A Little Bit of Yoga History, Part 2

Me, above in Pigeon Pose – Eka Pada Raja Kapotanasana. Can I touch my opposite ear with one of my big toes in a sitting position without using another another part of my body? I may be closer than most, but the truth is, I absolutely cannot so this image is really one of me cheating….

Understanding Yoga #2

This post follows on from the post I wrote yesterday regarding the background of modern vinyasa yoga, and particularly Astanga Vinyasa  yoga. I’ll get to exactly what the word “astanga” means in the next post but will post some thoughts here regarding the practise and culture of Astanga Vinyasa. These are my thoughts and opinions based on my own experience and observations. As a yoga student and teacher of sorts, the most important thing for me is to offer others the opportunity to see something differently. To recognise when they are going along with the herd; to examine how and why it is they react to and think and/or feel about certain things.  This is essentially what yoga is; it’s about peeling back the layers and finding our way back to a more truer self.

Despite what the majority may believe, yoga is NOT about bending and stretching – it just feels that way for most modern bodies. Essentially, the idea is to just do your best and work towards without any attachment to success or failure.

I wrote yesterday that Astanga Vinyasa was (apparently) originally developed as a practise for 14 year old Indian boys. Whether this is correct or not, it’s important to understand the difference between (for example) a traditional Indian body and a typical modern Western body.

A traditional Indian person may have sat on the floor in a cross legged position to eat as opposed to a chair. This means they have considerable hip and spinal flexibility, unlike the majority of the Western chair-bound. Traditionally, an Indian body may have squatted to go to the toilet and to chat to friends on street corners. They may have carried things on their heads meaning they developed great posture and strong necks and spines. A traditional Indian body may have been able to come in to  lotus pose without using another part of their body to help (force?) themselves into it, much the same way that most of us easily fold our arms.  In order to be able to perform a pose such as a lotus pose or a pigeon pose safely, we really should be able to sit on the floor and bring one of our big toes to almost touch the opposite shoulder. Can you do this? Thought not!

Secondly, astanga vinyasa practise involves quite a lot of sun salutations as a warm-up as well as a specific vinyasa which is kind of like a mini sun-salutation in between each side of each seated posture. In my experience observing modern bodies – including my own which may be deemed relatively flexible comparatively – a salute to the sun is not a way that a modern body should be warming up. It requires prior warm-up and at least 5-10 minutes of releasing poses. It’s also the case that an important aspect of sun salutations (surya namaskar) and the vinyasa executed between each side of each seated posture, has been lost and indeed obliterated from most people’s practise. I refer to the pose “lolasana“. Originally or traditionally, Astanga Vinyasa sun salutations and the between-posture vinyasa required the ability to press handstand. The basis of a press handstand is lolasana and the essence of lolasana is nauli – isolation of the rectus abdominals. Nauli is quite possibly one of the most important physiological health aspects of  a yoga practise but in our efforts to “perform” and to look as if we have no fat around our middle, salutes have become more or less formless “burpees” in modern classes. It’s doubtful there was jumping and momentum-based crash banging to the front and back of the mat once upon a time. Instead, practitioners floated up and back from uttanasana (the forward bend), and gracefully floated back again!

This is lolasana – a pose most people, me included, find very challenging! From here, we would “float” back into the plank to do catturanga-dandasana (crocodile), up-dog, down dog and then gracefully (?) float our legs through our arms to sit gently on the floor to do the next seated posture. It’s not possible to do this pose with a super-tight core. The rectus abdominals naturally isolate. An important aspect of physical yoga that seems to have been lost in our efforts to squeeze and flatten.

Thirdly, it’s important to know that of course these things are still possible for some modern Western bodies, but what percentage? I would argue that there are some people who are of course naturally more flexible as well as those who are more physically adept than others. But for the rest, acquiring and maintaining such a practise takes a lot of time and effort. The kind of time and effort that most people with an actual job and/or family simply don’t have – bearing in mind the complete sequence requires at least 2-3 hours per day. The harder and more intense the physical challenge; the higher the standard – and I am not just referring to yoga practise here -the more time and effort is required to maintain it. Hence, in my experience, many high level Astanga-vinyasa practitioners and teachers seem either to be men or women without children. In fact, it’s fair to say  I’ve met many along the way who probably  had some kind of family income as they didn’t seem to have to earn a living.

Lastly (for now), I wrote that Astanga Vinyasa (and perhaps this refers to yoga traditionally as well), required a certain commitment and dedication to your teacher. This is all well and good if you respect and honour your teacher and your teacher respects and honours you. However, this does not mean we  must blindly accept that our teacher somehow has power and authority over us. We should never feel obliged to go along with things that make us feel uncomfortable or agree with things we are not sure we agree with. We are all human and humans are fallible. Even good humans are imperfect and make mistakes. Certainly, in the yoga world, there have been far too many (men particularly) who have clearly used their power inappropriately. Pattahabi Jois,  Desikachar’s own son, Bikram Choudhury, John Friend…. the list of yoga teachers accused of sexual misconduct goes on….   Personally, I have had teachings from well-known teachers (who have not been “outed”) who I know engaged in inappropriate behaviour with students and/or suffered from the kind of addictive tendencies you might not normally associate with a practising yogi. My own teacher – whom I love dearly and who is incredibly humble – posted an opinion once about a very emotive subject on social media. It was entirely unnecessary and, in all honesty, quite dangerous considering his level of reach and international following. It was a mistake. It blew up and I think he regretted it. His opinion on that subject wasn’t enough to change my mind but it may have swayed others. It certainly it made me realise that it is never a good idea to pop anyone on  a pedestal or you could end up being sorely disappointed or feeling like an idiot if the you-know-what hits the fan. Remain detached in a healthy way. Be respectful of someone else’s knowledge and grateful for their guidance of course, but be your own guru and allow your teacher his or her humanity provided their actions do not become incongruous in some way.  The job of any teacher is surely not to expect others to agree with them all the time and to do exactly what they say without question, it is to to offer a fresh perspective. To assist students towards understanding and reaching their potential; to instill the kind of curiosity and passion that inspires learning, thinking and self-development.  And to always allow their students the space and opportunity to challenge and to constructively criticise them when it’s necessary. This is how we all evolve.  So, really, if your teacher appears to have an inflated sense of self-importance, a big ego and very little self-awareness, it might be time to let go.

Pattabhi Jois “adjusting his students”. You be the judge…

In conclusion, my suggestion here is, no matter what you do, be mindful first and foremost and do not hurt yourself or allow yourself to be hurt because this is not yoga. It’s important to understand that we may not be able to “do” every posture that we are offered in its full form immediately (if indeed ever) so we must exercise patience and acceptance  The style of yoga I teach is a blend of astanga-vinyasa, Synergy and other bits and pieces I have picked up along the way. It is challenging enough for most and what it does offer are simple and effective ways to warm up and appropriately prepare particular parts of the modern body for the next pose in ways that may not be immediately obvious. Is it yoga-therapy? Of course it is and I dislike this term immensely because all yoga, if taught and practised correctly, is, by its very nature, therapeutic. The labels we have created for “brand” yoga have become ridiculously absurd! The sequences I teach offer  a doable way to get a little bit more of a result for a little less time and effort bearing in mind that most of us cannot afford to give up our lives and run away to Mysore for a few months.