The Anusarian and the Ashtangi • 14 July 2008

Excerpts from an exchange I’ve been conducting with Dale, an Anusana practitioner in Austin, over the last couple of weeks. Chez Liz.


DALE: My "moon days" in the sense of adventure and release from tension that you project are — most days. Most days I have the wonderful freedom and opportunity of being able to choose what kind of yoga I do. And I find the same sense of unleashed adventurous joy in that as you obviously do when unchained from the work for a day.

Obviously, I'm not very dedicated :-).

Have you thought about tasting a different style of yoga on your off days/Saturdays?


(0v0): I'm not sure about yoga “tastings”? A little anusara, for example, does taste nice in terms of sensation, but if it were just about the feeling in my body… um… for me that is not what it is about. When I choose every day what yoga to do, the mind takes over and has a field day. 🙂


DALE: Well, it's quite true that I'm not a dedicated Ashtangi :-). I last had a stable practice schedule 4 or 5 weeks ago, but at that time I was doing 1st series or a half-primary 2 or 3 times a week, 2nd series once or twice a week, Shiva Rea vinyassa a couple times a week, and sprinkling in a few flow classes.

Wow!! How dedicated! NOT. I am about as dedicated to yoga as I am to chocolate (mmmmmmm, chocolate). In reality I am merely as bad a glutton for yoga as I am for chocolate (mmmmm, chocolate).

So when I sound like I'm "try[ing] to show [you] all the real way," it's just like saying "I know you like Baby Ruth, but dude! try a Snickers."

I practiced all last week at a Baron Baptiste studio. It was alot of fun – nothing earth-shaking, but I learned some different ways to put flows together. And practicing in a 90F room was interesting. It was enough to keep me from losing heat, but not so much that I felt like I was being heated from the outside. I think that the external heat did contribute to some overwork that I did (& made me painfully sore), but I've done similar things in unheated practices, so I can't blame the room. Fun! You ought to try it (or not :-). Because it is fun! Fun celebrates the unquenchable joy of the Divine. Go grab a blue cowboy and dance!!

And yeah, I think that it would be a good idea for everyone to try some other yoga activities. Why just do the same set of poses, in the same order all the time [rhetorical question…].

Is it ok for an Ashtangi to lift weights? How about go for a bike ride? Ok to do aerobics? To go dancing? To take a different style of yoga class? To swim or run?

If one of these is not like the others, why??? Why would swimming be ok for an Ashtangi, but not a Baron Baptiste vinyassa class?

You mentioned my love affair with Anusara. Well, it goes beyond that. I have become an Anusari in the fundamental sense – I do everything in the Anusara style. Vinyassa, Ashtanga, lifting weights, whatever – I do it all in the Anusara style. I actually do very few Anusara classes anymore, because I'm having too much fun doing various styles or vinyassa these days. But the heart of Anusara isn't any particular sequence or activity or set of poses. The heart of Anusara is a way of doing – a way of being and a way of doing. So when I do vinyassa or Ashtanga or Shiva Rea or whatever, I do it in the Anusara way. Whatever I am doing with my body, the principles of alignment apply, and the mental/spiritual/emotional practices apply.

I wonder if there is a heart of Ashtanga that transcends which series you are working on, or whether you are practicing Mysore or in led classes. To me, the heart of Ashtanga might be something like maintaining the integrity of the breath and the breath-movement connection. I think that Ashtanga also teaches patience, nonGrasping, truthfulness, meditative mind, and the magic of "rinsing the spine," as your teacher describes it :-).

Could you swim or run in the Ashtanga way? Certainly. My swimming would have as its goal proper breathing, and then adjusting my swimming motions to be maximally in tune with my breathing. I would swim with the intention of mastering the form, but without grasping for the outcome – after all, if I just practice my swimming, all will come.

And can you practice freestyle vinyassa in the Ashtanga way? Why not?

Oh, and I don't hate Ashtanga. Remember that I've been practicing Ashtanga on & off for about 6 years. I got totally bored with primary series for a long time. But about a year ago, I started working on second series, and eventually that get me started back doing primary occasionally. But this time primary is fun, because I do it with specific things that I want to work on in order to improve my second series work.

Next in the Ashtanga realm, I think I'll tart working on The Rocket. It doesn't depend on increasing your flexibility in certain ways like 3rd series does, and it emphasizes strength and agility. And it looks like a blast :-).


(0v0): Cool comment. I think you're on to something with your insight into the different dispositions of different schools.

Is it accurate to say, following the chocolate metaphor and your earlier comments on tasting, that your practice focuses on enjoying the sensations in the body? There's attention to the delights of the senses (and embodied experience) and the beauty of symmetry? There's attention to dileating a path to joy?

These are valid principles for sure. Ashtanga's personality is something different. Hmm.

Maybe I'll try to write about this later.


DALE: Interesting.

Yes, I practice purely for the love of the practice. I enjoy the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of the practice, but I do not practice for any other reason than that I groove on it.

Considering yoga, if you practice because you love the practice, then you need look no further for the reasons that you spend so much valuable time and energy on it. Your desires and actions are aligned.

But let's say that practicing is not your most favorite thing, or even one of your top 10 favorite things. Then why practice? As David Swenson says, "It's only yoga."

Perhaps it is to achieve some healthy physical or psychological results: losing weight or gaining strength or a better range of motion or better balance or concentration or stress relief. Cool !!

Maybe it is training yourself to overcome difficult obstacles, to persevere, to see yourself physical capabilities clearly, accept yourself utterly, and then make improvements in a determined yet nonHarming way. Groovy!!

Or maybe your practice is like sitting meditation in Zen – you do not practice with any expectation, but only because you know that it is good for you. I can't argue with that.

Or maybe you practice in order to have some sort of religious or ecstatic experience, like the dervishes. Well, that's alot healthier than peyote :-).

And if you practice as a religious discipline, that's wonderful, too. I think that a person's religion is their business, and as long as their religion doesn't tend to make them mean people, I think it's wonderful.

If you want to say that Ashtanga's personality is different from enjoying the practice, then consider this – is there a standard & necessary motive for practicing Ashtanga? If someone has a different motive or a different experience in the practice, then are they doing it wrong? Is it no longer Ashtanga? Is Swenson wrong when he says that it is only yoga?

I think that one can practice for many reasons, and have a variety of different experiences, and still be doing great yoga. I have students who are growing in their yoga, students who want to get stronger/faster/better, students who are trying to age more gracefully, students who are recovering from breast cancer and need to accept themselves more completely, students who just want to have a good sweaty time, and students who come to class for the companionship. Who is wrong & who is right? Maybe each person's practice has their own personality.

I do not see a fundamental difference between Ashtanga asana practice and other yoga asana practice. In fact, I do not see a fundamentat difference between traditional asana practice, and applying those same principles to running, swimming, or basketball. Each of these can be practiced using the same principles that illuminate our asana practice.

So – why do you practice? Is it a mixture of "love it" and doing it for other reasons? How is your experience of Ashtanga practice different from other yogas?

What do you think of the idea of doing other things in your life in the same way that we do asana?


(0v0): Dale, Thank you for thinking through this with me.

I wonder if your idea of “enjoyment”—defined as being “my favorite thing to do” and something that “tastes good” and associated with sampling/tasting varieties, and physical feeling-good, and understood as being intrinsically self-legitimating according to a “do what feels good” ethos—is particularly tied to the ethos not of living life to the fullest but of consumerism.

The metaphor of eating connects to a larger sense of pursuing happiness through inputs of sense experience. There’s a lot of mental fluctuation in the sense-seeking, chocolate-savoring, variety-loving practice you describe. Which is great fun, but what’s this really doing to the mind? (Perhaps the character of practice you describe is oriented to pleasing the mind, whereas my own orients to quieting it.)

What you describe are wonderful immanent joys, but are they transcendent? Do they connect you to the peace that passeth understanding? (What is their relationship to the fifth-eighth limbs of yoga—or are these not a part of Anusara’s personality?)

That said, I am intrigued by your implicit argument that Anusara-style practice is an end in itself. That’s sweet. It can be done for any apparent “motive” but is a whole experience in and of itself. I wish I had an interesting or noble answer for my own motivations for practice—moral improvement, increasing my love, knowledge of reality. These are real side effects of any devotional practice, but if the reason I get on my mat every morning is a combination of love and inertia.

I dunno. What I can tell you is that every morning my sweetheart asks me, “How was your practice today?” And I often have to say say, year in year out of my routinized and not always physically blissful ashtanga life, “Amazing. It was the best practice EVER.”

Each day is different, in content if not in form. Because I hold the form constant (which many would expect to be boring if they hadn’t tried it for a while), I’m able to observe/experience my self—breath, subtle body, mental states, and more than anything the increasingly accessible edges of my unconscious mind—with a pretty crazy level of subtlety.

Is that possible in any physical activity? Maybe. You can do mindfulness practice in a lot of contexts. (There is a difference between saying “it’s only yoga” and “it’s only asana”—I believe you mean the latter.) But I find certain pretty special rarefied states of consciousness are possible when you combine mindfulness with vinyasa and the extreme kinds of nerve-cleansing that this method particularly brings. Ice hockey or flower arranging or most asana will not necessarily work the subtle and emotional bodies quite to the brink in the same revealing, wonderful way, even if we want to say—ever so nondualistically—that all methods are the same. Maybe that’s fine. Ultimately, it’s only chitta vritti nirodaha.

When I say today was the best practice ever, this does not always mean that practice has been gratifying. Sometimes it’s taken me to the places that scare me; usually I’ve cultivated too deep a state of trance to register “fun” or any delight in my own physical capacity; sometimes I’ve practiced with colleagues who are actively, deeply suffering on their mats beside me. The joy is about something other that the more sense-oriented idea of fun. It may even be tinged with sorrow, and always contains a sense of my own smallness in the greater scheme of things. It’s actually really humbling to devote yourself to a routine in this way, and just let the routine take over. It’s not about what I can do or achieve; this is why ashtangis sometimes say the yoga does us rather than we it.

Though in fairness, I have to admit that part of my delight in practice IS purely immanent: because I do the exact same thing every single day, over time my body has become somewhat gravity-defying, open, and strong. You don’t get to practice intermediate or advanced ashtanga if you approach practice as a sampler or “achiever,” but only by just giving yourself over to the routine. Sampling this practice leads to suffering and injury—it’s just too difficult otherwise, and I’ve seen a lot of people torture themselves with inconsistent practice. The method only really opens you up to the degree you are fully capable if you follow it every day for years, and even then only if you’re lucky enough to have a healthy body and avoid serious injuries on the way. Maybe that’s really boring. Maybe ashtangis are boring people. The kickback is an indescribable chemical cocktail—especially from the crazy backbending while riding the breath—that no other physical experience I know can touch. You don’t get that kind of experience by sampling, just because so much is required in terms of skill and physical development that you must have a super-intelligent, repetitious method.

And even that passes. The crazy thing is that, as this practice passes in to its third generation and we see the first wave of American teachers do intense physical practice into their sixties and the living “guru” of the system turn 93 this week, it’s becoming pretty clear that the outgrowth of this practice is that joy becomes independent of sense-based physical enjoyment.