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William Robertson’s article on advanced asanas, part 1

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Advanced asanas

This is an amended version of William Robertson’s article, "Are Advanced Asanas Useful or Necessary, and How do they become safely possible? The Nature of a Progressive Hatha Yoga Practice" previously published  in DIPIKA, the Journal of the Maida Vale Iyenga Yoga Institute, in July 1996. Part two of the article compares two of the most popular forms of hatha yoga practiced in the West: Iyengar and Astanga vinyasa.

What is the point, it might well be asked, of developing an advanced asana practice, especially when we sometimes hear that all of the postures exist within Utthita Trikonasana (the Triangle pose); or that all one really has to do to maintain well-being and move toward enlightenment is Padmasana (Lotus), or Sirsasana (Headstand)? Furthermore, are there dangers of physical or psychological harm if we exceed our readiness, experience or appropriate knowledge, and perform asanas with inadequate preparation? Resultant injury may not even be as immediate as a torn muscle or a broken toe; perhaps conditions such as endometriosis may arise as the result of the practice of inverted poses by women during menstruation, or distortions to one’s skeletal structure from inappropriate or one-sided practice. I have come across long-time practitioners with bowed legs from too much sitting and insufficient standing and squatting, and those with a thoracic kyphosis (humped upper back) from years of forward bends and insufficient progression into back-bending.
An overly aggressive and forceful attitude may delay us further from our goals if it is not balanced by objectivity and detachment. The use of force to break through stiffness and "get the pose" may well have the undesirable effect of conditioning this approach to pranayama, where the results, we are warned, may cause more serious damage to our psychological stability, nervous system, or to our vital organs. An overemphasis on "achievement" alone is possibly as much of a futile digression as excess comfort. Everthing has its place. Supportive, rejuvenating asana which often requires no work once the optimum position has been found, is often extremely comfortable. These positions, such as supported Halasana on a purpose-built bench can be a wonderful, albeit temporary, panacea, for not only insomnia and stress but for the rajasic nature of modern living generally. Either approach would seem to be a material bondage within a spiritual discipline ostensibly lacking a worldly purpose such as mere pleasure or fitness, or even health. Physical adeptness alone can serve to inflate the ego rather than restrict it to its necessary place and functions.

Historical background

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras the qualities of asana practice are described, for example: comfort and firmness, effort and detachment; whereas knowledge of asanas themselves is disregarded or assumed. Possibly the details of asanas were common knowledge at the time the Sutras were composed, or were not considered as important as the overall philosophy of practice. It is also quite possible that it was not common practice to attempt to develop the full range of asana, if one hadn’t begun yoga practice at an early age, or was not naturally flexible. Many of the preparatory positions most people today find most difficult – such as lotus, kneeling and squatting – were commonplace to those accustomed to spending more of their time sitting on the ground or floor. However, practice of the more difficult standing postures, twists, sitting positions, balances and backbends has probably always been uncommon, despite their substantial benefits. The spiritual goal of the subject was probably always considered foremost, with the techniques regarded as transient tools, and the physical and psychological benefits less-than-important bonuses, which could nevertheless indicate the practitioner was on the right track!
Curiously, more advanced asanas are also generally not mentioned in the later (Medieval) classical texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita; especially the back-bending poses. Emphasis in these more practical expositions of the classical astanga yoga system of Patanjali is on the seated and forward bending poses such as Padmasana, Virasana, Siddhasana, Paschimottanasana and Yoganidrasana. These positions are more obviously related to the samyama "conclusive drawing together" practices of pratyahara (inward turning of the senses), pranayama (internal energy management using the breath), dharana and dhyana (concentration and meditation) that approach the final goal of the merging state of selflessness, known as samadhi. Most Westerners need a huge amount of preparation to do even these postures well, as a precursor to both the mentioned samyama practices, and the more difficult asanas. Likewise, the techniques of pranayama, the cleansing kriyas and the energy-sealing mudras (including the three bandhas) receive more mention in the classical texts.

Apparent advantages of advancing practice

So to what advantage is the practice of the more difficult asanas so well catalogued in B.K.S. lyengar’s "Light on Yoga"?. The physical and mental benefits of each are expounded and the full range of postures are utilised in his therapeutic schedule for various diseases (LoY, Appendix 2). Many of these asanas must be modified, simplified and adapted through the use of props to meet the capacity of the individual, but the primary level poses described in his Course One (LoY, Appendix 1) include a full range of movements adequate for the average individual to optimise and maintain health during his or her lifetime, "and bring harmony to the mind".
But clearly this alone is not considered to be equivalent to our final goal, and throughout this text and his other writings and talks, ongoing perseverance is assumed and expected, for those "who have sufficient devotion for the Science". To those who do venture further it is intimated that our initial results deepen; an ongoing development accompanied by increasing wellness, firmness, vigour, courage and mental equilibrium. The practice of a complete range of asanas also presumably prepares one in the best possible way to be physically attuned and responsive enough, and sufficiently psychologically subtle and fearless, to go deeply into pranayama and samyama. Their development is likely to inform and develop within us a deeper insight into our humanity and the nature of truth, progressing us toward moksa, the final liberation this combination might offer to us. One other advantage of advanced practice, is that these asanas can continue to inform us in the use of the simpler poses, as well as the correct instruction of students with varying difficulties, proficiency and aptitude.

The challenge to progress

Our potential continues to be beyond our envisioned limits, not unlike the initial physical changes in our body when we first start practising. Ideally then we can be a light to others as we begin to develop some strength, spaciousness and freedom, within our minds as well as our bodies. When I was last studying at the Ramamani Iyengar Institute in Pune, in late 1995, Mr Iyengar admonished, as perhaps he has before, that once he had imagined that some of his students might surpass him; then shaking his head, laughing and seeming to feign disappointment, said that it now seemed very unlikely! It is probably the intention of B.K.S. Iyengar not only for us to venerate his own practice and teaching, but rather and perhaps more to the point, for us to emulate his example, according to our own capacity and potential. Just as he has revolutionised the practice of hatha yoga and propagated a systematic method throughout the world, beyond the achievement of his own teacher, perhaps his intention for us is, through our own greater effort and commitment, we attempt something similar. The challenge to consciously transcend perceived limitations is the clear objective. Hatha yoga, as it becomes increasingly established throughout the world, is becoming an opportunity for a lifelong commitment to a progressive external ("physical") evolution and an interior ("spiritual") transformation.

William Robertson holds an Iyengar Teaching Certificate, is a registered general & psychiatric nurse (NZ), and holds a Diploma in Counselling. His principal teacher is Shandor Remete. William teaches in London and holds retreats throughout the world. For more information see William’s website.