Thursday, December 27, 2007

Asht = Eight, Anga = Limbs; The Eight Limbs of Yoga

So 2007 is coming to a close and 2008 is starting to unfold before us. As with the turning of the year comes the "New Year Resolutions": to eat better, to abstain from all junk food, to work out 5 days a week, to loose weight...those seem to be the usual ones. And every year I watch people leap into January with great intent, and by February folks have started to slide from their goals, creating all sorts of reasons why, and by March old habits have subtly and quietly returned.

Now wouldn't it be nice to have something to follow year round with out being so rigid? Some...guidelines...perhaps? for better living?

There is often some confusion when starting out in a yogic practice - and in the Ashtanga practice in particular - regarding the term "ashtanga". It does have two meanings to us. In one it refers to the Primary (and following) Series, and in a broader sense it relates to the yogic philosophy of the Eight Limbed path.

If the reader will recall, one of the purposes of the Primary series was to accommodate the layman who did not have an entire day to devote to the practice and study of yogic asana and philosophy. Was designed to consolidate the eight limbs of Yogic Philosophy (Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi) into 2 hours, with the focus on Asana. The idea was that everything could be condensed and the person would still receive the great benefits of yoga - that and being a renuciate isn’t for everyone.

But what are these Eight Limbs? What do they encompass? How can they be guidelines?

Yama (self restraints)
Ahimsa - non-violence
Satya - truth
Asteya - non-stealing
Brahmacharya - chastity or walking with the divine
Aparigraha - non-attachment

Niyamas (observance)
Saucha - cleanliness
Santosa - contentment
Tapas - self discipline
Svadhyaya - self study
Isvara pranidhanani - surrender to the divine

Asana (postures)

Pranyama (breath control)

Pratyahara (sense withdrawl)

Dharana (concentration)

Dhyana (meditative absorption)

Samadhi (to bring into harmony)

Matthew Sweeney in Astanga Yoga as it Is, sums these concepts up very succinctly: "The third and fourth limbs...asana and pranayama, are the common starting point with any physical hatha yoga. However, it is with the evolution of the first two limbs, self-restraint and observance, that inner awareness truly unfolds. "

He goes on to further say, "The five components of yama, self restraint, are considered universal vows and are not confined to time or place. The yamas evolve as a result of the practice of self awareness. When fully committed to the inner process it becomes impossible to harm oneself and so harm others."

And on the niyamas, "The process of the five niyamas indicates the journey from gross Self to refined Self, step by step to Samadhi. It is something like a personal self-study course. One begins with cleanliness, progresses to contentment, through self-discipline, into self-study, right to the gateway of Brahma."

So perhaps this year instead of making broad sweaping resolutions, make just one - to study the eight limbs of yoga - and see what happens. Afterall, they're just...guidelines....

Astanga Yoga As it Is. Matthew Sweeney. The Yoga Temple,2005.
Yoga From the Heart. Alice Christensen (out of print) Yoga North Extended Studies; Life's 10 Guidelines.
Forth coming book: The 10 Jewels of a Joyful Life by Deborah Adele.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


I had an interesting discussion with a student before class on Monday night as we talked about what the traditional form of the Ashtanga practice expects. I thought this would be a great topic for today’s post.

Yes, there is a traditional form to the Ashtanga practice. This is the practice as developed by Sri Pattabhi Jois and as is practiced in Mysore, India. Students arrive very early in the morning at the Jois yogashala and move through the sequence on their own (called a Mysore practice - I’ll discuss this in a future posting), receiving one on one instruction from Jois but not being actively lead through each pose. The student does the sequence as far as they are able, then they roll up their mat and move to another room to complete the closing sequence and practice pranyama and chanting. It is not uncommon for Jois to stop a student partway through the sequence, his reason being they are not ready to continue on with the remaining postures that day.

In the traditional form of the practice, students are encouraged to master the first, or Primary, series before moving on into Secondary, Third, Forth, Fifth or Sixth Series. It is important to understand that the foundation of the Ashtanga practice is the Primary sequence. Secondary sequence and third sequence are of lesser importance, and everything else is for show.
The traditional form is also learned with the Sanscrit counting method (Eckum, Dwei, Trini, Chitari, Pancha, etc.) and with Sanscrit Asansa. The student or class begins with an invocation of Thanks and ends with a Closing Prayer.

To complete the Primary as Manju Jois leads it - 1 ½ hours. This is 1:10 for asana, 10 mintues for pranyama, 10 mintues for chanting. As David Swenson and Beryl Bender Birch teach it, the asana practice alone is 1 ½ hours. Richard Freeman 2 hours for asana.

The Ashtanga method is intended to be a daily practice and students are encouraged to make a commitment to practice at least 3 times a week. Again, traditionally, the practice is done every day except for Saturdays and Moon Days which occur about twice monthly (new moon and full moon). If the traditional form is what appeals to you, please remember it may be difficult to commit to a daily practice, and it often takes one or two years to establish this. Do not be discouraged if you're "only" practicing twice a week at first.

As many of my students have figured out, I do not teach the true "Traditional" primary practice. I teach as I learned the sequence from David Swenson during his 40 hour teacher training. I have done both methods, and I have decided his method is more approachable - and acceptable - to a wider variety of people. I encourage modifications, because we are all built differently and come to class from different places and ages in life and I cue the poses and breath in English. But I think it is important to at least understand and be able to appreciate the traditional form and I encourage anyone to try it at least a couple of times.

In closing, I would like to leave you with this quote. I’m afraid I don’t recall where I picked it up. "Ashtanga yoga is for everybody, but not everybody is for Ashtanga yoga."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Bit of History - 1970's to today

So we've been discussing the history of Ashtanga yoga over the last several week. Given the prevalence of yoga in the media today, the number of studios a person can attend, and the classes you can find at the fitness centers it rather seems as if yoga has always been with us. But yoga didn’t just magically appear and suddenly everyone was doing it (though it seems like it at times). Rather, a variety of yoga styles came to the States (California) in a rather round about way via several very influential persons. Here is where we bring in the next set of instructors, many if not all of whom are still actively teaching today. And again, I've focused on the Ashtanga lineage. I’ve tried to provide a few links if you’d like to know more about some of them.

Manju Jois (Pattabhi Jois’s son)
David William
Nancy Gilgoff
Doug Swenson
(Sahdna Chi Yoga)
David Swenson
Richard Freeman

Beryl Bender Birch

In the late 60's early 70's, David William discovered yoga and a personal quest took him to India where he tried out a variety of styles in a quest for one that would suit him. He happened to observe an Ashtanga demo (to drum up business, yogashala’s would send students out into the country and cities to demonstrate their particular styles). The young man David talked to was Manju Jois, one of Pattabhi Jois’s sons. David was hooked and headed off for Mysore. In the coming years, David not only learned the primary series, but second, third and forth as well. It was during this time he talked Pattabhi and Manju into coming to California for a visit.

Meanwhile, Doug Swenson and David Swenson were practicing in Texas (this is the 70's remember) and occasionally getting arrested for this strange cult-ish thing. David made his way to California to take up surfing and found David William's and Manju. One thing led to another and David ended up in India to learn the Ashtanga sequence as well. I’m not certain about some of the details, but the whole group of them mentioned above kinda fell into the Ashtanga practice about the same time in California and Hawaii.

The Ashtanga style I teach is heavily influenced by David Swenson. I have found his teachings and methodology to be so open and approachable to a wide variety of students. I have also taken classes from Manju, who teaches a very traditional form. Doug Swenson offers a Sahdna Chi style of vinyasa yoga, flowing gracefully from posture to posture, while David William prefers a more, "Do what you enjoy!" philosophy (he won’t even do headstand because he doesn’t like it).

That is the beauty of a yoga practice. Learn the sequence and make the practice your own.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


How about something other than a history lesson this week? Here are some terms you might hear in class that are not posture related. I’ll be going into more depth on some of these later on.

Ashtanga: (2 definitions) 1) Eight Limbed Path 2) A particular style of yoga incorporating breath, bandha’s, asana and drishti.

Asana - yoga postures

Bandha’s - "locks"; three of them - root lock, abdomen lock and chin lock.

Chataranga - the motion of moving from plank pose through push-up position into up dog.

Drishti - 1) Point of gaze or focus and is meant to direct our attention to the subtle practice ("it’s what you can’t see that matters"; the breath and bandhas). 2) Let your gaze move in the direction of the stretch.

Hatha - the base of all yoga asana. From Hatha are derived the many other traditions.

Namaste - peace; thank you; "the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you"; in Indian and other cultures, this is not said out loud, but implied by bringing the hands to the heart or forehead.

Pranyama - breathwork; any kind of controlled breathing used in a yogic practice.

Om (Aum) - known as the universal sound; the first sound that was created.

Samasthti - Equal Standing - Neutral position at front of mat.

Shanti - Peace.

Ujjayi breath - "breath of fire"; an audible breath that builds heat within the body; an audible sound to focus the mind; a way to measure a person’s practice. Can be utilized beyond the ashtanga practice.

Yama/Niyamas - guidelines for rightful living.

Vinyasa - 1) A balance of strength and flexibility, lightness and heaviness, movement and stillness. 2) Neutral positions between postures (samasthi, dandasana). 3) Refering to a flowing style of yoga that moves from posture to posture without pause.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Little Bit of History: Jois, Iyengar and Others

In a previous post I discussed some of the roots of the Ashtanga practice. To grow our knowledge a bit more, I’d like to touch on the instructors Krishnamacharya influenced, who continue to bring us a wonderful, rich tradition of yoga.

In no particular order:
Krishnamacharya (1888-1989)
B.K.S. Iyengar
Pattabhi Jois (started when 12 years old, has been teaching for 64 years, 92 yrs old)
Indra Devi (first woman to learn and teach a modified Ashtanga sequence)
T.K.V. Desikachar (Krishnamachara’s son)

How to sum up such a rich history in just a few sentences? We must Summerize!

Pattabhi Jois began his instruction at the age of 12, focusing on the vinyasa style as taught by Krishnamacharya. For years Jois has preserved, refined and polished the asana sequence without significant modification. He continues to teach today at his yogashala in Mysore India. Influential students of his include: David Swenson, Doug Swenson, Beryl Bender Birch, Richard Freeman, Nancy Gilgoff and many, many others. You can read more about Jois at his website here.

Indra Devi (born Zhenia Labunskaia in pre-Soviet Russia) is credited with being the first to truly introduce yoga to the West and the first woman to learn a modified form of the Ashtanga practice. After her apprenticeship she went on to open the first yoga school in China, counting Madam Chaing Kai-shek as one of her students. After lengthy negotiations with Soviet Russia to convince them yoga was not a religion, she opened a school there as well. In 1974 she came to the US. However, her form of teaching became quite different from Krishnamacharya’s or even Pattabhi Jois, focusing on a gentler practice that incorporated breath work and chanting. For more information on Indra, try here and here.

B.K.S Iyengar stayed with Krishnamacharya for only a few years, having suffered a grievous hamstring injury when Krishnamacharya demanded he do Harumasana (the splits) before he had a chance to actually learn it. Over the years Iyengar also deviated from the vinyasa style to focus on the nature of internal alignment utilizing prop when necessary, to look at every part of the body to develop the pose. Iyengar saw the body as a temple and the asana as a prayer. Here is Iyengar's website.

Here's a couple of links to see some of these yogi's in action:

Pattabhi Jois video

BKS Iyengar Video

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Workshop and New Studio Experience

There comes a time in your practice when you might feel a need to break out of what you've been doing and try something different. This happened to me about two years ago - I went to a workshop by David Williams (I'll be discussing this Instructor in a coming post). It was an amazing experience, so unlike any previous practice. It's a bit liberating to be doing the primary series, your head down around your feet somewhere, following your breath (or trying to) and to hear the instructor from across the room declare, "We won't do headstand. I don't like headstand. Never have. Let's do handstand instead!"

This new found joy for different workshops inspired me to attend that year: Doug Swenson, David Swenson, and Manju Jois; and the following year, David Swenson again and Govinda.

The beauty of a workshop is you can take what you want and leave the rest. It's not about trying to learn everything they have to offer, but to learn and ingrain even one thing to make the weekend worthwhile. For example, my first experience with Manju's workshop was disappointing, but I figured had the opportunity to do the practice as guided by Pattabhi Jois son. I told myself I wasn't going to do that again, but lo! a year later I found myself back in the Cities at Manju's workshop here at the Yoga House.

It was fantastic! It helped that the workshop times were adjusted this year which accommodated not only what he wanted to teach and how he taught, but also the students. Friday night he did a modified primary series with no vinyasas (really! no vinyasas!) and a couple secondary series postures before moving into pranyama and chanting. And this year he provided sheets and translations for us non-sanscrit knowledgeable westerner's to follow. Saturday was the full primary, with a partial secondary, followed by pranyama and chanting. Incredible.

On Sunday I had the good fortune to meet with an acquaintance who I met in my classes and attend the yoga Studio she found after moving to the Cities. Sol Yoga Studio is located on Grand Ave and offers a wide variety of classes. We attended a morning Vinyasa Flow class that was fantastic! I cannot speak highly enough of the instructor, Jennifer . The classes was very mixed: two pregnant ladies, beginners to intermediate/advanced. She made the group feel comfortable, welcome and challenged every single person in the room at their appropriate level, and her adjustments were subtle and yet profound. Delightful way to start a Sunday.

So my recommendation is this: give workshops and different studios try. Sometimes something small will impact your practice in a profound way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Little bit of History - Krishnamacharya

According to history, yoga began about 5000 years ago - but that’s a bit like saying Minnesota’s history began at the glaciers. With no disrespect intended, we’ll skip a bit and start with Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). Krishnamacharya’s legacy extends well beyond just the Ashtanga practice: his teachings shaped B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and T.K.V. Desikachar and all the students who have followed these and other well known teachers.

Not much is known about Krishnamacharya. He was born into an India dominated by British rule where the practice of yoga had fallen into disuse. It was his father who set him on the yogic path when he was quite small, teaching him the Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s and 24 asanas. When he was 16 he traveled to his ancestor’s shrine at Alvar Tirunagari, where he received a vision to continue in his yogic journey and education. Krishnamacharya did so by exploring Indian clasical disciplines, obtaining degrees in philology, logic divinity and music and by seeking out and finding the well known teacher, Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari, one of the few remaining classical Hatha instructors.

Krishnamacharya spent seven years with Brahmachari, memorizing Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s and studying asana and pranyama practice. In return, Brahmachari requested that Krishnamacharya return to his homeland, teach yoga, and start a family. This may seem like an odd request since at that time traditionally yogis were renuciates, but his guru wished for Krishnamacharya to understand family life and teach a type of yoga that benefitted the lay person.

Over the coming years, during periods of poverty and prosperity, he gradually built up his teachings and practice, his main pupils being young boys (remember, women were not taught yoga in India). Krishnamacharya pulled from many disciplines: yoga, Indian wrestling, and gymnastics to develop a very fluid practice aimed at building physical fitness. Over these years he met and taught Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, and Krishnamacharya son’s T.K.V. Desikachar. While each would continue on to develop their own styles their initial instruction was all from a common source.

As quoted from Yoga Journal, "He was a pioneer in refining postures, sequencing them optimally and ascribing therapeutic value to specific asanas. By combining pranyama and asana, he made the postures and integral part of meditation instead of just a step leading toward it."
Krishnamacharya continued to modify and change his instruction over the coming years. He emphasized that yoga could serve any creed and adjusted his teachings to respect each students faith as he interacted more and more with westerners. He became known as a great healer in India, using yogic techniques to help heal stroke victims and others with infirmities. In some ways, he reinvented himself to be able to bring yoga to the common person.

Here is a U-Tube Video from 1938 with Krishnamacharya demonstrating yoga.

Yoga Journal, "Krishnamacharya’s Legacy", Fernando Pages Ruiz. May/June 2001. Pages 96-101.

Ashtanga: Practice and Philosophy, Gregor Mahlor.

Astanga Yoga As it Is, Matthew Sweeney. (Not a misspelling, a different spelling.)

(This is based off of the research I have done with the resources available to me. There may be more accurate information on this and many of the topics forthcoming and I certainly welcome any feedback concerning potential inaccuracies.)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ashtanga Yoga - "Some Assembly Required"

Ashtanga Yoga. What is it really? What does it encompass? Why do it? These are all good questions that cannot readily be answered in one hour, one day, or even in one year. To paraphrase from one of my favorite movies, Ashtanga yoga is like an onion, with many layers. In the coming blog pages, we will explore the terminology, traditions and history behind the Ashtanga practice, as introduced to the West in the 1970's from Pattabhi Jois, Manju Pattabhi Jois and David Williams, and it’s subsequent growth and popularity through the next several decades.

There are so many places to begin - there is the deep well of yogic philosophy behind the Ashtanga practice that merits study, there are the beautiful rich Indian traditions, there are the Sanscrit definitions and terminology so foreign to us Westerners, and there is all the alignment and poses that define the physical aspect. So much to learn!

So, let’s start with the basics: what is the definition of Ashtanga?

This word is derived from the Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali (another very old text which we will discuss at a later date) where it denotes yoga’s eight limbs. Ashta = limb and anga = practice.

The eight limbs are:
yama = restraints
niyamas = observances
asana = posture
pranyama = breath control
pratyahara = sense withdrawl
dharana = concentration
dhyana = meditative absorption
samadhi = to bring into harmony

But how does this relate to what we practice in class? The Ashtanga (or Astanga) system was devised to accommodate the layman who did not have an entire day to devote to the study and practice of yogic asana and philosphy. The Ashtanga series (of which there are now six) was designed to consolidate the eight limbs of yogic philosophy into two hours with the focus on asana. This way the layperson would still receive the great benefits of yoga without having to become a renuciate.

The term Ashtanga is often used interchangeably with the phrase "Power Yoga". The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Power Yoga was a term coined by Beryl Bender Birch and others to make the Ashtanga practice more approachable to Westerns. Some studio’s advertise "Power Yoga" but it may not be the Ashtanga sequence. There are also slight variations between the most traditional form as taught by Pattahbi K. Jois in Mysore India, and other Western and Indian teachers. The beauty of yoga, is that a person can take these asanas and make them their own over time.