Yoga Practice is about a re-turning towards our inner life.
However, even without outer obstacles,
we can encounter inner feelings that arise
and manifest as if obstacles to that re-turning.
Here it might be helpful to reflect
on how to cultivate the four pillars of
Maitrī, Karuṇā, Muditā and Upekṣā and
the role they can have in helping to transform
the unhelpful aspects of these inner feelings.
“Bhāvana is a beneficial attitude
that is consciously cultivated
despite tendencies to the contrary”
– T Krishnamacharya commentary on
Yoga Sūtra Chapter One verse 33
With the spirit of Yoga Sūtra Chapter One verse 33 in mind,
the cultivation of the four pillars is an inner practice
that can support a stepping, rather than stymieing,
onto our practice mat or seat through:
The pursuit of ‘Yoga bliss’ can be so demanding or intense that it can drive us as students to search for it through moving experientially from one Yoga seminar, workshop or retreat, or live or online Yoga class, or the latest Yoga hybrid or crossover style, to another.
The primary purpose for Āsana is to take us towards Yoga,
rather than just taking us towards more and more Āsana.
One irony from this pursuit is that any experience will not be exactly the same next time we reach for it, once we have been through that ‘first time taste’. This is the nature of Avidyā and its illusory mimicry, as lived through its child Rāga.
“Attraction is the consequence of happiness.”
– Yoga Sūtra Chapter Two verse 7
Know your breath and
its unique characteristics within Āsana
and you will have an initial template
for working with your breath in Prāṇāyāma.
Modern Postural Yoga talks a lot about individual patterning from our genetic past, along with upbringing and lifestyle conditioning, determining what body patterns we inherently carry from life to death. From this, how we need to consider what body we bring to Āsana practice and how we need to be intelligent in our choice of Āsana for our body and mind and the developmental direction of our body in Āsana practice.
Less talked about is that exactly the same can be said for our breath and the individual patterning from our genetic past, along with upbringing and lifestyle conditioning, determining what breathing patterns we inherently carry from life to death. From this, we also need to consider what breath we bring to Āsana practice and how we need to be intelligent in our choice of breathing patterns in Āsana for our body and mind and the developmental direction of our breath in Āsana practice.
Śrī TKV Desikachar 1938-2016
In Memorium August 8th 2019
The teachings that TKV Desikachar received from T Krishnamacharya around Yoga practice and practice theory were far more extensive than is often presumed from the contemporary perception of Krishnamacharya’s Yoga legacy. These perceptions were mostly formed from either, the more well publicised approaches to Āsana by some of Krishnamacharya’s early students, or the popularised generic view of Viniyoga as a stylistic application of Āsana, found primarily within the therapeutic adaptive Yoga field or commingled breath and movement group Yoga classes.
By way of contrast my own experiences studying with Desikachar, developed over some thirty ongoing visits to Madras over more than two decades to study privately with him, may offer a different insight into the practice possibilities that I became increasingly exposed to. However as with many, even these days, being introduced to the teachings of Krishnamacharya still meant that Āsana was the starting point for our exploration into what is Yoga. In other words the ‘on the practice mat’ aspects of Bāhya Aṅga Sādhana.
One of the essences in Krishnamacharya’s and Desikachar’s teaching focused on the developmental and progressive integration of the different aspects of Āsana, Mudrā, Prāṇāyāma and Dhyānam into a single constantly evolving organism.
Thus in honouring the Paramparā it is not possible for me to separate these four practice components into four completely disconnected study topics to be learnt in any random order.
The way I was taught was that a knowledge of the practice and planning principles within Āsana are necessary to appreciate the practice and planning principles within Mudrā.
The seeds from Krishnamacharya’s and Desikachar’s teachings on Haṭha Yoga are best rooted through a personal home practice by:
By prioritising the twin aspects within a joint commitment to learn both Haṭha Yoga practice techniques and Haṭha Yoga practice theory. The intended outcome of this two pronged approach is engaging in learning how to practice, rather than just learning what to practice.
“Yoga must be adapted to an individuals needs,
expectations and possibilities,
rather than adapting an individuals needs,
expectations and possibilities to Yoga.”
This means learning to engage with the process of what it means to have a personal Yoga practice alongside engaging learning to study the theory of the component principles that underpin what constitutes creating and sustaining a personalised Yoga practice.
“Some are satisfied with what Āsana brings them.
Others are curious as to where Āsana can take them.”
These twin aspects of the arts of Yoga practice techniques and Yoga practice theory support our being able to independently and intelligently choose, adapt and ultimately self-develop and self-refine our personal Yoga Sādhana.
Where do we start when approaching the determination to open up to practice options beyond the group class mentality with its double edged sword of support and dependancy? For example we could start by exploring what it means to cultivate a personal regular home practice in terms of looking at it as from the initial viewpoint of being a process, before considering what is its content.
At this point it might be helpful to examine what are the differences between the two concepts of process and content, so vital in the work of Desikachar around planning Yoga practices for individual students. Here it might also be useful to remind ourselves that Krishnamacharya and Desikachar considered teaching individuals as the only valid means to explore Yoga as having both a process and content.
“Yoga Sādhana is about what grows out of
practising alone amidst the inside at home, rather
than practising with others amidst the outside in class.”
So what is Yoga practice as a process?
Though there are many different aspects to Krishnamacharya and Desikachar’s teachings on cultivating a formal ‘home’ practice, they fall into two general groups:
In considering the relationship and intertwining of these multifarious practice elements we can use the analogy of raising a family. In other words how to accommodate the emerging issues we need to contend with, such as the impact on our time and energy, as we look to stream developmental priorities within these additional commitments.
Here I want to consider some of these issues just from the viewpoint of time. For example if we look at the issue of time within one aspect of practice, say Āsana,
Even these days, the influence of Krishnamacharya’s teachings around Yoga are primarily known through his exacting teaching of Āsana. This has also been mainly experienced in the West with the developmental work of his early students, such as through the choreographical artistry in the work of Pattabhi Jois or through the geometrical precision in the work of BKS Iyengar.
However this area of Āsana teaching, though itself multifaceted and hugely influential, if disproportionately predominant within Yoga today, only reveals one aspect of the many dimensions of practice expressed within his teaching. This teaching evolved and refined over 70 years, from his return from his long stay around the borders of Nepal and Tibet in 1919, to his death in 1989.
A more all-inclusive insight into the many aspects of these other facets can be ascertained through exploring the multifarious approaches and priorities emphasised within the teaching work of other of Krishnamacharya’s students, such as TKV Desikachar, or S Ramaswami, or AG Mohan.
From exploring the teaching priorities of all these first generation students of Krishnamacharya, a more all-embracing perspective can arise encompassing both the breadth and depth of his mastery of both the teachings of Yoga and their context, place and application within the Indian perspectives on such as soteriology, philosophy and theology.
One example of this depth is Krishnamacharya’s lesser known work in the teaching of Mantra
I was asked in 2011 to provide ‘expert quotes’ in response to three questions for a media article by a freelance journalist on a Yoga related topic. These were my reflections that I am reposting unedited, especially given the surge in these past 7 years in what has become labelled as ‘Yoga Therapy’:
Q1. What are some examples of illnesses or ailments that can improve or be cured with the use of Yoga?
“It is not possible to give examples of illnesses or ailments that can be improved as it all depends on the matrix of the person who may also have certain combinations of problems. A student with cancer may improve or a student with a history of colds may experience little change.
The viewpoint of Yoga is to look at people as individuals and work from there rather than the more usual view of making lists of problems with flash card like answers to a specific problem. e.g. Sciatica, High Blood Pressure, Insomnia, Osteo-arthrosis, Chrohn’s Disease, etc.
“We cannot say that this Āsana or this Prāṇāyāma
can be given for this disease.”
– T Krishnamacharya 1984
“Cultivating a home Yoga practice is an odyssey through a relationship. However, this odyssey not only requires patience and perseverance, but also enthusiasm and care. In this respect, as in any relationship, it is necessary to consider establishing priorities.
“Only through Yoga Yoga is known.
Only through Yoga Yoga arises.
One who is diligent with Yoga,
Enjoys Yoga for a long time.”
Vyāsa Commentary to Yoga Sūtra Chapter Three verse 6
To students interested in forming a relationship with a home practice with its attendant fruits, two initial suggestions are offered: First, think of a personal Yoga practice as if acquiring a new book. However before you try to fit this book into what is probably the already overcrowded bookshelf of life, take a decision to remove an existing book to make room for the new one.
What are the concepts of Sṛṣṭi Krama, Sthiti Krama and Antya Krama and what is their significance in relationship to the practice of Āsana, Prāṇāyāma and Dhyānam?
We can approach these three concepts and the question of their relationship with practice from a chronological and within that, a psychological viewpoint. According to the Yoga teachings from T Krishnamacharya there are three chronological and accompanying psychological stages of life, or Tri Krama.
1. The first Krama is the stage of growth and expansion known as Sṛṣṭi Krama. Here, chronologically, the starting point is the age from which people traditionally began the Āsana aspect of Yoga practice.
I was taught by Desikachar that we need to at least have some sort of working relationship with an Āsana practice as a prerequisite to exploring how to integrate Prāṇāyāma into our practice Sādhana.
Also in the approach of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar to Yoga practice this idea is even more relevant as important information, that guides our initial and subsequent steps into Prāṇāyāma, is gleaned from certain factors only apparent from observation of how our respiratory system performs during Āsana practice.
In exploring the principles that underpin the practice of Āsana the first idea to consider is that our practice is not just another form of exercise. Yoga Āsana are more than just physical postures or exercises to stretch and tone the body, or enhance our sense of personalised well-being. From within its Haṭha roots the concern of Yoga is our relationship with the force which is behind our movements and its source that initiates our every action.
Further the different practice elements that constitute a mature Yoga practice are not separate compartments. They are linked through the principles underpinning them. For example a respiratory competence learnt through the practice of Āsana facilitates progress within the seated practice of Prāṇāyāma. An enduring stable posture learnt through the practice of Prāṇāyāma supports the cultivation the meditative attitude inherent in progress towards Dhyāna or meditation.
Prāṇa – Its origin, function and malfunction
The phenomena of body energies and their emanating energy field are found recorded within most Asiatic traditions. Both Chinese and Indian thought have a rich textual history of bio-energy, its function and effects of its malfunction.
In each of these traditions a system of medicine evolved aimed at enhancing and sustaining the flow of Ch’i or Prāṇa within the individual and much interest is now being shown in the West in Traditional Chinese and Indian medicine.
The previous article on the presence and actions of Prāṇa Śakti established links between the mind, breath, and Prāṇa but posed the problem of both Yoga and Āyurveda texts presuming knowledge of what Prāṇa is, how it functions within the individual, and what is the role of Yoga and Āyurveda in relation to sustaining the intensity of Prāṇa within an individual’s health, harmony and mental stability
The presence and actions of Prāṇa Śakti
Generally the purpose of Yoga is to bring about a change within the prominence of awareness and its subsequent impact on the attitude and function of the individual.
Whether this change is explored as a yoking of two opposites, as in Prāṇa and Apāna, or an unyoking of two seemingly inseparable aspects, as in Puruṣa and Prakṛti, time and a process are involved. Also this notion of change may be initiated within an individual’s physical body, energetic processes, mental attitude and emotional responses.
However, within Indian thought there is a concept that is common to the different philosophies and to the different aspects of the individual. This concept is the presence, power and actions of Prāṇa.
These days, in certain situations, when asked what I do I sometimes say I write technical manuals and that usually moves the conversation quickly onto something like the British weather.
Why don’t I mention Yoga? Am I embarrassed about my relationship with Yoga? Not at all, its more about people’s reaction when asked and saying I am a Yoga teacher, a response somewhere as if an amalgam of being a fitness trainer, dentist and priest.
Also these feelings are often wrapped up in the response that I must do that or diverted into a projection around how I am seen in terms of say flexibility because I ‘do’ Yoga.
There are even folks I have been meeting occasionally for years and each time we meet I get the ‘I must do that’. Aside from the wry amusement at observing folks slight uncomfortableness as the word Yoga appears to represent something that at some level they feel they must need in their lives as if a commodity, there is for me a more important aspect that touches me.
This is around the difference between having to do something and wanting to do something.
I agree it is not easy to work on ourselves and we might compare it to being a bit like encountering a garden that has been left to become overgrown and entangled over years of neglect.
Here the first stage is to look at how we might begin:
We might begin by clearing away the old rubbish that lays all around on the surface of our lives and hampers, distracts or confuses our view of what’s really underneath.
Of course this also means that we are able to discern between the nuances around what we perceive as useful to keep, what is rubbish to clear and especially what we see as precious is in reality useful, or is in fact actually dross we need to cling onto under the illusion (Avidyā) of it being essential for our journey.
The Westernisation/Modernisation of Yoga Āsana with its increasing emphasis on structural postural focus according to the latest postural trends or particular flavour of the teachers style are prominent within the modern diversity which sees Yoga taught as only a Postural Practice and extending into many varied fields of exercise ranging from Aqua Yoga to Zen Yoga.
However there are questions that increasingly need to be asked within these approaches, especially where the boundaries around what is now generically grouped Yoga Āsana, blur into more generalised concepts of Yoga as hot exercise, cool exercise, medicalised exercise, meditative exercise, etc.
Otherwise in this simplification or reductionism of Yoga into Āsana, into modern postural exercise, or the current increasing mis-identification of postural exercise with Yoga, or even more tragic, with Yoga itself; the deeper purposeful principles within the relationship of the physical body, within the energetic body, within the psychic body, disappear in the search for perfect posture, perfect performance, perfect structural integrity, safe postural practice, etc.
Amongst the many concepts taught to me by my teacher, to help with understanding and thus working more skilfully with the student, was the notion of Bhāva and Abhāva.
The teaching within this important concept is that when a student comes wanting to learn Yoga, are they interested in learning Yoga to move towards the deeper teachings of Yoga (Bhāva), or wanting to learn Yoga in order to move away from something they find unhelpful or undesirable in their life (Abhāva).