Oh Summer. First, the heat helps. It warms the muscles, softens some of the frozen places. This Summer Deborah D and I are making a regular pigrimage up to Dublin, NH to practice Ashtanga yoga in the Stonelea Barn where Robert Moses teaches.
To back up a moment and define the terms, Ashtanga yoga is a particular style of yoga that originates in India. There is some disagreement on whether the practice is 100, 2000, or 4000 years old. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter, or at least it doesn’t matter that much to me right now. There are some pretty convincing arguments (Yoga Body by Mark Singleton) that Pattabhi Jois took what he learned from Krishnamacharya, combined it with Western influences that pervaded India at the time, and created the sequences that comprise Ashtanga yoga, codified the poses and sequences into a system that would work for the Western students that were hungry for what he had to teach. What matters to me is that this style, these sequences, have worked their way into my heart, my soul and my body and I am transformed. At this point I am perhaps overly enamored of the physical practice, but faint glimmers of spiritual depth and growth begin to emerge. For Ashtanga yogis, the body is the starting point, but the end goal is defined by Patanjali, that ancient compiler of the yoga sutras. “Yoga citta vrtti nirodha.” Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
Lineage is important to many Ashtangis, and Robert Moses, while not authorized by the current keeper of the lineage (Sharath Rangaswami Jois, the grandson of the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois), learned the practice from Norman Allen and Eddie Stern, who learned the practice from Pattabhi Jois directly. Robert teaches Mysore style, which is how it is done in India and in traditional studios around the world. In a Mysore style classroom you begin with the first series and you memorize it one section at a time, moving on as you are ready and directed by your teacher. This is very different from what you experience in a typical yoga class in America these days, in which a teacher leads you through a sequence, calling out the poses.
There are several advantages to a Mysore style shala, or school. One is that a student can learn the sequence at their own pace. You might come the first day and learn the sun salutations, a few standing poses, and some closing postures. Little by little poses will be given to you until you practice the full sequence, which takes about 90 minutes. Eventually you might move on to second series, and a few intrepid lovers of asana (yoga poses) might move on to third. There are rules about these things, and while I question some of them, over all it’s a pretty sane, extremely intelligent and healing progression.
Another advantage is that the teacher, freed from the need to call out pose after pose, or to invent their own sequence either beforehand or on the spot, is much more able to closely observe and assist their students. You will typically get a lot more physical assists in a Mysore class. Much of the learning is non-verbal. Excess talk is not encouraged, there is no soundtrack. As a result you gradually learn patience, your ability to concentrate expands and grows and often spills over into your daily life. The practice is, ultimately, a moving meditation in which concentration on 3 things; breath, bandha (internal lock) and drishti (focal point) leads to, well, the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. What this might mean to a typical Western student is greater concentration and an ability to focus.
Once you memorize the sequence, it is yours, and you are free to practice at home. You no longer need a teacher to lead you all of the time. Indeed, unless you happen to live very close to a shala, you must practice at home for very little benefit will be derived from a once a week practice. Sure, it’s better than nothing, but 3 times a week is more effective and with a daily practice (5-6 days a week depending), internal shifts begin to take place that are powerful indeed. Be prepared. As a yoga teacher, I can say that the biggest obstacle to progress in one’s yoga practice is a reluctance to practice on one’s own. Developing a home practice is a critical step in a yogi’s growth.
So this, this Mysore summer, I am dedicating my practice to my family. For while the ultimate goal of yoga, that yoga citta vrtti nirodha, is all very fine, I just want to be a better person. A little calmer, more able to deal with the trials and tribulations of raising a family and making a living. In short, I really just want to be a better wife, mother, and artist. Enlightenment would be the frosting on the cake.
And if I can master a few new asana on the way, that’s even better. For I’m probably not kidding anyone, especially not any of the Ashtangis I know. There are poses I long to master. As I said, overly enamored of the physical practice. Call it an occupational hazard.