One of my biggest frustrations with being associated with Ashtanga Yoga is that other yogis perceive that my asana practice and thereby the asana I teach must adhere to what is known as the ‘traditional’ form (I place tradition here in inverted comas to refer to the popular Jois tradition and not the traditional Patanjali Ashtanga Yoga, which is actually what I do practice and teach!). And many have a negative impression of this ‘tradition’. This negativity stems from Ashtanga’s reputation of being dogmatic, inflexible and hard core. Actually, that’s not a criticism of the practice itself but of the attitude of many Ashtanga Yoga teachers. I practice and teach in a way that adapts the asana practice to the individual’s needs using safe, sound biomechanics and a compassionate approach.
Gregor neatly categorises students into four groups and of course individual students may need to transition between these groups depending on their energy level, injury, age, etc.
Category one has the ideal body for Ashtanga Yoga and can always learn and practice the postures as in the orthodox sequence. Category two has to sometimes switch to therapeutic sequences or alter the series to some extent. Category three has such limitations (for example extremely tight hip joints that prevent half-lotus postures) that the sequences have to be permanently altered but can still be recognised as Ashtanga-inspired. The fourth category of students has such physical limitations that they need to practice a purpose-built therapeutic sequence that may not even be close to Ashtanga Yoga.
Important here is the ability and freedom to modify the asana practice to suit the individual rather than forcing an individual to fit the form. This applies to individual asana, sequences and entire practices. I would treat each of these categories of practitioner differently, catering to that individual’s ability with an aim to holistically nurture that person whilst they explore their possibilities and develop their potential, safely. In my Self Practice classes anyone who has a self-practice is welcome, from advanced series practitioners to those who are doing a practice that is very limited in movement. Everyone deserves to practice, whatever their capability.
However, if you reward students with the next asana, the next series and a teaching and certification system based on physical advancement in asana you can predict that they will become asana-ambitious. The inherent message in this system is that they’re not good enough until they are ‘advanced’. Advanced asana is not a reflection of the perfection, beauty, and divinity that is our true nature. And in the Ashtanga Yoga system there is also no method taught that teaches students how to realise that (more on that in future parts). This system has consequently led to the myth that one is/becomes a great yogi by performing advanced asana. And that belief has led to sometimes irreparable injury and suffering on more than only physical levels. This also constitutes spiritual abuse.
The un-yogic hierarchy of asana achievement in the Ashtanga system is what drives students to incessantly strive to go deeper and deeper into postures, which does not necessarily equate to greater benefit. It is, however, greater wear and thereby potential repair of joints, which is one of the known factors in the development of osteoarthritis. In regards to flexibility too much of a good thing often transmutes into a bad thing. For example, back bends are very therapeutic, however, the extreme of reaching back to hold your ankles requires lengthening the long ligament on the front of your spine to such a degree that you may destabilise your spine. It is not uncommon for yogis to displace the vertebrae at the peak of the curve in their low back (L3) from practicing extreme backbends or being over-zealously adjusted in the same. Previously, without questioning, I have been there and done that myself. Now I see that this is what makes yoga look like a circus.
Also, there are aspects of the practice that are not congruent with its current audience. For example, Ashtanga Vinyasa would have been designed for a population who had open hips. This means that other postures where the knees are less vulnerable may be better to commence hip opening than the half lotus postures. And Badhakonasana might be an important posture to include although it comes after many more advanced postures. In this way the teacher needs to intelligently apply asana that makes the practice accessible to the student rather than going through the motions to uphold a ‘tradition’ that is not applicable and does not serve the person in front of them. Yes, this does require that the teacher has a good level of experience and is why those some practitioners who could achieve postures with little effort often cannot teach them to those less capable.
Traditional teachers will argue that they wish to stay ‘true to the form’, however, this has often involved (presumably unintentionally) breaking the student to fit that tight, narrow box. I have experienced this personally as a student; seen students struggle and abuse themselves as a teacher; and witnessed the destruction of this imposition on numerous occasions as a therapist. The traditional adjustments given by Pattabhi Jois (and unfortunately adopted by many of his students seemingly by osmosis and certainly not by informed consideration) were often forceful and too often injurious. The last thing any teacher wishes is to harm another. It certainly is not necessary. As a teacher one must look to the needs of the student and not to upholding a purity that exists in our ideology, especially when that ideology is to the detriment of the individual before us.
It concerns me that as teachers we may be unawares encouraging a culture of physical and/or spiritual abuse by teaching students to continually strive for more: more flexibility, more strength, more postures, more sequences. We become a consumer of asana, flexibility and greater physical prowess just as we are consuming everything else on our Earth! I often ask students: ‘What are you practising?’ Ambition? Striving? Discontentment? Or exploration? Awareness? Appreciation? Contentment? Teaching is an act of service and needs to serve the student. As a teacher I attempt to read my students’ needs and to meet them where they’re at. That doesn’t mean not exploring their potential but to explore without an imposed set agenda. And I consciously dispel the ridiculous belief that they are any less a yogi for which asana they can or cannot do. We each need to treat ourselves like we treat those we love most and with full respect for this miraculous, sacred site that we inhabit.
Yoga is an introspective practice, which gives us the opportunity to practice interoception, i.e. being receptive to our internal environment, being able to listen and respond to our body and our innermost voice. This protects us physically and guides us spiritually. True asana means being embodied versus using our mind to conquer our body. That’s torture. That is abuse. Give yourself permission to practice honestly, a practice that nourishes your whole being, without self-coercion or the pressure to fit any outcome or even an out-dated version of yourself. Practice with love for yourself and your body. This is an opportunity for the tradition to be enhanced by new understanding. The essence of yoga is not in any order of postures but in an attitude of respect and love, service and humility and freedom that brings liberation from our conditioning, not one that adds to it!
For those of you who prefer to read in French here is a French translation of the article.