We have all heard the saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Those words are extremely profound, when thinking about correcting poor posture and alignment. It takes years to create poor alignment.
Therefore, poor posture cannot be corrected in a single day. A more appropriate saying, when thinking about posture and alignment might be, “The leaning tower of Pisa cannot become straight in a week.”
However, improvements to posture can be made through Chair Yoga exercises and through daily “posture awareness.” In my classes, I refer to posture awareness as “homework.” It usually draws a chuckle from students, but they also know that class time is the time to learn and practice Chair Yoga together.
Time away from the Yoga class is when you put the principles you have learned, in motion, and adapt them into your lifestyle. I cannot promise Chair
Yoga is a “cure all,” but you will see improvements in every aspect of your life. However, practicing your homework separates the fantastic success stories from those who see some modest improvement.
So, what is posture awareness? This is taking the time to be aware of your posture, on a daily basis. The first thing you want to do in order to open your awareness is look at your side profile in a mirror and any photographs of yourself. At this point, look at your spine from top to bottom.
Do you see slumping, forward tilting of the neck, or extra large curves? Your spine should be aligned so that it is fairly straight at all times. During a number of daily activities such as: Standing, walking, reading, eating, sitting, lying, typing, and more, you should make a conscious effort, to keep your head and back straight.
Now, we can all remember a schoolteacher who preached, “Keep your back straight,” but now we know that he or she was absolutely correct. Take the time to adjust your spinal alignment, from this moment on, and every time you can remember to do so.
If possible, you should also attend any workshops about Chiropractic and
Orthopedic medicine. Educate yourself about your body, your spine, and your choices. You can usually find these workshops and many more valuable meetings at your local senior centre. These workshops are usually free, you are under no obligation, and it makes for a good “Fact finding mission.”
The alignment and posture principles, you learn in a Chair Yoga class, can be as simple as, “Pain or no pain.”
In comparison to many forms of exercise, the benefits of Chair Yoga far outweigh the risks. The therapeutic exercises work the body, from head to toes, to the best of any client’s ability.
Therefore, the method used, addresses the whole body in a single routine.
This is an amazing feat, for a low-impact exercise program, where the average session lasts 45 to 60 minutes. The following information will highlight some of the many benefits of regular participation in a Chair Yoga
Increased circulation is a result of movement and every body part that can move is used in a typical Chair Yoga class. For many of us, we think of cardiovascular heath first, and this is right fully so, but Chair Yoga helps many other forms of circulation, within the body, as well.
To sit still for days on end, we invite diseases of many kinds. Diabetics need movement to keep sugar levels in “tolerance zones.” Chair Yoga also has routines for the feet, toes, hands, and fingers, so there is no part of the body left out. Due to this whole body approach, the immune system is also stimulated by regularly attending Chair Yoga classes.
The many movements, bending, and twisting, in a regular Chair Yoga session, stimulate the elimination of toxins, within the body. Every time you bend the waist in one direction or another, the stomach aids in digestion and the lower back is gently stimulated.
Now, back to cardiovascular benefits – There seems to be a lot of confusion about what is classified as aerobic exercise. One of the definitions for aerobic exercise is: Any exercise that would increase circulatory and respiratory ability. When the heart and lungs have to work harder to keep up with the body’s need for oxygen that is aerobic.
In fact, gardening and housework are also aerobic exercise that most seniors routinely do. This is not to say that gardening and housework are complete health maintenance systems, but they do burn over 200 calories per hour, for the average person, and meet the aerobic definition.
Much of this mentality stems from the “No pain – No gain” era. Most of the original advocates of this theory are now “nursing their own wounds” and practicing gentler forms of exercise. After all, none of us are immortal, and the body can only take so much abuse over time.
May I remind anyone, who is left standing, from the No pain – No gain era, that walking is also classified as aerobic exercise. So, whether you walk or run a mile, aerobic benefits are gained and significant calories are burned.
When I first visited KP Jois house in late 1995 I did so with the desire to study classical Ashtanga Yoga. I interviewed him closely what sort of yoga he was teaching and he affirmed that it was indeed Patanjali’s yoga. That made me sign up with him. In the following years we Ashtanga yogis often sniggered at the Iyengars because we smugly thought we had it over them. Already the name of our yoga showed that it was a true, authentic and ancient form of yoga, whereas theirs was a yoga named after a modern person, it’s founder. But this initial hubris was long ago replaced by a questioning of what Ashtanga today is, and what it should be.
What classical yoga actually is?
The term Ashtanga refers to the stanza II.28 in the Yoga Sutra, where yoga is called eight-limbed. In his commentary on the Yoga Sutra I.1, Rishi Vyasa says, yogah samadhih, i.e. yoga is samadhi. What he means is that the first seven limbs of yoga are ancillary yoga and only the eight limb is true yoga. And this does not mean that the seven limbs are the process and the eight the result. No, it means that the first seven limbs are the preparation and samadhi is both the process and the result. For Vyasa goes on to say that there are two types of yoga, samprajnata and asamprajnata yoga. You may know these two words as the names of the two types of samadhi, cognitive samadhi (samadhi with cognition of object also called objective samadhi) and super-cognitive samadhi (samadhi beyond cognition of object or objectless samadhi). With calling these samadhis ‘yoga’ Vyasa again affirms that only samadhi is true yoga but he also shows that the objective samadhi (with its seven types) is the process to the state of objectless samadhi (of which there is only one, the final samadhi).
The Yoga Sutra then goes on to devote almost 100 of its stanzas to samadhi. That is more than half of the 195 stanzas. This fact should make it clear that yoga mainly deals with samadhi. Samadhi is not something that comes about spontaneously or mysteriously but objectless samadhi comes about through the detailed, technical process of the seven objective samadhis.
Taking the birds eye view we could call the seven objective samadhis ‘yoga stage two’.
Prior to the seven objective samadhis the first seven limbs are practised, which we could call ‘yoga stage 1’. Apart from the first two foundational stages involving ethics yoga stage 1 involves asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. For the purpose of this article I will now try to summarize these limbs of yoga in short, simple sentences. More comprehensive descriptions I have given elsewhere.
Yogic asana is not just sitting with your back, neck and head in a straight line but it is the process of taking your body through the process of a whole range of yogic postures. These postures are accommodated by focus on breath, mudras and focal points during which some aspects of the following limbs are anticipated and trained. Through such practice we ready the body, breath and mind for formal sitting practice.
Pranayama, the fourth limb, is not just Ujjayi breathing but a sitting practise in which you perform alternate nostril breathing using mantra and visualisation until the breath has been made long and subtle (dirgha sukshmah). Only then internal and external kumbhakas (breath retentions) with maha-bandha (simultaneous use of all bandhas) are applied.
Being established in pranayama, yogic meditation (the combined process of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana) is a formal yogic sitting practise in which the breath is extended and the mind focussed on sattvic objects including mantra, chakras, kundalini, divine images and sacred geometry. In this whole triple process of yoga stage 1, i.e. asana, pranayama and yogic meditation ancillary aspects such as kriyas and mudras play an important role. Another important aspect of yoga is bhakti. So is the term ishvara pranidhana (devotion to the Divine) mentioned by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra four times.
This process is described in the so-called Yoga Darshana, i.e. the philosophical school of yoga, which consists of the Yoga Sutra and its attached tradition of commentaries and sub-commentaries. In the Sutra none of the techniques of the lower limbs were described but only the effect or result achieved through their correct practice. So devotes the Sutra only 3 stanzas to asana, four stanzas to pranayama, one stanza to pratyahara and a few to dharana and dhyana. For brevity the author of the Sutra focused only on samadhi and it was left to yogic texts compiled in the following centuries and millennia to fill in those gaps.
While there can be conflicting opinions on what limbs were emphasised when one thing can be said for sure: there is no evidence in classical texts whatsoever that the mere practice of postures was at any time considered Ashtanga Yoga.
Some problems with contemporary “Ashtanga Yoga”
In the light of all of the above we have to ask ourselves whether the name Ashtanga Yoga is correctly used to describe the asana-sequence and vinyasa based system handed down by the now disgraced KP Jois. We must sincerely ask ourselves whether Jois’ yoga is not in fact Ekanga Yoga, one-limbed yoga.
One of the core-tenets of yoga is the dis-identification with the body. The fifth klesha (forms of suffering) listed by Patanjali is abhiniveshah – fear of death. It is produced by identification with the body. Also the first klesha, avidya (ignorance) arises by identifying that what is eternal (purusha- the consciousness) with that what is temporary (the body). Patanjali’s yoga aims at decreasing identification with body. The more one dis-identifies with the body one’s sense of self can expand and spiritual experiences can come about.
Different to that modern Ashtanga culture seems to actually increase identification with the body. It’s linear, top-down delivery through sequences of postures seems to have the effect that the value and sense of self of a person is defined by how many postures and series they can perform. This has made the style very popular with Western students as it plays into the Western mindset of acquisition. Posture and series can be acquired like real estate or academic degrees.
The obsession with gymnastic levels of performance of asanas in contemporary Ashtanga Yoga goes hand in hand with a neglect of higher limbs practice. Young people who enter Ashtanga are regularly brain-washed away from higher limbs practice with the nonsense statement that you need to have conquered certain number of series of postures before you can start. There is no evidence of anything of the like in any yogic text. It is an idea that has been entirely invented in the 20th century, possibly as recent as the 1960’s or 70’s.
The dark side of overemphasising the limb of asana is that students then tend to over-practice it. They tend to become zealous, ambitious and fanatic about their asana practice. This overemphasising asana and the resulting ambition seems to me the number one reason for injuries in modern Ashtanga Yoga. If third series will open the Pearly Gates for you, you better go at it with a vengeance. If students are told they need to conquer second or third before they can practice the higher limbs, they tend to practice with such despair and aggression that they develop a lot of wear and tear in the bodies. I have never seen this in students who were established in pranayama and meditation adjunct to their asana practice. Many people come with a thirst for spiritual experiences to yoga. If the techniques such as pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana are then withheld, students are desperately trying to wring out of the body what the body was never designed to give. This leads to injury.
This self-violating and self-abusing tendency in modern Ashtanga Yoga, however, is completely in conflict with Patanjali’s teaching for he says in sutra II.16 heyama duhkham anagatam, i.e. ‘future suffering is to be avoided’. Or in simple words, don’t hurt, flog and abuse yourself.
I will go on now to discuss a few arguments that are regularly posted to defend the Ashtanga-status of KP Jois’ yoga.
Have not a few third series students been taught pranayama and therefore the whole system can be called Ashtanga yoga?
Pranayama is not to be limited to a small elite of students who have achieved a ridiculous, Olympic-gymnast level of asana proficiency. It is to be taught to all students who have become proficient in a sitting asana such as Virasana. For me pranayama probably was the most beneficial part of yoga to learn. Even more so than asana. Why would that be withheld from 99% of practitioners who will never be able to master dozens of advanced asanas?
And then what about the other incredible aspects of yoga that Jois has never taught at all? What about the whole gamut of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana? It is these techniques that give you spiritual experiences. It is these methods that quench your spiritual thirst. It is these aspects of yoga that can truly change your life and possibly our society as well.
Aren’t Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, and Dhyana not already present in the Asana practice? Is not everything already happening on the mat? All yogic limbs contain the same structural elements. When practising meditation or pranayama we assume an asana such as Virasana, Siddhasana or Padmasana. But by doing so we would not say that we have practised the limb of asana sufficiently. Similarly, when we are practising the full course of yogic asanas we are integrating pranic and mental aspects of yoga such as focusing on the breath (structural element of pranayama in asana) and drishti and bandha (structural elements of dharana in asana). But by integrating these structural elements of pranayama or dharana into asana this does not mean that “pranayama or dharana are now sufficiently practised”. They are only introduced through their structural elements to prepare for their true practice and to make asana more efficient. T. Krishnamacharya stated that to get the various benefits of yoga, the respective limbs have to be practised. That is asana for physical benefits, pranayama for pranic benefits and meditation for mental benefits. Asana practice, which includes ujjayi, bandhas and drishti, is the ideal preparation for a formal sitting practice of pranayama, dharana, etc, which should then also be made up of yoga’s structural elements. But in order to practice them and derive their benefits a formal siting practice must be engaged in.
Can asana practice by itself if done in a self-reflective mode teach you so much that it by itself constitutes yoga?
I’m not saying that you couldn’t get self-reflective by practising asana. You can. Of course you can learn a lot about yourself by practising asana. It is great that some students found some form of wisdom simply by continuing their asana practice over a long period.
But this is not what the classical process of yoga is about. For you can learn about yourself through almost any activity continued over a long period in a self-reflective mode. Such as playing an instrument. Or painting or sculpting. Or bringing up your children, being in relationship with a partner, caring for somebody, gardening, landscaping, tending to animals, or building houses. But this is still not yoga as the ancient yogis created it. We would not call being in a relationship or parenting yoga simply because it taught us about ourselves. Or maybe we do and maybe this is exactly our problem today. For I have read phrases such as “the yoga of relating” and “parenting is the new yoga”. It’s great that we can learn through parenting and relating but can you see how the term yoga is today so de-valued and neutered that almost anything-yoga-goes?
Following this train of inquiry I conclude that the modern Ashtanga Vinyasa method is in dire need of re-integration into Patanjali’s eight-limbed path. If this was not to happen the term Ekanga Yoga may more aptly describe its current make-up
One of the last times that I sat in K. Pattabhi Jois’ afternoon student meeting (called “conference”) I looked at a photo of Ramana Maharishi that was hanging on the wall. I asked Jois, “how come Ramana is considered spiritually liberated but he hasn’t done any asanas in his whole life”? I didn’t mean any harm with that question. I was just curious.
There are several potential avenues an answer could take and I was simply curious which one Jois would take. But he never got to answering the question. A storm of protest started and I was screamed down by about 20 other Western students. It was considered “questioning the guru”. The screaming subsided after about 2 minutes. KP Jois’ looked around somewhat baffled and then went back to discussing his previous topic, rasam recipes.
The interesting thing here is that it was not KP Jois who rebuked me but it was actually the cult followers who formed a protective wall around the guru and prevented that he was questioned. I realised that the initially motley community of practitioners had by then morphed enough into a cult that it did not warrant returning to the Jois shala. To this day close adherents to the Ashtanga cult tell me that they feel they must have faith and that questioning was “coming from the ego”. Here I am trying to make a case that questioning is a good thing, for you and for authority.
How did we get to a point that questioning is a bad thing and that it shows disrespect for the teacher? The attitude is not new. In his “The Last Days of Socrates”, Plato shows how Socrates constant questioning of established Athenian authorities invoked their ire until eventually they have him sentenced to death. But Socrates main interest is to get people to question themselves, to question how they know what they know. In other words, he asks them to question the means by which they arrive at a certain knowledge. He wants to lure them away from statements such as, “I simply know” or we could say he wants to disperse blind faith in our pet beliefs. Via Plato and Aristotle ultimately Socrates’ way of questioning lead to the formation of what today is Western Science. Whoever is going through some form of scientific training learns to not accept statements of existing authorities at face value. You are trained to perceive holes in their argumentation and to collect evidence to falsify their assumptions.
But this attitude is not exclusive to the West. Here a passage from Gautama Buddha from the Kalama Sutta: “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by thinking, ‘This sage is our guru.’ [and therefore, what he says is right]. When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skilful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted carried out, lead to welfare to happiness’ — then you should enter remain in them.” The Buddha here says that we shouldn’t simply defend a position because it is held by an authority that we value, not just because we have faith in it. We must research and prove it for ourselves or reject it. Critical thinking and questioning is not an invention of the West. It was always engaged in by the greatest minds of both East and West. Let’s continue this great tradition.
Personage versus position
A big part of what is modern Ashtanga Yoga boils down to personality cult. A position is deemed right and duly defended not because of its intrinsic value but merely because of who holds the position. So-and-so says its right and therefore it must be right. I think it would be a great step forward if we could start looking at the beliefs and assumptions that define Ashtanga Yoga independent of who holds them.
I was asked repeatedly who I am critiquing with certain statements. As if it wasn’t interesting to inquire into a particular position without knowing who holds it. If we know who holds the position the refutation of the position can be declared invalid because the person that holds the position can’t be wrong.
I purposely try to avoid attacking people or a particular person. In our culture there is strange way of avoiding change. Whenever there is a problem, people are always looking for the person or persons that is responsible. Once the person is found they are condemned, shamed and/or “held accountable”. The person is then sacrificed as a scapegoat but the underlying problem is not addressed. In other words, instead of looking at what the problem is we avoid it by looking for the person who causes it. Once the person is found and punished a new person steps into their shoes and the problem continues without change being brought about.
The other problem with this approach is that we tend to have so much investment in personages (such as our teachers) that the slightest criticism of a person usually leads to trenches being dug and front lines being drawn. What I think needs to happen are systemic changes, not just changes of leadership. I am hoping for a time in which an argument is judged simply by its inherent merit and not by who holds it. If a particular way of doing things is found to be faulty it should be critiqued based on its demerit and not defended because the position held by a person that is inherently great or powerful.Should we consider that a valid approach or should we think that a position should be deemed right just because a particular person holds it? If it is the latter at what point would we start to hold that person accountable if, for example, they commit a crime such as sexual assault? I think the past has shown us that this is not a viable approach.
Do we ultimately serve a person by not questioning their views and actions?
Surprisingly I am still getting responses that I should stop questioning the “guru” or the “lineage” and that only by totally “submitting to the guru can I attain Jnana” (yes, I kid you not). I am asking myself if it is healthy for a person in a position of power if the people around them are not challenging them upon displaying destructive behaviour?
Today I do think that KP Jois had a personality disorder (for all the greatness that he displayed in other areas) and ironically, I feel now that I let him down for not challenging him on it. Okay, I can weasel my way out of it by saying that I was in a cult and any form of questioning was censored and dis-encouraged by other cult members. But on the other hand, I do know now that Jois reacted to criticism and adjusted his behaviour temporally. In other words, he received too little criticism too late, at a time when his behaviour was already entrenched. Had we all been vigilant back them and as a community told him that his behaviour was wrong he would probably have snapped out of it. The whole episode would have then remained a minor embarrassment in the history of the movement. Now, after decades have passed without us adequately addressing these issues it has grown into a much bigger sore and KP Jois legacy has been besmirched. I think a lot of this could have been avoided had we been insistent with our challenges and questioning early on.
Another issue that we need to look into is whether we are not infantilising authorities when protecting them from questioning. In the episode quoted at the outset of this articles the followers or KP Jois clearly thought him incapable of an appropriate response to my answer. How they arrived at this conviction in less than a second before they started screaming my down baffles me. Are we not being disrespectful when assuming that we know the answer given by an authority or when assuming that a satisfactory answer can’t be given? What does their authority status then consist of if we deny them the possibility to respond?
The “Guru”-concept as part of an outdated modernistic view of the self.
I placed “guru” here in inverted commas to denote beliefs such as, “the guru is the path”, “the guru must always be right and can never be questioned” and “if you see the guru doing strange things he does so to adjust your personality”, or “the guru is embodying the students mental disorder to heal the student”. In all of these statements the “guru’s” destructive behaviour is rationalised. I could imagine a guru or teacher operating outside of that paradigm and in that case the inverted commas would not be necessary. A guru would then have to be open to be questioned.
The problem with terms like “guru” or “lineage” is that they are still operating from a modernistic concept of self. Prior the 1960’s we believed that a person has certain inherent qualities that they exhibit all the time and that do not change. For example, one person is “good” while another person may be called “evil”. This model in the 1960’s gave way to the post-modernistic view of the self which says that we are fluid at all times and incorporate an almost infinite number of different mini-selves which may be predominant at one time or another. Parallel to that in psychology the school of situationism developed, which holds that who a person is and how they act is entirely dependent on situation and in reality, constantly changes with the drop of a hat. There is currently no scientific evidence that refutes situationism. And respectively there is no scientific evidence that a single person can be constantly right or having a trademark on truth.
Especially for people who are members of spiritual movements it is very important and healing to look into these concepts. We understand then that no person can be right all the time. A person may display great understanding and insight a lot of the time. But they can never be right all the time. To believe that anybody can is simply a myth that ultimately will leave us disenfranchised. Whatever anybody says at any given time in any circumstance we still have to check for ourselves whether the statement is right or helpful. Of course, it would be great if we would find that one person that will sort us out in return for total devotion. The reality of life however presents us with a much more complex scenario. The one that we need to constantly question what we believe to be right and how we arrived at that belief. And that no person can lay claim to permanent rightness. This is what J. Krishnamurti meant when he said “Truth is a pathless land”.