Edward Clark is the creator of Tripsichore Yoga Theatre, a London based company that travels internationally to perform its own unique brand of yoga-influenced theater and to teach the fundamentals of the group’s techniques. The yoga that Tripsichore is based on is vinyasa yoga, which the company defines as the evenly metered flow of movement, breath and thought. Clark talked to Pranamaya about vinyasa’s connection to theater, its role as a meditative practice, and its position in the yoga world today.
Pranamaya: When did you and your company, Tripsichore Yoga Theatre, start to practice vinyasa yoga?
Edward Clark: It was around 1986. Tripsichore had been doing yoga as a part of our warm-up for a while, and it generated some interesting theatrical material. We started studying with these Sivananda renegades – Narayani and Giris Rabinovitch, who were doing interesting things with sun salutes and long extended breaths. We were starting to do forearm balances—which was an unusual practice for performers in those days—and we were frequently toppling over. Giris noted that every time one of us would fall down, we stopped doing yoga, and he questioned why that was. The idea was: If you fall over, why not just turn it into a wheel or something else, and keep the yoga going. He was right. So, we worked with this concept and choreographically it made for interesting things. Sometimes a mistake would happen and it would be more interesting than what we had been, in fact, aiming for. The choreography became a type of vinyasa practice — the idea was to sustain the concentration in a flow.
Also, theater, dance and yoga all have the same idea of eka grata [single-pointed focus], in that they all adhere to an eka grata that is constantly changing. What you do in dance and theater is you deal with things on a very moment to moment basis. Most people think that, if your character is sad, you play the emotion of sadness, but that’s not how it works. An actor selects individual moments, and through the execution of those moments, the audience gleans the idea that the character is sad. For instance, as an actor you might pick up your tea cup, take it to your mouth, and put it down untasted. You are not doing what you would do in normal real life if you were sad, which is many things at once. You are very focused on one moment at a time, and this directs the audience’s attention toward what you are doing. The vinyasa template is similar: You take care of the inhale, then you take care of the exhale. You stay in the flow by taking care of one thing at a time. There is eka grata, but it is constantly changing. Vinyasa yoga was the perfect concentration technique for what you do as an actor.
PM: It is traditionally thought that eka grata is achieved through being still and focusing on an unmoving point. Can you talk more about how one can achieve eka grata through vinyasa or flow yoga, in which one is constantly moving?
EC: In seated meditation, there is an inclination to go inward. Looking inwardly has been a major thrust of yogic practice. But one has as many inward distractions as one has outward distractions, so I am a little bit inclined towards harnessing the senses rather than get rid of them. In vinyasa yoga, you don’t stop in a posture, you stay in a flow. There isn’t a pause of any kind. And so the idea of eka grata is focusing on the flow itself.
This makes more sense if the idea is understanding the totality of the universe, which must contain within its singularity many things which appear to be contradictory. When we talk about things like cosmic consciousness, it’s not just the cosmos of the inner landscape we’re talking about, it’s the enormity of the universe, and that’s not just something that takes place within our own vista locked in the cranial vault.
PM: How does pranayama in vinyasa yoga operate within this idea of focusing on the flow of movement?
EC: If you’re endeavoring to sustain flow, you want to sustain this movement of energy and breath. In vinyasa yoga, the idea is that one uses evenly metered breath as a gauge for evenly metered movement and that, in this seeking for evenness, one is brought into a state of evenness of mind.
PM: What else makes vinyasa yoga an important Hatha yoga practice?
EC: In vinyasa yoga, you learn that everything is interesting. The transitions from place to place are just as important as whatever place you end up. So, what one might think is the boring part of vinyasa–say the movement of the hands through space to arrive at prayer position–is just as interesting as prayer position itself. Lifting our arms into the air is just as interesting as lifting our legs up into handstand. Everything is interesting.
I think this is the great contribution of vinyasa. One appreciates all things. It’s not this notion that we’re conditioned to that a beautiful golden nugget is superior to a stone. The stone and the gold, they are both equally interesting. But it may take a few more generations of vinyasa teachers to really get at the heart of this teaching.
PM: What do you think is lacking in today’s teaching of vinyasa?
EC: The problem that vinyasa is having right now in terms of a philosophic place within yoga orthodoxy is that it is still too posture influenced and doesn’t pay enough attention to the transitions. It’s still, “I’ve got to get into the next place” rather than, “The movement from here to here is just as interesting as the place we arrive”. One major problem is that the techniques for achieving the transitions haven’t been particularly well articulated.
Also, because the mindfulness aims of vinyasa haven’t been well articulated, it hasn’t brilliantly succeeded for people who are older. It seems that the students who are more interested in yoga as a form of meditation tend to ultimately relinquish vinyasa yoga, casting it off as a young person’s game, and moving in the direction of yin yoga or seated meditation.
PM: What do you think of vinyasa’s current popularity?
EC: There is a little bit of a danger that vinyasa will become the aerobics of yoga: The one where you flow around and have a good time and sweat and listen to music. That seems to me to be the danger with it being quite popular.
But vinyasa’s popularity has also led to an extraordinary number of very gifted physical practitioners. Everywhere I go these days, there are people in their 50s and 60s attempting handstands and pulling them off, and that has just never happened in any era before. In this way, vinyasa has proved adept at addressing fear issues. Because it’s so been so extreme in what it challenges the body to do, it’s taken people places where they might have been otherwise afraid to go. So this is kind of exciting. If this small mental recalibration can happen for people from this very small, negligible accomplishment, where is the upper limit on what can go on with these techniques?
For more of Karen Macklin’s work, visit her website at www.karenmacklin.com.
(Photo credit for performance photo at top: JPH Woodland.)
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