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.