Ashtanga Yoga Myths

In a group talk with students the other day someone referred to a teacher as being strict.  This got me wondering what that actually meant, and I came up with the thought that it means that the teacher in question sticks to the ‘rules of Ashtanga yoga’. This implies that the rules are solid rather than arbitrary and that the teacher dishing them out is really ‘in the know’.

But what are these rules and how have they differed over time?  When Theresa and I ran Purple Valley yoga centre in Goa from 2006-2008 we were fortunate to host and learn from the first students of Ashtanga yoga in Mysore from the 1980s onwards and to hear them tell how much the teaching evolved over the years to the present day.

There are aspects of the ashtanga sequence as it has developed, along with a certain attitude towards ‘practice’, that are currently fairly unwieldly, if not ineffective and unhelpful. To this end, the following are a few ideas that we might want to reconsider.

The sequences are set and only work if you follow it exactly as it is taught in Mysore.

It has been widely discredited that the sequence flowed directly from the divine transmission of the mythological text of the Yoga Karunta, said to lie mouldering somewhere in the basement of Calcutta library. Instead,  it is widely acknowledged today, even by the current lineage-holder, that the formation of the sequences was a collaboration between Krishamacharya and Pattabhi Jois whilst studying under him at The Mysore palace. This is not to say, that it was entirely a conceptual project, a ‘flight of fancy’; it was formulated over a reasonable period of time by experienced teachers whilst watching a wide range of students practice.  Indeed, it does certainly seem to have a great deal of intelligence and pragmatism to it.

Yet, it isn’t the last word, and shouldn’t be taken us such, nor is it any kind of ‘magic combination lock’ as to facilitating enlightenment. Religious adherence or obedience to the rule and letter is not always helpful as times, people and situations change. We’ve been here before with The Church.  In the early days it was allowed that this sequencing was a ‘work in progress’, hence the original name for the teaching facility as a ‘research institute’. Yet, like any other, when establishments become too established, they start to close down on any freedom of interpretation.

The system has evolved and been amended since it was first taught to the Western students that popularized it in the 1970’s.

If one is fortunate enough to be able to talk with the older teachers, it becomes patently clear that they all had a fairly different experience of the sequence and how it was taught. This is both in regards to each other, and most definitely, as to the way we know the current practice of Ashtanga.

Instead, what we are left with is a discursive and widely varying picture where early teachers learned different postures depending on their ability, which year they were there and even learning, after a point an ‘advanced-sequence’ tailor-made for them, personally.  At some points they were practicing primary with a full vinyasa to standing between each posture in the mornings and intermediate in the afternoon, with only 10 or less people in the room, all with very strong adjustments.

So, the Mysore tradition has evolved, chronologically, and not least due to the demands of the student on the teacher as to what they wanted. It is well to remember then, that these students that made it to India at the time were a pretty intense and committed bunch; it wasn’t something you did lightly or easily in those days. In which case, it is common knowledge that the practice of ashtanga yoga as dynamically as we know it was increased dramatically by the determination and aptitude of its original practitioners.  So, gradually, all this got crystalised into a ‘gospel-truth’, but it certainly didn’t start out that way.  It was not always the same, nor was this of prime importance in the beginning. Of more concern was that the practice suited the persons current level.

Gateway must be accomplished before moving on

This is a particularly unfortunate development in the tradition. For, to the contrary, it is quite clear that the original intention of Pattabhi Jois in teaching this system was to encourage those who came to love yoga as he did, and this he did, by encouraging them to practice as much as possible (early students had to practice twice a day with him), rather than stopping and denying students practice. Let’s be honest, encouragement, does not always seem to be in the forefront of the modern teachers’ perspective. Yet, again, there are always two sides to every story, as the degree of insistence that was made on the early students to do more, did lead to injuries that may have been avoided if the pace had been a little bit more graduated.

This appears to be one reason, we have now swung back the other way in a kind of backlash, and can be now overly cautious and parsimonious with our natural energy to practice, and practice more. Perhaps, it is time again to let that early enthusiasm re-enter back in a little more, and stop denying people other postures just because they may struggle in one with the natural limitations of their body?

One posture leads to the next

Yes, and no. Whilst there is some grounds to say that the sequences allow for a structured and methodical development, there is more than a little truth in suggesting that postures that follow later in the sequence after ostensibly more challenging ones, aren’t actually helpful in providing some extra work imperative to surmounting what have now been termed ‘gate-keeper’ postures. For, really, what is the use of that attitude?

There is a feeling of reward and punishment in the current teaching which again, feels too much like The Church, or, perhaps, the strictures of the all-knowing parents we still miss. But, we are adults now, and it is time to face up to that. Where a student is held back for their limitations with one position, the idea may be reasonable for a period (especially if the student is young, able, and perhaps, a little impetuous as I was), but over any period of time, it is only unskillful to do so.

Here, an older, less flexible, but no less committed student, may be indefinitely held at a certain point; getting increasingly despondent, potentially even injured as they become increasingly frustrated at their perceived, and, externally validated, ‘limitations’. 

In the end, they push so hard against the ‘gate’ they end up by taking the hinges off it in forcing their way through at any cost. It wasn’t always this way. In the beginning, when non-Indians first came into contact with this form of yoga often the ‘harder’ postures were taken out so as a student could go through a full sequence, slowly having them added back, as they became more proficient.

So, it wasn’t always that ‘strict’?

Nowadays, a direct parallel has been drawn between a strict teacher and a ‘good’ teacher. Holding someone back, in fact, is now seen as the mark of knowing the practice well enough to demand a certain standard. It is forgotten, however, that there are no external standards, just students with different aptitudes and greatly varying bodies. It is not up to the teacher generally, how proficiently a student may be able to achieve a posture, but down to variables in neither party’s control.  It is bloody and literal mindedness to demand that all people measure up to the very same standards. Mysore style was promoted in the very first place, in order to teach a student individually, yet this seems to have been forgotten.

Once more, in the early years, the approach was very much more fluid and pragmatic. To this end, one of the first students to arrive in Mysore told me, until she had reached ‘advanced-series’ she was actively told to be ‘loose and sloppy’ with practice. This makes perfect sense, if you consider it is hardly wise to exert too much force in any direction when you don’t know what you’re doing. Indeed, learning to drive, you don’t get into a Ferrari and put your foot to the floor. Nevertheless, that doesn’t preclude the need, after a while, for everyone, carefully and safely, to all get an opportunity to have a spin of the Ferrari either.

What about moon days and the day off?

When Western students started showing up in Mysore Pattabhi Jois was excited to teach them as they were to learn, so he taught 7 days a week for months on end, until his wife, Amma, decided he needed a day off to spend with the family, so Saturday became the day off.

At some point this changed to Sunday, so shalas around the globe followed suit. Within the last couple of years Sharath changed back to Saturday as the day off, for some practical reason, and once again, shalas followed suit. Although these reasons are quite practical, some teachers place a lot more meaning on them.

Jois also added the moon day off, which to be fair there are some practical reasons for as the moon effects the water tides on the planet and in our bodies and generally can effect our mood and physical aptitude, but if you practice with care and / or don’t have a 6 day a week regular practice by all means, do your practice on this day.

The sequence does appear to be structured linearly, where more postures and progress through the sequence is the same as advancement in yoga

Obviously, this is not the case. Yoga, has as its manifesto acceptance. This means acceptance of the natural limitations we all face in different ways living within a human body. On the other hand, too much acceptance and we get lazy and don’t really engage with life dynamically as it is meant to be lived. Here, the set sequences do help to act as that little booster, albeit often towards tapping-into the competitive spirit of the ego.

So, this can be sued as a tool for motivation, but like any tool, if left unchecked, we can easily end up using it in over-drive; where, instead of using the hammer carefully, we end up turning it upon ourselves when we can’t seem to hammer a nail in.  I suggest that acceptance and methodical progress can go hand in hand, but they must be carefully watched, one being checked by the other – indeed, it is said in the Yoga Sutras; “abhyasa Vairagyabyam tan niroddah”; ‘yoga is achieved by practice, and, letting go’.

What about the standing up from back-bending?

It is important to emphasize, once again, that it didn’t start out this way; that you couldn’t progress to intermediate series until you could stand up from a back-bend. Perhaps the logistics of sheer numbers changed the rules of the game, rather, added a lot of rules around a game that was, in the beginning, a lot freer and more embracing.

Indeed, it is all quite understandable how things have evolved to be a lot more linear and restrictive, because a student could no longer be treated as an individual when it went from 14 in a room at a time (sometimes, according to Mark Darby, in the early days it was just a couple of them), to hundreds, if not thousands, passing through every day. 

Evidently, generalisations then have to be made, to make an order out of chaos. When you cannot consider each person more thoughtfully; bringing in considerations as to their approach, their age, their aims and so forth, the most obvious judgments must be made, so as to keep some aspect of control as to helping with their best development.  Yet, neither is this really, down to a physical shape they can or can’t make. It doesn’t adequately convey the most important thing – the mindset. Nor, does it ever appear to take into account how naturally, holistically or sustainably the posture is being executed.

This is most definitely the case with the backbending rule. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem to matter how you get up to standing from a backbend, or, in the same vein, how you take your heels in kapotasana, or put your legs behind your head. If you appear to look like you can do it, then you can, and, most importantly,  you can move on.

What tends to happen then, as I’ve previously mentioned, is that people keep metaphorically hurling themselves at the next closed door. This is most evident as to progressing to intermediate series, and has done a lot of avoidable damage to peoples backs as they are desperate to demonstrate their grasp of yoga by progressing. However, yoga is there to show us, indeed, by our very attempts to progress, that progress is internal not external. We should not be made to inordinately suffer, on the other hand, in order to realize this fact when it is too late.  

Now, it goes without saying by now, that this proviso wasn’t always there. In fact, the deeply challenging back bend we know as ‘urdhva dhanurasna’ (the wheel), didn’t arise until the person had gone through much of the intermediate series already in the old-days. Indeed, this appears to corroborate with the fact that the first third of this series offers much more gentle and progressive back-bending than the sudden looming behemoth of the back-bend at the end of primary series.

Catching?

Here, it must be reflected upon, that we are teaching yoga, the conveying and building of a certain ‘energy’, or attitude to living; we have not been put in charge of an Olympic gymnastic training program.  There are aspects of the sequence, most notably the ‘catching’ of your ankles in a back-bend that have now been popularized, prescribed across the board, where, perhaps, they shouldn’t have.

This movement is of an intensity that is only (sustainably) in the grasp of a rare and gifted few. On the other hand, it is routinely dished out to the many, almost, most unfortunately, as their badge of suffering on having completed the practice ‘to a level’ where they have caused themselves pain so as to have proved that the practice has done its job as to weakening of the ego. But, this is not how that is done. Indeed, it is said in the Bhagavad Gita, that ‘yoga does not mean eating too much or eating too little, nor does it mean, sleeping too much or not enough’. Indeed, in another chapter Krishna says to Arjuna that those that ‘punish the body, punish me in the body’. 

Instead, this punitive quality of the modern presentation of Ashtanga Yoga has wreaked suffering on countless individuals, even those, who, seemingly, in the short-term could ‘do’ the movement.  Indeed, it is strange that this has been taken to be the very evaluation of someone’s whole practice, when, it was never of any emphasis whatsoever. But, there are always reasons; the idea of getting everyone to do this only makes sense if it is remembered that it is an easy place to give everyone some simple, unreflective and definitive attention, without having to take the time to consider their practice as a whole in Mysore, where, apart from this assistance you may get no further physical-assistance during your visit.

Ujjayi breath….it’s really loud right?

This is one of the most ingrained myths about Ashtanga yoga and one that Sharath often corrects in conference. It’s NOT ujjayi breath in the practice, it’s free breathing, and not so loud that your neighbour can hear….and in Mysore at that time, it was mat to mat with 5cm in between.

The back story is, one of the early students who went on to write a book, one day asked Pattabhi Jois if the breathing instruction was ujjayi breath, and through either lack of understanding the English or being in a bad mood, PJ said yes yes…and years later you will still find at least one Darth Vader in the room and many teachers telling students ‘louder, uyjjayi breath’. This just disturbs the mind and if you feel wound up after practice, try a freer, softer and quieter breath next time

What should I do then if I still like and appreciate the tradition and what it stands for, yet, its hurting me at the same time?

Now, I don’t envisage this is a choice that has to be made – deciding most literally between one and the other. I do not consider this as any contradiction to the wish to preserve the sense of tradition, but use it under the mantle of ahimsa, ‘non-harm’, which is the very foundation, the bedrock of the teaching. There are specifics around a method, and the value I put upon respect and humility which goes hand in hand with the observing of a body of information that has endured the test of time, and I think we can preserve this is a sensible and conscientious way without being overly ‘literal’ about it.  

Like any tradition, it functions as a shining ideal, a beautiful image to inspire and encourage us. It doesn’t mean, in order to partake of it we have to actually arrive at this ideal picture; it’s an ideal, and should be taken in that way. As they say, the devil is in the detail; how we present the tradition is everything, It should be hoped that we don’t take it as literally as the 7th Day Adventists the bible for example, and be able to allow its interrelation and development with modern times before it falls into irrelevance.

Instead, tradition is a symbol or metaphor; a harbinger of some unseen and personal process which can be ignited in the individual, behind the most obvious shapes. It is, to repeat, not about the shapes themselves, instead, to do with our, personal, relationship with a personal process.

Conclusion

My perspective, I feel has been thoroughly made clear in the above. I understand the reasons why things have been done as to the logistics around numbers. I also appreciate that if no rules were in operation we would quickly be left with nothing at all. Or, lack the challenges, and the beauty that may arise in working with these.

However, it must also be remembered that as they say in India themselves ‘same, same, but different’. The pursuit of truth is not a definitive and materially verifiable endevour.  We are going after something much more vague and unknown, something on the inside of us which is not about form, but a feeling, not about an objective and measurable quantity but instead, a quality.

In which case, there is nothing wrong with the believing and following a tradition, as well as, at times, deviating from its instruction when it is seen lacking. The experiment at the end of the day, is ours and our alone. Let Mysore be the shining beacon, but let what happens in Mysore stay in Mysore, when at home, in normal life, it can do as a lot of good to be a good deal less idealistic and a great deal more realistic.

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