There are two points I want to make in this blog post. One is that, if you practice with discipline and commitment Ashtanga Yoga will give you evident results. The other point is that the strict practice can become a trap when a rigid approach to the tradition takes over. This blog post is about learning to practice in a disciplined way, but also learning to practice smart.
I had already begun to write the post when I came across an article by yoga master Matthew Sweeney, ‘The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga’. In it, Matthew explores the ideas of change within a traditional method. I was curious to add some comments and so I thought I'd use Matthew’s article as a starting point to talk about the subject and then expand with my own thoughts and experiences. But I urge you to read Matthew's full post here.
Matthew outlines the pros and cons of sticking closely to the traditional Ashtanga Yoga series. He argues that the practice and the teaching of the practice has evolved and that the idea of 'tradition' depends on who you ask. Is it to deny the 'tradition' and to refuse a sequence that 'works' if you start to modify, to adapt or even to play with postures out of sequence? He points out the uniqueness and deficiencies of the Ashtanga Yoga system. I find his closing words and concluding question intriguing:
every system needs to evolve else it will become stagnant, every system needs stability from which this change can flourish. It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it?"
He addresses the reader directly and asks us to take a stand on this. Can we as hardcore traditionalists embrace change and can we as lovers of variety and change accept the value and depth of tradition?
The pros of sticking to the traditional practice
A very good argument for sticking strictly to the sequence is that of facing postures found to be unfamiliar and difficult. The Ashtanga Yoga sequence doesn't allow you a lazy playlist of 'greatest hits'.
I experienced this with my own body. After committing to the full Ashtanga practice in Mysore classes (no skipping postures!), I found my confidence increase both on and off the mat. The truth is that some of the more extreme primary series postures meant that I had been avoiding the full practice for a long time because of injury and fear. I needed the sequence to confront me with what I found difficult; it taught me not to cop out every time I hit an obstacle.
Read on for Matthew's precise and sharp analysis on this subject. I couldn't have said it better so I will let it stand for itself:
The simple fact is that by adhering to the set sequences of Ashtanga, although more discipline is required, the results are definite. Without set sequencing, without some commitment to self practice, both the results of the body and the focus of the mind are generally limited. A key benefit of a set sequence is that it keeps you honest. You are forced to doing postures that are difficult or problematic rather than avoid them, or only doing the ones you may like or which feel good. (...) Avoiding difficult or problematic postures is a major flaw, particularly with styles of Yoga that don’t work with set sequencing. Both beginner and advanced practitioners can fall into this trap, which leads to building up your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses, and then leads to further imbalance, rather than less."
The cons of sticking to the traditional practice
Matthew's main argument in his article against sticking dogmatically to the set order of the sequence is that the majority of the postures in the primary series are about upper body strength and forward-bending postures. Many of us get stuck here due to inflexible hips or hamstrings and hence we build strength in some areas and less in others by vigorously repeating vinyasas and forward bends. As Matthew explains, this focus enhances the upward and energetic aspect of the yoga practice (referred to as masculine energy) and less on the downwards and soothing aspect (female energy). (For more on such a theme see my 'Women & Yoga' post here.)
It is not that Matthew argues that we should not teach the traditional method but rather that you have to learn to take responsibility as a teacher for tweaking the practice to accommodate each individual student who takes an interest in doing yoga and not only those who have certain aptitudes.
After the initial learning phase it is important to consider the needs of the student rather than blindly following the tradition. It is important to consider whether the standard Ashtanga is appropriate (and often it may not be) and then notice if you do not teach an alternative out of fear, rigidity or inability.
Ashtanga Yoga -A sacred cow?
It is my experience that there is an unwritten rule particularly for more senior Ashtanga teachers to be very faithful to the traditional teaching: 'If this is what Guruji (or Sharath) has said, then it must be the truth'. Therefore I was thrilled to hear Matthew Sweeney talk about the problems of how dogmatically the Ashtanga practice is often approached. Finally: a senior teacher to speak out about what I had been thinking. And no doubt he’s not the first to express this. Matthew says:
Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day. There is nothing innately spiritual, holy or sacred about them.
Haven't most Ashtanga practitioners been wondering about this at some point since starting their yoga journey? The approach taken by our teacher (and very advanced Ashtangi) Joey Miles, is probably unusual compared to that in some more traditional Ashtanga Yoga Shalas. Joey teaches a disciplined Ashtanga practice according to the inherited sequences, but he allows for the use of props and modifications (to postures and sequence) where appropriate. He’s influenced by Iyengar Yoga and will spend time with the individual student to help them understand basic alignment for a safe practice. If a student is working with an injury or is otherwise challenged he might suggest modifications or additional postures to work sensibly with this. In short, Joey seems to take the ‘tradition’ less dogmatically, and although he honours it, he has given it his own stamp.
Self-practice for Ashtanga Yoga only?
Inevitably a led or ‘counted’ Ashtanga class cannot accommodate modifications for every single student in the space of 90 minutes. Led classes, of course, have their place for establishing rhythm, pace and focus to the Ashtanga sequence, and for reminding us of the correct breathing. But what are Mysore self-practice classes for? Matthew Sweeney mentions self-practice aspect several times in his blog post and also argues that it is one of the unique features of the Ashtanga practice, where the student receives feedback and hands-on adjustments during practice. So many other Yogas don't do self-practice. So should a self-practice class only be for people who naturally find jump backs and forward bends easy? Surely no teacher or true yogi is interested in this kind of exclusion.
Why should a student not feel welcome to come and practice a modified sequence for a period of time due to aptitude, age, injury or illness? Or perhaps a more permanent adapted practice if circumstances or body type doesn't fit the Ashtanga Yoga archetype of lean and petite? It is my impression that self practice classes risk becoming exclusive to the type of students who a) already know the full primary series (other students seem to think that this is a prerequisite for doing this class) and, b) have right body type to cope with vinyasas and forward bends and who thrive on the upwards, 'male' energy Matthew refers to in his blog post.
Back to Leeds
As mentioned earlier on in the post one of Joey's strengths as a teacher is precisely to implement what Matthew Sweeney is talking about in his post: to notice the needs of the individual student and have the courage to let go of the established sequence if this benefits the student. The implications of this is that some students will be practicing modifications or adapted versions of the sequence next to someone doing a ‘strict’ Ashtanga practice. Now what are the practical implications of this? How do you make sure that the practice in the self practice environment stays safe for both students and teachers? And all this while acknowledging the usefulness of being disciplined with the practice but still making space for all types of people.
To practice smart is to practice with discipline but not with rigidity. So the emphasis of our practice is not to follow slavishly the form of the postures as they are set out in the text books but to practice with ease so doing yoga remains fun and inspiring. Modified with benefits but not discarded to avoid confronting difficulties.
Yoga is for everyone regardless of ability. I will finish with a quote by Matthew Sweeney again:
For example, how do you teach someone missing one arm(...)?
Next I’ll be returning to my series of posts about developing a yoga practice for Toke who only has one arm...
This is a blog post about Mathilde. Mathilde is a dance and music improvisation collective I'm part of formed in 2009 with four fellow improvisers. Created through intuition rather than deliberation we came together without many words. It was all about playing and doing. Even after four years the intimate understanding between us and the curiosity for each other's practice is still there.
Who are we?
In Mathilde we are five performers, two musicians and three dancers, who love coming together to dance and play. The core of what we do is improvisation and within that we explore the boundaries of each others’ areas of expertise using various tasks and scores as a structure.
To give an impression of what we do, here's a film of some work -a performance tour in the north of England from 2011 taking place in a theatre in Leeds, a church in Manchester, a park in Leeds and at a festival in Rotherham.
On Sunday the 3 March 2013 Mathilde met up for tea, soup, ginger beer and banoffee pie. The point of the meeting was to discuss where we see the collective going both in practical and creative terms. Having this chat made me think back to the beginning of Mathilde in 2009.
The implications of being a collective
An important point to establish about Mathilde is how we were founded on a silently agreed ethos: being a collective. Being a collective meant sharing views on aesthetics and work ethics. There was no hierarchy when developing ideas and no single member leading the group. We never had an outside person to overlook the bigger picture neither in a creative nor a practical sense. Working in this way spread out the responsibility between all members. It also meant, of course, that each member always had a fifth of the responsibility! The no-hierarchy-policy was reflected in the performance space: the musicians were not in the pit playing for the dance and the sound made by the dancers had the same value as sound made by musicians. We were performers on equal terms.
The aesthetics were never actually agreed on. They sort of emerged through the slow formation of the collective without being said out loud. However, looking back on it there were some unconscious choices that made the group different from other improvised dance and music groups. We were not interested in entertaining or sending a political message or performing around themes. As Mathilde was never set out to be a performance project we had no audience to please. Practicing together was for our own amusement and curiosity and the result was complete austerity. When we made the transition from researching into performing we rejected the use of set, lighting and costume; the movement and sound was to stand alone. Our performances were to be an exploration of relationships and timing and then allowing coincidence and spontaneity to determine how the performance would develop. It was almost a philosophical experiment. Can you present completely improvised work for an audience without taking much notice of them and still give them a worthwhile experience? It was challenging for some audience members and we did receive mixed feedback and some frowned foreheads also from the established dance world. One thing that gave us this freedom was that we stayed completely clear of relying on funding or financial support. We got together for the pure love of improvising, there was no financial incentive, and no fundraisers to please.
To put it in short: Mathilde refused narrative and meaning and relied solely on the interaction between performers.
This is snippet of footage from a rehearsal at Yorkshire Dance in March 2010. The footage gives an impression on some of the interactions between musicians and dancers we were exploring at this stage:
At what point would the musician cease to be only a musician and become part of the dance? At what point would the sound created by the dancer using voice, breath or body percussion fuse with the music made by instruments? Musicians and their instruments became an integrated part of the performance space and the sounds made by dancers mixed with the 'soundscape'.
The camera was simply rolling to document our investigation as the static recording of the video implies. Entertaining or any deliberate composition was unintended.
Since the recording of this rehearsal three years ago we have developed a more open approach to our creative practice.
It was therefore interesting to come together for this recent meeting after a break of about five months and hear the collective members express their visions for the future of the group. Coming together to improvise movement and sound had always been the glue that stuck us together, without a certain degree of creative compatibility we would fall apart.
Mathilde performing in Colourscape in Rotherham 2011
Bullet points from meeting
Returning to what was discussed at our recent meeting - in short these were the points for creative development that came up:
A love affair
This meeting brought out a more serious side of us. It seemed we were more confident and determined when expressing ideas for how to continue our practice together. Our common denominator - improvisation - was always there but perhaps in the early days there was a degree of negotiating a common language. Testing boundaries between our roles was part of that and experimenting with complete freedom in the improvisation was also a variation on searching for identity. Now it seemed that our individual uniqueness as performing artists was clearer and that we were ready to bring this in to the collective.
Returning from the meeting I felt very uplifted by how committed we all still are to the group. Not because we're vigorously holding on to this before-mentioned identity but because we're starting to let go and open up. Considering bringing in a mentor, inviting guests and allowing each other more freedom to explore individual research within the parameters of the group, feels like a love declaration to Mathilde.
The whole meeting felt like a step up. Applying for funding was also discussed which seemed a way of taking the collective more seriously and acknowledging our own worth.
We have been practicing, rehearsing and performing together as Mathilde for four years. Not constantly but in little pockets of time when availability has allowed us. We're still the same five practitioners although we're probably five very different practitioners to four years ago. Perhaps the slow development and persistent work is the clue to the longevity of the collective, together with a passion for improvisation. Like a long love affair.
Below is responses from the collective members to the initial email suggesting to meet, raising questions about the future of the group:
Seth: "I still feel as excited about mathilde as ever, and would love to do more"
Daliah: "I really want to work with you all again and would love to have some time in the studio at some point"
Rachel: "Personally I'm very keen to continue. And whatever else I'm up to, what we do as Mathilde - performing improvisation is right at the heart of what I'm interested in"
Marie: "i feel we have build up something quite unusual and i really cherish the moments we have together."
Oliver: "I would really love to do some more playing and dancing with you guys, it provides me with some much needed soul nourishment! "
Had I been more Obama-esque I might have said 'Four more years'!
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Here you will find posts about subjects I find interesting and that all relate to my disciplines in dance, yoga and coaching:
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