alan little’s weblog

but is it yoga?

31st July 2006 permanent link

Yoga Journal has some footage of an advanced yoga asana demo by Ana Forrest at a recent conference, complete with a surprisingly biting comment thread about whether what Ana is doing is legitimate yoga or just ego and circus tricks. The people on the ego and circus tricks side should know better – yoga is about what’s going on in someone’s mind, the outward appearance of what they are doing has little or nothing to do with it: “spirituality is not determined by the practice, but … by the focus or intent of the practitioner” (David Swenson). Nevertheless it did make me think about what advanced asana practice is for anyway? Thoughts on that to follow; but first, some observation on this Ana Forrest comment thread and related things.

The comments themselves quickly degenerated, as these things do, into “that isn't proper yoga”. “Oh yes it is”. “Isn’t!”. “Is So!”

I, as will become apparent if it isn’t already, am uncompromisingly in the Is So! camp. The Isn’t! point of view isn’t entirely without merit either, though. There’s a well known and very vigorous expression of it in an article from a few years ago by vipassana meditation guru S.N. Goenka:

Patanjali has defined asana just by one phrase i.e. the posture in which one can sit for a long time, steadily and with ease. Only this very statement of Patanjali about asana has been elaborated up to 84 types of tiresome postures and all of them are now preached in his name. Poor Patanjali has been reduced to the status of circus trainer and he, who preaches to become aware of the inhalation and exhalation of natural breath, the intermittent stage between the two its elongation and its contraction, has been wrongly associated with the attempted and rigorous breathing exercise of pranayama. Breathing exercise too is not bad. It has got its own advantages but the same should not be ascribed to the name of Patanjali. Likewise different yogic postures too have got very good healthy impact over our body, but the same should also not be said as prescribed by Patanjali in his famous treatise. A sage who bestowed our country with a highly spiritual knowledge of yoga should in no way be allowed to be depicted as a kindergarten P.T. teacher who teaches asana or pranayama.

Something that is entirely without merit, though, is this comment by one of the Isn’t! school of thought regarding Ana Forrest:

Ana Forrest has only showcased her own body and not yogasanas. Yoga demos should be given to show the dynamism and purpose of yogasanas. She has, however, used asanas as a background to show her own contortions. None of the poses she struck were classical in nature and therefore have no names, purpose, or need.

Utter crap. If this person is so well educated about yoga asanas are “classical in nature”, then s/he knows very well that the Gheranda Samhita says there are eighty four thousand yoga asanas, although it only bother to describe a few dozen of them.

As to ones that are well documented common knowledge in our day: BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, the best known modern yoga textbook in the world, describes two hundred. There are about a couple of hundred in the ashtanga vinyasa primary, intermediate and advanced series, overlapping largely but not completely with the ones in LoY. New York yoga teacher Dharma Mittra has documented over nine hundred. Yoga Dancer has online descriptions and photos of over four hundred and fifty.

(Actually, there are probably only a couple of dozen fundamental asanas, and all the crazy-looking advanced stuff consists of variations or combinations of these)

So, anything in Ana’s demo not in one or more of these well known standard compendiums? Nope. I found the comment so obviously egregiously wrong that I went back and looked through the first two clips again. All standard stuff, or obvious variations thereon:

… there were only three or four of these where I even had to pause to look up the sanskrit names.

And in the highly unlikely event Ana Forrest had managed to come up with positions of the human body that weren’t among the eighty four thousand alluded to in the Gheranda Samhita, instead of this collection of (slight variations on, in some cases) perfectly standard, well documented asanas – so what? Why would something not “classical” therefore have “no purpose or need”?

Until I find time to come up with thoughts about what advanced asanas practice is for anyway, you can see other videos of advanced asana practice here (more Ana Forrest), and, controversially but nevertheless easily the most impressive asana demo I’ve ever seen, B.K.S Iyengar filmed in 1938: Part 1, Part 2. Yoga Peeps has an interview with Ana. And if you want to study pictures of what nearly all those things I listed in Sanskrit look like, Yoga Dancer should have them, and has the ones that are in the ashtanga advanced series.

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