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Ashtanga: Tradition, Dogma and Modifying the Practice

On first reading this article by Chad Herst, on tradition versus dogma in Ashtanga Yoga, largely I agreed with the thrust of what he was trying to say. However, having reflected upon it for a day or two there are a few points which I think it is important to make. For the most part I still think it’s an eminently sensible article but, that being said, I would like to add my two cents. The reason I am compelled to write is to avoid the above article being used as justification for teachers who wish to change the Ashtanga system to suit themselves, and in doing so, throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Mr. Herst asks the question “Do I uphold the tradition or honour the well-being of my student?”. The answer is obvious; you honour the well-being of the student. But the two are not mutually exclusive. One can uphold the tradition and honour the well-being of the student. He goes on to explain how, early on in his practice he “discovered that in order to bind my legs in a lotus posture (padmasasna), I had to dislocate the meniscus”. Wouldn’t it have been better to discover that you don’t have to take padmasana if it is going to damage the cartilage in your knee.

I have had two very suspect knees since I was a child and, having spent the last five years travelling fairly regularly to Mysore I have never once been told to take padmasana. Never. The tradition is to honour the well-being of the student. Sharath has always been my teacher so perhaps it was different when Chad Herst was in Mysore. It depends who is doing the telling. Many Irish practitioners have had the honour of meeting Peter Sanson (who was in Mysore at around the same time as Chad Herst in the early 90s) on his trips to Dublin, and his message is just that; the tradition does honour the well-being of the student above all else.

It is very easy for us to get ahead of ourselves with the Ashtanga Yoga practice and to think that if we can do certain postures that we are further down the path of yoga. If somebody hurts their knee by taking padmasana (or any other asana) it is because they wanted to be able to ‘do’ padmasana. They wanted to achieve something. It is not because the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga says that you must take padmasana even if you can’t walk home afterwards. It seems that Mr. Herst was caught in this familiar trap on occasion;

“When I reflect on almost twenty years of practice, it seems to me that there have been periods of time when I’ve gotten stuck in the literal. I have, at times, been lured by the trajectory of progressing from the primary series, to intermediate, and then, eventually to the advanced series. Early on as a neophyte practitioner, I’d even hoped that as I advanced along the series, somehow life would take on a new shine, that samadhi was right around the corner.”

The above problem cannot be blamed on an adherence to tradition but, rather, to a misguided interpretation of that tradition. In essence, however, I do agree with the sentiment behind the article, which I read as, ‘don’t get bogged down in dogma which leads to suffering’.

That being said, it is not easy to know when to change the practice and when to rigidly stick with the tradition. That knowledge takes a long long time. We know that Guruji himself changed the practice over the years (read this by Nancy Gilgoff to see many examples). Sharath, it seems to me, has also made some subtle changes as have Richard Freeman and Tim Miller (or so I am told). The common thread amongst these teachers is that they are steeped in the tradition to begin with. From an outsider’s perspective the system seems very rigid but with further inquiry and practice it becomes obvious that it is a flexible system. As an example of this, on my last trip to Mysore Sharath got me to practice some postures out of sequence to help with those cursed knees of mine! A lot of people a very surprised when I tell them that. They seem to think that there is only one way to practise in Mysore. This is a misconception driven by the students, not by the Jois family.

It is my opinion that someone who wishes to teach the practice of Ashtanga Yoga must first learn all there is to learn about the tradition. Only then can they decide whether it works for them or not. Guruji wrote this letter to the Yoga Journal in 1995;

I was disappointed to find that so many novice students have taken Ashtanga yoga and have turned it into a circus for their own fame and profit (Power Yoga, Jan/Feb 1995). The title “Power Yoga” itself degrades the depth, purpose and method of the system that I received from my guru, Sri. T. Krishnamacharya. Power is the property of God. It is not something to be collected for one’s ego. Partial yoga methods out of line with their internal purpose can build up the “six enemies” (desire, anger, greed, illusion, infatuation and envy) around the heart. The full ashtanga system practiced with devotion leads to freedom within one’s heart. The Yoga Sutra II.28 confirms this “Yogaanganusthanat asuddiksaye jnanadiptih avivekakhyateh”, which means “practicing all the aspects of yoga destroys the impurities so that the light of knowledge and discrimination shines”. It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out the essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations.
The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with “power yoga” or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga shastras (scriptures). It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant body building.
-K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore, South India

 So before a teacher decides to alter the practice in any way they should be sure that they have matured in their own practice. How can you change what you don’t understand? That is why it takes such a long time to become an authorised or certified Ashtanga teacher. Dedication is required.

Part of the practice of yoga is to surrender. Surrender means acceptance. Acceptance of tradition, acceptance of the current limitations of one’s body and mind, and acceptance of the authority of somebody who has more knowledge than you. I am not suggesting that anyone takes Guruji, Sharath or anyone else as their teacher. A student should spend a long time finding a teacher who’s teaching resonates with them. It is important to choose your teacher very carefully. However, having done this, surrender is then required. Otherwise, one could just teach one’s-self.

All that being said, one is under absolutely no obligation to follow the Ashtanga tradition. There are many paths to enlightenment. It is my feeling, however, that if one is to follow this tradition, then one should follow it with as much faith and devotion as possible (let me reiterate that this does not mean putting your leg behind your head if it is going to cause injury). If one chooses to alter the method without fully understanding the tradition then it ceases to be Ashtanga Yoga. How can one decide what is wrong with the method, if one doesn’t fully understand it in the first place?

The Ashtanga tradition is one of discipline but also flexibility. Let us not blame our own failings on the tradition.

John

I should add that Chad Herst is a dedicated teacher and practitioner of traditional Ashtanga Yoga. See his website here.

One response to “Ashtanga: Tradition, Dogma and Modifying the Practice

  1. Hi John,
    Thank you for reading and taking my blog so seriously. I love your insights, and I especially love what you say here, “It is not easy to know when to change the practice and when to rigidly stick with the tradition. That knowledge takes a long long time. ” I couldn’t agree more.

    It’s my personal sense that we have to have a deep respect for the essence of the practice. This isn’t something one randomly decides for themselves. Rather, it’s something that arises out of being steeped in and passionate about the practice for quite some time. As a result, one knows the tradition, has studied it with a great teacher or teachers, and continues not simply to be a teacher of the method but a student who is always growing and learning. After quite some time of having the method delivered through a great teacher or teachers, then, and, only then, can one sense the essence of the method and begin to make choices that don’t necessarily concur with the way it’s taught in Mysore.

    Ashtanga Yoga has exploded in the last 10 years. As more and more “Tom, Dick, and Harry’s” teach Ashtanga, there’s a great demand for authenticity amongst students. And there should be. And, I suppose that’s why the method is being clarified and simplified for a wide audience these days in Mysore. If you have 80 students in the room, you want to make sure that there aren’t a bunch of weird things happening. You want to streamline the process of getting people in and out with ease and without a lot of injury.

    The only problem with that is that it creates a homogenized, one-size-fits-all approach to yoga. And, as a result, there becomes a lot of wrong and right, good and bad, correct and incorrect. The method, however, is therapeutic and healing. There’s no doubt that the clarified and simplified approach can be healing, but it can also be shaming to those whose body and spirit don’t fit neatly within the parameters that the system outlines. And for anything to be truly healing and transformative, we need to be met where we are.

    That’s why the transmission is so critical to the process of learning. Without an authentic relationship with a teacher, one simply learns a method. After 20 years of practice, what’s clear to me is that this isn’t simply a method. It’s a relationship. It’s a relationship of teacher to student, mind to body, body to spirit, individual to universal, self to Self. That recognition doesn’t occur simply in following the tristhana or keeping the vinyasa count perfectly. That recognition is something that’s transmitted from teacher to student.

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