Part 3 of my interview with Ashtanga yoga teacher Guy Donahaye, author of "Guruji: A Portrait".
Originally posted here:
Reflections on "Guruji: A Portrait"
- Interview with Elise Espat - Part III
- Interview with Elise Espat - Part III
Did you ask any of the questions to clarify a question you had? For instance, whether advanced asana meant advanced practice? Or what was mulabandha? Was there a satisfactory answer?
I believe there is a general misunderstanding of the purpose of asana practice - which is therapy. Advancement comes through perfecting yama and niyama, pranayama and the internal limbs - asana practice is the foundation of that process. So no, I was not curious - I had the desire to get the subjects to speak about this so as to dispel this general misconception.
Mostly the questions were not asked out of personal curiosity but with the intention of getting the interviewee to speak on a subject of interest. However, I was certainly interested to hear their different perspectives and feel that my own understanding has been enhanced through the process of making the book.
In the Guruji book, it seems that people agreed that advanced asana did not necessarily mean advanced yoga practice. Do you think that is true? Through asana, with the tristhana and a good teacher and time wouldn't that lead to advanced practice? Would a student automatically start doing self-study and such?
Asana practice is therapeutic, purifying and strengthening - both for mind and body. How much purification or therapy is required depends on the individual and what end result is desired. I don't think anything will happen automatically through asana practice alone, but if you have a good teacher, he or she will teach more than asana.
Dena Kingsberg: "Some of us have to drag our bodies a long way in order to facilitate the cleansing process. Those of us with stubborn, egotistical natures may need to drag ourselves further and twist ourselves harder and bend ourselves deeper in order to appreciate that at the end of the day we just need to focus the attention and open the heart."
One of Guruji's most capable students (not interviewed in the book) was given a practice of 12 Suryanamaskar A and 12 B morning and evening - this he was told was for treating "insanity of the mind". So there is no apparent correlation between being able to do postures and a particular level of spiritual or mental development. However, developing a practice with Guruji into advanced series and practicing the asanas over time gives enormous benefits.
If the student has not gained some control of the bandhas by the end of Intermediate Series, she will have no choice but to master them progressing into the advanced asanas. Perhaps this is why instead of teaching the pranayamas after intermediate, as he did in the early 70s, later Guruji wanted students to be established in the advanced asanas first.
Westerners have such a strong attachment to their bodies and body image that practicing asanas can easily lead to greater vanity, competitiveness and other distractions from the goal of yoga. Sri Shankaracharya warns in his Vivekachudamani:
"Whoever seeks to realize the Self by devoting himself to the nourishment of the body, proceeds to cross a river by catching hold of a crocodile, mistaking it for a log…
…desire, like a crocodile, instantly seizes the aspirant who tries to cross the ocean of samsara and reach the shore of liberation without firm detachment, and straightaway drags him down."
One has to consider: what is the goal of practice? After overcoming health problems, our aim is to be able to sit still and quiet with a concentrated mind. For some this can be attained easily, asanas are not required, which is very rare today. Some need moderate exercise and purification, others need deeper cleansing and more rigorous training for the mind.
Guruji taught that Ashtanga Yoga was a step by step method but that yama and niyama could not be perfected until the stage of pranayama. However, in spite of the fact that it is very challenging or maybe even impossible to perfect yama and niyama, an attempt to do so is required, and our success in yoga will be much more closely related to our progress in the first two limbs than the third alone. In a certain sense the yama and niyama encapsulate the whole path - it is said that liberation can be achieved through perfection of any one.
As far as asanas go, what is important in the immediate moment is a practice which gives us a sense of well being and freedom from pain. If we are sick, then we need to purify and strengthen the body. In preparation for pranayama we also need to purify the nadis further through Nadi Shodhona and to be able to sit comfortably in padmasana or a similar asana for a long period of time.
Where did the notion come from - that advancing through the series would lead to advancement on the path of yoga? It seems like there should be a logical correlation. However, the purpose of the asanas is therapy. As long as we continue to fall short of following the yamas and niyamas perfectly, our system will require continuous correction from practicing asanas.