September 22, 2012

Light on Ashtanga Yoga’s Mystic Origin. ~ Scott Smith Miller

“Practice, practice, all is coming.”

Even if you don’t practice Ashtanga yoga, you may know that quote. I heard Pattabhi Jois say it in person over two decades ago. Since then I’ve been doing Ashtanga six times a week. Without all that practice, I couldn’t have handled what’s come to me. Revealed knowledge is a mixed blessing and that fact compels me to impart this long, complicated, precautionary tale.

In the late 90s, I traveled from California to rural upstate New York. I went there to take part in what turned out to be a huge yoga event. With seven hundred people in attendance, it was a relative mob-scene. When Richard Freeman walked out to give the first talk, I got nervous for my fellow Ashtangi. No need. If anything, the crowd size had added more regality to Richard’s patented entrance, which had always included a slow entrance, several minutes of silence and some bemused expressions. Richard was the king of calm—a slightly demented crowned male sovereign with no concern for why his subjects had gathered. Singularly familiar with Richard’s shtick, I was the only one who laughed. My enjoyment could have spread, helping others understand that Richard was not just tongue-tied. Instead, it came off rude.

No one was ever rude to Pattabhi Jois. He was great at establishing respect and keeping people from getting into discussions they couldn’t handle. That’s why Mr. Jois told us that Ashtanga had been found on palm leaves. Krishnamacharya and he supposedly found the leaves inside a library, but rats ate them. Right. And dogs ate their homework.

But it wasn’t really an origin story. It was a practice, practice, don’t ask questions story, and it worked because in the old days, we never asked questions. I’m asking them now, though. So where do people get off saying that Ashtanga came from gymnastics? It’s ridiculous. Just because Krishnamacharya may have witnessed a few gymnastics classes, that means gymnastics gave birth to Ashtanga? Jeez. That’s like saying John the Baptist’s beheading gave birth to baptism.

Sorry. My biblical analogy there was overly graphic, inaccurate and barely funny.

So where was I? Oh, yeah. Gymnastics did not give birth to Ashtanga. Some of what Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois might have been influenced by gymnastics, but neither one of those teachers were present when Ashtanga came into existence. Of course, neither was I. Explanation: sometimes, if a person’s practice has established favorable enough conditions, he or she can end up knowing something they can’t logically know. Personally, I think it’s a matter of love. I love thinking about yoga’s evolution, so even though I’m not a scientist or even an historian, new yogic evolutionary knowledge comes to me.

Einstein loved physics. When he came up with his world-altering ideas, the twenty-six year old patent clerk—who had only been at best a competent thinker until then and who had “never seen a theoretical physicist, let alone worked with one”—suddenly just knew how the whole universe operated in respect to energy, matter, gravity and time. I think it’s because he really loved physics. He loved physics deeper in his heart than anyone had ever loved physics before and knowledge came to him.

But that’s also something different from what’s happening here. Right now, you’re receiving knowledge in the regular way. It’s a process that unfolds, and while my meandering writing style and my having lost connection to a just begun precautionary tale may seem to be taking you to some unnecessary places, it isn’t. It can’t. When you’re on a spiritual journey everything counts—especially the seemingly extraneous stuff. Ask anyone who’s takes even a regular trip through India.

I’ll tell you one thing: India really does have a lot of rats.

Fortunately, I like rats. I like that Ganesha’s spiritual vehicle is a tiny rodent. It’s perfect because the rat keeps the oversized remover of obstacles from being obstructed himself. Together, they can go anywhere. Oh, and speaking of “spiritual vehicles.” After looking around at us in silence, Richard began his talk, saying, “Vishnu’s reptilian spiritual vehicle is resolutely supportive of Patanjali, but shy of the limelight.” It was a strange opening line, but after all the silence, people were relieved just to hear Richard’s voice. I love Richard’s voice. There’s something so uniquely cultured about it.

Personally, I could listen to Richard all day. He could talk about anything and I would love it. But that’s me, and let’s just say that on the day in question, Richard’s non-dualistic spin on the Yoga Sutras wasn’t a total crowd pleaser. In hindsight, it was a mistake for Richard to tell people about Adishesa’s shyness and talk about him like he was just some supportive vehicular pet.

That was asking for trouble. That was asking for confusion itself to literally bite us in the butt, and in my opinion, as the guardian of esoteric knowledge, Adishesa actually was Patanjali and far from authoring the Sutras, I think Patanjali caused all Sutra related misunderstandings.

Shit. What I did there is actually worse than what Richard did.

Oh, well. It’s done. Since everything is so confused it doesn’t really matter. And if Adishesa is sitting there smiling at our confusion with a belly full of rat, that’s fine with me. He has a job to do. He’s obviously good at it. It’s a wonder that he lets us understand anything. So let’s count our blessings. For one thing, we have correct knowledge of yoga’s birth. We know yoga started with the discovery of Om. Of course, knowing that and knowing where we are now, we should stop tracking things back through a bell-curve type evolutionary graph model, topped midway with Classical Yoga.

What curve? We know yoga’s highpoint happened at the start. So yoga couldn’t build up to anything “classical,” and that misconception forces genius yoga teachers like Richard and even Pattabhi Jois too non-dualistic on us. “Bad men.” Yoga will always be dualistic, because both form and formlessness are eternal—and speaking of eternality, Richard’s speech that day seemed like it was going to go on forever. No problem for me. But the crowd was antsy, and the funny thing was that when Richard really did finish, I think I was the only one paying enough attention to tell. For all everyone else knew, he was just looking around again in silence.

Finally, Richard asked if there were any questions. Great. I mean shit. Questions? Shit. No one else was going to ask a question. I knew if I didn’t support him, Richard was just going to be staring out at a crowd of blank faces.

Shit. Must help. So my plan was to just stand up quick, ask something even quicker and sit right back down. No muss, no fuss. A good plan.

But the second I stood up, the guy running the whole event asked me to step over to a microphone. Shit. Shit. Shy of the limelight. Shy of the limelight. Shit. I became the poster-child for vata derangement:

“Um… yeah… hi, Richard… I… uh… I was thinking about what you said… it’s interesting… your non-dual take there got me wondering about Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya being on opposite sides of the dualism-non-dualism deal.”

I stood there hoping Richard would run with it. No luck.

“Okay, uh… um… knowing your teacher Pattabhi Jois—like you—favors non-dualism and studied Advaita Vedanta academically, as a scholar… I think he might have even been an actual professor, and knowing his teacher, Krishnamacharya, was a hardcore dualist who had won national spiritual debates, and knowing their relationship ended badly, maybe the problem between them was about that ideological difference?”

It was a question. Granted, it was a weird question, but I did make it sound like a question by raising my voice at the end, so Richard could have just given a short answer and I would have sat down like a normal person. Instead, he stared at me until it felt like I had to continue:

“And if so, wouldn’t it make sense for Mr. Jois to suggest that the practice they were working with together—the one we still practice—be called ‘Ashtanga’ as a way to patch things up between them?”

But still all Richard did was curl his eyebrow into a full-on mudra. Usually, I would have laughed. I should’ve laughed, but I didn’t. I was too busy realizing that I was actually on to something:

“My question goes to the issue of inclusiveness. Ashtanga—the Eight Limbs—can be practiced by dualists and non-dualists alike, without ideological conflict. Right?”

Yes. I knew I was right. Despite my nervousness, knowledge had come to me:

“I mean with the Eightfold Path everyone can do the yogic practices, from the yamas all the way through Samadhi together.”

Then I told myself to sit down. No dice. Kind of looking for trouble at this point, I said,

“Of course, even if Mr. Jois did come up with the name Ashtanga in order to make Krishnamacharya feel better, it didn’t work since they never spoke again after their breakup.”

That’s when Richard’s eyebrows leveled. Next, his mouth just flopped open and for a minute, I didn’t think anything was going to come out of his gaping chops. But then he said, “Wow.” Nothing else. Just a regular old, “Wow.”

Of course, now I was thinking the same thing. I was thinking, “Wow, Richard said that so normally. Shit. What have I done to him?” Outloud, I said,

“I mean it’s all in the name since, like I said, Ashtanga includes our eight yoga practices, and Samadhi is the last limb, and only the eternal separation stuff that comes after Samadhi practice—after all the Ashtanga practices then—is a problem for non-dualists.”

Maybe I paused there. Maybe I didn’t:

“Everything before kaivalya we can do together without getting into the ‘eternally separate Purusha’ thing, which not even any intelligent dualist is going to buy because without a connection between the non-manifest and the manifest, how would yogic truth be transmitted—how would the Vedas exist?

No answer.

“So to be inclusive and to avoid unnecessary theoretical debate, Mr. Jois just says this practice is about the real regular yogic stuff before kaivalya…”

Finally, Richard stopped me.

“Ashtanga Yoga does not end with Samadhi,” he said conclusively.

Too surprised to speak, I thought, “It doesn’t? Wow.” I was really baffled. Ashtanga Yoga doesn’t end with Samadhi. Is there a missing limb? Why call something eight-limbs if there are nine limbs?

Taking advantage of the pause, the Iyengar teachers there began insisting we clarify the difference between Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga and the name given to Pattabhi Jois’ asana sequences. But before anyone could answer, David Life started yelling something about the Sutras being “all about devotion to God.” Still at a microphone, I loudly voiced my disagreement with that point:

“I’m all for God myself, David, but the real-life authors of the Yoga Sutras were very careful to use the term ‘Ishvara’ for a reason. In re-conceiving the Sutras, with their choice of words, they were like deconstructionists…”

I was drowned out. Everyone except for Richard and Erich Schiffman started yelling about God, devotion, Patanjali and the Sutras. It was a riot. I swear. No exaggeration. The place went up in polemical flames, with me standing there more like Nero than the supportive spiritual help-mate I had intended to be.

The next day the head of the whole event gave a speech about what happened and how terrible it was for yoga people like us to behave the way we did. He looked at me directly several times, which inspired some nice folks to come up to me later and tell me that they were glad I spoke up because the celebrity teachers there deserved a challenge.

I had split the crowd into two camps. I had supporters and detractors, but no one seemed to understand the irony of that. What I was talking about was inclusiveness. I was talking about how actual Ashtanga, the Eightfold Path, not just the asana sequences, fosters togetherness. Whoops. Oh, well. All or not, what comes to us comes to us whenever and however it comes. And fortunately, in a book called Health, Healing, and Beyond, there is indirect support for what came to me about Ashtanga Yoga’s mystic origin. If you have Desikichar’s book, check out page 80. There, in Krishnamacharya’s own words, you’ll find documentation of how he retrieved another related whole body of knowledge called the Yoga Rahasya.

It wasn’t Ashtanga. Like Ashtanga, however, the Yoga Rahasya has a mysterious origin. According to the author of Health, Healing, and Beyond—Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikichar—it had been “completely lost from the world for over a thousand years.” Nothing was found about it and no real-life, corporeally incarnated person taught it to Krishnamacharya. He just accessed the entire Yoga Rahasya in a dream. That’s one of the ways a retrieval can happen—through dreaming. It’s the most common way for new knowledge to enter the world, but Desikichar really didn’t want to go there. Krishnamacharya didn’t like to go there either, which is why the story had never been told.

Why? Well, it has to do with us. Westerners either hold on so tight to a reductive, seemingly scientific view of life that it makes us defensive about anything mystical, or we lean too far the other way and believe everything without discernment. So it’s best not to go there with us. I’m only doing it myself because I’ve spent my whole life living in the middle of the problem and I’m used to it. Plus, I know there are some strong-minded progressive thinkers out there who are willing to explore the unknown and face how strange and unknowable reality really is. The fact is that reality can’t help but be strange since we’re only dealing with five percent of what’s real. Five percent. Regular matter and regular energy make up five percent of reality. The other ninety-five percent is “dark matter” and “dark energy,” and no one knows shit about that stuff.

Then there’s the whole non-manifest. We’re connected to it, but it doesn’t exist. That’s strange and, again, it’s especially strange if we consider that we don’t know what our side—the real energy side—is. Richard Feynman, maybe the second smartest human in history, said, “We have no knowledge of what energy is.” So even with everything that Einstein figured out, we don’t really know what’s going on at all. But you know what? The truth is that very few mystical claims are factual. That’s another reason why the real ones can be so scary, destabilizing, and de-structuring.

No wonder people like to debunk mystical experiences.

Things are strange enough without mystics adding to the strangeness. It also makes sense for mystics not to try illuminating higher reality through the lowest level of being. No one can convert what is mystically unconditioned into something understandable. But I happen to like new-age friendly theoretical physics. So here’s some pertinently progressive pseudo-scientific, but truthful information:

The source of “realized potential” is the non-manifest. The non-manifest doesn’t exist, but it is also not apart from anything. It’s connected to everything and the non-manifest is also divided into specific “fields” of knowledge like physics, language, art, music, math and yoga. From time to time, there have been true “savants” like Einstein, Shakespeare, Picasso, Mozart, Pythagoras, and Krishnamacharya who could “access” those fields and retrieve “realized potential” from a non-existent source. It’s something Heidegger understood. In reference to the field of language, he said, “Language is the House of Being.” He also said that “We don’t just speak language; Language speaks us,” and the same can be said for all other fields of knowledge.

Combining language, physics, and yoga, we can grasp the importance of the word “exist.” It comes from a Greek word meaning “to be apart from.” The non-manifest doesn’t exist because it is not apart from anything. Shiva is non-existent because he-she is not apart from anything. Even though the Yoga Sutras (as the text is extant today) promote a dualistic understanding of the universe that doesn’t allow for any connection between the non-manifest (Purusha) and the manifest (Prakriti), we can ignore that obvious fundamentalism. It was taken from Sankya, not yoga, anyway. But Sankya does accidently help us grasp the concept of “Ishvara.” In the Sutras, Ishvara is described as “a special Purusha.” Right. Ishvara is a very special “First Teacher” kind of non-existent para-energetic structure that is purposive and allows for a more direct connection to yogic knowledge.

With that teaching we have come to the final reveal:

It was Krishnamacharya’s teacher, Ramamohan, who spontaneously accessed Ashtanga Yoga in its entirety, which was made up of a perfect and beautiful six series structure. I think that’s why Krishnamacharya referred to his teacher as “a saint.”Ramamohan performed what seemed like a miracle, discovering Ashtanga out of nowhere. The cave-dweller obviously didn’t think of it as something he owned. Either did Krishnamacharya and while Pattabhi Jois’ family has pushed the idea that Ashtanga was the late master’s intellectual property, the master himself never made such a claim.

I think Pattabhi Jois is lucky Ashtanga ended up in his hands at all.

It only happened because Krishnamacharya promised Ramamohan that he would “take a wife, raise children and be a yoga teacher.” That way, Krishnamacharya ended up teaching “householders” like Pattabhi Jois. Things could have gone very differently, since Ramamohan himself had a family. They lived with him in a cave, and Ramamohan refused to teach householders, so it was only Krishnamacharya’s interpretation of what he had promised his teacher that led to Pattabhi Jois being taught Ashtanga.

Personally, I think it was just meant to happen. Ashtanga had to be let out of the bottle and it would be even more popular if B.K.S. Iyengar had kept practicing it and either joined forces with Pattabhi Jois or created a whole other school of Ashtanga. The Iyengar-Ashtanga mix happened anyway once early Iyengar teachers like Richard, and Maty Ezraty jumped ship and started teaching what we used to call “Ashtangar.” Hybrids like it are great as long as the added alignment concerns don’t distract students from the real focus of Ashtanga: Ujjayi pranayama. And yes, the title of this post is a nod to Iyengar’s Light on books. I love them. I also love the video of Iyengar doing Ashtanga. Obviously, he wasn’t just a casual Ashtangi. I think he did Ashtanga until all was coming. I think Ashtanga created favorable conditions for Iyengar to spontaneously access lots of new yogic knowledge.

Obviously, Iyengar should’ve kept doing Ashtanga. Then he wouldn’t have mentored fear mongers like the guy now famous for saying, “Yoga can wreck your body.” Isn’t that obvious? Duh. If yoga couldn’t wreck our bodies, yoga wouldn’t be anything at all. But what else did that guy claim? Oh, yeah. “Yoga started in a sex-cult.” No. He’s confusing yoga with Tantra. Since the two things evolved in connected, oppositional relationship to each other and since, of the two things, only Tantra would have started in a sex cult, yoga definitely didn’t start in one. For epistemic support, we can look at Tantra’s name. It means to “stretch beyond.” Tantra stretches beyond the scope of yoga. Spiritual sex stretches beyond the scope of yoga.

Of course, Adishesa loves the confusion. He loves it when yoga people overstep. It makes his job easy, but, again, we can stick to what we do know. We know that yoga is Om. Evolutionarily, Om represented the Absolute, then God, then Knowledge, then Presence, and then Energy. That tracks it through yoga history. No classical bell-curve evolution. Yoga came to us in a perfected state, when it could only be taught in connection with the Absolute. Now Om is energy—and everyone believes in energy. Yoga is now for everyone, having devolved away from tantric elitism, downward if you will, toward increased inclusiveness, using Om teachings that were increasingly understandable. Part of what’s so understandable now is the energetic effect of doing yoga poses. They feel good. That is an energetic understanding. We can all grasp it. We can grasp it especially well doing Ashtanga. Ashtanga’s buzz is like no other, so even if it wasn’t really meant for householders, lots of us love it to death.

But I’m not talking about physical fanaticism. It’s stupid to let any asana practice wreck your body. It’s also relatively stupid to let it wreck your mind, or your ego. That’s selling the whole thing short. With a wrecked body, mind, or ego, you’re too screwed up to enjoy the yogic destruction possible on the higher levels of consciousness. Of course, I’m kind of kidding there. The only really scary things we do are inversions. To their credit, inversions can wreck us on all the levels of being simultaneously. Not surprisingly, inversions were included in both Krishnamacharya’s and Ramamohan’s accessing. Desikichar confirms, “Sirsana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) simply do not occur until the Yoga Rahasya.”

How did it go, then, between Krishnamacharya and Ramamohan? Since Krishnamacharya accessed the Yoga Rahasya at a young age, he knew about inversions before going to Ramamohan’s cave. Did the student keep his knowledge to himself, out of respect? I bet he did. But in any case, given all the different headstands in Ashtanga’s intermediate series, the two men must have spent a lot of time on their heads together.

They also must have done a lot of pranayama. I would love to know how much knowledge about Ujjayi specifically came from Ramamohan’s accessing of Ashtanga, and how much came from Krishnamacharya accessing Yoga Rahasya. Again, in any case, the separate bodies of knowledge were a perfect compliment and we have all benefitted.

Iyengar’s love of inversions was also a nice extension of that, but his insistence that asana and pranayama be done separately has been a disaster. It’s really the reason why Iyengar Yoga has struggled to remain relevant. What a shame. Seriously. Iyengar should have recognized the difference between contemporary pranayama and classical pranayama—what’s referenced in the Sutras. Today, hathayogic breathing is simple, easy, and appropriate for everyone. Classical Pranayama was about surviving without respiration.

So things have evolved. Pranayama has changed from something closer to Pratyahara to something connectable to asana. It’s an easily recognized fact that brings me to this:

Maybe hatha yogis added the first three limbs of the Eightfold Path as it is described in the Sutras. And if not, even then things have changed to the point that it makes sense to stop looking at the yamas, the niyamas, and asana as separate limbs. Those practices are hugely important to hatha yoga. They are hatha yoga at this point, and hatha yoga is pranayama. It’s all one thing. Pranayama is really the first limb. We could change Ashtanga’s name to Panchanga. Five-Limbs. It would make sense, and with that re-naming we could revisit the idea of us all doing yoga up to Samadhi together, without ideological division.

I think if Richard were here he’d stop me with a terribly normal sounding “Wow.”


Scott Smith Miller Scott Smith Miller is the Director of Western Yoga College. He has written three yoga books, including “What Is(n’t) Hatha Yoga”. Go to www.westernyogacollege.com for more information.





Editor: Malin Bergman

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