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.