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What is the point of Ashtanga Yoga asana practice?

So I found out what the pain in the butt I’ve been experiencing is all about: I tore my sacrotuberous ligament, which is located in my left ass-al region. My chiropractor said that he is seeing quite a few yoga overuse injuries lately. He reminds us that “awareness is key.”

That is, we need to be aware of our bodies, our state of mind, our energy level and generally what is going on in the world of “us” before we push our bodies to do the same thing today as we did yesterday in our asana (yoga posture) practice simply because that is what our minds tell us we “should do,” or that we are “lazy” if we don’t do it. Furthermore, my chiropractor advises that alignment is extremely important.

It turns out that I suffer from what he actually referred to as “J-Lo Syndrome,” where I have a tendency to arch my back and tilt my pelvis forward. This puts strain on the thoracic spine, and makes injury to the hamstrings and glutes more likely.

Let me step back a moment. When I realized, with my doctor’s help, that I likely tore my butt-ligament about six months ago while working on perfecting Upavista Konasana, at first I heard the judgment about myself from meany-voice: “You shouldn’t have pushed yourself so hard in your asana practice. You need to learn to back off and stand firm and tell your teachers when your body tells you you can’t do something today. Why aren’t you listening to your body?! If you had just listened to your body this wouldn’t have happened. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

And that is where I have to stop myself. Who is to say what would or would not have happened or what was supposed to happen? And who is to really say what caused it? I saw Diana, an brilliant energy healer I treat with, earlier this week. She helped me reconnect to the gratitude I have for my body. It has really absorbed the brunt of my healing path. My healing path has been through the heart. And when my heart was too afraid to open, it was my body that stepped in and absorbed the pain. Now that my heart is more open than ever, it is almost like my body is saying to me, “Is it ok for me to express some pain now?” And my body has surely found its voice.

Diana says that my butt-ligament tear has to do with repressed grief over the loss of my father over two years ago. I’m open to that idea, though it wasn’t on my radar until she mentioned it. Funny how we think we are done grieving and there can still be some held up emotions waiting for release. I’ve always sensed that as Ashtanga Yoga practitioners, we have a sort of inclination toward working out our karma in our musculoskeletal system. The practice tends to attract type-A personalities, myself included, and we may be more inclined to push our physical bodies to the limit.

The practice started out very physical for me, and I’m sure that was part of my initial attraction to it: I was getting my body into better shape than it had been in for years. Nonetheless, as my practice has deepened, I’ve realized that the physical part isn’t really what it is about. The beauty of Ashtanga comes from its nonphysical attributes. The use of breath, bandhas (energy locks), and drishti (fixed gaze points) is what transforms the practice from physical exercise to an energetic, chakra-opening, mind-clearing meditation practice. Guruji, the late teacher of Ashtanga yoga responsible for its popularity in the West, is oft-quoted as saying that without these subtle aspects of the practice, yoga is “just a circus.”

It is clear that while Guruji taught a “standardized” system of asanas, he very much tailored the practice to the individual. See “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students” (217, 244, 256, 310).

With such a large student body, out of necessity the practice has become more standardized; though Guruji was always aware of the individual student’s needs. Still today, in the wake of Guruji’s absence, it is important that we look at our individual needs, and avoid falling prey to an idea of what our practice “needs to be” (i.e. our full asana practice) everyday.

Because the practice really is individualized, and because the practice is about so much more than the physical asanas, sometimes there are apparent “inconsistencies” in the way things are taught. For example, I often hear teachers allege that pranayama should not be taught until one has advanced to the second series of Ashtanga asanas. This makes me sad, because pranayama is an important part of yoga practice, and can be particularly useful on days when our body demands a shorter asana practice.

Despite the assertion from some teachers that pranayama should wait, Guruji himself made no such blanket assertion in his book, “Yoga Mala.” Instead, he said only that the practice of pranayama “requires that the preceding step – namely asana – be practiced as well.” (18). He also said that pregnant women “should abstain from doing asanas” but should nonetheless practice pranayama, in apparent conflict with the assertion that pranayama should only be practiced after one is advanced in asana. (27). Note that Guruji also allowed certain pregnant women to practice, despite this apparent assertion to the contrary. There really are no blanket prescriptions in Guruji’s Ashtanga.

Further, at conference in Mysore, which is led by Sharath Jois (Guruji’s grandson) once a week, I’ve personally witnessed Sharath teaching alternate nostril breathing, a basic pranayama, to an entire room full of students of all different levels. Also at conference, I’ve noticed students getting caught up in the physical part of the practice; asking questions about the difference between the way the specific physical postures were once taught and how they are taught now; or undermining and questioning Sharath’s judgment for teaching something different than it was taught by Guruji.

To do so completely misses the point of this practice, which is not about the asanas. It is about becoming joined with our higher selves; of realizing the Divine in every breath, in every form, in every other creature we encounter. It really is about become the best “me” a person can be; to live in a state of total unity with our higher selves. And it is about the constant practice of yoga, not the constant practice of asana.

As Sharath said,

“[t]he real meaning of yoga is to get self-knowledge about our inner Self, realizing what we are.”

See “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of his Students,” (187).

And in his book, “Yoga Mala,” Guruji defines yoga as “the way of establishing the mind in the Self” and “the means to the realization of one’s true nature.” (5). Guruji further explains in “Yoga Mala” that yoga must be practiced at all times, and does not limit it to practicing asana six days a week:

In other words, whether working, sleeping, eating, playing, or even enjoying intercourse with one’s wife – that is, during the three states of experience, namely waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, and in all objects – one should think of the Supreme Self at all times. (12).

Thus, while Guruji was obviously a proponent of asana practice, it is clear that the “constant practice” of yoga to which he refers is not limited to asana practice; but rather, it is the devotional, bhakti yoga practice of turning all of one’s thoughts to the Divine. In other words, it is an inner practice of spiritual self-realization, not a physical practice of acrobatic-like postures.

Guruji’s senior students that were interviewed in the “Guruji” book also understood that the real point of Astanga goes beyond the physical postures. Many of them spoke about the importance of the subtle aspects of the practice: breathing, drishti, and the bandhas. For example, Dena Kingsberg said, “Drishtis direct the gaze to a soft focus and we listen to the even sound of the breath. This rhythmic repetition of movement becomes familiar and soothing and the mind slips away into the space between thought. Then the practice becomes a moving meditation, an invitation to stillness.” (290).

Moreover, Guruji himself stopped practicing asana around the age of fifty (50). Different reasons are given in the “Guruji” book for why he stopped (motorcycle accident, son’s death, etc.). Regardless, even though he stopped practicing asana, he continued to practice the real practice, the real yoga, of aligning himself with the Divine: “I think he reached a stage where he could let go of the asanas because he was beyond that. He had the prayers, and his attitude toward us suffices. That was his practice. It was to help us and make us advance.” (Brigitte Deroses, “Guruji”, 248). Another senior student, Tomas Zorzo, poignantly pointed out in “Guruji” that focus on the asanas and the ego’s desire to achieve new asanas can result in injury, and really does nothing toward the ultimate goal of yoga as divine union:

Asana practice should not be our goal. Having asana as the goal is often the reason we injure ourselves. If we don’t respect our nature, our body, our physical nature, and we want to do asanas that are difficult because we compare ourselves with others, because we want to do marichyasana D in order to reach navasana and our hip doesn’t open and we try to force ourselves into poses. This also applies to teachers. We think it is important to put the student in an asana and then we hurt the person. To me, the asanas are just the expression of the flexibility of the person. The goal is not asana, we use asana as a tool to attain flexibility and strength. But we have to respect the body. If that tool doesn’t work, we maybe need to adjust the asana a little bit, or maybe wait until the student is ready. We have to realize that we will not reach enlightenment by being able to sit in padmasana…We need protection. Guruji used to say, “You take slowly.” This “You take slowly” is very important. (271).

It is a paradox: Ashtanga Yoga is asana-based; yet if we become too caught up in the asanas we can hurt ourselves and ultimately miss the true point of this yoga. I’ve noticed that I push myself harder when I practice in a shala-setting, whether it be here in central Florida or in Mysore, India.

It is hard to say whether it is just my natural tendency to push myself harder in public or it is the group dynamic of having multiple type-A-push-themselves-type-people all in the same place, all sharing the same energetic vibe. Maybe it is a combination of both. Yet I really enjoy practicing yoga with a teacher in a shala surrounded by my friends, so a balance is needed. Moreover, while pushing myself may be part of the problem, alignment was also a big factor, and there were energetic factors as well. Now that I now and have awareness, another strain is a lot less likely. I’ve resolved to ease up on myself and to be more verbal with my teachers and unashamed and unafraid to let them know when my body dictates the need for a shorter asana practice.

But what does a shorter asana practice look like? How does the knowledge that “physical asana is not the point” translate into our daily asana-focused yoga practice? To me, it means being able to do an “alternative” asana practice on days my body wants it. And to do so does not fly in the face of the great Ashtanga tradition and lineage. As discussed above, Guruji was acutely aware of the individual needs of his students. In fact, he has been quoted as saying that the sun salutations and three closing lotus postures are a good minimum asana practice. See “Guruji,” (101). In addition, in her recent inspiring blog about the postpartum return to asana practice, Mary Breeding talks about practicing only suryanamskara (sun salutations) and the three closing padmasana (lotus) postures as a way to reaclimate to the practice after childbirth. She quotes Sharath’s new book where he says,

Committing oneself to the practice of suryanamaskara and the final variations of padmasana is an appropriate starting point for most practitioners. They are especially therapeutic and can bring many benefits. Always remember to work slowly and overtime your practice will develop. Perfection cannot be attained overnight.

Hence, on days when my body is hurting or injured, my asana practice may be simply a few suryanamaskaras and the three lotus postures. Another great practice is just to do the standing postures, followed by the three lotus postures or more of closing depending on how my body is feeling. Or half of primary – I usually think of marichiasana D as the halfway point. Regardless of what my asana practice may look like on a “rough body day,” my focus is on connecting to my energetic body; to feeling my body from the inside; to uniting with the creative, primal energy of mulabandha, and perceiving it move up and down my spine (or staying still if that’s what it wants to do today); to listening to my breath; and directing all my thoughts that bubble up during my practice to the Divine. I have found that the practice is my greatest teacher, and it teaches me through my body. David Swenson said in “Guruji,”

“the ultimate guru is the practice itself. The teacher’s duty is to introduce the student to the sadhana [focused spiritual practice], then to help them carry on with that.”

Today, my butt and my body are hurting, so my asana practice looked different than it does when I’m at “full capacity.” I’m sure the full moon yesterday is also adding something to the mix. I practiced alone today, and my practice involved an unexpected but well-received release of grief over my father brought on by a random song (seems Diana was right); pranayama; meditation; and the suryanamaskaras and lotus postures. That was exactly what my ass needed today.

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