An Interview with Gary Kraftsow

Gary Kraftsow is one of the most highly respected teachers of the Krishnamacharya/Desikachar tradition of Viniyoga. Gary believes that asana practice is a tool and it has to be integrated with deeper aspects of Yoga practice to make a real difference in our spiritual lives, otherwise its benefits remain more superficial. In this interview, he explains the Viniyoga approach to asana and how it relates to the Kriya Yoga of Patanjali and to the five kosha system.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Is there too much focus on asana in the Yoga community? What is the focus in Viniyoga?

Gary Kraftsow (GK): I have observed a progressively limited appreciation for the scope of the tradition in the 35 years I’ve been in the Yoga community. I often remind students that asanas have no value on their own, their only value is in how they serve the individual when they are practicing. Although asanas have a great value for our anatomical structures and, to a certain extend our physiology, it is when we adapt asanas in service of pranayama, adapt pranayama in the service of meditation, and adapt meditation in the service of prayer that we are able to use this integrated practice to penetrate deeply into the core of our beings.

On a more superficial level, I have some differences with the general “form-centric” perspective of a large segment of the American Yoga community: “What does the posture look like? Am I doing it right? What’s wrong with my body that I can’t do that posture?” Our approach is more function-centric: “How can these movements functionally benefit my body.” This teaching came from Krishnamacharya, whose approach was to adapt the posture to the individual rather than conform the body to the posture.

Viniyoga’s approach is breath-centric. The fundamental focus is on the flow of the breath as it relates to movement of spine. We use repetition and focus on going in and out of postures in combination with holding them, rather than just holding them statically. This has both muscular-skeletal and neuromuscular benefits. Our focus is less on mastering the form of the posture than on adapting the form of the posture to produce specific functional benefits.

We use asana as a mirror, to see what’s going on with our spines, to see if our joints are stable or hyper-mobile, if our muscles are contracted, weak, or developed asymmetrically, etc. Then, we adapt the forms of asana to improve skeletal alignment, stabilize hyper-mobile joints, restore muscular symmetry, strengthen weak muscles, create functional movement patterns and so on. Our detailed science of sequencing, known as vinyasa karma, enables practitioners to create different sequences for different needs. Finally, we think of using asana in the service of pranayama—to help prepare the mind for meditation, which prepares the heart for prayer.

IYM: What about using asana to treat psychological issues?

GK: Asana is only a part of the process for working with emotions. Our approach isn’t: I’m depressed, so I do some kind of supported backbend. From a yogic perspective, emotion is a general term consisting of various parts including: physiology, mood, cognition and behavior. A depressed condition may involve complex factors such as sympathetic suppression (physiologic component), a feeling of persistent sadness (mood component), a self-concept such as: “I am not good enough” (cognitive component), an unhealthy diet and progressive social withdraw (behavior component). When we use Yoga to work with emotions, asana is only a part. We can use asana and pranayama to address physiology, self-reflective meditation to address cognition, chanting and mantra for mood and lifestyle disciplines to address behavior. So, it’s this integrated approach that makes our work holistic and so effective.

IYM: Can the Kriya Yoga of Patanjali inform our asana practice? …

Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2010 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.