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Demystefying Ashtanga Yoga Feb 13, 2014

Demystefying Ashtanga Yoga

I had my start in yoga with the Ashtanga system back in 2002 when I was still living in Toronto. My teacher then, Kiran Sohan, was a lovely Indian yogini who comes from a long line of yogis. I continued my practice on my own through the years, doing variations of the asanas and dipping into other forms of yoga, but I held Ashtanga firmly as my default yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga is difficult. It's widely regarded as the athletic yoga - you build up heat and sweat profusely. You go into a set series of flows, riding with the breath, as you develop balance, strength, stamina and concentration. There are progressive levels to Ashtanga, but very few practitioners even fully complete the first or the Primary Series. It is said that Sharath Jois, the grandson of Ashtanga guru K. Pattabhi Jois, is the only person in the world to have reached the 6th level.

Demystefying Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga Yoga lineage

Is Ashtanga for everyone?
I used to think so. I used to think you can even confine your practice to Ashtanga Yoga to the exclusion of everything else. But as I try to read more about Ashtanga, I begin to appreciate it for what it was designed for. Veer, my current yoga teacher, once said, "yoga has to adjust to the student...the student should not adjust to the practice". I did not fully understand what he meant then. Shouldn't the student simply keep practicing until he achieves whatever level he aims to attain? But as I continued my reading, I learned that Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), the iconic yoga figure of India, taught different yogas to his students, who are now big names in the yoga world. To Pattabhi Jois, he taught Ashtanga. To BKS Iyengar, he taught what is now known as Iyengar Yoga. To his son Desikachar and Indra Devi, he taught therapeutic yoga. So, if Ashtanga is the be-all and end-all of yoga, why didn't Krishnamacharya just teach Ashtanga to all his students? Why Ashtanga to Pattabhi Jois and not to Iyengar, Indra Devi and Desikachar? It turns out, every one of them has their unique qualities and limitations. It was no less than Krishnamacharya himself who emphasized that the practice of yoga must be adapted to the individual, and not the individual to yoga.

Ashtanga for Jois
Pattabhi Jois was 12 years old when he started and proved to be the strongest of the lot. He was also poor and uneducated (other accounts say he is born a Brahmin upper class whose father is a landholder). Krishnamacharya on the other hand, was well read, very knowledgeable and learned. I speculate that that is the reason why Krishnamacharya taught Jois an althletic form of yoga that was focused on a set series of challenging asanas - it was physically difficult to do, but it was simple to understand. Jois continued to practice this yoga (Ashtanga) for 25 years under Krishnamacharya. So, is Ashtanga Yoga for everyone? Well, maybe if they were all young and strong (like Pattabhi Jois), and if they want to maximize what Ashtanga has to offer (instead of being limited to modified asanas). There are other gentler forms of yoga that would be better suited to people who don't have the requisites of Ashtanga's physical demands.

Pattabhi Jois is now venerated as a demi-god with his sayings regarded as gospel by many Ashtangis. Even what he said, "99% practice, 1% theory", is internalized by the hardliners as sacred mantra from a great sage. But if you apply critical thinking, what does 1% really say? It says it's not important (imagine your girlfriend telling you she'll give you 1% of her time). Given the wealth of information out there to complement your yoga practice, I would be the last person to say theory is not important. I think P. Jois only meant that as a figure of speech, which the hardliners are taking too literally. Besides, with the growing sexual controversy about P. Jois, I begin to more clearly see him as a man...just a plain man who was taught great yoga by a great teacher.

Continuing Evolution
Ashtanga Yoga is now riding the crest of a global yoga wave. It has immeasurably grown from its humble obscurity in India, back in the day when seekers like Andre Van Lysebeth, David Swenson and Richard Freeman ventured in search of something esoteric in a far off land and were introduced to the then-unknown Pattabhi Jois. They were the annointed apostles - who spread the early word of Ashtanga to the corners of the planet. With Ashtanga's increasing global popularity, thanks in large part to celebrities like Madonna, Sting...and the cash infusion of Sonia Tudor Jones, wife of billionaire hedge fund guru, Paul Tudor Jones, who with Sharath and his mother Saraswathi, are establishing Jois Yoga, a national chain of 'Pattabhi-stamped' Ashtanga yoga studios, are now mushrooming within the US. Now, we have the new generation of Ashtangis like Kino McGregor who bear the flag with the touch of the current times.

Ending Thoughts
At the end of the day, I'm still an Ashtangi - my body and my resolve can still comply to its rigid structure and discipline. Ashtanga definitely occupies a place in the yoga world, but I've also come to appreciate that Ashtanga is not for everyone. I guess I can now safely say I understand what Veer said when he said, "yoga has to adjust to the student...the student should not adjust to the practice".

--- TheLoneRider

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