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Thursday, 1 November 2018

Ashtavakra - November 2018 newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami

I am sending this monthly letter early as I am scheduled to teach a weeklong yoga program-various vinyasakrama asana sequences and the Yoga Sutra- at Yoga Kanda in Santiago Chile from Oct 29th to November 3rd 2018

In October I taught a five day yoga program at Liz Richard's Ananta Yoga in Wicklow, Ireland. The program was well organized and well attended. Several topics--asanas and vinyasa sequences and many other discussions that would be of interest to serious yoga practitioners formed the contents of the program

Ireland 1.jpg


Ireland 2.jpg



I also taught a weekend yoga program at   Yoga la Source  in Luxembourg on five different yoga topics. Nice compact group attended the program.  

Lux Pix 2.jpg


Ashtavakra

One of the ways to impress others with asanas is to perform Ashtavakra asana named after the sage Ashtavakra. The adorable asana of contorsions named after Ashtavakra means an asana with eight deformities. Nobody knows how he looked like but some yogis came out with this unique posture that has caught the imagination of many yogasana experts.

Ashtavakra was a great vedic scholar. His work, 'Ashtavakra Samhita' is a vedantic masterpiece, bold and sweeping following the advaita school, like the Mandukya Karika of Gaudapada. Here a is a story about the sage

Ashtavakra's story is found in the itihasas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and also in the vedas. Uddalaka was a great Rishi belonging to the Sama Veda clan. He is credited with the great mantra "Tat tvam asi" or "That thou Art". He taught the Truth that the individual self and the supreme self are one and the same to his son Svetaketu. Uddalaka had another student by name Kahola.After completion of Kahola's  studentship, sage Uddalaka offered his daughter Sujata in marriage to his disciple Kahola. Both the young coupe set up then an ashram in a forest,where Kahola was performing his vedic duties. In due course Sujatha was in the family way. Once when Kahola was chanting some vedic mantras, it would appear he made some errors in the recitation of the mantras. The infant in the womb having heard the recitation of his father pointed out aloud the errors in his father's chants. In a fit of uncontrolled anger Kahola cursed the foetus to be born with eight deformities in his body.
"Rishayah satyavachasah". Rishis are those who speak the truth or whatever they say become true. Because they are truth speakers, whatever they say come true, whether it is anugraha or blessing or saapa or curse.

 Then there was drought. The sage and his wife struggled in the ashram and then Sujata suggested that Kahola go to a vedic debate then organized by King Janaka in the city of Mithila. He could with his scholarship  win the debate and earn some gift from the King. That was the plan. Kahola went to the King's chamber and offered himself as a contestant in the debate. At that time a member of the Varuna loka had taken the guise of a Brahmana and was defeating all the contestants and Kahola was pitted against him. The debate started and towards the end, the Varuna kula Brahmana asked the meaning of the eight mantras that the foetus had found fault with the recitation of Kahola earlier even while in the womb. Kahola having not corrected his understanding repeated the same mistake and thus was defeated. He was arrested and taken to Varuna loka and submerged in water.

In due course Sujatha gave birth to a child deformed in eight places  Uddalaka took his daughter and grandson under his care.The child, known as Ashtavakra (ashta= eight, vakra= deformity) because of the 8 bodily deformities grew up as a brilliant vedic scholar.He considered Uddalaka as his father. Until he was about 10 he did not know about his biological father or his fate. Then he came to know about his father and what happened to him. He decided then to liberate his father from the clutches of Varuna.
The young Ashtavakra reached Mithila after a very arduous journey made more painful because of the physical challenges. As soon as he reached the palace to meet the King, he was stopped by the gatekeeper. But Ashtavakra convinced him that he was a genuine contestant. When he reached the King's court and  declared that he was a contestant and ready to meet anyone on a debate on Vedas, the whole court burst into derisive laughter--looking at Ashtavakra's body and his youth.
The next moment Ashtavakra himself laughed and loudly declared that the scholars in the King's court were just like cobblers who look only at the skin (hide) and not what is within. The cobblers know a lot about the skin(hide) like its smoothness, flexibility and other characteristics but not what was covered  the skin. Likewise these scholars only look at the outward deformities of him and not the wisdom and nature of Self within him. They did not see the atma. They have no realization of the Atman  and the Supreme Soul  the Paramatma and their oneness.. They were simply seeing the skin and they were making their judgements on this basis of their skin deep knowledge only. This attitude was that  of the shoemakers; they only looked at skin.  He derided them as no more wise than an ordinary cobbler from the spiritual or vedic viewpoint.  He concluded by saying that the assembly is incapable of any worthwhile discussion and he had wasted his time and energy to reach the King's court to debate with unwise shallow people.

Janaka and everyone in the assembly were deeply moved and cringed on hearing the words of Ashtavakra.  Simple and direct were his words, but absolutely true. Janaka bowed down to Ashtavakra in reverence. He escorted Ashtavakra to his own throne and washed his feet and profusely apologized.
 The King without participating in the light hearted attitude of others asked him a few questions and felt that the  boy was not a pushover and asked him to debate the reigning champion at that time, the Brahmana from Varuna loka. 

The debate started in right earnest.

 Vandin, the scholar from Varunaloka  and Ashtavakra began the debate. Finally to explain their thesis each one would have to alternately compose slokas or verses until one stumbles.  They alternately composed six extempore verses on the numbers upto twelve. Then Vandin could only compose the first half of a verse on the number thirteen. Ashtavakra completed the verse by composing the second half and thus won the debate against Vandin.

The condition of the contest was that if Vandin were to lose he would grant any wish of his vanquisher and if Ashtavakra would lose the contest he would meet the same fate as his father which was that he would be arrested and submerged in the waters of Varuna loka. . Ashtavakra having won his debate demanded his pound of flesh. He demanded that Vandin be drowned in water just as he had done his vanquished opponents. Vandin then revealed that he was the son of Varuṇa (the Lord of all water bodies), and was sent incognito to earth to get rishis to conduct a ritual that Varuṇa wanted to perform. By this time Varuṇa’s ritual had been completed. On Vandin’s request, Varuṇa ordered the sages and brahmins be brought to the surface of the waters they had been held in.

The father, Kahola was immensely pleased with his son, he no longer saw the deformity but the wisdom and  shining pure Atman within him. On the way home Kahola asked his son to take a dip in a sacred river and as the story goes Ashtavakra's curse given by his father was removed and Ashtavakra shone beautifully, both outwardly and inwardly.

Ashtavakra became famous by his immortal work, Ashtavakra Samhita  a very popular text even among modern day scholars interested in vedanta philosophy. It is forthright and breathtaking in its freshness and candour.  While Yogis know Ashtavakra by his outward form in Ashtavakra asana, those interested in his work are able to fathom his incisive insight about Atman  that is deep within the deformed bodies.

Srivatsa Ramaswami

https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en#!forum/vinyasa-krama-announce


***

I have a an old post

Ashtanga Rishi Series made up of Rishi asana?

http://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/2012/11/this-interesting-comment-on-one-of-my.html

"Our ancients, the great rishis, followers of their sanatana dharma (ancient eternal path) from the beginning of time, became experts in yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, stopped all external movements of the mind, and through the path of raja yoga attained a high state of happiness in this world and beyond. And they continue until this day to experience this. But during ancient times, all were skilled yoga practitioners and therefore had good health and strength, were blessed with a long life and were able to serve society". 
Krishnamacharya Yoga Makaranda (Mysore 1934).




Friday, 12 October 2018

Rebuilding Primary Asana - Choosing an asana teacher or asana instruction

Given that I reposted and shared my old 'Mysore Yoga Rooms around the World' page last week (http://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/p/mysore-rooms-around-world.html), I wanted to give a shout out too to the teachers who reach out to students in other ways to teach Mysore yoga, in no less traditional or authentic approaches than the Mysore room (actually , I find the whole idea of 'authentic' and 'traditional' problematic
.


I mentioned that I was planning on rebuilding my Primary asana 'group' practice for the Mysore Yoga Tradition Retreat that I'm attending in February 2019. Rebuilding because I had washed my hands of Ashtanga for three months or so, practicing Tai chi, Qigong, Simon Borg-Olivier's Spinal sequence instead, out of disappointment at the response of the Ashtanga community to the revelations of Pattabhi Jois' abuse. But even before then, I had started to practice fewer asana (see Proficient Primary), preferring less asana, less...intricate asana, but with longer stays and Krishnamacharya's kumbhaka option, outlined in his books Yoga Makaranda (Mysore 1934) and Yogasanagalu (Mysore 1941) but perhaps not imparted to the boys of the palace.

https://www.mysoreyogatraditions.com/mysore-retreat and see previous post.

I was asked how I intended to go about rebuilding my Primary group.

Gently.

Rather than just jump back in..., or rather jump back through between sides, I'm only including jump backs between actual postures while I rebuild some strength, as well as some fitness, later I'll add the jump backs between sides as well, just in case I end up in a full led Primary on the retreat.

I see this too as a good opportunity to look closely once again at my approach to the asana I practice, to that end I'm reviewing Simon Borg-Olivier's excellent 84 key asana on-line course based on the asana of the Ashtanga series (note I've provided an Ashtanga asana concordance on the blog post below.

See this post: http://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/2017/04/what-is-it-about-mudra-also-simon-borg.html

I can imagine some shaking of heads because Simon, strictly speaking, isn't what many would consider a 'traditional' Ashtanga teacher.

There is often this idea, especially outside Ashtanga circles, of an Ashtanga teacher as a wide eyed, obsessive, bootcamp, drill sergeant of a yoga teacher. That they get up at 4am each morning to practice Full Primary, Second AND Third series ( at least) on nothing but four cups of coffee, except on rest and moon days when they would rather cut off an ear than practice anything resembling a sun salutation. That they are up to date on their authorisation from Mysore, where they visit religiously every year, sitting at the very front row during conferences hanging on every word. That they would NEVER post a photo on Instagram of a posture they haven't personally been given by the Overguru himself or, perish the thought, assist, adjust, teach or give a posture to a student outside of the series they have official, unrescinded, authorisation for. Such a teacher, is of course first to man the barricades, to join the inquisition against any questioning of the holy, unchanging, method.

Only such a dedicated devotee of the one true yoga practice is surely qualified to teach Ashtanga.

Nope, don't know anyone like that either.

Perhaps a few start off a little like that, a little, but I suspect that after a year or two of teaching actual students most soften somewhat in favour of the needs of the student rather than the preservation of a catechism.

I prefer room holders should I happen to find myself in need of a space to practice. I personally don't wish to be assisted, as a home practitioner I learned the asana of the different series by myself at home. We'll get deeper into a posture over time... or not, an alternative preparatory posture or alternative has always seemed preferable to a 'crank', Manju for instance suggests bharadvajrasana for those who sturggle with Marichiyasana D ( Which btw was in Krishnamacharya's Middle group asana not Primary group) it's personal preference and I hear Sharath adjusts less and less. I have been assisted/adjusted in the past, I've attended Ashtanga yoga London on a couple of Sundays, workshops with Richard Freeman, Norman Sjoman, John Scott, two teacher trainings with Manju Jois based on adjustments and assists and I spent three months with Kristina Karitinou in Crete. All excellent teachers, I've learned a lot from all of them, but I still don't wish to be physically adjusted.

See this post perhaps for more


I do have affection for the romantic image of the Mysore teacher practicing in an empty shala before everyone arrives, inspiring the shala attendees to similar devotion in their daily practice, it's the approach I would personally like to take. But I also like and have great respect and admiration for the teachers who 'go to the student', meeting them in studios, in gyms, in their homes, their offices, going to them rather than waiting, hoping...., expecting students to come to a shala.  Here In Japan I have come across so many who practice their yoga for an hour once a week, it doesn't seem enough, we need to inspire more home practice, ten, twenty minutes, in their homes, several mornings or evenings a week, a place to start perhaps on top of their visit to a shala or studio once or twice a month.

Krishnamacharya, was all about spreading yoga, rather than making it exclusive, his books were published free by the Mysore palace, the idea was to spread yoga not hide it away. As much as we might like to think so, the Ashtanga shala can hardly be considered traditional, it was an anomaly. As well as the unusual circumstance that brought about Krishnamacharya teaching the boys of the palace he would also teach his 'Mysore yoga', his Vinyasa Krama, in the side rooms of the palace, private students that he no doubt taught in a similar way to Ramaswami when he would go Ramaswami's family's house and give different asana for each member of the Ramaswami family (we see the same approach to shoulderstand and headstand vinyasa in the 1938 documentary video of Krishnamacharya practicing as he taught to Ramaswami).

The fixed sequence of Jois Ashtanga vinyasa practiced in a shala is a excellent tool perhaps as an entry into Mysore yoga but outside of the shala model, we need to adapt, modify, make our Mysore yoga accessible to the student, just as Krishnamacharya always did, in Mysore and later.

see this post
http://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/2012/10/yvonne-millerand-student-of.html
Krishnamacharya teaching Yvonne Millerand in his house - note the old Yoga Makaranda photos
that used to hang in the shala in the Mysore palace.
As long as a teacher has spent some time doing the work of an ashtanga practice then I figure they 'get it', they don't have to be getting up at 4am every morning now, this is a householder practice. Jois himself mentioned in his book Yoga Mala that our practice would change over time, that we might practice less, Krishnamacharya wrote the same '...we don't need to practice all the asana but some should, to stop them from being lost again'. Likewise, I don't see that a teacher needs to be practicing a strict by-the-book Ashtanga or a full ashtanga series necessarily right now. Pattabhi Jois supposedly wasn't himself practicing any of the series when David Willams and Nancy Gilgoff first came to Mysore. In all the time he was teaching he supposedly never practiced a single Primary series.

In fact, I raised the question in a post as to whether Pattabhi Jois ever practiced any of the sequences he shared with his students.

http://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/2015/08/did-pattabhi-jois-practice-some-or-all.html

Pattabhi Jois was instructed by Krishnamacharya who taught more in 'groups of asana' rather than fixed sequences. Looking at the early photos of Jois, it's questionable as to whether he ever practiced many of those intermediate and advanced postures daily.

*

Were I to seek an Asana teacher, a Mysore yoga teacher, I would want a teacher who has practiced Mysore derived yoga with sincerity and dedication for an extended period at some point in their lives, who has good anatomy and physiology awareness, who has explored their asana in workshops perhaps with inspiring, and equally inquisitive, teachers who break asana apart and rebuild them rather than teaching fancy tricks and flourishes. I'd want a teacher who has reflected on their practice undogmatically, who has taught for a number of years, who is held in esteem and affection and strongly recommended by their long term students, preferable somebody who is a little older (though not necessarily older than me) who has had to deal with changes in their body, in their life experiences and yet still have a practice that is important to them, whatever time of day they happen to fit in their practice and however many asana they choose to include that day. I'd expect them to have explored some pranayama, have begun to Sit, long enough at least to decide if these other limbs feel of value to them.

You are as likely, to find such a teacher in a gym, a studio, a home practice room, as in an exclusively Ashtanga shala. It's always worth remembering that a flexible approach to asana sequencing is MORE authentic, more in keeping with Pattabhi Jois' teacher Krishnamacharya than the fixed series Jois employed as a tool for his Sanskrit college boys to learn (and be tested on) Asana.


Note: I may be rebuilding my Primary for the retreat but afterwards, I'm likely to go back to Simon's Spinal sequence for standing, four or five Proficient Primary postures and Krishnamacharya's shoulderstand and headstand vinyasas.

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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