Monday, December 24, 2007

Power Yoga: Part 2

The Eightfold Path

The particular yoga practice I watched that Saturday morning was called astanga yoga, named by an Indian Brahman and Sanskrit scholar whose teacher purportedly recovered the lost form from an ancient manuscript he found while traveling through India. In Sanskrit, the word astanga means "eight limbs," from the two root words ashta, meaning "eight," and anga, meaning "limb" or "part." It refers to the classical eight-limbed yogic path as described in the famous Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the primary text of the science of classical yoga, written (according to most estimates) between 400 and 200 B.C. by the great Indian philosopher and spiritual leader Patanjali. Patanjali did not "invent" yoga, but rather collated and systematized existing techniques and knowledge, giving Yoga credibility as one of the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophical thought.

I was familiar with most of the postures Norman Allen was doing and teaching. It wasn't the postures that were new, different, and captivated my attention. What was it, then? I slowly realized that there were a number of aspects to this practice that made it distinctive. One was the vinyasa, or connecting movement between the postures. Another was the sequential linking of the postures -- or as it is called in astanga yoga, the "series."

Then there was the strength of the postures, the powerful breathing technique that accompanied the practice, and the resultant "heat," all combining to make this form unique. Also, the emphasis wasn't on how flexible or weird you could look. The emphasis was on strength and constancy, on concentration and flow. Watching Norman do his practice was like watching an Olympic gymnast work out. As he moved effortlessly through an awesome and challenging nonstop series of postures, his body began to glisten with sweat, which poured off him throughout the entire routine. I had never seen anybody continuously sweat while doing yoga before.

Finding the Form

Norman Allen had gone to India in 1971 on his own quest. One day on the beach in Goa, he happened to see a young Indian man doing a totally awesome yoga practice, unlike anything he had ever seen before. After watching respectfully for several hours, Norman approached the yogi and asked him where he had learned yoga.

"From my father, Pattabhi Jois," was the response.

"Where is he?" asked Norman.

"In Mysore," came the answer, "but don't bother going to see him, because he wouldn't teach you."

"Why not?" Norman had asked.

"Because you aren't Indian and you aren't Brahman," was the answer. Of course, Norman went immediately to Mysore, sat on the senior Jois's doorstep for weeks, and steadfastly asked to be taught this incredible yoga form, only to be ignored.

According to doctrine in the Hindu caste system, Brahmans, or the priest class, are the highest station and associate socially and professionally only with other male Brahmans. Jois was raised as a traditional Brahman and had never even taught this system to lower-class Indians, much less any foreigners. Jois spoke no English and could only have looked at this crazy American on his doorstep with bewilderment.

Apparently, Norman was not willing to be chased off, because he continued to sit there. Eventually, Jois relented, perhaps disregarding old dogma, or perhaps concluding that this persistent spirit, being American, must be Brahman, and agreed to teach him. Perhaps Jois even thought nostalgically back to the way his teacher, Krishnamacharya, had met his teacher before him -- going off to the mountains in the north to find this yogi of whom he had heard, and then sitting on his doorstep and refusing to eat until the sage agreed to take him on as a student.

Norman Allen was the first foreigner and American to learn astanga yoga from Jois. He went on to become a serious and uncompromising yogi, mastering all four series of the astanga form, spending a number of years in India learning the native Kannada language that Jois spoke so they could communicate, and taking a master's degree in Indian studies from a local university.

The Yoga Korunta

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (Pa-TAH-bi Joyce) is a renowned Sanskrit scholar and yogi in India who came from a prosperous Brahman family in the southern city of Mysore. As a young man, Jois was surrounded by the lingering aroma of the still-plentiful sandalwood trees of southern India, and he was schooled, as are all good Brahman boys, in the ancient texts and scriptures of Indian philosophy. As a college student in the 1930s, his mentor was the renowned Sanskrit scholar and elder yoga teacher Krishnamacharya. Jois was an eager and dedicated yoga student. He spent years studying the rigorous path of a young Brahman priest, and became one of Krishnamacharya's leading students and disciples.

Krishnamacharya spent much time traveling throughout India as an invited guest, giving lectures and demonstrations on yoga. During one such tour, Krishnamacharya supposedly traveled to Calcutta, and while doing research in the archives of the National Library, came across an old manuscript, the Yoga Korunta. The manuscript was bound together, written on some kind of leaves, and as he started going through the crumbling pages, he discovered a lengthy and intricate description of a system of hatha yoga, written in Sanskrit by an ancient seer named Vamana Rishi. You can easily imagine the excitement of this Sanskrit scholar, finding an ancient Sanskrit manuscript with much of the work intact. It would be like a team of archaeologists uncovering a dinosaur with all the bones in place!

Sanskrit is generally regarded in both Eastern and Western thought as the most ancient of any human language and the oldest continuously used language on the planet today (at least as far as it can be determined). Even though Sanskrit is commonly associated with India and its ancient history, there is a common bond between our modern European languages and Sanskrit.

Sanskrit was the precursor of Greek and Latin, and many, many Greek and Latin words have roots in Sanskrit. It is still uncertain, though, as to whether the European languages were actually derived from Sanskrit or whether they go back still further to a common source. For many years European scholars attributed the presence of Sanskrit in India to an 1800 B.C. invasion by seminomadic Aryan tribes from the steppes of southern Russia. These groups were believed to have spoken an archaic form of Sanskrit. However, that theory has recently been challenged by some Eastern scholars and the American Sanskrit scholar David Frawley, who believe that Sanskrit actually originated in ancient India and was in use before 6000 B.C.

The form of Sanskrit that has been used for the past 2,500 years is called classical Sanskrit. According to another American scholar, Vyaas Houston, in his Sanskrit and the Technological Age, the standards and style of classical Sanskrit grammar were set down by ancient grammarians who had the difficult task of organizing and codifying a scientific approach to language. All classical Hindu writings and much of Buddhist and Jain literature are written in Sanskrit, and it has long been a primary language of religious scholars in these traditions.

Thus Krishnamacharya, as a renowned Sanskrit scholar, could easily look over the Yoga Korunta manuscript and estimate the age of the work from the grammatical style. According to his evaluation, the manuscript itself was about 1,500 years old, but the style of the language used derived from an oral tradition predating classical Sanskrit, and possibly going back as far as 5,000 years.

The Yoga Korunta manuscript reportedly consisted of hundreds of stanzas of rhymed, metered sutras, or phrases, much like the Yoga Sutras. A separate stanza dealt with each movement, or individual posture, and explained how to get into the posture, how to get out of it, how many breaths to take in the posture, and the total number of movements required for completion. In addition, there was specific information on the breathing and so-called secret techniques for enhancing performance, concentration, strength, and so forth.

The asanas, (postures) had been known over the years and handed down from teacher to student through a variety of traditions. Each yoga school had its own way of doing the postures, and a recommended grouping. But this was the first time that a manuscript had ever been found explaining in detail not only the postures, but all the connecting movements and the correct order of the postures as well.

According to Pattabhi Jois, Krishnamacharya recited these slokas, or verses, from the Yoga Korunta to him, and he faithfully recorded them. Jois subsequently became the primary proponent of this system from the Yoga Korunta, naming it astanga yoga, as he believed it to be the authentic and original asana practice as intended and known by Patanjali.

The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yug, which means "to yoke or harness." Since 500 B.C., yoga has traditionally referred to the art of "yoking," or hooking up, the lower (or individual) consciousness with the higher (or universal) consciousness. Over the centuries the word yoga has also been used to mean "union," and often refers not only to the union between lower and higher levels of consciousness, but union between mind and body.

Practice of the physical exercises -- the yoga asanas -- is generally referred to as hatha yoga. Hatha commonly means "force" or "forceful," but the word also has a deeper esoteric significance. The two component roots of the word, ha and tha, are often defined as standing for "sun" and "moon." I like to think of yoga as also referring to the union between these two basic energies of the universe -- the solar or contracting energy, and the lunar or expanding energy.

These two forces can also be understood in terms of direction. One moves toward you and one moves away from you. They are the same energies that hold the planets in place and your organs in place. They are also called the male and female energies, the yang and the yin, or the pingala and the ida, as they are named in yoga. You could go on forever citing the two polarities in the universe and their expressions. I call them hard and soft. Simple. One makes you solid, strong, focused, grounded, powerful, effective, and unyielding. The other makes you fluid, gentle, expansive, compassionate, sensitive, spacious, and yielding. We all need them both in varying amounts from moment to moment. It depends on what is appropriate at any given point.

Copyright © 1995 by Beryl Bender Birch


Excerpted from

Power Yoga: The Total Strength and Flexibility Workout
by Beryl Bender Birch
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