I thought this blog would be a complimentary follow-up to Gregor’s last blog post where he elaborates on some of the great benefits of the Ashtanga Yoga vinyasa practice (practicing at the pace of one’s own breath, being independent of a class or teacher, etc). Although we use the Ashtanga vinyasa method as a basis for teaching asana we also embrace and acknowledge the important place for modification and other ways of practising asana. Personally, I have a long history of modifying and adapting the Ashtanga vinyasa method as well as including alternative, therapeutic, pre-and rehabilitative exercises into my practice and that of my students. There have also been periods of my life where my practice in no way resembled the Ashtanga vinyasa sequences and after 42 years of yoga practice and as I turn 60 years of age I have let go of any adherence to an externally dictated method of asana practice. The many years of uninterrupted practice, my ongoing profound education and my deep curiosity equip me to use my inner compass to guide and inform what my body needs.
Perhaps I entitle this ‘confessions’ as a final casting off, a cleansing of the indoctrination that historically has existed around the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga tradition (what Gregor calls orthodox Ashtanga). I hope this offering will serve anyone else who is still under the spell of indoctrination from orthodox Ashtanga or from their own lingering inner demons. For me yoga is an internal form and what we do on the outside in regards to which asana when has a thousand different possibilities, like another representation of Patanjali’s 1000 brilliant, jewel-studded heads. His one tail here could represent the mystical thread of yoga that comes from a focus on breath, the engagement of the bandhas and the lengthening of the spinal column to raise kundalini and gently activate the chakras.
At the time I discovered Ashtanga Yoga I was teaching Iyengar Yoga and dancing (free-form) a lot! Meeting the vinyasa system of Ashtanga Yoga was love at first try. It had me stop practising and teaching Iyengar Yoga from that very first day. I felt I could combine the beauty and joy of flowing movement with my passion for yoga. It was in the same year, 1993, that I saw my first other vinyasa style of yoga practice. I was totally mesmerised by the beauty and grace of what looked like a yogic dance.
Having already practiced Hatha and Iyengar Yoga for 15 years my Ashtanga practice progressed quickly. In 1994 I moved from Byron Bay to Perth which left me without a teacher. At the time there were five major yoga schools in Perth, one Hatha and four Iyengar. None of them would employ me as an Ashtanga Yoga teacher so I started my own classes. In November 1995 I made my first visit to Pattabhi Jois in Mysuru which is when and where Gregor and I met. On my next visit in 1996 I completed the Intermediate Series and was authorised to teach by Pattabhi Jois.
I’ve always had a strong curiosity. As a little girl my constantly repeated question to my big brother about everything was “Why?”. I was asking this about many aspects of the Ashtanga method as it was then taught and there were no logical answers, only that it was tradition. Already in young adulthood I had developed a self-authorising personality. Let’s face it, we have all witnessed very bad things implemented by authorities. That combined with my questioning mind had me leave the ‘Mysore community’ in 1999 (you can read the reasons why here). Along with it I chose to leave the dogmatic, rigid method of teaching the Ashtanga sequences. Gregor and I immediately commenced modifying the primary sequence to create our Ashtanga Yoga Beginners Course, which made the very challenging primary series not only accessible to any able-bodied student, but also made it safe!
This was a lonely path. It was before the days when you could create your own sequences and be applauded for them. I clearly remember in 1995 Beryl Bender Birch being strongly condemned for adapting the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga in her book Power Yoga. And although we had left the Mysore community it was still painful to be ostracised and condemned by the Ashtanga community at large. In 2005 I was the first teacher to be removed from the then relatively short list of authorised Ashtanga teachers. In 2006 in a small, intimate meeting in Byron Bay with Sharath Jois and a handful of Australian certified or authorised teachers it was decided that Gregor should also be taken off the list. This was strongly supported by the other main Ashtanga school in Perth who were at the meeting. They immediately began promoting on their website that aspiring students should only study with ‘currently authorised’ Ashtanga teachers, namely themselves.
However, the self-coercion to achieve the next posture and reach the next series remained in my psyche as proof to myself of my ‘advancement’ and worthiness as a teacher. Unfortunately, these personal lessons of letting go and contentment with where I was with my practice were harder learnt. I became exhausted and overwhelmed from the physical load of adding the Advanced A postures onto those of the Intermediate series. On 11 September 2001 I arrived to teach my usual 50-odd student Mysore-style class with Gregor and our assistant. My students informed me of the tragedy of the Twin-towers terrorist attacks and I was in shock. I couldn’t lead the opening mantra and asked students to chant with me. After class the three of us would usually practice together. I didn’t want to practice or do anything at all, but still under the insidious influence of believing that I should over-ride my feelings and practice regardless, I did. At my last posture, Viparita Śalabhasana, which I had been struggling with, I dissociated from my body and with great ease and a sense of surreal lightness I lifted into the posture and then further, resting effortlessly in Bandha Gerundhasana, (lying on your throat, your spine in a backbend with your feet on the floor beside your face). My mind was peacefully still.
I came out of that pose and my back was ‘stuck’ in a back bend. I could not forward fold my spine for many months and it took years for my body to feel normal again. The inability to practice what and how I had previously done, to achieve those fancy postures, to feel strong, fluid and confident in my body made me want to give up yoga. I had to ask myself why I practised. Was it for the reward of physical prowess? I realised that this was not my goal of yoga. It was one that I had taken on from the structure and teaching method of the Ashtanga tradition, one that permeated the Mysore community and that I had absorbed more by osmosis than as a conscious intention. Humbled by the intelligence of my own body I began to modify my practice to suit my body instead of practising despite it.
It was here that I began to create a personal, modified sequence of postures that suited my body and that enabled me to heal and restore. My idea of vinyasa yoga expanded not for the sake of creativity, beauty, or fun, but for the sake of healing, for the sake of keeping my practice alive. This also began a new level of self-enquiry into my body as I practised. Pain is a great teacher and even after the pain left, I had graduated from being an automated practitioner trying to fit my body into a perfect yoga box to being deeply attuned to the language of my body. My practice became one of listening, sensing and responding. I dropped the demands. I dropped any external pressures and also my own self-imposed expectations. I dropped the right and wrong and I practised exploring, giving loving kindness to my body, encouraging supportive strength and strong softness. I learnt to love my body, to appreciate and sing its praises for everything that it can and does do.
There is no strong evidence in the scientific sense to support any of the sequences we create or practice. We and our students are the case studies. They can only be judged on body-felt merit in the short and longer term. It takes many years and a great number of students, controlled variables and a variety of different studies to provide any valid evidence of effects and benefits. The Ashtanga Vinyasa system has at least more time and students behind it, however, the way it has traditionally been taught has not left a positive trail of evidence. For more on this read my previous blog: It’s Not the Practice that’s the Problem but How it’s Taught .
These experiences and the need for therapy outside of my yoga practice reignited my desire to study therapy and healing, to answer the many questions I had on how the body works, moves and heals. My chiropractic education satisfied my eager curiosity and informed me so greatly that it transformed my role from teacher to educator. I constantly draw immense wealth from my ongoing path of therapy and healing. As an educator my goal is to help students develop a clear perception of their body. This grows from a foundation of sound knowledge on how the body functions as well as common imbalances and dysfunctions. That knowledge brings understanding and the ability to see students as the individuals they are. It also develops for oneself the ability for inner referencing, i.e. to trust the messages we receive from our body. In this way we become responsive, well-informed, responsible practitioners and teachers.
I love the Ashtanga sequences, however, to believe that they should not be modified or that it is the only way asana should be practised is either naïve, arrogant or ignorant. It can bring a certain benefit to students when a teacher specialises in a particular movement system. However, teachers themselves need to be careful that they do not limit their teaching skills and abilities. Teachers need to be able to modify a practice when it does not suit the needs of the student in front of them. Part of a teachers education needs to be in how to see students as individuals, how to adapt postures/sequences to suit the individual student, how to give pre- and re-habilitative exercises and how to design a balanced logical sequence of postures whether that be gentle, strong or restorative. A great teacher has these skills combined with adequate experience in practice and teaching and a deep knowledge of and respect for the body.
Ultimately, I would love to witness a transformation in the divisive language of the modern yoga world with so many different ‘styles’ of yoga. To me there is one yoga and within that system one limb called asana. My passion is to see the division created by this illusion of style dissolve back into the heart of why we each practice yoga. Various styles are created for the enjoyment of being creative, to express our individuality, to move differently and especially as a marketing tool to stand out in the growing yoga crowd as well as to earn a living doing what we love. And that’s all ok, as long as what we teach under the banner of a yoga that is actually yoga.
A real danger currently exists in that yoga is becoming muddled and confused with new-age concepts, “hippie dharma” and pleasure and/or power-seeking techniques. Yoga is a system where freedom is attained through structure. The structure within the Ashtanga vinyasa practice is mirrored in the other yoga techniques of pranayama and meditation. Yoga meditation is different in this way to mindfulness and other meditations. The beauty of the Ashtanga vinyasa sequence system is that it provides stability and a solid foundation for students to explore their body. This combined with the intelligence of a well educated and experienced teacher provides a safe place for growth, expansion and transformation
Curiosity and self authority are the single most important ingredients for growth as a person. Be asured there are many great teachers who came the same way as what you describe. They are shining examples of what a asana practise can be as part of a yoga practise. Those examples over time Will multiply. You and Gregor are wonderfull people who dare be be very public about the fact that dogmatic approach is harmfull. Many thanks for that. There is still a lot of dogma in AVY…. maybe even more than ever. It atracks a lot of young seekers. The only thing one can do is give a shining example of what it also can be and be public about it. Change takes time. Thank you for being a shining example of self authority
Another super interesting article from you, causing pause for thought about our yoga practice xx
Thank you Sheila.
I’m so grateful to read your blog; I am a 55 year old woman. I’ve been a serious yoga practitioner for 32 years, first in the Iyengar tradition and then, the last ten years in Astanga. Like you, I feel that I found my yoga home when I discovered our local Mysore room. I am blessed to have a wonderful teacher and a thriving little yoga sangha. I love going to practice every morning and coming out feeling vibrantly alive. Yet just lately, I am dealing with a health issue that is forcing me to recognize that I cannot, at least at this juncture, continue to practice as I have been. I was just diagnosed with high blood pressure, and have some issues with my eyes/vision that seem to be related to the vasculature in my eyes. Putting pressure on that delicate system is something I must avoid. And so I am facing the big question of “what do I do with my practice?” After taking a few weeks off, I plan to follow my body into a new way of being on my mat. To listen instead of pushing, to be sensitive and slow instead of forceful and charging. I don’t know what my practice will end up looking like, but I know that this practice is for me a life blood, and I do not want to give it up. And so, modify I must. I teach the practice as well, and I’m looking forward to being able to share my insights with my students, some of whom are in their late 60’s. Ah, the journey of life has many curves along the way. I’m just so grateful to have yoga as a primary grounding/soaring piece. Thank you for your words…you helped me to gain some clarity and to let go of feeling badly that my practice is about to change.
Thank you Liz.
I am very happy that my words have helped.
You are right in that your experience, just like mine, will be invaluable to expand your teaching and ability to help your students.
Wishing you well.
Thank you for your acknowledgement and support Arie.
I know we are not alone and the beauty of the internet means that we can connect, reassure and inspire each other and stand in solidarity to reclaim Ashtanga Yoga for its original meaning.
Wonderful, Monica. Thank you for writing this. xx
Thanks so much Rionach.
The old swamis in the Himalayas told me (no messn’ around with them) sit up straight, breathe properly and pay attention. Just like mom, haha. No messn’ around with her either.
The Ashtanga primary series is very good for that. A year of it is about enough. Then a person should have accomplished the paying attention part. Then start using it. It cleans up a whole lot of problems.
I am sorry to learn about what sounds like a terrible injury you sustained to your back, and am happy you did not give up. Having dedicated your life to Yoga, that would be been very hard for you. For the global Ashtanga Yoga community, we are lucky to have someone with your experience and knowledge to guide us.