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yoga curmudgeon iii

8th April 2005 permanent link

On the yoga message board I frequent, there are a couple of ultra-purists who specialise in criticising and vilifying the slightest deviation from what they say as the one pure and correct ashtanga vinyasa yoga method as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. I don’t agree with these people’s methods and tone – abusing under-qualified yoga teachers and talking down to inexperienced students are rarely constructive ways of addressing issues. I find myself increasingly, however, agreeing with what they actually have to say.

Here’s one response to somebody who posted a message basically saying that their ego had been dented because they visited another teacher’s class, and weren’t allowed to do as advanced things as they normally did with their regular teacher. This broadened into a general discussion of whether teachers should stick rigorously to the way the practice is taught in Mysore, where students are only allowed to go on to the next posture when they are capable of doing the previous one at least half-credibly; or whether it is ok for teachers to allow students who aren’t ready, to go through the entire practice series making sketchy attempts at easier versions of the things they can’t do properly. (It isn’t)

If what you mean is that everyone has their own path to finding their truth, I would agree. But I disagree regarding the practice. If I went ahead and “did my own thing” I can assure you my yoga practice would be much easier on my ego because I would skip all the hard bits. But that is not the point, is it?

If you just want to brush over the hard bits and skip along doing the bits that are easy and not stop and face what is difficult for you, it is just excercize. If that is all you are looking for, that is exactly what you will get. Same weak body, same weak mind. Whatever you practice reinforces what you practice. If you want to practice having a weak mind and a weak body, you will end up with a weaker mind and a weaker body. Congratulations!

There’s no particular reason why I should care about what somebody else is doing, especially somebody I don’t even know who is probably thousands of miles away in America. It has no bearing at all on what I do in my practice. But this resonates with my own experience – I started with a teacher who didn’t stop people when they couldn’t do things properly and (though I still like and respect the guy) I now think with hindsight it was better for my ego than for the development of my yoga practice. [Although would I have carried on going if I had had my ego seriously bruised in my first few classes? I was already pretty emotionally battered at the time; that’s why I was in a yoga class in the first place]

Now I think the way ashtanga is taught in Mysore is right: when students get to a posture they can’t do, they are stopped at that point and assisted until they can do it before they are allowed to carry on with further postures. “Do” in this context doesn’t mean “perform immaculately and effortlessly”, it generally seems to be more like “can be put into the position by a competent teacher without too much effort, and shows signs of making credible attempts on their own”.

There are exceptions. When I was in Mysore, there was one posture in the middle of the primary series that I was nowhere near being able to do on one side because of an injury. Sharath, Pattabhi Jois’s grandson and assistant, knew this and still taught me the rest of the series. I don’t think anybody in the ashtanga yoga world would question Sharath’s judgement – I certainly wouldn’t. But I still knew when I got home that filling that big hole in my practice was Priority Number One, and I’ve spent the last couple of years (minus a year off yoga practice when Jack was born) working on it. I can do it now – still with difficulty, and not every day, but in the last two weeks I only missed it in one practice. Two days ago I did it unassisted in class for the first time. (My teacher wasn’t looking). Along the way I’ve learned a great deal about patience, how progress often comes unexpectedly just when you were getting disheartened, and the anatomy of the psoas muscle.

This is all about the balance between two basic yoga principles – ahimsa, not causing harm, and tapas: dedicated, diligent effort. Ahimsa includes not hurting oneself in pursuit of some preconception of what an “advanced” yoga practice might look like; tapas implies not giving up at the slightest hint of difficulty. There’s clearly a tension between these two; B.K.S. Iyengar even describes tapas as a kind of inward-directed himsa, violence, without which outward-directed ahimsa, non-violence, isn’t possible. (I don’t particularly like that definition, but who should you pay attention to: me, or one of the most experienced senior yoga teachers in the world?). I’m clearly tending towards the tapasic end of the scale just now.

(It strikes me that sanskrit tapas is clearly from the same Indo-European root as the German tapfer: brave, courageous)

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