Saturday, 7 March 2015

Consistency and compatibility: A response to criticisms of Ashtanga Vinyasa PLUS a 'lost' photo and Surynamaskara and pranayama in puja


Part I

In a previous post on Krishnamacharya's employment of inversions in Ashtanga and Vinyasa krama I looked to the 1938 black and white footage of Krishnamacharya practicing Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) variations to suggest it was evidence that Krishnamacharya was practicing Vinyasa Krama (characterised by it's variations of asana rather than the more fixed series of Ashtanga) back as far as 1938. 

However, I've since come across the photo above ( from the Krishnamacharya birthday celebration documentary '100 years of beatitude' - embedded at the end of the post) showing Krishnamacharya in a Sarvangasana variation, just as he might have taught it to Desikachar/Ramaswami/Mohan in the 60/70s, what is often thought of as the Vinyasa Krama period. 

What is interesting about this picture is that it was taken during the 1934 photo shoot for Krishnamacharya's first book Yoga Makaranda. 

In the earlier post, I referred to Krishnamacharya's comment at the end of Yoga Makaranda Part I (1934) to suggest that Part II  would have included a wide range of variations which would have clearly linked Ashtanga Vinyasa and Vinyasa Krama together. Why move the inversions to a second text if there were only the seven headstands and five shoulderstand variations found in Ashtanga. 

This photo suggests to me that Krishnamacharya wanted to include a large number of Sarvangasana and Sirsasana variations/options requiring a second text ( and perhaps photoshoot which never materialised thus holding back the text) which would also have included pranayama instruction along the lines of those we find in the text AG Mohan claims is actually Yoga Makaranda Part II (AG Mohan has claimed the text Salutations to the Teacher the Eternal One was derived from an original, unpublished draft for YMII- Both can be found on my free download page at the top of the blog). 

We know from the translation of Krishnamacharya second published text Yogasanagalu (1941) that the Ashtanga syllabus that Pattabhi Jois gave to Nancy Gilgoff and David Williams in 1974, the same syllabus that he developed for his 1940s college course at the Sanskrit college, was based on Krishnamacharya's asana table divided into Primary, Middle and Advanced groups of asana. 

Asana table p 1 of 6 from krishnamacharya's Yogasanagalu 1941

Original Ashtanga syllabus given to Nancy Gilgoff and David Williams in 1974 Page 1 of 5

This means Modern Ashtanga vinyasa is not loosely related/connected to Krishnamacharya's teaching but directly so. Jois' Ashtanga was Krishnamacharya's Ashtanga. Krishnamacharya may have had more flexibility in in his use of groups rather than Jois' more fixed series but it is essentially the same. See the previous post were I point out that Krishnamacharya seems to have been supportive of Pattabhi Jois' teaching at least as late as 1975 when Krishnamacharya gave Jois' daughter Sawaswati a teaching Certificate.


In fact the modern Mysore room of Jois' grandson Sharath probably resembles Krishnamacharya Mysore palace shala much more than it differs. Krishnamacharya supposedly had up to 100 students practicing at one time, Sharath I believe has around 80 ( the room holds around 80 at a time but he may have up to 350 students a morning) . Krishnamacharya's classes supposedly ran for an hour, Sharath encourages students to complete their practice within approx. 90 minutes. Sharath talks of longer headstands being practiced outside the time limitations of the shala, it's likely that Krishnamacharya encouraged the same. In the Mysore class each student follows his own practice it seems likely that the students in Krishnamacharya's school would have followed a standing sequence together before moving on to their own practice and perhaps all finishing together. 

In Yoga Makaranda Krishnamacharya recommended long stays, employment of kumbhaka and bandhas, were these the 'secrets' that Iyengar claimed Krishnamacharya kept to himself and didn't teach to the students in the regular classes is that why Pattabhi Jois never included kumbhaka in modern Ashtanga. Perhaps the large group classes Krishnamacharya taught were not the ideal pedagogic environment to present these practices. I have an image of Iyengar, opening Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda, seeing mention of Kumbhaka's and long stays, the mental focal points etc. and asking Why wasn't I, his son-in-law, taught those practices directly.

However we do know that Krishnamacharya also taught privately on a one-to-one basis, often in a side room while senior students like Pattabhi Jois stood in, assisting the regular large group class just as Sharath's assistants do today. 

Two of these patients and/or one-on-one students are well known of course, Indra Devi and the Maharaja of Mysore himself, surely if Krishnamacharya was treating the head of state he would have been very much in demand as a private teacher. In the one-to-one environment he would have had more freedom to adapt the practice to the individual introducing appropriate variations/vinyasas, exploring kumbhaka and developing individual programs for practice, but even in the large group class there is evidence to suggest Krishnamacharya introduced variations to make it easier for students to access certain more challenging asana ( just as Manju Jois has said his father Pattabhi Jois did in turn).

Ashtanga Vinyasa then is directly indebted to Krishnamacharya Ashtanga of the Mysore palace if not a virtual replica but we can see also that the Vinyasa Krama often associated with Krishnamacharya's later teaching of Desikachar, Ramaswami and Mohan appears to have been present and practiced also in the same Mysore period, the two pedagogic approaches to practice were I would argue consistent with each other and complimentary, the breathing (kumbhaka), long stay and mental focus options offered in Yoga Makaranda itself made available for deepening and extending ones personal practice.

See my earlier post with around 40 photo's of Krishnamachrya's Inversion vinyasas

below, two of the photo presentations from the above post




Part II

And yet criticism abounds. In the past, Ashtangi's seemed to think of Krishnamacharya's later teaching as a watering down, a softening of the practice. Happily that view seems to be changing within the Ashtanga community. When I came to Ashtanga only eight years ago there was barely a mention of Krishnamacharya  influence and yet this week I put up a post on Krishnamacharya practicing in his 80s that has so far been directly linked to 8000 times following an fb share (resulting in around 90 others) from a senior Ashtanga teacher (Thank you DG), my Krishnamacharya Primary group poster has been viewed, if not downloaded, around 30,000 times. I'm excited that so many Ashtanga practitioners are now looking more closely at Krishnamacharya's teaching, at whatever period, late as well as early.

from this post with link to higher quality pdf
New poster Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda asana in Ashtanga Primary Series order

Nowadays the criticism seems to come from the other direction, student's and teachers of the the later traditions dismissing the Ashtanga of Pattabhi Jois perhaps failing to see how it is directly indebted to their teacher's teacher who seems to have taught this way up until his 50s and supported the approach at least as late as his mid 70's.  Ironically, students of the later teachers seem to see Ashtanga as a watered down version, a gross abomination of method, Not yoga. 

Just as Ashtangi's quote their favourite saying by Jois almost as a mantra, the later traditions do the same, yoga should be taught on an individual one to one basis, the practice developed, modified, adapted to the individual needs of the student. Ironically many of those who make that claim have been exposed to this practice in workshops and teacher training, basically, large group classes. 

I myself studied Vinyasa Krama in a group of thirty plus on Ramaswami's Vinyasa Krama Teacher Training.  This was a wonderful course by the way and this year may well be the last Ramaswami conducts it, I highly recommend it. In that course there is in fact a a one week module where you will read through Some of Krishnamacharya's original writing, Yoga Makaranda for instance line by line as well as his later works.


Sometime it feels there is a category mistake, many of the later traditions are stressing the therapy aspect of Krishnamacharya's practice, obviously therapy should be on a one to one basis and modified to the needs of the student, a practice individualised. But practice can also be tapasya, preparation for Yoga, Ashtanga is often, especially in the beginning perhaps, practiced that way. The earlier and later traditions are talking at cross purposes, it's as if one were trying to play chess with the rules of Snakes and ladders ( which could be quite amusing actually, I must challenge James Altucher to such a game). 

It's so disappointing. I feel I am privileged in that I have been exposed to the Ashtanga of Pattabhi Jois as well as the Vinyasa Krama of Ramaswami, at first I was conflicted as I tried to balance my practice but now I see only consistency, complementary practices and options. In my personal practice I no longer see a distinction .

Ashtanga vinyasa gave me discipline and focus, a personal, daily sadhana that I approached with commitment and dedication. Vinyasa Krama  gave me the opportunity to notice the slower option for practice  that is inherent, as well as the flexibility implicit, in Ashtanga Vinyasa. As I became more established in my own practice I was led to explore the other limbs, develop a more integrated practice, all in line with Krishnamacharya's early and later teaching, there too in Jois if one takes the time to look.

Systems have their dangers of course, we can look at extreme presentations, teachers strictly enforcing a fixed, almost dogmatic attention to what are really guidelines for practice, I suspect they are in the minority. 

Later Krishnamacharya traditions look at the selfie videos of Ashtanga practitioners and scoff, forgetting perhaps the 1930s crowd pleasing demonstrations on which all our practices were established (look again at the 1938 video of Krishnamacharya, his wife and kids, Iyengar.... notice too the charming scene of Krishnamacharya practicing acroyoga with his children). Krishnamacharya pointed out that in the middle stage of life we should be practicing a large amount of asana, a little pranayama , it is later in the third stage of life, when we are much older, that we are encouraged to reduce the amount of Asana, increase the pranayama and focus more on the spiritual aspect of practice, meditation, old texts, bhakti perhaps. Many 'mid stage' Ashtangi's however, while keeping up their side with a dedicated asana practice also end up choosing to explore/study important texts, pranayama and meditation some even chant and introducing puja to their daily practice as well as looking into therapeutic aspects.

In the later Krishnamacharya traditions we see from some claims that yoga therapy is scientific despite it ever 'being likely to stand up to the criteria imposed by Western science, like reproducibility of results (when the experiment is performed by the proponent and also when performed independently by other people); or statistically relevant difference of outcomes when compared to a control (positive or negative)'. There just isn't the money, the investment to develop large scale studies, even assuming these are appropriate. Desikachar himself in an interview basically indicated that the main area Yoga Therapy could contribute is in that of stress management. This is not to say that there are not great interest and benefit to be gained from exploring these areas ( see my own posts on the possible benefits of kumbhaka). Pattabhi Jois' teaching examination conducted by Krishnamacharya was to heal a patient. The therapy aspect, other than in a general sense,  has been lost somewhat in the Jois Ashtanga Vinyasa through lack of focus, just one area Ashtangi's can learn perhaps from the later Krishnamacharya tradiations, As Sharath himself indicates we shall all get older and have to adapt our practice accordingly.

We are all blinded by our own passion and belief in our disciplines, of course we are, we practice them daily, they are often the most important part of our day, our lives even, we often become defensive. Surely we need to step back a bit and and look clearly at our own practice, its strengths and weakness, where it came from, it's contradictions and uncertainties as it uncomfortably blends the Raja yoga Patanjali's Yoga Sutras with  Hatha Yoga texts like Hathayogapradipka), lets face it, it's a confused mess, there is no certainty, not among the scholars, of the basis of our practice. Most of the time  we should no doubt approach our practice sous rature 'inadequate yet necessary', trusting it for now but always cseek with  ever more skilful discernment how we can better establish ourselves in our personal sadhana. 

Yoga is radical enquiry, we should begin with our own practice.



Part III

Looking back even further, beyond Krishnamacarya, I suggested in an earlier post that the whole Ashtanga Vinyasa method may have developed not from the wrestling and gymnastics suggested by some, but from the Sun salutation with mantra the Krishnamacharya may well have taught in Mysore, to Indra Devi for example, as well as in the later period ( Ramaswami taught us the Sun salutation with Mantras on his Vinyasa Krama TT course).


The argument is based on the idea that given the sun salutation found in certain centuries old (millennial anyone?) brahmanic practice of puja  all one needs to substitute is a different posture for the prostration and you already have Ashtanga Vinyasa, all the elements are present,  perhaps even including a kumbhaka where the mantra would normally go.

Here is a nice presentation of this from the Krishnamacharya documentary '100 years of beatitude'. Here we see Krishnamacharya's son Desikachar pointing out elements of krishnamacharya's Morning puja. Notice the stages of the sun salutation but notice too the pranayama, nadi shodhana introduced to young brahmin boys as young as thirteen.




Notice the pranayama


Thank you to Noe for the reminder of this video and to Leslie Kaminoff for posting this on his youtube channel


4 comments:

  1. I find the possibility of a connection between wrestling and yoga intriguing. As a personal note, I took up wrestling after a couple of years of ashtanga practice (completely unaware that a connection might exist). I was having mild neck problems at the time, and I could not make headstand and shoulderstand work for me. I wanted to have longer stays, but that would give me neck pain, so I had to settle with shorter stays. Adjustments to alignment and props did not seem to help much either.
    Wrestling fixed all of that in no time. Neck strength is at the core of wrestling, a variety of solo drills, and also a lot of pulling on each others heads during play. Wrestlers also do a lot of things that I would not consider healthy, like neck bridges, and they definitely pay for the fun in the long run. But they have undoubtedly strong necks.
    Looking back, my ashtanga training did not prepare me for long stays in headstand and shoulderstand. Of course, me finding something in wrestling that feels like a missing piece, does not mean that ashtanga has origins there. But I still find such a possibility fascinating.

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  2. I love this post.

    I particularly love this: "Ashtanga vinyasa gave me discipline and focus, a personal, daily sadhana that I approached with commitment and dedication. Vinyasa Krama gave me the opportunity to notice the slower option for practice that is inherent, as well as the flexibility implicit, in Ashtanga Vinyasa. As I became more established in my own practice I was led to explore the other limbs, develop a more integrated practice, all in line with Krishnamacharya's early and later teaching, there too in Jois if one takes the time to look." as it applies to my own experience over the years, just substitute the word viniyoga for vinyasa krama. And this is just to stick to sectarism, as they do have essentially the same meaning ;-)

    Your musings are so useful, beyond their philological value. They reflect the experiences of many of us in the 'Krishnamacharya Yoga' community. We may start with one aspect of his teachings, become all attached and defensive, perhaps then move to a different aspect and become all attached and defensive again. Finally we realise that every aspects contains the others as in one of those fascinating fractals.

    The value of your posts is in how much they work as a 'mirror', at least for me, and this is exactly what a teacher should be, a mirror for the student.

    Thanks!!

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  3. "Krishnamacharya pointed out that in the middle stage of life we should be practicing a large amount of asana, a little pranayama , it is later in the third stage of life, when we are much older, that we are encouraged to reduce the amount of Asana, increase the pranayama and focus more on the spiritual aspect of practice, meditation, old texts, bhakti perhaps."
    I find this to be very interesting, especially because of your focus on looking at the origins of Krishnamacharya's teachings and practices. There is an ancient South Indian Martial Art called Kalaripayattu, which follows a very similar paradigm. When one is young, there is much focus on developing strength and flexibility, then as one ages, there is more focus on refinement, martial techniques, weapon use, study of the marma points, and siddha medicine, or ayurveda, then as one grows into the later stages of life, there is more focus on meditation and pranayama. I've done a poor job describing the depths of this martial tradition, but one can see the parallel. Some people speculate that that both Yoga and Kalari are sibling practices that greatly influenced each other throughout time. There are now some yoga practitioners that have spent some time learning kalari because of the depth of kowledge that the system has for marma points, message therapy and the study of medicine through Siddha and Ayurveda.

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  4. Thank you for this Anon, thought provoking.
    Here's the full quote from Ramaswami. I think the idea is that it's less asana in the middle stage because we are discharging our responsibilities rather than to do with ability. These days of course, especially in the west, we tend to have more free time than ever before, shorter working days etc. So if we factor that in we can still practice a fair amount of asana. Krishnamacharya was a teacher of course, he wrote in YM II that we don't need to learn all the asana but it's important that some do, he would be one of those of course, a national treasure chest of asana : )
    “In Yoga Rahasya, Nāthamuni refers to the need to take into consideration the individual’s stage in life while practicing yoga. The general rule is to follow vṛddhi, sthiti, and laya kramas (methods) during, respectively, youth, midlife, and old age. When one is young, the body is known as deha, because it grows. At that stage of life, practicing āsanas as an art (vinyāsa) is appropriate. The various āsanas and the myriad vinyāsas, with proper breathing, help the young person grow (vṛddhi) with good physical and mental health. This aspect is dealt with extensively in several chapters in this book.
    During midlife, when there is neither growth nor decay (sthiti), the yoga practice would include important āsanas with a few vinyāsas, good yogic breathing exercises and bandhas (locks), meditation, mantra chants, and so on. These aspects also are covered in this book. In midlife the main requirement is to maintain mental and physical health and ward off diseases. This is the stage when one has to achieve results, discharge heavy responsibilities. “and make progress in life. As one gets old, when the body is called śarīra because it decays, yoga practice will be directed to maintain reasonable mobility, through āsana and prāṇāyāma practice. The laya krama will consist primarily of intense meditation, along with study of, and reflection upon, the philosophy of Yoga. These aspects, too, are given extensive treatment.
    But the yogi’s life is a long journey to kaivalya, or liberation, and could take several life cycles to achieve. While ordinary mortals would cherish the desire to defy death, the yogi wants to defy rebirth. Classical Yoga defines a yogi’s spiritual evolution as comprising three stages, or levels, and this book is structured accordingly.”

    Excerpt From: Srivatsa Ramaswami. “Sample: Yoga for the Three Stages of Life.” iBooks. ”

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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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