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Practicing All 8 Limbs : Mission Ashtanga Yoga

Posted Jan 04 2012 12:00am

8_limbs I've been following several teacher's blogs , especially those who I have been able to practice with in the past year. Visitors to this blog have read posts from Eddie Stern of AYNY & Kino's Miami Life Center .

Here is a MAHA post from Chad Herst of Mission Ashtanga Yoga in SFO on practicing all the 8 limbs of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga , at the same time. It is pretty erudite & well thought out :

" Ashtanga Yoga is not an Indian form of calisthenics or gymnastics.  It is an eight-limbed path. The word Ashtanga comes from a text dating somewhere between the 4th and 1st centuries, B.C.E., called The Yoga Sutras.  The Sutras–as they are affectionately known by yogis– are arguably the most important ‘how-to’ compilation of terse statements about yoga for yogis.  The word Ashtanga  means eight limbs (ashto- eight; anga- limb).  Ashtanga yogis don’t just practice the second two limbs of this eight limbed path, asana and pranayama. They practice all of them…at the same time.  They practice the first two limbs, yamas and niyamas, which are basically ‘do’s and don’ts.’  They’re the yogis version of the Ten Commandments.  The fifth limb, pratyahara, is translated as ‘the withdrawal of the senses.’  The last three limbs, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, are gradations of the various levels of absorption or concentration that can occur when we practice.

The tradition my co-teacher, Devorah Sacks, and I come from has a unique spin on this eight-limbed path.  As students of the renowned yoga master from Mysore, India, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, we’ve been taught that all we need to do is to work on asana and pranayama, and the rest of the limbs naturally and spontaneously will follow.  But that’s not to say we are to ignore the other six-limbs.  Rather, the other limbs are to be considered benchmarks that give us direct feedback on the quality of intention we bring to our practice.

Getting Fit and Chilling Out

As a long-term teacher of Ashtanga Yoga, I’ve come to recognize that most people don’t come to practice in order to have a deeper connection with the yamas and niyamas. They come either to get fit or to ‘chill out.’ This is usually the first aspiration that shows up on the mat. If the new student is persistent and continues to practice through the initial phase of soreness, stiffness, and the difficulty of waking up in the early morning to get on her mat, she will more often than not begin to wonder about the philosophical aspects of the practice.

I cannot say for certain what it is about practicing breath and posture that elicits this curiosity, but I do know for certain that at least 80% of the students I have taught make it past the initial stage of just wanting to get strong and flexible. That initial aspiration doesn’t go away altogether. It just becomes obvious that the goal of yoga is much wider and broader than originally perceived.

How the Eight Limbs Work Together

Within the yoga that Jois taught, the eight limbs do not follow a linear sequence. In other words, we’re not taught to master the first limb before moving on to the next limbs. 1 In this tradition, the first two limbs, yamas and niyamas spontaneously arise out of the steady and continuous practice of asana and pranayama. Jois used to say that when the body and mind were cleansed of impurities, that following these rules was easy, natural, and obvious. And when the mind and body were gummed up with negativity and illness, to follow yamas and niyamas put the yogi at odds with herself and only created more tension.

And according to Jois, the last four limbs—which are, essentially, deeper levels of introspection, attention, and meditation—cannot be practiced. They arise spontaneously from the steady practice of the first four limbs. In other words, meditation cannot be practiced, according to this tradition. It just naturally grows from the continuous practice of breath work, posture, and the observance of certain morals and mores.

Focus on Asana and Pranayama And All Is Coming

Here’s the bottom line: essentially, Jois is saying is that all we need to do is to just practice asana and pranayama and the rest of the limbs follow spontaneously and naturally.  By the way, his teacher, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is really the grandfather of modern yoga, said the same thing. So this isn’t idiosyncratic to Jois’ tradition. This is what all Krishnamacharya’s well-known students, including B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, Indra Devi, A.G. Mohan, and Srivatsa Ramaswami, basically teach and taught.

Meditation Happens

If you look at this closely, it’s a pretty far-out idea.  The tradition is saying that you cannot do meditation. Meditation cannot be done. Meditation just comes. It’s like that William Blake quote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite.”  So, as yogis, it is our job to cleanse the doors of perception through the continuous, steady practice of asana and pranayama. In fact, that is all we really have the power to do anything about. And so at the heart of the practice of yoga, we’re just cleansing and clearing away what’s in the way. Once cleared, the goal of yoga naturally and spontaneously occurs."

Looking back on 2011 , I was able to practice at the following yogashalas ( the appropriate term as per Maharaja , a Sanskrit scholar , as shala on its own means " room " or "space " ) : AYNY NYC , Miami Life Center , Mission Ashtanga SFO , Ashtanga Yoga Vancouver & the Ashtanga Yoga Center of Austin.

I am hoping to practice with Troy Lucero in Seattle next week & Patrick of Miami Life Center the following week.

My trip to Toronto is scheduled for the 1st week of March & I am going to endeavor to practice with David Robson of Ashtanga Yoga Toronto  then. And back to NYC in April which means checking out the newly retro-fitted AYNY / Broome Street Temple.


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