Catching the “yoga bug” and grappling with the “first limb” of yoga by Raji Thron

I caught the “yoga bug” early in my life and haven’t been able to shake it! Nor would I want to! I can honestly say I tried every kind of yoga I could find in my early years: practicing Classical Hatha and Kundalini Yoga in my teens, Ashtanga Yoga in my twenties and Iyengar Yoga in my thirtees. Even though the physical practice always had an implied connection to a whole practice including all “the limbs” of yoga, it wasn’t always clear what that meant and how it was to be enacted.

The limbs of yoga, or the “eight Limbs” from the Yoga Sutras, fall into the following categories: ethical living, daily observances, postural practices, breathing practices, relaxation/inward turning, concentration, meditation and absorbtion/enlightened states. My experience in different traditions has helped me immensely in finding a way of being flexible (excuse the pun) with my practice and teaching. It has also allowed me to see the eight limbs from various perspectives and likewise become more flexible in my interpretations of them. But, some limbs don’t leave you much wiggle room.

Take the first limb (ethical principles) in the Yoga Sutras, for example. There are some strong prohibitions set forth in these traditional ethical precepts, called the Yamas. They include: non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), not coveting/not stealing (asteya), sexual abstinence (brahmacharya), and charity (aparigraha). It can be difficult to reconcile the traditional perspective of a yogi who has “renounced the world” with our everyday modern existence. The idea of non-violence is a difficult one to grapple with right from the start! Not to mention, the goal of sexual abstinence can be quite difficult, if you are not a renunciate monk or nun. Many people reinterpret the rule of abstinence to mean appropriate sexual behavior or even make it more vague by saying: “maintaining the right use of your energy”. The other three are a little more straight-forward, but still take real diligence to enact.

Like finding common ground of different yoga traditions, in terms of postural, breath and meditative practices, I have come to understand that working with the ethical principles is both a personal journey and exploration of a universal code of ethics, in which I need to continually reflect on how to be in right relationship with myself and others. What would it mean to be fully non-violent in thought and action? That contemplation brings me face to face with some deep personal, societal and historical realities that are not non-violent at all: a list of violent things humans have done and are still doing comes to mind. This is where the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi or the Dalai Lama and others comes in. Put in the positive, this principle is saying to always think and act with compassion. I’ll leave you with questions that stand as possibly the biggest challenge to me as I contemplate the “first limb” in action: How can I be compassionate even in the face of those who are not? How do I engage in compassionate action in a violent world?

Next time I’ll reflect on the second limb!

"What about those 8 limbs of Yoga?" by Raji Thron

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Yogis of old used the analogy of a horse-drawn chariot to relate the way they thought we ought to align ourselves physically and mentally with our inner wisdom. The disparate parts of ourselves were correlated with the passenger, the driver, the reins and the horses. These parts either work together as a whole or wreak havoc on our lives, as is demonstrated in the following comparison. When the passenger (the higher mind) is awake and clearly resolves to give the driver (the ego) good guidance that is a vital starting point. If the driver (ego) is clear-headed and receptive enough to heed the guidance and skillfully takes control of the reins (the lower mind and emotions) thereby keeping the horses (the senses) in control, then the chariot (the body) can successfully reach the chosen destination. If the passenger is asleep and driver is drunk, then things can get a little crazy. As a contemplation on our lives and psycho-physical reality, the analogy points toward higher intention, inner alignment and a call to skillful action involved in being a yogi in the world.

Like the chariot analogy, the idea of eight limbs gives a holistic view of our relationship to ourselves and the world. In the Yoga Sutras, the path of Yoga is described as having Eight Limbs (Ashtanga), which like the limbs of a tree, grow together and reflect different aspects of our being, from our relationships with others to our inner consciousness. The limbs are often thought of as a progression of principles and practices, a systematic approach to working with our behavior, body and consciousness. The Eight Limbs include moral principles/disciplines (Yama), daily observances (Niyama), postural awareness and practices (Asana), energy awareness and breathing practices (Pranayama), inward-turned consciousness/ withdrawing from the senses (Pratyahara), mental concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana) and enlightened states (Samadhi). The first four, which are sometimes referred to as the “outer” limbs, when they are well cultivated can lead the practitioner to the threshold of the “inner” limbs. At some point, there is a natural reciprocal relationship between the inner and the outer limbs, like the roots and branches of a tree.

Modern Western Yoga practitioners often are only aware of and only practice the third limb and don’t pass through the doorway into inner practices. Practices related to the fourth, fifth and sixth limbs (breathing practice, withdrawing from the world of the senses and concentration) are where deeper personal transformation can begin to take hold. The first two limbs are key concepts for initiating the right view and understanding of life as a Yogi. These are fundamental to how we behave in relation to others and to our mental and physical health. The next two limbs are important for initiating the body and mind as a healthy vehicle. These are also foundational for being able to more easily enter meditation. The final four limbs point out the path to deeper states of focused inner awareness and awakening higher consciousness.

The Eight Limbs formulation, as traditionally interpreted, is a path for the renunciate or monastically-oriented person who is being asked to leave the worldly reality and tune into their deep inner spiritual reality. Interpreting the teaching for the modern “house-holder” yogis sometimes does not make sense because of that. We moderns are caught in a bind of being asked to fulfill ideals of renunciation but still live a worldly life. Patanjali, obviously did not have any modern life issues in mind and apparently wasn’t thinking of family life either! In addition, the exact practices to be done, in each category mentioned above, are not always spelled out very specifically in the Yoga Sutras. Therefore, it is left to the particular teachers, in various yoga lineages, to give the specific instructions for daily living and practice.

Overall, we are given poignant and profound principles or guidelines to follow. Or at least an interesting model to inspire us. We still need to discern clear, specific directives for the full manifestation of them in our lives! How to practice the limbs? That takes us into a lot of interpretation of how yogic principles should be applied in our modern worldly life!

 Maybe that will need to be the next quandary to be explored!

Clearing up confusion around the name and origin of “Ashtanga Yoga” by Raji Thron

Ashtanga (meaning “eight limbs”) is a term commonly used in modern Yoga circles, associated with the yoga philosophy elaborated in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. That means any yoga class that bases its philosophy on the Yoga Sutras could be called “Ashtanga Yoga”. In a sense, that could be the end of the story, but in this case, it’s just the beginning.

The Yoga Sutras are the fundamental yoga scripture that most yoga practitioners refer to even though there are many different scriptures in the wider yoga tradition. Ashtanga, or the “eight limbs”, is a short-hand way of describing the key aspects of the path of yoga, from ethical principles, postural and breathing practices to meditation. What the eight limbs are and how they should be practiced is a whole additional question, which can be addressed separately. But , we are here to see where the confusion is and possibly create clarity.

The name “Ashtanga Yoga” has, confusingly, also been used to refer to the vigorous Hatha Yoga practice method taught by the late Shri Pattabhi Jois of Mysore. Using the name Ashtanga implies a connection to Patanjali’s eight limbs. So, what is the real relationship between Ashtanga of Patanjali and the Ashtanga Yoga method of Pattabhi Jois and by extension what is the origin of the method of Pattabhi Jois’ Yoga Teaching? Is there a discernible line between them or is it a connection in name only?

A line to Patanjali’s Ashtanga would mean either a yoga practitioner is actually practicing all “eight limbs” or that there is a direct lineage connection back to Patanjali, or both. To really practice the eight limbs means that besides practicing a vigorous postural practice, it means also practicing the other seven limbs of Yoga of Patanjali. Exactly how is not always totally explained by Pattabhi Jois or various other teachers for that matter.  A common perspective is that all eight limbs are being practiced within the postural practice itself. This leaves certain limbs like meditation being interpreted as movement meditation. Also, what about the rest of our lives? Many yoga schools say they believe in practicing the eight limbs, or in other words, practicing the yoga philosophy of Patanjali, but again exactly how would be spelled out by each teacher.

The idea of a direct connection to Patanjali turns us to the origin of the “Ashtanga Yoga Method” of Pattabhi Jois. As it turns out, it does not have as clear of an origin story as many of us had been told. The original story was about a lost scripture, the “Yoga Kurunta” that had been found and was the basis of the system. Pattabhi Jois would quote Vamana Rishi, the author of the Yoga Kurunta, saying “Oh Yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa”. But the scripture was nowhere to be found, as Jois said “it was eaten by ants.”

Using the phrase “Ashtanga Vinyasa” becomes helpful to give a distinction between the philosophical principles (Ashtanga) and the Hatha Yoga practice method (Ashtanga Vinyasa). The origin of Ashtanga Vinyasa points back to Pattabhi Jois’ teacher, Krishnamacharya and possibly his teacher in Tibet. The current version of the evolving story seems to be that Krishnamacharya learned the system from his teacher in Tibet. With the origin story continually changing plus aspects of the practice being changed over time, the idea that there is one true “vinyasa system” or direct line back to Patanjali is not clear at all.

All this really means, however, is that all the references to “Ashtanga” are not the absolute definitive formulation that some are seeking and that it is simply a convenient name to indicate a general philosophical perspective. This may seem like bad news, for those who want the set system with hard and fast rules. But it can also be seen as the beauty of real life Yoga transmission at work, leaving the door open for real inquiry into what the eight limbs mean for each practitioner in their encounter with the principles and practice frameworks given by Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois and others. They keep pointing us in the direction of the growth of the limbs of our own Yoga and life.

Next time, I will discuss the “eight limbs” themselves!

"How I got hooked on Creative Adaptive Vinyasa Yoga" by Raji Thron

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One day years ago, I saw a copy of B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. I had never seen anything like it. I was so amazed and inspired that I tried doing the Forearm Balance (Pincha Mayurasana) right in the middle of the living room, flipping over several times in my attempts. Randomly turning through the pages, my friend said, “Let’s see you try this pose.” I would try it and he would critique my form by comparing it to the picture. Of course, my poses were nowhere near what Iyengar was doing. My determination to go deeper was only kindled further as I tried difficult poses and couldn’t achieve them. I continued to take classes from various teachers, but even more importantly, I began practicing regularly and intensely on my own. During high school, I began having deep experiences during and after my yoga practice such as profound stillness and energy moving through me during my meditations and leaving my body during deep relaxation.
At that point, I felt Yoga would be with me for the rest of my life, yet, I had tried all the available forms of Hatha Yoga and still hadn’t found the form that clicked for me. That changed when I met Richard Freeman and began studying Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga with him. I had found Vinyasa and a wonderful teacher. While I enjoyed the athletic nature of Vinyasa, Richard would consistently remind me of the connection to the inner form within Vinyasa Yoga. My Yoga practice accelerated immensely after I started doing a Vinyasa-based practice almost every morning. It humbled me, grounded my practice, and gave me a path to progress along. When Richard invited Pattabhi Jois, the guru of Ashtanga Vinyasa, to teach at his studio, I jumped at the opportunity to practice with him. Shortly afterward, I decided to study Ashtanga in Mysore, India. While in Mysore, I felt my body shifting and opening. My practice became deeper and more powerful than ever before. I experienced the intensity and transformative potential within the Vinyasa system, which was integrative and almost magical in its simplicity. While practicing and especially afterwards, I felt the Vinyasa practice working on many levels at the same time. The outer practice became a vehicle for my inner practice, while the inner practice was given physical expression. Both of these aspects would linger with me as I went through my day.

Because of this experience, I decided to pursue teaching Yoga fully. After many hours of practice, workshops, teacher trainings and thousand of hours of teaching later, I still feel the same exhilaration that I felt from the beginning. I have had to learn to adjust and change with age and circumstances, but have continued to enjoy my practice and it has helped to enjoy my life. I have learned to adapt my Yoga to my life and my life to my Yoga! A consistent Vinyasa Yoga practice can have a profound impact physically, mentally and spiritually. When it is done with awareness of inner and outer form; a full body, breath and spirit integration, the effect can be far reaching. Not only is it beneficial for physical advancement and maintenance, but also for deep inner growth and realization.

After years of practicing and teaching both pure Ashtanga Vinyasa and a more adaptive Vinyasa practice, I have come to the conclusion that the adaptive approach to Vinyasa Yoga has much more creative potential for engaging a practitioner and meeting them where they are. Vinyasa Yoga can take many forms, depending on one’s emphasis, aspiration and intention. The underlying legacy of Krishnamacharya, the father of modern Vinyasa Yoga, is that he pointed us in the direction of an integrative and flexible methodology for a dynamic, breath-based practice. A creative Vinyasa form can integrate elements from a number of Yoga traditions and styles, which makes it quite versatile. Creativity in a Yoga practice needs to be continually balanced with the fundamental practicality of good progressions, alignment and inner intentionality. The outer forms can shift around to some degree, but ultimately we have to keep circling back to certain common core elements. Through synthesizing various forms, the essence of the practice can be revealed! The essence of Vinyasa Yoga arises intuitively from the conscious integration of intelligent practice forms."