Every now and then, a person comments here about what I’d broadly call an Ashtanga myth. It’ll be about how the practice is totally regimented; how Ashtanga is a cult; or how it will invariable hurt you (OK, maybe that last one is true).
And there’s this repeated theme: Ashtanga teachers (and maybe the practice) are mean, judgmental and unbending in their approach to the practice. Perhaps we also can call this the “Ashtanga police” phenomena.
I wonder where this last myth comes from because, quite frankly, my experience has been anything but that. No surprise given I’m still practicing Ashtanga. If I’d encountered such a teacher, I’d probably be running and lifting weights and thinking Ashtanga was some horrible torture (OK, we all know I do think that).
Maybe I’ve just been lucky in my teacher experience. But it isn’t for lack of experience. I have studied with and talked in fair depth with two or three dozen Ashtanga teachers — certified, authorized and others. And the list is growing: Next month, we will be doing a master class with Dena Kingsberg, and in the spring Kino MacGregor is coming to Los Angeles. (By the way, we know she “got in trouble” for her Mysore video, but it didn’t seem like substantive enough news to post anything. If you are wondering what I’m talking about, you can check her Facebook page from about Jan. 22.)
Don’t get me wrong, I have encountered some Ashtanga teachers I didn’t think were all that good. I’d say they lack empathy, the ability to understand what variouos students are experiencing and how the practice is, as a result, different. In some cases — newly authorized teachers, mainly — this is something they might develop. In older teachers, I think it is just something they lack. Not everyone is going to be a good teacher. Not every great practitioner will be a good teacher.
But not being good isn’t really the issue that seems to come up in these comments. It is much more specific: People have encountered teachers they thought were mean and judgmental. And that’s something I’ve never seen.
Again, I may be lucky.
My guess is that the people who find teachers to be mean and judgmental are missing out on a central, pervasive Ashtanga joke. I’ve heard it referred to as the “mean man voice.” It’s some form of imitating Guruji, who’s lack of fluency in English led to any number of short and to the point directions.
“Bad man/lady!” might be the most notorious. “Why lazy?” and “Not correct!” are others.
I’m sure you’ve heard them.
My question is: Have you ever heard them said not in jest?
OK, maybe I should rephrase that. Have you heard them said not in partial jest? Because the person on the receiving end probably is being bad, or lazy or doing something wrong. But the form in which that is pointed out — the “mean man voice” — doesn’t match the intention.
In my experience, it never has matched the intention, which has been filled with care, empathy and dare I say love — love both for the student but also for Guruji. It is a tangible way to carry forth his teaching.
My sense — as someone who has been called lazy, although not bad, I don’t think — is that delivering the message with a little humor (a spoon full of sugar?) also is a reflection of the difficulty of the practice. A harsh, mean tone isn’t needed with Ashtanga. The practice — to perpetuate a myth, I guess — is hard enough as is. And there are proper ways to practice Ashtanga. So some correction is needed at times.
Again, that’s my experience. Which is why I’m left wondering: Who are the teachers who have left such terrible impressions? Are there teachers who don’t get this fundamental joke somehow? Are there mean Ashtanga teachers out there who are turning students off so dramatically? What, exactly, are they doing? (Note: I’m not asking anyone to name names.)
And one more question: Is it something we should be concerned about and be trying to stop? (OK, one more: Is it because this jokingly harsh tone doesn’t fit the preconception people have about how a yoga teacher will act?)
Of course, this whole issue could just something particular to these particular students. They somehow didn’t get the joke. But in that case, the teacher still shares some culpability for presenting Ashtanga in the way she or he did, in a way that resulted in such a negative reaction.
Still, that just sounds like an off day for the teacher. But perhaps that’s all it takes.
Addition: A totally different topic — The NY Times covered Bent on Learning’s gala.
Posted by Steve