Monday, June 21, 2010

Astanga

Today, I want to write a bit about my relationship with ‘tradition’. I tread carefully around this topic, not because I’m resistant or disrespectful of it, but quite the opposite: it hits a bit too close to my heart. Sarcasm and cynicism are easy topics for me. I have no qualms poking fun at my own meltdowns. But I resist ‘touch-feely.’ When I venture into that territory, I’m bound to question my own authenticity. It feels weird.

Also, given the name of my blog and how I was drawn into the practice (‘kicking and screaming’ would pretty much sum it up), my views about Astanga vinyasa yoga as a tradition might come as a surprise to some of you.

I’ve only started to get my head wrapped around this in the past six months. Until recently, I had no reason to evaluate my own beliefs about the Astanga yoga system or articulate them in any way. In fact, for the past few years, I’ve just accepted the system at face value - though I did approach it with a spirit of challenge and inquiry.

In line with this, I tried to maintain as much consistency as possible when I first started, observing anything that came up. As much as possible in the context of a home practice, I practised the Primary Series of poses as they’re traditionally taught. I learned the opening and closing prayers and chanted them faithfully to open and close my practice. As much as possible (and admittedly, it was sometimes sporadic), I tried to maintain a six-day week. I even abstained from practising Astanga on Moon Days and Saturdays (though I often practised another style on those days).

Although it felt a bit like ‘going through the motions,’ I did this for a couple years. I watched things unfold. Initially, the changes were just physical. My body changed, of course; I could do things I couldn’t do before. This was a bit mindblowing to me given I already had 13 years of near-daily Hatha yoga practice under my belt. I wasn’t expecting the dramatic shifts in strength, flexibility, mental toughness (something I’m still working on) or the weight release (a juicy topic for a future post).

There was this stereotype I had always subscribed to: ‘Astanga yoga is a purely physical practice for the body-obsessed’. This was shattered as I experienced the practice over time (and started to teach it to students). Although the physical part of the Astanga seems all-encompassing, in eventually leads to deeper places.

The whole process unfolds with surprising subtlety. No Astanga ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ will come banging on the door. The deeper aspects of the practice wait patiently. Then when you’re ready, they gently tap you on the shoulder. Anyone who practices traditional Astanga will discover that it supports - even demands - certain lifestyle changes, which lead to changes in perspective. If you follow this path, you’ll find yourself meandering far from where you started, but completely of your own volition.

One minute, you’re on a yoga mat doing a few Suryas and the next, you’re foregoing Happy Hour in order to rest up for your practice the next morning. You lose your taste for sugar or coffee, or cigarettes, or meat - or all of these things. Late-night snacking stops when you hit the Marichyasanas ;-). You find yourself reading the Yoga Sutras on the subway because they go a long way towards explaining all of the weird stuff that’s suddenly happening in your brain. You start craving Pranayama. You discover that you love chanting. Meditation...happens.

I’ve written before about the radical changes that came to my life simply by adding generic Hatha yoga to the mix (divorce, shifting sexual orientation, a couple different careers, changed countries, changed citizenship, repaired family relationships - it just goes on and on). It’s all there: evidence in my own life that ANY kind of yoga is powerful and transformative.

I acknowledge this with gratitude - it’s the reason I’m a yoga teacher. You don’t need to subscribe to any particular tradition or method to ‘get the goods’. Just get on the mat - any mat - and do a practice, any practice.

But my experience of practising traditional Astanga yoga has brought all of these things into a deeper focus. The physical shifts that were already there have become more pronounced. I’ve become more aware of how my mental processes are affected by the subtle currents and changes in my body. My experience of yoga asana as part of a spiritual path has become more profound.

Coming from a place of cynical skepticism, my belief in the system and its benefits has emerged gradually. It’s the reason I finally sought out authorised teachers and I’ve stuck it out at the Shala all these months. I do believe in these teachers. I have faith in what they can offer me. They learned what they know from Guruji and that source has value to me. This faith is the reason I get up every morning and do my practice no matter how I’m feeling about it.

I’m far from an evangelist but the other day, when a visitor to the Shala observed our room and remarked: “I don’t think I could do those things...” I spoke up and said: “We all started where you’re at. If you do this practice, anything is possible.”

I’m aware that the origins of the Astanga vinyasa practice have been heavily scrutinized over the years (yes, I’ve read the Singleton book *eyeroll*). Quite frankly, I don’t care if the Yoga Kurunta is one big ‘fairy tale’. The point is, regardless of origins, the practice delivers what it promises and much, much more. It doesn’t matter to me if the Astanga vinyasa system has a deep, historic tradition spanning centuries or if it’s the genius creation of one brilliant man or men (Jois or Krishnamacharya, take your pick).

In the end, it comes down to a matter of belief. I choose to believe that Guruji was a brilliant teacher who experienced something profound in his own experience of yoga and dedicated his entire life to sharing it with others. Whatever the origins, I chose not to dispute the lineage of Astanga vinyasa yoga. I choose to believe that this practice has a profound spiritual logic because it’s changing my life. The framework of the tradition is valuable because it sets a path and creates a community of dedicated practitioners.

I feel a bit like I’ve discovered a treasure map that’s guiding me through some surprisingly difficult terrain. There’s something of great value waiting for me at journey’s end. I know this, because ‘X’ marks the spot.

I’m taking it on faith.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Practice report:

Nothing new or remarkable happened in my practice this morning. Backbends were two sets of three. I think the hip openers I’ve been doing have been having an impact on the depth of my backbends. I’m feeling like I can move my hips forward more. This morning, Nitara vacated my left psoas and I felt an instant burst of ‘happy’. I don’t know where my gremlin is headed next. My right foot has been aching today, so perhaps she’s headed south for a few days.

8 comments:

Loo said...

Beautifully said.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! I think it's something about the truly traditional "old fashioned" yoga that does it to us. The lifestyle changes are amazing...I left my crazy, stressful career because of them and have never looked back. I try not to judge but instead bring it into the places that are not normally where you'd find it...like the local fitness club where the ladies are still looking in the mirror in shoulderstand despite me saying you can truly injure your neck!! Then they leave and go eat burgers and drink soda. But I will keep trying because as a traditional teacher, I hope with all my heart that transformation will happen for all who have the courage to do REAL YOGA.

Kaivalya said...

@Loo
Thanks! These 800-word Bindu posts are driving me a bit crazy. I'm glad someone is actually reading them!

@Anon
'Real Yoga', I love that! I guess we all think our own yoga is the most authentic. But with all of this 'spynga', 'roller-ga', 'dog-ga' and the like, 'traditional yoga' starts to look VERY traditional (and appealing)!

fivefootwo said...

I read this today after I had decided that I was too giddy and "rajastic"to focus on a practice session As soon as I was done, I went to get my mat. Many thanks!

Kaivalya said...

@fivefootwo
Aw, this made my day! Thanks so much for commenting. I owe many a practice to the inspiration offered by my cybershalamates. I'm glad I can repay that debt.

Liz said...

I know... I'm all late and everything-
Just catching up and totally enjoying your long posts. You're a great writer and describe things well.

If you ever find yourself in Austin, PLEASE visit our shala!

kasia said...

I very much loved reading this.

Kaivalya said...

@Liz
I would absolutely love to visit you and Mike someday! Hopefully, the universe will find a reason to send me down in your direction!

@Kasia
Thanks, K. Hope you're doing well!