alan little’s weblog archive for july 2006

but what is it for?

31st July 2006 permanent link

So what is advanced yoga asana practice for anyway? Possibly quite a few different things, which I’ll try to address one by one starting with this one:

for demonstrations?

A saying I‘ve seen attributed to various senior Indian ashtanga yoga teachers: “Primary series: very important. Intermediate series: fairly important. Advanced series: for demonstrations”

I also read somewhere, I think in Elizabeth Kadetsky’s book, that BKS Iyengar had that film made in 1938 as a marketing exercise when he was already planning to leave Mysore and set up his own yoga school in Pune.

In other words, demonstrating fancy-looking advanced asanas in public is at least partly grandstanding; but it’s supposed to be grandstanding in a good cause.

That seems to be precisely one of the concerns that the critics of the Ana Forrest demo have: advanced asana demonstrations will attract people, but they will be the wrong sort of people. They are mistaken. It doesn’t matter why people decide to try yoga. The vast majority won’t stick with it in any case, and the minority that stay, stay because they have discovered what it’s really about. I started going to yoga classes to keep fit, learn to do cool-looking things, and hang out with beautiful women – and I’m not the wrong sort of person.

Part One of a sporadic series. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four.

related entries: Yoga

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.

related entries: Yoga

link blogging

10th July 2006 permanent link

For Buddhists, the attainment of samadhi at its various depths is more a skill than a supernatural grace. Like piano playing or golf, it is something that can be learned reasonably well by most people with sufficient motivation and regular practice.

I don’t usually do pure link blogging – especially not when I'm hardly blogging at all anyway – but any remaining readers I may have could do a lot worse than go and read this wonderfully clear and concise article by Shinzen Young explaining basic concepts of buddhist meditation, with passing references also to Christian contemplative traditions and yoga.

Found via the 216 other people who had already tagged it under “yoga” on

related entries: Yoga

solo traveller

8th July 2006 permanent link

A Saturday Family Life Vignette:

My son, aged just over three, has suddenly started to come up with concepts and chains of connected reasoning that astonish me.

My wife is away this weekend, and there was a yoga class with a visiting teacher I very much wanted to go to. Two very good friends of mine, who have a daughter Jack’s age (who, out of respect for her privacy, we will call “K” – not her real initial), agreed to look after him for the afternoon.

I believe in at least trying to explain things to children, so I broached the subject at breakfast: “Jack, Daddy would like to go to yoga school in the afternoon. Would you like to go to K’s house?”

“Just me go to K’s house?” This is a new concept. He thinks about it for a while. I get nervous. If he really hates the idea, then I won’t be going to the yoga class.


“Yes Jack?”

“I don’t think I can find the way to K’s house on my own”

That particular little misunderstanding having been cleared up, the yoga class was great.

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