Rewriting Asana History: Interview with Dechen Thurman

Yoga is spreading all over the world. So the ancient indian techniqus of physical exercise in yoga, the asanas, are changing. askes experts about history, forms and interpretations of asana of modern yoga. Deborah Haaksman spoke with yogateacher and actor Dechen Thurman. This original wording we translated for our visitors into German.

ys: In the first question, I am referring to what you call „Epic Yoga“: While you tell the ancient story of Sita and Ram, you simultaneously teach a Yoga class. Characters like Vashista or Hanuman are playfully incorporated into the asana sequencing. Can Asana be regarded as a character, and what happens when our body forms that character?

Well, the body is permeated with the nervous system. So everywhere in the body where you feel a sensation from interacting with the physical world, is the mind as well. So the body is the mind and the mind is the body, right? So when we assume a shape of an animal, then our mind becomes like that animal, like a cobra or like hanuman, the monkey warrior, we become like a monkey warrior. Children, when they are born, can do any asana, because the nervous system is empty of any form, of identity, any personality. And although there is the soul, of course – I’m not saying infants have no character, they do – but the personality is what begins to limit the range of motion of the physical body. In order to restore the infantile potential, because an infant has the greatest potential of any human being to go, take their karma or their actions of life in any direction, so the asana practice by applying the greatest variation of movement to the body creates the greatest variation of consciousness.

ys: So does asana practice in the term of shapeshifting help to dissolve our ego?

Well, yes, the ego prefers some forms to the others due to the force of habit. The ego says: „I am good at handstand, but I am bad at backbends.“ This is what causes preference for one posture over another and what causes the discomfort within any posture, the ego.

ys: In your workshop you mentioned that crucial point when we meet our aversion in an asana. Can you tell me more about it? And give an example from your personal practice maybe?

I believe Yoga is a great pleasure, so perhaps a weakness in my practice and teaching is that I am concerned with pleasure and therefore less interested in forcing students to maintain uncomfortable postures. I would rather invite them into experiencing the pleasure that the appearance of discomfort in the posture will unlock, ok? So in the five Kleshas of Yoga you have the third and fourt, raga and dvesha, aversion and attraction, right? Aversion to pain and attraction to pleasure, and these Kleshas are neutralized by engaging in opposite action, avoiding pleasure and attracting pain.

So it seems sadistic, and it seems masochistic, and to an untrained eye people are unnecessarily inflicting suffering upon themselves. But for instance in a forward bend, let’s say pashimottanasana, there’s a lot of sensation in the knees and calfs and hamstrings, ankles and lower back, and initially it feels like pain. However, when I practice pashimottanasana I am eliminating pain that I will suffer from walking on a concrete floor in the city all the time, because my spine, my legs are going to become more shock-absorbant against all the impacts of walking for the rest of my life. So in fact I am reducing the overall amount of pain that I will feel in my legs for the rest of this life, in exchange for ten breaths of what appears to be as severe of a pain possible. And this then shifts the consciousness from a reflex of the instinct gratification to the boundless infinite spirit that sees this lifetime as a whole.

ys: So is pashimottanasana your favourite asana?

No, I hate it, arghh!! (laughs) I love it! No, I enjoy hating it. I enjoy hating it very much.

ys: What do you know about the history of pashimottanasana? Isn’t it mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika?

Yes, it is. Many yoga postures are included in other conventional exercise techniques. I mean, the yogis aren’t the first people to stretch out the backs of their legs. But codyfying it or creating codes for alignment the Iyengar school for example is partcularly preoccupied with the exact position of the alignment of the bones and I really admire this school and have a lot to learn from it. I am more preoccupied with the the lung volume. I believe there is a relationship between the distribution of breath through the volume of the lungs and the distribution of movement through the length of the nervous system and musular-scelettal system. So that if the student is reminded and encouraged to use the maximum lung volume, that they will instinctually enter more and more correct physical alignment. That’s the approach that I prefer. The oppostite approach is to enforce correct musular-scelettal alignment and assume that the length of breating will follow. Neither method is wrong or right and most yoga practices fall somewhere in the middle.

ys: Is asana a gift of the gods?

Everything is a gift of god – but then who is giving god the gift to give it?

ys: Thank you.


Deborah Haaksman

Foto: Dechen Thurman, 2009 in Berlin. ©

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German version of the interview

Video-Interview with Dechen on