The intermediate series of Ashtanga yoga is, well, an intermediate and demanding practice that involves some difficult postures (leg behind the head, extreme back bendings, tough arm balances), and it is intended for people who have been on the path for a while.
I happen to be learning it and recently read the excellent book: Ashtanga Yoga: The Intermediate Series, by Gregor Maehle, and learned a few new things.
This is not a beginner’s book, but that being said, Maehle always includes philosophy into his books and that part can be enjoyed by everyone regardless of asana practice stage, and for all the insight it contains, I highly recommend it.
Here are 9 specific things I like about it:
1.- The dedications
Most of the Ashtanga books I have read so far tend to do the dedication at the beginning to the most recent guru of it, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, he is, after all, the one that coined it with the name (which he adopted from Patanjali). However, Jois is but one master in a lineage of masters, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Maehle’s second book dedicates it to Shri. T. Krishnamacharya directly and whom he calls “the modern master of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga” and then “all those who studied under him and continue his work”.
He also dedicates it his wife (seen in the cover with him), sweet.
Shri T. Krishnamacharya is the man behind most of the yoga that has been popularized during last and this century as can be seen by the people whom he taught directly who in turn became famous in their own right and have taught millions of people, among them: his own son, T.K.V. Desikachar, BKS Iyengar, BNS Yiengar, A.G. Mohan, Indra Devi, and of course, Pattabhi Jois.
On the very first page of the book and even before that dedication Mahele also acknowledges “Mother India” and the liberated masters who provide a path to those who dare. From the beginning I got the sense that we were to embark on an adventure of great depth. He delivered.
The promises in the book suggest nothing short of enlightenment, eternal peace, bliss, and if you are not sure of what enlightenment might mean he has a description of how the great Rishi Yajnavalkya, the most prominent of the seers of the Upanishads explained the intensity: “Imagine the highest joy a human being is capable of experiencing through… wealth, power, sexual pleasure…. Multiplying this ecstasy by the factor of one hundred we get to the ecstasies of our ancestors… multiplying… by one hundred…. One hundred times greater…. Again one hundred times greater…” and so on.
The author addresses directly those “westerners” who think that asana can be skipped and that is mere gymnastics and not part of the spiritual path, he tells us in so many words that this view is incorrect: “True knowledge is not something that occurs in one’s mind alone; it has a physical dimension as well”
And then he goes on to explain the benefits which are on the gross level “a healthier stronger leaner athletic body” but perhaps more importantly at the subtle level the purification obtained by practicing “clears the way for prana to ascend all the way to the crown chakra”, so yes, the intermediate series is the conduit towards which we can approach enlightenment physically, furthermore says Gregor:
“The daily practice of the full Intermediate Series deepens your quality of life so much…. You simply will not want to live in a body that does not undergo this type of yogic training”
3.-The slap in the wrist
I love books about yoga, I confess that whenever I see a new book on yoga I want to read it, I am always curious and interested in the discussions that are happening in our days about yoga, in what practitioners living it today have to say, how they are learning it, how we are all mingling about into this discussion and practice, how we are making it our own.
Gregor suggests that this view of mine is wrong. There was a time when people lived in the world in a state of absorption where entering an enlightened state was easy but those days are long gone, and these days we find ourselves in the dark ages of the Kali Yuga era, where we happen to be infatuated and completely distracted, where we need enlightened masters so much so as to be able to enter the path.
And so he recommends we cut the middle men and women, learn Sanskrit directly, and approach the sacred texts or Shastras by ourselves:
“Try not to read modern interpretations of the shastras, which are creations of the Kali Yuga; instead read the shastras in the original, direct translations… while reading keep an open mind..”
He also warns us that if we were to do this we will encounter that the story telling rishis of old were kin to exaggerate things (i.e.:Patanjali saying that non-stealing leads to instant riches) so to exercise caution and take grandiose promises with a grain of salt.
And so If feel the slap in the wrist, “go back to the ancient text” and I like the proposition, I wonder if my busy life will allow time to dedicate myself to the learning of a new ancient language and study of master works like the Upanishads, and find myself strangely hopeful, adding it to my new year resolutions, after all, I am reminded by Gregor, Krishnamutri dedicated his latest days to learn Sanskrit.
4.- The controversy
2010 saw the dawn of a new paradigm in terms of our collective thinking on where did the asanas come from with the book “Yoga Body” by Mark Singleton, a very well researched (and worth reading) book where the author argues that the poses are not so ancient after all, but rather were derived from, as in: British army manuals and other recent sources. I was shocked by the book myself.
Mahele takes the opposing view, and we have to remember (if for no other reason than trivia) that his book was published earlier (2009).
The author is confident: “Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is in fact an ancient practice that offers evidence supporting this conclusion… it has grown out of the fertile ground of the Vedas, which form a vast body of ancient knowledge”. And so starts chapter 5, which might peak your curiosity if you like the scholarly dialect.
I would very much like to see a conversation between both authors, see where they agree and where they disagree, and how a dialogue between them would take shape.
5.- The vivid tour through the 8 limbs (branches) of yoga:
Not many books embark on the adventure of giving clear clues as of what happens when a practitioner enters the upper limbs of yoga. There is a wealth of books and articles discussing the yamas and niyamas (do’s and don’ts of yoga, the basics, the foundations, the code of ethics), and plenty abound on asana (poses) and even Pranayama (breathing extension), the first four. Not so much on the last four.
This book uses the metaphor of the internet connectivity of our times in a successful way to explain what might await the practitioner who ventures into the deep waters of practice, take for example, what may happen when reaching the state of Dyana (meditation)
“The fascinating opening that happens when you get to this stage is that you can “download” or “log on” to the Deva, or Divine form, that resides in or presides over each respective chakra.”
6.- Addressing pain
Perhaps one of the most interesting conversations among practitioners comes from different points of view on whether pain is necessary or not in asana, acceptable or not, beneficial or not. The clarification on part 2 chapter 6, as we enter the practical part of the book is a good read.
Maehle dispels misconceptions by diversifying pain into categories, “creative discomfort” leads him to coining: “no discomfort, no pain” a rephrasing I like, and that brings home the point of asana, that place where I try to get to when I practice where I am putting enough effort to find the edge yet not going too far as to unnecessarily hurt myself.
The other two descriptions are “unnecessary pain” at the origins and insertions of muscles, and then “karmic pain”:
“Through our past actions, words and thoughts, we have created who we are today, including, according to Patanjali, the type of body, span of life, and form of death we will experience”.
I was thrilled by this paragraph, especially the part where the power of the word is acknowledged, and this is of course just a personal think, I just happen to be passionate about propagating an understanding of how powerful words are.
7.- No time or disposition to go through the Ashtanga intermediate series? No problem!
The most obvious and powerful benefit of submitting our humble lives to a tortuous routine as can be the intermediate series is to purify the nadis or internal rivers of energy in our subtle body (or the nervous system when discussed at a more gross level). However not everyone can realistically aspire to start a practice of this intensity, and so this is addressed on the breathing chapter, in one of the side orange note rectangles he says:
“Although it is not impossible for students who commence yoga in their fifties to complete the Intermediate Series, it will be difficult…. Traditional teachers such as Shri T. Krishnamacharya have taught a preparatory Pranayama (breathing exercise) method that has an effect similar to that of the Intermediate Series…. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama is done without any breath retentions… To cleanse the nadis… it must be practiced daily for a minimum of fifteen minutes for three months.”
8.- At the beginning level you will understand it like this, at the advance level…
Gregor has a way to challenge me in my own practice by using the technique of the title above, in his first book, for example, he talked about how chaturanga dandasana (four limbed stick pose) looks different when it is performed by a beginner than when it is performed by an advanced student, and this of course led me to challenge myself to reach the higher level. Good teaching technique.
The end of the chapter on breathing addresses how Mula Bandha (root lock normally taught by a teacher saying: “tighten your anus”) is felt at the beginner and advanced level, interesting:
“Initially, at a learning stage, Mula Bandha is done exclusively on a gross, muscular level and mainly benefits the gross body. More experienced yogis and yoginis practice it on a more subtle level, where it aims more at the pranic body. Masterly practice of Mula Bandha is done on a mental level when hardly a muscular contraction is noticeable.”
9.-The poses or asanas
Just like in the first book, Maehle graces us with black and white beautiful pictures of him and his wife on the postures of the intermediate series. Every detail is addressed, from the vinyasa counts, anatomic investigation (which can go to really deep levels, nutations anyone?), and the mythology behind each pose. It is a wonder to read the stories that lead to the names of asanas, some named after animals like: camel, pigeon, frog.
A book like this leaves me interested in the inner path of yoga, in its depth, in the possibilities. It makes me want to feel whatever samadhi is, to understand how one can actually surrender to such an extent, and reminds me that reading the sacred texts is of vital importance. It also leaves looking for the mat, and getting to the front of it.
I am fascinated by the Ashtanga yoga practice, if you happen to be just coming into it here are 21 things I wish I knew before I started practicing.