A few thoughts on the Vanity Fair Ashtanga article
As Bobbie and I have developed and, hopefully, refined this blog, one of the directions we’ve gone — mostly at her urging as my old journalist instincts are “get news, find news” — is toward talking about topics that we think can help deepen our practices. That doesn’t always mean everything is serious. If you were at the Confluence, you know there is plenty of room for humor.
But it does give us some leeway to pick and choose what we talk about here. By which I mean we can ignore things that might be “controversial” but that we don’t think, really, add much to our understanding of Ashtanga. (Readers might have noticed our pull-back from all things stupid coming out of the New York Times, for instance.)
The Vanity Fair piece nearly falls into this category. It’s obviously intended to stir things up, but it also — and I say this based on reactions I’m seeing online — has made public something that’s been going on behind the scenes of Ashtanga for a few years.
I’m far from an expert on these matters. We’ll see if folks who are more expert choose to respond. I suspect some won’t. I don’t want to (see all the words I’ve written above) but this is an Ashtanga blog… how can I not?
I do think the core topic — what is happening to Ashtanga now, after Guruji’s passing — is an important one. I’ll cop to the idea that it may not be. But I think in terms of keeping it “alive” and thriving, it is an issue that those in leadership roles are having to deal with and are going to have to deal with for some time to come.
And so my reactions are going to be through this filter: How does what VF reports on affect my practice? Does it even? With that in mind:
1. I think the piece, overall, is pretty fair. That hasn’t been true of recent yoga article in the mainstream media. So that’s a start. I know I’m biased, but I think that Sonia Jones comes out the least sympathetic.
2. Whether someone dropped the ball when it came to reaching out to Tim Miller about opening a studio in Encinitas, that was wrong. As the article notes, Los Angeles would have been a perfectly good place to go. In fact, several years ago when the Jois studio was coming online, there was a little dearth in Ashtanga here. Since, that void has been filled.
But Tim had been leading Ashtanga, had been hosting Guruji, for three decades. My goal here is not to get argumentative, and I’m certainly not speaking for any teacher I may be fortunate enough to have a relationship with, but it was just not right. And the area really isn’t big enough for two Ashtanga studios. It some ways it is that simple.
3. The main issue here is Parampara, the lineage of Ashtanga. Having just been at the Confluence, I can tell you that there is an overflow of Parampara among the dedicated, serious and masterful teachers who worked with Guruji over the years. It was clearly on display in San Diego. If I can see and feel it, it exists. To think it only flows to one person — or that somehow it was hereditary, when that isn’t how Parampara “works” — is to misunderstand things. You don’t have to go to Mysore to find it, in other words. Or to a Jois Yoga studio.
However, do I understand why Guruji would pass the Institute in Mysore on to Sharath? Yes. I can see keeping that in the family, if only as a “business” and as a source of income and support for his family. But making sure his family was provided for and could continue to provide for themselves is far different from Parampara, in my mind.
4. The idea of Jois Yoga runs counter to much of what Guruji said throughout his life: Ashtanga yoga is Patanjali yoga. Did he suddenly have a change of heart? I certainly can’t know for sure (as Richard Freeman talked about, in other contexts, at the Confluence), and so I will have to go with my best understanding. And my best understanding is based on his consistent message over the years that no one owned this type of yoga. “Yoga is to see God.” That’s hard to own, right? I don’t see much to suggest he wanted things codified. I will continue to look for Ashtanga teachers who I find to be respectful of the tradition and of their students.
5. Here’s my take on another key issue: Jones’ idea that Guruji wanted her to build him yoga studios all over the world. (From the article: “Sonia, for her part, says, “I wouldn’t be doing this, trust me, if he hadn’t said, ‘Will you open schools for me all over the world?’ ””) I’m going to conjecture again, based on a consistency to what Guruji said to countless students. It can be summed up this way: “You do.” My sense, through interactions with teachers and students, is that one of Guruji’s defining characteristics was his ability to intuit what an individual student needed. And he was always about his students. And so I imagine that an exchange between Jones and Guruji might have gone like this:
Jones: “Guruji, you and Ashtanga have saved me. I want to spread the practice to as many people as I can. I want to build Ashtanga studios throughout the world, to help others and to honor you.”
Guruji: “You do.”
However, in “You do,” Jones heard, “Yes, build studios for me.” But what he really meant was: “Yes, go build those studios for you, because it is what you need to do.”
That exchange seems more consistent with the Guruji I know, second-hand, through many, many people.
6. A final though. A lot of people — online, anyway — seem to be focusing on the Kino MacGregor quote that closes the piece out:
A slightly different perspective comes from Kino MacGregor. She points out that Krishnamacharya taught hundreds, maybe even thousands, of students, and there are only six who are well known today. “The students chose them,” she says. “The future of yoga is decided by the students, and whoever will bear the torch of Ashtanga yoga will be decided by the students. I don’t think we need to try to control it. We just need to sit with the uncertainty of it.”
I would instead point you to a quote that comes just a bit earlier, from Sharath, regarding opening in Encinitas: “I don’t think it’s proper for others to say how this is wrong or this is right. Everyone has their own rights to share the knowledge with others. Nobody owns this.”
“Nobody owns this.” That’s what I take away from the article. It is what Guruji said. It is what the teachers at the Confluence made clear. And so I will continue to practice with the teacher, or teachers, who best embody Ashtanga yoga.
Posted by Steve