Calling the Ashtanga police: Just who are all these horrible Ashtanga teachers?

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.)

Tim and me (and Hanuman)
Tim and me (and Hanuman) — portrait of a very good Ashtanga teacher

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

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

23 thoughts on “Calling the Ashtanga police: Just who are all these horrible Ashtanga teachers?”

  1. Steve,

    I think there are several layers to the question why some people see certain ashtanga teachers as mean, judgmental, or rigid. You and Bobbie have a post on this very blog about why you don’t care to go to yoga festivals. I think ashtangis are viewed as having a somewhat closed mindset in general. I don’t go for Glow Yoga, Live Music Yoga, or Yoga and Wine type events. I think some people see me as a bit judgmental because I will openly say that I don’t think that type of practice cultivates what yoga is really about.

    Furthermore, I have had people walk out of Mysore classes frustrated because it was their first class and I would not show them anything past surya namaskara and the first two standing postures. These are people who come to yoga classes all the time and can *do* a lot of the poses, but they want to be spoon-fed the series. They are lazy. (There I go being judgmental again). And then I say things like “don’t come to my led class if you cannot keep up with the correct breathing to my count.” Maybe I *am* mean, after all. (LOL).


    1. Hi Chris.

      First, don’t ever use something I wrote as an argument against me, as I will be consistent. That gets you thrown out of the blog. (I kid!)

      Two points I’d address, and thanks for taking the time to think about this and respond:

      1. I could see where I would have been frustrated and quit had I only been given the first couple postures — although I suspect you explained the reasoning and rationale. In that case, I like to think I would have stuck with it. That said, there was a time when a teacher had be stopped at navasana — I’m sure there are teachers out there who would still stop me there. But I’ve gained a ton from doing “the back nine”, and so I also hope a teacher with whom I worked closely would know what was best for my practice.

      2. As for being “judgmental,” I like to think my avoidance of yoga festivals (similar to your aversion to yoga and wine) is more about discrimination or discernment. That’s something we should be cultivating, and there isn’t any reason (that I see) not to use it in order to help improve ourselves and the world around us. Same goes for calling some people lazy. You’re right. They are. And I don’t think, again, there’s anything wrong with saying so.

      My point No. 2 may be touching on the side question I posed: Is this all about Ashtanga teachers not adhering to the preconceived notion of what a “yoga teacher” is? I’m guessing one of those preconceptions is that a yoga teacher will say that “everything is good as it is.” If that were the case, why practice yoga?


    2. I am pretty new to Ashtanga, and don’t practice it exclusively, but have studied with Certified Teachers as well as many others. I agree with Chris’ first paragraph, but struggle with the second. I too would be a bit put off if I showed up and paid for a Mysore class and was only given suryas and two forward folds. However, I also would have done my homework and been familiar with Primary at least through standing.

      And if you’re serious about not coming to your led class if i can’t stay with your count, well, in my opinion you have just provided an excellent ‘police’ example. And you sure are confident that your counting is exactly precise, on every side of every asana.

      1. I was actually exaggerating about not coming to my led class if you can’t stay with my count (although I do know of people who say that). That said, I am definitely of the opinion that there should be a distinction between an Intro to Ashtanga class and a Led Primary Series class. Unfortunately, the led classes I teach usually are quite mixed level, and I usually end up adding a lot of extra breaths, and teaching a lot of modifications, throughout the class. …It becomes a class and not a practice. I think this is how a lot of led classes are. I suspect that when an ashtangi points this distinction is pointed out, some people think it’s overly picky, and this is a lot of where the reputation comes from.

        My point about stopping new people after the first couple standing postures was specifically about folks who *don’t* do their homework – they may be able to do most of the primary series postures already, but don’t know the sequence, and aren’t prepared to remember much of it either – which is why I used the word “lazy.” Guruji’s famous quote about yoga being for everyone comes to mind.

      2. Thanks for the clarification, sorry i missed your exaggeration. Agree with your points, and think i’d really enjoy your led Primary. What’s nice with a mixed group is that yes, you are often helping or modifying, but from my perspective, when you’re not offering me a helpful tip or adjustment, then it is simply my practice. Even if i’m in trikonasana for ten breaths because you are busy, I can really settle in and focus on the breath for even longer…And your hints help my practice evolve.

      3. Hi Dave.

        A thought for you: A few years back, Tim Miller suggested to me (as a stiff guy) to hold the standing poses for 10 breaths each. I still do that on occasion. Heck, I might do it today, now that I thought of it.


  2. I’ve experienced truly mean (in a moment) teachers; one was certified and one was not. In the first instance, the teacher insisted we stay in a difficult pose. It wasn’t mean in and of itself, but it seemed like a huge ego trip and it put me off. In the second instance, the teacher adjusted me with such anger that it made me cry on the spot. It was intense. However, I later developed a good bond with that teacher. My favourite teacher is very strict and traditional, but definitely has a lightness to his traditional approach. But he’s also willing to work with you every day on the pose you’re stuck on….so that makes him holding me back okay…because he’s going to meet me there every day until I get it. It’s great.

  3. On a visit to Miami, I took a class with Kino. She asked me about my practice which was regular. She on cue, said “bad man!” May I include that I never met her before. This was said in context after she had made several adjustments so she recognized perhaps my past practice, which at one time was regular. In her tone, however, was Guruji’s tone, without ever hearing him say it, I knew it was. And that was priceless. To a person who could have been practicing next to me it could have been perceived as being harsh or perhaps rude, however, it was the most inspiring of everything she said, to which, I resumed regular practice for some time. Sometimes words are just that, but sometimes, when internalized can summon great motivation while those same words could have exactly the opposite effect, when taken out of context. Without me having taken a class with Guruji, it would probably be a translational error to transmit that effect of “bad man” as the subtly of tone and accent goes a long way in that transmission. While teaching, I oftentimes count in a manner similar to Guruji as I have seen him on videos and dare I say try fervently to get the imitation down and have heard from my students that it is calming and brings them back in the moment, but who knows if some other students take umbrage to my count and remain silent.

    1. Hi Nick.

      Thanks for the comment. (And I guessed you meant “not regular.”)

      Your story would suggest that there are some folks who just don’t get this pretty typical “Ashtanga joke.” It isn’t something I would change for the world about the practice, but maybe it is something that teachers need to be more aware of as they engage new students?

      Or maybe it is a good way to separate the wheat from the chafe, which is a bad metaphor given our avoidance of wheat. 🙂


  4. Steve,

    You used three words (“mean, “judgmental” and “unbending”) that have different meanings.

    I have certainly encountered some “mean” Ashtanga teachers. Not many, but a few. Many more Ashtanga teachers could be better described as “gruff.” Partly this results from less mature teachers imitating Guruji or Sharath without sharing their warmth, empathy, wisdom and sense of humor, as you suggest. But there is also a widespread “We are the Marines of yoga” kind of attitude in the Ashtanga community that perhaps makes some teachers think that gruffness, and even a bit of meanness, are actually desirable. These attitudes aren’t exclusive to Ashtanga (I’ve seen them on show in some Iyengar and Bikram classes too), but I think it’s hard to deny that they’re more common in Ashtanga than in some other yoga traditions. Personally, I don’t usually mind it, but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, nor should it be.

    Ashtanga is certainly more “unbending” than most other kinds of yoga. After all, it’s a fixed series the motto of which is “99% practice, 1% theory,” so how could it not be unbending? (My sense is that over the last forty years, the “orthodox” version of the practice transmitted from Mysore has become, if anything, much more rigid than it used to be.) That said, some Ashtanga teachers are quite open to incorporating influences from other traditions and disciplines and modifying the practice to suit individual needs (Richard Freeman, whose primary series intensive I just completed, is a great example). Personally, I think that this is a good thing, and that dogma (i.e., unreflective adherence to received wisdom) should be avoided in yoga as in everything else. But the very nature of the Ashtanga system makes it inherently rather “unbending” — even in the hands of progressive or innovative teachers — relative to most other asana styles and traditions. That rigidity is one of Ashtanga’s strengths, as well as its biggest limitation.

    Finally, if “judgmental” just means “discriminating,” as you suggest, then there is no problem. That’s one of the goals of yoga. But sometimes it just means “gruff” and “dogmatic,” and then we shouldn’t make excuses for it.

    Love reading your blog.

    1. Hi Rene.

      First off, we love being read. 🙂

      I’m glad you brought up the “Marines of yoga” idea — that’s certainly part of what’s going on here, too, I think. And maybe some less experienced teachers, who haven’t developed what Bobbie (with decades of teaching experience) calls “teaching persona,” adopt the one we all know: That version of gruff Guruji. Just as you suggest. That makes sense. Their own style will come. It’s that way with teachers of all subjects, not just yoga.

      And you rightly unwind judgmental, mean, etc. I think what it boils down to is that some people encounter teachers they just find mean and unbending; and it boils down to my being lucky not to have encountered those teachers who don’t temper their meanness with care and love.


  5. “Some where in the world someone has an appointment with the worlds worst doctor!” ~ George Carlin

    I’m sure there must be the worlds worst Ashtanga yoga teacher somewhere also. The problem here is that yoga is a business. Yes Ashtanga yoga shalas are also businesses. Clients do want to be spoon fed with sugar coated niceties I guess but they are paying to go. This is the Western aspect of yoga/asana. Most people do go to “yoga” strictly for exercise and there are many approaches. It reminds me of martial arts. There are those that take martial arts and learn the art without ever doing combat then there are those that learn the art on every level. I would like to think that Ashtanga is Yoga class vs. Asana class. Anyways you get my drift. It is a serious practice that demands attention and focus. It’s not for everyone and neither is getting punched or kicked in the face. Some people are serious about shopping while others are serious about their yoga practice. When someone takes years to learn and master a practice its accepted that they will demand some level of seriousness from their student whether its a piano lesson or Ashtanga yoga. This article reminds me of the insurance commercial with a drill sergeant for a psychologist…

    1. Brad, you touched on a couple of points that resonate with me. The first is yoga as a business. I don’t take money for teaching – all my yoga income goes to a give back organization. And, the Mysore classes I teach are donation classes. (Teaching yoga is not my primary income). This gives me a bit of freedom in how I choose to teach, and I definitely feel it because I have friends whose sole income is from teaching yoga, and they have to adapt how they teach to reach a certain size market in order to make a living.

      The second is the similarity to martial arts. I practice a very exacting and precise classical martial art (iaido). There is a lot of similarity in how it is taught and how ashtanga is traditionally taught. There are also very large martial arts organizations that have studios in just about every town, and while they have a significantly larger number of students (customers?), their approach to teaching has to be such that it appeals to that broader market. I’m not saying that one is better or worse, but the purpose and function is different.

  6. Hello,

    I was thinking whether to write or not. It seems obvious most people just won’t say full truth of they experience. I live in Europe – we have many ashtanga senior teachers coming to our schools and doing workshops. After workshops you can read on internet superlatives about the workshop itself and the teacher (to pretend ashtanga world is fabulous) while offline you hear that people were hurted or injured by a teacher. That concerns ashtanga rockstars.

    We had one certified teacher smoking pot and repeating that injuring people is part of yoga and he’ll keep on doing strong adjustments to break people’s psyche…

    There was another one ashtanga rockstar (trying to force people into strong backbends, injuring one knee and one back).

    The thing is people lack courage to approach BIG teacher and tell him in face – you’ve done to much, you’ve injured me. They write on facebook how fantastic the workshop was while in the same time lamenting offline they were injured.

    There is also a teacher in my country who was authorized not so long ago. He’s injured a lot of people, he doesn’t allow any discussion even though he lacks basic anatomical knowledge. And again people who were injured by him never actually approached him to say he’s done them harm. They just change school, change teacher and speak badly about their previous teacher.

    That’s the thing in ashtanga world – lack of open communication 🙂

    1. Hi Mikael.

      Thanks for deciding to write.

      My light-hearted answer is: So there ARE bad teachers. 🙂

      My more serious one regards your comment about the lack of communication. That jumps out as a big problem. Perhaps at least some teachers who, shall we say, may have some opportunities to improve, don’t know about their shortcomings. From the sounds of it, it isn’t as though they make it easy on the students to approach them, but I wonder if we have some responsibility as students to speak up — on behalf of our fellow (and future) students of these teachers.

      There definitely is an aspect to Ashtanga (as the recent David Garrigues video we posted suggested) that makes injury out as inevitable. There seems to be a healthy debate about that.


  7. I, like you, am lucky and have had amazing teachers. But I have heard about those others… and they are not only affilliated with Ashtanga. I reckon those are the teachers that started teaching to satisfy their own ego, perhaps?

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