(Editor’s note: This is the second part of Norman Blair’s in-depth and balanced article on the Ashtanga yoga practice, its benefits and its potential pitfalls. If you missed the first part or if it’s been too long (bad editor!), please click here to find part one. Also, and with deep apologies, I forgot to include the reference for the first footnote in part one of Norman’s piece. You will find it, along with the appropriate other references at the bottom of this portion. Stay tuned for part three, coming very soon.)
ASHTANGA AS HEALING
Yet I know several people who have experienced significant healing from conditions such as cancer or chronic fatigue thanks to their Ashtanga practice. There are many examples of sick people getting better because of Ashtanga – practice definitely has the potential to be healing. One reason is that this strong stretching of the physical body can be highly therapeutic as there is releasing of held tension and a breaking down of emotional tightness. It is unquestionable that Ashtanga can be healing: but this does not mean that we cannot question the how of practice and encourage a wider perspective beyond physical postures.
And maybe one reason why it might have gone wrong sometimes is the arrogance that often attaches itself to Ashtanga. Of course arrogance isn’t solely reserved to Ashtangis: other systems and styles can be greatly arrogant. But within Ashtanga there can be an arrogance that accompanies a high level of physical proficiency – yet one of the few certainties in this highly uncertain world is that over time physical proficiency declines: so if there is an attachment to that, then inevitably there is greater suffering.
Two meditation teachers illustrated these difficulties: Tsokyni Rinpoche said “one of the pitfalls when hatha yogis use the body solely is arrogance” (footnote 2). Rigdzin Shikpo wrote: “physical yoga develops both power and feelings of power…the feeling of power that comes from the successful practice of yoga can be used to manipulate others…success in physical yoga can also produce pride…it takes significant effort to accomplish this kind of practice, although it’s nowhere near as difficult as working directly with the mind”.
This attachment to power and physicality could be called “the tantra of Ashtanga” – and it is true that amongst yoga systems, Ashtanga is one of the closest to tantric hatha yoga practices with its emphasis on breath, bandhas, drishti. There is an approach of sacred body which draws inspiration from tantra – but to balance dangers of over-attachment, tantric practitioners would live in charnel grounds to watch the decomposing of bodies: flesh rotting away, falling off bone, being eaten by birds and other animals. Maybe us modern Ashtangis could go to crematoriums and work in hospices as a reminding of the inevitability of physical impermanence: getting ever fitter or being botoxed will not prevent sickness, old age, death.
FLEXIBILITY AND INFLEXIBILITY
As well as this attaching and arrogance there can be inflexibility amongst long-term practitioners, which is ironic considering the levels of physically flexibility. The teacher verbally assaulting a student when they wanted to practice elsewhere – the teacher refusing to let one of their students assist another teacher – the certified Ashtanga teacher who said to a student when she asked if she could use a block: “no, that’s not yoga”.
Yet there are numerous examples of teachers acting with great generosity and kindness, encouraging and enabling their students, assisting other teachers to set up their own classes even when that is in ‘competition’ with them. These teachers being beacons on a path. However there is a tendency amongst some teachers towards controlling – rather than sharing, there is a reaction where behaviour is defensive and sectarian: blind faith might lead to blindness. This calls into question aspects of what we are practicing.
One suggestion for such behaviour is the sheer speed of the practice – holding postures for five breaths is an advanced form and the breath easily becomes shallow. Despite Pattabhi Jois’ instruction – according to Lino Miele: “teaching a long breath…a practice of ten seconds each inhalation, ten seconds each exhalation” – often the breath is much shorter. Research has shown that when shorter breath is combined with vigorous physical movement we go more into the sympathetic nervous system. It’s the sympathetic nervous system that is fight, flight, freeze – and here we become defended and individualised. In the parasympathetic nervous system there is much more ability to connect: that’s a system of tending and befriending, resting and digesting.
This suggestion that practicing Ashtanga could be pushing us into the sympathetic nervous system needs consideration. Fast breathing is demonstrated in Sharath’s audio CD of the primary series: each pose (not including entry and exit) takes about 20 seconds. With the five breaths in each pose this means that there are four seconds per breath which is an inhalation in two seconds and an exhalation in two seconds. The rapidity of this breath along with strong physical movements might be putting us into that fighting flighting freezing nervous system: where rather than openness and inclusivity, abundance and compassion there is control and rigidity.
Because isn’t a point of this practice to encourage openness and inclusivity, abundance and compassion? This isn’t a matter of adept physicality (if it was, then this is just gymnastics) – it is a matter of transforming consciousness so there is an increasing of insight balanced by loving-kindness. But sometimes it doesn’t feel like that within the Ashtanga box.
There is rivalry, there is competitiveness, there is lack of dialogue and defending of empires. Of course this is true of many aspects of life and it has been said that Ashtanga is just a mirror that brings up the existing tendencies. But a practice within Buddhism is that students are encouraged to spend time with teachers from different traditions which might help to undermine such tendencies. This is not so true within Ashtanga with its emphasis on “practice, practice and all is coming”.
SOMETHING’S GOING TO HAPPEN
But what kind of practice? Many Ashtanga practitioners just do the physical practice: that postural sequence. One practitioner told me how as he went through the third series he really thought something was going to happen when he got to the end: but nothing did. He then finished the fourth series – and still nothing happened: maybe that is the lesson in itself. His practice now is the standing sequence several times a week and a sitting practice. When talking about other teachers he said “I need to look inside myself and wonder if there is any animosity towards that person”.
This practitioner’s honesty was significant – in contrast possibly to others who are more in the realm of physicality. Because it is in stillness of sitting that there might be more possibilities for self-reflection and maybe growing of awareness. Ashtanga can help us to be aware and reflective but this ‘movement as meditation’ proposal which is presented by those who are only doing the physical practice could be lacking in validity for many of us.
We entertain ourselves with movement thus keeping the distractions at arms length as we stay addicted to stimulation. In the stillness and simplicity of sitting there are opportunities for observation that are not so present when we are moving. And if we are able to embrace the boredom of meditation it becomes more like equilibrium in which we could be free from that craving for entertainment – and our need to grasp happiness and fight discomfort is gradually relaxed.
As we move from pose to pose there is clearly a requirement for attention (a studying of body and breath) but we can just become fixated in this body and not go as deep within as a stillness practice might perhaps enable. As well as a lack of validity, this breaks one of the traditions that Ashtanga is upholding: the tradition that the physical postures are preparations for sitting and meditation – the sixth and seventh limbs: dharana and dhyana. In all the sweating and the striving of much Ashtanga these limbs seem to be have been marginalised.
I love the Ashtanga practice: I love the power that it gives to me – I love its flow and the concentration required for practicing: yet I feel that there is a lack somewhere. The fascinations with flexibility ignore the fact that we can have highly flexible bodies but tight minds. It’s often forgotten that for nearly all of us this brain is the stiffest muscle. The common failure to encourage practitioners towards other forms such as pranayama and sitting mean that Ashtanga stays as a sequence of physicality. And the intensity of practice lessens the probability that people will look outside the box (this can be a cult characteristic).
A number of practitioners have said to me that they do not have the time to meditate. Obviously there are many demands on time: the childcare commitments, the struggle to survive in this world – but it’s about what we prioritise. Pattabhi Jois called meditation “mad attention” and he never taught anyone to sit. The truth is that it is much easier for us to ground ourselves in body instead of this mind that is so like a chimpanzee caught in a cappuccino bar: the busyness and things to do. But Pattabhi Jois also said “this is not physical practice, this is mental clearing”. At some point we have to investigate mind. We need to be reminded that “the purpose of asana is to tune our body in such a way that we can sit for long hours in meditation” (the words of SL Bhyrappa who studied with Pattabhi Jois in the 1970s).
Essentially when the perception is of primacy of the physical practice that means a prioritising of physiques over mind training. Obviously there is very significant overlap and an intimate connection between mind and body: but there are differences in techniques for body and mind. Norman Allen (one of the first westerners to be taught by Pattabhi Jois) was asked “how far do you think the physical practice can take you?” His reply was succinct: “in most cases probably nowhere without taking other steps”.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the spiritual leader of Shambhala which is a network of Buddhist centres set up by Chogyam Trungpa. He studied with Pattabhi Jois and is an Ashtanga practitioner. He talks of the need to bridge gaps between meditative forms – some of which are called ‘Buddhism’ – and physical forms – some of which are called ‘yoga’. In describing these meditative forms Sakyong Mipham emphasised “to understand what is going on we have to stabilise the situation…we have to slow down and get a feeling of who we are and what we are doing…through the practice of meditation we learn to penetrate the confusion of our minds and our perceptions”.
We have our well-toned Ashtanga physiques but ultimately so what – where’s the liberation from conditioned existence when we can see the rope is actually a rope (far too often we think it is a snake), where we experience insight into phenomena and are connected to compassion?
SNAKES AND ROPES
Both Pattabhi Jois and Chogyam Trungpa would have very probably seen that the rope is a rope. Both came from places of having no students from outside their own cultures (South Indian Brahmin and Tibetan) to being enthusiastically followed by thousands of westerners. Both displayed an approach that has been called the trickster (this is meant in a positive way and comes from the words of Richard Freeman). As they went on there was a making up regulations and on occasion fooling their students to help the waking up process.
Yet as their spheres of influence grew there arose problems. One of those close to Chogyam Trungpa was Reggie Ray – in an interview he said: “He worked with us each individually but later his teachings were converted into this sort of step-by-step process with a somewhat rigid curriculum. We all relied too much on trying to pin everything down mainly because I think our community was so large and we couldn’t think of any other way to do it. I think this was a mistake because beginning in the later 1970s we were running things the only way we knew how which was to fall back on a lot of rules to try to preserve what he had taught”. (See footnote 3).
Having been in this box for a period of time, it is interesting to look back and observe the changes: from not touching my toes to folding flat forwards – from fearing headstand to standing on my head for a long time – from that first inhale to the young boy in short trousers to those baggy trousers and anarchist politics to now. By looking backwards we can understand how much change is present in life. An obvious example of this change was the death of Pattabhi Jois in May 2009 – the successor has been his grandson, Sharath.
1. “Padmakara, with his overwhelming presence and spiritual power, is the central figure and inspiration of the Nyimga tradition. He realised that the Tibetans were not yet ready for many of the profound insights of tantra…and so he magically concealed a vast number of teachings for the future…These hidden teachings are known as ‘terma’, treasures. He prophesied that they would be rediscovered at the appropriate time by certain accomplished practitioners…a person who finds them is called a ‘terton’, ‘revealer of treasures’. The tradition of teachings being concealed until the appropriate time for their propagation is not confined to Tibet, but goes back to India…” (‘Luminous Emptiness’ – Francesca Fremantle).
2. “People start identifying with and then clinging to the body – a transitory, composite impermanent – and so end up suffering in the aging process and having to let go of attachment to a body that they spent so much time cultivating…sincerely take a look at any practice, and notice within yourself if compassion, faith and wisdom are developing from it. If they are, then stay with it. If they’re not, take a look and either change the way you experience the practice or change the practice itself” (Tsokyni Rinpoche).
3. Reggie Ray is an important Buddhist teacher in America. He studied under the guidance of Chogyam Trungpa – after Trungpa’s death in 1987 he became one of the leading teachers in this lineage. In 2005 he separated from the Shambhala organisation and set up Dharma Ocean Foundation. This is from an interview with him in 2010: “What I learned from Chogyam Trungpa was that however esoteric or prestigious or exotic any practice might seem, it was always about the same thing: nothing more than a way to strip oneself down even further to the empty, exposed core of one’s being. It was about being more absolutely and utterly naked as a human being. It was about surrendering more andmore fully to this world, this life, this experience and entering more deeply into it and giving oneself over to it. What I learned from him is that the dharma is not about credentials. It’s not about how many practices you’ve done or how peaceful you can make your mind. It’s not about being in a community where you feel safe or enjoying the cachet of being a ‘Buddhist’. It’s not even about accumulating teachings, empowerments or ‘spiritual accomplishments’. It’s about how naked you’re willing to be with your own life and how much you’re willing to let go of your masks and your armour and live as a completely exposed, undefended and open human person. Which is what he was: he was so human. What he taught us in the very early 1970s, there were a myriad different ways tomeditate, and he showed us what they were… At a certain point Chogyam Trungpa was asked ‘how are we going to keep all this together?’. And basically he said ‘maybe we should just let it go. Let it fall apart. It’s probably the best thing that could happen. Just let the whole thing go’.”
Norman Blair has been practicing yoga for more than 15 years and teaching since 2001. His practice and teaching embrace both ashtanga yoga and yin yoga as well as mindfulness meditation. Through significant periods of training with his teachers Hamish Hendry, Richard Freeman and Sarah Powers he has gained the Yoga Alliance 500 hour accreditation. He believes that yoga is accessible to all of us and through regular practice we can experience profound changes in our mind and body. He teaches classes and workshops in London – for more details go to www.yogawithnorman.co.uk. Right now one of his favourite quotes is from Aldous Huxley “it’s a little embarrassing to have spent one’s entire life pondering the human situation and find oneself in the end with nothing more profound to say than try to be a little nicer”.