Two weeks ago, in teacher training, we studied with a terrific teacher, Fran Ubertini. She is a great combination of high energy and straight talk, being born and raised in Brooklyn in a big Italian family. Plus she knows her stuff and has been around long enough to have worked through exactly what yoga means to her (hint: it ain't just asana).
At the end of our weekend of training, she lead us through an agna laghava sequence, which I think means something like "lighting the flame" but please correct me if my Sanskrit is off. In the Desikachar tradition, there is a lot of attention paid to how yoga moves prana (loosely translated as life force, energy, or sometimes even breath) and apana (waste, elimination). Various asana create more prana or work to burn up apana. It is all on a subtle plane and not something immediately tangible. In agna laghava, we practiced the asana by doing a full inhalation and full exhalation and then, while holding on the exhalation, actually moving into or out of the posture. I think that means we were using prana to burn up apana, if I understood it correctly.
Although it is simple in concept, it is not a practice for beginning students because it assumes that you have a rather large breath capacity and that you are generally fit enough that the series of postures you are doing are not challenging from a physical standpoint. In other words: do not try this at home. It is something to be done with the guidance of a teacher who knows you and your breathing patterns. While Fran didn't know us very well, she figured that we were basically good to go as 500- and 700-hr teacher trainees.
We did some rounds of a very simple sun salutation and then some other standing postures - nothing fancy - but it was totally and completely transformative. By the time we finished, my state of mind was still and clear and totally ready for meditation, which if you believe the Yoga Sutra, is the main purpose of asana. The thing is, I had never really and truly believed that. I believed that yogis did asana because they lived in the forest without access to healthcare and needed a way to stay healthy (a description of how asana practice came about that I once heard). I believed that our bodies retain a memory of emotions and events deep in our muscles and that asana can help release them (why do I often want to cry when I deeply flex my right hip?). And I believed that doing asana simply makes you feel good - because it does for me every day. But as a preparation for meditation, I did not believe it because it never was for me. I mean, everyday, I simply sit on my cushion to meditate. Asana had nothing to do with it, and so this mysterious connection never felt like a connection. Until it did.
When it did, it kind of rocked my world because it made all the criticisms of ashtanga that my teacher has been sharing with me (after twenty years of practicing ashtanga herself) seem valid. Even as I have learned a lot about myself and my body through ashtanga, the fact remains that it is limited in terms of helping one to achieve the eighth limb of yoga: a state of samadhi. I would go so far as to say that practicing whatever series you are working on will never bring you to that state. And I think it is not a sustainable practice once you reach a certain age. Although I know people in their sixties doing it, in a way, I feel a little sorry for them. Do they still need that much asana? Why? This is an important question!
After confessing all, my teacher gave me a new daily home practice that is (surprise!) an agna laghava practice. It isn't much asana and the main focus is the breath and concentration of mind. It is surprisingly difficult! But I really love it. As for my dear ashtanga practice? I have decided to call it my workout and I do it after yoga and meditation.
It is an awesome workout - you should see my biceps!