Ashtanga vinyasa yoga begins with Samasthithi, the upright standing position that my teacher David Garrigues refers to as “zero position”. According to David, Samasthithi is the start, stop and renewal of which all poses are either moving away from or back to. Postures have complimentary paired directions – right and left, forward and back, up and down. Samasthithi is the mid-point between all paired directions. For example, one common definition of the up/down pair uses gravity and Earth as a frame of reference. Gravity is the force that causes things to fall toward the Earth – defined as the down direction. Up is defined as the opposite direction of down. To stand upright in Samasthithi there is a play between down and up to find a middle point. This play of the middle must occur between the three complimentary directional pairs to find the position of “zero”- where everything is equal. The Sanskrit word for Samasthithi means equal standing.
The Ashtanga vinyasa system has an intelligent, strong foundation that I like to refer to as the “bookends”. The bookends are there for the exploration of finding the middle! A bookend according the the dictionary is “an object that is designed to support an upright row of books (think Samasthithi). It is placed on either end to prevent books from falling over (think finding the middle).” The first bookend is made of Surya Namaskara and the Standing Series. These postures offer an excellent opportunity to explore the middle of directions in a much favorable position – standing upright. The second bookend is made up of back bends and the Finishing Sequence. These postures explore the middle by turning the body upside down – an excellent opportunity to feel the opposite force of pushing up against gravity.
This play between directional opposites requires the practitioner to deeply explore the balance between strength and flexibility. This requires a LOT of curiosity and self-questioning like, “what am I feeling, what is the opposite, what direction am I moving?” AND – this curiosity is a lifetime of questioning, working, feeling, sensing, enjoying, strategizing, and gritting, yes- sometimes it takes grit to stay curious!
I bring up the bookends because not only are they foundational, they are also the poses of the future! Once you have learned and practice beyond the bookends (moving into primary series, second, third, etc.) what you will find over the course of time is you will eventually hit a wall of NOT understanding. I mean not being able to find the middle in this “new” future pose. It is during those times that the bookends are ready for you to return to again. David says there is “no graduation”. This means that sometimes we have to step back and re-explore our beginning before we can figure out how to move forward. The bookends are what supports us, keeps us upright, keeps us from falling over- remember the definition? If all of the postures are coming from Samasthithi and we return again to the beginning perhaps you will find the theme of the asana, the middle point, and the intelligence within to move well. This applies to injury too. If you find yourself injured and stop practice completely, then heal, then come back and re-injure yourself, you will probably blame yoga. BUT- what if during that time you started over again? Re-explored position zero? Ground zero is the beginning state or starting point. Starting over, exploring, re-defining sensation, listening, ah… curiosity with grit! I’m constantly working on “no-graduation” with my students and also myself, learning to unlock the middle. The Ashtanga practice is giving you the pieces to the puzzle but it’s up to you to PLAY!
May your practice feed our soul!