Based on tradition, should you be practicing Ashtanga?

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.

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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?

I doubt it. (I could be wrong. And I may find out more on our Yatra, if I don’t end up in jail due to the visa process.) And so which is really doing Ashtanga?

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


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

4 thoughts on “Based on tradition, should you be practicing Ashtanga?”

  1. It may not be the final word, but Mark Singleton’s book has primary source research into how Krishnamacharya developed his asana system, and who was practicing it. Worth a read.

  2. In the tradition of Pattabhi Jois, we certainly want to encourage all people (even the lazy ones) to practice. But we need not view it as a betrayal of that tradition, to identify earlier Indian traditions of class and gender inequality. Which include the wholesale denial of education to girls and the privileging of liberal education to Brahmin and Kshatriya boys. For whatever reasons, Krishnamacharaya briefly appeared to have been an accessory to those regrettable traditions during his tenure at the Maharaja’s Palace and the Sanskrit College:

    Singleton, pp. 177-181

    “Then in 1931 [Krishnamacharaya] was invited by the Maharaja to teach at the Sanskrit [College] in Mysore, and two years later he was given a wing of the Jaganmohan Palace for a yogashala.

    “The administrative reports of the Jaganmohan Palace… show a marked emphasis on physical attainment…. The first reference to Krishnamacharaya in these reports comes in the year 1932-1933, when he is mentioned as an instructor at the palace boy’s school….

    “In the 1934-1935 school report, for example, we read under the heading ‘Physical Culture’ that ‘thirty two boys attended the Yogasana Classes….’

    “The 1933-1934 Palace report… announces the opening of a new yogashala…. The report makes explicit that the shala has been established to ‘promote the physical well-being of Ursu Boys.’

    “These reports strongly suggest that the yogashala was principally conceived as a forum for developing the physical capacities of the young royals…”

    About the Sanskrit College, I missed any mention that girls were not allowed, but Guruji’s daughter Saraswati claims to have been the first girl ever to study there.

    So, as one of the “boys,” Pattabhi Jois learned the practice Krishnamacharaya developed for the asana classes at the Sanskrit College and the Maharaja’s Palace. The practice which we are now all blessed to enjoy, as Guruji used to say, “exactly as my teacher taught.”

    More power to Omshanti, whoever you are. Let’s keep spreading the word that this practice is a birthright for people of all genders, all ages, rich or poor, healthy or sick. And if it helps people to motivate, sure tell them it was printed on ancient banana leaves.


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