Ashtanga Practice, Ten Years On

I speak often about the great benefit which the practice of Ashtanga Yoga has brought to my practice of Zen. Years and years of 90-day intensive retreats, stacked on end, every winter and every summer for several decades, while perhaps producing disruptive breakthroughs and fantastically laser-like insight, had also produced a lower-back cramped from constant sitting compression. Physics will have its way, even in the work of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. By my mid-40s, two decades of constant meditation retreats and an all-out schedule of teaching were clearly taking their toll. But it was not only me: I noticed that a great many of the Zen monks training together in the traditional Korean temples were also suffering from a “stuckness” in their practice that fairly mirrored my own. Guys were more easily worn out with a brisk mountain walk, than they had been just a few retreats ago. They required more visits to the retreat by the Chinese medicine doctor. I’d had, for many years, a very strong practice of doing 1,000 prostrations a day with mantra, and this did move the “chi” around. But it was taking a very severe toll on the knees — I was sometimes experiencing difficulty walking up stairs. My meditation practice was gliding into a torpor. Something needed to change.

For years and years, there were friends who tried to encourage me rot to yoga. But I poo-pooed the idea, right out of the gate. I had a strongly chauvinistic view of the singular merits of Zen, and I resisted acknowledging anything outside our Zen “toolkit”.

Pushed by an American friend, I first encountered Ashtanga practice at Pure Yoga, Hong Kong, during a trip there to attend a memorial ceremony at Su Bong Zen Monastery in Causeway Bay. The experience — just one or two classes! — was nothing short of revelatory. It rejuvenated my practice — after just one class, the first one, I felt a release of an inner radiance that is hard to put into words. My meditation practice that night was of an easy and natural “depth” that I had not felt in quite some time. And it was just as accessible the next day, and the next.

Returning to Korea, and now passionate about deepening the mind-opening that was enhanced through Ashtanga, I felt very stymied: It was next to impossible to practice yoga while living in mountain temples. What I mean is, I was already somewhat advanced in age — mid-40s, and worn out from a tsunami of public teaching activity and stress — and I was under a constant microscope. The eyes grew large when I even suggested to temple folk that I would be attending yoga courses outside the temple, requiring a dispensation here and there from the attendance at ceremonies and visits of VIPs that can characterise life in such a prominent, busy city/mountain temple as Hwa Gye Sah was, especially in the years around Zen Master Seung Sahn’s passing. And some of the temple members, housewives mostly, were aware of the “gear” that was worn in those places: they would giggle at the thought of a monk stripping off his tightly-starched traditional robes — handed down since time immemorial and fully symbolic of the homeless life — and wearing some form-fitting workout gear, sweating alongside young 20ish and 30ish young women in a yoga center in the middle of the city. The whole image collided with so much of their expectation for you, and in that culture, image and expectation for narrowly-defined roles were rarely — if ever — abused so openly.

I tried to learn along with DVDs, propping up my computer on a stool in my tiny monks’ room. But that was only partly helpful. Due probably to my own peculiar character and learning-habits, I knew it would be necessary to really drill down side-by-side with a strong, skilled teacher who would kick my ass a little bit (due to my lazy character). Nowadays, it is quite common to see Korean monks and nuns practicing in city yoga-centers: But in the last years I was there — and with my level of unfortunate renown — I was uncomfortable in the effort, the only bald-headed guy (and a prominent Westerner, at that!) among spandex-clad women. There were seldom other Korean men in the room. I attracted attention. The wearing of yoga-clothing attracted attention. One Korean yoga teacher who I tried to train with (I found a guy!) kept himself in constant reserve when he needed to put his hands on me to manipulate some body part into deeper alignment. (His female assistants would never even dare to give me the adjustments one so clearly requires to advance in correct alignment of this practice.) People practicing on nearby mats often glanced at me along the way — I was also, ipso facto, causing some minor level of distraction in the room, despite the very best efforts to “blend in”.

One of the reasons I left Korea, in the years between 2007-9, was (again, among other, more salient reasons) so that I could find a strong yoga teacher and train strongly with them. After dabbling here and there for some years in Munich, I was fortunate, in 2011, to be led to a teacher leading a year-round training shala on the island of Crete, in the picturesque old Venetian-Ottoman-Greek town of Rethymno. She was Kristina Karitinou, a direct disciple of S. Patthabi Jois, the legendary “founder” of the form known to people as Ashtanga. Looking at my overweight, inflexible, slightly crumpled and habit-addicted form, she said, “I will break your body down, and rebuild it up from the inside.” Sometimes, there are crystal-clear moments in life when you know you’ve met your match.

And that she did. I spent two months training as a winter Kyol Che there, in the quiet non-tourist months of early 2011. It turned out to be one of the most consequential “retreats” that I ever attended, bar none.

Because I was penniless, and could not afford the proper fees to attend a retreat with such an experienced teacher, for so long, we made a “deal” wherein I would offer meditation teachings for free to her community, in exchange for receiving direct training from Kristina, six days a week.

Rising before sunrise, I would walk the ancient streets of Rethymno, among shuttered stores, and arrive early at the shala, earlier than everyone else, let myself in, and sit in the empty room with a then-student from Germany. Rolling up our yoga mats under the coccyx, he and I would begin with the long, slow breathing-chant of “Om mani padme hum” that I had spontaneously developed while leading public talks back at Hwa Gye Sah Temple, in Korea. (This chant was itself not something I had learned from anyone, and had never seen taught, because it is not taught in our tradition of Korean Zen, or in its Kwan Um School of Zen offshoot, to which I was then still a “trustee” authorised teaching-member. It is merely something which popped straight out of my dan-jeon one afternoon as I sat on the “high seat” preparing to give yet another Sunday Dharma talk at Hwa Gye Sah: “Why keep talking?” I remember asking myself, looking out over the packed room of some 250 people jammed in cheek-to-jowl for yet another entertaining Dharma performance by the uber-famous Western monk. “Why more words and inspirations? How many of them actually walk out of here and practice it at all?” The chant, which I had never done before, and had never even heard before, just gurgled up spontaneously and without plan out of my “center”, and filled the room. The crowd joined in, and by the end, there were tears in some peoples’ eyes. Something had been released, as we merged into the glide path of silent meditation. From then on, it became part of my teaching “tool box” for opening and entering minds, for calling clarity “out” of peoples’ rushed, cramped, synaptically frantic mind-space, wherever I gave talks and led retreats.

In the beginning, in those early Rethymno days of Ashtanga, it was only my German student and me doing the chant, then gliding wordlessly into a mere five or ten minutes of meditation. The morning practitioners were meanwhile gathering outside the glass doors, chatting and socialising. I remember finding this to be so weird: How could people, gathered to do some strong spiritual work of yoga, meditation, whatever you want to call it — how could they start their practice with chit-chat? Had they no sense of what they were tossing away, or cutting themselves off from? I did not yet know “yoga culture” (and, it must be said, what I was experiencing was the Western face of it, commodified mainly as exercise). I was a little bit idealistic about things, believing that we were all in this to deepen the tools of meditative insight. And for many — maybe for most! — the endorphinic satiety of a post-yoga bliss mode was as close as they might be willing to go. And that’s OK. I just did not know it yet.

Kristina began joining us in the early-morning sessions, before she engaged the hard labor of giving hands-on physical “adjustments” to what would become a roomful of strong, sweating machines engaged in all sorts of intense physical and mental effort. She entered the room physically drained and exhausted, a mother of three who’d usually been kept up late being the passionately devoted mother she was. Freshly showered, her hair still wet, she definitely carried the appearance of someone clearly still squeezed empty, physically and mentally, from the previous day’s constant teaching-exertions; again, giving very intensive, full-armed, person-by-person adjustments of every sort of body from every sort of culture, practicing at every sort of “skill-level” (bad term), in what would sometimes be up to three separate classes held every single day. Some very senior practitioners would visit her from other countries, needing her experienced eye and arms to lift their practice to another level. And she always gave her all. The result was a lemon fully pressed out, first thing in the morning, as my German student and I breathed out deeply the infinite six-syllable breath-length treasure of “Ommmmmmmmmmm~ maniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii~ padmeee hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm………..”

From this chant, and glided into meditation, I began teaching Zen in Greece. Now is the tenth year of training and teaching Zen here. The practice of Ashtanga bloomed inside, meanwhile, and a small group of Greek (and international) students blossomed up in Greece from the roots of this simple effort to develop a yoga practice which would reinvigorate my Zen. Now, work in Greece has equalled the amount of time and energy given to building the work in Germany or elsewhere. We have translated The Compass of Zen into Greek, and every year a not-small number of Greeks make the trip to Regensburg to do deeper immersion in the intensive retreats at the Zen Center. We have a strong core effort based out of Synthesis Center Athens, and until the very doorway of the pandemic, we were hosting there retreats which were packed with a waiting list. Clearly, there is strong existential hunger here for the practice!

Over the years, my connection with Ashtanga practice has waxed and waned a bit. (I am exceptionally talented in the arts of extreme laziness.) But I am recently reconnecting, and it feels good again, exactly ten years on. And I’m feeling very grateful.

Again.

These photos were taken by a photographer when I travelled to give some talks in Belgrade before the pandemic. She was hired by a yoga studio there to do some publicity for the studio, and came in while I was practicing alone one day before giving a public Dharma talk. If you can actually believe it, I release these photos under extreme mortification and embarrassment, if only for a few to feel inspired to know what a totally lazy good-for-nothing sometime-meditator can possibly hope to accomplish for himself, over the age of 50, to better his health and general all-around well-being, with just a little consistent effort, some great practicing friends, persistence, and not a little fear of the toll he has always been wreaking on the mind-body machine. Formal mistakes abound in the photos — Kristina would have so much to correct me for, not the least of which is even releasing these shots themselves. But there — it’s done. Zen Master Seung Sahn’s admonition “Don’t make anything!” was never so egregiously flouted.

All photos by Djurdjica Vali Crnić.

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