One reason not to do Ashtanga

A couple of weeks ago, I recounted a conversation I had in Mt. Shasta that boiled down to: “Here’s a reason to try Ashtanga.”

The reason? Most simply put, the physical benefits. (Do those benefits pay off as well as Bikram? I don’t know.)

Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with first coming to yoga with an emphasis on the physical payoff. After all, the point of asana practice is to get our bodies healthy enough and capable to sit in meditation on our way to Samadhi. And is anyone really going to argue that a healthy body is a bad thing?

I doubt it. Where I’m sure there is argument — justifiably so, in my opinion — is when yoga, or Ashtanga, feeds an ego trip. I’m sure we all can think of someone we believe is getting more attached to their yoga body, rather than less, as they practice.

I’m also sure that if we all are honest, we’d have to admit to having our egos fed by the practice. I’m working hard, for instance, on my pull backs — I want to be able to do them without touching the ground until I’m in my Chaturanga.

But as David Swenson would say: “Will I be happier when I can do that?” (My ego-filled answer: Of course! But, upon more reflection: Right, exactly what kind of happiness am I seeking?)

This struggle with the ego is ongoing. But, as I say, when you start yoga or Ashtanga, I think it is totally understandable that the ego is strong, is in charge.

But here’s the catch, and here’s the reason not to do Ashtanga: That ego of yours is going to get broken down.

When I explained on the Shasta retreat all the physical benefits I’d discovered from Ashtanga, I didn’t mention the — how best to put it? — subtle body changes. You know what I’m talking about:

  • The desire to avoid eating meat.
  • The growing interest in the other seven limbs of Ashtanga, especially the yamas and niyamas.
  • Perhaps a toning down of the Type A personality you’ve been fighting all your life.
  • A curiosity about that Ram, Sita or Krishna person you keep hearing about.
  • A rising desire to visit India.

I’m sure there are others, and I won’t admit that I have any first-hand experience with any of the above.

But I will warn that there can be unforeseen consequences of an Ashtanga practice. Why exactly? Who knows. My own best guess, which I think only partially explains things — and I think this is true of Ashtanga but not flow classes, Bikram or most other Hatha styles — is that Ashtanga boils down to being a meditative practice. There’s next to no sound other than people’s breathing, your focusing your gaze on fixed points and you are alone with yourself for 75 minutes, 90 minutes, maybe 120 minutes?

Sort of sounds like meditation, right?

My understanding is Guruji didn’t teach people to meditate. (I know I’ve heard tales of this, but I can’t remember details. Apologies!) I wonder if he didn’t do so because he knew he already was teaching them. And then it was up to them to move deeper and let it work.

Be careful. Enter at your risk. Because work it definitely does.

Post by Steve

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If it’s Tuesday, it must be Hanuman

Those of you who follow or are at least familiar with some Hindu practices know that Tuesday is a day when we worship and remember Hanuman.

Hanuman, to be all too brief, is Rama’s great, devoted servant. A vanara, a monkey-like race, Hanuman is the one who (spoiler alert!) finds Sita after she has been abducted by the demon Ravana. That story is from the Ramayana, a version of which Bobbie talks about below.

Crazy monkey -- not Hanuman

Often, I think, we have an image of Hanuman that emphasizes his “monkeyness.” Yes, we know he’s brave, we know he’s a great warrior, but he’s still just a monkey — not even a more powerful looking ape.

In Ramesh Menon’s Ramayana, however, when we first meet Hanuman, he easily picks up and carries both Rama and his brother, Lakshmana. Menon describes him as “tall as a tree.” The monkeyness isn’t downplayed, but it is clear that the description is really just our — humans’ — best approximation of what a vanara is. We are, after all, hearing a story from two yuga ago — the treta yuga, when things weren’t nearly as messed up as they are now. How are we supposed to grasp the nuisance of Hanuman’s nature and being?

That’s one of our great challenges, of course: to understand the meaning of those ancient stories.

For me, thinking of Hanuman as much more than just a monkey, but certainly not as an ape, helps mightily with grasping the complexity of his devotion, his faith, his service and, yes, his strength.

And his strength is awfully attractive come Urdhva Dhanurasana.