Forms and Principles
Hello ashtangis :) I'd like to share my thoughts about the form of yoga practice, specifically about strictness of form and growing out of it.
Most yoga methods, including ashtanga yoga, are taught through well and clearly defined forms and sequences. This is true in both external (asana, hatha, astanga) and internal (meditative, tantric) yogas. A well defined form gives beginners a foundation to learn about and to rely on. For this reason, for beginners, strict forms are very useful. In asana practice, one not only strengthens the body and makes it more flexible, but also the defined sequence makes it easier to feel the body and be mindful of its various sensations. What is also very important aspect of form-based practice is learning the structure and connectedness of the body, both in stillness and in movement. So for beginners, there's a lot to learn through the form. This is both a very joyful process of learning about oneself, as well as internally empowering.
There comes a point however when the strict form has delivered the benefits and turns into a barrier. This stage comes after perhaps a few years of intensive practice. One begins to feel bound by the strict form and intuits that it would feel better to change the postures, movements or mix the sequence to make it new somehow and to keep it fresh. Following a strict form, doing the same form over and over, no longer feels right.
It is at this point when one comes to ask oneself what have I learned from my foundational practice. Have I learned enough about my body and do I understand asana practice well enough to be able to trust my intuition of letting it begin to grow on its own? Wondering about these questions might take a while, perhaps another few years. Hopefully one can share these thoughts with likeminded practitioners and senior teachers who are able to support the direction one's practice is taking. Sometimes, unfortunately, these kinds of contemplations, when shared with others are met with doubt or even negative emotions. The reason for that may be that the doubters haven't yet reached the same point of wanting to break out of the confinements of the form, or the strict form is believed to be so important or even holy that it shouldn't be changed and should be followed to the letter.
It is here that we come to a very important point about internal, nondualistic awakening, which yoga practice is all about(!), as defined in the Ten Fetters in buddhism. The meaning of the word fetter here means a sense of me-ness that binds the mind and makes it miserable. The third fetter is seeing through the attachment to strict forms of rites and rituals, or in the context of ashtanga yoga for example, the asana sequence. This doesn't mean to replace attachment with detachment but to see through the sense of me-ness or self that sticks to strict forms and thinks that they are special. Feeling special is always a problem in yoga because it directly shows there being a small ”me” or ”I” in the play. Believing in strict form without questioning is what is common to all religions, isn't it? The most essential point of any yoga practice is to look and investigate one's self-based beliefs (citta vritti) to at one point reach a state that is entirely without them (nirodha). This internal contemplation and process of inquiry should be part of asana practice as well, because without it there is little hope for other progress than physical. So, one way to support the growing out of strict form is to think what this dropping off of the belief of rites and rituals means.
A different way to support this stage is to understand that no form can ever cover or include everything, even if we wanted so. If we think about this in terms of physical movement, for example the range of movement of the arm from the shoulder, the arm moves full circle of 360 degrees in vertical direction and simultaneously, depending on one's flexibility, a varying degree also horizontally. Now, if we only move the arm in one or two ways, it literally leaves endless amount of other angles unused and therefore the range of movement and exercise becomes limited by the form. Then if we consider that the whole body is made of joint after the joint after joint, connected by a vast number of bones, muscles and tendons, we come to realise that one or two types of movements cannot possible cover the endless variety that the body could move.
In the context of pranayama and tantric yoga, this point becomes very clear when comparing focusing on just a few channels, (usually left, center and right) and all of them, which number up to hundreds of thousands. It is good to begin with few channels but few channels cannot possible cover hundreds of thousands of them, so similarly, the beginning form must and should be broken at some point so that one may keep learning and growing in knowledge. This is the reason why I teach ”masterclasses”. They are meant to help the students understand the principles behind the form. Once the practitioners understand the underlying principles, it is profoundly empowering to start practicing from the principles, rather than repeat the forms.
I'll end this short text by encouraging people to be brave and to
follow one's gut. If and when we understand the basics, we can be
confident of following our internal voice.
I wish you a great day of practice,