I came across an account of a recent David Swenson workshop — I guess one of the Denmark ones — that includes an interesting exchange between David and a student revolving around tradition.
Here’s the link to Om Shanti’s post, and here’s the key paragraph:
Once in one of David’s workshop a girl had protested: ‘David, we haven’t chanted yet. And if we don’t chant we don’t follow the Asthanga tradition’. David’s answer had been that chanting might scare the people who had just come for the physical aspects of yoga away and that he’d rather have as many as possible discover yoga for whatever reason. The girl didn’t buy this explanation and said: ‘But that’s not following tradition’. A comment not very different from my rants about traditions and definitions here and here. David’s answer was. ‘Ashtanga was traditionally only practiced by male Indian teenagers. How many of us in here can fit into that tradition?’ B a m! If it wasn’t for altering the tradition I would never have known Ashtanga yoga.
A few things to unpack here. If you’re a reader back to March, when the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence happened, you might know what the first is: the myth vs. fact about Ashtanga’s being intended for adolescent boys.
Eddie Stern was unequivocal on this point: Ashtanga was not designed just for adolescent boys, he said. And he told us all in attendance to pass it on.
The fact we have two senior students of Guruji giving pretty different accounts suggests to me that this is one piece of Ashtanga’s history that will never be settled absolutely. I still side with Eddie; his explanation that it was the young boys who were trotted our for demonstrations, and that that led to the image of Ashtanga’s practitioners, strikes me as believable. My understanding of Guruji’s teachings in the “early days” — back when the first Westerners were beginning to fill his shala, and by “fill” I mean there being a half dozen or so — also fits into Eddie’s perspective. This comes from Nancy Gilgoff and others who saw, and experienced, the changes to the practice or the fundamentally different approaches Guruji applied to different students.
I suppose someone could argue that for a particular student Guruji didn’t teach “Ashtanga,” but frankly I’ve never heard anyone suggest that. Rather, I’d suggest that the Ashtanga sequence as we know it represents the essential framework; it happens that flexible, strong boys often are the ones who can take the framework to its physical extreme. But are they — to paint a broad picture of boys, as I know them, and I’ll admit I haven’t and don’t know too many advanced asana practicing 13-year-olds — really more focused, more in union with God, than a stiff or weak but inwardly mature and centered 53-year-old?
That said, I don’t think David and Eddie are, at heart, disagreeing with each other. In fact, I think their intentions are similar, if not the same: to bring Ashtanga to as many people as possible.
David’s clearly telling this woman that if she wants to follow tradition, she’ll have to quit Ashtanga — but that it is better to open it up to as many people as possible. Get them hooked, and then maybe show them some of the other aspects to yoga, such as chants.
Eddie wants the same thing. That’s very clear in his writings and thoughts on Ashtanga and yoga, in general. From the Ashtanga Yoga New York webpage:
In this fast-paced world we easily become detached from our bodies, lost in the world of worries and stress, and find ourselves rushing forward in an effort to keep up. Yoga pulls us back into our bodies, and teaches us an embodied awareness that keeps us healthy, filled with a sense of well-being, and a gives us a renewed ability to remain aware in the present moment. It is a holistic practice that supports all other aspects of life.
Eddie doesn’t want that support kept from everyone but adolescent boys. Neither does David.
Posted by Steve