Moon Days in Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga has the interesting and unique tradition of abstaining from practice on the days of the full and new moon, called “moon days.”

I recently received a question regarding the timing of moon days, which got me thinking. (What follows is simply my conjecture & curiosity, I am not an expert.)

Q: If a full or new moon occurs before sunrise, should it be observed on the previous day?

For example, if the new moon is at 4:29am on Wednesday, should the Ashtangi take off practice on Tuesday?

There are separate but overlapping calendars in India, the solar and lunar. The solar one is used by most people for everyday purposes. It begins at sunrise and there are 4 periods of the day, ending at sunset.

Then the lunar one is used for ritual purposes. It is divided into tithis, or lunar days. Each day is the period in which the moon travels 12 degrees. It is not connected with the sunrise, and each tithi varies between ~19-26 hours of duration.
So perhaps a technical answer for Ashtangis is that we should “observe” or not do asana practice on the lunar days of Purnima and Amavasya, rather than on any particular day of the Gregorian calendar.  For example, a Purnima could start at say, 3pm of Tuesday and last until 2pm Wednesday. So if you had a morning practice, you would want to take off practice Wednesday morning, even if the full moon is at 7:49pm Tuesday.
For our school, we simplify the schedule to make it easier for students: if a moon is after 12:00am on a day, that day is the moon day.
But then I started wondering about other aspects of our moon day habit…

Q: Where did moon days come from?

To my knowledge other styles of Yoga do not discourage practice on moon days. I suspect that the original reason that Guruji did not teach Ashtanga on moon days is that he was a Vedic and Sanskrit scholar and professor. The Maharaja of Mysore’s Sanskrit College was closed on the moon days. Brahmins have certain traditions to follow on the moon days, rituals, bathing, ceremonies. They take a lot of time and ritual purity so it’s not a “work day.” There are also other Vedic traditions implicating that teaching on a moon day may be inauspicious or detrimental (in contrast to a home practitioner performing the Ashtanga asana sequence). There may also have been other threads of technical logic, since Jois and his father were accomplished in jyotisha. So that perhaps habit carried over into his Yogasana teaching…Krishnamacharya did not seem to advocate taking off moon days, so it probably wasn’t part of Guruji’s yoga training. I have found no mention of moon days in Krishnamacharya’s writing or in the teachings of his other students.

So, ultimately, we just look at it as the teacher having a day off! But it may be that we can retroactively find additional reasons why it could be a good idea to observe that custom as practitioners. Even if the original reason for observance doesn’t apply, should we continue to abide by it, or cut out a “vestigial” trait of Ashtanga?
Reason 1: Just having a break.
For Ashtangis with a daily practice, taking moon days off is a way to have some rest, plain and simple. Ashtanga practice can be very strenuous, and some time off may help to “soften” the practice and allow the body to incorporate changes.
For Ashtanga teachers with a daily teaching schedule, moon days can be a blessing!
Reason 2: The moon exerts influence on the human structure.
This moon day question has been asked many times over the years, and often the response goes along the lines of:
“The body is made up of 65% water, and look how the moon influences the ocean tides. The human body is also affected by gravitational forces from the moon.”
An effect like the tides requires large distances of open bodies of water: the ocean on the side of the Earth closest to the moon is pulled towards the moon more strongly than the core of the Earth, which in turn is pulled more strongly than the water on the far side of the earth. This deformation results in the tides. The human body is small enough that there is no appreciable differences of the moon’s gravitational influence on one part of the body vs another part.
Additionally, the water & gravity theory of a localized “human-sized tide” fails to account for the tides being on a daily rhythm, not the lunar month.
Simply being near a large building or other people has a greater gravitational influence (though still negligible)  on a human body than the position of the moon. Even an insect landing on your skin has a more impactful effect on your gravitational field.
Could there be an electromagnetic effect? Many studies have attempted (and many failed) to find a link between the lunar cycle and epilepsy, mental illness, crime, accidents, surgery success rate, and other markers. Despite mixed and negative reports, it may not yet be time to close the book on physiological effects of the lunar cycle.
Living beings generate an electromagnetic field (EMF), and there is evidence that humans and other animals are attuned/have a synchronistic relationship with the EMF of the Earth.
The earth’s EMF is generated by currents in its dynamic molten core in relationship with the electrically charged currents of the ionosphere. The moon plays a significant role in the movement of the liquid core. Certain studies have shown that certain animals exhibit behavioral changes in response to lunar phase, even in controlled environments.
Any such effects could be either direct or indirect. In addition to any effects the Earth’s EMF may have on any animal’s EMF, it also acts as a protective mechanism against solar and cosmic radiation. In a review of 28,000 psychiatric hospital admissions, Dr Robert Becker found a significant relationship between admission rates and the timing of the 67 magnetic “storms” during that period. Further research revealed a correlation between cosmic rays and EMF variations and behavioral changes in psychiatric patients. Dr Becker writes that “[the earth’s electromagnetic field] varies with the lunar day and month, and there’s also a yearly change as we revolve around the sun.”1
Variations in the human electromagnetic field occur in concert with changes in sensation, emotion, healing, etc., and changes can be induced by artificial manipulation of human or animal EMF. In light of this, it seems theoretically possible that the the moon could exert some influence over human workings, though exactly what that effect may be is unclear. Further research is hampered by the difficulty of isolating the low “background” levels of the earth’s EMF from the other artificial/electronic and natural electromagnetic forces that surround us.
Anecdotally, I notice differences in my own physical stamina and sensations on moon days, generally for a 2 or 3 day period around the precise time of the astronomical event. If that actually correlates with any external phenomena is uncertain, however.
If this hypothesis were validated, it would likely open up other questions, such as whether it would be logical to start taking days off for practice during other variations in the EMF, such as sunspots or magnetic storms.
Reason 3: Ritual
Many people are feeling increasingly detached or isolated from the natural world. Having a ritual that centers on a natural phenomenon can be a way of feeling an increased connection to and paying more attention to natural rhythm. It can be especially powerful if the moon day is observed as a special time to set aside for self-reflection (svadhyaya), meditation, or reading of shastra. This necessitates that the practitioner actually observe the day as a holiday of some sort, rather than replacing their usual Ashtanga class with crossfit or running because the studio is closed.
Ultimately, the moon day tradition has value to me, and I appreciate observing it. I also think it is just fine to practice on a moon day if it feels right for your circumstances, especially considering the lack of any firm evidence supporting moon day theories. I hope that further scientific advances will be made to shed further light on whether or not there is any direct relationship between the lunar cycle and human physiology. Since this is not extremely likely due to biomedical field’s focus on biochemistry at the expensive of other sciences, just do your best and practice with wisdom.
1. p245-247, The Body Electric. Robert Becker, MD & Gary Selden

Notes on Practicing Ashtanga

Ashtanga Vinyasa is a system based upon Krishnamacharya’s teaching of Vinyasa Krama Yoga. Vinyasa Krama means a “carefully ordered sequence.” Krishnamacharya taught asanas, yoga positions, in groups with specific methods of entering and exiting them. During practice, each breath and movement is choreographed to maximum effect.  Pattabhi Jois, one of Krishnamacharya’s senior students, was a Sanskrit scholar and accomplished Yoga practitioner. He taught Yoga for therapeutic benefit in Mysore. Over time, and especially as more and more westerners came to take practice, the sequences became more solidified. Today, there are six Ashtanga series, known as Primary (1st), Intermediate (2nd), and Advanced (3-6). Should you want to practice this style, mind the following guidelines:

Practice is taken 6 days per week, with days off for new and full moon. If you are very tired, try just a couple sun salutations, a few seated poses, or practice the sequence backwards. A little bit still counts. Try to practice with a gentle, inquisitive intellect in order to avoid rigidity. Discipline is a necessary part of practice, but as Richard Freeman says, “Discipline is necessary to the correct degree.”  Viewing the practice as a dull, rigid, dead thing runs the risk of burn-out, stagnation, or zealotry. Remind yourself to approach each practice with new eyes and a new mind, for though the sequences of poses may be constant, your experience of the practice will be different and new each day, and your approach must recognize that.

Each pose is to be learned one by one, in order. Do not skip around or allow your personal preferences to dictate the practice. This allows the practice to do its work. That said, some poses are not appropriate for some practitioners. For example, someone who has had knee surgery can enjoy the full practice by doing lotus positions with crossed legs. It is best to have a teacher in order to have an expert opinion. If you do not have access to a teacher, practice in the most intelligent way you can; there are many alternatives suggested on this website. Many things maybe uncomfortable, unfamiliar, but if something is painful find a kinder way to practice it.

Ashtanga uses the Tristana method, the “three-pronged” approach. 1) Asana. 2) Pranayama (Breathing, Bandha) 3) Drishti (Gazing point). Employing this method allows the practitioner to develop focus and concentration, keeping the mind busy enough to help ward off stray thoughts and distractions.

Each pose is done for a minimum of 5 breaths. Some have a higher minimum number, mostly finishing poses. Any pose can be done for a longer period of time. I recommend spending extra time on poses that are especially challenging, or ones that feel particularly beneficial.

“As long as you can do a pose, you do.” -Pattabhi Jois

In a led class—a guided “count” of the vinyasa—each series takes roughly an hour. 90 minutes is enough to finish the series, backbending, finishing postures, and rest. If you always have a short window of time to practice, say, 45 minutes or so, you can still practice full primary series by practicing standing poses and the first half one day, then standing poses and the second half the next day.

It typically takes 1-3 years for a practitioner to become reasonably competent in the Primary Series. Its proper name is Yoga Chikitsa, or Yoga Therapy. This sequence is aimed at creating mobility in the hips (especially hamstrings) plus core and shoulder strength.

The second sequence is called Nadi Shodana, Energetic Cleansing. It introduces deeper twists, a long section of backbending, and deep flexion, including leg-behind-the-head poses.

I believe that everyone can and would benefit from learning primary series, plus the first half of second series. I have worked with a diverse group of people who are doing just that, from generally healthy 20-somethings to 36 year olds with hamstring injuries, to 50 year olds with 2 fused vertebrae and knee surgery, to 70 year olds with a previously sedentary lifestyle.

Pattabhi Jois said, “Any man can take practice except lazy man.”

I have seen amazing transformations through dedicated Ashtanga practice. If you have the motivation to practice, there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome. I think that full primary plus half intermediate represents the basic level of strength, mobility, coordination, and focus necessary for general health.

The second half of second series onward demands intense dedication. It is generally accessible to those who make Yoga practice a high priority in their lives. The advanced series are known collectively as Sthira Bhaga, or divine resolve. They are very demanding of every faculty.

If you practice more than one series, they are practiced on alternating days. When learning a new series, it is tacked onto the previous series until you have grown familiar with at least half of the sequence. For example, when learning second series, the first pose of second series, Pasasana, is done after Setu Bandhasana. The second series poses are added on one by one, until Karandavasana, at which point second series can be practiced by itself. Third series is tacked onto the end of second series until Hanumanasana. Fourth series is tacked onto the end of third until Mandalasana.

“Modification” is a dirty word

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m really out of shape.”

I said something soothing in response. That wasn’t the first time that class she had said something of the sort. It wasn’t until later that I found the words I really wanted: “Why are you apologizing to me? I’m here to serve you, no matter if you’re athletic or stiff or crippled from an accident. There’s no need for you to diminish yourself.”

As a Yoga teacher, I focus on therapeutic movement. I don’t expect anyone to do anything besides what they can do right at that moment. I try to help every one of my students find their own best expression of a Yoga pose, and I don’t expect it to be the same or even similar between one student and the next.

And yet, people who practice with me are often apologizing and making excuses. They ask, ‘Okay, but how is this pose supposed to look?’

It’s not supposed to look like anything! The point is the effect it has in your body and mind. The value of posture is that it serves as a gateway to transformation.

In Yoga practice, modification is a dirty word. The true choice is not between a modification or the ‘full pose:’ is it appropriate, or inappropriate?

If what you’re doing is appropriate for you in that moment, it’s the full pose. Period. Yoga poses are nothing more than concepts, and how that concept takes flesh differs between my body and yours, from one breath to the next. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves by thinking of our ability, our flexibility, our strength, our practice as less than “normal,” as deficient, or in some way lacking.

By expecting everyone’s Yoga to look just the same, to take the same course, we are setting ourselves up to miss out on the opportunities waiting for us. And when we don’t “measure up” to the image we have, we might think we’re doing something wrong, or are less suited for Yoga.

Yoga isn’t a tryout or a boot camp. There are no standards to measure up to. It’s a system designed for no other purpose than to serve the individual practitioner.

Notice in yourself, in each moment, the rich dialogue between breath and body, awareness and thought, movement and stillness. Observe your rhythms and be a student of your subtleties.  Trust yourself to discern between helpful and harmful. Your appropriate practice might be uncomfortable, it might be scary; listen for the flicker of wisdom that gives you the strength you need to keep moving forward. Know when to release habit or ambition and rest, to take care of your body; to build a practice sustainable over decades.

You might be able to find a teacher, a guide to help you on this path. You might not. You must develop your own sense of direction. Know when to work hard and challenge yourself. Know when to slow down and take your time. Practice your Yoga.  There’s no easy formula, and practicing someone else’s Yoga won’t get you far.

I’m not advocating a free-for-all: I believe that intelligent sequencing and alignment is necessary. I believe in discipline, practicing hard, and seeing results. But I’ve learned over the years that, even with the amazing and brilliant teachers I am lucky to have, I have to take responsibility for my own practice.

Instead of measuring yourself against others, measure your progress in terms of the wisdom and sensitivity you develop, in the gradually deepening well of peace in the core of your being. After all, strength and flexibility and relaxation are just side effects. Very pleasant and attractive side effects, yes, but the goal of Yoga is much more ambitious: to correct warps in our perception; to create lasting peace from within.

So, to my student: Don’t worry. You’ll be “in shape” before long. But I truly hope that’s not the greatest reward awaiting you in Yoga.


Originally published by yoganonymous.

Understanding Pelvic Tilt

Understanding Pelvic Tilt

Note: Touch or hover your mouse over underlined terms for a definition.

The pelvis has three primary skeletal components: the right hip, the left hip, and the sacrum. While these pieces can move independently, they often work together as a unit, and the each piece exerts an influence on the pelvis as a whole. They will be discussed collectively in this article. Pelvic tilt involves a simultaneous movement of both hips, the sacrum, and the lumbar vertebrae.

To understand pelvic tilt, find your ASIS – a small bony projection at the upper front of the hip bones. When this point moves forward and down, the pelvis is in a state of anterior tilt. When the ASIS moves up and back, towards the spine, this is posterior tilt.

ant pelvic tilt