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Why are you practicing asana?

I practice a style of asana-based yoga practice called “Ashtanga” yoga.

Ashtanga actually means eight limbs, and the asanas or postures are just one of eight limbs of yoga practice.The other limbs include meditation, inward withdrawal, breathing practice, bliss, and ethical and moral guidelines.

“Asana” is Sanskrit word that is usually translated to mean “postures.” It describes the physical poses that you see in most yoga classes offered today at gyms and yoga studios around town. In other words, most of the “yoga” offered today is asana-based, and the other seven limbs, although arguably more important, are generally ignored.

The word “asana” actually comes from three different words in Sanskrit – “as”  meaning “to be or to breathe,” “san” – “to put together,” and “na” – “the eternal cosmic vibration.”

So “asana” literally translates as “to be or breathe together with the eternal cosmic vibration.”

If your asana practice is not focused on learning to be and breathe together with the eternal cosmic vibration, i.e. the Universal Self, the One, Consciousness, God, etc., I submit that you might not be practicing asana for the right reason.

“Ashtanga Yoga” has come to be associated with the style of asana that was taught by Guruji, aka Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, in Mysore, Karnataka, India, before his death in 2009. It is still taught by his grandson and daughter, Sharath and Saraswati Jois, and I personally travel there every year to practice under their guidance, because I do believe in the practice.

At the same time, “Ashtanga Yoga” actually refers to Patanjali’s system of yoga as delineated in the “Yoga Sutras,” an ancient text written over 2000 years ago. Guruji himself was repeatedly quoted as saying “this is Patanjali Yoga” in response to questions about the nature of the Guruji’s Ashtanga Yoga taught in Mysore. And Guruji’s was fervent about the importance of the other seven limbs and the importance of a constant practice of yoga. (See “Yoga Mala,” pp. xxi, 4-6).

And If you think Guruji was talking about asana when he said we should constantly practice yoga, you may be out of your mind.

Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Guruji evolved to become a set series of yoga asanas. Practitioners of this style struggle with deviating from the series, as it is often ingrained by teachers that the postures must always be the same, and in the same order. If, however, we look closer at Guruji’s teachings, we see that the series became standarized based on necessity, because of the sheer breadth of practitioners he was seeing. He wasn’t able to tailor the practice to every individual student once hundreds of students started traveling from all over the world to practice with him. Nonetheless, most of his advanced practitioners describe that the practice he taught them was very individualized. (See “Guruji: A Portrait of Patthabhi Jois,” pp. 217, 244, 256, 310). 

Moreover, the series itself has changed many time over the years to include new postures that weren’t originally there or to modify existing postures. For example, Padottanasana D was added later, as well as Janu Shirshasana B and C. (See “Yoga Mala,” p. xix). So which set sequence are we speaking of when we say the practice must always be the same? And Guruji himself said that the true teacher will tailor the yoga practice to the individual practitioner. (See “Yoga Mala,” p. 28).

Furthermore, his book, “Yoga Mala” reads almost like a prescription manual. That is, Guruji describes which specific postures are best for specific ailments, and makes many recommendations in the book for tailoring the practice to the young, the old, the weak, the pregnant, etc.

Personally, I found that practicing the standarized series of postures two hours a day, six days a week for several years resulted in injury to my body. I was doing the practice because I felt guilty if I didn’t do it; because I was told that you just do all of your postures every day and you don’t question it.

These are not valid reasons to practice asana.

On the other hand, it works for many people. For a great article on the positive reasons for sticking to Guruji’s current Ashtanga sequence, check out The Yogi Movement’s recent post. I like how Monica talks about the internal aspects of the practice and explains why the set series of postures can often work for many practitioners.

However, if you are more like me, and find that the set series of postures has stopped working for you in some way, shape or form, I intend to offer you some advice here.

First, I would say, examine the “why” behind the Ashtanga tradition. Don’t blindly accept what your Ashtanga teacher tells you. Because the truth is that your teacher is not a guru in the way Guruji and his teacher, Krishnamacharya, were gurus.

Your teacher is dealing with her own ego issues just like all of us, and to blindly follow her makes you a fool.

(And the above applies even if that teacher is me).

Perhaps it is easier to have someone who will tell you what to do everyday, so you don’t have to think about it; maybe some of us need a teacher that makes us feel guilty for not showing up; a teacher that rewards us when we do well and punishes us when we do bad. Maybe we are looking to be mothered by our Ashtanga teacher; because it is easier than listening to and discovering the Mother residing within our own hearts.

Even still, READ. STUDY. Pick up “Yoga Mala,” and “Guruji: A Portrait of Pattabhi Jois”, and “Ashtanga Yoga Anusthana,” and the “Yoga Sutras,” and “The Bhagavad Gita.”  Go to Mysore, if you can make it happen, and see what its all about for yourself.

I’ve noticed that the old school Ashtangis I’ve encountered, like Clifford Sweatte, are more into the subtle aspects of the practice, and are more open to changing the sequencing when it is right to do so. By old school Ashtangis, I’m talking about the folks that first came to Guruji in the ’70s, when they were practically teenagers. No coincidence that the practice was originally designed for teenage boys by Krishnamacharya, and teenage boys have more strength and energy than older practitioners to do a strict asana-based practice.

As these old school Ashtangis age, I’ve noticed that they have backed off the blanket prescription – i.e the prescription to “do all of your asanas for two hours in the same order everyday” – and are more interested in helping students connect with the energetic and subtle aspects of the practice, even if that means you only do 30 or 45 or 15 minutes of asana – or no asana at all – on a given day.

These subtle aspects of the practice can be felt in Mysore, where Sharath Jois still teaches. I got an adjustment by Sharath in India that was magical – a pure energetic adjustment – where all he did was stand over me while I was in backbend and – without any physical contact whatsoever – say, “Stand up.” And I stood up. My feet didn’t move. I could feel the energy from my root (muladhara) travel down to my feet and I rose without a problem. It blew my mind. It was subtle; not physical.

So why are we so focused on the physical, and so focused on committing to hours of asana practice everyday? Sharath himself says in his book, “Ashtanga Yoga Anustana” that simply doing the Sun Salutations and final variations of lotus “is an appropriate starting point for most practitioners.” (See “Ashtanga Yoga Anusthana,” p.22)

To me, doing the Sun Salutations with attention on the subtle energy body, the breath, the rise and fall of muladhara (root) energy up and down the spine; performed slowly, with intention, is exponentially more powerful than two-hours of practice with attention only on the physical body.

Sharath’s book also states,

“Practicing Ashtanga yoga means practicing all eight limbs. It is important to understand each and every limb as they are all interconnected and lead to the final limb called samadhi, the realization of higher consciousness.” (See “Ashtanga Yoga Anusthana,” p. 8).

So both Guruji and Sharath acknowledge that a two-hour asana practice is not appropriate for everyone, and that all eight limbs must be practiced.

Interestingly, only four (4) sutras of the over 200 sutras in Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras” relate to asana practice. As stated above, Guruji often said he was teaching “Patanjali Yoga.” So what do those four sutras from Patanjali say about asana? Let’s take a look:

Yoga pose is a steady comfortable position. Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, lessening the tendency for restless breathing, and promoting oneself as living within the infinite breath of life. From that perfection of yoga posture, duality, such as reacting to praise and criticism, ceases to be a disturbance. When this is acquired, pranayama naturally follows, with a cessation of the movements of inspiration and expiration. (See “Yoga Sutras,” II-46-49)

Clearly, Patanjali was focused on the more subtle aspects of the practice, and was not concerned with a set series of postures. Does your personal practice of Ashtanga asana follow Patanjali’s sutras? Are you incorporating all eight limbs into your daily life?

If not, it may be time to branch out and work on some of the other seven limbs, so that your asana practice can be more of a consciousness-expanding experience.

What if your practice looked like 15 minutes of pranayama (yoga breathing), 15 minutes of yoga chanting or japa mala, and 30 minutes of asana? Would you be less of an Ashtangi? Would you be less of a yogi? Would you be a better person in your day-to-day existence, more connected to to being and breathing together with the eternal cosmic vibration?

If the prescribed series of asana works for you, and you feel that it is opening you up and connecting you with the infinite breath of life, then by all means keep doing it. Lots of people feel that way, and I fully support them on their journey.

At the same time, I implore you to look deeper at why you practice asana. If your goal is enlightenment, samadhi (bliss), attaining oneness with life, etc., is your asana practice doing that for you? If not, look at expanding your concept of practice.

Your practice can take a multitude of forms, so be open to other concepts of what practice can be. Remember the verse from the Bhagavad Gita:

As different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their waters in the sea, so, Oh Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.

Om and Namaste to all of you soul-journeying adventurers, who are committed to learning and growing in these physical bodies while we are here on Earth.

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