Return of the Yogi- Ashtanga
The Indian monsoon has ended and I’m officially back in the homelands, woop woop! Hopping around Thailand and Bali gave me an alternate angle to Yoga that couldn’t be experienced in India. Initially, I had a rigid mentality that Yoga can only truly be learnt at it’s source. I was very wrong. The study of Yoga can happen anywhere in world, as long as you have a competent teacher whom you personally resonate with. For me, this connection is very important to fully adopt and surrender to their teachings. One shining example of this was Yin Yoga as it brings doubts to the surface. However the teachers would alleviate any uncertainty in the technique by whispering some soothing words at the right times. Nowadays, some of the most prominent teachers are actually not from India. Take Ashtanga for example, you have figures like Kino McGregor who have become global ambassadors through their tremendous hard work and commitment. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Yoga can be created by anyone and taught to everyone. Yoga didn’t exist outside of India 200 years ago. Now, modern day gurus have ignited a yogic wildfire on a truly global level. Irrespective of background or country, it seems the appetite for spirituality is stronger than ever.
The headquarter for many of the modern day gurus was indeed Mysore. The godfather was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who was the teacher of both BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. He had exceptional knowledge and was invited by the Mysore Maharaja (King) to teach him and his family at the Mysore Palace. Having the a pro-Yoga Maharaja and the fact the British did not have operational control (only indirect power through taxation) over the city may explain just why Mysore is so cool today. It’s filled with scenic parks, friendly folks and of course, lots of yoga schools. My favourite place in India so far and it’s great to be back!
Sri Pattabhi Jois was considered the architect behind Ashtanga Yoga. It’s very much in fashion and is what I’ll be practising over the next month. For me, Ashtanga is the most explosive, dynamic form of Yoga. Unlike other forms, it has a strict, pre-defined structure. There are 6 different series or sequences ranging in difficulty. The most basic sequence is called the primary series. Don’t be fooled though, basic does not translate to easy. A high level of flexibility, strength and cardiovascular ability is expected even for the primary series. The practice will begin with an opening prayer, paying homage to Patanjali, a sage who devised the 8 logical steps of Yoga around 2,500 years ago. After prayer, the body is brought to performance temperature using sun salutations. What follows is a string of asanas practised in the exact same order. Folds, twists, back bends, inversions you name it. Each pose will be held for 5 breath counts and connected through Vinyasas (the same short explosive movement). Throughout the practice, you are advised to adopt a breathing technique known as Ujjayi breath, here you open up the back of your throat and make a sound on both inhale and exhale, a bit like Darth Vader. It serves to bring heat to the body and provide extra energy if needed. I’m not fully sold on the technique as I end up with a dry and uncomfortable throat. However, I do find it helpful when I’m in the exceptionally challenging poses. Every pose will have it’s own unique drishti (gaze point) and bandha activation. The primary series can take anywhere from 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes. Here it was it looks like from start to finish:
Here at the Ashtanga Yoga Mysore School, we practise 6 days a week in the morning. The rest of the day is filled with classroom studies of Asana Adjustment, Yoga Philosophy, Meditation & Pranayama. It’s actually a 200-hour teaching training programme but I won’t actually be receiving the certificate, as I want to firmly remain on the side of the learner where I can be a sponge and ask innocent questions. A maestro by the name of Praveen leads our morning classes. Each class is an adventure that passes through the deep corners of the mind, common destinations include fear, composure, bravery and willpower. Unlike the still, passive ways of Iyengar or Yin, Ashtanga is active and forces you to break those conditioned barriers. I don’t believe one is better over the other, they are two incomparable ends of a spectrum that serve 2 completely different functions. Over the last 2 weeks, I can say safely say that I’ve been taken to and beyond my limit every day. It’s at these mental extremities you come face to face with the dormant self. Having Praveen as a teacher definitely helps to drive this daily journey. One such example that I find personally relevant is the pose above. Bringing the hand down to the floor particularly scary. Imagine a scared puppy using it’s paw to momentarily slap a foreign object like it’s hot and dangerous. That’s basically me and the ground. When I do indeed reach the floor, I have this habit of staying on my fingertips. Praveen has other ideas and often repeats his signature phrase, “Crush your palms to the floor”. For me, going from the fingertips to the palms is a particularly daunting task, riddled with fear. Actually, I hate it. Once my palms are crushing it’s not too bad if I stay relaxed. Another example of being taking the limit is when I’m in Navasana (boat pose). Instead of fear, it requires every ounce of grit and determination. It’s one of my favourite poses as it cultivates great self-discipline when faced with a burning fire of lactic acid in your core.
The Ashtanga philosophy is certainly clear. It is a no nonsense, military like routine that enables one to smash through various conditioned barriers. As you would expect quite a lot of mental thrust is needed, so much so that after class I feel wired as if I took some kind of electrifying drug. To help me come down, I’ve maintained my Yin and Meditation practice from Thailand. For my mediation, I will observe the respiration of my abdomen, chest or nose. This sharpens my focus. In addition to this, I’ve taken inspiration from Vipassana Meditation and will not move at all for the entire duration of Meditation. It’s called sitting of strong determination or Adhittana parami. No itching, no fidgeting, no dodging the irritating fly near your ear, just unwavering stillness. In doing so, I’m able to directly experience the law of impermanence or anicca as taught in Buddhism. There will often be a strong desire to move but through remaining still, the mind is tamed and anicca can be observed. I’ve found this technique useful in cooling the fiery affects of Ashtanga. I’m more grounded and everything seems to move just that little bit slower after a sit. Definitely my kind of night cap.
Besides from the actual asana practise we have Yoga Philosophy classes based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is accepted as the source of Yoga and details all 8 logical steps to Samadhi or liberation of the mind. People often think that the physical aspect is Yoga, actually this is called asana (step 3/8) and only 3 of the 196 sutras or principles are dedicated to asanas, which translates to seated posture. The rest and majority of the Yoga teaching comprises of moral duties and meditation instructions. The Patanjali Sutras is actually a juicy topic and one that I will talk about at a later stage once I start moving away from asana (step 3) and focusing more on meditation.
That’s all from me, stay cool and bring meditation to your nation!