More than half a year has gone by since my last blog. At that time, Germany was still in the middle of a lockdown. Due to my online teaching, I did not have more time available than “normally” (i.e., before Corona). Somehow, though, I must have imagined that I would have more time. Thus, I created one creative idea after the other. I moved my Sanskrit teaching online with innovative PowerPoint tools for repetition, started a section on the yoga sūtra on my website, and reactivated two languages that I had not spoken for twenty years. In addition, we had a significant renovation effort after our basement flooded in August 2020 (still not quite finished), two hernia operations – and since May, I have started again to teach onsite. All this contributed to the “blog-down”.
Since I am resuming the regular blogs, I intend to stay diverse: from remarks on āsana practice and yoga practice, yoga philosophy, Sanskrit to energy and constellation work, and from general comments to spiritual questions. In addition, I also intend to continue with book reviews whenever a worthwhile book comes my way.
The restart after the end of the blog-down shall deal with a very concrete – and quite controversial – subject:
What is the “right “way to do a certain āsana?
The topic at hand was proposed by Katja, an Ashtangi who has been living in Istanbul for approximately two years. So, with Katja’s consent and Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V, let me quote from her email from early March (she wrote in German – all mistakes in the translation into English are entirely my responsibility, Katja’s English is a lot better than mine):
“Yesterday, the conversation in one of the Ashtanga Facebook groups got really heated. The issue was a demonstration video. It showed different versions of upward facing dog, with the comment “No, not like this”. The corrections made the āsana look more esthetical, but a number of the “experienced “ashtangis (some of whom were probably teachers) warned that this cute “correct” execution of the āsana would only be possible for someone with hypermobile shoulders. This resulted in the desperate question of how the āsana should really be performed. What is correct? [My (Katja’s)answer was: the version allowing you the work/effect of the āsana, without causing an injury.)
I think that at a time during which access to teachers is limited, and during which some people are learning by watching one or the other video on the Internet, it might maybe be helpful to blog about “right” or “wrong” in Ashtanga. This question is in any case a constant point of controversy. On the one hand, a lot is “regulated” in Ashtanga. On the other hand, there are many possibilities of modifications and so on. And how a certain āsana will look with each individuum is also a topic in its own right. “
Ok, what is the “correct form” for a certain āsana?
The answer to this question is that there is no easy answer.
The only clear point that I can make after (only) 10 years of teaching: there is no one “ideal” form, even if we would love it to be this way. Forget “right “or “wrong” in this sense. With maybe one exception: if it hurts, it is “wrong”, no matter what others are saying, at least it is “wrong” for you.
(Side remark: I believe that it is easier to draw the line between some “funny” feeling when a muscle stretches and actual pain than some people claim who promote “opening pain” as something positive. In my experience, pain is always a warning sign. At least for myself, an injury will usually follow if I do not listen to such a signal.)
Already early on, Manju Jois, the eldest son of the founder of Aṣṭāṅga Vinyasa Yoga, destroyed my hope for an ideal “correct form “of an āsana. In 2011, at my first teacher training with him, I asked him: “Manju, what is the correct position of the back foot in the extended triangle pose? “. He smiled at me and said: “Very easy: in such a way that the person does not fall out of the pose. ”
So there is no simple, dogmatic answer, but an individual one. Today, I would say from experience that it is often helpful in triangle pose to have the back foot at 90 degrees in relation to the front foot and have both heels on one line parallel to the side of the mat. This allows working on the outward rotation of the back heel. This is often true, but not always. Amongst many factors, it depends upon the position of the hip socket, the condition of the knee, and overall flexibility.
Generally speaking, it is an art to find the form of the āsana that results in the most positive effect for you as a practitioner in your current physical condition, without harm or destabilization.
It is an art for you as a practitioner and an art for the teacher.
It requires a lot of time to develop the required sensitivity for your body: a lot of time, experience, and mindfulness.
It is actually much harder than one believes.
When do you remain in your comfort zone and thus avoid a positive development? Or to quote David Garrigues: “We are all artful dodgers!” And when do you overdo it, resulting in the risk of injury, immediately or over the years, thus hurting your body more than nurturing it, due to an overambitious practice?
And as a student, being supported by a teacher: when is an adjustment – physical or verbal – beneficial, and when is it the opposite? Do you listen to your body – or do you hand over responsibility for your body to the teacher? Are you courageous enough to say “stop” or “not today, please”?
In the beginning, an experienced teacher and the exchange with more experienced (and mature, not competitive) practitioners will be helpful. It is also beneficial to look closer into the individual āsana – while you are doing it, and maybe also in the sense of actual self study by reading about it. What is your intention in this particular posture, what is it about – and how does that work with your body at this point?
After a few years (don’t be shocked, ten years maybe a good number, especially if you cannot fit a daily practice into your life), you will start to find the answers more and more in yourself.
Also please be aware that yoga is not about comparing oneself, neither with the form of the āsana as you did it a year ago (or yesterday) nor with the form of the āsana that you might just have seen on Instagram.
What is right for you, on this very day, in this very physical and mental condition?
In a workshop, Tim Feldmann, Kino McGregor’s husband (Kino is one of the most known Aṣṭāṅga teachers worldwide) contradicted his wife, when she said: “You should do this exactly this way…. ” He intervened with the following remark: “Darling, this is what you say because you are so young. For me, each day, I humbly ask my body what it is prepared to do.”