Sunday, 23 March 2014

UPDATED: The 'Jumping' aspect of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

This has become a long post so here is an outline.

A rambling post that looks at Iyengar’s characterisation of Krishnamacharya’s early Mysore teaching, and by implication contemporary Ashtanga, as an irrational ‘jumping’ practice. I suggest that this is a mischaracterization of this approach to practice that has been taken up by the likes of Norman Sjoman and Mark Singleton. I try to show that the Krishnamacharya’s teaching was always characterised by it’s attention to the breath, it is and always has been a breathing practice rather than a 'jumping' practice. I attempt to see how this misunderstanding could come about through the presentation of Ashtanga both in the past and present, the demonstrations, selfies and self promotion that has always been there but is seemingly more prevalent and perhaps damaging somewhat. I present an argument that perhaps the critics are correct, perhaps we have or are losing some of the subtlety of the practice in focusing on style over content or obsessing over one aspect of content ( the next posture). Looking at Krishnamacharya’s early work I draw our some of the approaches to our tradition that have become less stressed and perhaps in danger of being lost altogether. I look at the possibilities of exploring those areas and how we might go about doing  so in our practice, within our tradition and lineage. In closing I take a quote from Krishnamacharya and rework it somewhat.

"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". p76 Krishnamacharya Yoga Makaranda part II

Now 'all of the asana' are 'safe' a reworking of Krishnamacharya's quote could perhaps go something like this..

I have already mention that all these techniques outlined in the approach to asana in Krishnamacharya's early works are not perhaps necessary or even appropriate all of the time, in all asana, for all of us. But a few of us at least should learn and explore them all so that the art of Yoga may not be lost from our tradition.

A 'jumping' practice really?

Thank you Brad for sharing this clip of Iyengar talking about his guru Krishnamacharya in an interview from the movie Enlighten up.



Iyengar is focusing on the 'jumping' aspect of Krishnamacharya's teaching and explaining it as a result of Krishnamacharya teaching the warrior class boys of the Mysore palace. Practice as exercise, as fitness, somewhat akin to a 'martial art'.

And of course this is something Mark Singleton, picks up on in his book Yoga Body and likens to the exercise/fitness regimes in vogue at the time.

Mark too is focusing a little too much perhaps on the 'Jumping' aspect of Krishnamacharya's vinyasa approach (following Sjoman he likens it to the practice of wrestlers) which he encounters in Contemporary Ashtanga, perhaps extrapolating backwards rather than focussing directly on Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda (1934) and Yogasanagalu (1941). In those texts we get a fuller presentation of the teaching on yoga, and asana practice in particular, that Krishnamacharya wished to communicate more widely at the first opportunity he was given to do so.

The reports of Krishnamacharya's demonstrations and the Iyengar section of the 1938 film footage do seem to support Mark's argument but we must remember that they were short demonstrations, a closer look at Krishnamacharya's texts questions that view as do the Krishnamacharya sections of the 1938 film footage. Krishnamacharya's practice was always all about the breath, it was and even in contemporary Ashtanga still is, a breathing practice.

 The focus of attention, as it appears from the outside at least, is of the dynamic aspect of Ashtanga practice, the jump back and through, the moving from one posture to the next, the fitness aspect, the beautiful 'hard body'.

Poor Ashtanga, so misunderstood.

And yet it's not surprising, it has itself to blame somewhat. From David Swenson to Kino MacGregor  we have images and videos of "ta da" moments, beautiful jump throughs, handstand, lots of handstands, all the fancy Advanced postures..... it's acrobatic, gymnastic, contortionist, it's astonishing. And look at all the fit, beautiful, scantily clad bodies, ashtanga can make you beautiful......

A quick aside, Norman Sjoman argues that Krishnamacharya was influenced by the texts he found in the Mysore palace Library, that may be so and yet just looking at the screenshot above surely we see an Ashtangi's body, this is a man who practiced and for a long time.

My apologies to David (whose book was a HUGE influence on my practice) and Kino ( who I have referred to on this blog previously as the patron saint of home ashangi's, on account of all her Youtube tutorials) for picking them out of the crowd but David's video with it's perfect floaty jump through and handstands was perhaps the first on the market and the Internet is bombarded with Kino videos,  no wonder then we now have the seemingly endless Ashtanga selfie videos and the current perception of ashtanga is becoming one of vanity, vanity, vanity.

Demonstrations of the beauty and dynamism of Ashtanga are nothing new of course, it was Manju Jois' demonstration that drew David Williams to Mysore and Pattabhi Jois.

It was the demonstration  of"jumping from posture to posture" that drew the young Pattabhi Jois to his guru Krishnamacharya.

NAMARUPA MAGAZINE

And Krishnamacharya was of course drawn to his own guru in Tibet, Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari, by his reputation for...... hang on a moment, for philosophy.... not asana?

Krishnamacharya supposedly went to study with Ramamohana Brahmachari to study philosophy, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras in particular. Ramamohana Brahmachari was said to be an authority on the text by one of the leading scholars of the university city of Varanasi. This may be why Krishnamacharya laid such great emphasis on the Study of the Yoga Sutras.... if writing or practice was in-line with Patanjali then it was correct, if not, incorrect practice.

And what characterises Krishnamacharya's understanding of the Yoga Sutras in relation to physical practice? The breath.

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 focusing 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" Ramaswami

And yet we know this of course in our contemporary Ashtanga vinyasa practice, we may post a selfie video occasionally, particularly of our jump back ( this blog began with the jump back six years ago) but our practice is still characterised by our attention to the breath. For 60, 90 or 120 minutes each morning our attention is on the breath or at least on the attempt to bring our attention back to the breath, of attempting to matain the integrity of the breath.

The jump back and jump through are only two vinyasas out of around 22 for most of the seated postures, it just looks more visually dramatic than the five breaths taken in an actual asana especially since the count of five in a posture is becoming short and shorter.

To be fair to the detractors, in contemporary practice 'Half vinyasa' is practiced, the first 7 vinyasa are skipped as are the final two (rather than coming all the way back to standing, we just jump straight in to the next posture), that brings the vinyasa count unofficially to 13. We jump into the posture take five quick breaths then prepare to jump out and jump back in again for the other side, then we jump out again and back in for the next posture. Hmmmm fair enough, there does seem to be a lot of jumping and preparing for jumping in contemporary practice.

Perhaps in full vinyasa, where the posture begins and ends in standing it all appears more balanced. Krishnamacharya would also stress the long slow breathing 'like the pouring of oil' (Pattabhi Jois also in old interviews, 10, 15, 20 seconds for inhalation and the same for exhalation), this has.... speeded up somewhat, is your breath like the pouring of oil, is mine? Krishnamacharya also focussed on kumbhaka  (retaining the breath in and out and the end of the inhalation and exhalation respectfully) outlined in his books Yoga Makaranda and Yogasanagalu. Not only are there kumbhaka while in most of the the actual asana but often in the vinyasa before and after the asana, in fact kumbhaka could be introduced at almost any stage of a vinyasa, the jumping aspect begins to recede into the background. A breathing practice indeed.

It's understandable perhaps that anyone looking from the outside might characterise contemporary ashtanga as a jumping practice, overlooking the subtleties that are still our own experience of our 90 minute breathing practice each morning, and  more apparent to us of course as we gain more experience in our practice ( by more experience I mean the months, years of practice rather than the asana that make up our own individual practice). However I find it harder to understand how that mistake could be made regarding Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda which is all about these subtleties.

An interesting post from Paul Harvey this morning relating to a online exchange we had earlier in the week around the previous kumbhaka posts.

"My understanding from my discussions over the years with TKV Desikachar regarding the context and content of Yoga Makaranda, is that when teaching youngsters the length of the breath was minimised to a relatively short fixed length and use of Kumbhaka was limited to a few seconds Antar Kumbhaka and Bahya Kumbhaka.

However there were no limitations on the range or intensity of Āsana and lots of use of variations to be engaged with within each Āsana.

In the adult there were no such limitations for the breath and the work with variations of the Āsana was re-prioritised to working with a fewer Āsana and fewer variations within each Āsana, but with the challenge of a greater range of breathing patterns both in length and combinations.

Certainly Antar Kumbhaka or Bahya Kumbhaka of 10″ was commonplace in the adult practice and here the ‘perfection’ of the Āsana was measured by mastery of all aspects of the breath rather than for the youngster, where ‘perfection’ of the Āsana was measured by mastery of all aspects of the form.

This was consistent with Krishnamacharya’s teaching in his Yoga Rahasya on Yoga Sādhana and Stages of Life

Furthermore my understanding is that if we use a particular Āsana with all its permutations of form and thus less focus on the variations of the breath it operates more as an Āsana.

If we use an Āsana with all its permutations of breath and thus less focus on the variation of the form it operates more as a Mudrā.

Sarvaṅgāsana is such an example with its 32 variations devised by Krishnamacharya emphasising its role as an Āsana and its static solo form with its focus on extensive breath ratio, perhaps augmented by the Tribandha, emphasising its role as a Mudrā". Paul Harvey Centre for yoga studies

I wonder if it's a mistake  to link Yoga Makaranda too closely to the teaching Krishnamacharya was doing in Mysore at that time, especially to the warrior class boys. We can clearly see this teaching in Makaranda but the book itself goes further, is actually quite extreme with it's long stays in certain postures, also in Part One at least, there are no limits outlined for the ever present kumbhaka. Iyengar characterises Krishnamacharya's teaching at this time as concerned with 'jumping' but for me the dominant characterising factor of Yoga Makaranda itself is the breath. No doubt constantly developed into the form outlined by Paul and his teacher Desikacher above.

One last thought, In the Krishnamacharya documentary 'Breath of Gods' there is the scene of the young boys chanting while holding a posture, one way perhaps Krishnamacharya stopped the boys getting bored during the occasional long stays suggesting perhaps Krishnamacharya did manage to squeeze them in occasionally.

Chanting too of course can be considered akin to pranayama with it's breath and diaphragm (uddiyana bandha/) control. I must count the number of sarvangasana and sirsasana variations Krishnamacharya presents in that old 1938 B and W footage above.


I often come back to this line from yoga Makaranda part II

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. p76 Krishnamacharya Yoga Makaranda part II

The asana seem to be safe for now at least, plenty of us learning and passing on Advanced postures (see Kino again recently with 4th and now 5th series posture videos on Youtube) but perhaps there is the danger that other aspects of the 'art of yoga' are in danger of being lost.

Paul Harvey just shared with us an Introduction to Yoga Makaranda, I hadn't seen it before, thank you Paul as ever. Download the pdf here
http://www.yogastudies.org/wp-content/uploads/KYM_Darsanam_November_1993.pdf

Centre for yoga studies

Centre for yoga studies

Centre for yoga studies

There is a line in the above that reminds me of Mick Lawton's recent guest post describing the astounding health and healing benefits of Kumbhaka in his Ashtanga practice.

CASE STUDY: "The Benefits of employing Kumbhaka (retaining the breath in or out) during Asana." Guest post by Mick lawton

"The then Maharaja of Mysore Nalvadi Krishnaraja Oda-yar, who was seriously ill, requested T. Krishnamacharyato treat him. Through yoga, proper diet and herbs the king recovered and became very  healthy"

And of course Krishnmamacharya seems to have been employing kumbhaka at that time. Was it the kumbhaka aspect of practice that perhaps helped heal the Maharaja?

We'll never know of course.

If Krishnamacharya hadn't healed the Maharaja he wouldn't have been given the Yoga Shala, Pattabhi Jois wouldn't have been his student there, we wouldn't have the Ashtanga we have now.

If we focus on the jumping, the dynamic aspect of practice, if we promote ourselves and the practice through the presentation of advanced postures  then perhaps we will come to overlook the subtleties of the practice.

Unfortunately, the breathing is getting quicker, the stays in postures shorter, variations from the 'sequence' are frowned upon, Kumbhaka does not seem to have been picked up by Pattabhi Jois at all,  I do wonder how many aspects of the Art of yoga are already in danger of being 'lost' and that saddens me.

The question becomes of course, how to include these aspects of practice, of our tradition and lineage that become neglected, how do we avoid them from becoming lost altogether.  How do we reintroduce the exploration of kumbhaka and it's effects or slow the breath, introduce variations where appropriate and if required, maintain familiarity with the count in all series and yet still complete a series or maintain at least the integrity of the sequence.

My own solution, what works for me personally ( but it's your practice you have to find the approach that works for you), is actually also Pattabhi Jois'.... give up on the idea that a full series must be completed in one practice (it's right there at the back of yoga Mala as well as in interviews, do what you can, what you have time for just maintain the order and the last three postures).

If we only have an hour an fifteen minutes to practice we can switch from full to half vinyasa, speed up our breathing, count to five quickly while in the state of the asana, stay on the count rush/force ourselves into the challenging postures as well as the easier ones, give up on any thoughts exploring the effects of kumbhaka or at this rate of practice effective use of bandhas.

OR

We can do half a series, first half of Primary one day, the second half the next, allowing us to slow the breathing, stay for five or more long full breaths in the state(s) of an asana, take long full extra breaths to actually get into any asana that are more challenging for us personally, explore kumbhaka and bandhas more fully.... and, after "cleaning the room" as Krishnamacharya put it, we can now see about "living in it", settling in for some pranayama and perhaps chanting or other meditative activity.

Or we can practice for two - three hours and do both, have our cake AND eat it.

"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". p76 Krishnamacharya Yoga Makaranda part II

Now 'all of the asana' are 'safe' a reworking of Krishnamacharya's quote could perhaps go something like this..

I have already mention that all these techniques outlined in the approach to asana in Krishnamacharya's early works are not perhaps necessary or even appropriate all of the time, in all asana, for all of us. But a few of us at least should learn and explore them all so that the art of Yoga may not be lost from our tradition.

NAMARUPA MAGAZINE

Afterthought: And yet we have this, Mysore rooms around the world, the selfies and demo's put to one side, Ashtanga as it's actually practiced each morning, rooms like our own, where we just turn up to breathe. http://grimmly2007.blogspot.co.uk/p/mysore-rooms-around-world.html

Winnipeg Yoga Shala Canada March 2010


Mysore rooms around the world,

I should perhaps add that last week I practiced along to a recording of a recent Sharath Led Primary series from Mysore. It was a little slower than I expected at 1 hour 25 minutes (opening to closing mantra), a beautiful practice. I saw it as a framework, a structure, rather than the final word on the practice, somewhere to start from in exploring our own practice. Proficiency doesn't necessarily imply advanced postures but rather the approach we take to the ones we have.


UPDATE
Very nice comment just come in from Clifford Sweattie. http://www.pranaairways.com
He's stressing that there was no Kumbhaka in the teaching he received from Guruji but he does talk about practicing what sounds very much like "the Rishi series' Long stays in fewer postures after learning the Advanced series and pranayama.

Anthony:
Your blog is an enjoyable read filled with thought provoking statements. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is not here to discuss the benefits of vinyasa, I’m sure his response to the “jumping” analogy would be profound! I was fortunate enough to study with Guruji when he had time to discuss the subject of breath and vinyasa in a near private setting and can share some of his teachings on these subjects. His technique of teaching asana included focus on the breath and bandhas always. Correct, even breathing in asana practice served to strengthen and purify but also prepared one for bringing the breath further under control in Pranayama.
My Ashtanga Yoga asana experience with Guruji excluded kumbhaka (“don’t hold it your breath” he would often say) he confirms this on page 47 of Yoga Mala: “kumbhaka or breath retention, does not occur either in Surya Namaskara or the asanas.”
Where Guruji did teach kumbhaka was in Pranayama, the method he taught is filled with the technique. Seated firmly in padmasana during pranayama, the practice of kumbhaka after asanas had a profound calming effect on my whole body and mind.
And what about all that jumping? Perhaps another perspective is in order, I mention on my Prana Airways website Guruji’s instruction to me after learning the entire Ashtanga asana series, Pranayama and Dhyana. I asked him: “What’s next Guruji, are there more postures?” His one word response was appropriate, as always: “Why?” What followed was an instruction on holding the breath for longer counts in the postures. The end result was fewer vinyasas and in my experience, the movement between postures offered relief and a chance to wake up and bring balance to other parts of the body after holding a posture for a greater length of time.
Yours in Yoga,
Clifford


I'm thinking of this post as almost a companion piece to my recent post on Saturdays' John Scott post, as if they are somehow Bookends.

Getting it. John Scott's Brighton Workshop



4 comments:

  1. Hi Anthony, one thing I've been doing is trying to see, when in a posture, if its having any affect (usually this boils down to whether I feel the stretch or muscular strain much). After some years of yoga, some asana don't really do much (e.g. the multiple forward bends in primary) so why spend a long time in them each day - seems better to me sometimes just to blast through the "easy" ones to get to the point you are up to in the series. This is actually what my teacher advised me to do. You can then spend longer on the postures that are challenging you. But at least once a week do a practice with full stays. I love my weekend yoga-thons. But it was getting to the point in my weekday practice (with work looming) where the sun salutations plus standing series was getting close to the hour mark!
    Of course, if you no longer want to master the more advanced postures, then you are going to concentrate more on meditation/pranayama and longer stays. And I guess if you can stay in say pincha mayurasana for example but not have your breathing rate increase and feel OK then you've achieved some sort of yogic state. But aren't you just as well to sit in padmasana and do say paschi, headstand and shoulder stand (i.e. the ones in the ashtanga sequence that have longer stays anyway).
    A final thought - there's only one stanza in the yoga sutras that describes asana. Asana apparently translates as "seat", so this has been taken to mean that the only worthwhile asana is padmasana. However, maybe it means a seat for your soul or consciousness - when the body is stable and still (even in say a headstand), the soul then has a seat.
    Cheers, Rob

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Anthony, just a minor aside from the theme but wanted clarification if I have my logic correct. Concerning BKS interview..I am not sure of the exact timeline but does he say he practiced Vinyasa style Yoga of the day for 8 years (14-22) and that cured him of his life long illnesses...then leaves healthy and starts afresh in Pune, finds system not commercial enough so changes it?? Then precedes to say that Vinyasa style is just for warrior people..more akin to martial arts..
    Is that really what he is saying?
    Many thanks Paul

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anthony:
    Your blog is an enjoyable read filled with thought provoking statements. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is not here to discuss the benefits of vinyasa, I’m sure his response to the “jumping” analogy would be profound! I was fortunate enough to study with Guruji when he had time to discuss the subject of breath and vinyasa in a near private setting and can share some of his teachings on these subjects. His technique of teaching asana included focus on the breath and bandhas always. Correct, even breathing in asana practice served to strengthen and purify but also prepared one for bringing the breath further under control in Pranayama.

    My Ashtanga Yoga asana experience with Guruji excluded kumbhaka (“don’t hold it your breath” he would often say) he confirms this on page 47 of Yoga Mala: “kumbhaka or breath retention, does not occur either in Surya Namaskara or the asanas.”

    Where Guruji did teach kumbhaka was in Pranayama, the method he taught is filled with the technique. Seated firmly in padmasana during pranayama, the practice of kumbhaka after asanas had a profound calming effect on my whole body and mind.

    And what about all that jumping? Perhaps another perspective is in order, I mention on my Prana Airways website Guruji’s instruction to me after learning the entire Ashtanga asana series, Pranayama and Dhyana. I asked him: “What’s next Guruji, are there more postures?” His one word response was appropriate, as always: “Why?” What followed was an instruction on holding the breath for longer counts in the postures. The end result was fewer vinyasas and in my experience, the movement between postures offered relief and a chance to wake up and bring balance to other parts of the body after holding a posture for a greater length of time.

    Yours in Yoga,

    Clifford

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hello Clifford
    Thank you so much for sharing Guruji's teaching with you on the breath here. I find it so curious that there is no hint of kumbhaka in asana in his teaching when it was everywhere in Krishnamacharya's and continued to be so in his later teaching as well. It's as if for Guruji Kumbhaka only belongs in pranayama, though revering his teacher he was also it seems his own man.

    Your last paragraph reminds me of David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff's reference to the 'Rishi series' ( I was never sure if Guruji was joking, teasing David here, your comment suggests not), David describes it as choosing 10 postures and staying for fifty breaths. I've put up a page on it here
    http://grimmly2007.blogspot.co.uk/p/ashtanga-rishi-seriesapproach.html

    Just to be clear when you write
    "What followed was an instruction on holding the breath for longer counts in the postures."
    I'm assuming you mean holding the posture and taking more breaths in the posture, 25- 50 say not 'holding the breath' (kumbhaka).
    When practicing these longer stays did Guruji slow the breath dramatically, I've seen interviews where talks of inhalations and exhalations of 10, 15 even 20 seconds each.
    manju mentioned to me that his father used to practice long long stays in postures.

    Thank you again.
    btw Kristina Karitinou- Ireland posted a video on Youtube of a Guruji led Advanced series in a garage that I'm assuming is the same as the video you referred to earlier. I posted it here, with your comments on it as well as a link to your website.
    http://grimmly2007.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/sri-k-pattabhi-jois-advanced-ashtanga.html
    Thank you again
    Anthony


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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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