A few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised to receive a copy of Kino MacGregor's The Power of Ashtanga Yoga in the mail - I had quite forgotten that I had agreed to review it!
Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my personal journey with ashtanga yoga, and why I decided to move to a different asana (postural) practice. So in reviewing this book I have both personal experience with an ashtanga practice, but also some distance from it.
The book is large-format and about 200 pages. It stays open easily if you lay it flat on the floor, which is always a bonus for a yoga book! The book is divided into two main sections: Part One: Theory, and Part Two: Practice, and it also includes an introduction and some appendices (mantras, full vinyasa count, full primary series in pictures). As a bonus it has a helpful sanskrit glossary at the back.
Part One: Theory
I think that, for me, the strength of this book is in the way in which Kino shares the philosophy behind yoga as a transformational and spiritual practice. This is obviously a testament by someone who has undertaken - is undertaking - a deep and powerful spiritual journey, not just someone who is strong and bendy and famous. The depth of her personal journey shines forth in every word of the book, and for that I have the utmost respect.
History and Tradition
Right from the outset, Kino presents yoga as more than just a physical practice, and she has a humble and accessible tone as she weaves yoga theory into her introduction to the Ashtanga tradition. She starts with a brief history of yoga poses from ancient to modern times, including the evolution of Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga yoga and an overview of Patanjali's Ashtanga yoga, the eight-limbed spiritutal path of yoga of which the physical practice of asana is one limb. [I have to say here that I am not really comfortable with the way she uses the term Ashtanga interchangeably to refer to Patanjali's and Jois's systems. She does clarify that in her view, Jois' system is a blend between the Ashta-anga yoga of Patanjali and the Hatha tradition of postural yoga descended from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, but nonetheless uses the same label to refer to both throughout the book.] She then goes into more detail about the physical elements of (modern) Ashtanga yoga and the theory of how spiritual transformation - letting go of or becoming free from deep-rooted patterns - is realised through physical discipline, which is in itself 'heroic' in nature.
[Oddly although she explains that ashtanga is a six-day-a-week practice, I can't find anywhere where she talks about not practicing on moon days, nor where she discusses whether or not to practice while on your menstrual cycle. The latter seems to me a missed opportunity given that this is one of the only ashtanga books out there actually written by a woman. Did I just miss it?
It also irks me a little that the book presents ashtanga yoga as the only type of yoga - equating modern ashtanga with Patanjali's Ashta-anga, and not mentioning how the other types of yoga, both asana-based and non-physical, fit into the yogasphere. Obviously I get where Kino is coming from, but in an otherwise relatively thorough discussion of yoga's history, it feels like a gap to me. Readers, what do you think?]
Kino then goes into quite a bit of descriptive detail about the heart of the Ashtanga method, the tristana: breath, pose and gaze, and talks a little about how the practice works to free up blockages, or granthis, in the energetic body. She describes the origins of the Vinyasa 'ritual' as a sacred, purifying practice; an oblation to burn away our negative habits and set us free.
The yogic diet
Kino devotes an entire section of her first chapter to the yogic diet. She talks in a very grounded way about the practical and ethical arguments for a vegetarian diet and how these relate not only to the physical practice of yoga but to a spiritual and ethical awakening that stems from the practice. I appreciate that despite her obvious passion for ethically-rooted vegetarianism, Kino takes the time to point out that the desire shift to a vegetarian diet needs to come from within each individual practitioner, and that practicing the ritual of vegetarianism without a true commitment to ahimsa - nonharming - is not truly 'yogic.'
One sentence strikes me as particularly important: "If you force yourself to eat a strict vegetarian diet, you may be committing a subtle act of violence against yourself. It is not useful for force yourself to be a vegetarian or anything else. Instead, the path of yoga patiently waits for a day when you feel the desire to change your lifestyle into a more peaceful relationship with yourself and your planet." I wish she had emphasised the first part of this sentence more, because I don't believe - and more pertinently nor does Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of healing through diet - that strict vegetarianism is the right health choice for everyone. Also, it is entirely possible that a vegetarian diet can be harmful to the planet (google how soy bean cultivation contributes to the deforestation of the Amazon for example). Anyway, that is perhaps fuel for another post.
Suffice it to say that Kino is evidently passionate that developing a healthy and nourishing relationship with food is fundamental to a yoga practice on both a physical and spiritual level, and I think it's a fantastic and important inclusion in a 21st century yoga book (a century in which the state of both human excess and suffering will be increasingly defined by our relationship to food and the food chain, given the necessity of feeding 7-9 billion human beings).
The spiritual journey of asana
This section gets to the heart of yoga as a spiritual practice. Kino blows away the temptation to become obsessed with the physical accomplishments of yoga, recounting Jois' words when presented with a photograph of someone doing an impressive physical posture: "That not yoga. That only bending. Yoga means self-knowledge."
The emphasis of this section is that the cultivation of a healthy body is part of a spiritual practice, in that it provides the spirit a clean and healthy environment in which to reside. It is not a goal in and of itself. The real transformation of yoga, Kino says, occurs when you let go of your deeply entrenched psychological and emotional patterns. The practice of asana puts us in honest, often brutal confrontation with these entrenched patterns that dictate how we see the world and see ourselves. Through the journey of asana, we come face-to-face with our fears, anger, frustration, tears, laughter and joy. We learn to experience these states of being instead of running away from them, and over time, we experience powerful releases that eventually transform us and liberate us from those deep-rooted patterns (samskaras) and towards a place of knowing our true self and being at peace with ourselves. The practice of asana without that transformation is "only bending."
Part Two: Practice
The second part of the book is a pose-by-pose rundown of the Ashtanga Primary series. I think Kino has achieved a very difficult thing here, in that she gives information that is both suited to beginners but that will also satisfy the experienced practitioner. She also gives tips for how to approach the Primary Series if you are new to it, in terms of 'gateway poses' and suggestions for where to check your energy levels and consider moving to the finishing poses.
She rounds up Part Two with a section on strength, where she explains the bandhas and the concept of strength from the inside out, and provides some tips on working towards jumping through, jumping back (including from lotus), and chakrasana. She also has a few paragraphs here countering the contemporary gender dogma of "man strong, woman bendy" and other such assumptions that we may be bringing to our practice or that others may bring to us.
For each pose Kino gives a very detailed description - sometimes more than a page - of the alignment, energetic focus and effects, and benefits of the pose. This could be massively overwhelming for someone new to yoga, and thankfully she also offers beginner's variations (including photographs) and tips for working towards the full poses.
The one thing I think is missing here is a discussion of contra-indications for the postures. Some of these may seem obvious to someone who has been practicing yoga for some time: if you have a herniated disc you should generally avoid forward bends, if you have high blood pressure you should approach inversions with caution, if you have recently had a hip replacement then you want to avoid weight-bearing hip openers, etc. But for the yoga newbie, none of that is self-evident. More and more people are coming to yoga because of health issues that they have in their life: diabetes, stress, chronic fatigue, back pain, sports injuries, the list goes on. The risk here is that if people pick up this book and read about all this incredible transformation that is possible through the practice of yoga without having any guidance as to what may or may not be right for them, they may undertake a practice that is harmful to them or worse, cause them injury or pain.
As a book that markets itself to beginners, I think that's an unfortunate omission.
I would strongly recommend this book to current Ashtanga practitioners (or other hatha yoga practitioners) who want to grow their understanding of the roots of the system and seeking to deepen their knowledge of the philosophy behind the practice of postural yoga as a spiritual or transformational discipline.
I would recommend this book to people who seeking to begin an Ashtanga practice and who are generally healthy and have no current medical conditions, although I would of course advise them (as Kino does) to seek out an experienced teacher as a complement to a home practice.
I would not recommend this book to people who are seeking to begin a yoga practice and who have a medical condition, have recently had surgery, or who are looking for a healing practice for an immediate physical condition. In my opinion the book doesn't provide enough guidance on contra-indications to make it a safe option for someone dealing with an immediate physical injury or health issue, and the rigid sequencing of the Ashtanga series may not suit people dealing with certain medical conditions or injuries. Instead, seek out a yoga book with a therapeutic orientation such as the thereapeutically-oriented work of BKS Iyengar, Gary Kraftsow or Mukunda Stiles. Still better, find an experienced yoga teacher, preferably a yoga therapist, and work with them one-on-one to get recommendations for what type of yoga practice is best suited to you. Once you have some personalised guidance and experience working with your body in a healthy, holistic way, then this book would be a nice complement to that.
And finally, to wrap up, some great quotes:
"Yoga is a sanctuary where you learn to listen to your body."
"At its best, yoga is a nondogmatic, nonreligious path toward self-realization."
"The untrained human mind runs toward pleasure and away from pain, and this constant effort fuels the cycle of suffering. Regular asana practice teaches yoga practitioners how to maintain a balanced state of mind and ultimately break free from this addictive pattern."
"The best gift that yoga gives you is the retraining of the mind's habit patterns to help you face difficulty directly with a brave heart."
"Toning the body or perfecting a high level of physical performance is never an end in itself. In fact, yoga actually teaches you how to release attachment and identification with your body, as well as your mind and emotions. It helps you learn how to identify with the seat of the soul within yourself."
If you do decide want to purchase the book, it's available online through the publisher, Shambala Publications, here.