Updated: Feb 9
From Patanjali to Virabhadrasana (Content from Chapter 2 of my 'Ashtanga Journeys' Workshops)
In this workshop I wanted to introduce students to the history and origins of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, to give an understanding of the tradition and authenticity that sits behind this great practise... from the physical practise itself, to the act of chanting, the meaning behind the words and the symbolism and devotional aspects that we often overlook. We answered questions such as where did it come from? When? Who made it possible? Why is it so popular and universal? We also explored the physical roots of the practise within the body, the seat of the base chakra earthing us through our legs and stabilising us through Mula Bandha. I wanted students to understand how Hatha yoga aims to reverse the top heavy bodies we are accustomed to, and to do this we must begin at the feet. Answering questions like How do you find Mula Bandha? What actually is it? Do you use the legs enough? We examined postures and movements where students commonly cheat or sink or simply don’t pay enough attention to their roots!
Meaning of Ashtanga
Sources and Texts
Sri Pattabhi Jois
The Spiritual Revolution
Roots in Surya Namaskar & Standing Poses
Yoga began with ancient teachings found in the Upanisads and the Vedas, passed on predominantly through memory, recitation, sound and chanting. Patanjali, said to be a great sage, although we don’t even know if he was real, or one person or many, is said to have accumulated the teachings into a book of Sutras, or short sentences which become widely debated, philosophised and understood across the globe.
According to legend, Patanjali was born self realised when an aged yogi named Gonika prayed to the Sun God for a son to whom impart her wisdom, it is said that as she offered a handful of water a tiny snake fell into it from the sky who then took human form. Pata- fallen Anjali- prayer hands.
It is worth noting that only a few of the Sutras apply to actual physical yoga, some say only 1, Patanjali’s yoga describes an Eight Limbed Path to the state of Yoga or enlightenment which is Ashtanga , Astau- eight, Anga- limb. I have heard it said that Pattabhi Jois cleverly stole this name for his own yoga method, there are also those who believe he designed it to discipline young boys, but if we delve into the history of the lineage and it's sources of information it is clear that we are talking about a method based upon something much older, however it is difficult to decipher and often surrounded in myth.
SOURCES AND TEXTS
It is believed that in the mid 1920’s in a library in Calcutta, Krishnamacharaya and his student Pattabhi Jois came across the ancient yogic text the Yoga Korunta. It was said to be written on leaves, and in a bad state, it depicted a sequence of yoga postures. Krishnamacharaya deciphered the information and salvaged the method from being lost, what is fascinating is that with these leaves it is said was bound a copy of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We can only assume that this yoga practise was designed to fully incorporate the eight limbs of Ashtanga. Being a practitioner of the system I experience this each time I practise as through the intense focus on breath through the sequence we learn to take control and quieten not only our bodies, but our mind and it's chitta vritti to move into the inner higher realms of meditation and absorption.
The Hatha Yoga Project, a study by the SOAS University of London reveals that important founders of modern yoga like Krishnamacharya, almost certainly drew upon lesser known eighteenth and nineteenth century texts such as the Caurasi Aasan, the Hathabhyasapaddhati, the Sritattvanidhi and the Yoga Rahasya. It is doubted by many whether the latter ever even existed.
This is important as we see that in all previous known sources, yoga had had emphasis on holding positions/ asanas and performing pranayama and mudra. Over and over poses like Siddhasana, Padmasana, Gomukhasana are depicted in imagery. Yoga was concerned with the spiritual body, internal cleansing and unususal physical control. There was no instruction of linking poses or even, as many poses as we have nowadays. The vinyasa element or linking of postures so crucial to the Ashtanga Vinyasa method seems to have originated from the above sources along with the Yoga Korunta. The Sritattvanidhi, 'The Illustrious treasure of realities' written by a Mysore Prince Krishnaraja Wodeyar is especially interesting as it depicts intense, almost gymnastic like asanas.
'The Sritattvanidhi depicts dozens of poses that are depicted in 'Light on Yoga' and practised as part of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Series but that don't show up in other texts...including handstands, backbends, leg behind head poses, lotus variations , rope exercise and danda push-ups'.
-Anne Cushman for the Yoga Journal.
Nor did the ancient texts have as a many asanas, as we have said, before the yoga was concerned with seated postures for practising the locks and breathing techniques. For Krishnamacharya to create a method that had its bases on linking a huge amount of postures with vinyasa was innovative and daring.
"It seems logical to assume the form we find in the Series of asanas of Pattabhi Jois was developed during Krishnamacharya's period of teaching, it was not an inherited format"
-Norman Sjoman, Sanskrit scholar and yoga practitioner.
Therefore I conclude that it is clear to me that the system we now know as the current Series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was not invented by one person, nor directly copied from an ancient text, but it is a culmination of many sources of knowledge and experience brought together by Krishnamacharya and made popular and refined by Pattabhi Jois. A practise designed to be authentic to the goal of reaching the state of yoga, effective at purifying the body, mind and subtle energy and essentially accessible to everyone. The two great yogis who pioneered this style greatly believed the truth that each student must be taught according to his or her individual capacity, this is probably what made the teachings transcend age, gender, religion, background, sickness etc and made it so universal today.
(Mimamsa-tirtha Vedanta-vagisa Samkhya-yoga-siromani Sri Tirumali Krishnamacharya)
"I was overawed by the smoothness, flow and fullness of his breathing… I was reminded of a tale I would read when I was young, the Ramayana, where Anjaneya would prepare himself to leap across the Indian Ocean in search of Rama’s wife Sita… To make that giant leap he would go up a hill and breathe deeply, expand his chest like an ocean and control the breath in his chest, that image came to mind looking at this extraordinary yogi."
-Ramaswami Srivatsa, student of Krishnamacharya.
See footage of his practise here-
We can consider this man as the single most important man of modern day yoga. He who resurrected the ancient method of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and shaped it towards the system we know today, bringing it into the context of the modern day society whilst still being deeply rooted in the traditional texts and teachings. He believed that Yoga was India's greatest and most powerful gift to the world and all of it's people and made it his life's work to understand and research every element of it and make it available to those who needed it whatever their station or situation.
Born into a well respected yogic family with a lineage that could be traced back 1000 years to the great saint Nathamuni, he began studying yoga at home at the age of 5. It is said that we accumulate the knowledge and wisdom and of our ancestors and so he was in a blessed place to fulfill his calling towards the study of Yoga. The Bhagavad Gita states that,
'the reward is to be born again in the house of good and the great. But the greatest blessing of all is to be reborn into a family of Yogis, where the wisdom of Yoga shines; but to be born into such a family is a rare event in this world.'
When he was 10 his father passed away and he was taken under the wing of his grandfather in Mysore, who was one of India’s most important and learned spiritual leaders. His studies went on to include asana ( he mastered around 3000!) pranayama, healing, Sanskrit grammar, Vedanta Philosophy, Tarka, Samkhya, Mantra recitation, Patanjali’s Sutras, Yogic texts, Ayurvedic medicine, Vedic Astrology, music and 16 languages of India and Tibet.
In 1903 it is said that he met with an incarnation of the 1200 year old saint Nathamuni, who channelled to him the holy text Yoga Rahasya. Below is an account of this in his own words, provided by his son TKV Desikachar in his book 'Yoga and the living tradition of Krishnamacharya'
'When I was five years old, my father initiated me into the practise of yoga. He indicated that our family originated from Nathamuni, the yogi who received teaching from Nammazvar, I decided to visit this birthplace... I arrived at the temple exhausted. There was an old man sitting near the entrance. I asked him where to find Nathamuni. Smilingly, he pointed his fingers and said "Go to the mango grove; there he will be sitting with his disciples." With great excitement I crossed the river Tamramparni, I felt quite tired and collapsed. Suddenly, I found myself in a mango grove in the presence of three sages, I prostrated and requested them to instruct me in the Yoga Rahasya . They nodded their heads. The sage seated in the corner began reciting the verses. He had such a musical voice.
After a few hours, I woke up and looked around. There was no mango grove, no sages either. I was sitting in front of the entrance to the temple. The old man was still there. He asked me "Did you receive the instructions to the Yoga Rahasya ? Go inside and offer your prayers to Nammazvar! What a coincidence- he looked exactly like the sage who was seated in the grove. I knew, then, that the elderly Brahmin I had met was none other than Nathamuni himself.'
Of course, the teachings of this text are only recorded within Krishnamacharya's memory. The teachings wove together asana, paranayama, mantra and sound and contained detailed information of the nature, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. It is noticed interestingly that the Headstand and Shoulderstand, as we respect now as being very important asanas for their powerful health benefits ONLY first appear in yoga history with this text. Also, this could be where his unusual method of using a huge number of asana joined by vinyasa came about, as we see it nowhere else in the texts up to this point.
In 1911 he walked to the Himalayas to seek out a living guru said to have the upmost knowledge, Yogisvara Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari of Mukti Narayana Kshotra Nepal. He spent seven and a half years learning asana, pranayama, health benefits and how to use them to heal. As payment his guru asked that he continue to teach and that he start a family. He was given the sandals of this guru as a parting gift.
Upon leaving he completed his studies and obtained the equivalent to 7 PHDs in record time, but what put him on the map as an important man was when he healed and became friends with the Maharaja in Varanasi, who appointed him yoga teacher and healer at the Royal Palace. From this position he gained respect from scholars and all types of people, he cured many, opened a yoga school and continued to live a simple and very humble life,, his only mission was to serve and he expected no rewards. I read somewhere that he only accepted fruit and vegetables as gifts or money to fund the travel or schooling.
Krishnamacharya was highly regarded for his ability to heal and for his psychic powers. He was known for being able to adapt the yoga practise to the individual body and specific needs (Words we also hear said of one of his most well known students Pattabhi Jois.
Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois
Pattabhi Jois was a true great, a master yogi, a learned and religious man, he was said to be both supremely powerful and kind among his students, family and society. He was the grandfather of modern day Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, and is responsible for the spreading of yoga from India across the globe.
Born under a full moon into a large family close to Mysore, he was the fifth child of a Brahmin priest.. From very young he was learning Sanskrit, astrology, mantras, slokas and Brahmin rituals as well as his studies at school. At the age of twelve he met Krishnamacharya when he saw the great yogi giving a demonstration, he was instantly amazed and wanted to learn the yoga. Krishnamacharya accepted him as a student and for the following two years he practised daily until his guru moved away. Yoga at the time was perceived as something on the margins of society and was not really an acceptable past time for a young boy, yoga was for sadhus and the very sick people, and so he woke early each morning and walked five km each day to practise in secret before school.
In 1930 he met again with his guru and this time they would work together until 1953 when Krishnamacharya again moved on. He learnt a precise and exact vinyasa system of yoga and also yogic theory, ancient texts and the healing effects of the practise.
He graduated University in Vedanta Yoga and was teaching yoga and Sanskrit for many years. He eventually decided to devote himself solely to the teaching of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga from his home, with space for only twelve mats.
In 1962 he published Yoga Mala. In 1964 the first Western students started to find their way to him. A book published by Andre Van Lysebeth, a visit to Sao Paolo and then to California catapulted Ashtanga Vinyasa to the West and to many people who were in dire need of fulfilment, purpose, direction and spirituality in life. It is clear that Pattabhi Jois knew that this teaching was universal and could greatly benefit humanity, it was his mission and his students helped him greatly, they helped him by accompanying him on long trips, hosting him and helping with logistics, administration and finances.
Guruji taught from 1937 to 2009 which is just incredible, he devoted his entire life to the study and sharing of Yoga. It is said that he accepted every student who came to him, and each felt that they had a very special relationship with him, he became like a father or a friend to most even though most only knew him through the practise. He gave hope and love to thousands of individuals and seemed to know intuitively what it was that each individual needed, he seemed to know their reasons, fears, character even before they knew themselves. The more I learn about this man the more clear it seems to me that he was working people on a deep psychological level, he was reshaping the spirits of his students, he was bringing them home, leading them to light and to God. He said God was everywhere, in everything, his faith and devotion was without doubt and this meant he had always an immense sense of purpose and joy, everything was exactly as it should be. Guruji spoke a lot about God, advised students to pray, to trust, to just ‘do the practise and all is coming’ .
I would love it if you made time to watch this very special video that captures the love and dedication as well as the deep spiritual seeking of this practise that Guruji so firmly believed in.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa system was taught to many family members including his eldest son Manjus Jois who is the most senior Ashtanga teacher in the world and continues to teach from America, his daughter Saraswati and his grandson Sharath who now leads the community from the renamed Sharath Yoga Centre in Mysore.
THE SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION
If the teachings of yoga have been around for thousands of years why did they only become so popular in the last century?
We must remember that when yoga became popular in the 1970s there was much crisis in the world. Religion and State powers had lost the faith of the populations, there had been war and political crisis, people were doubting the ethics of those in power and were upset at the state of the world. The young population rose up spreading the message of unity ,love, peace and freedom. Unconventional rebellion was cool, we see an era full of adventure, free love, psychedelia and rock and roll. These were harmless thrill seekers empty and thirsty for a sense of spirituality. Celebrities and rich young people who could afford to travel started to travel across the world, and India became like a Mecca, here was a place full of devotion, philosophy and spirituality, the Hindu religion did not discriminate or fear monger and must have seemed blissful for those needing to fill up their soul. Here love was celebrated within religion, and yoga was just a branch of this. Celebrities started to make yogis famous and the Beatles are making music about the message of yoga. Free love, India and Spirituality was in fashion! I am sure you can all imagine the iconic images of Woodstock. I fondly remember hearing Manjus talk about his father teaching in America when he first went and how all the students were very relaxed and happy, it was only after he was invited into their homes he realised that almost everyone was smoking weed and became quite concerned!
Many individuals had lost their sense of purpose or identity, and here was this yoga that could seemingly heal all of this, it could give them back their belief in themselves and the world. Don’t get me wrong, many students began to practise just because they thought it looked really cool! Others were lacking direction, others wanted fitness, a distraction, a fix for an illness or mental problem, others were actively seeking spirituality, whatever the reason Guruji accepted them all. As they made there way to him one by one he would smile and say 'Yes, tomorrow morning you come' and they would be asked to pay upfront for a minimum of three months study. He healed them all individually and almost no one, once the path of yoga has began ever leaves it, many went on to become the great teachers that we have today. Whatever the original reason or expectation they arrived with, Guruji enabled them to unveil their true nature and become closer to that which is in all of us and everything, God. God was a difficult subject for many Westerners to grasp, however the state of oneness that is Yoga is undeniable.
Pattabhi Jois could be thought of as a missionary, offering a way to help the Western society in a very precarious time much like Paramahamsa Yogananada in the previous century. When Guruji passed it was a devastating loss to all of those who's lives he had touched or most likely, changed forever, I remember David Swenson spoke about this once and said that it was like a huge tree in the had come down and now there was this great hole in the canopy, space his students would fill as they grow and mature into learned teachers themselves.
Have you ever wondered why we begin in Samastitih? Why we chant or put our hands in prayer or begin with Surya Namaskar? Well, there has to be a beginning right? Let’s talk about the roots behind the opening ‘ceremony’. For one, having an opening ceremony helps us to transition from what we were doing before into the practise, it centres us, brings us to the present moment and I also feel that it binds us to the tradition and the thousands of others who also practise each day around the world. It makes it important. I sometimes feel as though I have practised the Eight Limbs even before I have begun Surya Namsakar!
Let's first look at the act of chanting the mantra, or Opening Prayer. First of all there is the simple act of singing or chanting, a very innocent and simple practise. We sing when we are happy, we rarely sing together or on purpose these days, perhaps we did as children, it seems perhaps silly or naive. When in fact the act of chanting together is a wonderful way to dissolve the self, to peel back the layers of your identity and get right back to your heart and your soul. Chanting does not care how good your voice is or who you are, it is simply pure sound, universal. This is why chanting and Kirtan is very positive for those with low confidence or self esteem.
Then there is the song itself, or the prayer, once learned the words flow from us without effort, and for a while it may seem like a meditation or a breath exercise. The ritual of chanting always the same words at the same time in the same place brings deep tradition and respect which is humbling
The words themselves. How often do you sing a song you know by heart and never think of what the words mean??? It is surprising that sometimes the sound or rhythm can put us into a seeming trance, but let’s look at the great meaning behind the opening prayer.
Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde
I bow at the lotus feet of the guru
Bowing down is a great act of humility, of respect, of letting go of your self importance and honouring a greater being or power. The lotus feet are said to contain much of the wisdom of the guru, it is not uncommon for students to take the dust from the guru’s feet and spread it across the eyelids, or in exceptional cases be gifted the sandals of their guru as a symbol of this knowledge.
Awakening the happiness of the Self revealed
Here it is good to recall that Guru means to bring darkness to light, as the yoga unveils the true self it strips away the identity, the ego and suffering revealing bliss, peace and joy.
The ultimate refuge, the jungle doctor
Samsara halahala mohashantyai
To pacify delusion from the poison of existence
Perhaps here we can say that here we have a mighty source of healing to cure us from the halala or poison, which reminds us of the deliver us from evil of the Christian Lord’s Prayer. To free us from the confines of our minds and society, from Samsara, the conditioned existence where we are whirled around and around and go endlessly from life to death. Mohasantyai is the peaceful resolution of delusion.
They are the few among multitudes
Who bears a conch, a discus and a sword
These are the three weapons said to restrain the citta vrittis, the fluctuations of the mind, remove obstacles and eradicate afflictions. The conch calls us to lead a noble and pure life and to seek the self, it also alerts us to be ready to face the practise. The disc is used to destroy evil actions and protect against wrong. Krishna used it on the battlefield to remove the unenlightened heads of demons. The sword destroys spiritual ignorance, arrogance or pride that covers the pure being.
Sahasra sirasam svetam
A brilliant luminous man with a thousand snake heads
This could be reference to great knowledge or the great divine serpent Ananata, it could also be a reference to Patanjali who as we learned was said to have fallen from the sky in half man, half snake form. Or it could be a reference to Ananta the great snake God, said to support Lord Vishnu as he floated upon the cosmic ocean, and Brahma was born of his navel.
I bow to Patanjali
Even the simple act of bringing the hands together in prayer, or Anjali Mudra is a symbol of recognising the universal soul, the five fingers are said to represent the five layers or koshas of the body, annamaya- physical, paranamaya- physiological, manomaya- psychological, vijnanamaya- intellectual and anandamaya- bliss.
So where does the chant come from? The first part comes from the ‘Yoga Taravalli’ written by Adi Sankara, the yogic lineage that Pattabhi Jois worshipped, and is said to be one of Krishnamacharya’s favorites. The second part comes from the Patanjali Invocation. ‘However, some traditional books mention that abahu purusakaram was written by King Bhojadeva in 1, 100 AD, author of Rajamartanda Vrtti a commentary on the Yoga Sutras.’- Geeta Iyengar
It is worth knowing that although Pattabhi Jois performed Puja prayer and rituals each morning it was only when the Western students started to ask about the prayer that he taught it to them. He understood their misconception of God or their lack of understanding and his way of teaching them the way to God was through the practise, for him it the practise itself was the ultimate teacher, the way to reach the state of yoga that was undeniable, that would work for every one of us if we only kept at it with dedication. It is commonly known that he used to say the only person for whom it will not work is the lazy one!
And we do all of this standing tall at the top of our mat. How easy is it to ‘stand even’ at the beginning of practise?! Finding perfect steadiness and balance standing still on two feet is difficult, for most of us we rarely are asked to stand and not fidget for a given amount of time. All of the imbalance and posture flaws become oh so apparent, and there we are presenting ourselves, standing tall and open and exposed in all of our imperfections. We seek our centre and ways to root and ground us and protect that centre. We begin to take control of the body through shape- shifting breath and bandha, we start to find our upward and downwards energies to become light and even, and this begins at the feet. (Note how we finish in Sirsasana, there are many similarities to be found as again we are stacked upon our central axis, but are now ready to invert the whole body.)
The first thing I teach new students is how to use the ground effectively, the first lessons learned are about finding the rebound from the floor to send energy and support into the body to create the upward feeling, or not sinking. It is easy to forget our feet and groundwork when we start to do exciting poses and flows!
Muladhara Chakra is the first chakra, or energy centre, the base, the foundation and where we must begin not only to enter the energetic body but the physical body. It is also said to be the place of Brahma Granthi, one of three metaphysical doorways that we must unblock to send the awakening energy of Kundalini upwards. But for now she sleeps with her tail in her mouth at this doorway.
I think of the chakras as energy centres or power points, each with their own circuit in the body that include organs and endocrine glands. The Muladhara centre is at the tailbone but the circuit includes the pelvis, base of the spine, the legs and feet.
Muladhara can be thought of as the Earth element of the body, it is a solid and stable energy and within Hindu Mythology and yogic texts it is linked to the colour red, the animal the elephant, the sense of smell, it is primal and simple and is related to survival, sustenance, food, basic needs. The body is often likened to a plant or the elements in yogic texts, from feet to head we are earth, water, fire, air and ether/ space. Muladhara resides like a root ball or kanda, in the dark, unseen, beneath the surface, full of potency and energy waiting to be released upwards.
In our Ashtanga Practise it is important that we learn to steady our feet, legs and pelvic floor so that we can stack and create our poses effectively on top. I encourage students to always build there poses or transitions from the ground upwards, much like a building must have a precise and stable foundation. It is ok to check your feet out in practise! knowing that the angle of a foot can and will change the angle of the knee, and most importantly the hip, which is the steering wheel of the spine, if the spine is positioned incorrectly or stuck we cannot achieve the benefit of the pose. It is all about the spine!
'The downward action of apana should be directed upward... moola bandha brings about the union of prana and apana... the kundalini enters the brahma nadi (inner susumna nadi) in the same way that a snake enters a hole. The yogi should practise moola bandha daily.'
I like to think of the Mula Bandha and the Muladhara Chakra as counterparts. Both lie dormant below, very close to each other, one physical one metaphysical. Upon activation and connection to each other the energies of the body begin to soar upwards through the the bandha and energetic centres . We know Muladhara brings connection from the earth to the pelvic region, now think of Mula Bandha as the power to send that energy upwards to Uddiyana Bandha, the lower abdominal bandha, and Manipura chakra. In our physical practise this effectively connects the two halves of the body to undo the top heavy feeling and bring ultimate control, power and grace.
Mula Bandha is very difficult to come into contact with initially. As you try to gain awareness of it and then to voluntarily activate it it is often unclear what exactly, if anything, is happening! It is to be expected as in our daily lives we never consciously voluntarily take control over these pelvic floor muscles, the body does it for us, far example when using the bathroom , having sex, or giving birth. In this workshop we simply performed short exercises with exhalation to see if we could sense or connect with a contraction in the area of the pelvic floor, in men the contraction can be felt in the perineum, in the women it is more in the cervix area, a slight upward pull. You know if you did it if you can then release it! With practise and constant effort it becomes learned and second nature I promise! If you are seeking Mula Bandha do not give up, keep doing it all of the time, keep reminding yourself as you enter a pose and exhale to look for it, what is gross will become subtle. In many poses you are in fact gazing towards it if you have the nose or navel drishti which is another nice reminder.
I will be writing a blog soon on my fascinating study of both Muladhara and Mula Bandha soon!
SURYA NAMASKAR & STANDING POSES
I wanted to be sure that the students were really using the full power of the feet, legs and pelvic floor so I had them perform moves from Surya Namaskar more slowly than usual and with props.
In simply raising the arms to Urdhva Hastasana from Samastitih are you backbending to get the arms up or can you resist by pressing the front ribs in? This takes a lot of rooting in the region of the pelvic floor and thighs as the students found out!
Then to fold in Uttanasana I demonstrated how if we simply move our hips backwards to compensate for the body going forwards we can cheat by getting to the floor without engaging the legs, and so we practised folding slowly, backed against a wall or a partner to truly resist the fold with the leg power! Legs should resist strongly and stamp down so that they are engaged when you arrive to the expose, legs should feel like they travel up as the body moves down, harnessing opposition forces. We also practised this with Prasarita Paddottanasas, the wide legged folds. Students really reached lower through the spine as they activated the legs more to send energy up to elevate the sacrum. Important to to align seat bones over heels and to resist the knee bend.
I most often see students disengaging the legs in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Upward Dog Pose. I wanted to highlight this as this really makes the pose very heavy in the lower back and can cause undue injury or stress. I had students squeeze a block between the legs in Downward Dog and then walk the hands forward to Plank, lower through Chaturanga and come into the pose. We repeated this with the block at the inner thighs, knees and then ankles! It was great to see students feel the difference in the body when the legs are aligned to their optimal strength position, not losing the engagement in the inner leg or the ankles. The legs should be as strong and even in Upward Dog as they are in Downward Dog, in each pose you are aiming to use all four sides of the leg, just because you aren’t looking at them doesn’t mean you can't turn around and check! I encourage you to do this every time until it becomes natural to begin your backbend from your feet. You will thank me when you came to practise even more challenging backbends!
We also looked at the marvellous grounding transitions found in Surya Namsakar B. The first is moving from a good Utkatasana full of earthy Muladhara and Mula Bandha down into Uttanasana. Here we have the legs and hips all working together and pressing inwards, we feel our heels, our tailbone and bandha deeply, it is a great position to find your root chakra feeling.
Then we practised moving from Downward Dog to Virabhadrasana 1, Warrior 1. Downward Dog is another amazing position to feel rooted, as here we are equally earthed through both hands and feet, are pointing downwards and even gazing towards the bandha space! Many students lack the flexibility and therefore the grace and control to step forwards and rise up and in class there is never time to practise this, even doing all of this on one breath is a colossal task if we do not yet have the stamina or breath control. I sometimes teach this move in three breaths (apparently John Scott did this for years as he thought that was how it was and Gurui never said a thing!) We raised our hands onto blocks to make the stepping forward element easier, then I wanted the students to truly be aware of how and when they moved the weight from their hands to their feet. I wanted them to become aware of the deep rooting that is needed as we anchor into our feet and legs all the way up to the pelvic floor BEFORE raising the body and then BEFORE raising the arms and eyes upwards. A good place to remember that we don't not lead with our arms or legs but rather our centre, our pelvic floor, our hips, and to do that we must begin with sturdy, precise feet ! The students really felt the power of the stance and it's great to see them stacking before building the mighty Warrior to its fullest height.
A nice way to get a more rooted feeling in standing poses is to enter them from the earth instead of the air, for example build Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana or Parsvottanasana from a hands down position to grow from the earth upwards instead of controlling the sink into gravity, it feels quite different in the legs!
To illustrate the importance of all of this within the context of the Ashtanga Series of yoga I had the students work the mechanics in the legs as if to do a Drop-Back, technically this is the last standing pose of the Primary Series, a show of how strong our 'roots' have become and how we have mastered them!
Thank you so much for reading!
I hope you will check out my future blog about the elusive and powerful Mula Bandha!
Yoga Mala, Sri Pattabhi Jois
Astanga Yoga Anusthana, R. Sharath Jois
Ashtanga Yoga, Petri Raisanen
Guruji, Guy Donahaye and Eddie Stern
The Subtle Body, Tias Little
The Serpent Power, Sir John Woodroffe
Sat Cakra Nirupana, Bhagavadgitausa.com
Ashtanga Yoga, Richard Pilnick
Moola Bandha, The Master Key, Swami Buddhananda
SOAS Hatha Yoga Project