Together or Alone: Are we all small parts of a larger whole?

In yoga there is a lot of talk about "unity" and oneness, but there is a lot of misunderstanding about what exactly that means. It's definitely not an easy topic but here is the basics from my point of view. In Samkyha "yoga" philosophy there are two undeniably separate entities which are mistakingly mixed together (yoga sutra 2:23-24) through deficiencies in our perception, leading to and/or resulting from ignorance. The practice of the eight limbs of yoga (yoga sutra 2:28) reveals the distinctness of the purusha and prakriti and thus leads to the ability to pierce through avidya (ignorance) and realize the self, or "atman", as it were. 

There is a lot of talk in yoga about yoga sutra 1:2 that "yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of consciousness", but the practical aspect of yoga in removing these fluctuations is entirely tied to the notion that without these fluctuations (or disturbances if you want to call them that) you would exist in a more authentic form, and the self would be revealed to you. So it is one and the same thing, and in layman terms we're just saying that our minds impede our ability to perceive the truth, so we must find a way "behind" that type of misperception, if you will, and that method is called yoga. 

So there is a lot of talk about how all human beings are actually parts of a larger whole, and that is backed up by the Upanishads, at least to some degree, that the concept of an egoless self exists. Obviously if you were not a human being then you would take some other form; the question then is wether or not that form is unique, or wether or not it is separated from "other" such forms. There would be little argument within the yoga world that the purusha without a body would not be able to perceive itself, at the very least not as we do as human beings. The bigger argument comes when people try to interpret togetherness and separateness. 

Brahman is the "one without a second" concept talked about in yoga philosophy, and it is constant in the Upanishads. The Samkhya philosophy shows clearly that the Brahman, like explained in the Upanishads, exists in a realm that is somewhat beyond our perception, so trying to define it is extremely mundane and a waste of time. In a tree of Samkhya (shown to the right) we can see that Prakrit manifests through the "matter" or physical realm, the more quantifiable aspects of our reality. The purusha remains distinct from the prakriti and sort of "hovers" there. It is sometimes regarded as being superior to prakriti, but that is, if anything, only implied in the sutras and never actually stated. The purusha tends to be difficult to perceive in our daily lives due to the constant attention we give to the grosser, more mundane aspects of ourselves, at the same time the two don't necessarily exist in a hierarchy. 

In my opinion we are separate beings all the way up the ladder to Brahman, but I'm open to suggestions there. I see the purusha as something that carries karma along with prakriti as long as the two need each other, which could be indefinitely or permanently. Assuming that they're permanently intertwined then its logical to assess that we are not "all one" until we consider it from the perspective of Brahman, or unless there is a way to remove yourself from the cycle of birth and death, and thus no longer "having" a purusha/prakriti, and then defining that existence as our more validated form, so then it would be true to say that we are not separate, simply because the form in which we are separate is an illusory form, or isn't the form which defines who or what we are. 

What Makes a Yoga Teacher

Life is Short. 


When I first considered taking a yoga teacher training, I was in my early 20s. It became a very real goal for me in my life at that time, although I do not recall having a deep desire to teach the public. 


In 2005 I made a decision to eventually take the teacher training at Ashtanga Yoga School in Seattle with David and Catherine Garrigues, two certified Ashtanga teachers. I eventually fulfilled that promise to myself in 2007, and my life would never be the same. The change from “student” to “teacher” however, was not what I had imagined. There was no change, actually… rather, I found new difficulties. I actually can recall becoming more injured in the months following my teacher training than ever before. Further personal complications made living in Seattle impossible, and through some sort of serendipitous action I ended up running a small yoga studio somewhere else. 


2008 was a tough year for the Seattle Ashtanga contingent. In 2008 our school disbanded. One of our teachers was sick with cancer (we would lose her in 2010). In 2009 we lost Pattabhi Jois, and through this whole time David Garrigues was teaching on the East Coast. Essentially, we were left to fend for ourselves… which was exactly what I personally, needed. 


In 2006 while I was studying daily at the Ashtanga Yoga School, I can remember being very fed up with yoga, with Ashtanga, and with life in general. I was dedicated to the practice, to an undeniable fault. Yoga was, essentially, ruining my practice of yoga. I petitioned and complained to my teacher, but to no avail. I can still remember after class, although he rarely, if ever, came out of the Mysore room to speak to anyone, on one particular day he followed me into the entrance area.


“You’re all I’ve got” I said to him, pleading for him to understand how important the school was to me, how important Ashtanga was to me, and how important it was that he remain my teacher and that I continue to study under him.


“No. You’re all you’ve got” He replied to me. I took his words incorrectly. I assumed he was backing out on me, somehow neglecting me as a student. My sensitive feelings couldn’t see anything other than a teacher abandoning me as a student. Somehow I imagined that I was just trying too hard, and he was unwilling to teach me at the pace which I wanted to learn. And, maybe, in some respects, that was accurate, but it definitely wasn’t the whole story. 


David went on to explain to me. He even emailed me (which was very rare!). He essentially explained to me that he himself was a student, that he was not someone to be relied upon, but rather, someone to observe and enjoy and share the path with. He explained that he understood the pain and endurance required to undertake Ashtanga in a real way. He explained to me that he felt that this was where I belonged, and that I should keep going, but that I needed to get a clearer picture of the role he had in my life as a teacher. 


It was this day that I began to realize that there were no teachers. 


David Garrigues, to anyone who knows him, is not just a yoga teacher, he is a master. I’m sorry, but I don’t care who is teaching what style of yoga. David is absolutely absorbed in yoga… being around him is like being next to a nuclear yoga reactor. The guy just IS yoga. And David was saying that it’s not really about teachers, it’s not about students, it’s about evolution, it’s about progress, it’s about sustaining a practice for a long time, and really and truly learning from it as a human being on this planet, with this body, with this amount of gravity. 


David taught me how to be a student, by explaining to me how to be a student. Teacher Trainings have now popped up all over the country, in so many forms. Some of them disgust me. I have been a part of many of them now. To this day my favorite yoga classes have been for credit college classes, and my program for people with Multiple Sclerosis…. and the reason for this is that they are the most research based classes I have ever taught, they were also the ones most distinctly not group fitness. 


I do not hold a 200 hour training to teach you to be a group fitness instructor. I hold the 200 hour training in Bellingham to teach you to become a student. Like me. 


I am a bad student.


Let me tell you. I have heard a lot of stories of the “bad man” saying that Guruji used to use. David has occasionally called me “bad man”, but he was always smiling when he did it. He’s also went on since to elaborate on what he was talking about. 


Everyone has a style to their practice, and you have to uncover that or you are no good to anyone.


There is a story in yoga that you are a beginner for your first 7 years. I think that makes sense. You should learn to be a beginner first. 


Now days, most people begin teaching yoga before they have practiced for a good 7 years. This is a troubling mistake. The world is full of bad yoga teachers. I can say this because I am a yogi and understand my subjective opinion. I am not saying that they are bad people, but there is a certain legitimacy to time when it comes to yoga. There’s no doubt that some of these teachers are amazing and they have reincarnated from their previous life as a great yoga guru, but I really think we should slow down on the class teachings. Look around you; who is really worthy of being called “yoga teacher”? If my teacher, David Garrigues, called himself into question when I referred to him as “teacher”, perhaps we should all do the same. 


Yoga is beautiful in its ambiguity, yet so direct and poignant in it’s simplicity. I have taken the 200 hour curriculum which started at Ashtanga Yoga School in Seattle, the program which I graduated from 8 years ago, and I have tried to make it accessible to regular people. I have tried to make it so that I do not ever have to have some long conversation about what “style” of yoga I teach. Rather, I have attempted to make it inclusive. 


During the course of study I am sure that we’ll disagree. The important thing will be to take a good look at your own personal convictions, line them out, and see if they hold true for you during your course of study. Furthermore, you can always refer back to the syllabus… if at any time you are feeling distant from the teaching, or at odds with what I appear to be teaching, let us reference these materials from distinguished authors, and keep ourselves on track. Opinions abound, but we needn’t stray too far off, because yoga truly is a science, it is not here for us to wander around aimlessly, instead, we simply can follow the path we are on to the place where we are today. Moving forward, we can then be more empowered as students on our path, with the support of the lineage, the science, and the application of past and contemporary students of the art. When you get your 200 hour, then, you should be proud of the accomplishment… because through research and perspective we evolve as practitioners. 

November 26, 2015

Practice Not Philosophy

There is a fundamental precept to practicing yoga, which is that the mind exists in a more correct state while it is not disturbed by temporary thoughts. So, it may or may not be exactly correct to say that the sutras tell you not to think, but there is no doubt that the goal of yoga is to eliminate the disturbances of consciousness. If this is the case then we can assume then that ignorance (avidya) is itself caused by disturbances of mind, and thus the correlating of the purusha with prakriti another extension of this one malfunction of our existence. 


If avidya is the only source of suffering, and this suffering comes from a fundamental miscomprehension of a dualistic reality, then removing the ignorance through correct comprehension can only come through a placid or “clear” mind. If this is the case, without adding or subtracting anything from the statements made in the sutras, we can then assume that yoga has something of a “utilitarian” vibe to it. In other words, yoga sides slightly on the “zen” concept of enlightenment, and away from the “attainment” concept that is common in most religions. 


I say this because logically if we have a “mind” (or, more appropriately a “consciousness” or a piece of consciousness attributed to our locale which we exhibit some control over) by which karma enacts itself upon us, then this mind can produce “good” or “bad” karma depending on whatever kind of ignorance it is seeing. A mind, supposedly, which is seeing correctly, or in a way which is consistent with the teachings of yoga, does not create new suffering. The sutras alludes to this as well. This state of being is not something which we attain all of a sudden and then never again have the need for practice, but rather it is an aspect of ourselves which exists at all times, underneath the guise of ignorance which shields us from our experience of ourselves. It is thought, then, that defines what we are not, rather than what we are; according to yoga. 


Practicing yoga through philosophical inquiry has been done for centuries by great yogis in the east, but it may be debatable for it to be an effective method of transmission to people in the west, for a few reasons. First of all, sanskrit is an entirely different language than English. While it is related to Latin, Sanskrit definitely has a methodical rhythmic system to it, meant to convey not only through the literal meaning but also through the “feeling” of the words. As someone who has spent hours on end chanting in Sanskrit, I personally vouch for this being the reality. You somehow learn through chanting sanskrit in a visceral way, which seems to be exactly the opposite from the very cognitive and intellectual roots of English speaking people. Understanding yogic concepts purely intellectually, would be only to add to the issue which the sutras is alluding to; clutter of the mind. 


Yoga may not directly forbid us from learning, but certainly there are things which can jade the mind in one way or another. Is it simply a matter of giving up on thinking all together? I think this is a viable argument, especially considering how many people are living up in the mountains doing nothing but meditating; but for the rest of us, it’s just not possible. Enter the Ashtanga method. 


Ashtanga Yoga is a rebellion against conventional philosophy, and in its furthest reaches, it is even a rebellion against modernized structured religion. I’ll explain why. 


Ashtanga deliberately encourages you to practice without fail, and not due to blind faith. Actually, Ashtanga’s credo is to believe in the visceral quality of the practice to awaken more primitive aspects of our physical being, which gives us increased ability to expand our awareness, our perception, to every aspect of our being. Think of our body in terms of neurological patterns. A brain is made of neurons which are not easily distinguishable (mostly) from neurons in any other part of the body. There is simply a concentration of these neurons inside our skulls. While these neurons certainly exist here for a reason, there is consciousness in the rest of our bodies. Practicing asana expands our ability to interpret information through our sensory perception by removing the “static”, by removing the clogged channels of intellect which pervade our bodies. Through the purification of the channels of awareness, energy, et. al. yoga seeks to find within us a very real human which is capable of understanding the truth of our existence. In the case of Ashtanga this truth can be found amidst (we assume) the daily life of a householder, not simply limited to those who can forsake everything and practice yoga in a cave for decades. 


A rebellion against the mind is to acknowledge the power of something else, while not necessarily defining it. Again, this isn’t necessarily a blind faith. People who practice yoga can feel the presence of this power, but at times we fail to be able to define it. Therein is exactly the power of yoga. The intellectual mind fails to grasp things outside of its realm of capability. There is no reason for it to have ever been designed by evolution to be able to perceive something beyond itself; most notably, the brain, the thoughts within it (per se) were designed to keep our bodies alive; this is how evolution works. It goes without saying then, that the mind will seek to keep its home alive at all costs. This is an entry point to the concept of “ego” in a yogic context, and the complex issue of self preservation while one takes on a practice that so obviously seeks to destroy aspects of the life form (those which hinder the exploration and realization of the self/purusha). 


Practice, not philosophy. It is a key point to understand, but without a teacher it can be treacherous. All students of Ashtanga are advised to take practice and not to talk. There is a reason behind this which goes much farther than just being bossy, gruff, traditional yoga teachers. 

Ashtanga Yoga History 101

Ashtanga Yoga’s traditional and increasingly popular sequencing is widely believed to be derived almost solely from the yoga korunta, an ancient manuscript credited to the yogi Sage Vemana. It should be noted that this sequence was not brought to the public eye by Pattabhi Jois, but by his teacher, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is known to have found the korunta with 5 sequences, and then divided one of the sequences in half due to its difficulty and lack of application thereof.  Krishnamacharya did write one book that can be identified as an early treatise on what is commonly known now simply as "Ashtanga"; this book is called "Yoga Makaranda" and is available in print now. As a result of Krishnamacharya's efforts while he was teaching in Mysore, India, the current system of Ashtanga is taught in 6 contemporary segments. Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, one of Krishnamacharyas finest students, became the teacher of the Mysore school probably in 1953. To this day, the Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute teaches these sequences almost exactly as Krishnamacharya taught them to Guruji/Pattabhi Jois in the 1920s, and they do so in the city of Mysore, in Southern India. 


Krishnamacharya himself never left India.  He taught yoga there until he died at the age of 100.  He gave the lineage of Ashtanga to his good student, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, who then began teaching Ashtanga in the tradition of his teacher.  After over 70 years of teaching yoga, Pattabhi Jois had given his blessing to only a handful of his students, who now continue the lineage.  The founder of Ashtanga Bellingham is the student of one of the highest regarded "certified" Ashtanga Yoga teachers in the world, David Garrigues, who for 10 years directed the Ashtanga Yoga School in Seattle, Washington.  David now travels the world teaching Ashtanga Yoga as it was taught to him by his teacher.  When we hold a class at AB we show credence and respect to the lineage which we belong, as it is the source of all yogic knowledge we have and pass along.  


Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois is the gold standard for what is currently known as Ashtanga practice.  “Guruji” was the master of Ashtanga Yoga, and his method of Asana was the sequence which is most often associated with that word. It is vital to understand that Pattabhi Jois did not speak English, so when asked by Westerners to define his style, he replied simply and honestly that he taught Ashtanga.  It was his life’s work and focus, but it would be inaccurate to claim that only Pattabhi Jois and his students are practicing Ashtanga.  Guruji/Pattabhi Jois taught a practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, just as Krishnamacharya had taught him, continually, and through his entire life. Guruji never wanted people to "own" yoga, and he was outspoken against the Bikram Yoga movement for this reason. Sri K Pattabhi Jois passed away in 2009, but his legacy is stronger now than ever before, with students all over the world practicing Ashtanga Yoga as it truly was designed to be practiced.  Pattabhi Jois is responsible for a great deal of knowledge of yoga, which has filtered to the western world through his students.  Many great Yoga practitioners have the prestigious honor to say that they have practiced with this great contemporary master of yoga. 

In it’s current stage, Ashtanga Yoga varies widely be definition, but for our purposes we will narrow the definition to those practices which exist within the lineage of Sri K Pattabhi Jois.  The term Ashtanga is ubiquitously used to describe all types of yoga that stem from the Patanjali school, but in the United States, Ashtanga has become synonymous with the yoga style of Pattabhi Jois, and his students.

Today, Ashtanga Yoga is the basis for most yoga sequences taught in the world as “vinyasa” or "power" yoga.  To use the term more broadly, Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri Krishnamacharya is responsible for about 95% of yoga practiced today, though the styles have been adapted, their origins are undeniably rooted in the ancient Ashtanga tradition.


Ashtanga Yoga’s growth in popularity during the past century is somewhat of a phenomenon.  It seems almost as if the cultural status and situation in the western world demanded that yoga be brought to heal the wounds of an overly aggressive, stressed out society.  Ashtanga Yoga’s first western messenger was the English speaking yoga master, B.K.S Iyengar.  While Iyengar taught a style of Ashtanga which is noticeably different than the vinyasa style taught today, there is no doubt that in the core, Iyengar was teaching Ashtanga Yoga. B.K.S Iyengar, also a student of Krishnamacharya, learned the exact same style of yoga and adapted it to be more accessible to certain people. Guruji (Sri K Pattabhi Jois) taught the method exactly as was taught to him while Iyengar has been very creative in variating the sequence and practices. That does not necessarily mean that the contemporary Ashtanga tradition is superior, it just means that it's the original format and sequence taught by a master (the same could be said of a sequence Iyengar taught).


It is also useful to note for current and future students of Ashtanga Belligham, that our methodologies have been largely borrowed from the Iyengar tradition. The use of straps, blocks, longer asana holds, and the anatomical focus are largely Iyengar derived approaches. Pattabhi Jois was often quoted reminding his students that throughout the long past experiences of yoga there has been little success from mixing styles. Ashtanga Bellingham believes that you can be completely and totally committed to a style of practice, while remaining open to contemporary advancements made outside of the lineage, if those advancements are made through researching the traditional method, which all Iyengar practices do. This idea reminds us that there is a much larger picture behind the veil of asana practices which may differ in approach and application.


Humanity itself is made up of (hopefully) complimentary parts. While many pseudo yoga teachers are definitely ruining yoga by teaching what they do not know or understand, there are others, perhaps hard to decipher as different, who are continuing the practice and lineage of this thousands of years old practice. We do not feel like we own our students, and we do not feel that we own our style of yoga, we see it as a "universal property" and humanitarian art, which has been given by our human ancestors, who practiced, researched, studied, and improved it over many centuries, solely for our benefit today. The intention of Ashtanga Bellingham is not to teach yoga selfishly, but rather to consider our impact on current as well as future generations of yoga. If we do not consider this, we are violating several principles of yoga, namely ahimsa (Yoga Sutra 2:34). To follow the method correctly means that we stay close to the center vehicle of Ashtanga Yoga, and utilize our lifetimes for our benefit and the advancement of yoga for all who will come after us. 


Ashtanga Yoga is a traditional practice, and through those traditions it has maintained some semblance to the sacred format that came from our ancestors.  Ashtanga practitioners and teachers follow the tradition of teacher-student progression known as guru parampara.  There is a great deal of respect offered to masters of Ashtanga Yoga, and there are few of them teaching now.