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Pass it on: Ashtanga was not designed for adolescent boys

March 15, 2012
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One of the many delightful moments at this month’s Ashtanga Yoga Confluence was when Eddie Stern invited everyone in the audience to pass this message on:

“Ashtanga was not designed for adolescent boys.”

He noted that if all 350 people gathered passed that on — in Los Angeles, in New York, in Florida, in Arizona, in Israel, in Mexico and everywhere else we’d come from — it would go a long way to ending this myth. (One place you’ll find this myth is good old Wikipedia.)

“This is not true,” Eddie said of that myth. Krishnamacharya and eventually Guruji were teaching all types of people at the Mysore palace and Sanskirt University, but when it was time for demonstrations, the boys were the ones on show. But they weren’t the intended students.

Do I have to remind you who were?

Sick people, old people, stiff people… everyone except lazy people.

Pass it on. Tell people Eddie Stern said so.

Posted by Steve

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. Marko permalink
    March 15, 2012 2:30 pm

    It’s not true. We can paa it on however the evidence (NE Sjoman, Singleton books) provide enough information to see the practice was originnally created for Amarju boys. Sorry. Won’t pass this ;)

    • March 15, 2012 4:36 pm

      I suspect the books you site — which I think might be at that Wikipedia page, as well — are the types of sources of misinformation that Eddie is trying to combat. I’ll stick with the first-hand source — given we know Guruji was teaching all sorts of people, it sounds like the type of misunderstanding that would get picked up by someone writing a book. I’ll also stick with what Eddie said. He also pointed out that none of the five Confluence teachers are teenage boys and said something to the effect, “We’re all doing OK.”

      S

    • March 19, 2012 5:32 pm

      I do not agree that the sources mentioned should be considered “evidence.” In fact, I think NE Sjoman and Singleton are just two sources that get way more import than they are due. There have been many critical responses questioning the validity of the conclusions these authors drew under the guise of academic research; so, in other words, just because these books were published, their work should not be above reproach nor considered the absolute lasting truth on these topics. There are several lesser-known sources that provide other insights into the context of this debate.

      One, for instance, is The Yoga of the Yogi (ISBN: 9780865477537) by Kausthub Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s grandson). Kausthub states (p 79-80) that the Yoga Shala’s purpose was to promote yoga and its benefits to the public. Krishnamacharya taught “classes for young boys and girls, as well as adults.” Kausthub also points out that boys and girls were taught separately. My guess is it is quite likely given cultural norms at the time that only the boys were sent out on public demonstrations so that is perhaps why there are only boys in these photos we most often see. However there is one photo that I know of that depicts a young girl from that time in a yoga pose (Kurmasana). The photo is in the book Yoga Makaranda.

      In 1934 at the behest of the Maharaj, Krishnamacharya wrote his first book, Yoga Makaranda to record what he was teaching at the Yoga Shala. (This book, btw, should be required reading for us all. There are two English translations of this book: one by TKV Desikachar sold through his website and another one that is free and available many places online; here is one link to the free translation: http://yogashalapdx.com/teachertraining/yogamakg.pdf )

      In Yoga Makaranda, Krishnamacharya states emphatically that “yoga” practice is for everyone. From the book, Krishnamacharya shares his method of teaching all his students at the Yoga Shala (again, not just the young boys). The text covers things like history and context from that time period, philosophy based on the Yoga Sutras, pranayama, and how to get into and out of asanas in a vinyasa krama system (breath integrated with movement), with modifications depending on the student (including pregnant women!). He answers questions like why and how to practice yoga. “Yoga” is always referred to in the book as a general term (actually as “yogabhyasa” or “yoga practice”).

      When Pattabhi Jois began teaching he also taught this “yoga” in the vinyasa krama system to his students and over time has perfected the sequences based on “research” (AYRI). The genius behind the vinyasa krama method as I understand it is that by working on building strength and flexibility in the external body, the student can then be receptive to the subtleties of the other limbs of yoga. When asked by those first visiting Westerners what his type of yoga was called he simply remarked “Ashtanga Yoga” referring to the Eight Limbs as described within Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which is in fact the system of yoga his teacher had taught him (not necessarily this exact sequencing but the whole framework of “yoga”!). Pattabhi Jois was a scholar and an athlete so it makes sense that these two aspects of the teaching are prevalent in his version of the “yoga” his teacher taught him. (Whereas, Iyengar was very sickly and, admittedly, a poor scholar, and was influenced by other things and people to devise his type of yoga as a spin-off of this branch of yoga.)

      Unfortunately, we “see” the sequences and we state “oh THAT’S Ashtanga”. Whereas we really must EXPERIENCE the PRACTICE to truly understand what Pattabhi Jois was creating with his “Ashtanga Yoga”. And while the individual paced, Mysore-style practice is truly more in synch with the Krishnamacharya style of teaching yoga to the individual, over the years, to accommodate the masses of students, these Led one-size-fits-all-esque classes have taken over and we lose so much of the context of this practice. Alas, students whose bodies (or minds) are not yet ready for particular poses walk away from the practice altogether and dismiss it as not being designed for them. (imho, this lost context is currently what Sharath is trying to stave off.)

      So as I see it, Pattabhi Jois’ “Ashtanga” yoga was, in fact, NOT created for young boys but what seems to have happened is that since some of the vinyasa krama sequences he incorporated into the sequences he taught were probably used by Krishnamacharya to teach some of those active adolescents back in the Yoga Shala, and only the pictures of the boys on demonstration-parade seem to exist, it has collapsed into this unfortunate myth. And I for one (as a woman) am very happy that Eddie brought this up at the Confluence! Let’s bust this myth! (The next myth to bust is that of the mysterious Yoga Korunta….;->)

  2. March 15, 2012 5:48 pm

    Eddie also continued and said that the point of dispelling this myth is that if we go into our practice thinking that the practice is really for another kind of person than we are, then we set ourselves up for an energetic failure. That’s not an exact quote, but he said something along those lines. I thought it was a brilliant point.

  3. dan permalink
    March 15, 2012 7:22 pm

    I think its common knowledge that Krishnamacharya taught different things to different people – the ashtanga sequence being only one sequence. He taught that to Guruji, probably based on his body type and perhaps disposition, we do not know why. Guruji, in turn, taught what he learned. So it seems to me to be an open point. Looking outside the box is beneficial to all.

    I do not believe there is any objective reality to the ashtanga physical sequencing, other than physical sequencing. It doesn’t seem to hold any more “truth” than Muslim practices, for example. Any claim as such is an act of ego, which is of course the exact opposite of a spiritual practice, the end of which is humility or ego-lessness.

    • JJ Flowers (Previous novels: Jennifer Horsman) permalink
      March 16, 2012 8:54 pm

      It takes many years of practicing Ashtanga to grasp the power and beauty of the sequence. For instance, the eight seated poses in the first series. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was. Eight? Surely three or four is enough! But after many years you experience how each pose unlocks for the next one, that to take even one seated pose out is a loss.

      And objective reality? On what planet do you live? HAHAHA.

      • dan permalink
        March 24, 2012 3:17 am

        Your comment proves my point about the lack of objective reality (which you agree) in general, as applied to ashtanga.

        The reason why you claim that “it takes many years…to grasp the power and beauty” is not because it has any objective reality (opps, there that phrase again) but because your body is conditioned to the sequence.

        There are many sequences of yoga that people have come up with. It you did their sequence, as many do, they will flow into one another with power and beauty as well.

        Its called practice. Its what we do as people is every aspect of pour lives, from brushing your teeth to the way you drive to the shala or work, to what we eat.

        they all seem right to you, because that is what you like and do on a daily basis, not because what you do is “better” than someone else’s, or ‘more right.”

        Argue this with a Muslim and see what happens – they will not agree with you, and you will be making a claim that a physical Hindu practice is “better than” that their prayer sequence.

        Its also called “confirmation bias.” We naturally find and agree with the things we like and agree with, the justify a reason that seemingly makes the “thing” greater than ourselves. hence, as Joseph Campbell noted,
        people create “seamonsters” to make themselves feel better, and God is on everyone’s side in a war.

        by the way, how long does it take for this to take hold? Is it 2 years, 5? Or does 9 years and third series qualify? Or is it only if a person receives a “blessing” that they are entitled to an opinion?

  4. Grimmly permalink
    March 15, 2012 10:09 pm

    So much confusion over this based around a misunderstanding of what was and is being stated.
    1. Ashtanga was a practice designed for young boys
    2. Ashtanga is a practice for young boys

    Statement 1. is suggested by Sjoman and Singleton based on some quite strong evidence including interviews with actual first hand sources ( Eddie isnt in the sense of 1. But is of 2.) those who actually were taught by K. during that period. Doesn’t seem very fair dismissing two vey serious and well researched books without reading them ( I have them both and they are excellent) but even just a glance at the photo at the front of Krishnamacharya’s yoga Makaranda written at that time where you will see Krishnamacharya standing on the boyish Jois in Kapo surrounded by schoolboys outside the mysore palace would suggest there may be something in this worth taking seriously. Also Indra Devi was being taught privately by Krishnamacharya at the same time but taught quite differently.
    Personally I think it was probably a system developed or adapted for the young boys of the Mysore palace school, a group class who just happened to be boys. If the remit had been different, different ages, girls as well as boys it may have been slightly different.

    However. Statement 2. Is different, it begs the question of whether Ashtanga is just for young boys, there’s enough evidence in the guruji book to show that it was and coud be adapted for different students as well as for the sick and old and even disabled. Manju says his father adapted it to help students with difficult postures just as he does. The teachers at confluence talked about how they have modified their own practice.

    Is it a practice suitable for all but the lazy, yes if you include modifications and adaptions but probably not if you want to argue for a fixed system…but does anyone argue for the later these days?

    Of course all this is based on the idea that ashtanga as we have it was passed on exactly as is from Krishnamacharya to Jois, David says he watched and then copied the postures from the other Indian students and I seem to remember they were different ages. Seems likely that Pattabhi Jois had taken a system developed for the Mysore Palace class and was teaching it to students of different ages by the time David and Nancy arrived.

    So if it’s 2. we’re talking about, Is it a practice just for young boys then I’m with Eddie, no its not and I’m happy to pass that on too.

  5. March 15, 2012 10:28 pm

    I’ll try to stick with what Eddie said, which I think I captured correctly:

    1. Ashtanga wasn’t designed JUST for young boys. The fact that people of all shapes, ages, etc. practice it is proof of that. He certainly made that clear, just by pointing to the 5 Confluence teachers.

    2. I did interpret what Eddie said — specifically that young boys did the demonstrations but there were others at the palace and the Sanskrit College “behind the scenes” practicing and learning — to mean that from its beginning, via both Krishnamacharya and Guruji, the practice was taught to all manner of people. And thus that it was never “designed” with boys in mind. In that sense, I think Eddie — and I could be wrong, and apologies to him if I misunderstood — is trying to suggest that the sources in those books may have misunderstood things.

    Ultimately, he may just be trying to fight off the excuse people give for not practice Ashtanga: That it was designed for young boys, and thus isn’t “right” for them. The proof, if you will, is in the practice.

    S

    • March 15, 2012 11:10 pm

      It’s difficult isn’t it, I’ve just listened again to what Eddie said, perhaps it comes down to what we think this practice actually is, if we’re talking movement with the breath, with certain movements on the inhale others on the exhale, variations of postures, drishti perhaps, maybe ujayii, possibly even a set count to the movements, then I think no it wasn’t designed just for adolescents, and it was probably the basis of how K taught everyone and continued to do so up to when Ramaswami was with him, Ashtanga as Vinyasa Krama. But, he did have the remit to teach mostly young lads at the Mysore palace and a vigorous practice was in the air plus that’s a tough class, surely your going to come up with a practice from the basis I’ve just outlined appropriate for those kids and it seems that was codified and tightened up even more by Pattabhi Jois although he would then adapt and modify it where necessary. In a small class it can be a flexible system.

      I don’t think Ashtanga as outlined in the primary and 2nd series is suitable and appropriate for everyone,I just don’t. I don’t believe you should fit yourself to the practice but rather the other way around and if it’s the case that on account of your age and body type you have to modify the practice to such a degree, well, then perhaps a different style of practice might be more appropriate, a more flexible vinyasa Krama approach and that it should be taught one to one or in a very small class rather than in a Mysore room where you can’t expect the attention you might require. I was overweight and in my mid forties when I started and I sweated my guts out but just happened to have the temperament to stick with it, and perhaps I needed that style but not everyone is going to have that temperament. That doesn’t mean they are lazy it just means that Ashtanga isn’t going to be for everyone. Happy to have vedic debate with Eddie on this if it means I get to live in his house and learn from him as his disciple if I lose… which of course I would. I’d be interested to hear a discussion between Eddie and Ramaswami on this topic though, think it would be very interesting.

  6. Thanks for your hard work permalink
    March 15, 2012 11:40 pm

    Iyengar indicates that Krishnamacharya created the jumpings etc as a martial art for the warrior caste he was teaching at the time. You can listen to his interview in the “Enlighten Up” video.

    I think it is important not get become too fundamentalist about the practice and to admit to oneself what works and what doesn’t. I tend to feel the ashtanga community is a bit on the fundamentalist side/non-questioning side of the room, even though in practice I am part of that community. I respect the guru/disciple relationship, but to teach yoga on a mass scale to large groups of people and telll them not to question is, I think, a bit cult-like.

    Best to all.

    • March 15, 2012 11:46 pm

      Hi… thanks for joining the discussion.

      I think if you click on the video link that Grimmly posted you will see that these teachers (and the ones we at this blog consider “ours”) are far from fundamentalist about anything. We’re definitely not dogmatic here.*

      *Note: I do reserve the right to be dogmatic. :)

      S

  7. March 16, 2012 12:02 am

    OK. So I’ve watched the video, and I think overall I did capture it right.

    The main message that I (as Eddie’s humble conduit) am trying to pass on is: Ashtanga is not JUST for young boys. It can be done by everyone, except lazy people. (Does that mean modifications to the practice? Yep, I bet it does.)

    But Eddie notes that Krishnamacharya was teaching before he got to the Mysore palace — that Ashtanga didn’t just suddenly happen there at the palace when he was faced with these boys. My understanding of what I remember, and then what I’ve just listened to, is that Eddie is saying Ashtanga came before the boys. And so it wasn’t designed for boys, and thus it can be practiced by many.

    (I do think he is trying to alter the “myth” that’s been established via some of the scholarship out there.)

    Again, I think this boils down to: This isn’t an excuse, people! :)

    It looks like I’ve now told my required 5 people.

  8. burbruja permalink
    March 18, 2012 10:29 am

    This might throw some light on the origin of the Ashtanga sequences. It is also a known fact that Krisnamacharya went to teach individually and differently when he moved from Mysore

    Quote from a letter sent to the Mysore palace april 2nd 1934 refering to Krisnamacharya:

    “(…………..)During these three days, he gave two demonstrations of Yogic asanas to the members of Kaivlyadhama. Obviously the Shastraji has bestowed much attention and labour on his pupils. (…………..)
    I have advised the Shastriji to simplify his exercises when they are to be given to the generality of students and grown up individuals. I have also recommended him to keep the Yogic exercises unadulterated by the admisture of non yogic systems of physical culture. I wish the shatrraji every success in his mission.”

    With the reply from Krisnamachrya May 3rd:

    “Dear Sir. I am very glad to inform you that some of the prominent gentlemen here have gone through your opinion and they are all much pleased with the same. I will be very glad to know any further information you may be giving on the subject(…………..)”.

  9. mike permalink
    April 14, 2012 3:11 am

    What Singleton says in his book is not that Krishnamacharya designed a yoga protocol specifically for young boys, but that the ashtanga series was designed for public demonstrations by the young male students, and that these demonstration series are what were passed on to Jois to learn. These demonstrations were similar to other “feats of strength” demonstration popular with Indian bodybuilders and wrestlers and helped to stoke public interest. This helps explain why work Krishnamacharya did after leaving the palace involved longer, several minute, holds.

    Krishnamacharya’s yoga was designed as physical fitness (and moral/spiritual fitness) as part of a national pride movement to counter a British-fed narrative of Indian moral and physical decline. It absorbed much from the West. I highly recommend Singleton’s book. I just can’t understand why anyone would make arguments against it here without having read it other than fear of changing one’s views about Ashtanga yoga.

    It is quite fascinating to see pictures of Bukh’s (Danish) gymnastic poses that predate Krishnamacharya’s work at the palace, like the Warrior poses, plank, and vasisthasana, and also to read Bukh’s instructions for what is essentially a count-timed vinyasa with rhythmic breath. Singleton does not prove that Krishnamacharya borrowed from Bukh, but the case is strong. Especially since the manuscript Krishnamacharya cites was “eaten by ants” and can’t be seen anywhere. That he borrowed from existant Indian physical fitness forms is also made clear, but then one asks if those forms borrowed from yoga.

    Whether Ashtanga is most appropriate for young people, there is probably some truth there. Look at the age of circue de soleil performers.

    • Vik Zutshi permalink
      May 1, 2012 8:35 pm

      I’ve had several discussions with Mark Singleton on the above issues and am about to do an elaborate interview session with him to clarify some of the confusion. He has admitted that Sjoman’s hypothesis could be the result of lazy scholarship (seeing as how the Sritattwanidhi was a minor text in a library containing thousands of texts), and the yoga section of that manuscript(on which Krishnamacharya allegedly ‘based’ his system), was just an obligatory suffix. A major authority on the subject, Prof.James Mallinson has also discredited the contention that standing poses were only a ‘recent development inspired by western gymnastics’. Standing asanas have been found in ancient Persian and Chinese texts dating back to the eighth and fourteenth centuries respectively. Also, Genevieve Stebbins and her system of ‘Harmonial Gymnastics’ (inspired from Danish Bukh and vice versa), were clearly derived from Hatha Yoga. Stebbins has herself on several occasions has openly admitted the Hindu/Yogic source of her system. I’m also amazed at the occidental propensity to dismiss or cast aspersions on anything that is not textually documented or recorded. Western academia as a collective needs to realize that in all indigenous and especially eastern cultures, verbal transmission through an unbroken lineage of initiates was the predominant mode of instruction and preservation of esoteric wisdom. Just because all the asanas contained within the Ashtanga, or any other system are not systematically tabulated in a 5000 year old manuscript does not mean they did not exist back then, Eastern cultures laid very little emphasis on ‘writing’ and ‘drawing’ the way the western mind understands it. Even today the esoteric knowledge passed down through 52 branches of Naga tradition and the Natha Sampradaya are largely unknown and inaccessible to those outside the order. Yoga and Tantra have always been predominantly oral traditions and Krishnamacharya in keeping with that tradition passed on the knowledge to his initiates and disciples, who in turn passed it on to a bunch of Americans…….and the rest is history.

  10. August 3, 2013 2:38 pm

    Does any one remember where the concept that primary series was “for life”, 2nd series for teaching, and 3rd series for demonstration? If so could you mention the link for me? I also read and was fascinated by the Singleton book The Yoga Body: Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010). My thoughts on the subject of what age group or gender Krishnamacharya’s early systems were designed for necessarily considers some important differences between the purposes of the primary versus 2nd and 3rd series and some important techniques that seem to have remained ‘hidden’ right under the noses of most postural Yogis, Astanga Yogis included. To summarize my thoughts into seven points:

    1. Primary series was for life. That is, it erred on the side of maximum benefit for minimum risk. Consistent with this idea is the lack of any deep back bends, i.e., their is no urdhva dhanurasana in the primary series as described by Krishnamacharya’s Yogasanagalu (1941). Urdhva dhanurasana seems to have been introduced into the primary sequence some time in the mid 1970s under the influence of Westerners. If anyone has a reference in regard to when this happened and why, I’d like to know more.

    2. If you consult most orthopaedic surgeons, physiotherapists, or osteopaths etc, they would suggest the lumbar hyperlordosis seen in deep back bends is likely to cause repeated pars fractures (as seen in gymnasts and ballet dancers), which when they heal producing osteophytic narrowing of the spinal foramina resulting in premature stenosis (to name but one degenerative pathological end stage of this process). This is partly conjecture on my part (I am a physiotherapist). It is nevertheless supported by the story of Roger Black, a Yoga teacher who received a “…a spinal fusion and screws inserted into the 3rd, 4th, and 5th lumbar spine to stabilize herniated discs and spondylolisthesis.” which Glenn Black himself said was caused by two decades of “…deep back-bending.” (http://yogacitynycdev.com/articles/WeeklyDetails/601). Read the “Risk of Injury” Chapter four in The Science of Yoga (Broad, William J, 2012)

    3. Deep back bends are mostly found in the 3rd series. In my opinion they were included because of their impact on an audience as an aesthetic display of strength and flexibility. They were designed to impress, but carry a significant risk of pain and injury, if not quickly then slowly. I think beginners should know at the outset so that if they decide to do back bends or not with informed consent.

    4. Forward bends, of which there are many in the primary series, are generally a safer thing for a human spine to do and if done intelligently help preserve the health of the spine. Forward bends are used by the Chinese internal martial arts. Back bends are not.

    5. Singleton (2010) makes little reference to what I think is the internal alchemy of the vinyasa component of Astanga Yoga. What I learned from my teacher, Simon Borg-Olivier, was that activating your rectus abdominis muscle during the navasana and lolasana (and urdvamuka dandasana and many other poses too for that matter – see my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/YogaChiGungPilates and look for “Tha-Mula Bhanda an Asana Master Key”) increases the volume (which decreases the pressure) in the abdominal compartment and allows the respiratory diaphragm to move its full excursion, which provides profound relaxation, and also stabilizes the spine via its connection with the thoracolumbar fascia. Inhaling during the pose lolasana, for example, as I’ve been told was Patabhi Jois’s unwavering instruction for this pose obliges a practitioner to massage their internal organs with their breath while simultaneously relaxing the large longitudinal lumbar spine muscles. This contributes heavily to the alchemy I refer to. It is reminiscent of the techniques used by Chinese internal martial artists, albeit using the upper limbs for weight bearing as well as the lower limbs.

    6. Singleton (2010; 56) references accounts of 17th century Hatha Yogis “…swinging into a hand-stand position from a seated lotus pose”. This is the type of maneouvre that experienced current day Astanga Yogis do, but most devotees of other schools of Yoga cannot. From what Simon Borg-Olivier has relayed, this skill is most easily aquired by recruiting the respiratory diaphragm and rectus abdominis simultaneously, i.e., inhaling when moving into lolasana, i.e., tha-mula bhanda. Simon also hinted at the connection of this technique with the Hatha Yoga practice “Madyana-nauli”, which requires rectus abdominis activation during uddiyana bandha. So I think their is evidence that the vinyasa, or “jumping” technique taught by Krishnamacharya had a history in Hatha yoga.

    7. It is important to note that the “udiyana bhanda” to which I refer to is the “expansive” version where the rib muscles of inhalation are used in conjunction with a closed glottis, which causes the front adominal wall to sink back towards the spine passively. The practice of pulling the abdomen, navel, or lower abdomen back towards the spine actively, a technique confused with classical udiyana bhanda is in the opinion of Simon Borg-Olivier not recommended during Asana practice because it causes emotional tension. I agree with Simon.

    So I would say Pass it on: Ashtanga was not (only) designed for adolescent boys. Nevertheless caution should be exercised with back bends. Furthermore the jewel of “Tha-mula bandha” should be appreciated. Also don’t tense your psyche by pulling your belly in.

    Ben Gaffney

Trackbacks

  1. ‘Learning Ashtanga Yoga is actually much easier than it looks’ « The Confluence Countdown
  2. Based on tradition, should you be practicing Ashtanga? « The Confluence Countdown
  3. More Ashtanga myth-busting, this time with Annie Pace « The Confluence Countdown
  4. The two types of Ashtanga | The Confluence Countdown
  5. Two — or more? — Ashtangas | The Confluence Countdown

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