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A Lesson In Svadhyaya Dedicated to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois May 30, 2009

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Changing Perspectives, Fitness, Health, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Philosophy, Science, Texas, Twin Cities, Yoga.

Last Friday I started leading a week’s worth of tribute classes dedicated to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois – the founder of Ashtanga Yoga – who died May 18, 2009.

I am not an Ashtanga instructor, nor a regular practitioner of Ashtanga; however, Sri Pattabhi Jois is part of my “yoga family tree” (coming soon) and the style of vinyasa he taught predates the style I teach. What he taught – and how he taught – informs not only what I practice, but also what I teach and how I teach it. In fact, his influence on me and my practice is very similar to the genetic influence that my great grandfathers had on me and my body. So, the tribute classes I taught over this last week highlighted the heritage of Hatha Yoga and the major lesson I’ve learned because of Ashtanga Yoga.

My Yoga Family Tree

The umbrella of Hatha Yoga, the physical practice of asana (posture) and pranayama (breath control), covers a lot of seemingly different styles. However, each style is rooted in an oral tradition dating back to the Vedic Period (circa 4000 – 1000 BCE). While most of the names of those early yogis are lost to us, like the many of the names of our earliest biological relatives, the way the early students practiced was transcribed by Patanjali between 200 BCE and 200 AD. Patanjali called his work Yoga Sutras, literally “Union Threads” – a title which calls to my mind the threads of DNA polymers described by a team of researchers in the 1950’s (most notably James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins). During the 15th and 16th Centuries, Yogi Swatmarama began to further define and outline the physical practice of asana and pranayama in The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (“Sun-Moon Union Illuminated”).

Yoga could have easily remained in India were it not for Swami Vivekananda and Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Vivekananda was a dynamic and engaging speaker who introduced the sciences of Yoga and Vedanta to the World Parliament of Religions during the 1893 Chicago World Fair. He then proceeded to tour the world giving lectures and demonstrations. A lot of teachers and students practiced over the next 31 years, but 1924 is notable because it marks an official beginning for the teaching career of Krishnamacharya. Considered the Father of Modern Yoga, Krishnamacharya emphasized the concept of teaching according to each individuals needs and abilities. He was directly responsible for a resurgence of yoga’s popularity in India and his students carried the seeds of yoga into the modern world.

If we consider Krishnamacharya the top of the trunk, then his students mark the beginnings of ever expanding branches. These students include: Sri Pattabhois Jois; B. K. S. Iyengar; Indra Devi (the first woman, and non-Indian, pupil); Srivatsa Ramaswami; and Krishnamacharya’s sons, most notably T. K. V. Desikachar. While there are some exceptions (such as people practicing Bikram Choudhury’s hot yoga, which links back to the “yoga family tree” trunk through Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi) most people practicing Hatha Yoga inherited their practice from Krishnamacharya and his students.

My “Ashtanga Lesson”

The history and lineage of Hatha Yoga continues to be extended, because within each of us is a teacher – and the lessons taught to us (by the teacher within us) are the most important ones we will ever learn. For this reason, I consider Svadhyaya (self study) the ultimate lesson of yoga, and the legacy of Sri Pattabois Jois.

It’s easy, especially when one is first starting out, to get caught up in the appearance of hierarchy in the Ashtanga system. There is, after all, a Primary series, an Intermediate series, and a series of Advance series (A – D). Such categorization implies, for some, a value system; as if one sequence of poses is superior to another sequence. However, if you pay attention to a room full of people practicing Ashtanga – or even one individual with a dedicated practice – you begin to see that the emphasis isn’t on what is being practiced so much as it is on how it is being practiced. In fact, a room full of people “doing it Mysore-style” may not be doing the same asana (pose) or even the same series. Instead, each individual works through that which challenges him or her, moving through at a pace designated by his or her breath and progressing when the mind-body is ready to learn more about itself.

I explained to my classes that if you didn’t know anything about the series designations, you might just think of any given sequence or pose as “the asana I am doing today.”

Which begs the question: Why am I doing this asana, this way, today?

A question which can only be answered honestly when you know yourself, your mind, your body, and your spirit. As David Swenson points out, “Advancement in your practice is not in the asanas. It’s in your awareness, and in the extent to which you can carry that awareness over into the rest of your life.”

At various points during these tribute classes I quoted Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Sri Pattabhi Jois:

Tapah svadhyaya….”With burning desire reflect upon and understand the Self.” – YS (II:1)

If we practice the science of yoga, which is useful to the entire human community and which yields happiness both here and hereafter – if we practice it without fail, we will then attain physical, mental, and spiritual happiness, and our minds will flood toward the Self.” – Sri Pattabhi Jois

Both quotations reference “the Self” and reinforce the fact that in yoga “the Self” – note the capital S – indicates the individual (as mind-body-spirit) plus the individual’s community. We are all one. We are all connected. We are all related. Thus, when we study ourselves we not only become aware of our own individual mind-body-spirit connections, we also become aware of how we all fit together.

Since I haven’t started any group chanting in my newer classes I used one of the meditation moments to guide each class through their lineage, ending with the people in the room at that given time and then finally with each individual who, I told them, in turn exposes yoga to the people in their day-to-day lives.

If you have a moment, sit quietly, and visualize your family trees. Maybe you even “sit” in Vrksasana (“Tree Pose/Seat”) while you honor your teachers, and your teacher’s teachers (making sure to include yourself). Consider, in this moment, how all these teachers inform who you are, what you do, and how you do it – not just on the mat, but in your life.

~ Namaste ~

Vinyasa Class Notes

Key Asana Sequence(s): Vrksasana, *modified (“Tree”) to Uttanasana+Vrksasana legs (“Forward Fold” with “Tree” legs) and, later Vasisthasana+Vrksasana legs (“Side Plank” with “Tree” legs) to Parvritta Ardha Chandrasana (“Revolving Half Moon”) to Virabhadrasana III+Anjali Mudra (“Warrior Three” with “Offering Seal” a.k.a. Prayer Hands at Heart Center) rising up to Vrksasana (“Tree”)

(*NOTE: Since I teach non-Ashtanga classes, students were encouraged to begin the series with a Vrksasana modification, keeping the toes of the bent leg on the floor or on the shin. A key lesson in personal creativity comes in for people modifying Vasisthasana: You already have something that looks like “Tree” legs, now refine the look – and keep the modification!)

Song(s) That Had To Make The Cut: “Sister Moon” by the Sting and “Dogs” by Damien Rice

Song(s) Played Loud For Motivation: “The Foundation” by Thievery Corporation

Song(s) Related To Theme (if you think about it): “The Air Between Us” by Hammock and “Into the Infinite” by Calming Massage


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