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
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
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
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
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.