December 11, 2016 tylandrum

The Art of Vinyasa: A Slanted Review

The day before we left to spend the winter in Mysore, we visited Mary and Richard at their home. They gave us a pre-release copy of their new book, The Art of Vinyasa, to bring to Sharath. We were honored to carry with us this beautiful token of appreciation, which is dedicated to the Jois family:

“To Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and his wife, Ammaji. And with deep gratitude to Sarasvathi, Manju, and Sharat, who continue to inspire us all in this practice.”

They gave us a copy of the book too, and once we got to Mysore, we could not put it down. Not that the book has any surprising content – this is a condensation of teachings that Mary and Richard have been offering for years. But part of the brilliance of Mary and Richard’s teachings is that they have a way of telling you something that you think you already know as if you are hearing it for the first time.

Instead of weighing you down with new practices or ideas, Mary and Richard teach more by inviting you to look again – and again and again – at what is immediately in front of you, until it suddenly begins to deepen and unfold. In this way, they continually edge your flailing attention back to the thread of the practice, inviting it to flow inward, into the open nexus of experience.

The Art of Vinyasa deploys this teaching method in full. The book is organized around the idea of “vinyasa” as a continuous rediscovery of balance between opposing patterns of tension and sensation. It offers generous descriptions of the “internal forms” of breath, gaze, bandha and mudra that we use to discover and refine this balance, and it details some of the brilliant metaphors that Mary and Richard commonly use to help us visualize the patterns of tension and sensation that emerge through the practice. Finally, the book uses these elements to present some potent descriptions of how to embody the key postures of the Ashtanga system.

In comparison with other books on the theory and practice of Ashtanga, The Art of Vinyasa is unique for its unbroken focus on contemplative exploration, and for its continuous reminder that the kind of experience we hope to cultivate through yoga is beyond the reach of theory and technique. There is no magical sequence of movements, gestures or syllables that will induce that experience by force, but it may arise spontaneously whenever we lose ourselves in the unfolding of the present moment.

As Mary and Richard explain, this is the importance of approaching yoga as a form of art, whose meaning is discovered and expressed in the process of engaging in the practice itself, as opposed to something that is defined by an intended result. When yoga is practiced as an art, there is no particular goal or destination, and so no pressure to perform, and no judgment about what is unfolding. There is just an appreciation for the experience of movement and breath itself, an appreciation that opens naturally into kindness and gratitude.

And at this point the ego says “Yes I know about all that. But I want more. Tell me something new and exciting.” And this is a reflection of the kind of grasping that is so natural to the mind, and which is the source of the ongoing distraction that keeps us from having an unadulterated experience of the present moment. The teaching is that we have to surrender our knowledge, surrender our ideas, and look again, with open eyes, at what is actually happening. Only then might we stumble into an unadulterated view of things, a view that is not distorted by our mental constructs.

Mary and Richard continue to offer this teaching with incredible patience and generosity. They meet us where we are, enticing us with their beautiful words and spirits, and then circling us back to the beginning, back to the foundations, where we once started.

This offering is often misunderstood. Many of us who study with Mary and Richard have been drawn to them by Richard’s beautiful recorded talks and lectures, which display his astonishing breadth of knowledge, not only in Hatha Yoga, but in Vedantic philosophy, Buddhism, Sufism, and Tantra as well. So we come to sit at Richard’s feet and listen to his mesmerizing retellings of the philosophies and myths of yoga, hoping to go on a journey to exotic places.

But then we find that he just keeps taking us back – though in ever renewed and brilliant metaphors – to simple and foundational truths that we have visited before. And we find ourselves back where we began, usually with all the same delusions and anxieties.

Some students become frustrated with this, thinking that he is withholding his knowledge, and so keeping us from “advancing.” And in a sense, he is. Instead of teaching us more mantras, more sequences, or more philosophies, he is using his illuminated speech to tell us the simple things that really matter, and these are usually things that the ego has already decided that it “knows.” So when we hear these things, the ego rushes in to say “yes, yes, I already have that one,” and that strips the offering of its potency.

When the ego puts the offering in a conceptual box, and makes it familiar and unthreatening, we are not able to hear what Richard is really teaching us, or to be impacted in the right way. We are not able to receive the living insights that he is offering, because our minds are papering over them with preconceptions, and obscuring their radiant light.

The same goes for the experience of taking an asana class with Mary and Richard. Instead of teaching us lots of tricks to get into ever more challenging poses, they invite us to go back to the beginning and look again, so that we keep undergoing the process of relearning the fundamentals for the first time. Through this process, we hopefully learn to peel back the layers of preconception that have deadened our experience of the practice so that we can rediscover the practice, and our embodiment, anew.

This way of working gives a new meaning to the term “advanced.” To be an “advanced” practitioner of asana is not to do physically demanding postures, but to do simple postures with alignment, integrity, and an unbroken flow of attention one that reflects an unwavering appreciation for the sublime center of ordinary experience.

In a beginner’s workshop, Mary and Richard might spend 15 minutes on Samasthitihi. In an advanced intensive, they might spend 90. Instead of teaching “advanced” poses, they are taking you deeper into to the empty center of the experience of standing at attention, and asking you to look closer, to lift the overlay of your experience and allow it to breath.

If they refrain from teaching you the sophisticated rituals, mantras and visualizations that they no doubt could teach, that is because they will not teach us anything that they think will distract us from that core experience until we actually get it – and this could take lifetimes.

The integrity of Mary and Richard’s teachings lies partly in the fact that they always refrain from adding to our distractions by teaching us elaborate and superfluous thing, or by encouraging the false impression that we need to get somewhere with our yoga – that we will not succeed until we climb higher up some false hierarchy. And that is all to say that they do not encourage our grasping habits of mind. Instead, they encourage us to slow down, drop in, and connect with the sublime center of ordinary experience. This is what The Art of Vinyasa is all about.

Mary and Richard tell us in the book that the exploration of this art, or of any other contemplative form, helps to bring about a “right view” of the world. And instead of describing that view in the high-minded language of philosophy, they tell is that a “right view” is one that is saturated with kindness and generosity. We cultivate this view by coming out of ourselves into an animating appreciation for the interconnectedness of things.

When practiced as a form of contemplative art, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga encourages us to do precisely that. It encourages us to admire whatever is immediately arising so that we have a purely aesthetic experience of our own bodies and minds. That is, an experience that is detached from the drama of our usual stories, but fully immersed in the wonder of the present moment.

To illustrate the profundity of this teaching style, I remind myself of the advice that Mary gave me some years ago, when I first began practicing in her Mysore class. I was pushing through some unforgiving stretch of the Third Series, pouring sweat and exuding waves of useless intensity. Mary walked by and whispered, “You just need to soften into it” and my heart melted on the spot. I knew she wasn’t just talking about the pose, or the practice, but my whole orientation to my life, which tends to be fraught with extraneous striving. My knees went weak and I quietly spiraled to the ground, into the consolation of the child’s pose.

A week later, having internalized Mary’s advice, I proposed to the remarkable woman who is now my wife, and I sent a letter to my alma matter, declining an invitation to teach in their Philosophy department, so that I could stay at the Yoga Workshop and learn about living the yoga from these remarkable people. I had no idea where these decisions would lead, but they turned out to be among the finest decisions I have ever made.

And this is what I admire so much about Mary and Richard’s teaching – they never take you on a trip. Unlike so many other teachers, they never pretend that they have all the answers or that they are going to “fix” all the problems that they would ascribe to you. When they give advice, its just like in my story – simple, gentle, generous and abstract enough that you have to work through the meaning for yourself. Usually, they are pointing out something that is really rather obvious, so they are simply reminding you of something that you know in your heart. And it changes everything.

In The Art of Vinyasa, the teaching is much like that. It is organized around simple, generous reminders to reign in our attention, to come back to the internal forms, to find and follow the contemplative thread of the practice, and to avail ourselves of the precious opportunity that the practice affords to explore the unfolding wonder of our embodiment, and to connect to the inherent bliss of embodied experience.

And when we hear that reminder, we suddenly find ourselves humbled, having seen once again that we have been carried off, for much too long, by our projections and fantasies about the practice, and by our longing to advance and achieve. And then we can allow our hearts to be flooded with gratitude for the compassionate voices of our insightful and skilled teachers, who stay by our sides, guiding us, with gentle whispers, back to the reality of the present moment.