Why You Should Memorize the Ashtanga Sequence

The number one reason people give me, for why they do not want to start Ashtanga, is they do not want to memorize the sequence. Memorization has never been an issue for me. In fact, it is the only reason I made it through school because, God knows, I didn’t actually learn anything. For many, I suspect it goes way further then not wanting to memorize and has more to do with being vulnerable in front of strangers. However, for this post, I will focus on memory.

Fun fact. Memory is actually one of the mental fluctuations that Yoga is supposed to suspend. Why? Because when used negatively, memory locks us in our past, stops our growth and keeps us on a roller coaster of running away from past pain or running towards past pleasure. Memory can keep us from showing up for life. It can stop the process of Yoga by burying our real nature under a self image created from our past.

Fortunately, our mental fluctuations also have a positive side. Memory is the reason we don’t spend every day learning how to walk, speak or get dressed. On the Yogic path, memory is also very useful. The suspension of memory is only done by advanced practitioners during deep states of meditation. Even then, it is there somewhere, because if it wasn’t, Yogis would have to relearn everything every time they came out of Samadhi/meditation. In her book, A Mind at Home with Itself, Byron Katie talks about how, after her awakening experience, she lived without memory but eventually had to figure out how to access it in order to interact with the world.

The Yogi sharpens their memory and uses it to stay vigilant on the spiritual path. I took a workshop with Tai Dorn, a Yoga teacher local to these parts, which inspired this post. She talked about how her teachers had her journal her day backwards every night so that she could develop her memory. They told her that, when memory is sharp, we don’t waste time having to repeat the same lessons over and over again. Every day, our universal teacher, Life, is giving us all the information we need to grow. Everyday, Life, answers the prayers of our hearts and gives us the tools we need to thrive. If we don’t remember our lessons, we are destined to repeat them.

Memory is the preferred method, employed by indigenous cultures and spiritual communities, including Yogis, to pass on knowledge. Not only did it keep information out of the hands of people who may use it nefariously, but it allowed it to be carried generationally, deep within our being, in a way that modern society is just now beginning to understand. When experienced in a negative way, this type of memory presents itself as racism, colonialism and other fear based realities. When utilized correctly, it results in a natural connection to the Earth, the Self, indigenous knowledge, spirit and humanity. In his book, Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Some, speaks of his tribe’s belief that memory is held in the rocks of the Earth and in the bones of humanity. Shamans and elders are taught how to access this memory and use it to heal their tribe. Memorizing sacred knowledge, such as that passed on by our Yoga teachers, adds a link to the chain of deep healing energy that spans generations.

Another reason to hone our memory is so we can utilize Yogic techniques effectively and at the appropriate time. If your memory is not sharp, how will you remember the 8 Limbed Path or other techniques of Yoga when you need them? Do you have that one friend or family member who knows the perfect verse from the Bible, Quran or other holy book for every occasion? How about that person who can always remember the perfect quote or piece of wisdom from an elder? Don’t you want to be like that? LOL.

Memorization helps to keep the mind sharp as we age. I have a 70 year old student who was super excited to learn that Ashtanga required memorization and she welcomed the opportunity to keep her mind agile.

If you are an Ashtangi, you have probably already heard the next few. Memorizing the sequence creates an internal practice that opens a doorway to meditation. When someone is calling out the poses, a little bit of our awareness is always going outside of our body. Being able to meditate and commune with the Self, requires the ability to self direct. When you are in meditation, no one is inside of your head telling you what to do with your thoughts. Even though a deep conversation with the soul results in union with all mankind, it is a journey taken alone.

Memorizing the sequence allows you to move with your breath and “flow”. I actually hate that word. I only use it here because the Yoga world seems to be liking it now. It allows you to move from pose to pose fluidly thereby keeping the body warm, getting out of your head and maintaining the energetic connection between poses.

Last, not least, you might save Yoga. When I first started practicing Yoga close to 20 years ago, the origins of Yoga and its original purpose, liberation from suffering, was well known, honored and acknowledged. Somewhere around 10 years ago this shifted and a movement to consciously divorce Yoga from its origins took root. These people took to the streets, social media, started opening up Yoga studios, writing books and doing teacher trainings which resulted in a normalization of the erasure of the spiritual and cultural aspects of Yoga. You can use the power of your memory to remind the world of the sacred traditions of Yoga and stop the eradication of the South Asian culture from their own traditions and knowledge that they managed to hold on to through blood, sweat, tears, colonization, oppression and genocide.

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

One Comment

  • Akiba

    Shanna, this is a great piece of writing on the value of memory from a yogic perspective. I am finding that the Memorization process of Ashtanga Yoga is a key element of independence and wholeness and the unification of the mind and body. I love how sometimes it seems that the body remembers a pose before the mind does.

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