It is my position that the great, traditional asana sequences are like the epic poems of Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and Ovid. Richard Freeman is a voice uniquely situated to interpret the various Ashtanga Vinyasa series, often by breaking them into sonnets and haikus in order to reveal hidden structure and meaning. Richard’s 60- or 90-minute classes might focus on, say, the first third of second series “Nadi Shodhana” or the last third of primary series “Yoga Chikitsa”. As students, we are blessed by the opportunity to read these gigantic works of physical poetry through the lenses of a master teacher.
Richard Freeman’s approach to teaching yoga is a consistent re-envisioning and re-imagining of traditional yoga techniques, particularly those found in the various series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system Richard studied with his guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. With equal love for physical, contemplative and philosophical practice, Richard has devised a completely unique and idiosyncratic teaching that invites each student constantly back into the “beginners mind” -- forget what you know, and practice into the open mind. You can hear straight from him about his method and history of practice here.
In the recently released The Art of Vinyasa, Richard and his partner Mary Taylor collect the condensation of the vinyasa method unique to the lineage and innovation of the luminary T. Krishnamacharya, teacher of Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar and others. Correct vinyasa for entering and exiting postures extends into a method for sequencing postures into the yoga mala, or garland of practice. The Art of Vinyasa begins, not with Sun Salutations or an introduction of asana technique, but with a chapter entitled “Natural Alignment: The Internal Forms of the Practice,” wherein the question is asked: if asana is as old as we think it is, how was physical practice taught without our modern knowledge of anatomical alignment?
One answer given is that the practice of visualization was key: visualizing deities, remembering teacher demonstrations, sensing into systems of the subtle body (nadis, bandhas, mudras, cackras, etc). These internal forms create a deep core of listening in and around the body, wherein the rhythms and pulses of the nervous system itself can be the teacher. We can see this key turning in the lock of Richard’s teaching when we hear in class about the heavy golden coccyx (tailbone) and the four angels of the pelvic floor, undulating the torso like the “peacock who swallowed a snake,” spreading kidney wings and lifting cobra hoods, coiling around the sun in the belly and tasting nectar at the root of the palate.
A precise knowledge of the power of sequencing asana with the internal forms of the practice has led Richard to emphasize the transitional space between each pose, lengthening out the boundary-points between one pose and another. He says, “The best poses are the ones with no name,” such as the one I’m demonstrating here, a preparatory position and first vinyasa for Trikonasana B (revolved triangle), Parsvottanasana (pyramid, or intense side forward bend), and Parivrrta Ardha Chandrasana (revolved half moon). This in-between-pose is usually only practiced for one inhale “on the way” to some destination; but as a posture in and of itself it opens the line from the back foot crossing the psoas to the top hand, a relationship integral to proficient performance of the asanas that might follow, and one that just might trick you into utilizing those elusive bandhas. Richard sometimes refers to this posture as “Challenging Indra Pose, not to be practiced on golf courses during thunderstorms.” Indra, being the Indian equivalent of Zeus, sits above the clouds and hurls thunderbolts at potential threats, including powerful yogis whose arms grow miraculously longer during asana practice.
Richard’s method of teaching has been particularly useful to me for my work teaching Ashtanga yoga to incarcerated men. Re-envisioning each asana and vinyasa as a sacred moment of listening, we grow closer to the wisdom inherent in our own nervous system. This fine-tuning of the inner ear not only leads to a perfection of asana -- not that the poses are perfect, but that the person practicing is already perfect; listening in this way demands that we begin to live within the shelter of the yamas & niyamas, the ethical precepts of yoga.
Internal forms of practice “turn the light around” from external perception to internal feeling. Many prisoners begin practicing yoga with an eye toward physical improvement or rehabilitation of injury, but then find their way into the more contemplative pursuits of pranayama, visualization, and meditation via methods informed by Richard’s teaching. As stated on page 9 of The Art of Vinyasa: “Visualization helps you to organize sensations and perceptions so you can release habitual, self-centered perspectives on these sensations and relate to the world as a composition of interconnected parts.”
Perhaps the power of the imagination harnessed in Richard’s technique is best explained by the French philosopher and student of Sufi mysticism, Henry Corbin, in his doctrine of the “mundus imaginalis” or imaginal realm: “Between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures, of subtle substances, of ‘immaterial matter.’ This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds; it is an intermediate universe ‘where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual.’” (Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi).
What I most want in my own practice, in my teachers and in my own teaching is this ability to mediate between the worlds -- inner and outer experience, hard physical reality and energetic subtlety, progress in practice and return to the basics. Perhaps all of these require an abundance of that magical faculty, the imagination!
Come explore this synthesis of anatomical precision and internal form with Richard Freeman & Mary Taylor at Yoga on High this May, including specific insights into backbending, hip opening, twisting, the Finishing Poses and a section entitled “Restorative Ashtanga,” which I personally cannot wait to experience!
Adam Wetterhan is a yoga instructor at Yoga on High, Blue Spot Yoga, and through Healing Broken Circles at Marion Correctional, where he is also Director of Programming for a community center inside the prison. Adam has been practicing yoga for most of his adult life, holds a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Comparative Religion from Capital University, completed his 200-hour certification at Yoga on High in 2015 and is currently enrolled in their 300-hour program, where he has concentrated on Ashtanga, pranayama, and yoga therapy.