Advanced Asana Practice and Circus Acrobatics
1) The circus
In the book, "Guruji", a collection of interviews with some of the earlier and primarily western students of Pattabhi Jois, Nancy Gilgoff, a well known Ashtanga yoga teacher, described a trip in which Pattabhi Jois took his early western students to a circus in Bengaluru (then Bangalore). When the students exclaimed that the acrobats in the circus were amazing and compared their flexibility to those of the yogis doing asanas, Pattabhi Jois laughed and told them that even though those acrobats were amazingly flexible what they were doing was not yoga.
2) How is yoga different from acrobatics ?
So, the question that a student of yoga normally asks is, "How is yoga different from acrobatics that one finds in a circus? ", to which the reply that is normally given by a teacher, especially one following the ashtanga vinyasa system, is, "The synchronization of the breath to the movement is what makes the difference". This is however not true because adept acrobats indeed use the breath in synchronization with the movement.
So then, what is the difference between yoga asana practice and acrobatics ? Pattabhi Jois would say that "yoga is all internal. It is not physical. " (Please see this interview with Pattabhi Jois at 00:29). The difference between yoga asana and acrobatics primarily lies in the mental attitude. If it is practiced with a goal of achievement and display of one's prowess, then it is driven by ego and it is therefore not yoga. It is acrobatics. If asanas are practiced with a goal of maintaining health, it becomes exercise. If practiced with the aim of stilling the mind and tuning into one's inner self, it becomes yoga. Very often people who start with the former two motives realize the mental benefits after years of practice and change their attitude towards asana practice.
This philosophy is captured in the three sutras on asanas of a total of 196 sutras that form the yoga sutras of Maharishi Patanjali.
2.46) स्थिर सुखम् आसनम्
Sthira Sukham Asanam
A steady and comfortable posture is called an asana
2.47) प्रयत्न शैथिल्य अनन्त समापत्तिभ्याम्
Prayatna Shaitilya Anantha Samapatthibhyam
Effort and relaxation results in a infinitely blissful meditative state
2.48) तथो द्वन्द्वा अनभिघातः
Tatho Dvandhvaa Anabhigathah
Then the dualities (conflicts) in the mind are eliminated (and the mind is more settled)
It is to be noted that no complex asana is mentioned in the Yoga Sutras. In fact Patanjali just defines asanas as a poses that one can hold steadily and comfortably for a long period to prepare the body for sitting in meditation for a long time.
3) The yesteryear Indian and the modern approach to asanas
Yoga, these days, has become highly commercialized. The "sale" of yoga is especially boosted by clothing it in a veil of ancient mystery and spirituality. Forms of yoga like the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, especially, have become very rigid because of the emphasis solely on outer form and not so much on the inner mental states. It does not seem to resemble the way it was taught by Pattabhi Jois in the 60's and 70's to the predominantly Indian students before "it took the world by storm" and is practiced predominantly by western students. In the book, "Guruji", several western practitioners describe how there was a different approach of Pattabhi Jois' Indian students during the 70's as compared to his western students then. The western students were working toward a goal and were more disciplined in their approach. For the Indian students, it was a daily ritual. Paraphrasing Peter Sanson from the book,
"There was a significant difference between the energies of the western and the Indian students during the 70's. The Indian students were much more relaxed about their approach and would often stop and chat amongst themselves, especially when Guruji left the room for coffee.
They were not so much into pushing or straining; they were not so hung up on who was doing what asana; their practice was more like a gentle daily ritual. I really liked the way they were practicing and it left an everlasting impression on me.
[And like that one guy who would get up every few asanas to fix his hair] they would skip a few things here and there"
While, today, some Ashtanga yoga teachers get furious if a pose is skipped or done incorrectly. While there is nothing wrong in practicing acrobatics, one should then not invoke ancient tradition and spirituality to maintain rigid discipline. And as seen in the excerpt from the book above, there is also nothing wrong in a gentle daily ritualistic approach to yoga. Over time, the mental benefits are indeed obtained.
When one practices asanas with an intention of stilling the mind or to commune with the higher spiritual Self, then the ego is absent and one reaps the full benefit of the asana practice, even if the posture is not textbook perfect. On the other hand when asanas are practiced with an intention of achievement, it is driven by ego and therefore it is just acrobatics.