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

Sunday, 27 January 2013

What is Ashtanga? What is a Mysore Room?

Excuse the ontic form of the question, perhaps it will lead us to the ontological.


Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, his Ashtanga, eight limb path to self inquiry
Some questions from the comments to my previous post Best Yoga dream ever - My mysore Room and my response ( I added a bit).

Question: "Grimm.... I think you are going to have to come up with a different name for your room. 'Mysore room' isn't just a couple of words, they actually refer back to what happens here in Mysore. I hope you can agree to call this an 'open self-practice room', or come up with another name for it, as I'm sure you can see that pointing it back towards Mysore is simply inaccurate?? This isn't a place where you choose what practice to do on the day.
I am kind of anticipating you objecting to that on the grounds that all of this originated with Krishnamacharya in Mysore in days gone by, but if so I think that would be a bit disingenuous, because it's pretty clear that 'Mysore style' refers to what's been going on in here in the last several decades and what is still being practiced here".

Mysore, it's a big place
Response: I think you still have a long time yet before we have to worry about what I call it ( and unless, I don't know, Anne Hathaway and/or Lady Gaga start practicing in 'my room' who's really going to care what I call it in my insignificant corner of yogaworld.... that said...

I'd probably just call it self-practice but your right Mysore style should perhaps refer to how it was practiced in Mysore, and Krishnamacharya used to teach ( while in Mysore and at the same time he was teaching the young Pattabhi Jois) long stays and long slow breathing and kumbhaka and vinyasa (variations) and....
old shala
I think what is confusing is that Pattabhi Jois used Ashtanga to refer to his approach. Story goes I think that David asked him what to call the practice and he just said Ashtanga as in Patanjali's Ashtanga approach. Less ego there than saying, call it Jois yoga but it would perhaps have been less confusing. Iyengar supposedly doesn't particularly like his approach being called Iyengar ( so he says). Desikachar forbade anyone calling it Desikachar yoga....all of them are Ashtanga (patanjali) yoga of course...confusing.

BNS Iyengar's Mysore room
I think that's where the problem comes with the '...intended for young boy's' thing. Ashtanga (Patanjali) yoga IS intended for everyone but the approach Pattabhi Jois got from Krishnamacharya probably was an approach originally intended for the young boys of the palace and designed for them in mind 9 he was teaching Indra Devi differently supposedly for one). Now I think it can be adapted such that most anyone can practice it ( of course whether everyone would then allow that 'adapted Ashtanga practice' to be referred to as Ashtanga or Mysore style is another question) but was it an approach to practice originally intended for young boys? Probably.

There is a problem with the word Ashtanga being appropriated for a style of yoga that arguably mostly focuses on one of those eight limbs. What is Ashtanga? The approach to asana practice Patabhi Jois taught or the Yoga of Patanjali as found in the yoga sutras, the eight limb path....confusingly it refers to both.

New shala ( if anyone recognises themselves here and would like me to take this picture down and choose another let me know) Picture by Tom Rosenthal. http://lightonashtangayoga.com/ 
What is a/the Mysore room or Mysore Style? is it the simplified approach to practice developed by Pattabhi Jois from what he was taught by Krishnamacharya or does it/should it refer to the approach to practice that was developed in Mysore by Krishnamacharya and still practiced there in myriad forms (think BNS Iyengar for instance) that is broader than the current generally known usage.

NB: Patabhi Jois said it was Krishnamacharya standing on him in Kapotasana, do you know how long a picture took to shoot back then (long stays)
Yes it is no doubt a political discussion that probably wont go away, can't really be bothered with it myself anymore. Should it stir things up? Probably, if it gets people to question what their Ashtanga practice is and what self practice should be or what Mysore style means but I'm happy to leave it to the new crop of bloggers and the next and the next..... it wont go away, it has legs. We should be questioning what we practice, hell what else SHOULD we question.

Why should we question what we practice? Because Ashtanga is a practice of self inquiry, enquiry into self and all that self attaches too. Yoga is Applied Smakhya it's Raison d'être is to question...though not perhaps our Western idea of/approach to questioning.

Mysore, been around a while
We do this, don't we, we start out practicing for fitness perhaps but then we start to question that and start to pay more attention to the breath and what that means ,what's going on there and the same with the bandhas ('though, ideally, not during actual practice itself ).

What else is Sharath doing in those Sunday Conference talks than encourage us to question the meaning of our practice, our intention.

Those books of Krishnamacharya, Yoga Makaranda, Yogasanagalu (written in the 30's and 40's while in Mysore, and while teaching Pattabhi Jois), they were written for us, distributed freely by the state, he wanted us to know this stuff, this IS the lineage,

We question our practice as a series of postures and think of it as a whole, one great posture where each asana is part of that one great asana or perhaps mudra (ties in with that new anatomy idea you linked to on fb). We question it as an approach to physical fitness and begin to reflect on it as a means to mental fitness, as mental preparation perhaps and so on... at each stage we then question if the form of the practice best suits our shifting focus of practice. Should we practice a little more slowly, stay longer, are some postures more suited than others...should we focus on bandhas more in this posture or one or two bandhas more in this posture than another or should we focus on the breath here, both the inhalation and exhalation equally or in this posture more focus on the exhalation and this bandha and in that posture more focus on the exhalation and another bandha...should we introduce a kumbhaka here. Should we focus on each posture equally or practice these postures more quickly to allow us to spend more time in the finishing postures or should we cut out postures to allow for more time in finishing or for Pranayama or for Japa....and does this approach to practice despite all it adaptability, best suit us at each stage along the 'spiritual journey' or as I prefer, path of self reflection. All these questions come up over the years no? We don't have our guru or teacher to hold our hand, he gives us the tools and sends us off to do the work remaining there for when we require more tools or a better understanding of how to use them.

What would I do if a student asked me such questions if I hadn't asked them of my self. I would expect a teacher to not only have asked such questions but to have explored them. I'd value that much more than whether they could help me bind in marichi D or catch my heels in Kapo, my ankles after dropping back or flipping me over in a backflip....

And it doesn't stop there that's just the asana...

Surely this is Advanced practice or rather advancing in practice ( or better still, moving forward in practice let's get rid of the word Advanced)... and Primary series, even half of Primary series  or a little Vinyasa Krama or some Iyengar postures etc... is all we ever need for this. Krishnamacharya says it's not required to practice all the asana ( how can we there are as many as their are species of life' - we're just rediscovering/reinventing them) although it's good for some of us to learn as many as they can but just to preserve them, (and to have them available ) not because they are necessary for our practice.


"All asanas are not necessary for a routine practice for everyone. Age, ailments, peculiarities and individual constitutions are to be considered to find out which asanas are to be practised and which should be avoided.
One important thing to be constantly kept in mind when doing the asanas is the regulation of breath. It should be slow thin, long and steady; breathing through both nostrils with rubbing sensation at the throat and through the esophagus inhaling when coming through the oesophagus inhaling when coming to the straight posture and exhaling when bending the body

"...We have already mentioned that all asanas are not necessary for each individual. But a few of us at least should learn all the asanas so that the art of Yoga may not be forgotten and lost". 
Yoga Makaranda (Part II) Krishnamacharya p76


Krishnamacharya's Mysore room
OK, now it's time for practice... will look pretty much like the first part of of Ashtanga 2nd series with some Vinyasa Krama additions from Bow and Meditative sequences ( a few omissions from standing to make room), but only up to kapo because of the slow breathing and the longer stays, then a long paschimottanasana and on into finishing and pranayama, pratyahara, Japa mantra mediation. Is this an Ashtanga practice, is it Mysore style? Post this later.

This post is no way intended as a critique of Ashtanga, Patanjali's or Jois' but rather a celebration of the possibilities of both. 

28 comments:

  1. "LITTLE conference talks"

    .......This choice of adjectives is just so smug.

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  2. Much better.

    Words can be so powerful sometimes.

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  3. Tried 'short' and then decided to go with just 'Sunday conference talks', the context of the sentence was actually to stress the import of some of the things he touches on in those talks although I do wonder sometimes about the Q & A format of these, are they a help or a hindrance, depends on the question perhaps. Wouldn't you like a nice long juicy newsletter from Sharath with the space to really explore aspects of practice. Perhaps somewhere down the line.

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    1. Not all of them are Q&A. I prefer the ones that aren't...

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  4. I don't think that will happen; he's too much a believer in parampara.

    The conference Q&A's are great. Odd but it always seems so interesting, finding out what other people want to know. The only problem I can think of, is that perhaps many people are disadvantaged if they're not comfortable with public speaking, have an accent or simply don't project their voice very well. The great thing is though, they are there and they can knock on the office door and ask anything they like.

    Personally, I'm a bit of a sucker for Q&A's. Richard Freeman's 'Ask the expert' column is great. Maybe it's because the answers are so concise yet focussed. Long, wordy articles can get tiresome (like I am now ha ha!).

    People who have too much to say, tend to have a very short shelf life in my little world, whereas I instantly gravitate towards people who can make a point in few (or no) words.

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    1. I've often wondered if Pattabhi Jois had spoken English as well as Desikachar, Iyengar, Mohan, Ramaswami...if it would have a completely different practice/tradition. Richard of course is more wordy in workshop...I also have hjis book and all his Studio talks, but yes like his Q&A too.

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    2. Hi Anthony, as usual love your posts. They do a lot to help me in my practice. The one thing I would like to question is the "Ashtanga was meant for young boys" concept. Yes, I get the fact that htey are limber, but I doubt they are focused and question whether the other seven limbs are going to work for them or are seriously designed for them. I think that's an older yogi thing- -that is, an aspect of Ashtanga that works perhaps more deeply for us. So I can't drop back, but I can struggle with the asana and becaome aware of my sensations and limitations, and ego and samskara's and lack of illumination. I don't know too many youg lads that can get into that. However, I'm not a youngster nore did I begin yoga before 55. My feeling is that Jois had a wider spectrum going for him when he designed the practice. Otherwise, I don't sweat the names of things too much because it would be nice inMysore to feel I have permission to do varioations so that one day I can bind in Mari D.

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    3. Thank you Zendio.
      Ramaswami writes that young Brahmin boys have for centuries been doing a for of salutation and simple pranayama as part of their puja but I take your point. I suspect that the simplest of practices would still be quite something in Mysore, india, that room...I'd be happy doing a month of just the standing sequence.

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    4. Perhaps to make the things clearer we should always refer to Patthabi Jois' practices as Ashtanga Vinyasa, and to Patanjali's process described in the Yoga Sutra Chapter II aphorisms as Ashtanga Yoga.
      So Asthanga Vinyasa Yoga was definitely designed for young boys, sorry to say (by the way have you noticed that the more complex, 'vishesa' poses in Yoga Makaranda are represented through pictures of young boys, while the more 'normal' ones are pictures of Krishnamacharya...) while Ashtanga Yoga was designed for everybody after having gone through the process of Kriya Yoga....

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    5. Ashtanga vinyasa has people pulling their hair out too Chiara, Unfortunately Jois Yoga may well be the best bet( however much I dislike the idea personally), Jois yoga in the Ashtanga tradition and Krishnamacharya lineage.

      Or we can all stop being so anal about the labels.

      Yes noticed that about the pictures. K was getting on a bit, my age, if he'd written it ten years earlier he'd perhaps have done them all.

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  5. The photograph of led intermediate was taken by Tom Rosenthal. http://lightonashtangayoga.com/

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    1. thanks Anon, have added your link to the picture and send a mail to Tom to ask if it's OK to continue to use it or if he would rather I took it down.

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  6. Thank you for this brilliant post. I just finished Richard Freeman's primary series intensive, and couldn't help thinking of him when I read your description of what you'd expect in a teacher (well, maybe apart from succinctness).

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  7. For whatever it is worth, I am very glad you have decided to keep posting here. Your reflections on Jois' Ashtanga and your practice with Ramaswami have been so helpful and thought-provoking for me. I just completed my 500-hr YTT in the Desikachar tradition (for lack of a better term!) but I still have my Mysore practice - much to my YTT teacher's chagrin. These days I prefer to think of it all as Krishnamacharya lineage and move from there...but it does get complicated. Your words have been so helpful. Thanks!

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  8. Thank you Robyn, worth a lot actually and yes those distinctions seem to blur, it's all Krishnamacharya although sometimes it seems that all the different styles deriving from Krishnamacharya's lineage seem to be doing their damnedest to stop the Krishnamacharya element coming through...except perhaps Ramaswami who seems to do the opposite but even there perhaps a neglect of his early years ( actually that's not fair, Ramaswami taught the krishnamacharya course on K's early works, I take it back).

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  9. Manju has a brilliant suggestion at 2:12: "Just keep your mouth shut, and just practice..." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOKtGEma8oQ

    ;)

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  10. You ask very good questions here, and I agree that questioning is a good skill to have, questioning why we do what we do, and what is it we're doing, whether it's still relevant to our lives, etc etc. But at some point, too much questioning is also inhibiting...it becomes the "1% theory" instead of aiding us towards the "99% practice". Trying to sort out the labels between Patanjali's "Ashtanga" and SKPJ's "Ashtanga" is practically irrelevant, I feel, because we're trying to figure out what an Indian man had in mind when he developed these sequences of postures all those years ago. It doesn't matter to me what it's called, because what really matters is the doing of the practice, consistently over a long period of time.

    I see why you're keen to dive to the bottom of the different labels/variations of yoga arising out of Krishnamacharya's work, but keep in mind that this is an Indian system we're talking about and there is bound to be a certain degree of ambiguity about what is what, as is prevalent in their culture. I think it was Karen that said that India is where the small things go to die....it's also the small things that Westerners like to pin down and tidy up ;)

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    1. :-)

      I am heading home in a few days, and am dreading going back to my life of details. This trip has illuminated (quite shockingly!) how much my (especially) work life fills my head with detail, detail, detail.

      It's going to be a new project: trying to discern the impulse to project and create detail (or "small/tight thinking," as I'm thinking -- ha! -- of it). I'm seeing how it clutters my consciousness, and need to try to be able to discern that once I leave here and am re-immersed in a detail-loving culture.

      Wish me luck.

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    2. Hi D : )
      The smile is because I'm about to disagree a bit. Mostly I...dislike strongly the 1%-99% (lets do the more popular version), my point here is that the analysis, self reflection, the study is part of the 99% practice just as much as jumping about on the mat, pranayama etc. The idea that the asana mat time IS the practice is mistaken in my view. Yes we get into a meditative like state while doing our Ashtanga practice and that's wonderful and important but It's not THE practice, asana's job is to prepare us for the real work to come of applied meditation

      That said K. saw rich possibilities in asana and pranayama which should perhaps be explored and that I would argue is part of the lineage and should be encouraged.

      That Ashtanga distinction (that your referring to as labels) is important because however unintentionally the Ashtanga name has been appropriated by the style and when we say this is how Ashtanga should be practiced what we're saying is this is how the Ashtanga style should be practiced. Patanjali has already told us what the Eight limb (Ashtanga ) path is and ( along with Vyasas commentary) how it should be practiced and the differences are important.

      Let me give one example. This sutra gets referred to a lot in Ashtanga to say that you should stick with your Ashtanga (Jois Yoga) practice
      1.14. This practice becomes well-grounded when continued with reverent devotion and without interruption over a long period of time.

      But Patanjali is talking about yoga practice as a whole, that you continue uninterrupted along the yoga path, not Ashtanga (Jois Yoga) practice. It doesn't matter if you switch from Ashtanga to Iyengar to Power vinyasa fertility flow as long as you continue with a daily integrated yoga practice, asana practice will and probably should change over time.

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    3. part II
      The analysis is important
      1.7. Right knowledge is inference, tradition and genuine cognition.

      1.8. Wrong knowledge is false, illusory, erroneous beliefs or notions.

      That's part of the practice too.

      I agree strongly about the cultural differences. I've mentioned on this blog several times how Heidegger gave up working on translating the Tao because he felt the thought needed to come out of an organic tradition, the Western philosophical tradition in his case. So we'll never understand it completely but we can still look and see what we can bring out and add to our own worldview. Ricouer say that metaphor 'shatters reality and describes it anew' and metaphor brings together to disparate things, looking at one culture from another can have an interesting metaphoric effect.

      And it's fun and exciting, what WAS K. up to when he began to include kumbhaka in his asana practice and long stays..what happens if we explore that in our own practice. We can't of course ( unless we're home Ashtangi's) because Ashtanga is often too rigid or appears so for that kind of exploration and investigation, it certainly doesn't seem to be encouraged.

      Ashtanga (style) seems to have been an approach to asana that came about at a particular time and place, an accident of circumstance and inspiration that then became ever more simplified into what we have now. It's a very tight communicable product and has a wonderful effect but we shouldn't pretend that it's an ancient, centuries old, mysterious secret practice that we're preserving. It's a nice practice there's something wonderful about it and no doubt there are some elements within it that are precious and have come through different lineages. but of course in the oversimplification those are in danger of being lost too. Keep a clear defined practice that everyone can practice anywhere and can be on the same page but explore analysis and investigation too, continue to Certify brilliant and creative teachers to explore the practice. Research, why did they drop the R from AYRI, it was the best bit about it and sums up Krishnamacharya's life work and especially at the time he was teaching the young Pattabhi Jois

      My friend Susan might suggest I'm on a rabid rant here but I'm passionate and excited about all this, the possibilities of this practice that constantly seem stifled.

      I've just written a post to show that I'm not constantly sitting here analysing all day long, it just seems that way because the blog is all anyone sees of me. It is though one part of my practice.

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    4. Hi G

      :)

      Smiling because I agree with you, especially this part: "...the analysis, self reflection, the study is part of the 99% practice just as much as jumping about on the mat, pranayama etc. The idea that the asana mat time IS the practice is mistaken in my view. Yes we get into a meditative like state while doing our Ashtanga practice and that's wonderful and important but It's not THE practice, asana's job is to prepare us for the real work to come of applied meditation"

      Yes yes yes!! But! There is a point where we can get carried away, be it with asana or meditation or questioning, that we lose sight of what "practice" really means, and it's important to be aware of that. As with everything in this practice, there is always a fine line between healthy curiosity and overzealous effort and obsession. This is where the asana-only interpretation of 1.14 is a little unfortunate, but it's also to be expected I suppose, when asana is the point of reference for the majority of folks who do this practice.

      Anyway. Regarding SKPJ's asana yoga vs Patanjali Yoga....yes, I feel the distinctions are just labels because fundamentally, SKPJ's sequences were designed (or so we're told) to prepare us for deeper study/awareness of the other aspects of P's yoga. So one could argue that SKPJ Yoga is a "subset" of Patanjali yoga, in a sense. But I see your concern of how ignoring the differences between the two lead to confusion and mistaking one part (the asana) for the whole (Patanjali's yoga). With Ashtanga's (the asana) popularity over the years, I feel that the biggest loss in its teaching comes from the loss of context (philosophical, cultural, historical) and of nuances (tailoring the practice to a student's needs and teaching the student to do the same). There are very few teachers today that can do both. This is why I think going to Mysore (or Chennai or Pune) is so important, it provides the context that contemporary Ashtanga teaching (and other styles of yoga) lacks.

      There really is a lot of possibility in this practice. It seems to be "constantly stifled" because it's not widely discussed for whatever reason - if you want to delve into it further, you've got to go seek it out. i.e., go to India with all your questions!! ;)

      PS: Loved your Day In The Life post by the way.

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    5. Yes definitely want to get to india sooner rather than later. I'd like to Study under BNS Iyengar in Mysore while he's still teaching. I'd like to study with Prashant iyengar too but not sure if that's possible, Iyengar not really being my style 9although I'm exploring it a little) but he's thinking, interesting things are happening there. Mostly though I'd like to just buy a train pass and travel around putting my mat down wherever I happen to be that morning.

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  11. Karen, I love your 'Karen that said that India is where the small things go to die' that D quotes.

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  12. is it already a month Karen seems to have flown past, good luck with re-entry.

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  13. Five weeks, actually. And I head home tomorrow evening. I'm sad to leave, but happy to get home to my husband, daughter and dogs!!

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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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