Thursday, 10 October 2013

Ashtanga...it's JUST asana ( or is it).

It's JUST asana..... how many times have I written that here the last few years?

It's just asana, it helps get rid of the rajas, then pranayama gets rid of the tamas putting you in the ideal, the more satvic, state for meditation.

We practice asana, then pranayama, then meditation.

Krishnamacharya chapter and verse!

Asana is the warm up act or perhaps the warm up to the warm up act.

And yet.......

 Here's Krishnamacharya right here....seems to be taking his asana VERY seriously.




VERY seriously

"In caturanga dandasana, there are 4 angulas of space between the body and the floor everywhere. In this asana, the palms and toes are as in caturanga dandasana. However even while keeping the lower part of the body from the toes to the thighs just as in caturanga dandasana, raise the upper part of the body. Make sure that the navel rests between the hands and do puraka kumbhaka. Try to push the chest as far forward as possible, lift the face up and keep gazing at the tip of the nose. Make the effort to practise until it becomes possible to remain in this posture for fifteen minutes". Krishnamacharya -Yoga Makaranda.




'Puraka kumbhaka' retention of the breath after the inhalation. We find this and retention after the exhalation a lot in Krishnamacharya's early writing, as if he is bringing pranayama into the asana practice.

For Krishnamacharya, it's all about the breath, whether it's his interpretation of the yoga sutras or his interpretation of asana, 'it's the breath stupid'.


Yoga Sutra II-47 
प्रायत्नशैथिल्यानन्तसमापत्तिभ्याम्
“prayatnashithilyanantasamapattibhyam”

"prayatna - effort (of life which is breathing)

saithilya - smooth (make it smooth)

ananta-samapattibhyam:

          ananta -breath

          samapattibhyam - focusing on it
By making the breath smooth (and long), and by concentration or focussing the mind on the breath, the perfection of the posture is obtained. Note: Krishnamacharya interprets this sutra differently than other teachers. he gives the correct technical meaning (in this context) fromn prayatna or Jivana prayatna, or effort of life which is breath. he says that it is the breath that should be made smooth and effortless, not the posture. it is not physical; it is the breathing" Srivatsa Ramaswami

Not enough to bring Pranayama into the practice of asana, Krishnamacharya brings a breath focus to  getting in and out of the asana. From standing, each movement is linked to the appropriate inhalation or exhalation, moving towards the asana where, more often than not, kumbhaka's are performed, before moving back again to standing, back to the beginning, each movement linked to the appropriate inhalation or exhalation.

In a word ,VINYASA.

Krishnamacharya's practice was a breathing practice.

He would also explore variations of asana and seemed to link the asana into groups, later this seems to have been formalised even further by Krishnamacharya's student Pattabhi Jois.

Pattabhi Jois appears to have organised/developed a number of relatively fixed sequence of asana, performed in the vinyasa approach of Krishnamacharya and taken from the myriad asana and variations of asana that Krishnamacharya presented.

But now, not only would one asana be linked to the movements in and out of the formal posture but all the asana would be linked, as John Scott points out, referring to Pattabhi Jois' book, a mala a Yoga mala.


A mala is a string of beads used in japa (mantra) meditation. We hold it in our hands and count each repetition of a mantra by moving one of the beads on a string.

Japa, is a meditation practice.

If Krishnamacharya's  approach to asana is a 'Pranayamic'

Pattabhi Jois' approach to practicing asana appears meditative.

Of course it is, we know this, I'm sure we've all experienced it (on good days), suspected it at least,  it's a fixed sequence of postures that we perform day after day, repetitive, its bound to be(come) meditative.

Of course we get distracted, wrapped up in certain asana that we're struggle with or a little carried away when the practice comes together and we float a little, or excited by a new series, or frustrated by injuries....

BUT, all things being equal, when the distractions fall away a little, no injuries for a while, settled with a series, relatively comfortable with the postures we have... it kind of comes together doesn't it? We settle into our practice, it's familiar. It's always work of course, always a discipline but so is seated meditation, come back to the breath, don't get caught up in thoughts arising, let them pass, next vinyasa.... Moving meditation.

Ashtanga is often described as a concentration practice. We focus on the breath, we focus on the drishti we focus on the bandhas.... in their familiarity the postures (again on a good day) should take care of themselves.

Curious then that so many Ashtangi's are drawn to vipassana, insight meditation,  an awareness practice. There's a concentration aspect involved in Vipassana too of course or the awareness would be all over the place but we tend to think of vipassana as being more concerned with awareness than concentration ( OK a million problems with that statement but simply put and for arguments sake).

In fact that's probably why Ashtangi's do well with Vipassasana, we already have the concentration practice preliminaries out of the way.

*

Recently I was told about Mahasati meditation, a Burmese Forest Tradition Insight meditation practice based around a few simple movements.

The idea is that we begin our practice with these simple repetative movements, move the hand 'be aware', raise the hand, 'be aware', lower the hand on the belly, 'be aware'... repeat with the other hand.



This is interesting as it turns regular insight meditation/vipassana on it's head somewhat, we begin with awareness rather than concentration practice, rather than concentrating on the breath say.

It's a powerful technique, anyone can practice it, it's non religious, you don't have to be able to concentrate just repeat the same movements over and over.

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UPDATE: Let me something here. There was a post from Peg Mulqueen this morning called
A Monkey's Practice, here's a taste
"My brain chatters constantly.  And yes, even when I practice yoga.  Even while I’m breathing with sound, looking at a single point, making my shape – there’s almost constant thought.  I know the monkey mind is not a new concept and most of us have one – but I have a family of ‘em.  A whole forest full.  The medical world has another name for this, but let’s not go there right now …
Yoga turns the volume down – but it never turns it off.  And for me, that’s enough of a reprieve.  Or it was".
See, that's it right there, concentration can be hard, and there's a lot going on in Ashtanga, concentrate on the breath, on the bandhas, on the drishti, get all those right, and then, since the mid 80's perhaps, think about your alignment, worry about your alignment..... and we're always trying to make our postures better, a little deeper  and "Oh and has Frank just been given a 3rd series pose over there on the right...good for Frank, now where was I...must remember to record Homeland... breathe, breathe Goddamit! "

But it shouldn't be so hard, it's the same movements over and over again, don't try so hard, breathe, the postures will deepen over time if you just breathe, the alignment will get better, other postures will become possible, just breathe, focus on the breath.

For some (most) however, focussing on the breath (for 10 let alone 90 minutes) can be hard, Mahasati recognises this so they have you just be aware of the movements, the repetitive movements, don't even consciouslyinstigate them they become so familiar that they seem to happen on their own, just notice them.

In my own practice this morning (Primary up to Kapo), working on that it, was hit and miss, you can feel it when that awareness clicks in the familiar vinyasas have that same feel as the hand movements in the mahasati video above. This morning while in the asana proper I was just noticing the breath, classic vipassana, that worked nicely.

Check out the rest of Peg's post the bit I quoted is part of the set up setting the scene as it were, the post goes somewhere interesting.

http://pegmulqueen.com/about/2013/10/09/a-monkeys-practice/?fb_source=pubv1

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Later Mahasati will move towards awareness of thoughts arising but at first, in the beginning, you just practice the same repetitive movements, you practice them a lot.

Sound familiar?

Isn't Ashtanga similar, we practice the same vinyasas, over and over, the same asana, we practice it a lot, day in day out '.... anyone can practice, only lazy people cannot practice'.

I've been exploring this the last week or two, practicing a little of the mahasati movements and then moving into my Ashtanga practice, letting the mind rest, be aware of repetitive movements within the vinyasa, even of the the rising and falling of the chest. It's interesting.

Sometimes I stop a couple of times in the middle of practice, sit down and repeat the mahasati movements, kind of reset. In theory, with practice, I imagine I should be able to get through the whole series as an awareness practice rather than a concentration practice. It's an interesting approach.

Ashtanga then can be approached as a concentration practice if we avoid the distractions and perhaps as an awareness practice also. Still no substitute perhaps for more formal pranayama and meditation practice but then we should perhaps be trying to find time for those also at the end of our practice in an extended padmasana, thats an option built into the practice.

Of course we may have no interest in exploring practice as meditation whether concentration or awareness, nor pranayama nor a more formal seated practice or chanting or shastra study and that's perfectly fine. Ramaswami called his first book, Yoga for the Three Stages of Life. One stage will be dominated by asana, another by study and a little less asana, and the third by minimal asana, study of shastras and meditation. The final stage is usually considered to start after our household ( retired, kids left home etc.) duties are completed.

One more interview on Mahasati and insight meditation.




2 comments:

  1. Hi Grimmly, I have been thinking about this kind a thing a lot this week. The yoga sutras refer to asana without being specific about which actual bodily position, and I think it is assumed that he refers to seated postures. But what if any asana can be a meditation position - first you get the muscles and joints used to the position, then start regulating the breath (pranayama) and use the gaze and energy locks. I'm thinking that the next stage is basically to do the kind of meditation described by Gregor Maehle - visualising the movement of prana and meditating on images of the chakras. Hence, it truly can be "ashtanga". Or, in simpler terms, rather than saying "5 breaths" you are doing "5 rounds of pranayama" which becomes "5 cycles of meditation".

    Not that I really believe in prana/chakras yet - just something I'm trying at the moment. Will have a look at the type of meditation you mention, thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It can all be whatever you want. Many of the great saints believe that all this just leads to madness and a focus on the body rather than the self and is a hindrance on the journey of awareness others believe the opposite. All that matters is that what you are doing is making you love yourself and others more, helps you serve others, helps you look past yourself, removes all the crap so you can get to the peace inside yourself and enhance your connection to everything.

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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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