Dynamic is a word that aptly describes the personality and teaching of my late teacher Sri K Pattabhi Jois (Guruji). And what I learned about the connection between vinyasa and dynamism from him has been a major source of my love for the Ashtanga yoga method. In 94′ when I began studying with Guruji at his old shala in Mysore, I used to stay after class just to watch him teach. He would work in many different ways to help each person better tap into the inherent dynamism that is found in every aspect of the practice. Here’s a little story about Guruji on this subject.
One day it happened that there were several of us students hanging around in the front room of Guruji’s old house hoping for some of Amma’s delicious coffee. The atmosphere was rather loose at that time, there was no official conference, no distinct timing or plan, no official teaching from him. We’d just mosey over there towards sunset and see what was up. Sometimes questions about the practice would be introduced and if Guruji were in the right frame of mind, he’d answer. So the topic whether some people were teaching the method correctly or not came up, something that had to do with the speed of the practice.
During the discussion there was an interval of cross talk and commotion, and during this time Guruji looked at me, and for a moment it was as if it was only he and I in the room. He let me know that the method was to be done swiftly, that tempo, rhythm, and dynamism were essential to learning the practice properly. He said ‘quickly you do, that is the method’. Without too many words he let me know that he was trusting me to understand what he was telling me and that I was somehow responsible for remembering and sharing this aspect of the practice.
To me he was not saying that the practice is to be done in haste, unthinkingly fast, or in any sort of hurried fashion. Instead he was saying that the proper method is done by practicing dynamically, by moving into and out of the asanas in complete gestures born of free breathing, animal surety, confidence and energetic enthusiasm.
Learning from Guruji, observing his teaching, and hearing the repetition in his instructions was a true gift and his broken english, staccato commands still guide me in my practice daily. His limited use of english was perhaps extra eloquent in conveying the distinct nuances that he wanted to impart to you at any given time. Again and again he repeated: “yes you do!’, ‘No problem you go.’, ‘no fearing you go’, ‘why stopping?’, ‘Why waiting?’, ‘Hey bad man quickly you do!’ ‘yes you take it!’, ‘Why fearing?’ ‘Free breathing you do’ or simply a gruff, guttural ‘Breathe!’.
Through his instructions he often made sure you felt a sense of time pressure and urgency as you practiced. His tone could be stern, intimidating, and even dominating to the point of leaving you feeling that there was almost no escape from at least trying to do what he wanted you to do. He purposely created this tension so you would find new postural and movement patterns. By following his commands you bypassed habits born of inhibited breath, hesitation, lethargy and doubt so that you could start really breathing, you could do new things in new ways. He commanded you to become more brave, vigorous and focused; his words would send electricity, and a thrill of fear through you that would wake up your entire body with readiness and anticipation.
At times in a distinct reversal he would speak the same commands but with a different tone, with encouragement, humor, play and support. And thus he would continually play the line between pushing you and accepting you. He taught you to relax, accept your self, to champion your own style, to be patient and to let things come to you. In fact perhaps the most frequent commands I heard him give were: ‘very good!’,, ‘Today is better!’, ‘Better!’, ‘Why crying?’, ‘Don’t worry, after it’s coming’, ‘no problem, it’s coming’, and the very special ‘Very correct!’
The closing ritual of touching his feet and saying goodbye to him each day often included him giving you an extra lift, a boost of encouragement so that you finished on a high note. It made all the difference to feel his generous, weighty support when you felt exhausted, like a failure or incompetent. He would say something to disarm you, something poking fun at you, humorous, or distracting, to help you drop your inner battle for the time being and thus be more ready to take it up again in the morning.
The vinyasa knowledge that is developed in carefully studying the transitions is essential in understanding how to refine your awareness, how to see the practice as chiefly dhyana, as meditation. To this end experienced students and teachers within the lineage learn to list, from memory, the number of vinyasa positions in each asana. This memorization becomes more interesting and useful when you combine it with an ongoing investigation into the role of dynamism in the movements.
I’m saying that knowing what constitutes proper vinyasa extends beyond memorizing the number of positions of the asana; you are also meant to know the vinyasa positions dynamically within your body. There is a great art to understanding the subtle progressions of movement that bring you into and out of each asana, exploring this refinement is what brings you into readiness, poise, beauty and alignment in your postures.
Through the dynamic study of vinyasa you experience important energetic awakenings along the vertical axis known as shushumna, the most glorious channel. Using dynamism to find your vertical core helps you direct your mind inwardly showing the universal forms of the asanas, the underlying patterning that each asana shares no matter how different its external appearance may look. In this way dynamism leads you further into immovability and stillness, helps you accurately observe your fluctuating mental states. You learn to better see the context of your perceptions, and to enjoy a wider, expanded view that encompasses the greater wellspring of consciousness.
Following vinyasa positioning in its increasingly more subtle and dynamic aspects will also lead you back to the intimate connection between movement and breath. Practice becomes focused on moving through the sequences by tracing these two allies back to their common root source and this knowledge helps you to shape your postures with the presence and sense of adventure of an animal and at the same time with buddhi, (intelligence) and ananda, (bliss). By his buoyant and tangible enthusiasm Guruji showed you that yoga is found when you make it a long term daily endeavor to truly inhabit your body. This enthusiasm is the true source of dynamic awareness and alignment, and is what enables you to continue to renew the thrill and the fun of practice each day.
And it all starts with “…Samastihiti!”
Very nice article David and nice to see you posting on Love Yoga Anatomy. Thanks for sharing so freely the knowledge of Yoga you have accumulated in your many years of study and practice. I chanced upon your website a while back (I think through a suggested view on YouTube while searching for drop backs. I have watched quite a few of you videos. What I like about them is that mostly they are accurately targeted bite-sized morsels that are just right to digest for a newbie. This one is no exception. I’ve been practicing mostly Iyengar but am in the process of switching to Ashtanga and so your point about how a sense of dynamism in the transitions and increasing awareness thereby is helpful. I also like how you packaged it with a video as well. I am a big reader but in something like Yoga audio-visual aids are highly valued. Shout-out to Joy – nicely done!
Hey Scott, I agree with you. I really like the way David writes and so glad to have him share his articles with us. Also working now to feature some of his Asana Kitchen videos on the site, great style and content!