|Krishnamacharya aged 84|
I mentioned how alien this concept of 'theme' was to me, coming from Ashtanga.
But Ashtanga does have a theme she argued. If you go to an Ashtanga workshops, there's clearly a theme - backbend, arm balance...., floating. Primary series is basically forward bending.. Secondary series is backbends, Third series is Arm balance.......
It's a complete misunderstanding.
Ashtangi's don't give a damn about WHAT they are practicing just that they ARE practicing, they have no concern at all about whether one posture is having X effect and another Y effect. It would be like suggesting that Christians pray to work on their kneeling or that the theme of a Monk's Zazen that morning was hip openers.
I honestly don't believe in any of the benefits Krishnamacharya mentioned in relation to any of the postures he presented (Update: Ok perhaps a few), to be honest I can't remember any of them because I have zero interest and I suspect most Ashtangi's tend to feel the same most of the time, although we probably all go through a brief period of looking at the proposed benefits to help justify our practice. Looking to justify practice, the time we spend on our mats and how we often construct our lives (and indeed relationships god help us) around our practice is something we all seem to descend into occasionally...., periodically.
No doubt we all tend believe it's probably good for us overall (except for those who make a career of telling us it isn't), that we mostly feel better for having practiced but I suspect we would continue to practice if it had no perceivable physical, mental or emotional.....(spiritual?) benefits.
It's Ashtanga for Ashtanga's sake, an end in itself, discipline for disciplines sake, practice for the sake of practice.... , for no other reason perhaps than that it grounds our lives, opens up a space, a clearing where light can, on a good day, stream through the trees.
Ramaswami stresses that there is a clear purpose to the limbs of Ashtanga, Asana reduces Rajas, pranayama, Tapas leaving us in a more Satvic state for the meditative limbs.
I suspect that is another theory imposed upon practice however old a theory it might be, another justification.
This practice we do is tapas (austerity/discipline), it's a commitment, a discipline. Practice too little and it doesn't work as discipline anymore, make our practice too short, too gentle...., too easy, and it doesn't work as tapas. To be a discipline practice needs to be a burden, at least to some degree, we may go skipping to the mat some mornings but when it's four, six,... seven days a week, at some point we're dead man walking.... but we step on the mat anyway.
Note: It's relative, to a beginner or working mum, getting on the mat for twenty minutes for some surys and a few seated postures, three or four times a week, may be just as much tapas as practicing Primary to Advanced series twice a day, seven days a week, was to me when I had nothing else going on in my life and all the time in the world to practice.
It's this discipline, I suspect, that grounds our lives. Devotion to practice, for those who have it (to teachers, a deity - or turning our teacher into a semi-deity for that matter) is, an optional extra, it's beside the point (and Patanjali I would argue may agree in this context). Dedication to practice, to constructing and maintaining the discipline is what is key. Practice and all is... well you know the rest.
The yama/niyama are a support for this discipline, for our practice. If we can simplify our lives ( effectively the role of yama/niyamas), stepping on the mat can be a little easier but it goes both ways. If my practice is disrupted, I notice I can so easily slip in the yama/niyama department, slide into old patterns, my life becomes somewhat more chaotic, disturbed, more of a distraction. Practice and the yama/niyamas go hand in hand, they support each other, support our discipline.
With the yama/niyamas observed more rather than less, the practice of asana steady and settled, pranayama consistent, I may indeed be in a more Satvic frame of mind and can settle into lesser or greater degrees of serenity, and this as Topol would say is the "greatest gift of all" but who looks to that in the morning when we shuffle towards the mat. We wash our face, we practice, we brush our teeth.
This is not to say that I'm suggesting there is anything wrong with a yoga class having a theme. Ashtanga as a discipline is not for everyone (it may indeed be a curse and "ruin your life") and no doubt postures, the practice of them, done well, mindfully, skilfully, can have great benefits for our lives. Pedagogically, having a theme for a class can be beneficial, Ramaswami takes a similar approach in his presentation of Vinyasa krama, we learn the relationships between asana via a theme before settling into daily practice. It wouldn't be a bad idea for Ashtangi's to learn to practice their asana more skilfully, make our practice safer for the long term as well as the short, more effective. I look to Simon Borg-Olivier for exactly this in his upcoming online Ashtanga course.
I hesitate to suggest that general Yoga classes and Ashtanga vinyasa Yoga are two different language games, it's like trying to introduce the rules of chess into snakes and ladders ( Ashtanga Vinyasa is snakes and ladders).
And of course this commitment to practice to daily practice can make Ashtangi's a little full of themselves, they/we can at times be judgemental, dismissive of other styles that we so often suspect as being either derivative, random or lacking in commitment...., as being less traditional. As if there is anything traditional about Ashtanga vinyasa, there isn't of course, not really but we too often impose our view on others (as I'm doing her of course), imposing ideas of tradition and lineage, parampara and paramagurus upon the practice like pretty paper and ribbons, all to help us get on the mat, to explain, justify, the practice to ourselves....., as if the practice needs any of these things, any explaining, it justifies itself.
We might just as well get up every morning and run ( or swim like a friend of mine, 365 mornings a year off the coast of Ireland), the marathon runner I suspect understands just as much about yoga as the Ashtangi, perhaps more so as they don't tend to resort to metaphysics or fairy tales, surely there must be a book, Zen and the long distance runner.
When our practice becomes the most significant part of our day, whether Running or Ashtanga, when despite those who seek to promote themselves through workshops and merchandise we realise that we are most at peace moving back and forth on a length of old rubber or cotton.... or tarmac and in our oldest, tattiest, most threadbare, much loved, favourite practice pants/shorts......, that during those one to two hours we feel at our most peaceful, serene, sufficient, then our attachments to things at hand are reduced. Then, if it has one, practice has done it's job.
See also perhaps....