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The framework of Ashtanga Vinyasa for Minimum Yoga: a thread made of breath, practice, and insight

“Whether young or old, very old, sick or feeble, one can attain perfection in all the yogas by practising.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika, (Chapter 1, verse 64), 1500-1600 CE

“All ashtanga should be accessible.” David Swenson, 2020

“The point of the ashtanga practice is to give you more peace of mind, and to make you more aware of your breath so that you can be more free and can have a better feeling in your body.” Maty Ezraty, 2015


I belong to the camp of those who think that systems and methods are tools or techniques that describe a certain way of doing things, and that they are not an end in themselves. You may have heard the expression “the map is not the territory” (Korzybski). I think this effectively expresses the relative value of systems.


Ashtanga Vinyasa is a system. It evolved in the 20th century from the teachings of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989), considered the ‘father of modern yoga’. The system was codified, structured, and popularised by one of his students, Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) [1]. Many Westerners travelled to India and practised with Jois starting from the late 60s-early 70s. This afflux of Westerners had a direct impact on the way the system developed over the years, with many postures or transitions being added at later points, as Nancy Gilgoff recounts in detail on her website. Despite never practising with Jois or other members of his family, after the evidence of him sexually abusing his female students came out I, like many others, stopped to consider my feelings and whether I wanted to continue with this practice or not. I reflected on this until it became clear to me that the practice does not depend on Jois to be effective, especially for someone, like me, who is unable to take any human-made thing (whether it’s a system, an artwork, or a philosophy) as absolute truth. I think this is particularly relevant in the field of yoga, where the emphasis is on relinquishing ego formations (whether one’s own or somebody else’s) and working to undo conditioning for the purpose of liberation and ‘awakening’. In Systems Theory it is said that every system is influenced by its context and Ashtanga Vinyasa is no exception.


For me, the essence of any system is its framework, i.e. the map it provides. All the senior teachers I have studied and practised this system with (some of whom are quoted in this article), despite their differences, have all emphasised the necessity to mould the postures to serve the student, rather than forcibly applying a model to a student who might not be ready for it. In other words, the system is used as a framework upon which the practitioners build their own experience of the practice, under the guidance of a teacher who should be able to facilitate that process of individual learning and development, and not impose an ideal to fulfil their ego. It turns out that most Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioners use this approach. “But, if nearly everyone is “modifying”, is it really a modification if it’s actually the norm?” asks David Keil in his article outlining the results of a research on this very topic.


The score


Personally, and from the start, I have likened ashtanga to a musical score which each practitioner plays in their own unique way. Just like a musical score, the harmonic structure of the piece (whether it’s primary, second, or further series), is defined, and the chords (the postures) are given. However, there is wiggle room in how these chords are performed, if they are, and each chord can be used as the basis for further work in the lab-like space of self-practice. That’s unless you want to stick to the script verbatim, and that’s also an option (in led classes, for example), but even then the characteristics of who you are as a human being (your body, your temperament, your mindset, your emotional state at the time of practice etc.) will inevitably come through, making even the most literal interpretation of that framework unique to yourself, and therefore, constantly changing as you change every day. Here I’m in no way advocating the creation in our heads of a personal narrative about how it is we go through our practice every day. That would again trap us in ego formations. One of the things I most appreciate in the ashtanga system is that, by providing a framework or structure, it encourages the practitioner to cultivate objectivity. For example, you might convince yourself that you just can’t do certain postures. However, ashtanga is telling you that you can, and that you in fact must. You have to work on your expectations of what a certain posture should look like. Usually these expectations are fuelled by conditioning outside ourselves: other practitioners in the room; myths divulged through social media; the countless images we’re exposed to. The work on these expectations is an integral part of the practice. David Garrigues writes about this in his article Whose posture are you imagining?


Out of comfort

One of the things I love about Ashtanga Vinyasa is that it takes you out of your comfort zone, in my experience, more so than other yoga styles.


The postures that you like least, or that you find harder, are the ones you need to work on more, in your mind as well as in your body. You are having to face your own fears. The practice is uncompromising in many ways. Yet at the same time it is not (meant to be) a punishment. If injury or constitution do not agree with a specific posture, it’s time to explore options, asking the question: how can I approach this asana in a way that is not damaging, while at the same time retaining the challenge and allowing me to learn something new about the way things work? What things, you ask. Well, your body for a start. And we could leave it at that. Except that inevitably you’re confronted with a cascade of insights about yourself: your resistances, your limitations, your attitudes, your samskaras, which are the imprints of our conditioning always ready to kick in. For example, for a long time, I wondered at the inherent imbalance in always entering padmasana or Lotus with the right leg first as tradition dictates, but I kept doing it nonetheless, until knee injuries prevented me from entering this posture altogether. The injuries were caused by something outside yoga practice. Nonetheless, they made it impossible for me to practise this and other postures. For a long time I couldn’t even flex one knee fully until, over the last year, I was able to flex my right knee again, and to practise Lotus again, although only at the cost of entering it with the left leg first. What may sound ‘heretical’ to some, was a true achievement for me. Not only was I now able to do this posture again, but I also felt I was finally balancing out the years of entering it always in the same way, with the right leg first. I hope I can get to a point in my practice where both options will again be available to me. If this is not possible, that will also be okay.



Accessible and minimal


Despite its reputation for being a hard practice not accessible to everyone, it seems to me that the centrality of the breath in Ashtanga makes it a primary resource for anyone wanting to delve deep into any yoga practice. And this is where the minimalism lies for me: the breath is the guiding principle, shaping and informing all movements and postures.


Furthermore, the set sequence of the Primary series, which is the series most ashtanga practitioners concentrate on (definitely not a beginners’ series), seems to me to be a useful map to provide direction to an otherwise potentially chaotic array of posture possibilities, which therefore makes it very suitable for beginners. That’s not to say that the series in its current incarnation is perfect as it is, which is all the more reason to see it as a framework and not the goal, and to tinker with it, making it accessible to as many people as possible by adapting it to the requirements of the student, as David Swenson describes in the video quote provided above. At the same time the practice requires commitment, consistency, dedication, discipline, which is what makes this a ‘minimal’ practice for me. It’s not how much you push yourself in one single day, but how you are able to build continuity in the single minimal portion of daily practice. So, there is rigour and there is discipline. At the same time there is tinkering in the microcosmos of each posture and transition. In my world, the rigour and the tinkering can (and should) coexist. Each posture is a microcosmos that relates to other postures. And here is another minimal piece. How to see the components of each asana in relation to those of other asanas. This is something I have learnt from David Keil’s book [3]: the anatomical relationships between different postures. And although of course, anatomical knowledge is not in any way a prerequisite for practice, it can help in the process of cultivating objectivity instead of personal narratives. This latter part too I learnt from D.K.


Bodymind awareness


In yoga class you often hear teachers talk about developing ‘body awareness’ and I am certainly culpable of that. Part of developing a personal practice means becoming aware of our bodies in a way that daily life in modern societies never will allow. Think for a moment about what body position you tend to spend most of your day in. I fear most of you will say seating, front body collapsed. And yet seating in itself isn’t the problem. See my review of Daniel Liebermann’s great book "The Story of the Human Body" for more on this. It’s the lack of variety of movements during the day that causes serious problems in the long term. So we roll out our mat and check in with ourselves and take another step towards that awareness. Some people argue that the Ashtanga Vinyasa system lacks variety because one is repeating the same series of postures every day. Except that one is not. It all depends on how one practises this system. To stick to the music analogy, in the same way as your rehearsal of the same piece of music will be different each time (or it wouldn’t be a rehearsal), so will your practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa. Yes, even if you were to practise all the same postures every day, your body would give you different feedback each time: when you’re tired, when you have aches, when you’re recovering, when you are energised, when you feel light, when you feel heavy, when you’re dealing with some emotional breakdown, and the list goes on. For me the self-practice that Ashtanga requires is one of experimentation where I can work on the same posture in different ways, sometimes with repetitions, sometimes with props, sometimes with a different set-up, others following a led class and the vinyasa count with no interruption.The sequence works for me like a thread around which I weave my own unique practice, while gaining resilience, adaptation, curiosity, and insight. The thread is that minimal piece. I often begin my asana practice with somatic movements from a supine position on the floor. Practising in the morning means this feels like an organic and progressive awakening. I don’t do it “to warm up”. It just feels right and natural in my body. Sometimes this lasts 5 minutes, others it goes on for 15 or more minutes. Then I arrive in Samasthiti and, depending on how the body responds, I move into Sun Salutations and the rest happens almost spontaneously.


The killer: Uth pluthi (pictured)

Take the case of Uth pluthi. It is said this isn’t an asana. It appears at the very end of the finishing sequence. The first time I ever attended a led Ashtanga Vinyasa class and saw this, my immediate reaction was something along the lines of: “No way, this is overkill!” I really thought it was unnecessary to demand this final leap of energy at a point in the practice where I just wanted to lie down and rest in Savasana for as long as I could. Over the years I have learnt to really appreciate the value of Uth pluthi. And not because it now comes easy. It is difficult to describe in words what value I get from it. But I think of it as a seal, tying it all in, allowing me to energetically absorb and integrate the practice I have just gone through. At the same time, there are things in the sequence which I feel are not quite in the right place, or shouldn’t be there at all, at least not in their standard format. And this is where the knowledge of the cultural underpinnings of the system comes in handy to help you see that it’s not set in stone, in the same way that nothing in life is. What remains valuable is its framework (made of standing postures, the actual series and its focus, the finishing part), around the central role of the breath, the drishti, and the energetic work (the bandhas). I’m hoping to write more on the energetic side another time.


But for now let’s not forget the fun aspect of this practice. David Swenson is known to often say “Have fun practising!” And that’s so important. I do have a lot of fun with this practice, even when it’s hard, even when it doesn’t look like I’m having fun. It gives me peace and I am grateful to all the teachers and the practitioners near and far, both in time and in space, who have made it possible for this framework to reach me, and for me to share it with the practitioners in my classes.



 

[1] For more details on this genealogy, I recommend consulting multiple sources including Eddie Stern’s introduction to Yoga Mala, and the chapter on the origins of Ashtanga Vinyasa in Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body.

[2] See my blog entry The pursuit of the minimal in Minimum Yoga

[3] David Keil, Functional Anatomy of Yoga - A Guide for Practitioners and Teachers, 2014.



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