Ashtanga Yoga

Dedication: Over the last 28 years of yoga study, I have experienced confusion about this practice, especially the “differences” between one style and another. What is it that draws me to so-called “Ashtanga Yoga”, I wonder, usually exploring the question in this written form. Five years ago, I was privileged to meet and study with Manju Jois, Pattabhi Jois’s son, who has lived in the west for over forty years and kindly and generously visits his most dedicated students all over the world, often in quiet, rural settings. He tells stories of his mother and father, who welcomed people into their home, which was bursting at the seams with hospitality. Manju lives joyfully, embodying the yoga teachings in all that he says and does. Because of his special connection with his long time student, Jody Manley, and at her relentlessly ardent invitations, he came to Halifax, and plans to continue doing so: he says that we embody the true teachings of yoga’s eight limbs. It may be simply that he has succumbed to our famous Nova Scotian hospitality! We are all so delighted that he enjoys being with us, and is helping us decipher the complicated messages that are so difficult to translate from eastern to western culture. Thank you, Manju and Jody! 


manju-and-me-cropped.jpgCatherine and Manju, 2015, Halifax

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, “Guruji”, considered the father of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, told us that if we are drawn to the practice of yoga, then we’d already experienced its benefits in a previous lifetime. When I heard this, it made me wonder what yoga looked like in a previous lifetime. If we’d lived in India, it may have looked pretty much the same for thousands of years: wow! But surely, the principles of yoga have been practiced by all people, always: living in harmony with each other and the land, taking deep breaths to ground ourselves, singing, celebrating, stretching, praying…It’s actually surprising that we forgot how to do these things, and now have to relearn them.

Confusion is the dark side, the shadow, in Ajna’s (third eye) power, say the yoga teachings. On the light side, we believe in ourselves, in our intuition, in the stories we told ourselves, over many lifetimes, not to forget. So we remember love, and joy, peace, trust, clarity and friendship as deeply as we know that “bad” things will happen. We will die, everyone dies. Our minds have caused untold stories to unfold constantly and vigorously, and can kill us with fear. We must know, in some down deep way,  that life is precious. It’s a journey. There is something about it that doesn’t seem to expire. We are, after all, drinking the same water and breathing the same air that dinosaurs drank and breathed. Our bodies create new cells constantly, as other cells die.

Part of our journey is to learn adaptability, living in harmony with other creatures, and with nature itself.  We live and die on this land. There are views that are passed on through our ancestors about preservation, lengthening our time here, creating safety for our children, and for continuing to be nurtured by the land. And if you know anything about your own ancestors, it’s that they were as human as you and me, and some of their theories were not correct, if not downright harmful.

Yet there are core teachings that all religions talk about as their essence, and that we all know ring true. It is these passed-on or remembered views that yoga represents. Called “yug”-ing (yog-ing, yok-ing), we maintain our ancient partnership, or union, with the energies that cause wind to blow, and cells to re-form, and tears to well up in our eyes.

Ashtanga yoga is an approach to a well-rounded view of living. As with all words, the soul doesn’t understand them much. Ashtanga yoga was brought to the west, with the best of intentions, as asana. Pattabhi Jois taught, reluctantly at first, postures that he had taught his own son for health benefits, postures he had learned from his guru, Krishnamacharya, that had been of benefit to him in helping others in yoga therapy. Jois was drawn to the postures in a certain order, which had for centuries been practiced in this way, so that one asana would unlock potential for the next, and so on. Practising daily, the aspirant could ward off sickness and could heal himself should an accident occur.

Stories say that Krishnamacharya himself healed his broken hip at age 96 in three months with his eight-limbed yoga practice, which was the way he lived his life daily.

The benefits of asana are a significant draw towards the study and practice of yoga these days. The ancient postures have known benefits, and a regular regimen is good for us physically. A prescribed set of postures can give us a starting point, so we begin to feel the left side and right side, moving up and moving down, moving out, moving in. As we bend, stretch, and fold, the blood moves in our veins with more enthusiasm, the oxygenated cells enliven the flow, the squeezing and restricting and releasing encourages rushing in and out of the body’s fluids, and we can feel power in us as we witness our inner river’s flow. In this ‘flow’ style of yoga, the teacher may lead a class like a conductor, giving the beat of the breath as a metronome, to which we feel our own music unfold. Ashtanga yoga is often used synonomously with “flow yoga”.

In fact, Ashtanga is a view to practice that is likened to a tree of life, with eight (ashtau) limbs.

The danger in moving information between cultures is obvious, and consequently, the Ashtanga practice came to the ‘outside world’ without the full complement of limbs. It was Jois’s view that, if one were to practice the prescribed postures every day, “yug” would become evident. But a new phenomenon emerged – we were becoming attached to our view of ourselves as yogis because we could perform the postures. Instead of the asana practice being one of many tools towards health, it was THE tool.

Many of us are thinking of yoga as enriching for our bodies, not our minds. But it is through ‘yoking’ mind and body that ‘yoga’ occurs. We can learn to leave our bodies alone, letting them do what comes naturally, according to our nature, and tell our minds to ‘shhhh’. It was Buddha’s view that basic goodness is our true nature and our natural tendency is to embrace that this is so. Everything that has been written about how to live well – the Sutras, the commandments, the Golden Rule – these all show us our true nature, and it is our own view, our own minds, that judge, condemn, evaluate, and cause suffering. If we were to find our true natures, and live there, suffering would end, said Buddha.

The Ashtanga – eight-limbed view – takes this into account. Taking time to tune body and mind in synchronicity, we feel invited to explore the energy that comes, and will find ourselves stretching and breathing more fully, freeing restrictions that we inevitably discover as we move.

The eight-limbed approach is not the only way to practice yoga, but it is the way we have been directed to practice by the sage, Patanjali, who, thousands of years ago, wrote down the teachings that he had learned, that had been passed down from teacher to student before him, in the time-honoured tradition of “parampara”. The practice, which also encompasses chanting and mudras as part of the full view, follows a continuous pattern of weaving in and out, going round and round, described by Jois as a mala or garland.  The teachings are called the ‘yoga sutras’, and they give us insight into how to practice, and what we might expect as we do. These sutras remind me of the aboriginal ‘songlines’: like the songlines, Sanskrit is a language of vibration, and the transmissions of the sutras were passed along in this sing-song way. Committed to paper, we look to scholars to translate the messages into words, into many languages. The interpretations of the words are vastly numbered, and as we seek to intellectualize the information and process it, we are already breaking the rules – there’s that pesky mind chatter again!

Still, for me, a lover of philosophy and religious study, each translation of the sutras speaks to me in the same universal language. The sutras tell me that God is within, that we teach by example, that discipline, courage, faith, joy and love are all components of good living, and that when we believe our hearts rule, we are talking about deep heartfelt knowing.

Pattabhi Jois was fond of saying: “Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory!” He said: “You do!” over and over. His mantra: “Practice, and all is coming” is what gets us to “the mat” or to “the tree”, wherever it is that we string together the eight limbs and leave our mind chatter at the door.

Number one rule: just go to “the mat” and begin. We are invited to make it a daily occurrence to meet ourselves in joyous embrace and celebration. It may be that we will go to ‘the mat’ as we are driving to work, or as we wait in a government line up, or as we are walking with our dog in the park.

Coming to the mat takes faith and discipline. We may get excited, and then we plateau: nothing is happening. We practice daily for weeks, and months, and everything is ‘the same’.

I know well the difficulties of staying present with each breath, one by one, especially when I know what is coming, like in the Primary and Intermediate Series, which I do many times a week, month after month, year after year…I may say to myself that I don’t like this pose or that one, until I realize that the practice is the goal, not the outcome, and each breath we take, mindfully, fully present, is the practice.

My guess is that the reason we are drawn to practice yoga is to feel better. We want to be well, live among wellness, and feel that not too much really gets us down.

Many yoga teachers show their students the full view of yoga, the complete toolbox. It is important to practice in this way. Sadly, we have begun to brand our views of yoga – this style is best, no, this style is best. With the help of a good teacher, we can learn to balance our view, whatever “style” is resonating with us.

I have learned that, being attracted to yoga, I continue my journey into the full view with confidence that I will often come up against concepts that draw me in ways I just can’t explain. I take small steps. I ask questions. I believe that I know the answers already, and look for them in the way my body moves.

Buddha did yoga. He practiced letting his true nature shine through, every day, with confidence, and then, it broke through. He stayed shiny. Staying shiny is not a far-fetched concept. The Yoga Sutras invite us to keep “polishing the mirror” so that our light shines out, and the light of the world can shine in. For me, this is worth investing in!

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