Moving “authentically” in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga



“An authentic movement is in and of the Self at the moment it is done.  Nothing is in it that is not inevitable, simple.  When it is authentic, I can almost tell you what is coming next.  When I see somebody move authentically, it is so real that it is undiluted by any pretense or any appearance or images.  Often, it can be the movement of just one hand turning over, or it can be the whole body.  To get to this authenticity sacrifice is involved.  At first it is a discovery of all of the tricks, needs and demands that separate you from what would be genuine in yourself.  Then after you have discovered what this trick is and what it prevents, it must be sacrificed, as must each subsequent one as it is discovered.  The reality of impulse and movement come from such a different place in oneself that when it is experienced, the person comes to know when it is there and when it isn’t, and then she can stop cheating.  What I call ‘cheating’ would be the personal arrangement of movement on many levels…”  Mary Starks Whitehouse in Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow

MSW is speaking about a therapeutic form in which a client is witnessed as he or she begins to move in whatever manner feels right at that moment, a conscious exploration of sensations and impulses.  The form is thus intended to be completely free and unfabricated, at times highly idiosyncratic and steeped in layers of emotion.  Much more would need to be said to do this kind of practice justice, but what I would like to address here is how much we need this kind of attitude even within a seemingly prescribed movement sequence such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

The polarity often discussed in Authentic Movement is that of moving and being moved.  Any of us who have tried yoga have worked on the moving part, the purposeful arrangement of the body and use of various techniques and theories.  Only the most elite masters seem to have grasped the being moved part, which is evident when you see them practice, though many of us have no doubt had at least some moments where we become possessed in this way.  Like Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, you are not the Doer.  However, most of us on some level feel we are and we look like we are when we get down on the mat…  No, it is not about looks in the end, however, we can also feel that something is missing when we are not completely attuned to the deepest aspects of our being.

Many Ashtangis will jump to say, “Yes, that is why we have always said Iyengar yoga (focused on alignment) sucks,” but this is not at all what I mean (I love it).  The body actually wants to move in an organic way, yet unless we sense into every split-second of the movement, we lose this flow and replace it with top-down or automated dictatorship.  You cannot really have one side without the other, also talked about in the 2-fold yoga path described by Patanjali as abhyasa-vairagya.  If we do not get the body in the vicinity of brilliant alignment where natural impulses can actually function, they are unable to work efficiently for us, (and these inner impulses seem to involve a great deal more than simply squeezing the anus, which is all the glory internal form is given in some circles…)  Likewise, deity visualizations and anatomical/kinesiological understanding can help our body to start to move in the ways that will feel most liberating.  We may try to understand what it means to allow the pelvic floor or “mula bandha” organize the pose, or let the breath do the work, but in order for this to happen, we need to listen so deeply and carefully (and continuously), setting the stage and sending the invitations, and finally allowing those impulses to direct us or perform for us when they actually show up.

For me, and I think for most of us, this involves relinquishing a great deal of cognitive control.  So many of us are in lock-down, totally wedded to a form we have imagined or seen in a book or another practitioner.  My teacher always jokes that it’s like he’s teaching in a morgue!  Our minds have gotten the body so stuck that the breath and life are choked right out of us.  We are not likely to look for the authentic movement going into poses or staying in poses, where so much magic can take place.  There are infinite numbers of transformations possible for however long we are in a pose.  This might simply involve micro movements and fine tuning, finding more dignity within a contortion, or at times becoming more contorted in order to feel certain other polarities.  Sometimes it might be stillness, which reveals its opposite and background.  It’s a dance, though it might not look like any kind of dance we have ever seen, nor will it ever happen in the same way again.  Just as we are all composed of waves and spirals, so too the body enjoys moving, which is strangely alien to the ego, who wants us to have a solid identity and just stick the pose “right” and move on to the next victory without feeling into the vast and groundless reality that there is no end to any pose, nor to us for that matter.

In asana, as in life, we follow the prescription, do the forms as obedient little students, and miss out on the real juice.  If we managed to tune in for even a few moments, we would start to feel the emotional and archetypal energy in our bodies and simultaneously feel the immense relief and freedom of total embodiment.  My teacher always says that if we could pay attention for even 2 seconds, we would fall into the central channel (Sushumna Nadi) and experience great insight.  It is humbling to truly inquire into whether we have ever managed to pay close attention for any amount of time at all in our practices.

If the central channel opens, it is said that core sensations are unleashed at an intensity our distraction usually keeps at bay.  Our protective ego structure would rather keep us out of this experience of the Self.  It would rather keep us in our reductive stories and limited beliefs and behaviors, which are safer and far less gratifying.  However, somehow we know we are missing something.  We naturally seek out intense experiences that will allow us to get a taste for this true absorption, anything short of which leaves us feeling like phony shells of our true potential.

Later in the same chapter, MSW speaks about simply becoming more aware of our tendencies, constrictions and ways of posturing ourselves, how we sit, shake hands, etc.  All of this will be reflected in our asana practice.  We move as the mass of habits we have become over the years, in most cases far more inhibited than when we came into this world as children.  As soon as we start to truly tune in to whatever we are doing, we will start to feel something asking us to adjust, or leading our attention to some aspect that was previously being kept out of our awareness.  In fact we might be shocked to find that we have been slouching in an incredibly uncomfortable position for hours!  Many of us torture ourselves throughout our practice as well, zoned out to the sensations until they become intolerably excruciating.

Of course, so many spiritual paths converge on the view that future suffering can and should be avoided.  Looking into our being and discovering needless restrictions, rules, layers of conditioning, shame, guilt, whatever else keeps us feeling stuck, allows us moments of relief when we can let go of some of the needless tensions, involuntary recoiling and brainy rigidity that make certain we have to keep striving and struggling rather than just being and actually letting so many things take care of themselves, as they truly will when we are alert enough to get out of the way.  At the same time, when we notice we are suffering and no easy solution appears, we do not take the attitude of whitewashing over it without listening.  We hold it as we would a baby who has begun to cry and needs our tenderness.  We start to discover who we really are, far more capable and vulnerable than we may ever have realized.

I find it extremely helpful personally to do Authentic Movement practices with their apparent lack of form.  They have helped me to begin to see how even within form, there is so much openness and freedom.  (The Heart Sutra comes to mind…)  In addition, allowing the body to go where it wants without censorship quickly throws up in one’s face all kinds of repressed shadow material.  Suddenly I might find myself acting out some kind of sequence that feels highly willful, primitive, seductive, furious or whatever else I might hide from polite society.  Repression will show up in yoga and inhibit everything from the breath to range of motion and might even cause pain and illness.

Making friends with those aspects of myself that nobody else is befriending allows for an experience of unconditional love that we rarely find in our daily life (and it is particularly powerful, not to mention healing, if there is a witness in Authentic Movement or a teacher in yoga who has explored her own depths and who is comfortable with the irreducibility of the self and awesome complexity of the universes, to be there with you as you explore in this intimate way).  The practice has helped me to start to crack my own heart open and have some self-compassion for all of the components that seem to make up “me” at any given time, and to give them what they need when I can and be with them when I can’t.  Slowly I start to see that being with myself this way helps me to be with others.

Shankaracharya has said that true yogis serve (rather than “do”) mula bandha.  On some level, in an Authentic Movement practice or and authentic Ashtanga practice, we are always asking how we can best serve our bodies and other aspects of our being.  In that way, we are continuously confronted with whatever we might have overlooked, be it physical, emotional, or on some other plane.  Ultimately we can see limitless freedom even within the boundaries of a certain yoga pose or transition, and in acknowledging this mystery, we are naturally drawn to look closely again and again and feel into each crevice of our being, allowing very profound feelings and sensations to emerge and meet our warm and kind acceptance.  This is how the practice is becoming increasingly meaningful for me.  It requires a very different attitude than I was used to, so much sensitivity and love, but it’s rewarding immediately, even in the earliest phases of implementation.

Practicing in this way we cannot avoid our humanity, aloneness and interconnectedness.  Sometimes what we feel is not at all pleasant, and sometimes it is pure bliss.  At any rate, it’s prana, and when we feel this pulsation, life becomes more lively.

My Page on Ashtanga Yoga

rf mysore upaya

Discussing shoulder mechanics with Richard during a Mysore class at the advanced teacher’s intensive at Upaya Zen Center in 2013. Photo by Laura Yasuda

Here is a link to my newly revised page describing Ashtanga Yoga.  I have tried to include some of its background and my background in the hopes of inspiring everybody to practice all the time!  🙂