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.

Image of Guruji and Sonia Jones, and Sharath and Jones, from Vanity Fair

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

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

12 thoughts on “A few thoughts on the Vanity Fair Ashtanga article”

  1. Thanks for your comments, Steve. It was great to meet you and Bobbie at the Confluence. This article was all the more fascinating having just attended AYC. Being relatively new to the scene, my insights into the history and philosophy were deepened exponentially. Being so wet behind the ears I would not dare comment on the hub bub … except for saying that when I was in Encinitas last month and saw the Jois Center storefront with a big picture of Guruji in one window and a big picture of a young woman modeling Jois fashion in the other I just scratched my head. Walking into a high end, high price boutique just felt off to me. On the other hand, the Confluence was pure magic. And we all survived Backbending on the Current of Death!

    1. Hi Danny. It was great meeting you, too. And we did survive!

      The VF article sure came out at a strange moment. I’m on the fence if it would have been better or worse before the Confluence. It might have overwhelmed things, I guess.

      Whether you are “wet behind the ears,” you hit on the real point of things: The Confluence was magic. That’s what we should be seeking.

      I hope our paths cross again soon.


  2. Nice post, Steve 🙂 But I do have something to say about this:

    “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.”

    I would be very careful about this. You seem to be implying here that Guruji’s primary intention in passing on the directorship of the institute to Sharath lies in “keeping it in the family” and securing a source of income and support for his family.

    I can’t pretend to know what was in Guruji’s mind, but it seems to me that something as important as leading the the Institute (which is seen by most Ashtangis as the Source of the practice) cannot have been decided by something as mundane as “keeping it in the family” or supporting the family.

    Again, I’m not saying I know anything about what Guruji was actually thinking (I’ve never even met him!). But to me, this is all the more reason to be cautious about ascribing intentions to him, especially dubious ones.

    Anyway, all this is just my two cents’; maybe I’m being very naive here. In any case–and I’m probably very biased here–I really like Kino’s take on the whole thing.

    1. Hey Nobel.

      You missed a ton at the Confluence.

      I think more my point is I’m more easily convinced that keeping a “family enterprise” together vis-a-vie the Institute was behind Guruji’s thinking than solidifying the lineage so directly. Which I guess is saying, I am trying to ascribe things. In response to an article that seems to include people ascribing a lot to Guruji.

      1. Hey Steve,
        I’m sure I missed a ton at the Confluence. But, well, it is what it is 🙂 It’s great that a lot of people (including you and Bobbie) seem to have learnt a lot a absorbed a whole bunch of positive energy from it 🙂

        When you say “[i]n response to an article that seems to include people ascribing a lot to Guruji”, are you referring simply to that Vanity Fair article, or are you referring to some other article that’s out there?

        I don’t how to say this without sounding confrontational, but I’ll guess I’ll just go ahead and say it: Is responding to people ascribing a lot to Guruji by ascribing something to Guruji yourself the most yogic way to respond in this situation?

      2. Of course it is! (And I think we all know I’m a bad yogi.)

        I’ll see if I can more precisely choose my words. A lot seems to be hinging on Sharath’s being given the leadership of the Institute. For some that then means that Sharath is THE guy now. Having just been at the Confluence, I think it is clear there are a lot of THE guys and girls.

        So I guess I am just trying to caution against reading too much into Sharath’s role — even he says no one owns the yoga. And to illustrate that, I suggest that my limited understanding of Guruji would lead me to believe that his intent was more to keep the Institute in the family (and, yes, maintain the “living” it provides) and less to put Sharath at the top of the Ashtanga mountain.

        But I admit that’s said with plenty of caveats, because my knowledge is limited. But everything I know and have heard leads me to that conclusion.

        Does that make sense?

  3. ” [The] Institute [] is seen by most Ashtangis as the Source of the practice”

    I suspect this varies significantly by region and clique. Not surprisingly, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case here in San Diego.

    1. Or on Maui, one suspects. Or in Boulder. Italy?

      My point boils down to just this: I think there are lots of Sources now. Maybe a way to approach it is: Do we really think Guruji’s magnitude could be contained in just one person? It seems like it is taking all of these great teacher/students to maintain what he brought to the shala.

  4. Yes, it makes sense 🙂 You are definitely right that nobody owns the yoga. But I still caution against ascribing intentions to people, especially when (1) the intentions in question concern something as weighty as the lineage, and (2) the person whom we are ascribing the intention to has passed, and is in no position to respond to our ascriptions.

    1. OK… I think this might be the last lash on this poor, dead horse: See my comment below, done at the same moment as you posted. As I approach my practice, and have experience with all these wonderful teachers, it is hard not to see them as “the Source” — as VG says above — and so I construct my understanding of things, including ascribing actions to people with no real ability to do so.

      In other words: I have no doubt of the Parampara I’m experiencing. And whoever is “running Mysore” is not its sole source just from the fact of “running Mysore.”

      When Guruji was running Mysore, that obviously was different.

  5. One more addition to my thought: Keep in mind, I’m approaching this from a “how does my reading of the VF article influence my practice?” What do I take away that I think will help me deepen my practice. This understanding of things aligns with my approach to the practice, to the lineage and to the teachers I am fortunate enough to interact with.

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