A bunch of wild flowers


Yoga is not the architecture of postures. It’s what happens in the encounter with them. This process of meeting is designed to bring to light our conditioned responses (known in Sanskrit as samskhara-s), and it’s here that we are invited to offer our attention. A yoga mat is a very revealing place to be. How we show up there is how we show up as a whole human being – not just the parts that we know about, the ones in full light and plain sight, but the mysterious dark and floating ones that lie below the waterline.

As beginning ashtanga practitioners, most of us are very interested in who’s doing what, and whether we can do it as well or better than they can. We may rate ourselves on our ability to jump, bend and perform technical tricks, as if we were in some kind of yoga Olympics. At the same time, in many yoga circles, the obverse view is de rigueur: practitioners with the capacity for very physically challenging postures are slated for their prowess, as if being able to balance on one hand makes them in some way not ‘serious’. Actually, neither being ‘good’ at asana nor being ‘bad’ at asana is an index of spiritual attainment. It just isn’t about that.

From the teacher’s point of view, in the Mysore room I don’t see ranks and levels, I see nature arising. Each person who steps into the shala brings with them a unique ashtanga vinyasa, one specifically adapted to their own body, life experience, age, temperament and so on. These multifarious ashtangas do not exist on an ascending scale, they exist within a broad field of arising. In a Mysore shala, as in any environment, we need our biodiversity in order to cultivate a balanced ecosystem.

I think that ashtanga can be much more interesting than the dogmas of a fallen guru, the wizard revealed behind the screen. It can be about Dorothy and Toto, the Tin Man, Glinda, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins and the Monkeys with wings. It can be the story of each of us, different and individual but gathered, like an armful of wild flowers. Then it feels various and inviting. Then it feels like something I want to be a part of.

I have been teaching ashtanga since 2003. You can find me at Greenwich and Woolwich Mysore. Go to Embody | yoga + dance.

This article is part of a book in progress about the intersection of autism, ashtanga, dance movement practice, and teaching in my life.

A community of elders: the sustainable astangi

When you work with what’s available, the restrictions aren’t limitations, they’re just what you happen to be working with.”—Robert Rauschenberg

When I was young, I thought it would be dreadful to let go of things I experienced in my body as capacities, but actually it’s a relief, a relaxation. Every yielding creates a space, and every space invites a new becoming. It’s gentle and reassuring. There’s an easing of surface that allows the underlying texture to press through – roots, beetles, mulch, stones – something subtler, richer, more varied and surprising. None of this is easy – astanga is a practice – but it is rewarding. It offers a different kind of substance, and an expanded capacity for being.

At 53 and hypermobile, I often have a more or less adapted practice. I could fight for old territories, but I don’t want a war in my body. It isn’t exactly about no longer being able to accomplish physical structures – they approach and recede from day to day; it’s more about holding all of it lightly. This is impermanence here now, at home, in my body, and it requires me to be fluid and responsive. Sometimes a posture floats back into my ambit – and another one floats away. It’s funny, it’s unpredictable. It’s all so bloody liberating!

There’s a view out there in the astanga group-mind that this practice is about transcending our limitations.1 For me, it’s always been about meeting mine. There’s a softening that goes with acknowledging the inherent limits involved in being human. Expansion comes when I can recognise that less is more here, and it’s most helpful to pause, rest, backtrack, let go, relax into the cyclic process of begin again that has for me been central to creating integrity of structure in a hypermobile body. But, of course, we are not talking just about bodies here. Within the framework of a somatic practice, we are never talking just about bodies.

We’re all in a process of motion, and sometimes astanga is only a staging post in a life’s trajectory. You can move on or you can stay, and you can take what you learned and apply it elsewhere. This is good and healthy and alive. Me and astanga, we’re in it for the long-haul, as far as I can tell. Gymnastic ability, on the other hand, is a time-limited commodity. It will definitely diminish and sure as hell eventually cease. If the capacity to perform physically demanding sequences of asana is what we think astanga consists of, we’re all looking forward to exile from the warm circle of the tribal fire.

As a teacher (and I know I’m not alone in this), I’m invested in creating inclusive practice settings, where astanga vinyasa can flourish in the unique and different forms in which it arises in different people, with different bodies, at different stages of life. When practice is flexible and adaptable, it can be sustainable, for everybody, all the time, and our Mysore rooms will not only be galvanised by the energy of young people, but also grounded and stabilised by the presence of elders. We need this. We all do.

Namaste!

18peterparivrrta

1. Try googling ‘ashtanga transcending limitations’ and you’ll see what I mean.

NB I love this article by Anthony Grimley Hall on how experience modifies the practices of astangis.