Yoga Scholar Gregor Maehle says that Ashtanga Yoga really is for everyone, including those with inflexible bodies. Gregor (seen here giving a workshop in Tokyo recently) explains how physical limitations can often lead to a deeper understanding of the practice and ultimately your spiritual self.
There is a misconception out there that Ashtanga Yoga is really only for the young and fit and that if you are unfit or not flexible enough you will not be able to do it. In this article I will address this misconception and show that Ashtanga Yoga is an ancient spiritual discipline that can be practiced by all.
Somehow during the transmission into Western culture it lost its spiritual background and acquired instead a very rigid practice format. Today the fancy-posture-pic social-media projects espouse the myth that you can attain self-love and self-respect once you have achieved prowess in asana (posture). By participating in this myth we are simply transferring the current paradigm of our society, i.e. we can love and accept ourselves as we are only once we have achieved educational or material prowess, onto yoga. I don’t know how you feel about this but I started yoga in an attempt to leave this paradigm behind as it had done me no good.
I am practicing yoga now for almost 40 years and out of those, Ashtanga has been my mainstay for almost three decades. During the last two decades I focused a lot on training teachers and initially I subscribed to another modern Ashtanga myth that to be a promising Ashtanga apprentice you must be physically gifted. However, I observed that many of my physically promising students did not go on to become great teachers. On the other hand there were many students at whom due to their physical limitations I initially sneered at, who went on to become excellent teachers. This is comparable to many other arts in life where the great trainers are not necessary the ones that are gifted in a particular discipline.
To be gifted can mean that you do not have to enquire deeply into what’s necessary to succeed since you anyway can already do what’s required. On the other hand if you are not gifted this can provoke a deep inquiry into what needs to be done to succeed. This in turn can lead to the capacity to convey that to other students who have similar problems. I therefore believe today that it is good for a teacher to have a problematic body themselves so that they can learn how to heal it.
Modifying the asana practice
The most important thing I understood about yoga is that it is not that the students are there for the yoga but that the yoga is there for the students. That means that if the practice does not serve the current needs of the student it must be adapted until it does. This is a maxim that was pointed out by Shri T Krishnamacharya but is often lost today. Some of the key issues that would lead us to adapt the practice are knee issues, shoulder problems and flexion dominance. Of course there are many more but this is simply an article and not a book that addresses them all.
If you look at the Primary Series you can see that it was originally developed for students who had already reasonably open hips. This is due to the fact that in India in the old days people didn’t use table and chairs but lived sitting on the floor. If you sit cross-legged on the floor from an early age on, your hips will never stiffen and you will be able to do complex postures such as Marichyasana B or Garbha Pindasana without harming your knees. I found that dealing with Western students it became necessary to introduce postures such as Baddha Konasana early on and only once hip joints had opened would I insert the more difficult postures to arrive at the original sequence.
Another issue is that there is not enough pulling in the Ashtanga practice and people end up with underdeveloped shoulder stabilizers. I call this a front/back imbalance, meaning the pectoralis group becomes overdeveloped and the rhomboids and lower trapezius underdeveloped. This can easily be countered by some simple therapeutic exercises but a lot of orthodox teachers refuse to integrate them into their classes because they don’t want to contradict the myth that simply repeating the same practice without questioning would fix all problems. Remember the old adage, “The definition of madness is to repeat the same actions and to expect a different result.”
Yet another important subject is what to do with a student that has practiced the primary series for a few years and due to stiff hips or other limitations has absolutely no chance of ever moving on to the Intermediate Series with its important backbends. The orthodox view is to leave the student in Primary Series forever. I have noticed that this often does not work. If a student practices Primary over and over again for years their body will eventually become flexion dominant since the Primary Series contains nothing but forward bends. This means that in the body of the student a strong imbalance develops. We can easily counteract this by allowing the student to include a few or in some cases more than a few (intermediate) backbends to balance the acquired flexion dominance. However in orthodox Ashtanga this is seen as going against the sacrosanct order of the postures. What’s more important, the dogma or the well-being of the student?
My most important point, however, is that the spiritual aspects of Ashtanga are often not emphasized enough. I am trying through my books to open people more to this side of this magnificent practice. I still think that Ashtanga is miraculous but only if you use the energy generated in your asana practice to then invest it into the higher limbs. And it is not that difficult either (if you have the right information) but you need to make a beginning. What we are really looking for is spiritual ecstasy and a direct and personal revelation that we are indeed worthy of love. No human being will ever stop short of that ultimate confirmation. We will keep looking for it in the strangest places, and we will go on and on until we reach it and in the meantime make a mess of our lives and the world in which we live.
To avoid that I introduce to my students pranayama and yogic meditation as early as possible. These so-called higher limbs will give you independence from sensory stimulus. In yoga a very important sensory stimulus is, “If I look better in the postures than the average of the class I feel good about myself and if I don’t I think I suck”. The so-called higher limbs of yoga will make you independent of how good your postures look. In other words you will be able to say, “How ever many postures I have mastered, or how much real estate I own, or how many academic degrees to my name, I truly love myself.” This inner peace and self-acceptance we look for cannot be found in asana but it is easily found in yogic pranayama and yogic meditation. Asana is only the way to prepare the body. If we manage to restore this original purpose of asana then Ashtanga Yoga will return to what it once was, a path to spiritual freedom based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, that is open to all and not just the physically gifted.
About Gregor Maehle
Gregor Maehle began his yogic practices almost 40 years ago. In the mid-1980s he commenced annual travels to India, where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters, traditional Indian sadhus and ascetics. He spent fourteen months in Mysore, and in 1997 was authorised to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois. Since then he has branched out into researching the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of yoga. He gained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied history, philosophy and comparative religion at various universities.
In India Gregor also received eight months of mostly one-on-one instruction in scripture and the higher limbs of Yoga through B.N.S. Iyengar, a student of T. Krishnamacharya, and he studied Sanskrit under Professor Narayanachar and Dr Chandrasekhar. He lived for several years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit and yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. Together with his wife, Monica, in 1996 he founded 8 Limbs in Perth, Australia.
Gregor’s internationally acclaimed textbook series consisting of Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy, Ashtanga Yoga: The Intermediate Series, Pranayama: The Breath of Yoga, Yoga Meditation: Through Mantra, Chakras and Kundalini to Spiritual Freedom and Samadhi The Great Freedom – have sold more than 75,000 copies worldwide and have been translated into seven foreign languages. Further volumes are in progress. He has been invited to many countries to teach and has contributed to and been interviewed by numerous yoga magazines.
Today he teaches an anatomically sophisticated interpretation of traditional vinyasa yoga, integrated into the practice of the highe