Monday, 5 October 2015

Ashtanga : When to move on to the next asana.

Disclaimer: Reading this post it sounds as if I'm writing from knowing what I'm talking about, as if I'm teaching everyday myself when I actually rarely teach. This is just another opinionated piece from a home practice perspective.

Areminder that I was never that satisfied with my dwipada sirsasana
#unfinishedbusines

I was watching a Dwi pada Sirsasana tutorial yesterday morning. I have to say I'm going to need to be convinced on this one, it had me wince a little. It also had me asking WHY would you encourage someone to work on Dwi pada sirsasana if they have to go through all that (basically what I put myself through here at home,eight years ago - see end of post), there surely has to be a better approach, or at least an alternative.

Surprised at my reaction? I have tended to be pretty critical of the holding somebody back at an asana approach as you know, so why am I getting all Ashtanga Police now.

Perhaps the argument is that if somebody is going to work on the asana at home then some tips for working with a little more support might be a good idea. I suspect though that this is coming from the shala perspective of assisting and adjusting somebody into a posture, it's a way of offering such support to a student who isn't at a shala and can't have those assists, that support.

Blocks, walls, a post are perhaps alternatives to the teacher standing in frount of you.

I always practiced at home, never had assists and adjustments....., when I did eventually visit shalas I turned down the assists but welcomed the minor adjustment. Assists can no doubt be useful, when Manju employs them he offers just a little support while the student does all the real work themselves. Assists aren't part of a supposed 'tradition' they are merely one pedagogic approach and there are of course others.

Manju using me for a demonstrating of assisting Marichyasana D. Here his legs are just giving support to stop the practitioners springing out, one hand on the sacrum the other encourages lengthening of the spine, no pushing, pulling, wrenching, tugging, cranking just support, guidance and encouragement.

Lets look at the Vinyasa Krama approach for a moment, this is how Krishnamacharya taught Ramaswami. The sequences Ramaswami presents us with are made up of Subroutines, we have the marichi subroutines for example, the leg behind head subroutines. So in the Asymmetric sequence you would go as far as you are relatively comfortable going in the marichi family of postures until you hit a wall then you would move on to the next subroutine, Janusirsasana perhaps, which leads eventually to leg behind head postures. Again you would work through the postures until you hit your wall then move to the next subroutine and so on.

http://vinyasakramayoga.blogspot.jp/2011/01/asymmetric-sequence-practice-sheets.html

These are related asana, each a preparation for and then a progression on a key asana. There is not necessarily any strong relationship between this subroutine and the next other than perhaps all being asymmetric postures ( although in the Bow sequence for instance each subroutine may help prepare you for the next just as we find in that first portion of 2nd series). It would be like suggesting that that marichiyasana D prepares you for navasana. But hang on, In Ashtanga we aren't supposed to practice navasana until we have mastered Marichi D, even thought there is no progressive relationship other than that navasana follows  in the series ( it might be seen as a counter to the marichi postures).

Being Ashtangi's we will of course always come up with a good and seemingly convincing argument for why the system is designed just so, as if indeed it was divinely inspired thousands of years before, handed to the rishi's and a special hell prepared for anyone who changes the slightest gesture.

How did this come to pass?

Krishnamacharya had groups of asana rather than series. There would be the Primary group and as one became proficient Krishnamacharya would seemingly add on more challenging version of an asana from the middle group and later perhaps from the proficient group. For example Krishnamacharya had marichiyasana D in the middle group (interestingly not Primary, which kind of makes sense). Once one had gained proficiency with marichi A, B and C from the Primary group he would no doubt add on D from Intermediate and later E, F, G and H from the advanced group of asana. Unless of course you were performing demonstrations for him in which case he might pluck an asana out of the air and demand you do it ( Iyengar's Hanuman story a case in point).

Likewise with the other asana, once becoming proficient with Eka pada sirsasana and able to stay in the posture comfortably for a significant period with slow steady breathing he would no doubt introduce you to chakrasana, kapilasana, even durvasana (standing on one leg with the other behind the head). At some point he would bring in Dwi pada sirsasana ( both legs behind head), perhaps after mastering yoganidrasana which has both legs behind the head but with less pressure on the perhaps than dwi pada.

When Pattabhi Jois turned Krishnamacharya's asana table into a series we ended up with the situation where we had to master some challenging asana before progressing to basic asana in another group, often a quirk of the series. However much we try and argue that the sequence is perfectly sequenced, we now know this was not the case, it was never intended as a sequence, a series. There was perhaps a general progression in Krishnamacharya's table of asana that Pattabhi Jois used, with only minor modifications ( in the first two series at least) for his four years college syllabus.

That said, I like the series, I practice the first two partly because they are familiar from having practiced them for years, they tend to feel like home.

Manju however will usually have us progress through the series doing our best at, and continuing to work on, the more challenging variations of a key asana. His father Pattabhi Jois, Manju says, also supposedly worked in this way... in the beginning at least. This approach strikes me as intuitively correct, it's how Manju teaches, how Pattabhi Jois taught early on and surely how Krishnamacharya also taught, perhaps his teacher before him.

So I have no concerns about somebody progressing on to navasana and kurmasana if they are still struggling with marichi D. However if they are struggling with dwi pada sirsasana then my instinct would be to strongly suggest ( and having this blog I get mail asking me for such advice) that they continue working on deepening their eka pada sirsasana and skip dwi pada sirsasana and yoga nidrasana altogether for now, jump ahead to tittibhasana perhaps and continue the work there.

The same goes for Kapotasana, when I hear somebody groaning, moaning and even screaming when being cranked into some poor semblance of the asana my instinct suggests to me that perhaps they aren't ready and more time spent on ustrasana while moving on to bakasana etc ( a counter posture perhaps to all the backbending) might be a better way to go or better still introduce some extra Bow postures early on.

Disclaimer 2: I came at this from both approaches, struggling with the posture myself at home, battling with it but then also putting it to one side while moving on to the next posture in the series. Below is the earliest video I can find of my trying to work on dwipadasirsasana from March 2009, about a year after I started practice (http://grimmly2007.blogspot.jp/2009/03/progress-in-eka-pada-sirasana-series.html), .... all that pressure on my neck from a poor eka pada sirsasana and then I think it's appropriate to try putting two legs behind my neck rather than one, what was I thinking..... I clearly wasn't.



video

So why all these videos, all these workshops how to get into this posture, into that.

Sometimes I wonder, guiltily, if I'm partly to blame. When I started this blog most of the videos we had of the practice were of perfectly performed ( for then) asana. The idea of this blog as well as others was to try to show the progress towards attaining a semblance of the asana, ideally catch the the first jump back, jump through, drop back, the first 'no hands' leg behind head, and that perhaps this might be more useful to others working on the asana than seeing the perfect, divine, presentation of an asana or technique, for the longest time I tried to lift up like Lino Miele and jump back or jump through like John Scott.

Others had a similar idea, once we had a basic, however unpolished, version of an asana it became no longer of any value to film it unless a better approach/technique came up. Others however, more accomplished than us, started to make more polished videos, better 'how to's' and oh what are market there was for those. Those early days of Youtube built reputations, mini asana empires. Did the number of workshops increase, it seems that way and of course built on how-to tutorials as they were, that became the character of the workshops,new postures were handed out willy-nilly. The rules of the market, demand needed to be maintained.... created....invented, more tutorials, asana we would never think of encouraging a few years before, fancy floaty techniques.... it wasn't enough to jump through ( of almost hop through like Sharath) one had to float.... and justifications, oh the justifications for doing so ...."bandhas you know".

But perhaps it was always so, David Swenson's handstands between navasana come to mind, Derek Ireland's handstands between everything...., more innocent times?

Later the tutorial seemed less important, the finished product was more suited to Instagram, why produce a tutorial at all when a few beautiful photographs would do or better still a glossy promotional video, location location location. At some point these appeared to became a necessity. If you wanted to prop up your shala, give your space a chance to survive, make a living then you too needed to jump on the bandwagon and market yourself, the practice.

All distractions of course, all this learning we're encouraged towards, a lot of learning it seems but no knowledge.

We know where the knowledge is found, where it always is and in any discipline, there on the mat, on the cushion, in turning inwards.... and we don't need anybody to tell us, we knew it from our first comfortably breathed surynamaskara. Learn the basics from a teacher perhaps, take a workshop in how not to hurt yourself and just breathe, ignore as much distraction as you can, certainly don't seek it out, shame on you, on us for pushing it on you.

But wasn't it all like this, didn't Krishnamacharya himself give demonstrations. he did indeed but these seemed to have been to promote yoga. Krishnamacharya was very much aware that he needed to grab attention, to have his audience even pretend to listen to his lectures when all they wanted to see where the young boys with their legs behind their heads or in impossible backbends.... perhaps this was why Krishnamacharya was so bad tempered at the time and how he lightened when he left Mysore.

Some still do it the old way, workshops made up of asana practice and lectures, talks explorations of texts. Chuck spending three days on surynamaskara and two before that on samastithi (I exaggerate.... slightly), Richard exploring the Gita after exploring half primary.....


Shala's remain of course, the good ones, safe spaces to explore the practice for oneself, the occasional assist, a reminder of breath and bandhas, no pressure to move more forward than appropriate unless discipline is the focus the lesson of this day and the next but generally left alone as much as possible to turn inward.

The home shala is the extension of this, the only option for some but perhaps were we all end up sooner or later.

2 comments:

  1. I relate. I've been practicing at home for many years (after a few years of lessons and led classes in the 90s). The "devotion" has waxed and waned over the years, but I have doubled down on my home practice of late. The shala is always in the corner of my eye, on my guilty conscience. "Should I or shouldn't I?" There's a good one nearby, I've been to the webpage, made it as far as the front door, but just couldn't bring myself to go inside. My practice has become so personal to me, it's like going to the toilet, and I certainly wouldn't want to do THAT in a room full of people. I like the idea of having a teacher, of having someone to pass on the tradition, but I'm just not that confident that being cranked into a new position is really the point. My practice today is kind of deviant: a little slow here, skipping few there, really savoring that one there.... It's taken me years to get here, and I don't want to lose that.
    Just stepping out of the void to say hi...love the blog, been following for years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for commenting. I struggle with the idea of tradition(s) it's a word that suggests hundreds of years to me rather than decades. There is a sense of the shala that appeals to me though, that we don't go to a shala for our own practice so much as to support the space and others, some just beginning but also those going through their own struggles, I do feel I should go to a shala more or at least hold a space for others while continuing to work on my own practice. That strikes me as quite an achievement, progressing with your own practice while providing the space and perhaps a share of the support for others.

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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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