I got a wake up call recently when Peg Mulqueen of Ashtanga Dispatch cautioned us against incorporating things we see on social media into our Ashtanga practices. It was a wake up call because I realized that I had been doing just that. Over the past few days, I have been thinking long and hard about this. It is important to understand the context under which the video or picture is being presented. Even if a certified/authorized Ashtanga teacher is doing it, we have to ask, are they giving us a glimpse into their yoga practice, is this a demonstration or is it asana inspired play?
It is also important for us as yoga practitioners to know if we are doing a yoga practice, a demonstration or just playing with asana. It is not about right or wrong, it is about knowing. Many people come to yoga through the door way of play and accomplishment. They go to class to have fun, play and enjoy their body or come to accomplish goals such as executing beautiful poses, toning muscles or for better mental and physical health. They enjoy demonstrating the mastery of seemingly impossible poses to inspire people to reach for their dreams and to persevere in difficult times. These are all amazing and valid experiences and messages that are needed in this world of form. Is it technically yoga according to Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras? Maybe. Maybe not.
Lets take a look at the differences.
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind-Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus-Pattabhi Jois
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the backbone for most modern day yoga practices and clearly states that a yoga practice is to still the mind and bring about full absorption (samadhi) with pure consciousness (vs 1:2,13). It goes on to say that a successful yoga practice must be firmly attended to for a long time, without break and practiced with an attitude of devotion (vs 1:14).
In a yoga practice, all poses are done to still the mind and reach Samadhi. The practice is also done for a long time, without break and with an attitude of devotion. It is not done for show. It is not done for fun. It is not done for monetary gain and popularity. It is done for the purpose of full absorption with that which you truly are which is pure infinite potential manifested in a human body. If you happen to have fun, accomplish something or make money, it is a plus but not the purpose. All benefits gained from yoga are to be used in the service of yoga. For example, the body is not made strong so that you can have something to show off or flaunt in the interest of pumping up the ego. A strong body is a strong vehicle for experiencing the world.
When you go to the cell phone store and they do a demo of the latest phone, they always highlight the bells and whistles. However, the main reason for having a phone is to communicate. Most likely, the sales person will not say “this phone sends calls and texts out and receives phone calls and texts as well”. Instead, they talk about the mega pixels on the camera and show some of the editing features for photos. They talk about the amazing amount of storage and the crisp clear sound. They show how light weight it is and how the internet is fast and easy to read. They pull up apps that you will never use and show you how cool they are.
The sales person is pulling out all the stops to show you why this phone needs to go home with you. The easiest way to do that is to bring up emotions and get you buying during this heightened emotional state. Just mentioning that the phone can make and receive calls is just not exciting enough and it is expected. They want to wow you with the unexpected.
That also happens with the yoga demonstration. The yoga demonstration is to wow you into wanting to practice by presenting things that are relateable and brings up emotional responses. What is more appealing to someone on the street? “Yoga will help you find Samadhi” or “yoga will help you loose weight”? In the Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois talks about the physical benefits of each yoga pose. For instance, he states that Utthita Parsvakonasana “dissolves the bad fat at the waist”. If we are to follow in the path he has set, talking about the physical benefits of yoga is not taboo or bad. These are important side effects of the practice and they have a place.
Pattabhi Jois also did demonstration and so did Krishnamacharya. The picture below is a demo done by Krishnamacharya with Pattabhi Jois and his other students.
Below is a video of Sharath, the current lineage holder for Ashtanga Yoga, being guided by Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga Yoga, through a demonstration. Clearly, demonstration is part of the yoga Tradition.
Today, the most popular destinations for yoga demonstrations are Instagram and You Tube. Just like with the cell phone, a demonstration pulls out all the bells and whistles to bring up an emotional response to insight someone to practice. Emphasis is put on fancy stuff like floats and handstands because they are more impressive to the lay man. Someone may not understand how much work it takes to have a strong Triangle but they immediately understand how hard it is to lift up and balance on your hands with your leg behind your head.
Asana Inspired Play
This is simply having fun with the poses and your body. Pushing the limits. Seeing what you can do. You will often hear ashtangis talking about their “afternoon practice”. It simply denotes a practice, outside the more traditional mind stilling oriented one, where they play with different poses and transitions from a strictly physical stand point.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.