Exercise, the Teacher, the Collective: What Ashtanga Does

1. I did a podcast for yogapeeps. Interesting little website.

2. I’ve been sending out these posts, thoughts about yoga and such, and the question may arise, what do all these things have to do with the daily physical practice that I teach, that we do? I’ll make a stab at addressing that here.

The Ashtanga system is based on Tantric techniques of arousing successively subtle internal energy processes in the bodymind. This is achieved in three primary ways in the Ashtanga room, 1. through the process of exercise, basically comprised of stretching, strengthening, balance and coordination, all of it done with full active breath. 2. the guidance and physical touch of the teacher, 3. the energy of the collective, that which happens when people practice in a room together. I’ll take these one at a time.

1. Exercise: in Ashtanga, we all start with Primary Series. The first half of primary is a thorough excavation of the pelvis: multiple angles into the hips and a deep clearing of hamstring tension. This essentially addresses the first two chakras, the root and the genital, clears out space for them to exist energetically in ways other than their overt function, i.e.: elimination and sex. This seats the practitioner deep in her pelvis and builds an energetic foundation for what is to follow, basically getting her grounded. The second half of primary emphasizes pure strength and coordination, as well as inversion (upside-down), and there’s also more pelvic stuff. We finish with backbends and then lots of upside-down. This is a steady building and lifting of energy, culminating with the backbends. Second series and beyond is about nerve purification and progressively rigorous strength and balance development and energy uplift.

Essentially, the tantrics who gave rise to Hatha yoga began to discover what can happen when we exercise, the kind of energy that can be awakened through the process of becoming physically fit. In short: seated yogic techniques, such as meditation, bring us into the subtle realms which ironically are not easier to hold but rather, the opposite. Subtle yogic realms are actually more real and less easy to manage than gross realms; the poor yogi who just sits there while flying around in the subtle spheres can get overwhelmed; strengthening the physical body can help him contain the beauty and volatility of the deeper dimensions of life.

2. Contact with the teacher: try this: sit at home for a while and get as centered and calm as possible, keeping the mind clear. Next, from this place, go get physically close to someone, your wife, friend, whomever. Go up to her, or pull him down to you, something like that. Notice what happens. If possible, notice this very precisely.

Physical contact with another person is strong stuff, again, primarily on the more subtle levels, and will awaken energy processes. Many of these processes may be shrouded, and will only register as confusion or some kind of variant on uncertainty. Others will be easy to discern, can go all the way to unbearably strong. Now I know what some of you are thinking, but it’s important to note that sexual arousal is just one of many kinds of phenomena available here. Sex can be volatile and unpredictable in its effects, even ┬áin committed intentional settings. That said, sacred sex is unparalleled in its capacity to free up and make available certain aspects of our developmental being, a fiery crucible that can be potentially used for good.

Contact with a teacher can be intimate but, hopefully, is of a different kind than sex. What are the avenues pursued with intimate, sensual but non-sexual touch? Essentially, it is the recognition of the special opportunity for energy movement when two dynamic systems merge for a moment. Of course, this can happen from across a room (possibly from across the planet), but when bodies actually physically collide, a deeper kind of “hook-up” becomes possible. This is transcendent to gender difference.

A skilled toucher does some version of the following: he is centered and sensitive, so when the hands go on, he feels a field of activity which is the interaction of his energy with yours. In Ashtanga, we follow the overt needs of the pose: teacher puts the student into, or moves him towards, the proper position of the pose. This is simple mechanics and it is a huge set of skills in itself. Simultaneously, an energy exchange is happening, the basis for what in yogic circles is termed Shaktipat, which means “descent of power”. I prefer to see this as the power possible when two people touch, as opposed to the teacher subjecting the poor student to his power. (See the post for August 2007: Mata Amritanandamayi: Up and Down)

I have found Pattabhi Jois remarkably synergistic on this issue. He is famous for that last push, where he climbs on your back after backbends, gives you a squash. I was fortunate enough to have this experience six days a week for nearly an entire year, at the time I associate with his energetic peak, the last year before beloved Ammachi, his wife, died. This was 1997, he was 83. At that age, he wasn’t an elite asana practitioner anymore, but his internal energy mastery was incredible. He would give a push, and it would be a strong statement, but I could feel his receptivity- actually, it was the fact that I sensed this receptivity that awakened a willingness in me to participate fully in the exchange.

A person will allow herself to be dictated to for only so long before she needs to have a voice in the exchange. If her voice is denied, it becomes a domination thing, which some people like, to their detriment. This is fundamentalism: personal oblivion in the face of the utterly dominant “God”, an expression of the need to master others, and to be mastered by another. There have been many problem gurus on this issue, Pattabhi Jois isn’t one of them. (See February 2008: Yoga Fundamentalism)

3. The collective: as we do asana over time, and we follow the promptings of our own practice, we begin to transcend the grossly physical, we begin to register subtle energy events of whose existence we were previously ignorant. In asana class, the character of the group of people in class with us will become more prominent. It may even be a disturbing force while we are still gaining strength in this realm. Also, as we grow into the energetic realm, which again, is exactly where yoga practice is taking us, we will project more of ourselves “out there”, and this requires increasing degrees of responsibility. There is the story of a well-known contemporary guru who was going to come back as a rock in his next life because he had gained extreme levels of energy mastery and was messing around with it in uncouth ways.

For the highly evolved, much is expected. But what’s the alternative, go backwards?




This entry was posted on Friday, December 1st, 2006 at 4:23 pm and is filed under Ashtanga Yoga. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Exercise, the Teacher, the Collective: What Ashtanga Does”

  1. Lara Says:

    Steve- Awesome commentary on the energy exchange between teacher-student, and the receptiveness necessary to go deeper, making light of how dominance is a detrement. I love how you bring to light the energy in yoga, especially in Mysore, and one-on-one exchanges. I think this is a fundamental element in progressing deeper in the practice.
    Thank you for the http://www.yogapeeps.com link. It was our pleasure to have you on. Love reading your blog, WordPress is a great organizer of our thoughts.
    Love and Namaste to you, Michelle, and the little ones,

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