Ashtanga meets science — what could make more sense?

We’ve all had a day to ponder the $12-million gift from the billionaire backers of Jois Yoga to the University of Virginia. The goal: to establish a center of contemplative studies, one that incorporates yoga, meditation and similar pursuits into the framework of an academic institution. (Scroll down our main page to see more or click here.)

Now, a couple of admissions up front.

As a devoted student of Tim Miller, I fall instinctively into the camp of raised hackles when it comes to Sonia Tudor Jones and the Jois Yoga thing. Setting up shop in Tim’s backyard is a misstep in my mind, one that’s hard to overlook.

Please keep in mind, this reaction is entirely my own. I haven’t seen Tim say, write or express a sentiment in this vein. Quite the opposite. What I’ve seen has demonstrated Tim’s desire to forgive any real or perceived slights.

I try, with little success I’m sure, to follow in his better image.

The second admission is that the higher-end style of the Jois Yoga studios also doesn’t marry quite up with my — emphasis, my — image and idea of yoga and Ashtanga in particular.

David Germano, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, via UVa

But I’m also a realist. And I’m a lover of Ashtanga — wait, I can’t say that! — so I support its introduction to a wider audience. I think we all know that in America, at least — I can’t speak for many other parts of the West — the direction of the business of yoga is to these higher-end studios with eco-friendly bamboo floors, low-use bathroom fixtures and nice showers.

There might be the temptation to call it the YogaWorks-ification of yoga, but there are plenty of other studios that are as nice as a Beverly Hills spa.

You compete, or you die. I understand the Jois Yoga model, even if I’m not entirely comfortable with it. (This is pretty close to the same feeling we all have when our favorite band makes it big and we’re suddenly over them.)

Now, with all that on the table, let me say this:

Opening a yoga or contemplative studies program at a university that is based on the Ashtanga system makes complete sense to me.

Whether I think the Jois Yoga expansion is the proper path for Ashtanga (note: I’ve earlier admitted that what I think doesn’t matter, and I’m working hard to not think about it too much given it is out of my field of influence), I can think of few developments around Ashtanga that make more sense than bringing it into an academic environment.

I’m assuming that Ashtanga ideas will be a foundation for this new center at UVa, of course.

My sense of Ashtanga is that it fundamentally is study, or research or contemplation. While its been renamed, Mysore originally was the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, after all.

And Nancy Gilgoff discussed at the Confluence last month how the first wave of Western students were Guruji’s “research” subjects. Based on his research around them, he adapted and changed the Ashtanga sequences.

Guruji himself was a deeply learned man — check out Eddie Stern’s recent discussion of this aspect of him — who, while often described as loving teaching above almost everything else, seems clearly to have linked his teaching and his learning closely.

Based on my understanding of Ashtanga as a practitioner — a student, someone constantly investigating it and learning from/about it — and my sense of Guruji (via the lineage to the students of his I’ve been fortunate enough to work with), placing Ashtanga into an academic and scientific setting is a wonderful and natural “next step” for the practice. (One of many next steps, I should note, not the only one or even the biggest or most advanced or most exciting.)

I also think that investigating the effects of yoga and Ashtanga and meditation via scientific means makes sense as long as we live in a Western world in which the privileged perspective is science, not yoga.  I might go so far as to say it’s required.

I’m setting aside the question of whether one should be privileged over the other. Until there is a shift in the West, it is a slightly moot point. We’re a scientific culture, and to earn credibility, certain scientific “validation” is required.

Perhaps UVa’s program will provide that validation. And perhaps as a result some Eureka moment will come from UVa that helps edge us toward that shift from science to … something else (deeper?).

All that said, as a realist who is familiar with academia, I know that shifts and movement and really new thinking are rare. Academia is like nearly every other social construct: the pressure is toward the norm, toward the group, toward the status quo, toward stasis9 even.

Given that Ashtanga is all about movement, I am — as the politicians love to say — cautiously optimistic about this development of the practice. And I’m looking forward to seeing how it grows.

Posted by Steve


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

10 thoughts on “Ashtanga meets science — what could make more sense?”

  1. I’m curious as to whether the students will have to wait until they are post grad students before they get to explore pranayama and meditation practices

  2. “I’m setting aside the question of whether one should be privileged over the other. Until there is a shift in the West, it is a slightly moot point. We’re a scientific culture, and to earn credibility, certain scientific “validation” is required.”

    I disagree.

    My adult life has been spent in academic and industrial science. And I adore it. But I rather feel that scientific research of yoga is like scientific research of exercise: a large amount of misspent time, effort, and money to derive technically dubious support of a hypothesis that is entirely obvious to the participants.

    I read the press release and read ‘misappropriation of resources’ as well as ‘philanthropic power aggregation’. An expensive way to solidify the connection of ‘Jones-Tudor’ and ‘yoga’ in the mind of the public.

    But I’ll try to rein in the cynic within. Hopefully the Tudor support will foster an interest in and spreading of the benefits of a yoga practice, and will encourage further participation and acceptance in the public eye.

    1. I understand your perspective 100%. I mainly set this aside because, otherwise, I saw my post spiraling in that direction.

      We can do that more efficiently, I think, in comments.

      I also agree with you about studies of the obvious. They annoy me to no end. I tend to think I (and you) are in the minority, though, as the proliferation of these studies suggests.

      And so, trying to be realistic, I’m deferring to the powers that be. If yoga can prove itself on their terms, all the better — and, as I wrote, maybe doing so will help change more minds than just a tabla drum beat of “yoga works.”

      When the studies prove the benefits of yoga (or prove them again, depending on which studies you want to refer to), we’ll all go, “No duh.”

      But maybe the people who set P.E. standards in K-12 will go, “Oh. OK, add yoga.”

      Maybe Western medicine will say, “Yoga needs to be part of what we do.”

      Maybe politicians from all sides will come together and… OK, I doubt even yoga could do that! 🙂

      It’s playing their game, no doubt. But I’ll be optimistic that yoga can win at “their” game.


  3. “But maybe the people who set P.E. standards in K-12 will go, “Oh. OK, add yoga.”
    Maybe Western medicine will say, “Yoga needs to be part of what we do.””

    That would great, wouldn’t it?

  4. There is a lot of reserach going on about neurology and meditation, at very high levels, by very accomplished researchers, none of whom are currently conneted to this new center. I’ve read the same press release – and cannot conclude that Ashtanga is the focal point of the research.

    This seems to be a routine college donation: a couple ‘new’ classes, a lecture series, and some money for grant applications. Again, it does not appear that Ashtanga (other than having an ashtanga class) is even remotely close to being the main area of research.

    1. I agree is isn’t possible to say with certainty that Ashtanga will somehow take center stage — as I wrote, “I’m assuming that Ashtanga ideas will be a foundation for this new center at UVa, of course.” — but if John Campbell is, in fact, taking over as director (this was suggested in another comment on one of the posts on this topic) and the Tudor Jones press for the same quality to thinking that Guruji brought to his teacher, then, I think, there’s some hope.

      I also saw somewhere — maybe a response to the EJ post we did — that perhaps we also can think about things “the other way around”: what might Ashtanga receive in the bargain? How might it be refined or improved when introduced more explicitly to the sciences?

      It’s certainly possible nothing will come of it all. We’ll see.


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