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...
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