Patanjali on partial understanding

“Uncertain knowledge giving rise to violence, whether done directly or indirectly, or condoned, is caused by greed, anger, or delusion in mild, moderate, or intense degree. It results in endless pain and ignorance. Through introspection comes the end of pain and ignorance.”

<> – Patanjali (most believe this personification of the yoga guru to be a compilation of ancient Hindu philosophers, rather than an individual)

This quote refers to acting according to uncertain knowledge and how it leads towards painful experiences. Just knowing a part of the story is not enough to act or truly understand a situation; this is why detachment from the situation is important. Then you can examine which variables that are unknown as decide what is likely, while detaching from the conclusion as well. Then no matter the situation or outcome, the yogi is peaceful, calm, and happy. I think that partial knowledge is perfectly useful, but action should be carefully examined before acting on a partial understanding.

The Meaning of Prana

Just as the word yoga is one of wide import, so also is prana. Prana means breath, respiration, life, vitality, wind, energy, or strength. It also connotes the soul as opposed to the body. The word is generally used in the plural to indicate vital breaths. Ayama means length, expansion, stretching or restrain.

Prana has been described as liquid light, or the energy that unites the universe (the fundamental building block of all things). It is through control of our prana that we achieve union with the divine (prana is believed to be the building block of matter itself so it also connects all things). This union is also known as yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga and the Mysore Style Practice from India

Ashtanga Yoga Founder Krishnamacharya

Ashtanga – My Experiences

(I originally wrote this article before India. I’ve added on section devoted to my experiences in Mysore, India with Saraswathi Jois)

I love Ashtanga. I wish I had a morning Ashtanga practice that I could do every day with a teacher leading, maybe 2 hours. Ashtanga is a system of Hatha (physical yoga) that is extremely challenging and takes a long time to work into. You can tell pretty easily if someone does Ashtanga, just watch them go into plank and lower into chataranga and you’ll know. They don’t shrug their shoulders at all and it looks like they’ve done it a million times and can jump to handstand at any moment. Like a feather. That’s because they have done it a million times and they can jump to handstand at any moment.

Practicing Ashtanga in Mysore, India

In January 2015 I left Sacramento to travel to Mysore, India for three month in one of the poorest and most interesting countries in the world. Mysore is relatively peaceful and is one of the more religious places in all of India.

I arrived in Bangalore and traveled to Mysore over the course of another 7 hour drive. The Jois Shala, where the Ashtanga yoga method is now taught by Patthabhi Jois’ descendants to people that sign up in advanced to study with them.

Saraswathi Jois is a kindhearted and very loving older woman who looks fierce in her defense of her father’s tradition. Her ability to guide individuals in the primary series is powerful if guided by your own knowledge of limitations, injuries, and anatomical quirks that may exist in your body. No one in India will be able to reconcile these type of unique individualities for you, simply because the science and education are not at high enough levels yet.

Sharath looks a bit more imposing than Saraswathi, but is more accomplished in the series. I did not have a chance to practice with him, did not feel drawn to.

In modern Ashtanga there is a lot of forcing, which is not something I consider to be a truly mindful yoga practice. India taught me a lot about how to work within my own body and within a week of practicing yoga in Mysore I hurt my knee doing poses I had no business doing. I was forcing. I returned over the next fews days determined to be gentler and softer with myself and it worked. In a week I was 95% better.

Ashtanga is no replacement for science. Remember to educate yourself with your own unique anatomy, each pose is different in each skeleton.

Ashtanga in Boston

In Boston, I practiced at Back Bay and they had an Ashtanga class that was 2 hours every day and I tried it out. It was self led, so you did 5 sun salutation A, 5 sun salutation B (add chair & warrior 1), then straight into the standing series. We practiced until the end of the primary series and the teacher might talk to you about your practice for a minute. Maybe.

It was not fun to have the seasoned teacher of 15 years leave for a month-long vacation and have the sub teach, especially when the regular teacher wasn’t amazing to begin with. That’s when my practice at Back-Bay ended for a while, I was pretty disappointed. But I started to practice the primary series on my own and now I have a personal Ashtanga practice. Taking ownership of a personal practice is pretty powerful. In the end, it all kind of worked out (minus two months of paid yoga that I didn’t get to use for Ashtanga).

Ashtanga is an intensely personal practice. Anyone who has an regular Ashtanga practice will likely care about it a lot. You have to really regulate yourself, because its really easy to get injured doing scorpion poses and handstand lion’s breathes. I recommend some good prana-yama 30 minutes before practicing an Ashtanga series or class, it will mean a big difference in your prana passageways.

Ashtanga’s primary series can be really fun. Triangle, Prasaritta, Hasta padagustasana, Navasana, and Kurmasana are some of the first poses you will do after Sun Salutations and they are really great poses for the body to experience. Lots of inversion to help bloodflow and circulation of cerebral-spinal fluid. Not to mention the increased circulation because of sun salutes.

Ashtanga Chart
Ashtanga Primary Series

I found a studio in Sacramento that might offer good classes with a guy named Bill. This combined with Fridays at LEAP with Karen from 1 to 3 should make up my led Ashtanga classes. Maybe I can do it 3 times a week? 5-7 would be my ideal, but even that is very taxing, Ashtanga practices can be over two hours if you need it. Which happens.

I also think that yoga will evolve from the existing Ashtanga practice, which it seems has been lacking since Jois’ death. Iyengar is definitely a great teacher, and less controversial. I feel like Ashtanga type of yoga is destined to evolve. Maybe it already does somewhere…

Asntagna teacher
Random Ashtanga Teacher

Asana

“The Sandskrit names of the asanas are significant and illustrate the principle of evolution. Some are named after vegetation like the tree (vrksa) and the lotus (padma); some after insects like the locust (salabha) and the scorpion (vrschika); some after aquatic animals and amphibians like the fish (matsya), the tortoise (kurma), the frog (bheka or manduka), or the crocodile (nakra). There are asanas called after the birds like the cock (kukkuta), the heron (baka), the peacock (mayura) and the swan (hamsa). They are also named after the quadrupeds like the dog (svana), the horse (vatayana), the camel (ustra) and the lion (simha). Creatures that crawl like the serpent (bhujanga) are not forgotten, nor is the human embryonic state (garbha-pinda) overlooked. Asanas are named after legendary heroes like Virabhadra and Hanuman, son of the wind Sages like Bharadvaja, Kapila, Vasistha and Visvamitra are remembered by having asanas named after them. Some asanas are also called after the gods of the Hindu pantheon and some recall the Avataras or incarnations of divine power. While performing the asanas the yogi’s body assumes many forms resembling a variety of creatures. His mind is trained not to despise any creature, for he knows that throughout the whole gamut of creation, from the lowliest insect to the most perfect sage, there breathes the same universal spirit, which assumes innumerable forms. He knows that the highest form is that of the formless. He finds unity in universality.”

BKS Iyengar writes this in his introduction to yoga. I think that it is a really good description of what yoga does; forcing us to become conscious of our environment, our selves, and the beings around us. Yoga means union and I think this quote explains why yoga is so universal. A lot of people view yoga as soft, but I think it can be extraordinarily scientific with proper technique.

Practicing

There’s something special about devotion to your yoga practice for a period of time. It takes a lot of energy. The past couple of days have been pretty awesome, full of practice, working, and learning. Getting geared up to really teach, but the best part is by far the other people that are involved. Being around so many great yoga teachers is inspiring, to say the least.

That is pretty much the reason that I came home. I wanted to be around people that had similar beliefs and I’ve never really met a culture like that of Northern California. Boston was cool, but it was cold, and the vast majority of the yoga was 5 years behind California (except for Goldie, who’s influenced by Les Levinthal) who is from San Diego. I practiced at Back Bay Yoga and Sweat and Soul in Allston, but its not quite the same quality of yoga that you get in California. Back Bay was promising with an Ashtanga class, but I wasn’t impressed with the teacher and it was $150 a month. The teacher wasn’t even that good and her sub was much worse, but she had practiced for 15 years and right when I got there she took a month long vacation. It wasn’t meant to happen. Anyways, most of the teachers there are soft, you don’t really hold poses, I would yawn like 30 times in a class, which I don’t feel bad about because I can’t really control it. And thank you for calming my nervous system down so much that I have to reheat my brain, but I just think you need a powerful hot class to counterbalance it and if I’m flowing I shouldn’t be thinking about anything but my breathing. And then I can relax and do some Yin on the side.

The best yoga teacher I’ve ever met had 6 people in her class. It was incredible, a variation of Ashtanga, single breathe movements and static postures all put together by sun salutations. Goes to show what people look for in a yoga class. Its become more of entertainment and originality now in the US, rather than its more silent and sacred roots in India.

Getting to practice multiple times a day is such a gift, I just love pushing the edge father away. The people at East Wind that practice with me are so awesome too, so awe inspiring. I mean the students now, who I find sometimes take their practice more seriously than teachers. And then there are just some teachers that put so much into what they teach that you can’t help but feel amazing after a class. Spending a morning there is a pretty fun privilege.

Anyways, it seemed like Hanumanasana was the pose of the day today. Internal rotation of the hips, pointing the back toes to the back of the room. Curling the toes of the opposite foot towards your knee, making a dorsi-flex in the knee. Create ascending traction in your lower back from moving your hips down and together. Can’t wait to get down there. Hopefully the next few days are just as fun.

Releasing from Normality

american river flowing

Yesterday, I spent 6 hours in a yoga room. But I didn’t teach. I didn’t even assist, all that I wanted to do was practice after the holidays. Its funny how vacations can just suck the life out of us sometimes.

Sometimes we just need to give ourselves a break, whether it’s mental or physical. I find that my best streaks of practice (by best, I mean that they feel the best) come after I have purposely relaxed for a day or two. Now, after that last week of dealing with family, eating too many almond milk mashed potatoes, I am ready to get back to what I do every day. I really missed it.

So I practiced all day, and took a hike down into the Auburn Ravine. That place is amazing, if you haven’t seen the Western States Trail, you should. But I was able to get away from everything, which I am starting to see that I need more. And at the end of the day, there wasn’t too much that could bring me down, I was blissed-out in my Samadhi (good feeling). Sometimes, we owe it to ourselves to make opportunities to feel that way.

Someone might say, “Elliot, you missed an entire day of productivity and it was a Monday! How do you consider yourself a valuable piece of society?” The truth is that I don’t. I think I could be replaced in pretty much any job that I were to get, fairly easily, no matter how hard I work or what my qualifications are. That is the message that I constantly get from the world of corporate jobs, so I chose not to contribute. Because at the end of the day, you are not more significant and your life is not more purposeful on the basis of how much you work. What matters is how you treat people. Not how many hours you spend working for something that will probably disappear in 15 years. So I choose to feel good, and feel happy and I’ll work hard later.

We strive so much for significance in this life and I am the biggest culprit of this. I want to make an impact on this planet. But something tells me that working mindlessly on things that I don’t agree with or even give a shit about won’t make that happen. So I feel good instead and let the rest come. Don’t let things get in the way of you being happy.

Life is a continuous process, even though it is demarcated by race, place, and time. Due to uninterrupted close relationship between memory and subliminal impressions, the fruits of actions remain intact from one life to the next, as if there were no separation between births.

-Patanjali