Does there need to be one perfect Ashtanga?

I’m going to give away the punchline right off the top:

No. There doesn’t need to be one perfect and ideal Ashtanga.

In my opinion.

Here’s why:

Having studied with a couple of handfuls of Certified and Authorized or otherwise recognized Ashtanga teachers/students — even if only for a few days, in some cases — one thing has become clear to me.

They aren’t all teaching the exact same asanas.

Note the emphasis: exact same.

In general, obviously, these teachers are passing along the same asanas. The poses are the same, the order is the same.

But there are slight and subtle differences. A hand position here, an angle of a leg there. Some have absolute “no-nos” in particular poses that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow among other teachers.

There are even some less subtle differences. A different dristi, a different bandha emphasis.

Why is this, do you suppose?

I have my suspicion: They all learned is a little bit differently from Guruji.

Now, I gather that for some people this is slightly blasphemous to say. (Can something be “slightly blasphemous”?) There is “the correct method,” after all. But I don’t mean it that way, at all. And I don’t intend to imply that I have some knowledge others don’t, especially knowledge that those who spent many, many years with Guruji don’t have.

But I still don’t get this reaction. And I don’t get it for one major, central reason:

Guruji’s own model for a teacher: Krishnamacharya.

There’s no question he instructed his students differently, right? One need only walk into an Ashtanga room and then into an Iyengar one to see that. And I assume that Krishnamacharya had his very good reasons for giving one teaching to Pattabhi Jois and another to Iyengar.

And so if, while keeping “true” to the yoga he’d received, Guruji augmented things a bit so it would be more beneficial for a particular student, I would think that would be in keeping and in honor of his own teacher.

In many ways, I’m actually surprised there isn’t more differences out there. That there isn’t, I chalk up to the power of the Ashtanga sequence and Guruji’s faith in that power.

But I just don’t understand why that faith and power seem to turn into a dogmatism, that there is only one right and true way. I especially don’t get that within the culture, religion and history of India and Hinduism, which have such a multifaceted approach to knowledge, understanding, faith and belief.

A way I have of understanding Hinduism is that it provides many faces and aspects to “God” because “God,” like us, has many faces, aspects, moods and personalities. Shiva, Kali, Ganesh, Hanuman. None is any less “God” than the other, but it is the mood of the moment — or the aspect that will most connect with a given individual.

Am I supposed to think that the third limb of Patanjali yoga would be any different?

Posted by Steve


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

4 thoughts on “Does there need to be one perfect Ashtanga?”

  1. Kino gave a talk where she talked about how Guruji would tell different people different answers on how to do an asana or a pranayam; that even the same person would get different answers at different times. Ashtanga is not rigid: it is adapted to suit the practitioner’s needs – not that the adaptation is necessarily easy on the person. Sometimes they need it harder, sometimes not. See Kino’s ‘let her fall’ post.

  2. I believe you are correct that Guruji taught each student in subtly different ways. From what I understand, Nancy Gilgoff had issues in her neck and nervous system when she first went to India – Guruji taught her to bend forward and he’d have her could drop her forehead to touch to her extended leg in poses to help balance out her system and reduce vata imbalance (vs. the usual extend out over your leg with your chin to the shin with a drishti at the toes) And, she’s a stickler for nose drishti in up-dog, but other teachers I’ve studied with weren’t taught it that way.

    So, subtle differences, but I think the dogma thing arises when students study with different teachers and then say, “Well, I know David Swenson teaches it this way – and Nancy teaches it that way. And David Williams teaches it this way. And this is how they are doing it in Mysore. There should be just one RIGHT way, and so I am going to say that MY teacher is teaching it the right way.” Subconsciously, of course. The dogma arises in the student’s mind.

    I think Guruji adapted the practice – albeit, while staying within the framework of what his guru, Krishnamacharya taught him – so that it was more beneficial or therapeutic for his students. Just read Guruji to see evidence of this.

    Also, an interesting read – three of Krishnamacharya’s students – Iyengar, PJ and his son Desikachar, speak about his teaching method:

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