I started yoga for two reasons: stress and inflexibility. I’ve always treated my body as something fairly functional. The machine that carries me around. Let’s face it was never cut out to be a sportsman or a film star. I just try to treat it well because I need it to keep on working. Like a car or a house, it needs to be treated with respect, serviced regularly and a bit of effort spent on upkeep every once in a while. I’ve not always got the balance right: I had a bit of a reckoning in my early 30’s when I got a prolapsed disc in my lumbar spine and the months of pain and years of rehabilitation reminded me to pay a bit more attention.
Around age 46 I noticed that touching my toes was getting to be a bit tricky. Not impossible, but it needed a bit of a ‘bounce’ to get there. Likewise, lying on a beach I realised that with my hands clasped behind my head my elbows didn’t go to the sand any more. They were raised up and a bit uncomfortable.
At about the same time I was working on a contract that involved being the supplier manager of a subsidiary of a major bank for a particularly useless supplier of an IT system. On a Wednesday, pretty much every Wednesday, we would have an long meeting at which I would have to deal with their continuing failure to deliver what the had promised. Anyway before I go off on a rant about them….. I needed to calm down and in the gym across the road there was a yoga class early on a Wednesday evening. I could get out of my meeting, go over there and run on the treadmill for 20 or 30 minutes to burn off some of my frustration, and then do a yoga class to relax and calm down.
The class was a fairly gentle flow yoga class and I went in with no expectations of being able to do any of the fancy contorted postures. In fact I was pleasantly surprised by what the instructor managed to get me to do, and I did see some improvement in my flexibility.
My next work contract was working for an organisation I’d worked for some years previously and I knew a number of the people on the team I was to join. One of them mentioned that they now had a yoga class on site so that seemed a perfect fit with what I’d been doing and I agreed to go along. Oh boy! What a shock. It was a led Ashtanga primary series class. I thought was going to die before I got to the end of the ‘warm up’, which I later came to know as the surya namaskara or sun salutations.
However, I stuck with it for a few weeks. Probably in week three or four as the teacher intoned: “Standing at the front of the mat, breathe in, raise the arms up, look to the thumbs” I realised that this was a joy. The combination of the ritual of the practice, the exercise, the concentration and letting go of everything else was perfect for me.
My personal opinion is that there is a lot of rot talked about Ashtanga yoga. Often by some of its strongest proponents. The sequence of postures (asana) is treated with a reverence that it doesn’t deserve. That it goes back thousands of years and must be done in a particular sequence is a myth. This particular sequence was developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois who was a student of Sri T Krishnamacharya. There are several other students of Krishnamacharya still currently alive who teach different sequences and approaches. The sequence known as the ‘Primary Series’ was modified over the years that Jois taught it. He changed the emphasis and the manner of performing some of the poses, possibly even influenced by his Western students.
Anthony Hall has been bringing together documentation, research and his own personal experience and experimentation in his blog, currently called Krishnamacharya’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Krama Yoga at Home. I recommend it for further reading.
For me the genius of Ashtanga is the discipline of having a set sequence which becomes in a sense a ritual. There is no need to decide what the next pose is: the sequence is the same. This frees the mind to concentrate on the pose of the moment, the steady breathing, and to move on to the next one, each movement linked to the breath. It becomes like a dance, or the set forms of Tai Chi, or other martial arts. The whole body and mind are engaged in the process of moving and sensing and breathing slowly, fully and steadily.
Ashanga means “eight limbs” in Sanskrit, and asana, the postures of yoga is only one of them. The others are concerned with how you live your life and train your mind to achieve your maximum potential. (In particular in the Hindu understanding of the potential and ultimate spiritual objectives of humankind.) It can be argued that performing asana also teaches, in some way, aspects of the other seven limbs. It is certainly true that many people report that practising yoga as brought a stability, peace of mind and recovery from both physical and mental illness.
To me, this is a form of exercise and moving meditation which can be practised in a small space, with minimal equipment. It is not dependent on the weather, on one’s location, or other people. It balances strength, flexibility, endurance and aerobic capacity. It teaches care in one’s actions to avoid injury, awareness of one’s own body, concentration and discipline.
I personally believe that one of the key ways to maintain your body is to move. Movement lubricates the joints. It improves circulation of blood and lymph. It improves and stimulates the function of internal organs. It stimulates key areas of the brain. Yoga, in particular Vinyassa yoga – moving through postures and variations synchronised with steady breathing, seems to me a particularly good way of achieving that. That’s why yoga.