Ashtanga: It’s About the Postures. ~ Peg Mulqueen

Via Peg Mulqueen
on Nov 25, 2012
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Photo: John Miller Photography

There, I said it.

I know I’m going to get creamed by the masses of self-righteous, enlightened ashtangis for bringing this up, but can we please talk about something important like postures for a moment?

You know, the ones teachers give (or don’t), students accept (or take) and why everyone pretends not to want, or care, all the while, secretly counting them like notches on a belt.

First, I’ll recognize that every teacher wants to share something deeper than just a bunch of gymnastics—as much as every student hopes their yoga will provide more than just a sweaty bind in their lives. Still, there are plenty of gymnastics and sweaty binds to spare.

So, let’s talk.

The postures of Ashtanga are known to bring out our best and sometimes, our worst. For example, I’ve known plenty of students to liberate, (okay, steal) the next posture in a series, even from under the watchful eye of its keeper—while others are held, (hostage) in the most inane places (say, navasana).

News Flash: Ashtanga ain’t an exact science.

Mostly because it involves people like you and me who are not only unique in our ability and needs, but who carry with us our own unique sh*t.

Are there power struggles? Sure.

Distractions? You bet.

Insecurity, ego and impatience? Check, check, and check.

Am I talking about teachers or students? Yes.

But, I have to believe that while Ashtanga isn’t absolute or exact, it’s also not random. And in a linear, progressive system such as ours Pattabhi Jois must have seen this whole posture thing coming.

So while I know it’s hard, and I feel like an asshole too when I struggle and obsess over postures, it’s time to admit that it’s how we grow—by grappling with our own issues of power, distractions, insecurity, ego and impatience.

Am I talking about teachers or students? Yes.

And that’s when the thought occurred to me:

Asana is the third limb and we talk about gateway postures, yet maybe, just maybe, postures are the gateway. Challenges meant to test our alignment and inner strength in order to lay a solid foundation before we move on.

In other words, maybe I’m not an asshole and neither are any of us.



Editor: Thaddeus Haas

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About Peg Mulqueen

With a gentle warmth and contagious sense of humor, Peggy shares her passion of life and love with all those she meets. She was a counselor for many years before stumbling upon one of the oldest forms of healing therapies: yoga. Since then, she has been helping others lead lives of change and renewal, exploration and—all from a yoga mat. When not on her mat, Peggy (her husband and two children close at hand) can be found on a surf board in Maui—learning to fall off gracefully and get back up, or suspended 500 feet in the air on a zip line over a Costa Rican jungle—conquering her fear of heights, or searching for the perfect cast, fly fishing in the wilder places of Montana. You can follow her adventures in yoga on her blog here.


23 Responses to “Ashtanga: It’s About the Postures. ~ Peg Mulqueen”

  1. jean marie says:

    Thank you Peg! It's a lot about the postures for me right now, and at the same time, it's so much more than that, of course.

  2. Dearbhla says:

    I wish you'd written more, and unpacked your point a bit. As it is, I'm not exactly sure what your deeper message is.

  3. marja says:

    I agree Peggy, there is a point when we must stop obsessing with the the "finger that points at the moon" and press on. Good (creamy) point well taken.

  4. HeatherM says:

    There are great points here, which has been the on-going concern for most (if not all) serious practitioners of yoga.

    That is, is my practice becoming only about the body?

    Although people discuss this like it was new, it's the central axis to all Yoga is, offers and promises to do. The point that is getting muddled is that the body is not just the gateway but now the only door that many are swinging through.

    Body is important. We can't throw it away and pretend something else (this also happens to many who get caught up in another game of the mind) in that Ashtanga is only about the physical and lalala.

    The point really is that all practices meet at the same end. That is, stilling the mind, understanding body as mere working material, not using body postures to up another student or yourself. At the same time, if you can do it you should show it! But as Swami Rama said, "no path is inferior or superior….each practices what is correct for them." One of the greatest phallicies alive today is that a single method of yoga is the best for everyone.

    I am not sure I follow the asshole point since these are theoretical and practical issues that Georg Feuerstein wrestled with throughout his career and calling.

    Ultimately the responsibility lies in both teacher and students. Teachers to remind students that the practice is about the mind. Mind is stronger than your body and body is your working tool. And students to keep these thoughts on the back-burning of the practice. Applying the theory of practice after handstand and lotus are learned is not the correct order. These need to be planted during the process, not later.

    Otherwise years pass and I believe many people realize that inwardly not much growth as taken place. It's the same as zen practitioners and have said later they were just sitting on stuff for years and years…never really penetrating their minds or cutting to the chase.

  5. laylan says:

    I agree. I feel like I just read an incomplete article. It seemed like it ended before it was finished.

  6. mizboognish says:

    Home practice.

  7. peg says:

    thank you jean marie! xo

  8. peg says:

    great feedback, thank you for taking the time to read – and respond! i suppose my deeper message is that just as ashtanga has, what some refer to, as "gateway postures" or postures that must be mastered before we move one – that maybe the asana itself is a gateway. the gateway to the other 5 limbs, as patanjali lists in the yoga sutras – our steps to yoga and ultimately, our union with the divine.

    we're often criticized for being such a physical practice, but in reality, there is much to be learned here that goes way beyond the physical. and the lessons we take from our asana practice will serve us well along our path.

  9. peg says:

    haha! yes, i do enjoy a home practice at times. but then this morning i really didn't want to practice this morning and left on my own, i wouldn't have. but i knew if i could just get myself into the yoga room, i'd be ok.

    because in that room would be a collective wave of energy, a supportive community of friends, individuals who like me, might also been tempted by a warm blanket and an extra hour of sleep –

    but they came anyway … for me. and i, for them. 🙂

  10. peg says:

    again, great feedback! super honored you took the time to read, comment, and presumedly, want more. thanks, and perhaps this post will warrant some more tooling and breadth.

  11. Adeline Bash says:

    Thank you! I sometimes feel that yoga teachers almost discourage their students from challenging themselves and going for difficult postures, as if we are just trying to show off or not getting that yoga is about enlightenment rather than a workout or flexibility contest. This is of course true but what is really fun about yoga, and what has gotten me closer to whatever this enlightenment bullshit is, is overcoming my fears and insecurities and trying the tough stuff like getting into a headstand or trying for a handstand. I fell in love with Ashtanga this summer because I practiced with a teacher who pushed us all to try every posture — I am talking literally pulling our arms around our bodies to get into the twist. He even stood on peoples hips when they were in wheel pose to show them they could lift him if they did it right. It was fantastic and enlightening and most of all really fucking fun! Some yogis take themselves too seriously. There is a reason people look forward to going to yoga more than hitting the gym. It's not necessarily that they feel spiritual (that's often just being yoga stoned). It's that for an hour of your day you get to pretty much play on the floor. You get to be a little kid in gymnastics class again, which is awesome!

  12. piers ede says:

    Very nice post. Some of the intricate dynamics of an Ashtanga class laid bare. The desire for progression. The desire, on a teacher's part, to hold someone back. The sense of there being some sort of 'goal' that, if reached, is inherently better than where we are right now. The sense that the person next to you in Taraksvasana is somehow closer to liberation than the person in Sūryānamaskāra. All hilarious when you come to think of it. Ashtanga, in one sense, is no different from being in line at a cafe, or jostling in the queue on the subway in that it shows us where we're diving into the story to escape what is actually going on. Where it treads more worrying ground is in it's competitiveness with others, in the stories of people practising the day after breaking a limb, or teachers adjusting so forcefully that something snaps. This bit is more tragic than hilarious.

    I honour Ashtanga it for its ability to lead people in through the door to this ancient practice of yoga. But I must confess it was the first thing which sprang to mind a few days back when I saw another post here on Elephant about Sadhguru, in which he is quotes as saying 'Today, when I see the way yoga is being used especially in the West, I feel like crying. What is a tremendous possibility, what could be a ladder to the divine is being used in such a meager way. '

  13. @pegmulqueen says:

    oops, hit reply too soon! what i meant to say was fckn fun indeed …. and sometimes fckn hard as well!! haha! i think i might be a little yoga stoned! thanks adeline!

  14. @pegmulqueen says:

    wow – so well written, so well said. thanks piers!

  15. Jennifer says:

    I remember a point obsessing over asanas .Even though I had a rich life: meaningful work and wonderful family and friends, I remember WEEPING about it. HAHAHA. Ah, it seems so far away now.

  16. nunh says:

    I like what you said here. You have a nice smile also.

  17. @pegmulqueen says:

    oh good … you mean the tears DO stop? whew! 😉

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