Jim: Ashtanga yoga derives to a great extent, I believe, from an older, broader tradition of practicing yoga postures, hatha yoga. If I’m not mistaken the word hatha means effort, force, or exertion, so is it just a general term for the practice of physical postures?
Rachel: So from my understanding hatha yoga is the practice of yoga. And yes, it can mean forceful, but it is often referred to as ‘sun’ and ‘moon’, so ha meaning sun and tha meaning moon, so it’s really balancing these two energies. And I would extend it to other polar opposites as well that we experience within our being. So we can experience masculine, feminine, yin, yang, hot, cold, we can experience softness and hardness, and we can experience lightness and heaviness, for me it’s about finding the balance between the two, so that the mind starts to become equanimous. It’s also an umbrella term, so all of the other styles of yoga come from hatha yoga, Ashtanga yoga comes from hatha yoga, it’s the classical form of yoga. In the modern day, if you sign up for a hatha yoga class, it’s generally a little bit softer, more gentle, with probably less vinyasas and less upper body strength work than you would find in Ashtanga, probably less alignment work than you would find in Iyengar, and so people see it often as a beginner’s or gentler form of asana.
Jim: But nowadays, all these forms are practiced differently, so would it be true to say that neither Iyengar nor Ashtanga would still come under the term hatha yoga?
Rachel: Yeah I guess there are so many forms of asana now that have stemmed from hatha yoga, that they’ve kind of formulated their own identities in a way, and we would now see them as separate from hatha yoga. In the modern day.
Jim: And characteristics that would distinguish hatha from Ashtanga are some of the things you’ve already mentioned, the softness, a different approach perhaps to alignment, not necessarily sticking to a given sequence, with each practice a different set of asana…
Rachel: Yes, there’s not necessarily a set sequence like with Ashtanga yoga practice, but there could be as with Sivananda yoga practice for example.
Jim: And maybe no ujjayi breathing?
Rachel: Probably not, but perhaps! It’s hard to define, because it’s not as definitive, I would say, as an Iyengar or Ashtanga or Anusara or Kundalini class.
I believe that if you look at anything deeply enough, you can find elements of the whole universe within it
Jim: Ashtanga means eight limbs, and these are the eight limbs described by Patanjali in the yoga sutras. But these eight limbs are not directly related to the Ashtanga yoga we know today, they define a path of yoga. Within this path, asana practice is only one limb. And Ashtanga is only one form of possible asana practice.
Rachel: You could call it Ashtanga vinyasa just to differentiate, if you want, just to make it easier to explain.
Jim: Right, but even though Ashtanga is the only form commonly referred to today as eight limbs, anyone who does asana, whatever the form, is only doing one of the eight limbs, no?
Rachel: (Pause to think) There is a belief, some people would say, that within the Ashtanga practice, all limbs are contained. I would say that, to a degree there is something in that…
Jim: So to a degree all the eight limbs are represented in the Ashtanga vinyasa practice?
Rachel: I would say that…..I believe that if you look at anything deeply enough, you can find elements of the whole universe within it. And I think that’s what people are trying to point to when they say that all the eight limbs are contained within the Ashtanga vinyasa practice. However, I would say that it is not a replacement for the other limbs.
Jim: You have developed an approach to Ashtanga vinyasa that you call Ashtanga therapy, can you please outline what this approach is, and what is therapeutic about it.
Joints are not linear, they rotate, they undulate, they roll, and unfortunately, until a person gets to quite an advanced level of practice, they may not be able to use the practice to move the joints fully in every direction
Rachel: So that each person can have a more balanced practice along the journey of learning the primary series, I put in a yoga therapy sequence that I have designed specifically for the Ashtanga practice. It mainly helps with hips and shoulders if a student needs it, if not then I am an advocate of the traditional form and have a lot of respect for it, and encourage students to practice traditionally if they can do so. It’s basically using the experience that I’ve had in my own practice, and the teaching that I’ve received, to make the practice of Ashtanga more body-friendly and therapeutic, so that the joints are getting the full rotation. That’s one of the main things, to prepare the hips for a lotus postures and also to prepare the upper body for Chaturanga. When a person approaches, for example, the sun salutations and the standing postures for the first time, there’s a lot of attention on the beginning of the movement and the end of the movement. And it seems to be that the shortest way to get from one to the other is what we tend to focus on. Which can create something quite linear, you know, some things moving in a straight line, up and down, across, in and out, and the joints, they’re not linear, they rotate, they undulate, they roll, and unfortunately, until a person gets to quite an advanced level of practice, they may not be able to use the practice to move the joints fully in every direction. And so the through the practice of using the joints in more of their rotational range, it becomes a more therapeutic practice. Working with the joints instead of against them, working with the biomechanics or the movement of the joints, and muscles, yeah I guess that’s what I’m looking at for each person, rather than trying to fit the person to the practice.
Jim: Right. But ultimately the aim is that the person should be able to do the full first series at least, to the extent that their body type allows it? Or not necessarily?
My intention is to help the person with the obstacle, with the blockage, so that they can move forward in a safe way
Rachel: Each individual is different of course and time will tell, there needs to be a degree of practice and patience before the answer to that question is revealed. I think modifications are useful, to a degree, or to a point but if a person is going to modify a posture, the modification should both be kind to their body, be appropriate for them, and it should also take them closer towards achieving the posture that they are modifying. Oftentimes modifications are given that to me don’t make sense. They may look like the posture vaguely, but it may not help the person to actually achieve the posture that they’re modifying. So my approach is, yes, the person should do the practice to the best of their ability, but not if it’s harming them, so for me ahimsa is more important than Ashtanga vinyasa. A person’s health is more important than a person’s Asana. And dealing with somebody on all levels, physically, mentally, emotionally, is a much more holistic approach, and so those aspects are more important. Having said that, I really do believe in the traditional approach to Ashtanga, whereby one posture is given at a time, and the blockages that are inhibiting somebody from achieving that posture, should be gently released, by doing the posture in an intelligent way. If it needs to be modified then fine, and once the person’s body starts to respond, once in the mind, energy, emotions, they can harness and embody that posture, then, you know, they move onto the next one. I think it really becomes valuable in a sense of not just teaching the physical body, but also what happens is some of the other limbs are actually taught, you know, non-grasping, truthfulness about where you’re at. Non-attachment, purity, contentment, patience. I think that the practice can be more coherent if the practice is taught like that rather than just saying, “Oh you can’t do this? Here’s another posture!” “Oh you can’t do that? Well have another posture!” I think it’s tempting if the understanding of the practice isn’t there, on the student’s side and also the teacher’s side, it is tempting to add more postures and just see what happens. But from a therapeutic perspective, it tends to be not great. And so going slower is better, and I find that oftentimes to do the practice to the best of a person’s ability means to go slower. And my intention is to help the person with the obstacle, with the blockage, so that they can move forward in a safe way. And I find that if the foundation is there, and those obstacles start to be overcome, the person will just start flying, because they just have so much grounding, and the progress is just wonderful to watch. And it’s on such a deeper level than surface achievement and attainment of new postures or a new series.
Jim: So therapy here is not so much about healing injuries or ailments, although of course I’m sure you’d be able to make suggestions to people who have such issues.
Rachel: Well, from my perspective, everyone needs healing. I need healing, you need healing, like that’s kind of like we’re here to….We’ve all had trauma, we’ve all had issues with parents and so on, and we live with that day to day, and oftentimes we’re not really aware of it, and it comes out in our behaviour and it comes out in the way we talk to so and so and it comes it out in the way we maybe don’t reach our potential, so, em, yes I know the word therapy is a bit loaded, and I was careful to use it, but I just honestly couldn’t think of anything better to describe what I was doing.
Jim: Fair enough ☺ And the first series in Ashtanga is, after all, called yoga chikitsa. But what is it in this series that is therapy from the traditional yoga point of view?
Rachel: I think if it’s done properly, and if it’s taught one posture at a time, and with attention to detail, and very grounded, then yes it’s yoga chikitsa. But, it is just a tool, and you could use a tool, you know, you could use a carpentry set for example, to build beautiful furniture, but you could use the same carpentry tool set to smash something up, it’s the same principle in a way, it depends how one uses it.
Jim: But is what is being addressed in yoga chikitsa is similar to what you aim to address? That is, the being as a whole?
One can try with all their best effort and intention, but ultimately it’s the hand of grace that takes over, and if we can do the practice without attachment to the outcome, then we can trust in a higher power, Source or whatever you want to call it
Rachel: Yeah, I mean it is definitely working on more of a physical aspect… from my perspective it’s a lot about finding the inner space, you know, when a person bends forward, particularly if they do it in the way that I teach, which is to bend the knees and go in and soften, and go inwards, a person will experience their inner core, in a way, their inner feelings, and we can’t help but to look inwards, and that really helps with healing, not just on a physical level but on an energy level and on an emotional level as well, because we can bury a lot of stuff deep within. And the forward bends do help us to experience that. Obviously as with any spiritual tool, one can use it for complete avoidance, or one can use it to go inwards, but I think it really does become healing when a person uses it to go within, and deal with their stuff.
Jim: A couple of days ago I told you I was feeling very tired for some reason, and you suggested I try practising more softly and leave things to grace. I liked your use of that word, and I was hoping you could expand a bit on that idea.
Rachel: Well I guess, one can try with all their best effort and intention, but ultimately it’s the hand of grace that takes over, and if we can do the practice without attachment to the outcome, then we can trust in a higher power, Source or whatever you want to call it, to…to do the work, in a way…well, hmm, I don’t know if it’s do the work, maybe to…
Jim: To bring the work to fruition?
Rachel: Yeah, exactly. It’s like I am not the doer. Jim: And this of course is quite difficult, because wanting to move forward is partly what motivates most of us.
Rachel: Of course, and I think you need that in the beginning, because if we didn’t have that then we probably wouldn’t get on the mat, so it’s really useful, but it can also be damaging as well, if we get too attached to that desire. And so the job of the yogi is to observe that desire, and see it’s mechanics, and start to detach from it a little bit, not trying to suppress it, or avoid it, or deny it, but just to observe it and not get too caught up in it.
Jim: I’ve heard a number of teachers say that our morning Ashtanga practice should leave us feeling energized, with more energy to carry into the day, to fuel our activities or to take out into the world. What is it about the Ashtanga vinyasa practice that has that energizing effect?
Rachel: It’s all about the dosage. If you do too much, it has the opposite effect (laughs). So it can be very draining. If you do just the right amount, it has that energizing effect.
Jim: So that means having the flexibility to stop at a given point in the series on any given day, to make sure you’re not borrowing, in a sense, from energy reserves.
The breath will always give guidance as to how deep one should go into a posture or into a series
Rachel: Exactly, and it takes a while to know what’s going on. Sometimes it’s the mind saying, “Oh I can’t be bothered,” and sometimes there’s lethargy, which we can observe, and that will shift, but then if there’s fatigue or exhaustion, then that’s a different story, it really needs to be listened to, because if we start to ignore that or suppress that, it can start to really linger and grow, and it can turn into something after long periods of time, chronic fatigue and things like that.
Jim: Right. But certainly as beginners, it can be easy to get caught up in trying to get the postures right, integrating bandhas and dristis, and so maybe not paying so much attention to listening to the body because there is lots to focus on.
Rachel: Well the main thing I would say that’s more important than those two is probably the breath. Because the breath will always give guidance as to how deep one should go into a posture or into a series. And if we’re listening to the breath, then we’re in the body and we’re in the present moment. Whereas if we lose the breath, to focus on asana or dristi, then we’ve suddenly lost that presence and inner body feeling. So I would say that in order of importance ~ breath, bandhas and dristi which are the internal parts of the practice, and also define the Ashtanga practice should remain with us through the sequence otherwise we might be doing too long a practice.
Jim: And even a complete beginner, before mastering the bandhas and dristis, can still focus on the breath.
Rachel: Well the way I teach is to get the bandhas and the breath and the dristi from day one. And also to do a very gentle practice, so the person can take the bandhas and breath and dristi from that gentle practice gradually into a more challenging practice, and bring it all the way through, so it’s a lot more focused on integration, rather than ‘oh yeah I’ve learned all these postures really well,’ but half a year later they realize they need to do this, or they need to do that, the practice can be a lot less integrated if that’s the way it is taught.
Jim: That makes perfect sense. Er, moving on, yoga is traditionally practised in the early morning, ideally before sunrise, and on an empty stomach. My understanding is that this time of day is good for replenishing prana, energy, also because there has been no food intake for several hours which makes the practice better. However, is there any wiggle room here, any flexibility?
Rachel: Of course, of course! I would say any time is a good time for yoga. As long as basic needs are taken care of. It has to fit into everyone’s lifestyle, and everyone has a different lifestyle, so they might mix it up a little bit, or they might do it before they go to bed, whatever works. That’s just going to be a very individual thing. But for me I like to do it early, and to do it before I teach, because it helps me teach! It’s not great for my yoga practice, it’s harder in the early morning, so I have to practice non-attachment. But that’s good, that’s good for me.
Jim: May I ask what time you actually do practice then, around 4 am is it?
Rachel: Yes, around 4.
Jim: And have you managed to get used to that, are you accustomed to it now?
Rachel: Um, in a way yes, in a way no. I just wake up very early, and I don’t sleep as much as I used to. Jim: Because of the yoga?
Rachel: I think it’s because of the yoga, um, I used to sleep, maybe, you know, eight to ten hours, now it’s more like, four to six.
Jim: But am I right about the reasons yoga is traditionally practised in the early morning, that is, because it is a good time for replenishing prana, and a good time for contemplation?
Rachel: It’s the hour of Brahma, which I think is between four and six, and I think ayurvedically speaking it’s a time of vata, although I’d have to look (NB: vata is active between 2 and 6 am), and so that’s when things can shift and change, it’s quite a magical, spiritual time of day. Obviously it’s very deeply quiet as well, deeply peaceful, and so you feel like the morning is yours, or the world is kind of…you have it all to yourself for that little period of time, um, and as the morning goes on, you know, people start waking up, making noise, and then it’s a lot more distracting.
Jim: Sure, I love getting up early, it seems like there’s a kind of latent, gradually emerging aliveness, as the day slowly begins, that you can really feel. For the practice of course you feel stiff, but once you get used to it, it’s as though that stiffness is like a kind of, hmm….
Rachel: like a barometer…
Jim: Exactly, also a bit like the ‘outline’, the outer edge of the posture in how you feel into it, and once you’re used to that, it’s hard to switch to when the muscles and joints already feel ready to go further.
Rachel: Yes, that’s the other thing, I find, as time has gone on…..especially in a climate like this, I mean it’s a little bit chillier now, but when it’s kind of like normal Bali weather, it’s harder to practice later in the day, because the body’s just too….
Jim: too willing to go in any direction?
Rachel: yeah, and I find that if it’s too warm I might go a bit too deeply into the postures and…actually I find it a little bit draining, I get a little bit tired, because I used to live in Thailand, and we used to do pranayama, teach, and then practice afterwards, and that was really, I found it really draining, because I would often you know be just finishing my practice around midday, and it’s boiling hot. And so that was when I started to switch, and started to do an earlier practice, and once I’d started it, I just continued. It’s harder in Europe, obviously. When I lived in Italy I didn’t get up so early.
If the student can be a witness, so by that I mean if they can observe themselves doing the practice from almost an elevated perspective, so that they can actually see what the body is doing on the mat, as if they were looking from above, that’s one of the most useful tools to be able to do self-practice without a teacher
Jim: I see. Regarding our own self-practice, I wanted to ask you at what stage a person is ready to practice alone for prolonged periods of time, that is, not just a day or two, but weeks or maybe months at a time, or until they’re able once again to have the guidance of a teacher?
Rachel: I think there needs to be a certain embodiment of the practice. If the student is able to do it in a really grounded way, then I don’t think it really matters how far in the series they might be. If their practice has integrity, if they’re working in a way that is with the body, with the joints, with the breath, with the bandhas, with the dristi, intact, then the chances are they’re just going to continue moving along like that, you know. Also if they can be a witness, so by that I mean if they can observe themselves doing the practice from almost an elevated perspective, so that they can actually see what the body is doing on the mat, as if they were looking from above, that’s one of the most useful tools to be able to do self-practice without a teacher.
Jim: Great, thanks for those insights. Maybe we’ll just finish by talking a little about being a teacher, er, I know you studied with Guruji for a while, I’m not sure how many generations of Ashtanga vinyasa teachers we could say there have been up until now, but certainly there was that first generation who discovered Guruji, and went out to study in Mysore with him when there were only a few people practicing in the room with him. Then there was another generation of people who started practicing with Pattabhi Jois not long before his passing, and then became students of Sharath; then there were those who began learning with Guruji’s direct students, and now there are people who learn with students of Guruji’s students, and even people who learn Ashtanga from teachers not directly related to the Jois lineage (we won’t go into the debate about whether Ashtanga outside this lineage is authentic or not). And with so many more teachers, and vastly more students, than two or three decades ago, plus the fact that Ashtanga has spread around much of the globe, the hierarchical relationship between students and teachers has changed. I mean, Guruji was just that, the Guru, practically a deity for some, certainly venerated and placed on a raised pedestal. And I think many of the great teachers who were his direct students are still hugely looked up to by students, which is of course perfectly legitimate. So what I’m saying is there’s been a transition from quasi-worship of the Guru as a God, to a far more ordinary connection between students and teachers, via mentor-disciple-like relationships. Do you have any thoughts on this evolution?
Rachel: Yeah, I’ve struggled with this myself…As a student, I never really wanted to hang out with my teachers, I needed there to be that distance between me and them, because I needed to have the utmost respect for them, er, in order to really fully embrace what they’re saying. And maybe if I see them messing around on a Saturday night, that’s going to be slightly tarnished! (giggles). And I know that, you know, we’re just human beings, and so of course, if you get to know somebody on a deeper level, you’re going to get to see that silly side and that side that makes mistakes, and all that kind of thing, you know, and it puts it on a much more human level. And for some people, that works, but for me I didn’t feel to do that, and I think that every student is different, and the teacher needs to give the student what they need, and….so if the student maybe is being a bit too serious, then, you know, to kind of help them lighten up a bit..
Jim: and so maybe actually go out and mess around a bit on a Saturday night?
Rachel: (laughs) Yeah, so….and I’ve experimented with it in different ways, for me it’s important to be friendly to the student, but not necessarily best friends. So…
Jim: It would be very draining as well, for a start, it would mean a heck of a lot of friends!
Rachel: yeah, it is, because, you know, there has to be a certain amount of detachment in order to be there for someone and hold space for them, and if there’s too much familiarity then that gets lost, and then, yes it could be draining, and yes it could be a bit confusing maybe, for both parties, if there’s too many other relationships going on at the same time as the student-teacher relationship. Um, I think the clearer the better, so you kind of like have a nice clear page, and you can, you know, you can see clearly what’s written on that page, it’s not like all this kind of subtext and funny little things going on.
Jim: For sure. But there also seem to be some teachers out there who are somewhat akin to superstars. What do you make of them?
I think with anything that becomes popular, it gets a little bit diluted
Rachel: Well I think it’s just like any kind of fame, you know…..If that’s the direction one wants to go in, then by all means, it if makes….if it provides happiness, then all well and good. But I think it’s probably harder to deal with, on a spiritual level, on an ego level, for sure it would be more of a challenge. I think filling a room with hundreds of students might not necessarily be that beneficial, it might be easier to get lost in a room, for mistakes to happen, for injuries to occur, it doesn’t matter how skilled the teacher is, they are still human. So yeah, I think, fame like anything, can be used in a way that’s beneficial, and then it can also be used in a way that’s harmful, so it just depends on the integrity of the individual really.
Jim: It seems that Asthanga vinyasa continues to grow in popularity, as does hatha yoga in general. Guruji’s first students would go to Mysore and study with him in almost complete immersion for months, or sometimes even years, on end. For many he would be their only guru. Nowadays, not everybody can have that kind of experience with any teacher, that intensity of study. They may not even have a local shala they are able to attend several times a week. So how people are learning is changing, from the model of one teacher for years and years, to perhaps having several teachers, sometimes maybe just for the duration of a workshop, after which people go home and do self-practice. Certainly many people don’t get the opportunity to go on what is almost a yoga retreat, and focus only on yoga for a solid chunk of time. How do you see the practice and teaching of Ashtanga evolving in view of this?
Rachel: Well, I think with anything that becomes popular, it gets a little bit diluted. And there are going to be some teachers who hold the tradition very close to their hearts, and teach it very close to the form, and there are going to be others that, you know, go onto a different path. And once again, I don’t think either is a problem, as long as the teacher has integrity, and they can bring out the essence of the practice in what they’re doing.
Jim: Ashtanga is certainly a form of yoga that requires a lot of commitment, you can’t be lukewarm about it.
Rachel: It sure is, if you want to keep it quite pure, then it has to be approached in a very methodical manner, and in a very disciplined manner. That’s not to say that one needs to be rigid, but for sure the practice should be respected. And obviously the students that are more interested in that path, will go to those teachers who are offering that. And the students that are not, will not. So in a way, there’s a little bit of something for everyone, and everyone is different. And everybody changes (smiles).
Jim: That’s great. Thank you Rachel for your time and for sharing the wisdom of your experiences and perspective.
Rachel has been practicing yoga for over 18 years, and has taught yoga internationally for 13.
As senior teacher at the world renowned Samahita Retreat Centre in Thailand, much of her initial studies were with Paul Dallaghan, with whom she continues to study. She has also been a student of the masterful Richard Freeman, and O.P. Tiwariji, one of the last living masters of pranayama.
She uses her knowledge of the energetics and structure of the body to give adjustments and teach with sensitivity and depth. She is Registered as a Senior Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance Professionals. She is currently teaching at Usada yoga shala in Ubud, Bali.
You can learn more about Rachel on her website: www.ashtangayogatherapy.co.uk.