Redefining Mysore-Style Practice: Part 1

This article will be published as a series of three articles.  The first past deals with the context of Mysore.  Part Deux will deal with critiques of the points brought up in Part 1.  Part Three is an effort to synthesize two different strands present in any long-term practitioner of any art or science: the dynamic between consistency and creativity, between methodical application and inquisitive exploration, between what you know and what you don’t know.  This conflict is never resolved except in the present moment.  The individual, you the practitioner, is what is essential to the resolution of the dynamic.  There are no Platonic forms of yoga postures, or always universally correct ways to practice.

And I encourage an open dialogue in the comments section on this and the remaining articles.  I only learn through discussion, argumentation, and contemplation.  I enjoy learning other people’s perspectives.

So here we go.

What exactly is Mysore-style?

If we had to tease out the elements of Mysore-style, the following seem to be the most fundamental:

  1. Practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
  2. As taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (b.1915-d.2009), and now by his grandson, R. Sharath Jois
  3. In the presence of an experienced teacher
  4. With hands-on physical adjustments
  5. Ideally six days a week, excluding moon days and one day on the weekend (Saturday or Sunday)

Let’s take each of these elements separately.

1.  Practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.  Usually shortened to Ashtanga.  Ashtanga is a specific style of yoga, characterized by a specific sequence, a particular method of moving between postures, and a recognizable breathing technique.   Because it is a specific sequence of postures, done in a particular order, it can be said that you are only doing Ashtanga when you are doing the sequence as it has been proscribed by the Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Center (hereafter, KPJAYI).  Therefore, someone doing Ashtanga Primary Series will do the set sequence, starting with Sun Salutations, then the standing postures, then the floor postures, etc.  An objective observer would be able to say that this student was doing Ashtanga, as opposed to Bikram or Jivamukti, in the same way that someone familiar with different styles could differentiate a piano concerto composed by Mozart and one composed by Beethoven.

Some specific “rules” about Ashtanga are:

  1. Always doing right side first (a few exceptions to this rule)
  2. Right leg first in padmasana (lotus posture) always
  3. Not omitting postures
  4. If you cannot do a posture, you stop there, and you do not move past the “problem” posture until you have mastered it (whatever that means)
  5. Never moving past Primary Series until you have completed the entire Primary Series, and can stand up from urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow posture) three times by yourself
  6. Never skipping a jump-back [on pain of torture, =-) ]
  7. Practicing six days a week.  Minimum
  8. Doing (or not doing?!?) mula bandha, the root “lock”
  9. Doing ujjayi pranayama all the time.  And I mean, all the time

We will come back to these points in Part Deux of the article (and yes, I will list them again for easy reference!).

2.  As taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, affectionately called Guruji by his students, was the main propagator, if not creator, of the Ashtanga Vinyasa method. Contrary to the current party line, the Ashtanga Series have changed over the years.  The Series are not 5,000 years old.  No one has ever seen the Yoga Korunta, the manuscript which Pattabhi Jois claims he and Krishnamacharya discovered in an old library and on which the entire Ashtanga Series were recorded.  It was conveniently eaten by  ants and has never been seen by anyone else, although I once found an obscure reference by Godfrey Devereux that claimed that the Yoga Korunta was being stored in a sealed vault with no access granted to Westerners.

Sounds mystical, sounds intriguing.  Could be the nice plot for a novel.  But there is not much verification of the existence of the Yoga Korunta, beyond the speculation that it may have even been an invention of Krishnamacharya.

(For more information about Sri K. Pattbhi Jois’s life, I recommend two books: Yoga Mala, with an excellent introduction by Eddie Stern; and Guruji, a collection of interviews with his most senior teachers, starting with David Williams, the first Westerner to master all four series.

3.  In the presence of an experienced teacher.  This is the element that really cannot be replaced or altered.  The teacher is the living repository of the method and the sequences.  You cannot really learn a living art from a book, even though that book was written by a living (at the time) teacher.   The method of Mysore is to teach the student one to two postures a day, until the student has memorized and integrated the series.  The idea not being that this method is straightforward, linear, and always progressive.  In fact, progress in the series is affected by many different factors, including but not limited to, previous training, presence or absence of injuries, frequency of practice, age, body intelligence, coordination, and/or time.

But Mysore-style yoga is different from other styles in that the teacher and student are actively involved in building the sequence with one another.  The student struggles to figure out how to learn the sequence, how to perform the posture in an efficient and safe manner, and how to breathe more, think less.  The teacher struggles to figure out how to teach the sequence according to the student’s learning style, how to give the student concise verbal cues and supportive hands-on adjustments, and how to balance between letting the student flow through the sequence and assisting them in the sequence.  The teacher-student relationship is really quite similar to the connection between dance partners: two living systems with different backgrounds learning from each other through movement and breathing.

So, the teacher for Mysore has to have a certain level of mastery of the Ashtanga sequences (we will go in depth on Mastery in part Three of this series and how to make Mastery sexy again in an age of frantic consumption and instant gratification).  I do agree with KPJAYI that the teacher should have familiarity and expertise with at least one sequence above the sequence he or she is teaching the student.  For instance, if the teacher is teaching a student the Primary Series, then the teacher should be practicing most, if not all, of Intermediate Series.  If the student is learning Intermediate, then the teacher should have worked through most, if not all, of Advanced A.   And so on.

This hierarchy of sequences does help to ensure proper transmission of the sequences, and it also falls in line with the old dictum, “Teach what you know.”  And to be honest, the Series get harder as you work your way up the ladder.  Primary Series is accessible in some form to almost everyone.  Intermediate Series is less accessible, and the Advanced Series is even less accessible, if you have not done the groundwork of the previous sequences.

This is not to say that you may not be able to do some of the Intermediate or Advanced postures by themselves, outside of the sequence.  It is the stringing together of the postures in the particular order that makes the sequences become progressively harder.

At base, though, you need to work with a teacher to make progress in Ashtanga, or really any art or profession, because you benefit from their hard-earned wisdom and practical knowledge.  Stop trying to reinvent the wheel with your practice (or your art).

4.  With hands-on physical adjustments.  Ashtanga is known for the teacher’s use of hands-on adjustments in particular postures.  The idea is that progress is made more quickly when you receive hands-on adjustments.  Some common postures that get adjusted include:

  • downward facing dog
  • prasarita padottanasana C
  • postures requiring balance
  • postures with binds
  • postures where one, or both, feet go behind the head

Adjustments can be useful for getting into postures in which you may experience restrictions or which may require too much effort.  Grabbing the hands in Marichyasana C and D, putting your feet behind your head in Supta Kurmasana, and learning how to do dropbacks all require some assistance from a teacher so that the student feels confident, supported and safe.  The most important part of adjusting and being adjusted is listening to the breathing and allowing your breath to guide you deeper into the posture.   Remember what I was saying about dance partners?  Even more important when it comes to adjustments.

5.  Ideally 6 days a week, excluding Moon Days and one weekend day.  Traditionally, the Mysore classes are held in the morning, between 5:30am and 9am (depending on the studio.  I clearly remember visiting Paris years ago and seeing that the program at one studio started morning Mysore at 8am.  Decadent).

A daily practice has its benefits.  You learn a little bit of the sequence each day, never more than you can remember for the next day.  By practicing every day, your practice becomes longer, more complex, and more challenging while simultaneously becoming more fluid, more familiar, and smoother.  It takes time to get acclimated to the sequence, to the breathing, to coordinating the whole thing.

In fact, it is better to do a little bit each day rather than a whole lot every once in a while.  Your body will thank you for the daily dose of movement and breathing, of stretching and strengthening.  You will be able to focus on the more subtle, intricate aspects of practicing the series.

So, to review.  The most fundamental aspects of Ashtanga Yoga as practiced in a Mysore format are:

  • Practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga set sequences
  • As taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (b.1915-d.2009), and now by his grandson, R. Sharath Jois
  • In the presence of an experienced teacher
  • With hands-on physical adjustments
  • Ideally six days a week, excluding moon days and one day on the weekend (Saturday or Sunday)

NB – This whole article is meant as an apologist’s perspective on what it means to practice “true” Ashtanga Yoga.  Part 2 will be decidedly more Roguish.


Roguish Musings #5

Hello everyone!

Here is your weekly shot of “Roguish Musings,” a list of what I’m reading, contemplating, or practicing.

Book I’m reading:

 Mastery by Robert Greene.  I’m a big fan of his work on power, persuasion and war.  This book serves as the capstone to his quadrology.  Here’s the description: “Each one of us has within us the potential to be a Master. Learn the secrets of the field you have chosen, submit to a rigorous apprenticeship, absorb the hidden knowledge possessed by those with years of experience, surge past competitors to surpass them in brilliance, and explode established patterns from within. Study the behaviors of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci and the nine contemporary Masters interviewed for this book. The bestseller author of The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene has spent a liftime studying the laws of power. Now, he shares the secret path to greatness. With this seminal text as a guide, readers will learn how to unlock the passion within and become masters.”

What I’m practicing:

Playing the long game in my professional life.  I’m taking the eagle-eye perspective on what I want do for the next ten years.  I cannot keep teaching tons of classes each week, without some sort of larger project in my life.  This website is a part of that project:  getting some exposure of my work, engaging with students, teachers and other like-minded individuals, and sharpening my writing skills.  I’m also shifting more towards work with branding, consulting and marketing.

Something I am doing

I’m getting ready to move next week.  I’m throwing out a bunch of old papers, books, clothes, and other human detritus.  It feels remarkably amazing to just get rid of things that have accumulated. It feels like I am cresting more space in my life.  James Altucher wrote a great article on living a minimalist life.  The New York Times did an interesting critique of minimalism.  Enjoy the dialectic!  

New blog post on experimenting with your practice:

Quote I’m pondering:

“A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish.” -Epictetus, Discourses, 2.6.25

Why you should stop taking led classes and start a morning Mysore practice 

I like to practice yoga at my own pace. I like holding some postures longer than others.  I like repeating a posture that I am struggling with (mulabandhasana, anyone?).  I like slowing my breath down.
When I take someone else’s class, I have to practice according to the teacher’s pace.  I may only get a few breaths in every posture, especially if my breathing pace is slower than the teacher’s directions.  I may have to breath faster to keep up.

In short, I end up in the passenger seat of my practice, instead of the driver’s seat.

I like being in the driver’s seat.

When I practice in a Mysore format, I like the silence, the quiet determination of each student as they work through the series.  I like the unspoken camaraderie of practicing in a group at the early hours of the morning.  When I practice in the morning, I know that I will have gotten my practice in.  I will have accomplished something that day, something for my own sanity, my own peace of mind, my own health.  No one is going to interrupt my practice with a meeting, a phone call, or a project.

This is the same reason I love writing morning journals.  It is time for myself, to get myself settled mentally and prepared for what the day will bring.  No one can predict what the day will bring.  Most of the things that happen to us are beyond our control.  

But, if I make the commitment to practice in the morning, I will have exercised my choice and my discipline.  And as retired Navy SEAL and author Jocko Wilink says, “Discipline equals freedom.”

When I practice in the morning, I’ll have taken care of my own health first so that I can take care of others.  I can be a Jedi Knight, learning how to increase kindness, mindfulness, and compassion when interacting with others.

I can learn to feel the Force when I practice in Mysore.  I get to unlearn all of the things that hold me back.

You will never progress as far in a led class as you will in self-practice.  Why?  Because you are not in control of your time, you are not in control of how much of the sequence you are doing, and despite what some teachers may say, you are never going to get any truly individualzed attention from the teacher.  I’ve taught for over 17 years.  The most progress I’ve seen in a student’s practice (and in my own) is in a self-practice format, practicing at least three to five times a week.

In self-practice, the student takes control of her own practice and makes it her own.  She’s not doing someone else’s practice, even if it is someone else’s sequence.  She’s doing her own yoga.

So I challenge you to try the morning mysore program I teach at Yoga District.  If you say you learned about it thru this blog, I will comp your first class.

Stay grounded, stay committed.  

Make progress one millimeter, one breath, at a time.

May the Force be with you.

Wednesday January 11, 2017: Full Moon

Today is a full moon.  In Ashtanga yoga, we do not practice on days when the moon is completely full or completely new. This has to do with the effects of the moon on the human body and psyche.  

The usual line of thought is that, during a full moon, we are more aggresssive,  more assertive, more headstrong, and more energized.  It is generally held that ERs, maternity wards, and insane asylums (no relation between the three!) experience greater activity than normal during a full moon.  On a personal level, as I have observed the lunar cycles syncing up with my own life for many years, I can tend to be more energized and pushy during the full moon.  I sleep more fitfully, and have strange dreams.  I also may work on harder postures in a more sustained manner (longer holds, more repetitions, or repeating karandavasana). 

Although the full moon is generally associated with a more dynamic and assertive energy, it can also be associated with a feeling of exhaustion and enervation due to hard work.  Therefore, it is equally important during this time to take rest, to relax and to remain grounded whenever we feel the headstrong urge to push forward on some project.  Can you find the dark side of the full moon?

So, in short, take rest tomorrow!  See you in practice on Thursday.

Why you should practice some Intermediate poses (even if you haven’t finished Primary Series)

Everyone who practices Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga knows that you must first learn all of Primary Series before you even begin to think of practicing any Intermediate Series.  Otherwise, you know what will happen.

Your head will pop off, your prana will leak all over the place, and your tombstone, if you even deserve one, will simply read, “She skipped ahead.” Pure and simple.  I’ve seen it happen. 😉

All kidding aside, I do want to make an important point about how Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is currently practiced, and why it needs to be a bit more flexible in its approach.

But first, some background.

I love Ashtanga.  I’ve practiced it for over 15 years, since 2002.  I started my practice in a very traditional format.  An Ashtanga teacher was leading a Mysore group out of a small dance studio in Kentucky.  My first class consisted of learning the Sun Salutations, forms A and B, and then repeating them about ten times each.  The teacher then taught me the final three postures (yoga mudra, padmasana, and utplutith) and then had me take rest.  I then spent the rest of class watching students go through the rest of practice (it was a Sunday, so I had some extra time).  I then went back each Sunday to learn the series, one posture at a time.  On the other days, I practiced what I had learned at home, because I was just out of college and still broke.  I learned the entire Primary Series in about nine months.

When I moved to DC, I continued my practice at a local Ashtanga studio.  Actually it was the only Ashtanga studio in the entire DC area for years, until more studios started opening up.  So I kept up with my practice, and started learning Intermediate Series, in the traditional format: adding on postures to the full Primary Serie until I arrived at Karandavasana and then splitting.

My progress was not linear, though.  I spent two years learning Intermediate because of a minor surgery and because of a few overuse injuries (shoulders, ribs, wrists).  Before I got to karandavasana,  my practice was very long and very tiring.  It took me about two and half hours to get through it all.  And by the end, I was exhausted.  And I had to go to university and study chemistry!

Getting past karandavasana and being able to drop all of Primary was almost religious in the feeling of relief I experienced.  Finally, I would have more energy!  So I practiced in a very traditional format for a few more years, practicing Intermediate four or five days a week, then Primary once a week.

By the time i had met Matthew Sweeney in 2012, I had been teaching myself portions of Advanced A with the help of a fellow Ashtangi.  Matthew had designed several Vinyasa sequences to the imbalances in the Ashtanga system.  You can read about his sequences here, and you can see his article on the evolution of Ashtanga as a practice here.

So when I met Matthew, he taught me the Moon Sequence, a Vinyasa sequence that emphasizes left-side first, alternative salutes, and the same thematic focus of Primary Series (forward bending, twisting, and core strength).  I loved the variety and the chance to practice something different.  After all, Ashtangis only practice Ashtanga!  Nothing else.  Especially not Bikram!

Having studied with Matthew for 5 years now and following his guidance on my personal and professional practice, I have been maintaining Primary, Intermediate, and Advanced A, in addition to the Moon and the Lion Sequences (and their variations).  And I have found that I am happier, less injured, more flexible (physically and mentally), and more ready to adapt to changes in my environment and my body.

Which brings me back to the title of this blog: why you need to practice some Intermediate, even if you haven’t completed Primary.

The thing is that most people who practice Ashtanga will only be taught Primary Series, which means they will get really good at seated forward bends, some twists, and then they will struggle with opening their hips without damaging their knees, putting their feet behind their head without cracking a collarbone, and trying to stand up from a backbend without hitting their heads.  I know: the above just makes you want to go out and practice, right?

The truth is that only practicing Primary ever, five to six days a week, is imbalanced.  It leads to overuse injuries, lower back pain, hamstring issues, and…boredom and fatigue.  A lot of teachers who have been practicing the series for years and who are now in their fifties and sixties have attested to this.  Some of the first Westerners who learned the series back in the seventies, were learning Primary in a month, Intermediate in one to two months, and if the ability and desire were there, then Advanced Series.  When they learned both Primary and Intermediate, then they would practice Primary one day, then Intermediate the next.

So what are the benefits of practicing Intermediate?  More backbends, more twists, some more accessible foot behind the head postures, and some really good arm balances (well, aside from karandavasana!).  The first eleven postures of Intermediate are simple, accessible and help to prepare for urdhva dhanurasana (and they prime the body for dropbacks so your body feels like rubber).

So which postures from Intermediate should you learn?

  1. Salabhasana A (locust pose)
  2. Dhanurasana (bow pose)
  3. Ustrasana (camel pose)

How should you practice them?  Twice each, before urdhva dhanurasana.

When should you start practicing them?  Once you start learning the floor Primary postures.

Why should you make this a regular practice to add on to your Primary?  To balance out all of the static forward bending with some static backbends.  And to save your back.

If you found this article to be of value, please share with your friends and on your social media sites.  I love feedback and discussion so please leave a comment below.

Roguish Musings #4

I hope that you are enjoying these brief posts on what I am doing, reading, practicing, etc.  I have to admit that I stole the idea from Tim Ferriss, who does a weekly email newsletter called “Five-Bullet Fridays.”  If you haven’t subscribed to those, please do so. It’s a great source for breaking up the monotony of routine and of our normal sources of information.

  1. What I’ve been reading: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.  Specifically the Penguin translation available on the above link.  I read this novel, in its unabridged form, three times when I was in high school.  It was that good.  Yes, it is a hefty tome (at 1200+ pages), but I read only ten to twenty pages every night (more on the weekend when I have more time).  The writing is rich.  The story is a classic tale of intrigue, wrongful imprisonment and the pursuit of vengeance (and the realization of the consequences of one’s actions).
  2. What I’ve been listening to (music): Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, 4th Movement.  Beethoven has always held a special place in my heart.  Shortly after my father passed, I discovered a box full of miniature tapes he had used to record music from the radio in the late 70s and early 80s.  Among the tapes was a tape with Beethoven’s 9th symphony, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.  On the other side was a recording of my father talking with my mother and the two nurses shortly after my mother gave birth to my brother and me.  I could hear myself screaming as a newborn.  Granted, it was a PKD-esque moment.  Anyway, this is all to say that Beethoven has been one of the major lietmotif in my life.
  3. What I watched for Christmas: Elf, with Will Ferrell.  ‘Nuff said.
  4. How I made a ten-hour drive to Kentucky more manageable: I hate long-distance driving just as much as everyone else.  I am, by nature, someone who cannot sit still for long, and driving for too long really just leads to back and hip pain.  So I decided this time to do a set of 20 push-ups and 10 squats every time I stopped for gas or for rest.  It made a world of difference in relieving any feelings of discomfort.  The frequent breaks and the extra movement broke up any body staleness from sitting for too long.
  5. Quote I’ve been pondering: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” -Seneca

And lastly, we are approaching the end of 2016.  It seems like, more than any other recent year, 2016 has been particularly tumultuous.  The Presidential elections, the premature deaths of many talented musicians and actors, and for me…well, there has been a lot of change.  My business failed.  I lost some very close friends, some who no longer speak to me.  I was on a roller coaster of despair and hope all year long, and my ego took one hell of a thrashing.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) this wild back-and-forth, I dug deeper in my yoga practice, into my readings of books, and into the philosophy of Stoicism.  I have been blessed with mentors who came to my aid when I needed them the most and who also gave me enough slack to try to accomplish something by myself.  My true friends have stuck with me through thick and thin.  My family has shown me love and support when I needed it the most.

I know that this year has been hard for all of us.  I don’t hope that 2017 is an easy year.  It won’t be, and no year has ever been easy.  What I do pray for is that I may be able to withstand the sea-change of events with greater equanimity, that I may be able to be of greater service to family, friends and colleagues, and that I may help to create a better world, one relationship at a time.  I hope that I can help to make kindness, honesty, and integrity the core values of all my relationships.

My heart to yours.

7 ways to reinvigorate your Ashtanga practice

Here are some ways to enliven your practice, especially if you have been practicing the same way for a long time.   I do not suggest trying to combine exercises (eg doing standing postures 10 breaths each, with full vinyasa and left side first….too many things to juggle!).  Play with these as your time and interest permit.

1.  Hold standing postures for 10 breaths each, once a week.  Observe the effects on the rest of your practice.
2.  Hold the first half portion of primary postures (paschtimottanasana to marichaysana D) for 8 to 10 breaths each, once a week.
3.  Do full vinyasa for the first half of Primary Series (if you have never done full vinyasa before, ask me and I will instruct you.  Your practice session may be longer than usual!).
4.  Hold upward dog for 2 to 4 breaths when doing the floor vinyasa in Primary Series.  (Especially if all you do is primary series and no intermediate series, you need to start holding upward dog longer at least two practice times a week).
5.  Slow down the breath to a five-count inhale and five-count exhale when doing the finishing series.
6.  Do Primary Series left-side first.  This includes surya B left lunge first, stepping to your left in standing, doing lotus left-side first, rolling anticlockwise in garbha pindasana, etc.
7.  Use a belt around your elbows and/or your thighs in urdhva dhanurasana.  Especially if you have tight shoulders, this is a good exercise to do for a month or longer.  Just remember to take one session to do the posture without the prop!

I would love to hear your feedback on any of these experiments.  You can leave a comment below!