Ashtanga Yoga is a wonderful practice for the body and mind. It is an evolving practice that is changing and growing to suit people of all ages and abilities. At least that is its potential. The tradition and its changing nature can be a difficult thing to reconcile.
This problem exists for all traditions, so understanding some of the principles at work is important. In most Ashtanga classes we begin with both the breath and with vinyasa, the movements in Salute to the Sun. Eventually we move forward learning the standing postures, usually in the standard order, and then the sitting postures, one or two Asana at a time.
At some point in this process, a student will have difficulty, physically or otherwise, and either needs to be encouraged to keep going, to focus on the standard technique, or needs to be given an alternative in order to facilitate greater ease of practice.
This basic choice is true for every practice, whether it will be Asana, Meditation or something else. Do you stick with the technique, tradition, or standard, or do you vary it? At what point is a variation appropriate? My thoughts on this are simple – it is not a matter of whether you vary the tradition (any tradition) but when. In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential. For you to embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view.
One thing I have observed, depending on when you learned Ashtanga Yoga, you will probably have a different attitude as to what the tradition actually is. Most of the teachers who learned in the 60s, 70s and 80s do not teach as strictly as those who learnt from 90s and beyond. The tradition has changed, the sequences have changed, and the style of teaching has changed.
There are both good and not so good reasons for this. For example there are advantages to doing less jump backs than what is presently taught, advantages to altering some of the sequencing and changing the intensity of the practice from day to day. It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are.
For me it is simply a matter of timing, of when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example, or an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation. That is, I would not usually introduce an alternative in the first 6 months or so of learning Ashtanga, and often longer. After the initial learning phase it is important to consider the needs of the student rather than blindly following the tradition. It is important to consider whether the standard Ashtanga is appropriate (and often it may not be) and then notice if you do not teach an alternative out of fear, rigidity or inability.
I find it curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga. I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful. Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function.
It is important to accept that teaching methods will vary from person to person – we are all going to teach differently with different understanding on what is appropriate. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day. There is nothing innately spiritual, holy or sacred about them. I do think that sticking with a tradition (whatever that might be) and following the standard is truly rewarding and absolutely appropriate for most students for a period of time. Just not for everyone, and definitely not for ever.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a relatively new system, despite some opinions to the contrary. Apart from the obvious fact that the sequences have been changed by Pattabhi Jois over the years (usually for the better in my opinion) most would agree that Prof. T. Krishnamacharya (K.P. Jois teacher) invented the system during his years at the Mysore Yoga Palace – and was influenced by the Western Gymnastic tradition, no less. I find this inspiring. He brought together concepts from his own traditional background and made something new, vibrant and useful for people around the globe.
It is only in recent times that we are seeing committed practitioners of Ashtanga Vinyasa who have been doing so for more than 20 or 30 years. The evidence for what actually works, particularly in the long term, is still emerging. What is interesting is that one of the common themes to stop practicing Ashtanga is that if it is too rigidly applied it becomes unnecessarily difficult and often injurious. Some openness towards experimentation, and the original concept of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (Mysore) should still apply for all teachers and practitioners.
What Makes Ashtanga Yoga Unique
The Ashtanga Series are unique in a number of areas:
1. Ashtanga Yoga is, to date, the only Yoga practice that equally develops strength and flexibility. It is interesting that all the other Asana methods on the planet, as far as I can tell, do not emphasise strength in equal measure to flexibility. There is a general bias towards flexibility. In some cases this may be appropriate (Yin Yoga for example) but in general I find this imbalanced. Why is flexibility more important than strength? Obviously it is not. One without the other is imbalanced, both physically and mentally.
2. The other aspect that Ashtanga offers, that no other method does, is the emphasis on self practice. In no other method is there a greater emphasis on practice – despite criticisms towards some Ashtanga teachers, valid or not, they are all 99% practicing. In addition, it takes a great deal of commitment and experience to teach Mysore style, or self practice classes, and even more commitment and experience to do it well. It is so much easier to teach led or guided classes; the latter are usually more rewarding financially also.
And yet self practice is the only way to become truly meditative in your Asana practice. Why are there almost no Iyengar teachers doing self practice groups – and teaching them, not just practicing in them? The same for general Vinyasa classes, Bikram Yoga, Anusara Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Sivananda Yoga etc. Self practice is the way forward!
In India I have met just a few teachers of Hatha Yoga and Iyengar Yoga who conduct classes in a Self Practice format. Each was wonderfully skilled and accomplished in his own way and able to work with a diverse group of students doing seemingly random Asana independently. It takes a great deal more skill and discipline to teach self practice than it does a led class. To teach self practice really well, it also takes a lot more compassion.
3. Ashtanga Yoga often seems to facilitate faster physical results than other methods. Because of the balance between flexibility and strength, and self practice 5-6 days per week, Ashtanga transforms the physical body. Keep in mind that in some cases the results can be negative – an overemphasis on physical lightness, loss of body weight and mental rigidity. Just because you are physically flexible does not make you a flexible person!
The simple fact is that by adhering to the set sequences of Ashtanga, although more discipline is required, the results are definite. Without set sequencing, without some commitment to self practice, both the results of the body and the focus of the mind are generally limited. A key benefit of a set sequence is that it keeps you honest. You are forced to doing postures that are difficult or problematic rather than avoid them, or only doing the ones you may like or which feel good.
The problem with this is that if too rigidly applied, you will then be forced into a posture that causes you injury. Avoiding difficult or problematic postures is a major flaw, particularly with styles of Yoga that don’t work with set sequencing. Both beginner and advanced practitioners can fall into this trap, which leads to building up your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses, and then leads to further imbalance, rather than less.
4. Adjustments. I think one of the greatest skills most Ashtanga teachers have is communicating the practice through his or her hands. Most Ashtanga teachers give great adjustments, though some adjust too often and too forcefully. Once again, if this is too rigidly applied it can lead to injury. It is an area I think often lacking in most other systems, though part of the reason for this is led classes rather than self practice: it is easier to give adjustments in Mysore style classes because you have more time to watch and observe, rather than talking the whole way through.
5. Observance of the Moon Days. Ashtanga Yoga is one of the only systems that I know that deliberately follows the cycle of the Moon, and teaches us to pay attention to this cycle and how it affects our bodies.
Some Deficiencies in the Ashtanga Method
Some observations I have made over the years show me where Ashtanga Yoga is potentially imbalanced. This is not harsh criticism of the method or the sequencing – I love Ashtanga Yoga, and still practice the Series. They have served me well and continue to do so.
1. Rajasic, Surya based Energy. The Ashtanga practice is particularly heating and upward in nature (therefore more masculine in energy) and tending to a Rajasic style practice. This is not a judgment of right and wrong – as there are both good and bad qualities to every technique, and to every person. It is futile to try to exempt Ashtanga from the human condition. For example, the Surya energy of the practice is enhanced through the linear nature of adhering to the sequences and tradition, doing right side first in most postures and focusing on drawing upward constantly with the three Bandha. I no longer find it surprising that the students who most seek to deny the Rajasic effect of the Ashtanga practice are the most trapped by this quality.
Etymologically Surya and Rajas are synonymous, and Chandra and Tamas are synonymous. Surya is Sun, and Rajas is active. Chandra is Moon and Tamas is inactive. The combination of Sun and Moon, masculine and feminine is Sattva, or true rhythm and balance. In most modern Yoga practices, Surya and lightness are ascribed positive qualities and Tamas and heaviness are ascribed negative qualities. This merely points out the imbalance of teachers and students who focus this way. Both are important, neither is good nor bad. For this reason, some years ago, I began teaching most of my students the Moon Sequence, a combination of Yin based sequencing and gentle vinyasa. The Moon practice balances the Surya Ashtanga.
2. Getting stuck on the Primary Series. In the first Ashtanga Series there is a lot of emphasis on the jumps commonly resulting in tension in the shoulders and wrists. There is a lot of emphasis on forward bends and the hamstring muscles which can aggravate many lower back conditions. This sequence does not particularly emphasise the flexibility in the shoulders, rather it develops more shoulder strength.
It is important to balance each aspect of the body, upper and lower, between strength and flexibility. In the early years of K.P. Jois teaching the Primary Series did not have so many jumps, or so many postures. You did not jump back both sides, and many postures were linked together in groups of three and four with a Vinyasa after each set. This latter method is still useful for many students, whether beginner or more experienced.
One of the key points of Asana practice is to open the body; which then opens the mind. Sooner or later alternative sequencing helps to further open the practitioners’ body once the set sequences of Ashtanga have been fully explored. For some students this may be halfway through Advanced A (the third series) for many students it is somewhere in the Primary Series. As most human beings cannot practice all of Primary let alone some of Intermediate, once again it is a question of when to change the sequencing. A key benefit of alternative sequencing and postures is that the practice can be tailored to individual needs, versus assuming that one or two sequences can be universally applied to all practitioners.
Each of us has a different view of what the tradition is. So empirically it is impossible to all teach the same. So every teacher I know practices and teaches the sequencing with some kind of variation on the tradition (whether a breath, alignment, or a posture). It is just a matter of degree. Also, physically, Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.
For example, how do you teach someone missing one arm, or in a wheelchair? Or with schizophrenia? Although I do think the surrender and devotion to the practice (and to the teacher and tradition) is really important, it is more important to surrender to your higher purpose, the higher good, higher consciousness. Sooner or later that has to lead you from the standard approach, else you will be stuck.
3. Lack of technical advice. A classical, traditional Ashtanga teacher does not teach technique classes – it is frowned upon in Mysore. Advice on how to accomplish certain postures, alignment details, and technical advice is simply not a part of the system. Of course most teachers do offer a quiet word or two in a Mysore style class, but this is rarely done for a group. As a result many long term Ashtanga practitioners remain oblivious to many pertinent details that would help. Having said that, one advantage to a lack of technical input, is that this leads to greater devotion, surrender, and experiential learning. You can get out of your head, and just experience it for yourself without too much external stuff clouding the process. Personally I think balance between the two is optimal – time for practice without interruption, and time for clear specific instruction. A good teacher should allow for both.
4. Following from point 3, here are some structural areas that often need more input.
A. Shoulder and Upper Back Sequence. My biggest structural criticism of Ashtanga and many general Hatha Yoga classes, is that most teachers do not spend much time on developing openness in the shoulders and upper back. It is just as important as any other area. For example, opening the hips and flexibility in the lower spine is emphasized a great deal more, both in Ashtanga and general Hatha classes. I often give a shoulder sequence to Ashtanga students as homework, and sometimes introduce it within the Primary Series.
B. Variations for the Hips. After teaching many Ashtangis the Moon Sequence, which has more variations for the hips, I found many students relieved and excited to add this to their repertoire. The Moon Sequence seems to have made many aspects of the Primary Series more accessible – both physically and psychologically. I have been able to introduce the Primary Series to some students who would not have done so unless they had been introduced to the Moon Sequence first. For example many of the hip-opening postures in this sequence take pressure off the knees, relieving many knee complaints that are common with Ashtanga Yoga. For my own practice I did not need this so much when I began devising the Moon Sequence as my hips were already reasonably open. I definitely needed the energetic benefit of this sequence.
C. Standing Postures and Leg Strength. Once you have worked through most of Primary, and eventually starting Intermediate and then possibly on to Advanced a few years later, despite all the possible variations you can do in the sitting postures, there are no variations that are traditionally allowed in the Ashtanga standing postures. Many Ashtangis, if not most, become strong in the upper body, some build core strength (and some do not) and few become truly strong in the legs, by comparison. The standing postures are often glossed over in daily practice, increasing the tendency for weaker legs and stronger upper bodies. This is clearly imbalanced. A regular variation on the standing sequence is useful and ideal. Although it might not be strictly ‘necessary’ it is so much better if you do!
D. The Side Body – the area from under the armpit to the side of your hips and buttocks. There are few Ashtanga postures that work consistently with the side of the body, both for flexibility and strength – For example, some standing postures, Parighasana in Intermediate, Vasisthasana in Advanced A. Gaining better awareness, flexibility and strength in your side body is an integral part of a complete Yoga practice.
5. One last aspect that Ashtanga Yoga does not utilise, and that I have only partially used in my own teaching is the use of circular movements, either based on some kind of contemporary dance, or Chi Gung and other Chinese based practices.
The Change; Tradition vs Exploration
Ashtanga practitioners tend to be more consistent, and in order to practice 5 or 6 times per week they tend to be a little pushy also, at least in the first few years. Ashtanga attracts the character type that is more driven, and causes most students to lean in that direction. Ashtanga attracts skinnier, vata type constitutions and tends to make students change towards that constitutional type. The unfortunate fact is, the skinnier you are, the easier it is to do 95% of the postures. The important thing to consider is that some of this is good, too much is not. Accept your constitution and your experience; allow change to occur, rather trying to control the outcome.
These days it is mostly accepted that Prof. T. Krishnamacharya invented the bulk of the Ashtanga sequences, borrowing many of his ideas from Western gymnastic training. I think that is a great thing, he invented something very valuable, while still adhering to many of the traditional aspects of Yoga. It is Yoga for the modern woman and man. Since Krishnamacharya’s time, Pattabhi Jois further modified, refined and adapted the sequences to his own needs and, I believe, to the particular needs of the Western students who came to learn from him. Despite denials that the Series have changed since that time, it is obvious that they have. I hope it keeps changing, because as I change and it changes, we travel and evolve side by side.
As I see it, over the last 20 years, the Ashtanga tradition has become more puritanical, strict and hierarchical. Although this may not be true in every case, across a large group of teachers and students, compared to what it was like when I first started learning, there is greater rigidity. At the other end of the spectrum, I see a great deal of variation in the Vinyasa Yoga method being taught – I would say that this is the most popular method of Yoga being taught around the planet. Given that the bulk of Vinyasa Yoga is stemming from Ashtanga Yoga, to really understand either of these completely would mean embracing both of them.
There are more and more Yoga practitioners around the planet, some who see themselves as traditional, and some who do not. The traditionalists tend to be more formal, disciplined and strict, but they tend to have greater depth of experience in their particular field that the non-traditional lack. The non-traditional tend to be more open as people, gentler and less dogmatic. If I take a peek at any of the old religions, we can see, historically the same tendency. Indeed, all societies and cultures follow this same model: the hard centre versus the expanding edge.
This is a basic truth for every method, tradition, religion and culture on the planet. For any of these to remain dynamic and stable at the same time, means embracing both polarities – every system needs to evolve else it will become stagnant, every system needs stability from which this change can flourish.
It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.
Practice with Love
great article, I really appreciated.not easy to talk about that. I am coincidentally reading your book, Ashtanga yoga as it is and I find it of immense help in my practice. I allow myself a little reflection. I teach Latin and Greek, subjects rather difficult. there is an old tradition in teaching these ancient languages. and proposed methodologies newer and more innovative over the years because they are too difficult for students to learn. after twenty years of teaching I have come to think that it is not the method that makes a good teacher, but his passion, his attitude, his example in teaching. evolution is not in the method but in the soul of the teacher who comes to embody what he teaches. I practice Ashtanga yoga as a student, I had a hard time to finish the first series (5 years) and now with joy I started the second set.
Great article, I really appreciated. not easy to talk about that I am coincidentally reading your book, Ashtanga yoga as it is and I find it of immense help in my practice. I allow myself a little reflection. I teach Latin and Greek, subjects rather difficult. there is an old tradition in teaching these ancient languages. and proposed methodologies newer and more innovative over the years because they are too difficult for students to learn. after lots of years of teaching I have come to think that it is not the method that makes a good teacher and makes the students good, but his passion, his attitude, his example in teaching. Evolution is not in the method but in the soul of the teacher who comes to embody what he teaches. and so you do not need to simplify, change, adapt something because it\\\\\\\’s hard, everyone learns as he can. I practice Ashtanga yoga as a student, I had a hard beautiful time to finish the first series (5 years) and now with joy I started the second one. Never did sport before, started I was not young anymore. It a voyage of discovery of our soul, that lasts a lifetime, if you practice with this attitude. I only know the system of Ashtanga yoga, no one else. and follow it in a very traditional way, as I was taught. I practiced I practiced and I practiced and something happened. Something happens every day. we must have confidence in the practice, as it is. ( I learnt that from you) I thank you very much again for your words. great inspiration.
Great article Matthew! I share so many of your opinions and have many times wondered this tradition´s (Pattabi Jois) lack of vocabular teaching of techniques. Maybe it has to do with Gurus language skills – I don´t know? Yet I have hungered for this kind of teaching, and I´m sometimes trying to offer this when instructing. I truely believe that everyone has to get the space to make own (physical and mental) findings and discovery in learning asanas and yoga, but sometimes it is a tremendous help when somebody says the right words… People have different learning styles, so adjustments are not always the most helpful way to learn. We learn not only by feeling but also via watching, hearing and doing (as Kolbe once found out http://www.businessballs.com/kolblearningstyles.htm). Now I have to start searching for your book… 🙂
Thanks so much for what you wrote. I really appreciate the open-handed and broad-minded way you describe certain facts, discuss different ideas, various approaches – without pointing a finger of right or wrong in any direction. As an older woman, practicing Hatha for 34 yrs, Astanga Vinyasa for 16yrs, I have often felt out on a limb in recent years, wondering where all the older practitioners have disappeared to – experiencing the often dogmatic, inflexible attitude of many Mysore teachers. I like to attend self practice wherever I am in the world as a frequent traveller – but it has become quite a challenge finding a ‘mature’ compassionate, tolerant teacher who will ‘permit’ me to make modifications and ‘allow’ me to practice half of 2nd series when Supta Kurmasana is not always available to me, according to how my body is at any given time.
I teach led classes of full primary at Brahmani Yogashala in Goa, I believe there is a certain benefit in giving students an actual experience of being talked thru rhythmically and courteously thru the entire sequence without stopping & starting to explore technique. I always encourage students to develop their own daily, or at least 4-5 times wkly practice, but this is not what everyone wants or has time & space to do. It is after all only Yoga! Not a dogma, not a religion, only a beautiful sequence that can awaken and strengthen the mind and soul as well as the body. You described the beauty of Astanga & it’s sequences so clearly – in my own case it’s been a truly transforming practice touching all areas of my life, I am eternally grateful for that. Meanwhile, I’m nearly 65yrs of age and want the freedom to play and enjoy my practice these days without being found wanting or made wrong because I’m not toeing the current Mysore line to the letter…….Thank you, thank you for your presence and your honesty. With gratitude, Jane Sleven
I would love to have the shoulder sequence for “homework!”
How do your legs not get strong in ashtanga?!
A really lovely phrase “The hard centre versus the expanding edge.”
It’s not that the legs don’t get strong in Ashtanga – initially they do. It is the problem that over long term, the legs get forgotten in favor of working the upper body – in the jumps, primary, intermediate, advanced particularly. So the upper body gets overworked and the lower body gets underworked in terms of overall strength. 🙂
The Shoulder sequence can be found in my book Vinyasa Krama, and will also be available in my new DVD, Vinyasa Unlocked, due out in June this year.
Hi Matthew and Tim in case you are wondering where your comments about the length of the Ashtanga Tradition have gone, I have moved them to a new thread https://loveyogaanatomy.com/ashtanga-yoga-70-years-or-2000/ . I thought that this is of such interest that it needs a thread of it’s own or it might get lost down here amongst all the other discussion.
EVERYBODY ELSE, GO TAKE A LOOK!
Thank you Matthew for sharing your thoughts and ideas. A very interesting article indeed. SOooo much to thin about.
From my limited 3-year experience as an ashtanga practitioner, I’ve found that in order to open shoulders or release the tension in the lower back I needed to do much more than practice. Of course, self-practice leaves room for dedicating more time to a specific asana but sometimes we simply don’t know what we do wrong or why pain is felt. A holistic approach is necessary…in other words, whatever I feel helps me in my practice, I do it. Whether it is lying on a fit-ball or having a massage to release all the tension or consulting a physiotherapist, osteopath, kinesiotherapist etc…
As for the sequence, of course it is important to know to correct sequence but maybe for the purposes of learning each asana we should also take into account each practitioner’s limitations and don’t force too much information and too many rules too soon. The practice should make everyone happy. Happy in a sense that the practitioners see progress and are able to overcome all obstacles that continuously become apparent. And this is the role of the teacher, I think. To be able to set the student a goal that is reachable, time and time again.
In this regard, I like to compare this learning path to a drive in a car at night. The carlights help us to see only some 15meters ahead and we have to deal with what is imminent but at the same time we’re moving forward, step by step coming closer towards our ultimate goal. We can’t see the whole path and cannot know what is ahead of us but with each step and hurdle taken, we’ll get there…one day. :))) cheers! :))))
Hi Matthew, I love this quote: “It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.” Keep writing and sharing your insight and experience. It’s such a benefit to us all!!!
Hi Chad, welcome. I just the other day read your article \\\’The so-called tradition of ashtanga\\\’ l liked it alot. It would be great to re-post it on the website here, and of course any anatomy based insights you might like to share. If you are up for it get in touch. Stu
Sounds good, Stu.
No sooner said than done!
Chad’s article is now up on our site as well. You can read it here https://loveyogaanatomy.com/the-so-called-tradition-of-ashtanga
Just read your article also. Well said, simple and elegant. I know there are a lot of like minds like me (us!) out there but sometimes it does feel like I’m on my own trying to say something that many people don’t want to hear, rather than the opposite. So thanks. M
Dear Matthew and Chad,
Both of your articles have just made a huge difference in my practice, profound really. I won’t bather on too much here (unlike on my blog!) but after six years of Primary I found myself deep in crisis. I loved Ashtanga but couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. My practice was falling apart. I didn’t realize I had options. You’re not given many options in traditional Mysore rooms. You don’t get Second Series poses unless you stand up from backbend. I’m 49. Might never happen and honestly? I don’t care if it does. So I retreated to home practice and kept trying, but also adding in other poses to aid my aching hips. I felt really alone and like I had to leave Ashtanga behind. I’ve just ordered your book, Matthew, and can’t wait to start learning the Moon and Lion sequence. And because I talked about it openly on my blog, a friend who teaches Ashtanga has volunteered to help me learn the first part of Second, which I so deeply need. Anyway, thank you thank you! I look forward to meeting both of you at some point down the line 🙂
Hey Guy, I can’t help but have the sense that we’re living in a particular time in the history of “the practice” where diverging, non-mainstrearm perspectives are wanted and needed. Just look at Laura’s response. Here you have a 49 year old woman who would actually benefit from intermediate series but because her teacher wouldn’t “progress her”–whatever that means–she got stuck. By holding her in the same practice over and over, something in her wasn’t getting to evolve; in fact, she says, “my practice was falling apart.” That you question and struggle with the system and give voice to that struggle empowers all of us to do the same. It’s really a gift you give to all of us. So, thank you. –Chad
Love the article. Written as only someone steeped (though not trapped) in the tradition could write it. Need to seriously find me some of those shoulder and upper back opening sequences. Because backbending is so challenging for me, these days I insert about half an hour after Trianga Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana. This way I feel I have the concentration and energy to really give it my best effort and repeat the challenging poses 2 or 3 times. Then I move on to the rest of Primary. When I reach backbending again I\’m super stiff from all the jumps, and just do my best…..
Thank you for writing this article Matthew. Written like a true professional who is passionate about what they do. I love that you continually remind us that it is a spiritual practice, regardless of the possibilities of the physical body. Namaste.
Thank you for making these statements! I think that they will be useful for many modern students, who can bring this article to the attention of their teachers, to combat the increasing rigidity in the name of Tradition. Our teachers will be strengthened and matured by confronting the limitations that keep them from helping their students with rigidity as much as they can with a little more freedom.
The core ideas and sequences of Ashtanga are the core of my yoga activity, but I typically add or remove poses to the sequences to address how I am feeling that day, injuries, or things that I am working on. I have been blessed with teachers who are very tolerant of my variations from the \\\”traditional\\\” sequences (and my Anusara alignment :-), and who want to work with me to improve and enhance my practice. I have wonderful teachers!!
I think that the \\\”traditional\\\” sequences are \\\”1000 times\\\” asanas 🙂 — practice them 1000 times, & then evaluate your practice and see how you might want to make changes to serve you.
And we have learned about repetitive stress injuries from Western medicine, so I do not practice Ashtanga every day – but also do freestyle vinyasa & some hatha. Interestingly enough, the Ashtanga sequences seem to me to be safer than freestyle, because Ash gives me many reps of medium difficulty, and freestyle tends to give me a few very difficult reps.
Anyway – great article!!! The Austin community is already passing it around :-).
Matthew- I loved reading this. I agree with alot of what you\’ve said, and want to reply at length later because there are many points in your post I\’d like to address fully. In brief, as an authorised L2 Ashtanga teacher I have found it difficult to reconcile my frustration and abandonment within my own practice of the set sequences which once served me so well (to 3rd series), (so have stopped teaching a mysore program) and have been practicing/learning intermediate iyengar for some time which has been enormously enriching; I can only understand it as a sort of evolving of my needs, intuitive sensitivity and intellectual curiosity…i still teach ashtanga led and privately-and notice what students are desperate for in workshops is alignment and theory of how to, which I can now provide in depth from my iyengar studies, in a way that was not possible before, despite my practice experience and skill at (credit to Hamish, who taught me well) adjusting. I still respect and love Ashtanga unequivocally, practicing it now and then; however i wonder where I fit now in such a rigid tradition…it is exciting to think of the potential your post may facilitate of evolving the way the method is thought about, taught, and practiced.
Hi Sarai, I have met quite a few teachers that have a grounding in Iyengar and to me it really brings a good dimention to the ashtanga practice. I think a greater focus on alignment will also help minimise the potential for injury. Please go ahead and post more detail I’m sure it will make an interesting read.
hi stu .. and sarai,
just getting into the conversation here around matthew\’s wonderful scribble.
if I may, I kinda crinch when I hear the good ol\’ polarization of alignment versus real practice brought up. the idea that the practice and alignment are two entities strikes me as uninformed. I believe we probably agree completely, but as far as I can see there is simply no deviance at all. our yogic paradigm is an energetic one (brahman, vayu, kundalini, nadis, chakras, prana, apana, samana, etc.) and our body\’s origin is energetic, shaped along the power lines of natural forces preexisting our material form – in the womb, that is, according to western science. understanding and \’lining up\’ around these energetic connectors are simply following the path of both our friend sri ganesha choosing the path of least of least resistance, along with wrapping our bodies around natures energetic lines like DNA instead of copying shapes in space based on eye-to-limb coordination skills.
thanks for the spectrum of communication on this site. much appreciated.
Hi Tim, welcome to the party and thanks for throwing your hat into the ring and commenting on Matthew’s “scribbles” : ) I am so pleased that the website is functioning as I had hoped, a place for great articles and dynamic discussion. Yes you are right that there can be no separation between practice and alignment. Personally I think the point I was trying to make in my uninformed way, was to do with healthy practice. Ashtanga is no doubt a fantastic practice and brings together so many facets of the mind body continuum, but it is possible to criticize the way that asanas are sometimes performed. In my travels around the world I am often struck by the sheer amount of practitioners that subject their bodies to unhealthy stresses. I remember when I first started ashtanga my teacher instructed me to take my toe in trikonasana even though that representation of the pose put my back in an undesirable position because of my lack of flexibility. That practice is still alive and happy and I observe it often, along with compromised backs in backbends and foot behind head postures, stressed shoulders in binds, vulnerable sternums in supta kurmasana and low backs in seated forward folds. Often where I practice the students are themselves from across the globe and the teacher doing his/her best to address the issues presented. That said these students are practicing somewhere that these insults to the body are acceptable or they wouldn’t be doing the postures in that way. I don’t think that adopting some of the knowledge from other schools of yoga needs to be threating to ashtanga, or to disrupt the beautiful flow and focus, but may enhance the longevity of practice for many practitioners.
On a different note if you would like to share any articles or videos with our visitors I would love to have them, and if you are teaching in Goa again next season with Kino, it would be great to interview you both for the website.
I think I unintentionally spoke a bit crass in my comment and I apologize. I did not pick up on your comment as \’uninformed\’, I was rather attempting to simply point to the underlying unifying fact which seems overlooked more often than good is. I did get the idea that you were puzzled by pretty much the same unhappy fact, that you wished there would not be such a division of mind and practice and it was my intention to just skid in under your words with further \’yeah-yeah\’ :). I hope I am more clear this time around.
one more thought on the matter, I believe the schism might often lie in us ashtangis attempting to pursue a \’meditative\’ practice, a certain bhakti\’hood, an ekagrata/one-pointed mind and that beginning to let the mind loose on technique can seem really far from that at times. I have often heard a fellow practitioner declaring \’oh, I have lost my practice today\’ as a result of external factors demanding attention, such as the plumber showing up, adjusting a practice buddy or even an unruly mind activity and the like. when we sit with such a simplified idea of what a working/practice mind constitutes then a lot of good stuff gets thrown out with the bathwater. is it bertram russell who claims that intelligence is holding two opposing views at the same time? whom ever it is I cannot find a better description for what we need to move towards yoga and asana practice, making it our …practice… to make seemingly opposing views meet, yoke them, unify them. matthew so eloquently does exactly that in his article. I do also think that of course we can\’t start learning yoga at first from such an advanced idea as no one would ever be able to understand anything. but later on, when practice steadies, I find this teaching crucial to not get stuck in body or mind. anyhow enough said.
stu, it would be a pleasure to meet you. kino and I will be in goa again next year in january. I believe you have access to my email address as part your admin duties, feel welcome to shoot me an email and we can connect directly there. on the same note, if you do I could run an article by you to see if you fancy it here on your great forum?
all the best, tim
Thank you that for article. It was a joy to read, confirming many of the thoughts and struggles I have had as a teacher and student. It’s hard to be a non-traditional Ashtanga teacher, breaking away from the sacred cow feels naughty – which is hard when you like to think of yourself as a good student.
But if I am to take compassion and kindness to myself and my students seriously, then I see no way but to modify the sequence, or in some cases, dissuade them from practising Ashtanga all together – coaxing them towards something else entirely.
Some of my students are very overweight. Some come with shoulder injuries. Some have arthritis, or back injuries. For these people, I don’t think that repeated sun salutations is what will best serve their needs. Krishnamacharya taught that yoga should be adapted to the individual. The logical extension of this is that modifications should not only be allowed, but embraced.
I see the benefits of a traditional Ashtanga practice. I’ve personally derived a great deal of joy and strength and mobility from it. I’ve seen the benefit it can have to others. Just not everyone. As you’ve mentioned, for some, it can be injurious.
Traditional Ashtanga teachers become accredited or certified by demonstrating a certain proficiency at the practice. There’s no question that traditional Ashtanga teachers will know their own bodies intimately and will often be highly skilled when it comes to adjusting bodies that are similar to theirs.
But there’s no requirement for teachers to demonstrate any anatomical or bio mechanical knowledge before becoming an authorised or certified teacher and more and more people of all shapes and sizes turning to yoga classes for their well publicised therapeutic side effects. Thus we have the makings of the perfect storm when a beginner student with an injury collides with a dogmatic Ashtanga teacher with neither the knowledge n/or the inclination to modify a practice, AND a heavy handed adjustment.
Anyhow my 2 cents worth. Thank you for a thoughtful, balanced article. I’ll not only be sharing it with my students, but I’ll be keeping my eye out for your workshops.
Hi Matthew, I really enjoyed your article and feel so similarly about so many of the issues that you have spoken about. I feel that body listening within the context of the practice, is the intelligent way forward and I mean intelligence as the kind that permeates us from the bigger field of intelligence. Our felt sense tells us that rigidity to any form will not allow the creative process in the body to unveil itself. I am full of gratitude for the Ashtanga practice and the fact that it has brought me into greater relationship to my self and others. The practice leads me inside, and allows me to become more present. It has increased my awareness and relationship to my own being and my relationship to everything else around me. The practice has been a resource to my life and a central axis to orient myself to. When things are turbulent it is a wonderful resource to go to ones mat and process all the inner mind stuff, and move it through the soma. Its a gift. The journey however continues on, like life…. it has its own process – its own phases and is bigger than us and we cannot therefore rigidly adhere to the form. I became aware however, fairly early on that with my conditions present that I was unable to meet its criteria. I was unable to commit fully to the structure and the rules of the method and on days when my body wanted to move to the beat of a different drum I would need to follow it and go \’off piste\’, exploring the deeper inner urges that sprang from the greater intelligence in me, not my mind, but a felt sense knowing that today I had another journey to follow, that allowed that processing of my inner being. I love it that you have been brave enough to express your feelings out to the Ashtanga Yoga Community at large and I Love your article. Thank you for sharing. OM
Thanks Lucy. Really appreciate it.
So here is some News!!! I am interviewing Matthew on monday for the website!!! If you have any questions you would like me to ask him add them to my facebook post at stu girling. If you would like to know when the interview gets posted sign up for the newsletter.
Thanks, Stu, for sharing this article by Matthew. You’ve got a great site going here with all of the anatomy articles. As an anatomy enthusiast, I like being able to sample from all of the different articles you’ve collected. I look forward to your interview with Matthew. I feel blessed to be studying with Matthew in Bali this June. Cheers Rexx
Thanks Rexx, The site is far from finished and there are many more articles coming. I want to build a really good resource. I have big intentions for the caffee, where I hope to gather authorities on asana , ayurveda, nutrition philosophy etc who will answer your questions. as well as general discussion areas and blogs. If you’ve read any good articles recently let me know and I will try and get them up here. Enjoy your time in Bali I’m sure it will be special.
Thank you Matthew.
Adding a point about the circular movements I think of interest investigating a forthcoming discipline that will win both with input from Yoga, as well as yoga practice and teaching could derive benefit from it: Fascia fitness. Most of it’s rational is derived from the understanding of the human connective tissue (in fact also it applies to sentient beings). Investigating the role of tendons when performing feats as jumping, frogs or springboks for instance is worth noting.
Hope I’ll get to meet while in Spain this summer.
Matthew, this is spot on! I have your book, “Ashtanga Yoga As It Is”, and it is perhaps my favorite book on the practice. There is a depth of sensible, compassionate information in it, and I find myself rereading it again and again when I am searching for guidance in my own practice, and my efforts to be a better teacher, too.
I believe in the Ashtanga practice passionately, and think it’s an amazing sequence of postures that works for most humans – if they put a consistent effort into learning and practicing it with reverence, for a long time, that is. It has healed me, and continues to support me in my path. But, for whatever reason, there are times when the Ashtanga asana practice doesn’t work for a particular body, and it’s then that there must be a willingness to think outside of the box, honestly, compassionately and patiently, by both the student and the teacher.
Several years ago, I had to stop practicing Ashtanga asana series almost completely, for close to a year, because of severe back pain caused (unbeknownst by me) by an IUD. Desperate for something that didn’t cause extreme pain, I practiced your Chandra series, and did modifications to the Ashtanga sequences, so that I could continue doing an asana practice. It was highly beneficial to do your series and a modified Ashtanga practice, both physically and mentally. The pain I was experiencing also forced me to turn to the other limbs for sadhana, too, and that has been an invaluable benefit to me as both a practitioner and teacher.
I’ve since had the IUD removed; when I did, I followed the traditional Series to heal my back and return to full strength and flexibility, phasing out the modifications over time. Ashtanga, when applied with wisdom and compassion, and with a willingness to go beyond dogmas, does work, beautifully, and has healed me. (All is well now, I’m back to my old tricks and learning new ones, too, pushing 47.) I still do the Chandra series on moon days at times, and offer modifications to Primary and Second for my students when I see that they too are experiencing pain in the practice, the intent being to guide the student to a level of self-practice that helps them to find physical wellbeing and mental clarity on their own.
The tradition of Ashtanga, the parampara, should be preserved, because it is wise and grounded in a depth of knowledge that few teachers or practitioners alive today will ever reach. But, this respect for tradition can and should be balanced with a willingness to blur the edges of the practice to accommodate a student’s particular therapeutic needs – and it there are numerous accounts that Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya both did so. This modern refusal to “allow” variation in the practice springs from fear of change. If it gets too strident, the culture of Ashtanga will find itself falling into dogma and zealotry – attitudes which are not particularly welcoming or encouraging, and are perhaps harbingers of dissolution, too.
Thank you, Matthew, for your honesty and willingness to address this important issue. I can’t wait to read the interview, and I’m trying to come up with a good question for it, Stu – other than, “Would you consider coming to the Northeastern America to teach a workshop, Matthew?!” 🙂
If you do, I’ll be the first to sign up!
Although I have been coming to the USA the last few years, and I have a great crew of students and teachers developing there, I won’t be coming there for workshops for a couple of years. I am trying to travel less and spend more time on my month long courses – which is my true love in terms of teaching – rather than more weekend and weeklong courses. 2014 I will be doing a 1 Month Course in Rishikesh in February, a 3 week course in Mexico in May, and 3 month longs back to back in Bali in July, August and September next year. All the best
Check out my website for courses and certified teachers…
Both my husband and I want to take one of those month-longs, but it will have to wait a bit because of work… but it’s definitely on our list. We’ve read the detailed description and it sounds like what we have both been looking for for a long time. I can see why it is your preferred way to teach! So count on us showing up somewhere sometime 🙂
Thank you so much for responding!
Will you still be doing the 1 month training course in Bali for 2014?
I canomake it in June this year. Love & respect your writings
Ok! Plan for 2014:
Rishikesh 1 month March
South America short courses (Peru and Brazil) April
Central America short courses (Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Mexico) May
Bali 1 Month courses July, August and September
Please be aware the month courses can fill up to 6 months in advance.
Thanks for your article, reading your thoughts is quite inspiring I must say, you show competence and dedication so thanks for sharing this.
I personally agree only in part with what you say. I do agree that a balance is needed and some form of adaptation of a (any) yoga system to the individual needs is desirable if not necessary as we are not the same.
I do not agree though with the idea that the way Ashtanga yoga is taught should be modified, or adapted, to account for this principle. It’d definitely be desirable for more methods to be formulated such as your sequences (I have done a seminar with you by the way in which we practiced the Moon Sequence, and I found it brilliant) so that more people can access the wonderful benefits of Yoga practice but still I think a method is what it is, and it suits who it suits, so instead of making Ashtanga more flexible I’d say other approaches should be thought that start from it and develop themselves into a different approach to the practice of Yoga Asana (as has been indeed the case with some systems taught today I guess). Or practitioner themselves might study a personalised approach to their own practice after having understood enough of the universal principles behind each “style” through much dedicated practice of many systems. For me having the chance of exploring a system exactly under the “shape” it has been given and transmitted by such great teachers of the past holds a very deep and spiritual attractiveness of itself …
I have practiced yoga for just two years and had a regular Mysore practice for only one. I keep studying other systems (Iyengar mostly) to compensate for what I feel (or am told) Ashtanga might lack and I try and draw inspiration from all “breaths” of yoga, and that is my personal way of trying and build a practice which is meaningful to me as an individual … but I’d never wish for “The Practice” to change at all and feel real gratitude towards the teachers who continue to transmit it as it is … it is not too easy as I am not that young and very prone to injury, so not too much “cut” for traditional Ashtanga, yet I find a beauty in the way the practice keeps me alert to my body limitations and teaches me acceptance through this.
with deep gratitude
Hey Dani, thanks for being brave enough to post your feelings. I think all discussion needs to hear from both sides and I would encourage others to follow your lead.
Hi Dani, I agree with what you are saying. I don’t think I have said anywhere that the tradition needs to change “within” the practice, rather what is needed “outside” of it. Strangely enough I have been writing another article to clarify so e of these points, perhaps Stu will be interested to post that in a couple of weeks once I have finished editing it. Thanks for the feedback. Matthew.
Thanks Matthew … I look forward to read your next article then!
all the best
by the way this blog is a great resource full of useful and inspiring words, even beyond anatomy as such I guess … thank you to the people who work on it
Oh let me amend what I wrote slightly, I agree in theory, if not always in practice…. Haha
Hi Matthew — I got to this essay through Anthony Grimm’s website and recommendation, particularly when he said: I wish I had read this article when I first started Ashtanga. I’ve been practicing Ashtanga for about a year now, and luckily all my injuries haven’t been so severe that I didn’t learn quickly from them and heal in the process. Every now and then I get anxious about the possibility of never “reaching” a certain pose or level, but the anxiety comes less and less. It’s a reality, and just as some people aren’t meant to be Olympic athletes or chemists, some people aren’t going to reach certain poses in the advanced or intermediate or primary series. Reading the biographies of yogis like S. Ramaswami and T. Desikachar also make me realize that the yoga “tradition” to a 45-year old US based career professional in education like me means something very different to the member of a Brahmin family whose knowledge of hatha yoga is informed by the life long study of the Vedas, the memorization of chants, and meditation. So yoga is going to mean something very different to us, and that is as it should be. Thanks again for the article, I learned a lot.
Thanks for writing that article I am posting to my Facebook page!
I think that as teachers, once you’ve been practicing for a while, trust and understand yourself, and have developed not only a physical practice, but a strong meditation practice also, then you start to understand how to integrate discipline into individual moulds (ie the students).
In the beginning there is always a necessary period of time to be rigid with any practice, developing discipline, gaining understanding and removing the mind from the equation. Once a student has commitment to their practice and an understanding of their own practice, then that is the time to expand in the Ashtanga Series. By this time the mind has been well prepped and the addition of alternative postures or sequences is of more benefit.
I love your point about communicating alignment – I don’t see how you couldn’t! But I do understand that if you were to teach in a similar way to teachers in Mysore then your students would be missing out on something very important. Maybe that’s just an extra bonus we have in west?!
Lastly I just want to agree with your comment about the practice being rajasic. For this reason I like to also teach Yin and restorative yoga practices, and for those feeling their minds are ready pranayama and meditation. The practice of yoga is a fully bodied discipline and it should be treated as such. Therefore it is important that as teachers we impart not only the physical practice (which seems to be easier to get people to do!) but also the more subtle (yin) practices to help keep the nervous system calm, the mind still and the heart soft.
Hi Mathew, I really enjoyed reading your article…..I practice and teach Ashtanga and found that including variations have not only helped my practice but also my students. I feel that there are more of us exploring these variations within the practice as the number of imbalances that are experienced by teachers and students is encouraging this. Thanks again for your voice 🙂
Thanks for a great article Matt, I think you covered absolutely everything there! You may or may not remember me from the Yoga Arts Teacher Training back in 2001 in Bali – with Dimple, Holly, Tina et al. That was my first foray into Ashtanga but I had a fairly strong pratice because I was a Synergy devotee. What I did love about Astanga was exactly what you mention – the self practice aspect – the ability to just be and of course the challenges. Self practise becomes easier with experience but can be difficult at the start. However, you are also right in saying that astanga/synergy/power yoga tends to attract perhaps fitter, more flexible (dare I say highly strung…) folk in the first place. This isn’t a bad thing at all – certainly we need it -, but even when working out my sequence for the Yoga Arts training, as a beginner teacher, I (was told by my group) that I had underestimated how “normal” people actually feel in their bodies with stiffer hips etc etc. A real learning curve for me, especially once I took my teaching “out there”. Ten years, more experience and two children later this has become very apparent. I notice that even Synergy is far more conscious these days and there is more awareness with the safety/normal body aspect. I don’t teach Astanga per se nor Synergy but all of my sequences have aspects of both and all those things you mention above. Lots more warm-up, circular movements and equal amounts of strength and flexibility work for the whole body. Really, you could devote hours to one practise session to cover all these things, but for me, when it comes to teaching the average person, who sits all day at work, has other commitments and just does not have time to practise for 2.5 hrs, 5 or 6 times a week, I have found that a vinyasa practise has to be doable and just challenging enough. It is fair to say that because a regular yoga practitioner gets so fit and strong practising every day it can be easy to forget how others without the time or inclination for that kind of dedication feel when they only do a practise once a week or so. A too strong practise could then become a struggle rather than something joyous and may even start to lose its therapeutic quality. Finding the right level in a class to suit a group with varying bits and pieces going on and all different ages, is my main challenge and I really love your idea of creating self practise groups for more keen yogis.
So hope I can make one of your month-long workshops Matt. Very keen. Namastes to you x
Fantastic article. Finally a senior Ashtanga teacher to speak out about what i\’d been thinking. And then so elegantly and to the point. Liked it so much that i dedicated a blog post to it on my own website adding my own comments.
Thank you Matthew, also came through Grimmly’s blog. Loved the post.
In my experience, the deviation from the strick tradition, the need to modify, the need to find what works in ouor bodies eventaully happens for all of us… it is the alchemy that happens when the practice as dictated becomes our own practice, when we begin to see certain fruits and trust our own insticts.
It does NOT mean we abandon tradition but rather that we stem from it, we ground in it and grow through it, and blossom into our own flower. Our own expression.
Thank you for writing!
I found your moon sequence in a timely way when many years of Ashtanga caused me severe carpal tunnel syndrome and loss of sensation in a couple of fingers ( poorly alignment and pig headedness I am certain…but certainly not picked up by any teacher or figured out by self study ). After the surgery the moon sequence helped me keep the prana flowing when I could put no pressure on the hands. Now 6 months back into my Ashtanga practice- minus drop backs and hand balances perhaps forever- I still include moon sequence regularly, certainly weekly….. It has shifted MUCH within me which had been reinforced by 10+ years of the same daily practice up into second series, but always hovering in a plateau around kapotasana. I believe the moon sequence- or perhaps merely ALLOWING myself to practice something outside the tradition which felt so right for my body- has opened up a whole new world of awareness- and softness- that pushing my way up to kapo on a regular basis could not. And from there other parts of life that require a softer, less rigid approach are being looked at.
Thank-you Matthew. The Moon sequence pretty much saved my practice. 🙂
A lot of people have asked me about finding teachers that can teach the moon and lion sequences in an area near them. If you follow this link to Matthew’s site he has a list of teachers that he has certified at the bottom of the page.
Awesome, Matthew, thank you so much!
Thank you for this amazing post! It was the first I’ve read from you and I was deeply touched of the wise words here. I also have a diverse background: I practiced traditional primary for a year, but run to a serious car accident which changed everything. After half a year I slowly continued the practice, but found out that it was impossible to follow the original sequence. I was lucky to bump into an Iyengar influenced Ashtanga teacher, who was able to help me to modify my practice to suit my injured body.
Slowly, after years my body got healed more and I ended up realizing that something is missing, or lagging me behind in my practice. My wife helped me to notice, that even though the modified and propped practice had helped me initially, it was now an object for a meditative, flowing way of practice. I started to shift back to traditional Ashtanga and been on this path last two years – with the addition of very open mind and better understanding of the need for personal aspect in the practice.
Sooooo refreshing Matthew…..Thankyou……your explanations resonates with my yoga journey in this lifetime totally….look forward to attending your workshop in Perth, West Oz in November 2013
Where is your workshop in Perth?
Hi Matthew, I note from your website that the moon sequence DVD will be available for sale from Aug 2013. But I find the same as available in Amazon USA website. Please advise which is correct? Thanks.
Very good article.. I have been studying at KYM in Chennai and will be studying this fall with AG Mohan this fall and wonder what you think about this evolution of the Krishnamacharya Lineage.. I used to do Ashtanga but felt it was wrecking my body as I started in yoga rather late and it was very restricting and repetitive..I find Desikashar and Mohans teaching much more complete and cater much better to the individual for many reasons, one being setting up practices according to your ayurvedic constitution and being age and health appropriate.
Hi Matthew, big thanks for your article.
I feel a little late to the party, but I had to put a comment down to say it’s great to see someone with your profile in the Astanga world write with such fierce honesty and endearment about the tradition. At the core of it, Astanga is a beautiful practice – I’ve had my struggles with it, like everyone else – but no matter how profound, it is and always will be a method / technique / system…. one which ultimately needs to be individually transcended for deeper Self-realisation. Krishnamurti maintained that “truth is a pathless land” and that attempts to organise or codify it lead to falsehood. Some traditional practitioners cling too rigidly to the Astanga method, and risk alienating themselves from their own truth. Grounding oneself in the inherent, traditional wisdom of the practice is powerful, as long as there is ample room for truly creative Self-expression, whatever that looks like for you… as long as it’s by yourself, for yourself.
Astanga is a wonderful tool and I’m grateful for the practice and the teachers that have brightened my journey. A lot of people live it, and that’s fine… for now. But the real magic happens if we can learn to live it, evolve it and then transcend it. As Marcel Proust said, “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
Inspiring stuff – thanks again Matthew.
you forgot to mention props. (blocks etc.) traditional teachers don’t want students to use them but I think it’s kind of obvious that they are very useful and should be used.
yes agreed, props are very important, and fit in the category of “useful variations”. I think I covered that in another artillery, don’t exactly remember where right now haha. Props are a core component of the Moon sequence, for example, lying over blocks and bolsters…
Brilliant article! This is exactly what I needed to read. I think if anybody reads it with open heart and without prejudice, it will be clear that intuitively we came across all those points mentioned in the article while developing own practice. Thank you for sharing knowledge, being tolerant and honest!
thank you so much for your thoughts on Ashtanga.
What was an eye opener to me, was my deepening understanding for the qualities of different poses. I ve learned this from a long time student of Desikachar and T. Krishnamacharya and I guess you might be familiar with it. (Laghana, forward folds, deep exhalations that increase the digestive fire – Agni, and Brmhana quality of poses, which are invigorating and giving a lot of energy or Ojas…)
And directing the fire and balancing it to our constitution should be the focus. Trying harder backing of … in harmony with my energies…
Another female long time student of T.Krishnamacharya Miss Ranganathan who teaches Pranayama in Mysore, said that a balanced daily practice should consist of 2/3 Asana and has to be balanced by 1/3 Pranayama.
I have observed that Ashtanga practitioners can become very dry, harsh on others and too rigid through the practice on themselves… I could observe these effects on myself as well.. too much fire that dries the system …
from what I’ve learned the many forward bends should clean the system from toxins but we need the nourishing effects of the second series as well, and backbends come right at the beginning so if you can’t do much it doesn’t matter we still feel it…
but there is a lack of understanding, and if you can’t do this you are not allowed to do that … as if we could not adapted the poses to the range of flexibility and strength of a student…
And that the 2/3 1/3 principle grounds the effects of the practice, is also missing and the presence of Ashtangis tend to get a bit cocky (is this a English expression) without the soft and very sublime practice of Pranayama or Chanting…
We have been talking lately with my teacher R.Sriram about the theory of the influence of European gymnasts on Asana. Where do we find anything similar to Yogaposes in Europe? Too me it to a certain degree a colonialist world view. How come that in India they wouldn’t be able to find all these Asanas without European gymnasts. it is even a bit ridiculous. What is the base of this idea?
The pictures of T.Krishnamacharya practicing at the age of 40 or so in Mysore , that we all know and which are so extremely beautiful…he must have had a consistent practice for many, many years.
I think he learned it from his teachers the mountains and the contact with the colonialists came later… I don’t know…
lot of love