Maehle's Pranayama book, "The Breath of Yoga," is fantastic so far. I'm through 80 of its over 300 pages. Characteristic for Maehle, he does not half-ass anything; his tone is one of experience and authority and yet friendliness and it is not without self-awareness (a level of meta-). As with his two asana books, he is not for everyone. I appreciate how he quotes sacred text chapter and verse, and the way in which he insists that we are living in the Kali Yuga (energetic/intellectual dark ages) and the way in which, from this, he extends his own understanding from texts written ages ago, directly to the present day. He could easily be seen as manufacturing another "yoga myth" in the same cynical way many people use Singleton ("well yoga's only 120 years old, so omg, lyk whatever!!") but I really enjoy his embrace of a legend wherein yoga practices go back thousands of years and we belong to a trajectory that is deep and full of what he calls "the inner astronauts."
The Mandukya Upanishad is hard to read. So far it seems to be straight-up Advaita Vedanta, and one of the things I've pulled easily from it is that "Bad Advaita" consists of the following sentence: "Everything is a figment of my imagination" with the following often unspoken subtext: "But I'm not." So what you get is a solipsistic megalomaniac who thinks everyone and everything is imaginary. This often takes two forms:
a) No one can change what I think because you're all imaginary, and
b) I can manifest anything I like (and so can you!) because everything's imaginary.
By making the subject an actor and the rest of the cosmos imaginary, Bad Advaita makes us into egomaniacs, and any limit on our superpowerful egos is, of course, only imagination, and in fact, is a limit We Ourselves imagine, and so the "freer" we become, the more egomaniacal we become. Bad Advaita forgets to include ITSELF as imaginary. But that's also where the trippy-as-hell stuff begins.
In Western terms, Advaita Vedanta wrestles with "unity" and "multiplicity," which can be nicely rephrased (somewhat inaccurately) as "transcendence" and "immanence." Everything is God: that's unity, that's transcendence (well, the Godness of everything; if we look at the Everything, we're in immanence and multiplicity).
Immanent multiplicity is, literally, everything, and the idea that everything is different and independent. The plastic egg is not the computer speaker is not the table is not the wall is not the cushion I sit on. So when we mix unity AND multiplicity, we get two ideas that don't get along without paradox: this mix of the Everything being incarnate with, or of, the One Thing (God, Brahman, etc).
So far it seems to me that the Mandukya argues that there IS indeed multiplicity, but there is more importantly unity, and so it doesn't matter how mulitplicitous everything is, because it's all Brahman, it is all the mental movements (and I REALLY want to know if that can be translated "chitta vrittis", you know?) of the Brahman.
There is also much discussion about the waking state, dreaming state and dreamless sleep, a trio which appear in Patanjali, also. Is this a root feature of Eastern study of the self, to figure out the relationship between those states? The Mandukya says that dreamless sleep provides full non-duality but no consciousness, and therefore ignorance reappears in either dreaming or waking. This leaves me with what I feel is the Essential Question: by what methods then, do I get that knowledge?
Maehle, for what it's worth, remains tied to his Patanjali and Samkhya (although I don't think he's a strict Samkhya disciple) and mocks the "prattling Vedantins" several times, which makes me giggle. At the same time, he uses the terms "transcendence and immanence," which I really like. Reading these two together is fascinating stuff.
Not long ago, in a post on Facebook by a friend, who was writing about a blog post elsewhere which was about people fleeing ashtanga for different yogas, I posted this:
"Well it's dumb to simply define "limit" by annamaya kosha (food body). There are energetic limits (and development), emotional limits (and development), intellectual limits...you get it. You don't have to get your knees to the floor in Baddha Konasana or your hand to the floor in Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, some days (or some lifetimes) in order to get a massive emotional change or release or some other limit-challenging discovery. This is the double mistake of people who make Ashtanga "easier" (i.e., remove all the various limit-challenging bits, basing their "ease" on annamaya kosha) and people who make Ashtanga dogmatic, insisting on full expressions (again, locked into annamaya kosha). Gross not subtle. Shallow teacher, in both cases (sorry for any polemic)."
What I was trying to get to in that post, was this idea that teachers will "push the student's limits" in dogmatic physical ashtanga vinyasa practice, or else they will "modify the practice to suit people" simply by cutting out all of the so-called "dangerous" postures. That's not making the practice suit people--what if someone's super-challenged in Purvottanasana? Or what if someone can't breathe at a speed where sun salutations are possible on vinyasa count? Or what if someone lost a parent a month prior and is having massive emotional breakout stuff?
And by extension, this is my complaint also about people who "leave ashtanga" for something easier or "less challenging." Less challenging HOW? Easier HOW? I created a modified no-wrist-pain ashtanga practice in 2007 after teacher training, and it was pretty damn mellow, I'll tell you that. Early this year I was doing just sun salutations and standing poses and breaking out in all kinds of emotional detonations. Did I want my practice to be EASIER? You damn bet I did, but I wanted it to be EMOTIONALLY easier, AND YET I still persisted in getting the expressions out because it felt good to have it done even though it felt miserable to express.
Or, "the expression must be full!" Sure, that can bust up people's knees, but what about when emotional stuff was making me go to pieces in a modified Janu Sirsasana A?
Where does emotional expression fit into the idea of "full" physical expressions? Or is the whole idea of a "full expression" simply locked into annamaya kosha?
By extension this is my entire problem with Western yoga, if by that we accept that we mean physicalizing the yoga and reducing it to that, taking the eight limbs and making them into eight separate things, or, as Maehle puts it, only doing the asana, making all of yoga simply into asana.
Maehle argues that pranayama is the limb that connects asana to meditation, and in his uncompromising and wonderful way, says that anyone who is simply doing meditation or simply doing asana is missing part of the picture.
A posture IS energy, also; IS emotion, also. Let's not pretend that we're only flesh, right? Or that flesh is only flesh, let's not grandly underestimate ourselves. Those realms that are not (precisely not) BEYOND flesh but exist ALONGSIDE and INSEPARABLY from flesh, those TOO are practice zones. One does asana with THOSE bodies also.
I believe that ashtanga vinyasa is the practice for people who see the value in traditional practice (by which I mean not to open a whole can of "we're authentic!" worms, but by which I mean, not made up in 2006 by some random dude in Nevada or whatever) with history (and yes, EVEN IF that history is 120 years old; that's what, a HUNDRED years more history than Anusara has, to pick one example?), with repetition (because that builds depth, in a way that "doing the 5:45 on Wednesdays with Whoever" does not) and with ideas about progress (meditative state, sense withdrawal, next series, ethical decisions made necessary by adding the yoga to life, until yoga/life becomes a meaningless dichotomy, intensified concentration, and so on).
A lot of these elements that I put in "progress" will be nutshelled by any yoga teacher at all ("yoga adds to your concentration, and makes you sweat!") but it's much, much more rare to get depth, a groove into which to sink, and really truly rare to get a teacher who will go there when postures get emotional, not just on the first class where your glutes or shoulders revolt, but when the practice TRULY begins to burn down your samskaric stuff, to destroy "who you think you are" because that's an illusion you don't need.
I guess in a sentence, THAT is why I do and choose and persist with, ashtanga vinyasa. "I need something easier" is so often about, "it makes my whatever sore" and teachers who are dogmatic do nothing to serve those students. A teacher who has nothing better to offer than, "Make the shape cuz the manual says!" is a shallow teacher who needs more practice.
And the teachers who make the practice easier, not TO SUIT A STUDENT, but easier for everyone, all the time, and call it "ashtanga," those teachers also do a disservice. Sure, half-lotus is hard for Western hips, and dangerous for Western knees when not taught well, but the hip opening that working TOWARD half-lotus, there is powerful emotional magic in there. I learned that for over two years. To cut a posture or change a sequence because it's "unsafe" in strictly annamaya terms, is to miss all of the pranamaya/manomaya/etc levels, all of the OTHER bodies that do that pose. Again, that's the mark of a shallow teacher.
Can one blame a student for wanting something "easier" and less confrontational? Most of the time no, by which I mean there's only one stripe of student who annoys me regarding this question: those are the people who run from confronting their stuff.
The students who just cannot do the poses and get defeated, or can't handle the speed, and get defeated, or who find the sequence just offputtingly impossible: those people I try to sell on repetition and modifications and "work toward it over time" and I know I won't see most of them again and I don't blame them for that.
No, I misspoke: the two types of students who annoy me are 1) the cowards, who run from any ACTUAL transformation the yoga might commit in them, and 2) the flow monkeys, who want to do Big Powerful Poses Because They Can! "Watch me shine!" Hey, you, put your fucking ego down for two seconds and climb into a Janu Sirsana, eh? These are the people who want to be "pushed harder!" because they don't have any idea about emotions or about working on their weaknesses; they just want to go further and further out on the branch of their strength, whatever it is they're good at. And this is much, much more an ATTITUDE than it is an aptitude. Plenty of physically skilled people come to my ashtanga room, and they do as I ask them to do. Every now and then one of these "multiple level flow class" monkeys will come in and simply not respect the system, have no desire to learn it or learn about it; they only experience Primary series as a restriction on their marvelous, glowing asana superpowers.
Tangentially, this is something I meant to credit Kathryn Budig with: from her online presence, it looks like she should be producing Flow Monkeys left and right, but when she taught in Indy, she lived, like I said, deeply in her ashtanga background and she credited the system in ways that I really enjoyed and that felt totally sincere.
The third thing that I'm annoyed by (and this is not a type of student) is a blog post or rhetoric generally that takes Singleton (most of the time) or someone else, and uses new "yoga history" to try to destroy all the myths and the wonder, in the name of "clarification." Conclusions drawn here often take the form of "all asana is only a century old, so no system is better than any other" (relativism) and "the West is making up yoga now, so it's really moved on from its Eastern roots" (relativism, differently stated). The main problem with these, which I also hit (I think, anyway) in the FB reply I quoted above, is that these conclusions only talk about ASANA. It's not that the yoga is becoming "physical" or "Western," it's that we are progressively tossing the Eastern philosophy along with the admittedly-mythical "thousand year old tradition" of asana practice, and ALL WE'RE KEEPING is the asana, and just giving lip service to the rest. Now, I think that digestive asana (bound angle, forward bend) really are quite old, as I recall seeing statuary and carvings with those postures represented (sorry, can't recall where), but as I'm learning in Maehle's pranayama book, pranayama is talked about in some depth by EVERYBODY. More sages and mystics than I can shake a stick at. But look around town for pranayama practice, and you see it discussed as good for athletes and people with allergies (which it is, but notice no mention of meditation in a state of kumbhaka, right?). EVEN THERE, we haven't turned the body to meditation, haven't understood meditation as an EMBODIED STATE. This weird Western idea that the body does not think, is only a flesh bag, cannot be or do anything holy.
This is hardly a brief and concise answer to "is ashtanga for me?" but I really think that it's for anyone who wants to find out about the system, do the work, find their own (always mobile, however slowly) limits within that system, and who wants to be open to the impossible (because long practice DOES bring the impossible). You don't have to have a face-to-floor Baddha Konasana to be able to call it an asana practice, or to be able to do pranayama after, or to be able to access samadhi. Or at least I hope samadhi's not that shallow :D :D :D