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Should Ashtanga keep changing and adapting?

August 29, 2011

During Sunday’s Moon Day, I did something unusual.

I practiced.

Normally, I’m more than happy to veg on a Moon Day and to thank my lucky stars/Gurus that I get the day off. But I’d missed a few days the previous week, and there was an Intro to Ashtanga class I could make. So I thought, “Why not?”

Urdhva Dhanurasana. Photo via Yoga Journal

It was the right decision, for a number of reasons. A central one was the opportunity to practice a few Second Series back bends before my Urdhva Dhanurasana. You know the ones: Salabhasana and Dhanurasana. (Forget that crazy Urdva part!)

Both felt terrific, and in Dhanurasana especially, I could feel some too-neglected muscles in my lower back at work. And my Urdhva Dhanurasanas after were better; even my sadly tight shoulders felt relatively, for me, open.

It made for a wonderful practice, but it also served as a reminder of one of the main “knocks” on Ashtanga — that its sequence of poses can be unbalanced.

This “charge” against Ashtanga is really only true for people, like me, who are slow to progress. If  you were one of the initial Westerners to practice with Guruji, changes are you were bendy and strong and that Guruji moved you through the first two or three series relatively quickly. In that case, the practice was plenty balanced — not to mention plenty hard.

But we’re not all David Williams.

But, even if you are, in recent years — and, I think, certainly now — there has been far less quick progression through the series if you are working with a teacher who keeps to the Ashtanga tradition.

OK, so here’s the moment where I, still a fairly new practitioner and not very advanced in the asanas, meekly raise my hand and ask: “Is this a problem? Do changes need to be made so the practice best serves its students?”

I only can judge by my own body — and I’d be open to hearing counter arguments — but additional preparations for back bends always seem like a blessing. Would I love to jump through to my stomach after Setu Bandasana and do Salabhasana during my Mysore practice? Yeah, I would. (And no, this is not an end-around on getting a “Second Series practice.” I know that’s well off in the distance.) I think it would help, much as doing Ubhaya Padanustasana has helped open my hamstrings and thus helped much of my practice.

But I respect the practice, and so it isn’t something I’m going to do except on those rare occasions when I’m essentially in an improv class. I can’t help but wonder, though, if adding in “research” poses as a part of each individual’s practice wouldn’t improve the practice. Certainly, the Mysore environment seems designed just for such individualized sequences.

Now, this probably is already happening in some places and with some teachers more than others. And I’ll be interested to see how the five Confluence teachers approach the issue.

But we all know that the tradition that broadly guides the practice makes little, if any, room for such alterations. It may even be getting more stringent and systematized, not less — just how much that follows Guruji’s thinking, I am far from expert enough to answer. It is plain that Ashtanga did evolve from the early and mid-70s through at least the 1980s, if not later. One only need look at Guruji’s Yoga Mala to find a practice different from the one now being taught.

Perhaps a little more change wouldn’t be a bad thing if it served the students more.

The question I’m asking, I guess, is whether that change should be something along the lines of: Without fundamentally changing the essential sequence of poses, shouldn’t teachers be able to make informed decisions about what’s best for their students and adapt accordingly?

And I know the first argument to that point: Don’t those adaptations risk changing the practice so it isn’t Ashtanga any longer?

To which, I wonder: Is Ashtanga really meant to be that regimented?

Posted by Steve

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