Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Curved back / Straight back ? Drishte?

(Quick Poll on the right).

This is something that's been ... giving me pause, off and on, since I started practising Ashtanga again after exploring Vinyasa Krama. For my own benefit, i've tried bringing the two 'systems' together in my practice, seeking to convince myself, that the two approaches were consistent with one another, picking up on the similarities and putting the differences to one side, for the time being at least. However just recently this question came up again on another blog.

Straight back or curved?

In the books and DVD's through which I learnt Ashtanga the back was straight, eyes to toes. However, in Ramaswami's Vinyasa Krama, reflecting krishnamacharya's later teaching, the back is mostly curved with Jalahandra bandha engaged.

I hadn't noticed this before this week but on page 74 of yoga Mala we have both. SKPJ with curved back, forehead on knee and below, Sharath with a straight back, chin on knee, looking up at his toes.



Whats going on here, which should it be? Straight back or curved?




What does the text say?




For Tirangmukhaikapada paschimattanasana, the second picture above of Sharath looking up at his toes, Yoga Mala has this to say,

'...Then, doing rechaka slowly, place the forehead on the outstretched leg, and do puraka and rechaka as much as possible.' p75

Jois says the same for the other le
g.

But for Ardha badha Padma Paschimattanasana it's,
'... slowly place the chin on the outstretched leg,' p 72

and interestingly he says,

'There are three types of Paschimattanasanasana : 1) holding the big toes and touching the nose to the knees; 20 holding on to either side of the feet and touching the nose to the knees; and 3) locking the hands and wrists beyond the feet, and touching the chin to the knee. All three types should be practiced as each is useful.' p68

For Janu Shirshasana A, b and C we have a choice,

' ...place the forehead or chin on the knee of the outstretched leg,' p77

So Yoga Mala tends to give you or your teacher the option of Chin or forehead. In Lino Miele's Ashtanga Yoga it seems to have become more standardised, in the pictures for each of the above asanas Sharath has his chin on his knee and is looking at his toes, Straight back.

But what about Jois' teacher Krishnamacharya.

In the Yoga Makaranda, Krishnamacharya says, with regard to Pascimottanasana,

' After first practicing the asana with the face pressed onto the knee, practice it with the chin placed on the knee and then eventually with it placed 3 angulas below the knee and calf.' p75

for Ardha badha Padma Paschimattanasana he just says,

'Lower the head and place it on top of the outstretched kneecap'. p75

Tirangmukhaikapada paschimattanasana is the same as above and Janusirasana is,

'...place the face onto the knee of the outstretched leg.' p80

However in each of the pictures for the above asana Krishnamacharya has his forehead on his knee, Curved back








It appears as if both Krishnamacharya and Jois tended towards placing their face or forehead on the knee, thus performing the asana with a curved back. However both mention the other method of placing the chin on the knee but without mentioning how it changes the curve of the back. Both refer to the chin method in the sense of a useful variation.

Krishnamacharya seems to retain the face
on knee approach throughout his career, if we go by his later students Srivatsa Ramaswami and T.K.V. Deskachar. In Deskachar's heart of yoga we find pictures of Krishnamacharya still practicing asana with his face on his knees in, what, his seventies or eighties?

Ramaswami was a student of Krishnamacharya for over thirty years from 1955 to 1988, he claims his book 'The complete book of Vinyasa Yoga' reflects that teaching. In his book the asanas mentioned above appear to be practiced just as Krishnamacharya practiced them back in the 1920's and 30's, in fact Ramaswami stresses the engagement of Jalahandra bandha (throat lock throughout his book.

Krishnamacharya then, appears to have remained consistent throughout his career with regard to placing the face/forehead on the knee, thus putting him firmly in the curved back camp.

Jois himself no doubt learnt the curved back, face on knee method form his teacher but by the English edition of Yoga Mala he is offering the option of chin or forehead, straight back or curved. Sharath has his chin on his knee in the Yoga Mala pictures, as he continues to do in his later primary series DVD.

In all the texts and videos I have on Ashtanga the chin is on the knee. and the gaze towards the toes, it appears to have become orthodoxy. i wonder how it is taught in the shalas. Talking of the gaze, of Drishti, this is something har
dly mentioned in Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda. Occasionally there's mention of 'look between the eyes but thats about it. Of course there's not much need to focus on drishti if your locked in Jalahandra or have your face on your knee. Is there a connection perhaps?

I have two theories.

1. Due to the bad habits of sitting posture in the west, we tend to slouch, Jois saw the need to work on straightening the back of his students and thus encouraged them to place the chin on the knee rather than the forehead thus straightening out the back.

2. The focus on Drishti is something Jois developed in his own teaching, and this went hand in hand with the gradual shift from face on knee to the chin on the knee and the gaze at the toes.

I suspect the two may have coincided.

Obviously this is all conjecture, but I wonder how Jois taught these asana back when Norman Allan first encountered him and whether Drishti was a significant element of the practice.

What does my own inner guru say?

Straight back. To counter the curvature in my spine developed from a lifetime of sitting badly. If you look at the early videos on this blo
g I had a very pronounced curve to my lower back and the chin on knee approach seems to have gone a long way to improving that condition.

POSTSCRIPT: I just started to wonder about Maju Jois and how he practices and teaches the above asana, given that I consider him a window into how Jois was teaching before the coming of the western students. I searched on http://www.alltheweb.com/ and came up with this picture, that I have never come across before, and will end this post with it and without comment.


24 comments:

  1. Someone asked about this recently when I was at a workshop with David Swenson. He said it depended on the student, the openness of the person's hamstrings and back, etc. Didn't seem to imply that one was better than the other or that you should try to achieve one or the other.

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  2. I find it interesting because it makes quite a dramatic difference. Swenson leaves it open, but what about in your Shala Karen, is it a mix or does everyone tend to practice it the same way.

    After comforting myself with all the similarities between Ashtnag and Vinyasa Krama I guess I'm starting to look again at some of the differences.

    Not in a critical way of either system I might add, just curious.

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  3. Hi Grimmly - I've been taught back rounded. I struggle with LBH, and to me the orientation of the hips/pelvis in these photos is as interesting as the back. Definitely not the only reason I struggle, but maybe a few straight folds in my home practice would be a good idea. Thanks for digging these pictures up! Now that I think of it, it was Liz or Susananda not long ago cautioning me about the super-round back in 2nd. Ahhhh! All coming together.

    I do like the Swenson attitude towards it Karen, basing it on the yogi's body! Both ways appeal to me for different reasons.

    Sorry for superlong comment!

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  4. We're taught flat back. That said, my teacher adjusts what he asks for according to each practitioner. There are some people who are super stiff, and all they can do, really, is kind of curl over.

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  5. hi Grimmly
    funny that you write about this because i got a squish by the teacher today in one of the forward bends (mari A) and he said to move the chin to the chin. i was rounding, only placing the forehead on the chin because i hadn't done it in a while. i think the theory you offer is good. i remember one of my teachers in SF, Devorah, always emphasizing lifting up the chest to counteract a forward bend, such as in the forward bending part of konasana (UVK).
    cheers,
    Arturo

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  6. I find this interesting as I was re-reading yoga mala for my training. And I read the exact sentence last night "'There are three types of Paschimattanasanasana "
    I do like how you broke this down.
    I also love that you mentioned Manju. He was the first person I've ever taken a yoga workshop from and it was a Kripalu. He has been such a sweet soul for me during the Ashtanga practice. He comes back to Atlanta in 2011 for a week training and I can' wait to see/practice with him again.
    Not many Ashtangi's speak of him...

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  7. Hello Grimmly, when I attended the anatomy workshop of Neil Barker, I heard from him (he was constantly putting emphasis on) that the reason why the chin should be placed on the knee is that this is how we can open the hip instead of streching the muscles of the legs.

    He said that each forward bend (sitting or standing) should start from the hip as all these asanas were aiming to open the hip what is only possible if we approach our chest/chin to/beyond the knees.

    After Neil's workshop I started to practice by keeping this in mind and since than my progress was significantly quicker and with no or much less sour muscles. Without this 'chin to the knees' thing I would not have been able to make the progress I could do in the last 4 months.

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  8. I mix it up, listening to the "inner guru". I do what feels "right" for the particular pose on the particular day. It seems like you are trying to come up with a "rule", but there really IS none. I think that like Karen's "vinyasa or no vinyasa when being assisted" question, the fact that there IS no uniformity among teachers and among commentators here, holds the answer, which is that there IS no answer.

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  9. Just a counterpoint to Gabi, Christopher used to frown on extending the chin to the shin, and when I asked why, he said that it creates tension in the face.

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  10. No not after a rule YC, just curious how it seems to have developed from rounded back of Krishnamacharya, probably because of the focus on Jalahandra through the either one or the other of the English edition of Yoga Mala to the seemingly dominant chin on knee of all the more recent materials. I liked the Jalahandra focus of Vinyasa Krama but straight back seems to be what works best for me in the asanas mentioned. i make up for it by engaging Jalahandra more in other places.

    I'm curious too as to whether the materials reflect the shalas or whether it is as flexible as is being suggested here in the comments.

    i agree with the everything starting at the hip thing Gabi, i use that throughout the practice. Think i saw something from Dhama Mitra on that once, made a hell of a difference. Starting to think the same think with bending the other way too IE. backbends. get the hip alignment right and then think about the back bend.

    Why is it Flo, that Manju doesn't get mentioned so much. Seems something of the prodigal son about him that appeals to me having been one myself. I wish i'd made his workshop when he was over here a few months ago. We have Yoga Mala from the 50's and we have lots of info from the late 70's onwards but so little on what Jois was doing in between as he developed his teaching of Ashtanga. Maju must surely be the embodiment of that period, i fond his articles and interviews fascinating.

    Thanks again for all your comments on this.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I keep coming back to this photo (the last one), as Father and Son photo's go, I find it really quite moving.

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  12. Here's the way I look at it. Jalandhara increases uddiyana... try it. I tuck the chin in a little in padangusthasana, padahastasanas, the prasaritas, for that reason.

    Chin on shin, on the other hand, allows you to stretch the spine more. This is what I'm going for in paschimottanasana. Of course you still engage uddiyana anyway, such a deep fold wouldn't be possible without it, but then instead of tucking the chin in for that extra bandha bolt, you extend foreward all the way through the cervical spine.

    Beginners should go for forehead to knee first... for many that will be a long journey. Keeping the spine straight and neck extended is the iyengar way, but I don't like it, it creates tension in the neck (in beginners). Also with stiff people I was taught by Cary to press them mostly down, not squish them forward like you would with a flexy person who can do chin to shin. Going for the forehead is aiming down, chin to shin is aiming forward.

    Interesting to explore for oneself..

    ReplyDelete
  13. This is a question that I has been the in the forefront of my practice since my first lesson. Like you, I've got a curve in my lower lower back that goes beyond just hamstrings. Even sitting crosslegged, my back juts out just above my belt line. So that has led me to really notice other people's back. I think a lot of the curve/straight back has a lot to do with individual backs. Some are flat like a board and others have more of a curve (via genetics or poor posture). I was in one class once where the teacher demonstrated the idea of straight back vs. curved back and because hers was so straight, that when she made it curved, it was still better than my straight back attempt. I've videoed myself several times where I consciously try a straight back approach to the over exagerattd approach and sadly, there is not that much of a difference in the external appearance. But, I can really feel the difference in the increased stretch on my hamstrings and the decreased pressure on my back. So if somebody were to look at me, they might think that I'm curving my back to much, but it is just that my back is that shape. I'm doing damage to my back nor is it sore after practices, so I must be be moving it in my version of "straight".
    I remember last year really looking at that picture of SKPJ and being at first surprized. There is also one of him in downdog where you can see his pronounced curve. I think it is more natural shape of back. I took an Iyengar class in Tunisia for a few months with a teacher that was like Kahn from Star Trek and the obsessd about the curve in my back. He would come and push on it and shake his head telling me that this must change if I were to continue in yoga. I found it very discouraging for a long time until I started to look around and found that backs are not all created equal. Good topic to discuss.

    ReplyDelete
  14. My teacher teaches rounded back - janu shirsasana = head to knee he would say. But he teaches TOP OF THE HEAD to knee, not chin, not face. It really opens up my hips/lower back and I found I really need to engage my bandas. I notice an improvement with my jumpbacks/through immediately after doing it this way. Dristhis is still the toes, we are just taught to visualise the eyes looking at the toes kinda thing.

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  15. Floss that's quite brilliant top of head to knee but visualizing the toes (drishti), two birds with one stone, clever.

    Somewhere along the way I learnt Janu A as different from B and C, Supposedly because it was the only asana in Primary that employed all three locks (think that came from Mahele). Interestingly later in Vinyasa Krama I came across Maha Mudra which is basically Janu A but without the forward bend, all three locks engaged. Krishnamacharya considered it one of the most important poses. Jois says on p77 of Yoga Mala,
    'Janu Shirhasana, which some call Mahamudra, is of three types'.
    these days i practice the vinyasa krama maha Mudra in place of Janu A and then carry on through B and c as normal.

    I see what you mean Susan about the slight Uddiyana when you engage Jalahandra (nodding away to myself here). isn't Uddiyana generally considered the most important of the three. Interesting that engaging moola bandha automatically engages uddiyana from below and jalahandra does the same from above. I too scatter a few extra Jalahandra about, there was no plan to it though, think now I'll use it for the parasita's too.

    Thanks for this Craig, I guess i always thought my back would suddenly flatten out completely but I think your right about the different shapes. Perhaps mine is about as flat as it's going to go now . I can get my chin to the mat now in Kurmasana and Upavistha etc I bind at the wrist in Paschi with my chin to my knee and yet there's still a little curve. It's a little irritating, guess Ill never get the YJ shoot : )

    ReplyDelete
  16. To throw a little Iyengar into the mix... Looking at LOY Iygenar generally aims for a straight back, broad upper back body and should blades down the back for forward folds.

    I asked my Iyengar teacher about straight vs. curved last night while lingering in triang mukha eka pada paschimottanasana (3min/side). Her view was is that by bringing the chin to knee/shin in any forward fold - while drawing the spine in and hollowing out the pelvic cavity (inclusive of releasing the hip flexors) really works to prepare the entire spine and hips for backbends.

    Again, not that either curved/straight is better than the other, but is an indicator of the flexibility strength of the body.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Straight back as prep fro backbends, Interesting, thanks for that.
    i seem to remember somebody saying that primary was all about lengthening (who was that, book or video I think) If so then isn't curved back all about lengthening the spine, which seems to fit with that aspect of primary.
    Makes sense then to switch to straight back later when you start wanting to prepare for Intermediate.

    Just a thought.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Paul Grilley (the guy with yin yoga) told he did dome research into this question and found out that ALL photos of paschimottanasana (and other forward bends) until 1965 always was done with a curved back. In 1965 Mr. Iyengar's Light on Yoga came out - with a straight back photo - and only since then has the straight back spread from Iyengar's teaching into many other styles of yoga. So Jois did not make it up, his students (influenced from elsewhere) just gradually started doing it and hence this Iyengar-invention got integrated in to (western) ashtanga practice - and even into Sharath's practice.

    To Paul Grilley it makes a lot of sence that chair-living westerners use straight back forwardbending whereas floor-living Indians use curved back forward bending. The reason being the one you already gave.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Do you remember where Grilley talks about this Roselil, I have his videos but not his book. As I said Krishnamacharya mentions the chin on knee/straight back as an option in the 30's as does Jois in the late 50'. It's a good bet Iyengar learned both options from Krishnamacharya (being such a key pose) Interesting he (Iyengar) went with the straight back version. I'd love to know if the wording changed from the 50's Karanda version of Yoga Mala to the later English version.

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  20. Grilley talked about it at a workshop, I haven't seen it in writing. He told that he had found photos from many yoga traditions from all over India from before 1965 (not only the Krishnamacharya tradition) and forwardbends were then always done with a round back. Grilley's guess is that it was Iyengar who 'invented' the straight back version - not, as you suggest, that he learned two versions from Krishnamacharya.

    Iyengar spend only little time with Krishnamacharya and has freely added props etc. and often changed (he calls it improved) the system he learned from his guru, so to me this is a very plausible origin of the straight back.

    And a side comment on Grilley - he is so much better and shows way more knowledge at his workshops than in his book and the dvds. One of his key dogmas regarding asana is 'function, not aesthetics' and he did discuss each (yin) asana in relation to this, including paschimottanasana - and this is where I picked up this story.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I'm a big fan of Grilley and do a yin practice a couple of times a week. But this makes me question what your saying.
    In the Yoga Makaranda, from the 1930's Krishnamacharya says, with regard to Pascimottanasana,

    ' After first practicing the asana with the face pressed onto the knee, practice it with the chin placed on the knee and then eventually with it placed 3 angulas below the knee and calf.' p75
    if the chin is on the knee that's got to be straight back no?

    ReplyDelete
  22. Ok, you must be right about the source of the straight back then - and Iyengar could easily have learned both variations (or all three) from K - and chosen to publish the straight back version as the main variation where it until then had been the other way around.

    ReplyDelete
  23. And of course Iyengar's book came out before Jois' Would make sense if it was Iyengar who took it from being a minor variation for K to being an equal if not dominant version. Thanks Roselil, got me even more curious now.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I remember when I started doing every forward bend from the hip and with straight back as much as possible, I experienced real quick progress. I was not concerned with touching my legs, but at the same time I felt it was much more intense. So I guess that was a good advice at that point.
    Then, for a while I preferred the head down approach. I felt it was more relaxed so I could concentrate more on bandhas and breathing.
    Now (thanks to this post!) I am thinking of incorporating both in my practice as I see both as useful. Not sure yet how, as it doesn't seem practical to do the two methods for each and every forward bend...

    ReplyDelete

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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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