It’s here, finally: International Day of Yoga. The build up has been pretty build-uppy.
And so the question is an easy one to ask: What are you planning to do?
Most likely, we’ll be doing a Mala today — 108 asanas of some sort, likely to be negotiated Saturday night. Maybe the uber traditional 108 Sun Salutes. Maybe a Tim Miller-inspired mix: 27 As, 27 Bs, 27 headstands, 27 backbends. (I’ll be fighting that one, or pushing for savasana to replace the backbends.)
What have you got in mind?
(Saturday, for those keeping track, happened to be International Surfing Day. So, yes, I surfed, although there wasn’t much swell here in Southern California. But it has made for a very internationally flavored weekend.)
Here’s the way one of our first Ashtanga teachers celebrated the passing seasons:
First five Suryanamaskara A’s are done as you always start practice, with five breaths in down dog. After that, just one breath as you moved along pretty rapidly. She’d then divide the practice into four sets of 27.
Others will add in five B’s at the beginning (Nos. 6 through 10) and go on from there.
How to do it, or even whether to, is up to you. But it may be a way to get out of a Led class today. (You also could join the hordes in Times Square or any number of classes in Los Angeles.)
I’m currently trying to figure out how to deal with all the booming that’s bound to happen in our house.
So… how’d your yoga mala go today? (Feel free to comment below.)
While we normally eschew “practice reports” — how what I felt or experienced relates to you is beyond me, unless I really think something more “universal” transpired — I think a few things did occur this morning that might be worth your time.
So let’s get to it:
I mentioned in my build-up to the mala post that when Bobbie and I last did our one, on New Year’s Day in India, I experienced the greatest sense of prana — flowing and moving through the body — ever. Although not quite a repeat, this morning’s practice felt extremely energetic. The body tingles, the sweat pours (I was on my 17th Sun Salute when it started, to give you a sense of the cold room I was in), the muscles at times rebel and at others are willing partners. I assume a good deal of this has to do with the extreme vinyasa nature of the practice: lots of breath, lots of movement, and thus lots of movement. My less rational side can see where being able to harness that energy in a controlled way could lead to “feats” like melting snow, staying awake, etc.
In some ways, the mala practice is like Ashtanga on steroids. What I mean is that one of the distinguishing characteristics of Ashtanga is the set routine; knowing what’s coming is one reason, I’ve found, that I can focus more inwardly than in other styles of yoga. I wouldn’t call it zoning out; I’d call it zoning in. (A nod, I suppose, to Tim Miller’s “Working In” workshops.) Just repeating Sun Salutes heightens this; I also find that you immediately realize when your mind is wandering (outward). How? You forget what number you’re on. Which stinks.
I’ve done malas now both solo, like today, with Bobbie (quite a few times), in a group that just powered on through it and then in what’s perhaps its most “traditional” form: Setting clear intentions, up to and including something being said before each Sun Salute. (Diana Christinson did one this way in honor of Guruji after he passed.) Each has its own particular strengths and, I suppose, weaknesses, although I can’t say I really think about them. The “full version” really can be a moving experience.
But you’re really waiting for me to justify the headline. OK, here goes. I broke — I think in the traditional manner — my mala into four sets of 27 Sun Salutes (the first five included the five breath down dog that begins the Ashtanga practice). The second set I did in the style/form that Nancy taught in her “How I was taught” workshop. Most critically, that means hands on the floor during the forward fold, even if that means bending your knees to do so. Given my lack of flexibility, that means bending my knees. And as a result, two things: 1. my quads got the extra workout of, essentially, mini-Utkatasanas; 2. because I wasn’t extending out as much as if I were bringing my hands to my calves (as I do), I had a lot less open space to breath. And so those 27 Sun Salutes were hard. I’m interested to see if there’s physical after-effects tomorrow. (So far, I’m not too sore.) At the same time, there was a notable sense of being “grounded,” one of those words I hear all the time in yoga circles and don’t really “get.” I get it more now. (And, no, this isn’t my most “universalized” moment of yoga reflection.)
A more succinct way of saying all that is: I’m a big advocate of this four-times-or-so-a-year practice. If you haven’t ever done one, give it a try come the Summer Solstice.
The repetitive nature of our Ashtanga practice has many benefits: Having a set series of poses to do every day frees up a good portion of the mind, and allows for an increasingly internal focus. All who practice know this.
Six days a week. Not on Saturdays. Not on the New Moon. Not on the Full Moon.
Why not on Saturdays? Tim Miller says that in the beginning, Guruji taught on Saturdays, but his family asked him to take a day off once a week to spend more time with them. Remember, Guruji had already had a long career as a teacher at the Sanskrit college by the time the Westerners got to Mysore. It seems fair that he should have more than just two days off a month.
Why not on Moon Days? I’ve heard many speculative theories, but the best is that it was a tradition from his classroom teaching at the college: Students don’t learn on those days in any case. Might as well take them off.
Whatever the reason for Moon Days, there’s an odd effect on the Western yogi. There’s a part of your life that becomes Lunar. And your early rising makes you keenly aware of lengthening and shortening days, the shifting place of the sun in the sky. Your awareness of the seasons becomes more. . .planetary.
All these things, I think, contribute to the popularity among Ashtangis (in Southern California, anyway) of the “yoga mala,” the practice of 108 sun salutes. My first Ashtanga teacher, Shayna Liebbe, taught me my first mala (and Steve as well, actually). Shayna taught at YogaWorks, and at that time the studio wouldn’t allow her to observe Moon Days. So rather than teach us the sequence, she’d lead a mala on Moon Days.
This was bold, but made for some hilarious situations for the “I got this free YogaWorks class and decided to try Ashtanga today” students. Shayne decided to do the malas only on the change of seasons, a fairly common practice around here. And we always remember Shayna on the mala days, which happen four times a year.
Equinoxes and Solstices. The repetitive nature of our practice causes us to be conscious of these shifts in the angle of light, the length of days. On these, Steve and I like to do 108 suryanamaskara As—four sets of 27, continuous (no holding in down dog, in other words) with a five-breath break in between.
It’s beautiful and meditative, intense and liberating. Each time, something changes about my practice, something is freed up or shifts. The focus is so entirely on the breath, that the mind becomes lost in it. There are, in other words, brief flashes of union with the breath, and the mind becomes still. I’m not sure where “108 Sun Salutes” took on the name for Guruji’s book, a Yoga Mala, but it’s appropriate.
The next day’s practice feels like a fresh start. The body has been briefly taken out of its routine. The shortening days have been marked. The leaves will change, the practice shifts slowly towards its Winter form—slower movement, heightened care. Until its nadir, on the longest night, the Winter Solstice, when we’ll do another mala to mark the return of the Sun.
Readers, I have things to share. I’ve been in an outstanding Primary Series Adjustment Clinic with Nancy Gilgoff, and my notebook runneth over. I could just blow your mind by spilling it all right now, but instead I’ll just say if you ever get a chance to study with Nancy, “You do!” For now, I’ll just try to lace together a few thoughts.
In the mornings, we practice Mysore-style with Nancy (except for the moon day morning, of course). After lunch, we break down the series pose-by-pose, with stories woven among the demonstrations, along with the occasional correction. One of the things that Nancy was all over the group for yesterday was, for lack of a better word, speed.
Now, I feel like I’ve had pretty good training in this area. Early in my Ashtanga career, my teacher Shayna Liebbe often got her class all the way through the whole Primary in the hour and a half allotted to her by YogaWorks. There was no time to screw around; and even if she couldn’t make it, she’d be trying. Diana Christinsen used to walk over to me as I fussed over my foot in janu C and say bluntly, in the way Ashtanga teachers do, “No dinking around!” That sort of teaching sticks with you. You get one breath–half a breath, really–to get into the pose before your breath runs out, and you move on.
I’ve always connected this idea with a mala in my mind–of “Yoga Mala” fame: Each pose is a bead, each breath the string. Stop the movement–to wipe your face, fix your hair, unfurl your yoga towel before dandasana, whatever–and you stop the practice. Just like that, you’re not doing Ashtanga anymore.
Nancy is actually connecting dinking with injury, and with incorrect breath: The luxurious–or worse, shallow–breath. “Move fast,” she says, “And move when the mind is free. It’s the resistance of the mind that causes injury.” If you were at The Confluence, you perhaps heard Nancy tell the story of Guruji pushing her totally flat in baddha konasna in a single breath. Maybe you’ll hear her tell the story yourself one day, but in the end, the breath and the practitioner need to be one and the same. You stop to think about slowly easing yourself to the floor in that pose, taking extra breaths, and the floor will slowly fall farther from you.
So to that end I’ll perform my next community service from my workshop, and say that the other thing Nancy was on the group for was the breath. Lengthening it? Not the point. Control it and deepen it. The entire Primary can be performed in an hour with deep, audible, fast breath. “You could hear us breathing outside on the street,” she said. (Note: Not “ujayi” breath–that issue covered here: “deep breathing with sound.”) (And another note: My very first teacher, Pamela Ward, told me that the every practice had an exact number of actual breaths, and that, in theory, it should be the same number every time. Any Ashtanga geeks out there that want to tell me what the number is?)
This current desire to LENGTHEN everything is something of a thread in the workshop: Stop it, says Nancy. Just do the pose. Do it on the breath. Do it now. Whatever it is, it is.
There’s an awful lot of freedom in that, something that William Blake once called, “the dizziness of freedom,” I think–liberating, but scary.
But I swear, it wasn’t my fault. Life — well, work, really — conspired against my finishing 108 sun salutes today.
I did get in 54, though. Which I needed, since life, again, has been conspiring to keep my away from the mat since Monday.
(Work went 30 to 45 minutes later than I expected, through no fault of my own. I was having to wait on others to finish things up; it was that type of waiting that frustrating me beyond belief as an editor in my dark days as a journalist.)
After I was finished, I realized when the last time I’d done the Yoga Mala — 108 sun salutes — was.
Right after Guruji passed away.
Diana Christinson, of Pacific Ashtanga, held a memorial for Guruji that consisted of the Yoga Mala. Only with a twist. Between each sun salute, each person is succession dedicated the Suryanamaskara.
It was very moving. As was the memorial gathering at Tim Miller’s.
And keep in mind, this was all before the whole Ashtanga thing had really sunk in with me.
Today, despite only having time for 54 “rounds,” I am happy to say that those 54 drained me less than they would have two-plus years ago. So, to that end, the Ashtanga is working.
But, on reflection, I noticed a few other things that I am taking away as “good signs” of progress. (I recognize the irony or wrongness of seeking progress in this.)
My focus, my dristi, was … focused. I realize I didn’t have as many points to look at, which I think can be distracting, but on I found myself very much “looking up” in up-dog, looking softly past your nose, etc.
My breaths are longer and more controlled. Maybe not Guruji’s 10-second long ones, but… coming.
More flexibility. I still have a long way to go, but my hamstrings and quads both were looser and more supple.
So, despite not having the time to get to 108, the practice was fruitful today. The trick, of course, will be carrying those reflections onto the mat on Sunday.
During Sunday’s Moon Day, I did something unusual.
Normally, I’m more than happy to veg on a Moon Day and to thank my lucky stars/Gurus that I get the day off. But I’d missed a few days the previous week, and there was an Intro to Ashtanga class I could make. So I thought, “Why not?”
It was the right decision, for a number of reasons. A central one was the opportunity to practice a few Second Series back bends before my Urdhva Dhanurasana. You know the ones: Salabhasana and Dhanurasana. (Forget that crazy Urdva part!)
Both felt terrific, and in Dhanurasana especially, I could feel some too-neglected muscles in my lower back at work. And my Urdhva Dhanurasanas after were better; even my sadly tight shoulders felt relatively, for me, open.
It made for a wonderful practice, but it also served as a reminder of one of the main “knocks” on Ashtanga — that its sequence of poses can be unbalanced.
This “charge” against Ashtanga is really only true for people, like me, who are slow to progress. If you were one of the initial Westerners to practice with Guruji, changes are you were bendy and strong and that Guruji moved you through the first two or three series relatively quickly. In that case, the practice was plenty balanced — not to mention plenty hard.
But we’re not all David Williams.
But, even if you are, in recent years — and, I think, certainly now — there has been far less quick progression through the series if you are working with a teacher who keeps to the Ashtanga tradition.
OK, so here’s the moment where I, still a fairly new practitioner and not very advanced in the asanas, meekly raise my hand and ask: “Is this a problem? Do changes need to be made so the practice best serves its students?”
I only can judge by my own body — and I’d be open to hearing counter arguments — but additional preparations for back bends always seem like a blessing. Would I love to jump through to my stomach after Setu Bandasana and do Salabhasana during my Mysore practice? Yeah, I would. (And no, this is not an end-around on getting a “Second Series practice.” I know that’s well off in the distance.) I think it would help, much as doing Ubhaya Padanustasana has helped open my hamstrings and thus helped much of my practice.
But I respect the practice, and so it isn’t something I’m going to do except on those rare occasions when I’m essentially in an improv class. I can’t help but wonder, though, if adding in “research” poses as a part of each individual’s practice wouldn’t improve the practice. Certainly, the Mysore environment seems designed just for such individualized sequences.
Now, this probably is already happening in some places and with some teachers more than others. And I’ll be interested to see how the five Confluence teachers approach the issue.
But we all know that the tradition that broadly guides the practice makes little, if any, room for such alterations. It may even be getting more stringent and systematized, not less — just how much that follows Guruji’s thinking, I am far from expert enough to answer. It is plain that Ashtanga did evolve from the early and mid-70s through at least the 1980s, if not later. One only need look at Guruji’s Yoga Mala to find a practice different from the one now being taught.
Perhaps a little more change wouldn’t be a bad thing if it served the students more.
The question I’m asking, I guess, is whether that change should be something along the lines of: Without fundamentally changing the essential sequence of poses, shouldn’t teachers be able to make informed decisions about what’s best for their students and adapt accordingly?
And I know the first argument to that point: Don’t those adaptations risk changing the practice so it isn’t Ashtanga any longer?
To which, I wonder: Is Ashtanga really meant to be that regimented?