Since Matthew Remski’s article and his interview with Karen Rain the Ashtanga world is trying to come to terms with K Pattabhi Jois’ history of sexual abuse and assault. I think this is an important process, which need not be hurried and in which context a lot of questions should and need to get asked. One of the arguments brought forth to lay this important process to rest before it really gets underway is, “KP Jois is dead and now things are different”.
I would like to pierce this narrative. Things may be different today in that there may be no direct sexual assault and abuse in class. In many other ways though things have not become better at all and in some ways they may have become worse (for example in terms of personality cult and dogmatism). I hear from a lot of people that they are leaving or have left Ashtanga Yoga not because what happened in the past but because of what is happening today. This stampede away from Ashtanga will get worse if we as a community cannot openly speak about things.
Starting with today’s article I will attempt to shed light on some of these murky areas of Ashtanga Yoga, which have not yet been cleaned up. I have not been in a hurry to start this project as the lack of pro-activity and accountability on part of many senior teachers in the system to this day leaves me disturbed. If we do not speak out and restore public trust in the system, modern Ashtanga Yoga will not recover.
I will commence this series of articles by looking into what I perceive as Ashtanga Yoga’s flawed teacher accreditation process. I was authorized to teach by the late K Pattabhi Jois in 1997. The authorization came after I had practised with him for 12 months over 3 separate trips to India and after I had become proficient in the majority of the postures of the Intermediate Series.
On the positive side this taught me dedication to my practice, endurance, perseverance and determination. Even now over 20 years later I do practice 6 days a week and miss practice days only ever if on long haul flights. I do have to credit K P Jois for that. It is also true that my body, which at first seem to be unable to bend was eventually moulded into shape by daily multi-hour fiery practice. However, it is very obvious to me now that I could do so only because I was genetically gifted, that my joint shape and direction combined with general ligament length and muscle tension did allow me to do that. I probably have to thank my ancestors for that more than KP Jois.
I have also seen other practitioners more gifted than I who conquered more postures and series in that same timeframe and I have subsequently seen many of them fall apart and leave Ashtanga for good. For they suffered from structural problems that I do not suffer from, viz ligamentous laxity and hypermobility. During the period in which I underwent my authorization process, a combination of ideal joint shape and direction, ligamentous laxity and hypermobility could see you (and often did) become Ashtanga-authorized in 6 months of daily two-hour practices in the Lakshmipuram shala. Most of us who did become authorized didn’t know much about yoga outside of our commitment to our daily practice and our ability to crank ourselves into postures like Kapotasana and Dvipada Shirshasana with little warm-up. These two capacities though are not something exclusive to yogis but we share them with acrobats and gymnasts.
In fact once I started to train teachers myself I found to my great surprise that it was a disadvantage to be too physically gifted or overly flexible. Most students aren’t and the person who easily can perform extreme postures usually does not have to understand the difficult process to attain them. As for many other aspiring teachers my true training started after my authorization. In many ways I was lucky that back in those days learning through books was not sneered at and it was not yet forbidden to seek out other teachers. The cult of the guru was not yet fully under way during the 90’s.
Another myth that I would like to debunk here is the importance given to the vinyasa count format when assessing teachers. The latest nonsense that I hear is that the vinyasa count has been given mantra status. This is like translating primary school calculus exercises into Sanskrit (which software can do for you) and think they become mantras by doing so.
I do think that the vinyasa count is a great meditative tool in the hands of an advanced or established practitioner but I consider it unsafe and hazardous to force an inexperienced practitioner to transit in and out of postures as quickly as the vinyasa count requires. I think students should first be instructed in a lot of technical detail before they are asked to transit in and out of postures that fast. In many cases a student will never be able to do so safely.
Rather than rely simply on flexibility and the ability to rote learn the vinyasa count, accreditation to be a teacher must be based on a large selection of criteria including your grasp of anatomy, teaching skills, modification of the series for individuals and teaching the higher limbs. In the following list I am outlining areas that I see missing in the present official Ashtanga authorization and certification process.
Only one limb is taught:
In the current format there is no emphasis on any other limb but asana. But most students come to yoga for more than just physical benefits as otherwise they would have elected sports. This leads to students desperately over-practising asana, trying to wring out of their body benefits which it cannot provide. The body cannot provide you with spiritual insight or wisdom. You do not get wise simply by practising asana. You need to practise the higher limbs such as pranayama and yogic meditation to get spiritual insights. The claim that spiritual insight will arise in you “spontaneously” simply by daily practising a certain sequence of physical posture is ludicrous. You might as well wait for Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny. Over-practising asana out of spiritual hunger eventually leads to a fibrous, worn-out body with lots of repetitive strain injuries. If students are introduced to the higher limbs early on they will find that they only need to practice asana for their physical needs and therefore will not over-practise. This is something that I have seen in students over and over again. A teacher must be able to teach the higher limbs of yoga and should offer this to all students interested.
Adapting the Series to Individual Needs
The official Ashtanga teacher accreditation does not include any skills in how to adapt the sequences to individual needs. T. Krishnamacharya taught that the practice needs to be adapted to the individual and not the other way round. By slavishly adhering to a rigid model and failing to acknowledge that bodies differ in their needs many more students are injured and eventually turn their backs on the system.
I hear that now in Mysuru some students that insist are allowed to leave out postures and are commended by others for their braveness to speak up. This is not enough. It is the teacher who has to understand and suggest to the student in what way the practice has to be adapted to avoid and pre-empt injuries and problems. Once injuries have occurred it is often too late and healing may be protracted and complicated. It is himsa (harmful) on behalf of the teachers to not assist the student in this way.
The series also needs to be adapted for average Western students and for beginners who often have stiff hip joints. A beginner should be given the opportunity to explore postures like Baddha Konasana before they have to attempt complex postures such as Marichyasana D or Supta Kurmasana. Again to insist on this order by invoking a tradition that has no proven length beyond a generation or two is to violate the student.
Yoga Sutra and Sanskrit phonetics
A yoga teacher cannot teach true yoga without a certain understanding of yogic philosophy as espoused in the Sutra, the Gita and the Pradipika (and ideally a few more texts) combined with a basic understanding of Sanskrit phonetics. A training without these can be called yoga gymnastics or asana but certainly not yoga. It is concerning that people now believe that yoga can be taught without its philosophical roots or alternatively that these roots would somehow manifest “spontaneously” by practising asana only.
Lack of Anatomical Training
The institution that claims itself to be the only legitimate source of Ashtanga teacher training accreditation, does not include any human anatomy in its training. How anybody can think you can train teachers in such a physically demanding discipline in this day and age without them understanding joint range and motion, ligamentous limitation and muscle structure is beyond my understanding. This becomes important especially in light of Ashtanga’s intense adjustment culture. I have received intense adjustments over a long timeframe and to this day I enjoy giving adjustments to students even in advanced postures and consider them beneficial. I cannot see, however, that I would have ever been able to do this safely without having a good understanding of human anatomy. I would expect that giving such adjustments without any anatomical understanding will probably soon be outside the law. It would be a great shame if we as yogis would lose the privilege to give physical adjustments. Including human anatomy into all yoga teacher trainings will go a long way towards us being able to keep this privilege.
Consent and Limitation of Teachers Knowledge
The Ashtanga teacher accreditation process does not include any policies how to get consent from students to adjust. Teachers perpetuate the myth that they know more about the student’s body than the students themselves. The student’s body is connected via their nervous system to the student’s brain and not the teacher’s. Feedback regarding adjustments and posture practice arrives therefore in the student’s brain and not the teacher’s. It sound ridiculous to point this out but yoga students today (and especially Ashtanga students) have been duped into believing that teachers somehow know more about what’s happening in their bodies than they themselves. This is a myth that needs to be debunked. It is the students body and the students need to be informed that they can refuse to receive an adjustment (or in fact any adjustment) or that they can ask that the adjustment be altered or in fact that they can refuse to do a particular posture.
There is a great dearth of communication skills in Ashtanga Yoga. When in 2007 I attended a workshop with a scion of the current Ashtanga dynasty he stepped before the class and immediately started his vinyasa count. After he finished it, he simply left. At no point was there any acknowledgement nor address of the people in class. He may as well have played a recording or parrot in front of the class. I recently heard that the gentleman still does it exactly in the same way. Reflecting of this hubris today many accredited teachers have very basic people- and communication skills and often act arrogantly and dismissive towards student’s needs.
Included in a training there needs to be some form of assessment of the above subjects other than just being able to perform postures.
All Content Providers to be Active Yoga Teachers
A lot of trainings have started to include the above subjects into their curriculum. However, I often hear from students that the trainings can be really boring because professionals are hired to deliver the content often without it being very relevant to the process of teaching and the practise of yoga. Simply having a professor of philosophy deliver the Sutra component or a physiotherapist deliver the anatomy section can be an alienating experience for trainees if the deliverer cannot connect the content to living the path of yoga. All content providers should therefore be active yoga teachers.
It is my great hope that the current crisis within Ashtanga Yoga will bring about changes that this magnificent practice will finally become what it could be. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga can provide the ideal platform to venture into higher limbs practice such as pranayama and yogic meditation and ultimately samadhi.
Over 20 years ago KP Jois told me that this practice will give me the light and strong body of a lion. While he did ultimately disgrace himself he was still right with many things he said. And while this lion is slowly getting on, 20 years later my body is in better condition than it ever was. I don’t think that any other form of yoga could have done this to that extent.