Friday, January 27, 2006

Reading :: Ashtanga Yoga

Originally posted: Fri, 27 Jan 2006 21:43:18

Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual: An Illustrated Guide to Personal Practice

by David Swenson

If you know anything about yoga -- and I did not until late last year -- you may have heard of ashtanga yoga. Maybe you've entered into a practice room for your kundalini or hatha flow class, and wondered why it's so hot. What the heck was the previous class doing? Or perhaps you've actually seen an ashtanga class and been struck by how regimented the movements are, how constant the motion is, and how little time is held in each pose. You may have thought of it as "extreme yoga," and you may even have heard of the variant "power yoga."

I'm just speculating, based on the reactions of others and the remarks of instructors at the place where I've begun ashtanga classes. I only have a hazy idea of what other yoga variants might be like. To me, ashtanga seems like a set of exercises, similar to stretches and calesthenics, but very well planned and integrated. As they should be: yoga has been around for thousands of years, and ashtanga is based on an ancient text.

Yoga originates in spiritual practice, and using yoga primarily for developing strength and flexibility -- which is why I'm taking the class -- would be seen by some as watering down or corrupting the practice. Apparently I'm not the only one: all of my instructors have been inclusive, and at least one has outright claimed that yoga has no necessary spiritual connection. Nevertheless, the language of yoga's spritual roots does make its way into books such as David Swenson's Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. Swenson, who lives in Austin, is one of the foremost ashtanga instructors in the world. And he doesn't shy away from alluding to the spiritual beliefs that have contributed to the development of yoga: his descriptions of the principles and postures are full of discussions of energy flow, chakras, etc. And although I at first became impatient with these discussions, wanting a more physiologically grounded discussion, I came to appreciate the vocabulary and concepts that are embedded in the discussion. Realistically, I'm not sure that I could understand a physiological discussion, but I can certainly envision energy (metaphorically) flowing through chakras, and that's enough to help me interpret what's happening during the poses.

And I need all the help I can get. I suspect I have below-average spatial intelligence and body awareness, and my exercise for the last several years has consisted of walking to the bus stop. Fortunately, Swenson provides that help. After the short initial discussion, Swenson illustrates each pose in the first and second series, both with photos and textual descriptions. The photos can be pretty scary -- I'm amazed the human body can get into some of them -- but Swenson also illustrates some intermediate poses that almost anyone can do. (One thing I really like about ashtanga is that you systematically perfect your practice; each practice includes some sort of accomplishment.) The textual descriptions are often couched in idioms that sound either translated or 19th-century, but they are generally clear and show flashes of genuine humor. The writing and editing are not terribly strong, but they do what they need to do.

I'm reviewing this book here, but unlike most of the books on the list, I'll probably end up reading it over and over as I continue in my practice. If you're interested in ashtanga, check it out.

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