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An Indian take on Jois Yoga, Ashtanga and ownership

May 3, 2012
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Thanks to Vanity Fair, we’ve all seen how an American publication would cover the issues around the growth and expansion of Ashtanga via Jois Yoga.

Now, an Indian English-language paper, The Indian Express, has picked up the thread, wrapped it in with that other A-yoga scandal, and posed what seems a legit (if not exactly new) idea:

As yoga’s global influence spreads, and as it becomes big business, India should also contemplate its future. What is needed is a proactive institution that furthers yoga studies, conducts research, collaborates with the medical community, and sets norms and guidelines. Let’s say Om to that.

But that’s jumping ahead. Here’s how the paper — which, from a relatively quick check, looks pretty solid and legitimate — tackles the Jois Yoga issue:

But far more significant is the battle over Ashtanga yoga, a rigorous practice that originated in Mysore that is highly popular in the US. Ashtanga was made famous by K. Pattabhi Jois, who died in 2009. Jois, a student of the great yogi T. Krishnamacharya (who also taught B. K. S. Iyengar), perfected a sequence of asanas, eventually collated into six series, each more arduous than the next. Fans include Madonna, Sting, and hordes of type-A personalities attracted to its structure and difficulty. In a recent Vanity Fair article, a proponent of Ashtanga describes it as the “Yoga of no”, in contrast to Anusara, known as the “Yoga of yes”. Jois’ grandson Sharath succeeded him at the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore. Having mastered the sixth series, Sharath is said to be the foremost practitioner of Ashtanga. He and his mother have partnered with 44-year-old Sonia Tudor Jones, wife of billionaire hedge fund investor, Paul Tudor Jones II, to create “Jois Yoga”, which wants to bring yoga to the underprivileged across the world, apart from creating beautiful yoga shalas. Oh, and there’s a line of clothing too.

While all this sounds like the corporatisation of Ashtanga, what really worries veteran practitioners is how Jois Yoga will carry forward its traditions. There are murmurs of discontent about changes in teacher authorisation rules, with Sharath instituting a requirement that those who wish to teach Ashtanga must learn under him in Mysore, and that teaching methods may not be altered. The Mysore institute now has an official list of teachers, effectively serving as a diktat against those who vary from prescribed sequences.

Mysore has long had an official list of teachers, of course. But otherwise, you get the drift. Sounds like a pretty tidy summary of the Vanity Fair piece.

The Express article, though, isn’t just name-checking famous Ashtangis. It jumps on the line of thought that the Hindu American Foundation, more or less, also seems to be pushing: that yoga is more than another exercise routine.

My curiosity here — aside from seeing how an Indian newspaper would handle these all-so-American-sounding issues — is whether India will attempt to “take back yoga,” as the HAF demands. (Although, what, exactly, does “India” in this context mean? Who would do this? Who really cares?)

Is it really as simple as some central authority or institution? Because isn’t that the root of the problem with that other A-yoga and at least part of the issue with Ashtanga?

If yoga is, as the Express puts it, “a quest towards spiritual enlightenment,” doesn’t that seem to argue against centralization and for individualism? (But then the individual is trying to disappear and…)

As the Express says: complicated Shavasana time.

Posted by Steve

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