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Review of "Total Astanga"

By Tara Fraser
Duncan Baird, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 29th 2005
Total Astanga

It is common knowledge that having a healthy body can help with one's mental equilibrium and peace of mind.  Keeping fit can help one avoid physical problems as one gets older, and it may also reduce stress and anxiety.  There's also evidence that exercise helps to reduce some forms of depression. 

These connections between body and mind are emphasized in Hatha yoga, which involves postures and breathing exercises.  As Tara Fraser explains in the introductory sections of Total Astanga, Hatha yoga aims to liberate people from the cycle of rebirth within one lifetime.  Not everyone who practices yoga necessarily believes in reincarnation, but most probably are hoping not just for physical improvement but also for increase of health of the whole person.  Astanga yoga can be especially physically challenging, and the traditional expectation is that practitioners will do it for two hours early every morning, every day.  Fraser knows full well that most of her readers will not have that much time to devote to yoga, and she explains that it is quite feasible to do the full two hours maybe once a week, with a few shorter sessions during the rest of the week.  Most of her book sets out the Primary Series of Astanga yoga, with very helpful photographs of her in the many different poses. 

As someone who has viewed the DVDs of Richard Freeman on Ashtanga Yoga with awe and trepidation, I found Total Astanga a very helpful book.  Fraser provides an explanation of the history of Astanga, which is quite interesting, and some thoughtful ideas about creating a personal practice.  She explains that people tend to have more mental energy and improved ability to concentrate.  She also notes that some people become quite obsessive about their practices, and are even competitive and aggressive about it; she emphasizes that this should be temporary.  Quite usefully, she sets out not only methods of breathing while doing the Astanga yoga, generally known as ujjayi pranayama, but also where to gaze when holding each pose, and ways to tense one's abdomen and perineum. 

When it comes to the various series of movements, they are set out with many photographs.  I would find it difficult to follow them without having seen someone go through them in real life or on DVD, and so I would be reluctant to recommend the use of the book on its own.  But the book can serve as a wonderful supplement to the use of DVDs or yoga classes.

One of the best features of Total Astanga is its copious set of "modifications" of positions for beginners and people who do not have great flexibility.  In the many photographs of these alternative positions, Fraser is wearing a red top rather than a blue one, which makes these pages much easier to find.  Some of the hints are obvious, such as walking your feet from position to another rather than jumping, or when you can't reach to hold your feet in a forward fold, hold onto your shins instead.  Others will provide help when you have no idea what to do, such as in the "half vinyasa," which requires moving from sitting down on the floor with your hands flat down pointing forward, to a push up position, and then back again, while never moving your hands.  The unmodified version involves jumping back and moving your legs between your hands, and then, to go back to the starting position, swinging your straightened legs through your arms back to sitting.  Fraser suggests three different modifications of different levels of difficulty, to accommodate people of different abilities. 

So Total Astanga is an excellent resource for anyone interested in this form of yoga.  Of course, this raises the question, what if you are interested in other related forms of yoga?  Would the book still be useful then?  The answer is yes, since it contains most of the most standard yoga positions, such as most sitting stretches, some different twists, triangles and warrior poses, fish poses, shoulder stands, and sun salutation series.  The only difficult that it might create using this book for general yoga exercises is in working out what poses correspond to those the reader knows from other sources, since the book uses Indian terminology to refer to them, and often these terms will be less familiar to the reader.  However, since the pictures are there to see, the names are not so important. 

There are many yoga books available on the market, and this one is not particularly appropriate for the complete novice.  However, for people who have started doing some yoga and want to pursue their practices more seriously, Total Astanga is one of the best books available. 

 

 

Link: Review of Richard Freeman, Introduction to Ashtanga DVD.

 

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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