In what way is Ashtanga Yoga unique?
Because Ashtanga works with set sequences you are forced to work on your weak spots. If you make up your own sequences it is easy to avoid the things that are difficult. Learning set sequences also means you can take the practice home with you and practice at home if you can’t make it to class. This is also important if you travel. Another important point is that once you have learned a sequence you practice it in the Mysore-style format, that is synchronized to your own breath rather than the breath of the teacher. This way your body will open up more.
In a Mysore-style class the teacher is free to give individual attention to students and work on individual problems rather than giving general instructions that may not be ideal for a particular student.
Practising Mysore-style also enables students to focus inside rather than relying on prompts from the teacher. This way the practice becomes meditative and prepares the students for the so-called higher limbs of yoga such as pranayama, etc.
How would you describe Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga succinctly?
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga arranges postures in sequences to create a continuous flow. While you move through the sequences you focus on the breath and internal holds (bandhas) so that the body is heated and purified to make it strong, vibrantly healthy and ready for pranayama and meditation. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the bedrock and preparation for the eight-limbed yoga that sage Patanjali describes in the Yoga Sutra.
In what way do you see Ashtanga changing now?
The following important changes are occurring in Ashtanga now:
- A higher level of training of teachers in yogic anatomy and how to adapt it to individual student’s needs. More teachers are learning how anatomical knowledge must inform technical instruction in Guided and Mysore style classes.
- Knowing the anatomical limitations of bodies, which adjustments are unsafe and how far the safe ones can be taken. This is not something that can be learned by watching or simply by adjusting. It can be learned from somebody who is a long serving teacher/ practitioner and at the same time has done formal training in anatomy. Unfortunately students are often hurt because teachers believe no formal study is required.
- Understanding the differences between bodies and how they must be accommodated by altering the sequences if necessary. Many students have left Ashtanga for good because their teacher could not or would not modify their sequence.
- Understanding that the Ashtanga-asana practice is a preparation for the higher limbs (pranayama, yogic meditation) and not an end in itself. This is obvious from studying the Yoga Sutra and other yogic texts. When exactly did the idea originate that simply doing your asana practice would bring you everything? It’s unfortunate that true Patanjali-Ashtanga Yoga has been watered down so much in the 20th century.
- More teachers are now developing a sophisticated understanding of pranayama and yogic meditation, which is growing out of their higher-limbs practice. More teachers are also developing the ability and readiness to convey these techniques to students.
What is the right attitude to practice Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?
Yoga Sutra 1.14 deals with this question. It is important to have an attitude of giving and service rather than of ambition and wanting to be better than others. Spirituality is a community effort. In yoga we are improving ourselves so that we are better able to serve others and our common goal.
It is also very important that we have a long-term approach. Rather than wanting to succeed in the short term we commit ourselves to a livelong practice. It always backfires to be in a hurry.
Additionally it is important to practice daily if we can and if that is not possible then as often as we can. Without regular practice success is not possible.
What is your goal?
The goal of Ashtanga Yoga is spiritual freedom, samadhi. It is identical with the Japanese term satori. Yoga teaches that we have made ourselves unfree through the conditioning of our mind, which is similar to the programming of a computer. Yoga teaches us to break free of this robotic programming so that we can experience the world as it truly is.
Why do you keep practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?
I am practising for 40 years now and it is getting easier as you go along. As you continue to mature you are harvesting the seeds you sowed in the early years of practice. There is no reason to stop now. It is getting better and better.
What has Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga given you?
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has given me radiant health and a peaceful, but concentrated mind. Yoga has given me a balanced personality and a positive outlook on life. It has also given my life purpose in that I can now make a contribution to the life of others.