Just as we are getting ready to launch phase 1 of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Project, a message entitled “What makes a Practice ‘Ashtanga Enough’ to be Ashtanga?” popped into my inbox. Perfect timing, as we are defining “traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa practice” for the purpose of our research.
The latest blog post from The Confluence Countdown, of which, I am an avid follower, comes as a result of the discussion initiated by the topic of holding students back in Ashtanga practice. Apparently, we are in need of clarity. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers, I don’t think anyone does, and we will all be a little bias in the direction of our greatest influences, which hopefully are our teachers.
I do have some of my own thoughts around the topic and add these as guidelines “in addition to” Steve’s original posting. My perceptions and thoughts are guided by my personal experience in practice and teaching and may also require additional content to complete the picture.
From Steve at The Confluence Countdown:
“For me — and I emphasize for me, although I assume that’s understood, and that I’m no way claiming to be an authority — the fundamentals, the things that need to be present (or at least sought after) for a yoga practice to be Ashtanga, are:
★ Controlled, slow, audible breath through the nose. It’s critical that our breathing during Ashtanga be different from our normal breath; that’s part of what makes the practice something else, something extra. We’re working with prana here, after all.
★ Activated bandhas. This goes with the breathing, and with our engagement with our energetic body.
★ Moving in time with the breath. Not quite vinyasa, but close
★ A focus on drishti and trying to see God in all things. “
Steve has included the basics of Tristhana; Breath, Bandha and Drishti (aka breath, energetic locks and looking point). Yes, these elements MUST be present, or sought after, for a practice to be considered Ashtanga, however just because they are intended, does not mean it’s Ashtanga Vinyasa. For me, if we’re talking about Traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa asana practice as taught by S.K Pattabhi Jois (rather than Patanjali’s 8-Limbed Yoga), then I’d add in:
“Vinyasa means breathing and movement system. For each movement, there is one breath.” [KPJAYI]. I take that to mean that there is a SPECIFIC inhale or exhale for each SPECIFIC movement.
“Moving in time with the breath” as Steve puts it, is either too vague or it is Vinyasa. On the vague side, this would mean a “vinyasa flow “or “power class” would fit into the guidelines, which could be any set of postures chosen by the teacher. Although it might be fun, and I’m not saying it can’t lead to transformation in its own way, it’s not a traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa asana practice.
I believe one of the reasons people chose to avoid traditional Ashtanga is because it’s hard. Yes, it’s hard. We’re talking about self-development and a good hard look in the mirror. Anything that forces that with every encounter, is naturally going to be met with some resistance. But from a physical standpoint, the asana sequence is designed intelligently to cleanse the body, and the nervous system to enable us to handle what comes up when we do look in the mirror.
A non-traditional approach, such as a western “Vinyasa” class, would be to pick and choose some of the postures, likely embellish some, add some others, change the basic order and perhaps skip the ones that are met with resistance. For example – something like Marichasana D. An asana that is much easier when it’s avoided. But if you come to the practice like I did (tight and performance driven), it’s an asana that takes A LOT of patience, teaching us much more by working through it, rather than avoiding it. That is where the real essence of the practice lies. If the sequence is a random collection of gymnastics, then it misses this point.
From my understanding, if we’re talking “Traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa asana as taught by S.K. Pattabhi Jois”, then the foundation of the physical sequence does not change. We don’t skip something just because it’s hard or we don’t like it. That is, if there is a modification, even in the most extreme cases, the physical intent of the modification is the same physical intent of the full expression as set out by the sequence. The modification isn’t meant to replace the specific asana indefinitely as a stagnant representation. As a practitioner advances, the sequence will shift to continually allow the student opportunity to grow.
That also does not mean that as an experienced practitioner or teacher, after many years of uninterrupted practice, you can’t do or teach a “light Ashtanga vinyasa”, or stray off course a little, and indeed, sometimes that’s needed. But knowing what that means and what to practice takes experience and understanding. It takes having been through the foundation. Otherwise, our natural tendency to avoid that which makes us uncomfortable becomes our guiding light and again, we miss the point. I’ve had some very enjoyable and memorable practices while going “off script”, but I wouldn’t call those specific asana sessions “Traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa”.
“Parampara is knowledge that is passed in succession from teacher to student. It is a Sanskrit word that denotes the principle of transmitting knowledge in its most valuable form; knowledge based on direct and practical experience.” [KPJAYI]
The lineage of learning must be traced back to Guruji. This doesn’t mean your teacher needs to be authorized, as that’s not always a possibility. However, somewhere along the line, you do need to be able to follow what is being practiced back to the direct teaching of Guruji; even if it means you learned to practice at home with a video or a book (which I would never recommend long-term). Who is the instructor or author? Who was their teacher? And their teacher… and so on.
At some point, the student needs to practice in the presence of a teacher. If not, it may be Asthanga Vinyasa, but I wouldn’t classify it as “traditional.” Looking at the definition of traditional, according to Oxford Dictionary, we get:
adjective; existing in or as part of a tradition, [where tradition is the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation]; long-established.
There are more elements that are taught by this tradition, thus considered “traditional” like Moon Days and Saturdays but let’s save that for another time. If you’re interested in reading more about the Process of Parampara and learning Ashtanga Vinyasa as per the Traditional Method, visit KPJAYI.org.