Wa Yo Yogi

Leanne Kitteridge's adventures in Yoga

Book Review: Yoga Body- The Origins of the Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton May 23, 2011

Yoga Body was first introduced to me last summer by one of my philosophy teachers,  Carlos Pomeda. He suggested Mark Singleton had some interesting things to say on the development of the physical yoga practice ( asana) as we see it today. For many us we seem to think that yoga has been around forever (what was it on the Lululemon bag- 7000 years??)  but really asana, as we know it, is a modern invention. So modern in fact, as Mark brings up in his book- it really is a hybrid of European gymnastics, body building, and military calisthenics interpreted through the lens of an Indian people who were trying to assert their own cultural significance during an occupation by another country.

The beginning of the book is very dry- I believe the author wrote this as his PHD thesis and it is very scholarly in format and sets up his, slightly controversial, argument in the beginning chapters. If you can slog through this foundation he sets up then the last half of the book is well worth it. For those of you without that fortitude, you can start at Chapter 3 and still not lose too much of the background.

The book is divided into chapters that take us from the roots of  colonialism in India and the cultural bias to the often bizarre practices of the yogins, through India’s growing wonderment and participation with the  international physical culture movement. The growth of the body building movement and harmonial gymnastics weaves it’s way from Europe and North America to become influential in the asana development. ( Just a note here that Bikram’s teacher came out of this particular body building lineage in India).  The section on the proliferation of the physical movement through the medium of photographs further brings to light how books, like Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar,  literally became , in my words, our yoga bibles. The final chapter focuses mainly on T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Asana revival- very familiar to many that practice yoga in North America and Europe today.

I offer up that for many yogi’s this book may just be downright disturbing. Towards the end of the book he follows the Krishnamacharya lineage and rather than focusing on all of the descendants of that lineage ( Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, Iyengar, Desikachar etc) he turns his attention more to Pattabhi Jois and the power yoga and Vinyasa yoga cultures that came out of that particular practice. I have heard, and participated in,  many discussions of the Vinyasa method vs the long holds of the Iyengar method.  Mark Singleton brings up a very interesting hypothesis about the speed of Ashtanga yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois. He discusses that the practice in the shala was much slower and postures held much longer than the Ashtanga method that was developed by Pattabhi Jois.  He also goes as far as to postulate that the yoga demonstrations held all over south India under the auspices of the Maharaja ( Krishnamacharya’s sponsor) showcasing the talent of the shala, of which Pattabhi was a key member, were the reason there is a discrepancy between what students recall being taught in the shala versus what became known as Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga.

“The need for a coordinated, high-speed showcase might also explain why, in Jois’s system, postures are usually held only for five ( but up to a maximum of eight) audible “ujjayi” breaths: this would not only allow the models to perfectly synchronize their entry and exit from the pose but would also provide enough time for Krishnamacharya to explain the significance of a posture without taxing the attention of the audience.” ( Singleton, Yoga Body p.195)

While I found this an intriguing argument, I feel that we as the reader are left out of balance slightly because there is no real discussion of the other students that came out of that lineage and who also had significant impact on how we practice yoga today such as B.K.S Iyengar and T.K.V.Desikachar. Why is Iyengar’s yoga  different than Ashtanga? Is Iyengar’s yoga more true to the actual method in the shala at that time? These questions are left unanswered and I feel unsatisfied that equal time and insight were not given to these other students of Krishnamacharya.

The photographs in the book are a marvelous way for the author to back up his arguments- you can see direct correspondence between the European practices at the time and what we now know as yoga postures. I have to admit part of me was a little disappointed to have the mythology ripped away so to speak, but if “yoga” to you means more than the postures on the mat there is a long history to back up the practices of meditation, pranayama and mantra.

Mark’s closing reflections gives us back in some ways, the real power of the posture practice: that physicality can become spiritualized and that spirituality can come into the physical practice. His remarks bring me back to my own yoga practice, which is Anusara yoga, and that Anusara practice always begins with Attitude. If your attitude is that this is a spiritual practice for you than the postural practice will become that- no matter it’s origins.

Though cumbersome to read at times and slightly incomplete and not as fleshed out as I would like it to be as a true historical retracing , I recommend Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body to any serious student of yoga.


The Yoga of Coffee June 16, 2008

Filed under: Japan,yoga — shibuiyoga @ 8:25 pm
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The yogi bearista




The House of Yoga and Zen March 17, 2008


Snuggled in a tomato farm on a twisting Maui road lies a yoga shala. Completely unassuming and rugged, this little building holds one of the biggest hearts in Ashtanga yoga- Nancy Gilgoff. The shala is like Nancy herself- natural, simple and real.

I am an Anusara teacher and I mostly align myself with that method but with children and husband’s needs it was just easier to study ashtanga with my husband, Chris, than it was to try to juggle two styles and two studios and two parts of the island. I had a major break with the Ashtanga system a few years ago and I am very wary of who I study with. I had met Nancy on a previous trip so I had a sense of who she was as a teacher and I felt I could trust her.

Nancy Gilgoff is thought to be the first American woman to travel to India to study Ashtanga yoga with Pattabhi Jois. Certainly she’s one of a trio- including Doug Swenson and David Williams- credited with bringing Ashtanga to America in the 1970s.  She  has dedicated herself to teaching the tradition for close to 30 years- having only stopped teaching for a few years to raise her daughter.

Day one with Nancy was brutal as her and her assistant Casie kept on us about our “Iyengar” habits. By day two, I had sorted out what she did not want me to do and like a good student I followed. My hamstring was still acting up so she asked me to bend my knee in the standing poses…except for prasaritta. She got me to really work the quads and come very forward into my feet… and my head was to be on the floor. She also asked me not to roll my thighs out for seated- she said it could aggravate sciatica and the hamstring. Rather than argue about methods or secretly do my own thing, I honoured the teacher and her experience in this method and did exactly as I was told for the whole two weeks. I figured my hamstring couldn’t be much worse and maybe it would help so I would do and observe. Maybe I would learn something.

Nancy’s focus on the ashtanga practice was not one of perfecting the postures. Unlike other teachers I studied with, I was not constantly stopped at Marichyasana D because I could not bind. To her the practice is of breath and bandhas- it is an energy practice. You move and you move fast- there is a definite rhythm that underlies the pace of the practice. You do not fiddle or fight to get into a posture- one shot- five breaths and you are out- whether or not you bind that day is of no matter. Maintain the breath, maintain the bhandas and keep moving. I noticed that Nancy would often time herself to be right in front of a student at that key moment of going into a bind and just move them there with little effort and maintaining the rhythm. After a few days of practice she knew exactly which poses you could do and which ones you were struggling with. I have to say that Nancy and her assistants Casie and Keiko were amazing- I never once felt in pain or that I was being pushed beyond my boundaries- which unfortunately has happened to me in the past. A bad adjustment in ashtanga can create a deep seated fear  in the posture for years- I know first hand. I literally cringe when a teacher walks up to me in prasaritta C. I noticed that none of them adjusted me in that posture. They obviously realized that my shoulders are just not open enough for my hands to touch the floor….

There was a lightness and a continual flow to the practice at Nancy’s that made it seem so connected. It was more physically centered than heart centered but I could see a connection to something bigger. The idea of just being happy with where you are at that day- not grasping and fighting yourself. Which- I have to say- is how I have often found my ashtanga practice.

I looked around the shala every morning to see practitioners of all ages and abilities: Big, small, short, tall- primary series, second series and third series. What was noticeably absent was egos. No judging , no competition- just people all getting together to share their practice with this incredibly open and accessible teacher. Nancy believes that EVERYONE regardless of age or size can practice ashtanga.

The last day on Maui I told Nancy why I had stopped practicing Ashtanga- I was told I was basically too fat- and that is why I could not bind in Marichyasana D. Nancy was astounded. First she asked if I hit him…which made me laugh. She said that this was becoming a problem with Ashtanga- teachers with too big egos and too little heart. I could see the disappointment on her face. I could never imagine Nancy ever telling a student something like that.

Chris and I had a discussion about Mysore when we left and we wondered why would we go there other than to say we had been there. The classes are so large in Mysore that you are never adjusted and if you are first series you are basically learning from those around you. If one wanted to truly learn and grow under the guidance of a teacher- then practicing with Nancy was a much better experience. I have to say that in many ways Nancy helped me to rekindle my past love of Ashtanga- maybe if she had been my teacher all along I would have never left the method. 

For all of you interested in a yoga vacation, I highly recommend Maui. The island itself just seems to be conducive to yoga. Early morning practice followed by salt water and sun makes for a very happy body. If you are looking for accommodation to study with Nancy  family check out our friend’s cottages- Haiku Makai. They have a great fruit orchard that you can pick from and lots of Aloha spirit.