Practice, Practice, Practice….What Practice?

by Dec 5, 2012

Thank you for the intelligent questions in relation to my Blog post “Time to Give up Asana, Old Man”. I will attempt to answer these below starting from the bottom up.

Here’s where my curiousity was piqued:

1. “It is who I am and I enjoy it.” – It this Asmita & Raga? (The 2nd &
3rd Klesha, or afflications, I-ness & attraction)

2. “I am happy to do as I am told by those with greater experience and
knowledge. ” – How do you know they truly know more than you what is
right for you? Didn’t Kausthub’s students, or John Friend’s students
also believe that those teachers had greater experience and knowledge?

3. ” the most important thing a teacher of Yoga should have is a strong
practice. ” – Is a strong practice limited to a strong asana practice?
Or is it a strong yoga practice, which could take the form of kriyas,
pranayama, meditation, chanting etc…

4. “practice, practice, practice and all is coming” – asana, or yoga?
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4. “practice, practice, practice and all is coming” – asana, or yoga?


I think this much quoted line by Guruji is often misinterpreted. People seem to think that he was only referring only to Asana practice. What we practice is “Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga”. As we all know, Ashtanga is the 8 limbs of yoga; Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. To facilitate the practice of Ashtanga we use Vinyasa, or “Breath movement system”. Guruji often quoted the sage Vamana as saying “Vina vinyasa yogena asanadin na karayet” [O yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa]. This is the practice of Yoga that we do.
There are 2 ways to consider Ashtanga. One as a linear progression starting with Yama and ending with Samadhi and the other as a more organic process where the limbs evolve with each one supporting the others. Either way you look at it I think there is often too much importance placed on achieving Samadhi so that people are putting the cart before the horse. In his very good book “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” Edwin F. Bryant says that when listing things the tradition was to put the item of most importance first and then follow in descending order. In this case Yama is of the most importance and it is this that we should give our attention to. Guruji said that the practice of Yama was very, very difficult and that the discipline and strength of mind we develop in our Asana practice is essential to the practice of Yama. He also said that it is essential to master the first 4 limbs before even considering the latter 4 and that the mastery of the first 4 was almost always a matter of many life times work.
This makes sense to me because I am a pragmatist. The stage of life that I am in now requires of me that I am the best father, husband, brother, son and member of society that I can be. Withdrawal is not an option for me and I am certainly not ready for it. You know, I have been teaching in Wellington since 1999 and I have students who have been coming to my classes since that time. These are people who have families and jobs. People whose practice has ebbed and flowed with their lives. People who plug away at the Primary Series and to whom it does not come easy, but who persist. It is these people that I consider the Super Heroes of Ashtanga rather than the person jetting around the world teaching workshops and promoting their latest DVD. We need both, but I have a huge respect for those people who know what it is like to change the sheets on their child’s bed for the 3rd time because they have been vomited on at 2 o’clock in the morning, but still fit a Yoga Practice into their lives.

3. ” the most important thing a teacher of Yoga should have is a strongpractice. ” – Is a strong practice limited to a strong asana practice? Or is it a strong yoga practice, which could take the form of kriyas, pranayama, meditation, chanting etc…

A Yoga teacher should have a strong practice grounded in the tradition that he or she is teaching. It is simple. You must practice what you teach in the manner that it has been taught to you. It would be dishonest to do otherwise.

2. “I am happy to do as I am told by those with greater experience and
knowledge. ” – How do you know they truly know more than you what is
right for you? Didn’t Kausthub’s students, or John Friend’s students
also believe that those teachers had greater experience and knowledge?

There has quite rightly been a lot of condemnation of John Friend and Kausthubs indiscretions. I don’t know anything about either of them having never met them, but their actions can not be condoned. Sadly there is nothing new about this sort of behavior from people in positions of power, not just in the Yoga world. And it will happen again.
I can only say that I took Sri K Pattabhi Jois as my Guru, but that did not mean that I put aside my intelligence when I did so. Guruji never claimed himself to be anything other than human, but the knowledge and experience he had of the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice was unsurpassed. With his actions and with his words he, in fact, invited us to question what it was he taught. I remember him saying “Don’t believe what you don’t experience for yourself”. He certainly displayed some very human characteristics, but these did not shake the faith I have that what he taught works for me. He also never promised us a short cut to Samadhi by his touch or by being in his presence. Instead he promised us a lot of hard work and constant endeavour over many lifetimes to achieve this goal.

1. “It is who I am and I enjoy it.” – It this Asmita & Raga? (The 2nd &
3rd Klesha, or afflications, I-ness & attraction)

There is no doubt that I suffer from the afflictions of knowing, at least in part, who I am and of enjoying what I do. These afflictions result in a veil of contentment that prevents my perception of the reality of constant suffering. I wake up every morning and look over at Victoria and know that my daughters are safe in their beds and that I am going to put my mat down and do some practice and then teach some classes to some beautiful people and I can’t help but feel blessed and a long way from suffering. What to do? I can only do what I can do and as I am not a scholar, that is to keep practicing and to keep observing and to have no expectation of any outcome. I hope to have plenty of time left to practice in this life and after that, who knows? I do know that if I am offered another ride on the circle of life I will take it with both hands.

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4 Comments

  1. gabriella pascoli

    Well done Mike ,few could’ve put it any better. A big cheer to us the householders…much love to you and Victoria & the girlzzz…gx

  2. lynne pinette

    It is wonderful to read this as I am 70, still practicing, and still teaching, of course we age, but what a way to go!

  3. frances liotta

    that was beautiful, brought tears to my eyes, so true & real.

  4. Kara-Leah Grant

    Hey Mike,

    Thank you for taking such time and consideration of the questions I posed on your article. Reading through your answers gave me many ‘A-ha’ moments of understanding. I love that – clarity gained through the offerings of another. It’s the best of sangha right there.

    In particular, your point that “Practice” refers to all eight limbs of Ashtanga, which is part of the path of Rajas, helped me to clarify and understand… as each of us may be on a different path of yoga, eg. Bhakti or Jnana, then what we practice will be different. What also brought it home to me was your excellent point that we teach what we practice, or we practice what we teach. If our practice is no longer predominantly asana, then can we continue to teach that?

    Thank you for a great discussion.
    KL