“One of my goals in life is to do the slowest Primary Series anywhere… rather than the quickest”. Richard Freeman

Saturday, 25 June 2011

What is practice and how does it become well established?

Been reading some of my few cryptic notes form last years Yoga Sutra class

Let me see if I understand all this correctly ( and I'm just thinking out loud here) ......

What is practice and how does it become well established?

This is one of those arguments from the Sutra's some Ashtangis' love to wield.

The idea seems to go something like this.

"You have to stick with your Ashtanga practice, as it is, no switching and changing and for a very long time."

I saw a banner on a website for a shala once that suggested you should try the practice, Ashtanga , for ten years before deciding whether it worked or not. TEN YEARS! Not a couple of weeks or even  "give it six months", TEN YEARS!

If it doesn't 'work' do you get a refund of your shala fees, how do you go about getting those ten years back exactly?

But that's what the sutra says, here it is

1-14 sa tu dirgha-kala-nairantarya-satkaradara-sevito drdha-bhumih

Translation:

1-14 practice done for a long time without interruption ( and with the right disposition)  becomes firmly established in the mind

Just a question, this practice, patanjali is referring to, so that's your Ashtanga practice right, your Ashtanga Primary series,or Intermediate or whichever series your on, yes?

Err, well, no not exactly.

1-13 tatra sthitau yatno 'bhyasah
1.13 Practice is the repeated or constant attempt to stay with the object

ahhhhh, the 'object', well that's quite a different matter isn't it.

My understanding of the object here is one of the 24 tattava's (principles) as set out in the Samkhya karika Actually I believe there are twenty-five tatras the twenty-fifth being the self. The idea is to focus on the other 24, until you develop dispassion towards them. There's a cheat, you can make Ishvara ( the lord ) your object, realise the self t and automatically end up with a dispassionate attitude to the tatva's that way.

From the Ashtangi perspective one of course might argue that in the practice you focus on the breath IE. air and thus a tatva, or drishti, sight, another tatva.... bandhas, can you read them as a tatva, probably....

But wait, the sutra above is from the first chapter for the superyogi, the uberyogi, the born yogi who doesn't have to work at it that hard.

Ashtanga yoga is an asana practice, one of many asana practices. Asana pops up briefly in chapter 2, it's for the rest of us who have to work at being yogi's.

The idea is that we practice asana to chill us out (to get rid of rajas)
Then we practice some breathing exercises, pranayama, to wake us up a bit ( to get rid of tamas)
Now we're in the ideal (satvic) frame of mind to work on our concentration practice

....which is 'the practice', sutra 1-13 again, '...the repeated and constant attempt to stay with the object'.

So really it doesn't matter what asana we do, what kind of asana system we do, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasa Krama or, let's not be elitist about it, gym yoga as long as sometime or other we decide we want tosit down afterwards do our breathing exercises and then sit and focus, concentrate on the object of our practice.

In fact it perhaps doesn't have to be yoga asana, any activity will probably bust those rajas just as well

...except that perhaps asana 'marries' well with the breathing exercises and sitting and staying with the object.

We probably don't want to be in a competitive frame of mind for our sit, that just brings a whole new bag of worms, so lets eliminates sport, no, it makes sense to stick with a nice asana practice.

And I'm a householder, I don't have all day, I want to start working on stilling my mind asap, personally, I don't want to have to listen to somebody telling me what to do while I'm on the mat, I want an asana routine I can just get on with myself.

Pranayama is hard too, I want to work on gaining some control of my breath

.. and I want to work on my self discipline, want to practice regularly

..... so what would be ideal is an asana routine I can just get on with and that works on gaining some degree of control of the breath and begins to focus the mind as well as developing some self-discipline.

Find asana practices that do all that and we're well on the way

... so that when I begin my pranayama I can get right into it

...allowing me to move onto the practice Patanjali appears to be actually talking about,

tatra sthitau yatno 'bhyasah 1-13

'Staying with the object',

...the breath, a mantra, an icon, a positive image, the flame of a candle...

Once you can do that, once you can focus on that object and stay with it, ridding yourself of all the fluctuations of the mind and then achieve that on other objects, any object...

...well then you have freedom, kaivalya and you've caught up a little with those born yogi's from chapter one of Patanjali's yoga sutras.

So 1-14, sticking with a practice for a long time without interruption isn't about sticking with one particular style of yoga at all, it's about sticking with the object of your meditation.

Although it might be, along with some other activities, excellent for helping you do so.

But of course I might have it all completely wrong.

29 comments:

  1. Very interesting, Grimmly. All I can really say is that the Ashtanga Vinyasa Method works for me at this particular point in my life; I suppose it must work for many others as well, judging by the numbers of people practicing it at this time too. Will it still work for me ten years down the road? I don't know... Maybe I'll find something "better", maybe not.

    I find it interesting that you speak of catching up with those natural-born yogis in the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras. The more I think about it, the more I believe that these natural-born yogis are just a convenient heuristic device Patanjali invented to give us something to aspire towards. So I can't help thinking that if we take it too seriously, and try too hard to play catch up here, we may be setting ourselves up for a lot of frustration and disappointment.

    Just my two cents' here. Like you, I may be completely off the mark.

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  2. Completely agree re chapter one Nobel, we all love our literary devices. Ashtanga works for me too..... a lot of the time, I think I suggest towards the end that it's an, ...almost, ideal practice, more going for it than not, or was that too convoluted a literary device.

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  3. Good, nice post, yes I agree with you, it does not matter which asana style we practice but that we DO, so we can sit straight for goodness sake!, remove thos rajas and calm down...

    Any exercise will do. To me, guess -la-Nobel, Ashtanga works because it takes the mind out of things, I do not need to think, there is the routine, there is the breath and by the end of it I am calm...

    I just think that looking at the future we need to put more emphasis in coming up with pranayama sequences that are easy to follow and can be done by anyone, take all the myth out of them, all the fear out of them, and include an attempt at focusing on an object...

    Like how you stiched this post together... well done!

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  4. Oh this is brilliant Grimmly, one of the most concise theories of what 'practice' means that I've come across. I agree with you that the system of yoga is less important than the actual act of keeping up a daily practice, whatever it may be. And yes, the Ashtanga system seems to be the most effective asana system available so far despite its challenges. Agree with Claudia though, that a pranayama sequence would be a nice complement too. Thank you for sharing this!!

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  5. No, Grimmly, you're not wrong but
    I think that even "staying with the object" doesn't make the real goal of practice clear. Or, rather, there is something behind that "staying the object", wich is - I think - "having your mind occupied with something wich has no relationship whatsoever with your own ego". Only then our heart is quiet and peaceful. Because our heart will suffer as long as the mind is concerned with egoistic thoughts (be it fear or anger or desire or whatever). Schopenhauer would say: "We are happy only when the mind frees itself from the Will (Ego) and works on his own". Asana and pranayama are just tools to calm the mind down and make it more flexible and still. And when the mind is still we can direct it towards the object and we will not be subjective anymore, just like when a kid is deeply concentrated on his game. In other words, it's not being concentrated on the object which makes us happy or peaceful, but rather not being concerned with ourselves.
    It's nice sharing thoughts with you all, people.

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  6. For me, having a consistent ashtanga practice is both meditative and transformative because I don't have to question it or take it apart - or decide what I am going to do on any given day. I think some people miss this part of it, or feel that it leads to "brainwashing" or mindlessly following what they are told by a teacher, but for me surrendering to the practice is what makes this whole thing worthwhile. I haven't read the sutras, so I'm not one to bandy them about, but I like to try and stick to the "do your practice, all is coming" mantra, even if that means it's going to take ten years.

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  7. Thanks Claudia. I don't know , it does and it doesn't matter which practice, have to find the right one for you at a particular time. I probably needed Ashtanga for the discipline given my temperament, still like it a couple of times a week but I like something now the leads more smoothly into my pranayama and meditation.
    Nice bit on Megan's (Damn good yoga )Swenson post about his short intro to pranayama.

    Thank you too Savasanaaddict, not my usual kind of post, don't know what got into me. Ashtanga, if it suits, you is clearly one of the asana practices to set you well on the way.... but there are others : )

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  8. Thanks for your comment Anon, still mulling it over. My limited understanding of the tatvas are that your focusing on those physical and sensory aspects as your object of practice to see that the you, the self is 'not that'. Eventually you become left with the 25th tatva, the self, and ultimately 'see' that the self isn't the purusha either.
    Interesting to read about that but I try not to worry or concern myself about that level, happy to fork on the staying with the object and stilling the fluctuations of the mind, seems plenty to be going on with.
    thank again for your thoughts.

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  9. Hi Mel, I agree and think I'm saying as much at the end, clearly Ashtanga is one of the practices i'm referring too. I've always found it meditative too and certainly transformative. For me having the same set practice every morning was key to instilling the self discipline I needed to get on the mat every morning, especially as a home yogi. Of course once you have that self discipline....

    'Do you practice and all is coming', of course, is part of the confusion I'm referring to. It sounds like the sutra I quote but clearly isn't the kind of practice Patanjali was referring too.

    What's going to take ten years.... before your allowed to practice some pranayama, sit with an object?

    I'll leave my thoughts on 'surrendering' for another post.

    Thanks for engaging on this, appreciate it.

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  10. throwing in a curve ball (and borrowing a little from Carlos Pomeda)

    the Yoga Sutras were written long before the evolution of Hatha Yoga in any sense of the word that we know it today, thus is it really appropriate to try and relate what Patanjali wrote to these physical practices we do today?

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  11. Interesting point Stu. If you link modern yoga to the hathayogapradipka then you have to agree, 2nd CE ish for the former, what 16th century for the later. but what about the yoga upanishads ( there's a Kindle version available by the way) they're pretty old Tirumula's Tirumantiram is pretty damned old and the yogayajnavalkya Samhita perhaps even older than Patanjali All very hatha yoga texts No.

    The Gym yoga scene even Ashtanga do appear a long way from Patanjali but I don't feel that as much with Vinyasa Krama say. Cut out all the variations and you have a small number of key postures practiced as prep for pranayama and meditating, very Patanjali. Not saying VK is beter but that just it's perhaps easier to see the Patanajali context.

    Personally, I feel it's essential to study Patanjali as well as other texts, otherwise we're just bouncing around on rubber mats. Which is great and fun and healthy and may well be more than enough for many and that's fine... but it doesn't have to be all there is to it.

    I still can't believe there weren't yogi's who focussed on the asana aspect and developed it to extremes before and after Patanajali wrote the sutras. That there weren't crazy postures reinvented and taught and lost every few hundred years.

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  12. Being an Astanga practitioner, I'm biased of course, and agree 110% with 'Daydreamingmel's' comment above. I find the best of both worlds in my practice. I can analyse it, I can change my focus or, I can just run through on autopilot and let the meditative qualities work their magic. Life would not be complete without it now, and I feel in a state of constant healing instead of constant aging; especially since I 'surrendered' and stopped pushing for this or that posture. The progress keeps coming, naturally and often unexpectedly, which is a wonderful experience in itself.

    If I had a practice that wasn't (to quote John Scott) 'systemetised', I don't think I would sustain it or be able to gauge the changes so easily. I would feel adrift and I think I would succumb to laziness or other interests more easily. The roundedness of an Ashtanga practice enables me to ring fence it, and to know that, for that time each day I will be doing that. Outside of 'that' everything else seem to improve as well and I'm sure it's an effect of the practice.

    There you go; can't 'alf waffle when I feel the urge can't I...

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  13. Oops, forgot to ask the question that I wanted to ask:

    "Ashtanga yoga is an asana practice ... "
    Who said that Tony?

    I think anyone certified or authorised would say that Guruji's Ashtanga Yoga is a yoga practice, that builds itself on a foundation of asana. It can be SO much more than just asana, and it's the 'practicing regularly over a long period of time' that let's the one-pointedness come though, along with other qualities.

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  14. Hi Steve, agree with all the 'waffle' re ashtanga...except the 'surrender- bit obviously, so perhaps 105%

    As to who said
    Ashtanga is an asana practice..

    well that would be ME and i'm gonna stand by it for now, was tempted to make it a post title and see if anyone could change my mind.

    It's an asana practice, an element of a hatha yoga practice, one limb of patanjali's eight.

    One of the best perhaps but still 'just' asana.

    It encourages attention on the yamas and niyamas I would argue, whether you know what they are or not. The 'breath with sound' ( not Ujaii remember ) prepares you for pranayama perhaps, just as the focus on drishti, breath and bandhas prepare you for sitting with an object.

    You could argue perhaps that being for the householder it's a compromise, a taster of the other limbs, yogalite if you will but I think we're cheating ourselves if think we're practicing patanjali's yoga and that it's enough, that we don't have to worry about pranayama or pratyahara of Dharana.

    Personally I think that ashtangi's should be sending Sharath petitions : ) doing-sit in's at their shala's until the other limbs are made available to them, pretty much from the start and as part of every class (should they want it) just as Krishnamacharya, Jois' own teacher taught.

    But that's just this 'humble' blogger's view, I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise.

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  15. Sorry Grimm I think you're missing the point.
    For those of us who follow the tradition (I know that can sound like a dirty word!) I don't think there is any feeling either that a) this is "Just asana" or that b) we're missing out on the other limbs. It's not that we're not "allowed" to add other practices, but the idea is that if this is enough for us as householders, then it's actually all we need - a complete system.
    The breathing with sound thing is a bit pedantic; we practice a form of pranayama while we practice, whatever we choose to call it.
    I shan't try and convince you, because if you don't believe in surrender then I know I would fail, but I just want to be clear that for me, and (I'm quite sure) for many hundreds of other ashtangis around the world, this is way more than just an asana practice. This practice has changed my life, changed every decision I make and every relationship I have (I know I sound brainwashed, but I'm not..) and if this was just bending there's no way that would be the case. It's not like me to get on my high horse but I just want to be clear the effects of just getting on your mat, following a series, working with a teacher and practicing with other like-minded individuals every day - without needing to read sutras, practice advanced pranayama and meditation, or deconstruct or question the system. I know this isn't the way you do it, but just like your way isn't wrong, neither is our way.

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  16. But Mel in the post I've indicated that I think ashtanga is a excellent, transformative practice, I've agreed with most of the wonderful things you and Steve have said about it, I still practice it ( couple of times a week ).

    My point was a technical one relating to the sutras, and how the sutra mentioned gets used to criticise anyone who breaks ranks, despite ashtanga clearly not being the practice referred to in the said sutra.

    I love asana as you know and ashtanga has a wonderful approach to asana, it links breath to movement, it places counterposes between every posture, it .... Well we've done this, it's a wonderful asana practice, Krishnamacharya was a genius, perhaps Jois too in his development of it though I think he was wrong, just plain wrong to stop teaching the other limbs.

    But that's ok, looks like Sharath might be about to bring them back for those who wish to explore them,going to be interesting to see if pranayama classes are offered at the new Shala. Looks like there will be Sanskrit classes, yoga sutra study, chanting, all the things I'm talking about in this post. If this is the case why would he do that, just for the money or because he feels there is more to yoga than asana practice he says as much in the reported conferences.

    Sorry you think I'm belittling ashtanga by referring to it as just asana, I refer to the asana element of Vinyasa karma as just asana too and recognise many of it's shortcomings as well.

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  17. Just read your comment again, your equating my use of asana as "just bending" couldn't be further than how I feel about it. I see asana, as an adventure, a confrontation, an exchange, an encounter.

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  18. It's OK, I don't think you're belittling it, I just like to bang the drum for tradition (i.e. following the same one practice consistently). And guilty as charged, I am continuing a thread of conversation on your comments without actually referring back to the post itself! I think my point was that unless you follow the one set practice for a long period of time (i.e. 6 days a week ashtanga without embellishment or assimilation into another other system or systems) then the "all is coming" thing (and probably the sutras) make less sense. But then I am a bad lady, I haven't read any of the philosophical texts, I know very little about the historical context, I just get on my mat and do my primary series every day...and watch while it changes my life :)

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  19. By 'surrendering' into asana, what I meant was the method that gets the practitioner 'steady' in the asana, as opposed loookng like a constipated olympic power lifter getting his leg behind his shoulder, or chin to the floor etc. I didn't mean 'not working towards more strength or flexibility. Did you misunderstand me, or do you disagree with that.

    This is a good thought-provoking post. 'Anon' raised some great points regarding ego disassociation. Having a good teacher helps with that enormously, whether you see him/her every day, week, month or year.

    I also like the ten year bit of your post. I think I'm about 12 years in now. The first four hurt. I guess I had a lot of junk to get rid of. The subsequent years have been therapy beyond words, physically & psychologically.

    Good debate Tony.

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  20. Again (how many times do I have to repeat this?), pranayama DOES get taught by Sharath, just not to everyone. Senior teachers also do, some to everyone like Tim Miller, someone to advanced students, following Sharath's example.

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  21. Good morning V. Clearly, pragmatically and contextually and even literally in two places I'm talking about pranayama being taught to everyone from the start. I refer to Jois having stopped teaching it. Tim of course being one of those he taught before he stopped. In mentioning Tim you actually support my argument in that your referring to how it used to be.
    Didn't I hear your being taught pranayama now ( after home many years ) hope your enjoying it.

    You must be about to practice now, me too have a good one.

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  22. Thanks Mel

    Steve, I just have issues with 'surrender' and find Ishvara pranidhana problematic for me personally, how we interpret it, translate it, how it travels from one world view to another, it's use in Indian philosophy and religion but then being transposed to the west with it's Judeo-Christian tradition.
    Find it irritating because it gets used so freely, often carelessly ( seems to have got mixed up with the whole woo woo new age thing, swished around a bit and thrown out the other side), yet perhaps no other concept in yoga should be approached with more reflection.

    I would rather use other words where possible, unless surrender is definitely the word we want and are using it mindfully.

    I just cringe internally whenever I hear it.

    So I wouldn't use 'surrender into a pose', relax , release perhaps ,anything anything but : ) I take your point though. Thats just the practice though, no? As we become more comfortable in a posture we're able to release into it more, some postures take longer than others. Took a couple of years before leg behind head postures became as comfortable as they are now allowing me to stretch out through them.

    As I said in response to Mel, I see asana, as an adventure, a confrontation, an exchange, an encounter.... but not a surrender

    Surrender of what exactly?

    PS In my response to V it should have read 'how many years' not 'Home many years', darned ipad.

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  23. Guruji didn't stop teaching pranayama - I don't know where you got that from. He just decided the ashtanga pranayama is very hard and he, in the later years, only taught it to people doing Advanced A and beyond.

    Now, if you have clear, pragmatical and literal evidence of the contrary, I would be really interested in seeing it.

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  24. Perhaps you misread my response to your comment V. My criticism is that Jois stopped teaching to EVERYBODY and that pranayama isn't taught pretty much from the start to anybody interested. and that I'm clearly saying this (pragmatiacally , contextually and literally) IN my comments. Not interested in whether he continued to teach it to advanced students (my understanding is that he did too, think Kino says he taught her), that wasn't the point of the comment or the original post.

    Swenson and Freeman actually talk about why they don't teach pranayama from the beginning in that recent conference recording doing the rounds. they go against my view as it happens. I think I still disagree but it's interesting listening.

    Really must get on the mat, lack of discipline on my day off.

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  25. Just coming from a different viewpoint on this as i'm coming from Ashtanga but also Vinyasa Krama. Here's Ramaswami from his last newsletter

    'Further, while asanas are a necessary routine for a yogabhyasi it is not sufficient. A well rounded yoga practice should contain other angas of yoga like pranayama because they between them help to reduce the systemic excess of rajas and tamas. Day’s yoga practice should consist of a proper combination of dynamic vinyasas and static asanas. Add a stint of pranayama practice and some meditation or chanting, and you have a wholesome daily yoga practice.

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  26. Fine, if we are going to sink down to pedantry, I will quote you:

    "I think he [Jois] was wrong, just plain wrong to stop teaching the other limbs."

    Besides, you are missing my point, which is that you really shouldn't assert so categorically what you don't know. As much as it bugs you to be reminded of this, you have never been to Mysore, you have never established a relationship with Guruji, Sharath, or a senior teacher, and this means that a lot of your information comes from hearsay. And sometimes you get it wrong.

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  27. If it was in the main body of the text V I'd add a little sub-clause or something in brackets saying that he continued to teach long term practitioners. My feeling was that the context of the post was that it was refering to teaching it to all practition, pretty much from the start. But you've made it nice and clear now for anyone troubled by it.

    Actually it doesn't bug me to be reminded that I haven't been to Mysore, does it you, that I'm still not that interested in going, Rolf in Goa is tempting perhaps ( though not sure I'd like Goa)but not Mysore.

    As for your last sentence, well didn't you see mine at the end of the original post, had you in mind when i wrote it.

    'But of course I might have it all completely wrong'.

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  28. Me? You can make whatever you want with your practice, I couldn't care less. I just wish you didn't speak of what you don't know, particularly when quite often you are often dismissive of Sharath and Guruji (and please don't make me find examples).

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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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