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Thursday, 17 March 2016

The perception of Ashtanga in 1995 - What was Pattabhi Jois letter to YJ in 1995 referring to?

Pattabhi Jois' letter to Yoga Journal has been doing the rounds again, warning about Ashtanga being turned into a circus. I included the letter in my post

But wasn't it always a circus. Distractions and the rise of the Ashtanga Video tutorial and Ashtanga workshop. 

"I was disappointed to find that so many novice students have taken Ashtanga yoga and have turned it into a circus for their own fame and profit (Power Yoga, Jan/Feb 1995). The title 'Power Yoga' itself degrades the depth, purpose and method of the yoga system that I received from my guru, Sri. T. Krishnamacharya. Power is the property of God. It is not something to be collected for one's ego. Partial yoga methods out of line with their internal purpose can build up the 'six enemies' (desire, anger, greed, illusion, infatuation and envy) around the heart. The full ashtanga system practiced with devotion leads to freedom within one's heart. The Yoga Sutra II.28 confirms this 'Yogaanganusthanat asuddiksaye jnanadiptih avivekakhyateh', which means 'practicing all the aspects of yoga destroys the impurities so that the light of knowledge and discrimination shines'. It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out the essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations.
The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with 'power yoga' or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga shastras (scriptures). It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant body building."
-K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore, South India

But what was Pattabhi Jois supposedly responding to?

I received a comment suggesting that there were two reason Pattabhi Jois supposedly wrote the letter to YJ. One was that he wasn't acknowledged in Beryl Bender Birch's book Power Yoga, the other that he disapproved of putting 'Power' in the title. It was also suggested that what Beryl Bender Birch was presenting was a watered down version of authentic Ashtanga.

I always felt on reading this letter that Pattabhi Jois just didn't like the name 'Power' Yoga. The letter was supposedly referring to a feature series of articles in the Jan/Feb 1995 Yoga Journal issue titled Power Yoga, Beryl Bender's recently published book Power Yoga was referred to in the article. and there was a review of her book towards the back of the magazine.

 The full feature of articles can be found down below.

Following the feature I'll look more closely at Beryl Bender Birch's book Poower Yoga

Reading the YJ feature below do keep in mind that this is very much a 1995 view of Ashtanga, in his workshops David Williams refers to the origin story as Ashtanga legend rather than fact.

Magazine: Yoga Journal
Issue: January/February 1995
Author: Anne Cushman

from here

Read the actual magazine on google books


The sweaty, aerobic form of Ashtanga yoga taught by Mysore master K. Pattabhi Jois is making headlines these days as a workout that can change your life if you can survive it.

In the rainy winter months before she quit teaching yoga, sold her car, and bought a one-way ticket to India, my housemate used to wake up every day before dawn to practice Ashtanga. Through a thick fog of sleep Id dimly hear the creak of the stairs, the meow of the cat, the cough of her Honda starting up in the dark driveway. If I pried my eyes open to peer at my bedside clock, the red numerals would stare implausibly back at me: 3:47, they'd say, or 3:51.

By the time Id join her at the Mill Valley yoga studio for the class she taught three hours later, Karens practice session would be finished. The thermostat was set at 80 degrees, the studio windows were dripping with steam, and the room smelled not unpleasantly of sweat. As the pale morning light streamed in, wed tightly draw the venetian blinds (at the insistence of the next-door neighbors, who apparently found it unsettling to witness Ashtanga s acrobatics while they ate their breakfast). A handful of yoga students made desultory conversation as they peeled off their sweatshirts and spread out their sticky mats in two facing rows, as if lining up for the Virginia Reel.

As I stepped to the front of my bright purple mat and folded my hands into prayer position, I always felt a combination of exhilaration and dread, like a kid stepping onto the high dive since pride forbade backing down the ladder, the only way down was a head-first plummet into the water. Ahead lay two hours of hard practice a yoga that one Ashtanga teacher described, in an interview in Mens Journal, as the most kick-ass variety there is.

Ashtanga yoga along with its various spinoffs is getting a lot of that kind of press these days, in venues ranging from News day to Good Housekeeping. Its being celebrated as power yoga aerobics with a meditative flair, the hip new way to burn off calories, sculpt your buns, and sweat away the flab around your waist. When reporters call me at Yoga Journal to get leads for their Ashtanga stories, they usually refer to it as nontraditional yoga you know, not the usual gentle stuff. Were looking for something thats a real workout. While womens magazines have published a barrage of articles on all styles of yoga, Ashtanga is the first to draw the attention of major mens publications as well: As a writer for Details, a magazine targeting young men, informed me, The softer stuff wont fly with our readers. Im interested in Ashtanga because of its bootcamp flavor. Such calls may only increase in number with the January publication of Power Yoga, a comprehensive guide to Ashtanga by New York instructor Beryl Bender Birch (see Profile on page 104).

I try to explain to inquisitive journalists that, in fact, Ashtanga is a traditional form of yoga, with a lineage that some practitioners claim goes back thousands of years. I tell them that, like all yoga, its not primarily intended as a fitness system its fiery series of vinyasa (flowing postures linked by the breath) are intended not only to detoxify, stretch, and strengthen the body, but to stoke the fires of prana (life-force energy) and channel the amplified energy up the spine, creating a state of meditative bliss.

If theyll stay on the phone long enough, sometimes Ill even explain that the Sanskrit word ashtanga simply means eight-limbed. For centuries, the term ashtanga yoga has been used to refer to the eightfold system of practice prescribed by the sage Patanjali in the second century A.D., whose limbs include moral codes, physical exercises and breathing techniques, and meditation. The particular school thats suddenly in the limelight whose reigning guru is 79-year-old Mysore yoga master K. Pattabhi Jois is just one extremely vigorous approach to the asana (posture) and pranayama (breath control) components of classical ashtanga. (To make that distinction clear, some people have begun referring to Jois' system as Ashtanga vinyasa yoga.)

Such subtleties aren't particularly interesting to the mainstream press, despite their enthusiasm for a workout whose meditative flavor they find palatable even trendy in the wake of Little Buddha. What they might find more intriguing is the celebrity roster of practitioners. Sting does Ashtanga. So do Kris Kristofferson, the Janet Jackson dancers, and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Brian Kests popular power yoga classes in Santa Monica a modified version of the traditional Ashtanga sequences are frequented by fitness-video queen Kathy Smith and celebrity trainer Todd Person. And recently, San Francisco Ashtanga teacher Larry Schultz went on tour with the Grateful Dead, to teach the demanding form to guitarist Bob Weir, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman, and bass player Phil Lesh. In an interview in a Deadhead magazine, Lesh credits Ashtanga with having a real effect on the music this tour and giving him personally a new feeling of centeredness. Says Lesh, This has opened a whole new world for me.

Such acclaim is not uncommon. Ashtanga yoga typically provokes one of two powerful reactions evangelical enthusiasm or equally passionate condemnation. Those who love it insist that its the ultimate whole-body, whole-mind training system. They rave with starry-eyed fervor about its rigor, its discipline, its camaraderie, its efficiency, its demand for total commitment. At this point in the conversation, you almost expect them to burst out into the Marine Corps Hymn.

Those who hate it assume a grim expression, purse their lips, and mutter darkly about injuries and machismo. To hear them talk, you'd think Ashtanga was the yogic equivalent of Russian roulette, as foolhardy as tight-rope walking without a net or making lemonade with Ganges water.

My initial response fell somewhere in between. As a Buddhist practitioner, I loved Ashtangas sustained, meditative concentration on the breath; as a former cross-country runner with a sedentary job, I loved the sweaty, head-to-toe workout. But I had some misgivings about a system whose rigorous introductory series with its jump-throughs, arm-balances, and multiple variations on Lotus and Half-Lotus seemed hopelessly inaccessible to the average beginner. How was it possible, I wondered, to nourish the yogic values of mindfulness and goalless practice while pursuing such a staggering level of athletic prowess?

The Origins of Ashtanga

The answer to that question, I discoveredl ike everything else in Ashtanga only comes by actually doing the practice. One of Pattabhi Jois' favorite slogans is Ashtanga yoga is 99 percent practice, one percent theory. As David Williams, an Ashtanga teacher on the Hawaiian island of Maui, explains, Before youve practiced, the theory is useless. After you've practiced, the theory is obvious.

The core Ashtanga practice consists of six progressively difficult series of linked postures, each requiring between 90 minutes to three hours to complete. A student is required to display reasonable proficiency at one series before moving on to the next. First and second series can be learned in the group classes that are increasingly available; if you want to learn third or beyond, you'll probably need to find a tutor. Only a handful of practitioners have ever mastered all six.

According to Ashtanga lore, the Ashtanga vinyasa series were developed by hatha yoga adepts hundreds possibly thousands of years ago. Some go so far as to insist that this is the original form of hatha yoga, the meta system of which all other schools are incomplete fragments. (Pattabhi Jois sometimes refers to it as Patanjali yoga, implying that this was the form of asana practice with which the ancient sage was familiar.) However, all knowledge of this system had been lost, the story goes until one day in the early 1930s, when the yoga master Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (whose influential students would include B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, and his own son T.K.V. Desikachar) and his young disciple K. Pattabhi Jois were perusing Sanskrit texts in the musty archives of a Calcutta university library.

The head of the Maharaja of Mysores yoga institute at the royal palace, Krishnamacharya was both a renowned scholar of Sanskrit and yoga philosophy, and a master yogi who had spent many years studying with a hatha yoga adept in Benares. But even he was astounded by what he and Jois discovered that day: a collection of verses on hatha yoga written on a bundle of palm leaves. The manuscript, entitled Yoga Korunta, appeared to be between 500 and 1,500 years old; the verses were in a form of Sanskrit that indicated they might reflect an even older oral tradition. The text reportedly contained hundreds of sutras describing different postures and how they should be linked together a level of detail that makes the Hatha-Yoga Pradipika look as sketchy as liner notes.

Working from the manuscript, Jois and Krishnamacharya laboriously reconstructed the six series that are now known as Ashtanga yoga. Although Krishnamacharya simply incorporated this newfound information into his already vast knowledge of yoga technique, he encouraged Pattabhi Jois to devote himself exclusively to the practice and propagation of the newly uncovered sequences.

Some skeptics charge that this story a sort of yogic version of The Celestine Prophecy is apocryphal. (Hatha yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, for example, asserts that the sort of practice presented in the Ashtanga system and the detail with which it is reportedly described would have been highly anomalous in any text prior to the 19th century.) The Yoga Korunta is not available in English, and not one of the senior teachers I spoke with has seen even a Sanskrit copy (although many have read extended quotations from it). One rumor holds that the original manuscript has been eaten by rats.

However, even if these series merely represent the fruits of Krishnamacharyas lifetime of yogic research or the oral transmission of an ancient lineage, they are undeniably potent. The structure of Ashtanga makes you repeatedly go through an entire spectrum of postures, some of which are displeasing or difficult, explains Richard Freeman, an Ashtanga teacher in Boulder, Colorado, and the star of an instructional video presenting Ashtanga's primary series. Usually that brings out your shadow side, your weak areas both physically and psychologically.

The series work like a combination lock, adds Williams. If you do the right poses in the right order, the mind and the body automatically open up.

Each series unlocks a particular aspect of the body and mind. The primary series called yoga chikitsa, or yoga therapy is said to realign and detoxify the physical body, particularly the spine. It also builds a foundation of considerable physical strength, especially important to balance out the overly flexible students who are often drawn to hatha yoga practice. The intermediate series (nadi shodana, or cleansing of the nadis) purifies and strengthens the nervous system and the subtle energy channels that link the seven chakras.

The four advanced series (originally taught as two series, but subdivided to make them more accessible) are collectively known as sthira bhaga, which roughly translates as something like divine stability. These awe-inspiring sequences take to new heights the strength, flexibility, concentration, and energy flow cultivated in the first two series. Its like testing gold, explains Freeman. You've made the connection to your breath, to the root of your body now you test that connection every way you can. Because you're not sure its gold until you've tested it.

Taken as a whole, the series are said to draw the prana up the sushumna nadithe central energy channel in the spine to the crown chakra, where it produces radical changes in consciousness that culminate in the ecstatic meditative state called samadhi. It is this state not gymnastic accomplishments that is the ultimate goal of Ashtanga.

A Typical Class 

Although every teacher brings his or her unique perspective to the practice, the high degree of standardization means that whatever class you attend assuming the instructor is reasonably qualified will match the same officially sanctioned template. Drop in on any Ashtanga class anywhere in the world, and youll be able to speak the language.

Your class will begin with the intonation of a Sanskrit prayer dedicating the practice to the sage Patanjali. When the chanting dies away, your teacher will probably remind you to deploy the three central techniques in the Ashtanga arsenal: ujjayi breathing, mula bandha, and a variation of uddiyana bandha. Ujjayi breathing literally, the victorious breath is a classic pranayama technique in which the breath passes across the back of the throat with a sibilant hiss, like the rushing of waves on a beach or the approach of Darth Vader. Used throughout the Ashtanga series, it keeps the breath steady and controlled and draws the minds attention inward, facilitating meditation in motion.

Mula bandha root lock is a traditional hatha yoga energy-raising practice, although most schools don't employ it during asana practice. It involves contracting and lifting the muscles of the pelvic floor, including the anal sphincter and vaginal muscles. (As one teacher graphically put it, Imagine that youre on the freeway in traffic and your'e trying not to go to the bathroom.) Mula bandha draws the awareness to the core of the body, intensifying and drawing upward the energy at the base of the spine. In physiological terms, its also a static contraction that stimulates physical heat, which increases flexibility and helps detoxify the system.

Uddiyana bandhaupward lock kicks in almost automatically as a side effect of a strong mula bandha. The lower belly below the navel sucks inward, firming the abdomen and drawing the breath up to expand the rib cage, chest, and lungs. (The diaphragm, however, does not harden, but continues to move freely.) Over time, uddiyana bandha actually helps increase lung capacity.

All three of these techniques ujjayi breathing, mula bandha, and uddiyana bandha are to be practiced continually throughout the Ashtanga series: in itself a challenging exercise in concentration. When the locks are engaged and the breath is steady, adepts say, you can sail through postures that would otherwise be impossible. And conversely, when your attention wanders from these key elements, its a good sign that youre practicing too aggressively and need to back off and reestablish your meditative focus.

With the breathing established and the locks engaged, you'll begin a series of Sun Salutations to warm up the body. One of the central principles of Ashtanga yoga is tapas, or heat: the more you sweat, the better. Studios are generally kept toasty, and the nonstop flow of demanding postures ensures profuse perspiration. The heat loosens the muscles, helping prevent injury and making it easier to melt into the postures. And the sweating purifies the body by removing toxins via the skin, the largest eliminative organ. On a subtler level, the physical heat and purification is intended to intensify an inner, spiritual fire that burns through ignorance and delusion, ultimately consuming the ego in its flames.

As you start to get hot, you'll launch into a series of standing postures (ranging from fundamentals like Triangle Pose to bugaboos like Utthita Hasta Padagusthasana, in which you balance on one leg, clasp the big toe of the other, straighten your raised leg, and draw the shin straight up toward your forehead). Youll synchronize your entries and exits with your inhalations and exhalations, holding each asana for five breaths before moving on to the next.

If you cant perform the textbook version of a particular posture, you'll just aim yourself in the right general direction, modifying the pose for your level of practice. (The emphasis in Ashtanga tends toward flow, not precision; its not uncommon to glimpse beginners in positions that would have an Iyengar teacher radioing out for emergency supplies of blocks, straps, and sandbags.) Your pace should be rhythmic and consistent, your gaze steady (each posture comes with a drishti, or prescribed point on which to focus the eyes), and your concentration unwavering. If your teacher is of the more traditional variety, he or she will keep verbal instruction to a minimum, simply calling out the postures and ticking off the breaths like a metronome, while conveying postural information through hands-on adjustments. Others will keep up a nonstop patter to coach and cajole you from one posture to the next.

Once the standing poses are completed, youll be sufficiently warmed up to commence the sequences that are unique to each series. Although each series comprises a balanced workout, each has a particular focus: The 30-odd postures of first series, for example, concentrate predominantly on forward bends, while second series emphasizes deep backbends, foot-behind-the-head postures, and seven variations of Headstand.

To keep the internal heat cranked up, you'll transition from one pose to the next via partial Sun Salutations. For example, if youre sitting on the floor in Lotus Pose, you'll lift yourself up on your hands, swing your crossed legs backward between your arms, and then unfold your legs and shoot them backward, landing in a push-up position. (Dont get discouraged if you don't master this maneuver in your first few lifetimes of practice.) Then you'll arch your chest up into Upward-Facing Dog, press back into the inverted V of Downward-Facing Dog, and jump your legs forward through your arms, landing in a ready-position for the next posture. Some particularly advanced practitioners will combine such jump-throughs with slow, controlled Handstands, lifting their feet toward the ceiling before gracefully descending into the next pose.

Every series ends with the same cool-down sequence of finishing poses, which includes Shoulderst and, Headstand, Bound Lotus, seated meditation, and a lengthy rest in Savasana, or Corpse Pose. Finishing poses balance out the body and return the metabolic rate to normal, allowing the nervous system to absorb the benefits of the practice.

The entire session is designed as a prolonged meditation which, as anyone knows who has ever sat a Zen sesshin, is not necessarily an experience of unadulterated bliss. The practice demands not only physical strength and flexibility, but a dogged determination to confront on a daily basis ones most glaring weaknesses, both physical and mental. In the fixed mirror of the series, the day-to-day fluctuations of the body and mind are reflected with painful clarity.

In any given session, I am besieged by all-too-familiar demons of envy, pride, laziness, boredom, judgment, and greed. In a nonstop subvocal monologue, I gloat over poses I do well and rail against those I cant (most of which, I am convinced, are preposterous and shouldn't even be in the series in the first place). I shudder in revulsion as my neighbor, for the third time, exchanges his sweat-slimed mat for a fresh one. I nurse the delusion that if I just could hook both ankles behind my neck, the rest of my life would be nirvana.

But then there are those moments that make it all worthwhile. Im carried on my breath like a leaf on the wind: folding, arching, twisting, bending, leaping lightly from one posture to the next. My body tingles with energy; my mind is quietly absorbed in the hypnotic rhythm of practice. The poses seem strung on the breath like prayer beads on a mala; I enter each one to the best of my ability, savoring the silky stretches, the pleasurable ache of muscles taxed to their edge.

At moments like these, I think, Im beginning to get a taste of what true Ashtanga practice might be like.

Ashtanga Comes to the West

The first Westerners to discover the Ashtanga vinyasa practice, in the early 1970s, were David Williams and Norman Allen, two 20-something spiritual seekers who had taken up residence in Swami Gitananda Giris ashram in Pondicherry, India. One afternoon, a visiting teacher named Manju Jois Pattabhi Jois' son, who had been practicing yoga since he was seven years old gave a breathtaking demonstration of what the awe-struck Americans later learned was Ashtanga yogas primary series. I went to India as a detective, looking for yoga, Williams recalls. When I saw Manju, I knew right away that I had found what I was looking for.

Manju warned Allen and Williams that Pattabhi Jois a traditional Brahmin would never dream of teaching this sacred system to foreigners. Undeterred, Allen packed his bags and headed for Jois' Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, while Williams returned to the United States to renew his visa for another trip. After Allen sat on Joiss'doorstep for weeks, begging for instruction, Jois relented and Allen went on to spend years in Mysore, studying Ashtanga and earning a masters degree in Indian studies.

The next year, Williams returned to India with Nancy Gilgoff, and the couple promptly followed in Allen's footsteps to Mysore. In the first of what would be many visits, they spent hours every day in intensive practice, performing both first and second series twice daily; Williams became the first Westerner to master all six series. Upon returning to the United States, they became the Johnny Appleseeds of Ashtanga, sowing the desire to learn the demanding form in hundreds of American practitioners.

Williams first began teaching in Encinitas, California, and quickly established an enthusiastic following. In 1975, the burgeoning Encinitas Ashtanga community hosted Pattabhi Jois on his first trip to the United States. A steady trickle of practitioners began making the pilgrimage to Mysore; and new teachers began appearing on the scene, such as Brad Ramsey (initially a student of Williams) and Tim Miller (initially a student of Ramseys). Manju Jois, who had accompanied his father on his first trip to California, opted not to go back to India; instead, he established a studio of his own in Solano Beach.

Meanwhile, Gilgoff and Williams moved on to the Hawaiian island of Maui, where Ashtanga quickly became so popular that it was soon known simply as the yoga, or, off-island, as Maui yoga. The combination of the hot, humid climate (ideal for the sweaty vinyasa practice), the already flourishing 70s counterculture, and the fitness-oriented Hawaiian lifestyle created an ideal petri dish in which American Ashtanga culture could flourish. Spontaneous Ashtanga communes sprang up, with live-in groups of students arranging their work and social lives around the requisite six-day-a-week practice. (You had to do the practice in order to come to the parties, Williams jokes and the parties, by all accounts, were great.) The practice attracted local fanatics: One spiritual seeker literally emerged from a cave in the jungle to learn the series; a mogul skier and circus tightrope walker, drawn to Ashtanga because it was the closest thing to bump skiing I could find in Hawaii, began practicing first series on a tightrope set up in his front lawn. The Maui community spawned a whole new generation of Ashtanga teachers, including Danny Paradise (who counts rock musician Sting among his students), Gary Lopadota, and power yoga teacher Brian Kest.

In the meantime, Ashtanga pioneer Norman Allen had been punctuating his sojourn in India with brief stints in the United States, where he taught yoga on demand in Philadelphia and New York to students who included Power Yoga author Beryl Bender Birch. But I didn't want to be a gym teacher, Allen recalls. When it started feeling like that, I would split for India. Nowadays, Allen who never liked to make money with yoga lives without electricity or phone on a mountain farm on Hawaiis Big Island, where he grows bananas, papayas, avocados, and coffee. He invites students to practice with him for free each morning at the Golden Gloves Boxing Gym in Kona.

Both Williams and Gilgoff continue to teach on Maui. Gilgoff runs the House of Yoga and Zen, where daily Ashtanga classes are offered in a spacious cedar studio on land donated by a grateful student who claims Ashtanga saved his life. Williams whose daily practice includes meditation, pranayama, the Ashtanga series, at least half an hour of snorkeling, and a good game of chess teaches private tutorials to local students and a steady stream of visiting celebrities.

The Ashtanga Family

The magazine included a photo of Pattabhi Jois and his wife Amma thus directly associating him with the Power yoga title of the YJ edition.

Perhaps because of these grassroots beginnings, the Ashtanga community has always been intimate and familial, a tight-knit fraternity whose only entrance requirement is daily practice of the prescribed series. So far, there are no institutionalized teacher training programs certification is a vaguely defined but rigorous process involving extensive personal study with Pattabhi Jois and completion of third series, at least, to his satisfaction. Guruji has to have had his hands all over you in every pose, explains Santa Monica teacher Jane MacMullen. He has to have personally told you that its all right for you to teach.

And like any family, the Ashtanga community has its disagreements. Off the record, every instructor I spoke with had his or her own list of who was and was nota bona fide Ashtanga teacher: No two lists were exactly the same. Even the venerable Pattabhi Jois comes in for his share of criticism, from practitioners who feel that his method of firmly pushing students into the desired posture is risky or even violent. In some heretical Ashtanga circles, rumors abound about torn muscles, blown-out knees, and even crushed vertebrae resulting from overly forceful adjustments.

The more orthodox, however, vigorously defend Pattabhi Jois' technique. If you surrender to it, it works very well, because he gets you to do things that you thought you couldn't do. He's an expert about helping you overcome your preconceptions about whats happening in your practice, says Freeman. The posture is just a method to overcome your mental conditioning. But its very hard for people to understand that.

Theres a science to adjusting, and Guruji knows it, corroborates Gilgoff, who claims her chronic migraines were cured through Jois' skillful manipulations. When I first started practicing, he had to put me into every pose, and lift me out again. Eventually, I could do it all myself.

The real risk of injury, many teachers say, is not from expert adjustments, but from overly aggressive practice on the part of students eager to compete with more accomplished classmates. Traditionally, in fact, Ashtanga was taught not in groups, but individually, with new postures introduced one at a time as the practitioner was ready. In Western-style classes, in which the whole group moves in synchrony through the series, its crucial for students to stay cognizant of their own physical limitations.

Opening your body is like opening an envelope you can rip it, or you can steam it open without a trace, says Williams. I tell people to just enjoy the yoga totally stretch, breathe, feel good. Concentrate on your mula bandha and your breathing, and you will open like a flower not through tearing the flesh, but through stretching it. Williams also stresses the importance of working closely with a teacher. This yoga is so powerful that to partially teach someone and then send them on their way is like giving a child a loaded gun, he says.

Changing the Series

Some teachers have sought to minimize the risk of injury by departing from the traditional sequences altogether. Ashtanga yoga can be very goal-oriented. Everyones always trying to get to the next pose, says Brian Kest, whose Ashtanga-influenced power yoga classes also draw on his recent training in vipassana meditation. But I know too many people who have mastered all six series but are still totally manic-depressive. Instead of staying with the traditional Ashtanga sequences, Kesta 15-year practitioner who started studying Ashtanga at age 14improvises modified series of poses based on the Ashtanga principles of bandhas and ujjayi breathing.

Modified approaches such as Kests (or the White Lotus flow series developed by Santa Barbara teacher Ganga White) make vinyasa practice much more accessible for beginning practitioners. But such experiments are frowned upon in more conservative Ashtanga circles. (As Kest puts it, A lot of yogis diss my yoga.). While even traditionalists agree that poses sometimes need to be modified to meet the unique needs of a practitioner, they maintain that the specific sequencing of the postures reflects a tried-and-true wisdom that may only be apparent after years of practice.

In approaches that are not based on the traditional series, people just automatically gravitate toward what their mind thinks they should be doing. So it tends to become very self-indulgent, says Freeman.

When you start taking it apart, you run the risk of not being able to put it back together again, warns Chuck Miller, an Ashtanga teacher and the co-owner of the Santa Monica studio Yoga Works. You run the risk of losing something that is too subtle for you to understand.

Eventually, the modified versions of Ashtanga may have a wider appeal than the traditional form. Although the Ashtanga business is booming at Yoga Works, co-owner Maty Ezraty says that in her opinion, it will never be as popular as less demanding styles. Mass Americas not ready for Ashtanga, she maintains. Ashtangas not a quick fix. Some people may come just because they want a good workout, but they wont stay with it. The ones who stay with it are the serious yogis.

And ultimately, the most difficult challenge serious yogis face in Ashtanga practice is not the mastery of specific poses, but the mastery of the mind. What counts is not the ability to stand on the hands or drop into a backbend, but the ability to keep the mind steady and the heart joyful, no matter what posture you're in. Says Freeman, Ashtanga is about seeing God continuously, wherever you gaze.

Most practitioners, admittedly, are a long way from achieving such a goal. But as Pattabhi Jois likes to say again and again, Do your practice and all is coming.

Anne Cushman is senior editor of Yoga Journal.


Yoga with Richard Freeman: Ashtanga Yoga, The Primary Series is available through YJs Book & Tape Source on page 128.

Power Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch is available through YJs Book & Tape Source on page 128.


By Beverly Fredericks

Why was I going to India? The 20-hour flight from San Francisco to Madras offered plenty of time to reflect.

A year and a half ago I began to practice Ashtanga vinyasa yoga with the hope of finally ridding myself of a nagging pain in my left hip. Having practiced various forms of yoga for the last nine years with the same hope, I was amazed to find that the synchronized breathing and rigorous but balanced asanas of the Ashtanga vinyasa system created a heat within me that burned deep through to heal the stresses of 18 years of performance-focused training in dance and competitive gymnastics.

For a year and a half I sweated my way through classes two hours a day, six days a week. My teacher, Karen Haberman, had studied with both Tim Miller and Richard Freeman. The balanced strength and flexibility of her practice inspired me as I made my way through the first and second series again and again, finally beginning the third series. The power of the practice reshaped my body, calmed my nerves, and gave me moments of sustained bliss on a daily basis. So when Karen bought her one-way ticket to India to study with Ashtanga master K. Pattabhi Jois, leaving me with a videocassette of the third series and some of her winter clothingI panicked!

One of the enviable benefits of teaching freelance September through June is free summers. So I decided to follow Karen to India, at least for the summer, and find out what real Mysore-style yoga was like.

Before heading to the Marin Airporter, I laid out my tarot cards, immediately wishing I had not. Sorrow, futility, and disappointment in the near future, the cards predicted. It seemed I was flying straight into Kalis mouth. If the World hadn't been the final outcome card, I might have cashed in my ticket then and there.

So it was no great surprise when I came down with giardia my first week in India. Mid-July is monsoon season after all, a time when the micro-organisms in untreated water overflow keep many Indians from eating out for fear of intestinal complications.

After my purging phase was finished, I felt I had covered sorrow, disappointment, and futility quite thoroughly and was ready to move on. So I moved into a house near the Mysore zoo with some other yoga students. There, I could prepare my own meals without protozoan additives. I paid Mr. Uslam, my landlord, roughly $25 per month, which included visits from Hemma, who washed our clothes, floors, and bathrooms. I thought this sure evidence that I was on my way toward the World.

Every morning, I awoke at 5:00 a.m. to the sound of chanting amplified through a loudspeaker from the neighborhood mosque. Between 5:00 and 6:00 I prepared and sipped peppermint tea I had brought from home and did some preliminary wake-up stretches. By 6:00 I was on my bicycle, riding by women who scooped up cow dung and shaped it into patties to dry in a large open field, just as the sun rose majestically over the turrets of the Maharajas palace.

Mysore-style practice might seem chaotic to an uninitiated observer, with 12 people practicing different series of asanas at the very individual pace of their own inhalations and exhalations. Add to this the fact that the tiny room that holds all 12 seems meant for a maximum of eight, and you begin to envision the intertwining dance that is Mysore Ashtanga yoga.

K. Pattabhi Jois, lovingly referred to as Guruji by his students, circulates through the crowded room adjusting and admonishing. Why legs bending, bad man? Why forgetting Bakasana, bad lady? Fifty dollar fine. To Guruji, this seeming chaos is as orderly as a garden in bloom. Occasionally he is pleased with a students practice, which he tends to express less verbally than with a nod, a Yes, correct, or a Today better. All in all, however, there is very little talk in this room of bodies drenched in sweat. Far more prevalent is the euphony of ujjayi breath created by 12 yogis, all focused on allowing their audible breathing to guide their practice.

The tiny room attached to Gurujis home virtually vibrates with the energy and intention of its yogis. I often felt as if the energy in the room did my yoga for me. I found myself finishing first series in an hour, with plenty of energy left over for Gurujis intense back bending sequences, followed by the first eight asanas of third series; all this before beginning the Shoulderstand variations, Headstand, and other standard Ashtanga finishing poses.

At age 79, Gurujis own practice consists of pranayama and the Sanskrit chanting of the Upanishads. He continues to chant gently as he adjusts the mornings first group of students, who begin their practice with a Sanskrit chant at 5:00 a.m.

As each student finishes her practice, another begins in her place. Students waiting for a practice space crouch in the back of the room and watch until a space becomes available. I found this was a great opportunity to observe both varying styles of practice and Guruji in action. Karen and a couple of others were learning the amazing contortions of fourth series, a few more were learning third. Most of us were practicing the less spectacular but no less demanding first and second series.

Gurujis grandson Sharath begins his practice in the predawn dark at 4:15 a.m. At age 23 he is fast approaching the full Master of Ashtanga weekly practice, which consists of second series on Sunday, third series on Monday, fourth series on Tuesday, fifth series on Wednesday, sixth series on Thursday, and first series on Friday. (Saturdays are traditionally days of rest in Ashtanga.) Just before I left India, I watched him practice and snapped some photos. Besides bearing witness to a gaze so focused it could probably fry an egg, I was introduced to quite a number of asanas I didnt even know existed.

When Sharath finishes his practice he assists Guruji, adjusting students with a hand here, a foot there, the full weight of his body, or a word or two of advice. Sharaths adjustments are thorough and exact. And if his demeanor is somewhat more serious and self-contained than Gurujis, he is quick to return a smile for a smile. (It seems exceptional smiles run in the family.)

Because I am extremely flexible, I found some of both Gurujis and Sharaths adjustments rather frightening. I learned very quickly to be both clear and outspoken about how much adjustment was enough. No problem Guruji would smile his famous smile and move on to someone else, returning to remind me that forgetting to breath freely through difficulty was like sleeping through practice. Twenty-five dollar fine, bad lady.

Later, outside of practice, he would explain to me that the most important part of asana is the ujjayi breath medium length with equal inhalation and exhalation. It is what builds the internal fire, preventing injury. In an interview he granted me before I left India, Guruji also stressed the importance of tapas (mind control), bandhas (energy lifts) and drishtis (gazes). Though the short interview was informative, it left me with the distinct feeling that it will take a lot longer than one summer to dive into the deep reserves of this mans yogic knowledge.

Next July, Guruji will celebrate the passing of his 80th year. Many students coming, he tells the 26 students from 10 countries who gathered this year to celebrate his 79th birthday. Looking through the pictures from that celebration, I realize that our miniature yoga community not only spanned the globe, but also the generations. Though the average age of the five o'clockers (my nickname for the eager beavers who began their practice at 5:00 a.m.) was about 28, our youngest yogi, Ananda from Spain, was 10 when I left in August, and I met more than a few women in their 50s.

When I comment on the three to six hours he spends each day actively engaged with his students, Guruji smiles broadly. Teaching every day my strength increases. Two days no teaching10 years aging. He does admit, however, that he eventually plans to have his grandson Sharath take over for himbut not for at least five or six years. In the meantime, the two are planning a teaching trip to the U.S. during the summer of 1996.

Why had I come to India? By the end of my visit, some answers were coming: To meet this teacher of awareness, simplicity, and love in its largest sense. To meet this teacher of discipline tempered with a child-like lightness of heart. To continue on a path fragrant with jasmine and cow dung and blossoming with fresh challenge.

The picture I will leave you with is myself dropped back in the deep backbend of Urdhva Dhanurasana, with Guruji holding my waist so I wont fall on my head as I hold my right ankle and strain to grasp for my left. I clasp an ankle that seems to be in the right place but, I slowly realize, faces ...the...wrong ...direction.... Its Gurujis! We both laugh so hard we cry. Whole-hearted striving, total release, laughter, tears the World, at last.

Beverly Fredericks teaches yoga, gymnastics, and goddess spirituality in the San Francisco Bay area and beyond.

The Alchemy of Ashtanga

By Tim Miller

Fifteen years ago, I walked into my first Ashtanga yoga class, a fairly stressed-out, exhausted, toxic, and depressed individual. An hour and a half later, I walked out, feeling relaxed, energized, happy, and cleansed from the inside out. Ever since that first class Ive been fascinated by this transformative power of the practice, what I call the alchemy of Ashtanga yoga.

The word alchemy evokes an image of a medieval conjurer murmuring incantations over a boiling cauldron, attempting to turn lead into gold. In a broader sense, alchemy refers to the process of transmuting one thing into another through the kindling of a vital transformative energy, known as Mercurius in the alchemical tradition. Turning lead into gold is a metaphor for the liberation of spirit from matter, which is the primary goal of both alchemy and yoga.

Nataraja, the King of Dancers, beautifully symbolizes the alchemy of Ashtanga yoga. Natarajas dance activates dormant vital energy (kundalini shakti) and becomes an act of both creation, symbolized by the upper right hand holding a drum, and destruction, represented by the flame held by the upper left hand. The lower right hand makes abhaya mudra, bestowing peace and protection. The second left hand points downward to the uplifted left foot, signifying release. The right foot, planted on the prostrate body of Apasmara Purusha, the demon of forgetfulness, symbolizes human ignorance of our divine nature. A ring of flames and light arises from and surrounds the dancer, representing the purifying power of the dance. Natarajas face, meanwhile, remains calm, quietly witnessing the tremendous display of his own energy with just the hint of a smile.

The first sutra of the second chapter of Patanjalis Yoga Sutras (tapaha swadhyaya ishwara pranidhanani kriya yogaha) is a recipe for alchemy on three levelsphysical, mental, and spiritual. This sutra describes three actions which are demonstrated by Nataraja. Tapas, literally to burn, is physical alchemy. It relates to purification in general and particularly in the practice of asana. In the figure of Nataraja, tapas is indicated by the ring of flames and the dance itself that generates the fire. Traditionally tapas is likened to the refining of gold. The gold ore is transformed from solid to liquid by heat, so the impurities can be strained off.

In the Ashtanga yoga system, asana practice begins with Suryanamaskara (Sun Salutation), which generates enough heat to transform the body into a more liquid state. The body softens and begins to sweat. Perspiration strains out the body's impurities. The sequential movements of Suryanamaskara form the basic vinyasa, or dancelike movements that link one posture to the next breath and body moving together to liberate dormant energy and feed the fire of tapas.

Amidst the activity of asana practice, which can be thought of as a metaphor for the varied situations we encounter in life, we must develop swadhyaya, or self-observation. This is mental alchemy. Swadhyaya involves a process of acquiring self-knowledge through the ability to witness ourselves clearly and dispassionately in all situations. Swadhyaya is represented by Natarajas face, calmly witnessing the whirling dance. In the practice of Ashtanga yoga, there are three basic techniques for developing this clear and dispassionate state of mind: observation of breath, posture, and gaze. The focused attention moves the mind from distraction to attention, so we see ourselves more clearly. This practice develops our capacity for swadhyaya in other situations as well.

Ishwara pranadhanini, literally bowing to God, refers to spiritual alchemy. When we transcend ego identification long enough to discover that the divine creative power of the universe is present within our own being, we are filled with joy and reverence. Our natural impulse when this happens is to give thanks. This expression of gratitude and humility becomes the doorway for divine grace to enter our lives. In the figure of Nataraja, ishwara pranidhana is indicated by the lower left hand pointing to the uplifted left foot. The message implied is that liberation can be gained by placing our devotion at the feet of God.

Traditionally, the guru is the intermediary between the student and the Divine. In Ashtanga yoga, the prayer chanted before practice begins, Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde (I bow to the lotus feet of my teacher). The expression of gratitude and humility is a prerequisite for spiritual alchemy. By touching the feet of the guru we touch the feet of God.

I recall my own first experience of this act when I met Pattabhi Jois in 1978. For several days I watched students touching Gurujis feet after class. (The gurus feet are considered to be the repository of his shakti, or divine energy. By touching his feet the student is said to receive shaktipat, a transmission of that divine energy.) Like most Westerners, I had major resistance to doing this myself. Finally one day I touched Gurujis feet. Immediately I was overwhelmed with emotion. Looking up into Gurujis face, my eyes filling with tears, I saw pure love radiating from his eyes and I felt a deep sense of gratitude. Gurujji smiled and touched my shoulders as a blessing. For me it was a profoundly liberating experience.

As Pattabhi Jois says, however, God is the only guru. Our true purpose in yoga is to awaken the guru within. This is what the alchemical tradition refers to as turning lead into gold.

Tim Miller, the first American certified to teach by Pattabhi Jois, is director of the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Encinitas, California.


Beryl Bender Birch's Book Power Yoga

Pattabhi Jois was concerned about the use of 'Power' in relation to Ashtanga. Beryl Bender Birch  actually points out in her introduction that she isn't talking about Political power or Socoeconomic power but rather the power to liberate yourself. Also The 'Power yoga' workout was supposedly intended as remedial, for runners etc. with back problems thus yoga chikitsa (Sharath also modifies practice for local students with health problems). Beryl actually spends a lot of time talking about Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois as well as the Yoga Korunta in the introduction, she also uses the term Ashtanga yoga as well as power yoga the latter perhaps to distinguish I think the remedial aspect of the Power Yoga workout. Perhaps it was all a misunderstanding. I've also heard that Pattabhi Jois didn't actually write the letter. 

As well as writing a lot about Pattabhi Jois in the Intro she also thanks him in the Acknowledgement section See screenshots from Power yoga below..

"Beryl Bender Birch from New York was studying Ashtanga yoga with Norman Allen and then with Pattabhi Jois. This woman wrote a book, but the publisher told her that the name “Ashtanga Yoga” does not suit, it is not clear and she had to change the name, so it turned into “Power Yoga”. David Swenson. Wild Yogi Interview.

Some screenshots from Beryl Bender Birch's power yoga


On watering down the practice

I love, respect  nd value greatly my Ashtanga practice and am forever grateful to Pattabhi Jois for sharing his teacher Krishnamacharya's teaching as well as Pattabhi Jois' own students and family sharing what they in turn learned from him,. However Pattabhi Jois' teacher Krishnamacharya, in his first Mysore Book Yoga Makaranda (1934), stressed long slow breathing ("like the pouring of oil"), long stays in many of the asana as well as the employment of Kumbhaka ( I would argue the soul of his practice) in most of those asana he gave instructions for (most of the primary series postures).

Pattabhi Jois was constantly mentioning that the inhalation should be ten seconds and the exhalation ten seconds or both fifteen seconds (even twenty in one later interview) and yet he seemed to teach the practice closer to two, three, occasionally five seconds, he also stressed also stressed the importance of pranayama practice.

All these aspects have mislaid along the way, is that a watering down or practicalities of a more readily available practice. A bit of both perhaps, isn't practice unfortunately always a compromise. Pattabhi Jois pointed out that ideally we would be able to practice all the asana slowly but that it would take five hours+, not practical to the householder, so he compromised.

Pattabhi Jois only ended up in that situation however because he changed his teachers teaching to fixed sequences in response to a particular pedagogic situation ( the request for a four year college syllabus). In Krishnmacharya's teaching you didn't compromise the approach to the asana you did practice, instead you just practiced less of them.

Pattabhi Jois of course also says in Yoga Mala that if necessary (less time) you can practice less asana than his full sequence.

Rather than preserving merely the final manifestation of the practice that evolved from the response to the large number of practitioners with varied motivations we can choose to reclaim other options for practice that Pattabhi Jois and his teacher Krishnamacharya made available to us as well as those that we discover in our own research into our practice.

"There are many ways to deepen the practice. Doesn't have to be religious ritual. When you do headstand instead of doing 25 fast breaths, completely slow down and start to 30 seconds or even one minute. And when you breathe ten times, it's 10 minutes". Petri Räisänen Interview Ekam/inhale

1 comment:

  1. I'm enjoying these posts. I believe Beryl (who was a student of David Williams) didn't want to call her book Power Yoga, but her publisher wouldn't publish it as Ashtanga Yoga (thought the general public wouldn't know or care about "ashtanga")and changed it. Publishers have more power over these things (like cover image or title) than many people realize. Pub changed it and Beryl took the hit in the ashtanga community, quite unfairly, really. Note: I could be wrong about this story! But I think David is where I heard it...I'm having trouble remembering my source.


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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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