side.

Maria was adjusting me: foot, rotation of the left leg, then that slight twist up of the torso. Finally, she turned my hand — I think I have this right — a little more so the palm was toward me.

There was much resistance in my shoulder. So I did the only thing I could. I relaxed it.

And a little more movement happened.

In my head, I thought, “That’s a little more ease there.”

Ah ha.

Sthira Sukham Asanam.

I discovered a little of the ease, to go along with (or perhaps moderate) the strength or stability, and got closer to the asana.

It just may be possible, and it just may work as Patanjali says. Even, or especially, in the tough moments.

And, like I said, I don’t think any selfie or photo can capture that.

Posted by Steve


What is common to all forms of yoga

A few posts back, I mentioned that the fundamentals of yoga are very old — take your pick how old, but for ease’s sake, we’ll go with the 5,000 year count that seems pretty popular.

You can spend some time searching around the Internet to find those who disagree with this idea. Often, they tend to focus on the asana side of things, which in its calisthenics version is maybe closer to 150 years old.

But we know yoga does not equal asana, alone.

During our weekend Moksha workshop at Ashtanga Yoga new York, Eddie Stern talked about how Patanjali put existing strands of yoga philosophy into a systematic, understandable form — the sutras, of which we’re all so familiar. (More to come on Robert Moses’ Vedanta 101 and other talks. We can only share it all so quickly.) These strands are there, older, in texts like the Ramayana, the Mahabhrata and parts of the Vedas, for instance.

And as Eddie pulled the threads together, he mentioned that all forms of yoga share a similar “viewpoint on reality,” a commonality that — and this is me building upon what he said — I think you could say might be a way to identify whether something is “yoga” or not: the focusing and concentrating of the mind toward samadhi. It is a particular type of concentration, Eddie said, in which “your mind needs to be where you are when you are doing that thing.”

Yoga is a tool to teach you to be in your being. It is about efforts toward calming and clarity. Interestingly, that doesn’t explicitly include religion or Hindu gods, although for Patanjali the “ishta devata” and God are key elements.

But they aren’t necessarily shared across yogas; what is is the peeling away of the layers of confusion as one seeks self-knowledge and understanding. (Those are my words, not Eddie’s.)

This is something we’re still reflecting upon; and remember a guiding principle of the weekend, as Bobbie already highlighted: “These are just postulations for the purpose of enquiry.”

Oh, and as an aside, this piece — on activist investors and the auction house Sotheby’s, mentions Ashtanga and Mysore. And getting there in a Gulfstream.

Posted by Steve

The spirit of yoga and the interconnectedness of all things

A quick “Ask the Experts” is up from Richard Freeman: “Is Astanga yoga connected more to the Saiva or Vaishnava tradition?”

Part of his answer:

The “cult” of Patanjali in South India, I believe, is more connected to the Vaishnava tradition and therefore there are many references to the ananta sesa who is the couch of Visnu and plays strongly in Vaishnava mythology. However…

You’ll have to click above to find out what comes after that qualifying “however.”

Posted by Steve

The knowledge of yoga: mushy, lumpy and not very appealing

“Yoga is a radical philosophy and practice which is all too often dumbed down and perverted to suit purely commercial interests: teaching yoga has become a business and writing yoga books a potentially lucrative pursuit.” That’s just one of a number of provocative — in the good sense — statements from the latest from Guy Donahaye, the follow-up to his recent string of posts about yoga and the modern day.

Link is right here. A little more:

Since, in our society, we are taught to desire so much, to excel, to be the best or at least the richest or most beautiful etc., the effort to attain these badges of merit is enormous. Often our drive for success may be fueled by the unrealized desires of our parents. But in any case we experience this drive to compete and acquire as a deep conditioning and stress – and to relieve our stress, we have our pleasures.

According to Patanjali, if you want to experience pleasure, you should not run after it, you should instead cultivate contentment. According to him, from this contentment is derived the highest pleasure. This does not mean that one should be lazy, but that one should learn to see everything with equanimity.

Detachment is a frightening concept for Westerners. We fear we will lose everything we value, however we only lose what poisons us. Since we are confused about what is good for our health and what is detrimental, we fear we will reject something we value.

But detachment does not imply not having feelings, not experiencing happiness and pleasure, quite the opposite!

The main thrust of the post is about viaragya, or non-attachment. As he notes, immediately above, that doesn’t mean not having feelings. It just means not needing to have our feelings fulfilled.

But I particularly — given my own ambivalence toward Ashtanga — am interested in the following:

Guruji often talked about practice, practice…but Patanjali pairs this practice with vairagya – dispassion. If we make yoga into a thing we like, which suits our needs, we do not allow yoga to do any work for us. We do not gain any net benefit. Yoga means mind-control – this is achieved through practice and dispassion.

Too many writings and teachings on yoga accommodate the fact that we are competitive, passionate, compulsive etc.. The implications of karma, reincarnation, renunciation etc are unpalatable. And so yoga is made into something warm and fuzzy, something which fits neatly into our materialistic culture.

I need to think more about that. Because it certainly isn’t as simple as “not liking” Ashtanga. It also suggests that simply embracing and loving yoga may be missing a key point to the experience, to the lesson, of yoga. Based on the idea of non-attachment, the right path isn’t hating the practice or toughing it out, either.

There’s some push-pull there, reflected most “grossly” at the physical level, but going deeper, too. It makes me think that likening yoga to tapasya is, perhaps, close to the right thought.

Posted by Steve


Why you should care about Vedic astrology and a new Second Series DVD

Tim Miller, you may have noticed if you’ve followed his blog postings, focuses frequently on the skies.

There’s a reason, and he explains it this week:

It’s not that I have this vast knowledge of the subject that I feel compelled to share with the world, but rather that it is something I find to be endlessly fascinating, and something I am always trying to learn more about.  When I began practicing yoga 36 years ago I started to notice an ebb and flow of energy on a daily basis—the same practice done on different days was a very different experience.  Sometimes the energy felt Sattvic (harmonious), other times Rajasic (stirred up), and other times Tamasic (dull).  This waxing and waning of energy didn’t seem to necessarily have anything to do with the amount of sleep I got, the purity of my diet, or the general state of my relationships—it seemed to have its own agenda.  In an attempt to try to understand this phenomenon I began to look into astrology.  I believe that we live in an intelligent universe where there are many dynamic, yet invisible forces acting upon us at all times.

You’ll have to click on the link above to find out all the reason. It does include some lines from Patanjali, although not the now famous “No fatties” sutra.

For those who are lucky enough to fall under the Sattvic stars, David Garrigues’ new DVD on Second Series might be right up your astrological alley. From the description:

Practice it and extend your breathing capacity, effect an energetic awakening that helps you access buddhi, the reflective, discerning, higher intelligence faculty of your mind. Become fit for dhyana, meditation, contemplative poise that yields dynamism, radiant health and Self knowledge. May we all continue to grow in Bhakti and Jnana.


A traditional 1hr and 30 minute counted vinyasa method live class …

Once again, you’ll have to click the link to find out what the class includes.

Posted by Steve


Just where did the Ashtanga police come from?

Over the weekend — and probably on the Facebook, which I am trying to frequent less and less (and not for any spying reasons) — I saw a couple, maybe three, references to everyone’s favorite authority figure: the Ashtanga police. If memory serves (and it rarely does), someone had practiced on Saturday. Maybe with music.

And so it was a lock that the Ashtanga police would be paying a visit.

It feels like this jokey — some don’t think it so funny — meme of ours is nearly as ingrained in the Ashtanga “system” as the Yoga Korunta and Patanjali, himself.

And like both of them, I wonder if we have any idea of the police’s origin. The interwebs don’t seem to want to supply an answer. Was it something said, offhand, some morning in Mysore? Did it come from the mouth of an anti-Ashtangi? Maybe there are multiple sources?

Anyone know? Anyone want to hazard a guess?

Posted by Steve


What’s waiting on the other side of asana mastery?

During our yatra, when we had the chance to practice our asanas, it was typically pretty intimate. Just 15 to 20 of us, who were spending almost all our waking hours together in some intense and emotional settings. The spaces — an airy second floor beside the Bay of Bengal, a rooftop near Tiruvannamalai, tight walls in our hotels — always offered something to help focus our attentions and intentions.

A number of my fellow yatris have pretty advanced asana practices: Second and even Third series. Perhaps it was due to the extra oomph of practicing in India and between temple visits, but I was struck by a combination of focus and investigation that many exhibited.

And then there was me, doing my little ol’ Primary practice.

Before I write anything more, I ought to preface this by saying I’m happier in my practice now than I’ve been for a long time. More at peace. It is what it is, my limits are what they are, and there are meanings to be found that run deeper than whether I can grab my ankles in a backbend.

Not that I wouldn’t like to be able to do that.

But being so close to these other practices left me wondering about what those Ashtangis are experiencing as a result of their advanced physical poses that is different from what I am in the meat and potatoes — hmm… that’s not such a good metaphor for this… how about dosa and masala — of Ashtanga. There’s a simple difference of time, even.

I know there’s the shared experience of breath, and I think a shared sense of tapasya or agni — one yogi’s Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana is another’s Utkatasana — but it is hard not to ponder what a handful of headstands or precarious balance poses do to one’s system. What more they do.

I guess I am just wondering what I’m missing out on, though hopefully not in too much a “woe is me” way.

We’ve certainly written a lot about the practice of holding students back or progressing them forward, and I understand the need for a certain level of physical mastery of the practice. And, in the end in the Patanjali system, we are talking about only one of eight limbs. That leaves plenty of other limbs to explore. But asana is the one we all festishize, right? So it is difficult not to spend time thinking and talking about it.

Or even blogging about it, heaven forbid.

I also recognize that everyone’s practice is their own. I even can imagine that someone gifted with flexibility might look at my practice and think, “Wow, that’s some serious effort and fight. I wonder what experiences that level of trying opens up to him that I’m missing.”  (I told you I was feeling pretty good in my practice. That has to go down as the most positive thing I’ve written about my own practice on this blog. I’m sure I’ll shake the feeling soon.) But that doesn’t keep me from wondering what other insights are out there that are, literally, beyond my stretch, twist or bind. Or whether all those insights are available with what I’m able to do.

Posted by Steve

For our SoCal readers, a discussion of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Anyone who has taken a workshop or teacher training with Tim Miller knows that he roots the study of Ashtanga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. (I know he isn’t alone in this.)

To be honest, it’s one of my favorite parts of the “expanded” learning with Tim. (As I’ve told him, and I am sure written here before, it’s because my brain is my most only flexible muscle.) Bobbie’s been hearing more depth as Tim relates the Sutras to Second Series practice. And while I was down in Encinitas last week, I read a commentary on the sutras and went through all four chapters.

Typically, discussion is just about the first two chapters. And that’s true of a discussion coming next week at our Los Angeles shala, Omkar 108. It is happening Fri., Sept. 7 and Sat., Sept. 8. Here are some details of the two people who will be leading the chanting and discussion:

Dr. M.A. Jayashree, Professor of Sanskrit, Mysore, Karnataka has been teaching all aspects of Sanskrit for the last 30 years. She holds a doctorate in Sanskrit from Bangalore University on the topic, “Concept of Mind in Indian Philosophy.” She has authored many books in the fields of Sanskrit, Ancient Sciences, Indian history, Indian Culture and Music. She has presented papers on Sanskrit, Indian knowledge systems and culture in many national and international fora. She has also conducted a number of workshops in India and abroad. Her workshops are generally in the fields of Sanskrit language and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

M. A. Narasimhan, Director of the Anantha Research Foundation in Mysore, is a science graduate holding Masters in Education with specialization in advanced psychology and research methodology, and also in Sanskrit. He has specialized in the Indian philosophical systems and the various practices of yoga, and is a disciple of His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He is a teacher of Transcendental Meditation, having taught the TM technique to more than 20,000 people and trained more than 1,000 teachers of Transcendental Meditation. He has held many responsible posts in the then Mahrishi Institute of Creative Intelligence. As the director for the TM operation in the entire south India, he had more than 600 teachers helping him to spread the message of TM.

I’m going to admit right now: Bobbie and I can’t make it; familial duties call. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go, if you’re around the greater Los Angeles area. Omkar is located near the 405 freeway on Washington Boulevard.

If you’re intrigued, you can sign up at the link above. I mean, you should sign up at the link above.

Posted by Steve