Which came first, the teacher or the yoga?

In most discussions (especially online) of yoga origins, there usually seems to be some implicit position taken that can be boiled down to: My yoga is best or my teacher is best.

Arguments about Ashtanga’s origins, for instance, invariably turn on how much Pattabhi Jois altered what he’d learned from Krishnamacharya. Is something else — Vinyasa Krama or what Iyengar developed — somehow “purer?” Somehow “better?”

As I read through the latest of these debates, it occurred to me that perhaps where one would fall on the question of “most pure” depends on which comes first: the practice or the teacher.

If your connection is with the (or a particular) practice, which I might call a more “abstract” relationship, chances are you want to be practicing a pure, as-much-as-possibly-unchanged yoga practice. (As usual, here I’m talking yoga as asana practice, more or less.)

If your relationship is more “concrete,” i.e. with a particular teacher, then I suspect what is of most value is how that particular teacher imparts his or her wisdom — and what that wisdom is.

Tim and me (and Hanuman)
Tim and I (and Hanuman)

In our house, this isn’t an entirely hypothetical question.

In Bobbie’s case, to write for her, it is clear that the Ashtanga practice is what resonates. I think she’s described her first Ashtanga class as going down like this (I tried to find it elsewhere here and can’t): She was going to her usual yoga class, probably Iyengar-based, but it was full. The other class at the same time was an Ashtanga class. She tried it.

Boom. She was hooked.

Now, she since has practiced with a number of great teachers, and Tim Miller — I think it safe to say — is the guru. But, more than that, I think the practice is what’s central.

Then there’s me.

I bumped around a few different forms of asana. I dipped my toes into some Ashtanga classes, including with a couple of the teachers who Bobbie was practicing with at the time.

And then there was finally the class. A workshop benefiting the Sean O’Shea Foundation, coincidentally enough. With Tim Miller.

The studio was packed. And I forced Bobbie to go pretty far to the back, to help me hide. And we began.

A Sun Salute. A second. And then there were the slow, steady footsteps.

They grew louder as they grew nearer, but they stayed slow, steady.

Suddenly, warm, strong hands were pressing on mine, flattening my palms to the mat. My hips, next, were pushed back and up. There was an attempt, I believe, to straighten my legs and get my heels closer to the ground.

How in a room packed with students had he found me first? (There was a secondary thought: Bobbie didn’t say I’d be such a victim!)

I’ve since told Tim about this, and my feeling dumbfounded that in his full shala he picked me out first, that he went after my down dog first, and right away. (It was his first sight of me, after all.)

His answer was something along the lines of: “I’m not sure what animal I was seing.”

Boom. I’m hooked. But, I think, I’m hooked on the teacher. If Tim announced tomorrow he was going to start leading Trance Dance Yoga, I’d probably go along. (Well, maybe not that far.) But my practice is Tim-based. (In the way, I suspect, so many people’s practices were Guruji-based.)

I think — to again put words in her virtual mouth — that Bobbie might give it a whirl, but she’d return to her Ashtanga practice. And for good reason.

I’m sure I’m over-simplifying here and not giving her relationship to Tim enough credit. But I do think there is something fundamentally different about our the root of our practices. It might be this: I’m sure she’ll still be practicing Ashtanga when she’s 90. I am more likely going to be maybe doing some pranayama. Or Senior Trance Dance. Or nothing.

On a daily basis, I wonder how this difference affects our ongoing practices. Perhaps more importantly (for us, anyway): I wonder how it will affect them in the future.

(I also realize this may come across as very Cult of Personality-esque. It isn’t. I wouldn’t jump off a bridge at Tim’s urging. But I am doing a lot of other “crazy” things. I think, tough, with proper discrimination.)

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

15 thoughts on “Which came first, the teacher or the yoga?”

  1. This reminds me of the Ashtanga In New York video when Eddie Stern was talking about how he wants to be when he’s 80. I know I keep bringing this up but my daughter has a life threatening illness and she only has 5 to 15% of the muscle a regular person has. She can’t raise her limbs, sit up, roll over, swallow etc. but she has a great mind and loves adventure. My point being you can get all the way to the last series but what if an accident or disease finish your asana practice? What then? Will all that practice have worked for you? It will be interesting to see how this practice has helped people navigate life in the long run. I have to admit i’m doing my asana practice, meditation, pranayama, reading religious texts probably more for the short term affect on my anticipatory grief than I am in search of enlightenment. Most people use asana practice to console themselves, release tension, make it through the day vs. becoming enlightened. I can’t say that my practices of religion and yoga have allowed me to fully accept my daughter’s impending death. Sometimes I feel that my efforts in keeping her alive might be material in the sense that I want her here with me. If I totally believed and followed y oga, hinduism, judaism etc. maybe i wouldn’t be so focused on the constant life saving and intensive care I deliver 24/7. The dichotomy for me is this incredible soul in such a wasted decaying body; how can I just let nature take its course when I can make her live that much longer? I guess yoga is helping me do this in a karma path more so than in a raja etc. path. It’s a little bit like the wizard of oz and the yellow brick road in the sense that it is already here with us. Asana for asana sake is great but how would we feel if all the years of practice were taken away in a second? Would those years of practice prepared us?

  2. Brad, first of all let me say that my heart goes out to you in your time of pain and distress. Yoga may perhaps be able to have you be with your daughter in a more present sense. Ram Das said something profound to parents of a child taken too early that she was a gift sent for your treasure. That probably holds true for you.

    One of my old buds in NYC was very active and engaged in his practice. While riding in the city, he was mowed down by a car and is now wheelchair bound. Sad story. We all have them, to perhaps make us make our own more enriched. Our purpose here is to develop ourselves spiritually according to Caroline Myss.

    When we do our practice, be it teaching or moving with breath, developing breath, or caring for a loved one, we do it the best we can. Being grateful to see the perfection of it all, even if it really doesn’t seem at all perfect is not always accessable. That’s where the yoga practice hopefully transcends into trust and other emotional things that may come up through the process.

    Good luck to you brother!

    Om shanti.

    1. Thanks Nick. I want to clarify that my journey is not just pain and distress though those moments do arise during times of medical crisis let me tell you. This journey is the end journey though and it is certainly different than the grief I have experienced when loosing elders in my family. Most of the time i’m not looking at how the practice of yoga is affecting me and helping me on this journey. At other times I become completely cerebral in my analysis of what i’m doing, why i’m doing it and what the outcome is. Im very interested in Vedanta and it seems to me that those that have transcended the body don’t practice any physical form of yoga and are not even the least bit concerned of loosing their physical body. To the enlightened the body or no body is the same. I guess my point of the last half dozen or so posts Steve has made on the origins of yoga, is yoga religious etc. often are focused on the asana aspect of ashtanga yoga. What i’m interested in is Patthabi Jois’s inner world. The fact he gave up the physical practice at 53, he lost a son, how he coped with his wife’s death before him etc. I’m interested in Guruji’s culture and what gave him the strength to endure, carry on, quit the physical practice etc. I know much of Guruji’s strength was innate, within himself. A boy leaves runs away from home at 12 with nothing to be taught by his Guru. That right there says everything really it was already within him. I guess I should study more Indian Philosophy. Stories of loss of ability or my daughter being born with a terminal illness to me isn’t all that sad. The hardest part of this journey is often the lack of compassion, the lack of action and compassion that can directly benefit those in need. I’d love to hear from people that had full on yoga practices before something catastrophic came into their lives and how it helped them or didn’t help them.

      1. HI Brad.

        To your very last point, I think it is one of those general truisms that a lot of people who end up practicing Ashtanga had something traumatic before they practiced (even if, at the same time, those people often were very fit and athletic to begin with), so it is sort of the flip side of that to wonder about people who have the catastrophe as practitioners. Nancy Gilgoff is an example of someone who was pretty physically weak/ill before starting. More recently, there’s that veteran and DDP Yoga. But I’ll admit that I don’t think I’ve come across many stories such as you’re asking about.

        Actually, maybe Ram Dass is an example, although he’s not an Ashtanga practitioner. Nick brought him up, so if Nick swings back through here, maybe he can add more. It’s Ram Dass’ post-stroke life I’m thinking of (there’s a movie, Fierce Grace, maybe it is called).


      2. Brad, I have been practicing yoga for about 20 years now. During that time, there was a major situation that arose which I would prefer not to go into, however, I can say that yoga was the rudder, a very powerful one. I too am vedantic and I believe that having a practice is preparation for the embodiment of the one. Otherwise it is just a mind concept. Caroline Myss has a series on youtube “why people dont heal” – in it she says that people are too attached to replaying the pity me card day after day after day. I may be oversimplifing it here, but reality is that as human beings we all will be confronted with bad tough situations. The practice perhaps is to experience the difficult, continuing to practice with a torn hamstring, or a terminal disease, cancer, paralysis, whatever, then move on, when necessary. Like the motto of nowadays, “Stay calm and carry on.” I have had many friends in the Anusara world who have experienced loss and became better. You can look up a teacher by the name of Desiree Rumbaugh who prior to Anusara, taught Iyengar and may have also practiced Ashtanga – her son was murdered, she grieved but she carries on with grace (grace being an utter understatement). You honor the moment, your heart and you process it, maybe faster, maybe more skillfully than another, maybe not, maybe that’s your yoga. The practictioners of Krapalu who had no cash to their names when the Desai guy fled to FL, left them homeless, unsure of the future, survived and later thrived. The same fate of the Anusara group, perhaps not catastrophic to you but imagine one day having a full class to empty classes because of other people’s actions. You bitch, in their case a bunch, you grieve, then you carry on. However, being realized doesn’t mean that life changes, it may mean that you care less about the trivial, and I do agree with you the practice no longer needs to be a practice! Dharma Mittra had a life of a yogi and then got married with children, he often says, “I lost half my poses when I had kids” He still teaches and has as he says, “the backup light” (the practice) is there to help him. Hope this helps.

      3. I think ultimately it comes down to faith. As Patthabi Jois has stated in many of the videos i’ve seen of him “you think of god.” You could strip asana practice away from Krishnamacharya or Patthabi Jois and I don’t think it would have mattered as these men seemed to have a very deep faith in their religion, customs, rituals, mythology and most of all God. If you have complete faith in your traditions maybe the journey towards death is more acceptable. If you have a community around you supporting you, spiritually, emotionally, ritually, that would also help you. From my experience and many others i’ve spoken to that have been doing this as long as I have (7 1/2 years) and longer is that there seems to be a shelf-life for compassion. I guess a belief in another world or reincarnation after death gives meaning and eases the pain of grief from loss or those like me experiencing anticipatory grief. Grief is fleeting it comes and goes like many other emotions. I guess what i’m after here are what the Hindu prayers , the methods used, the rituals performed etc. to cope with such things that Patthabi Jois would lean on. Really i’m after the deeper aspect of Yoga not asana with respect to Patthabi Jois’s tradition. I’ll have to look into this deeper. I know what exists within Judaism I was just wondering what lies within our Ashtanga Tradition which in turn would be the Hindu Tradition and our Guru Patthabi Jois’s religion and traditions. Maybe this is a question for Eddie Stern?

      4. Steve I did watch fierce grace and have read just about everything by Ram Dass. I remember him saying “I got stroked.” He also mentioned in that movie that what her learned was that he still had a lot of work to do. This is what I’m interested in. Even after all those many years of practice, writing, talking etc. he still had a lot of work to do. I’m interested in the deeper aspect of what he is talking about the NOW WHAT? I also understand what you are saying about people come to ashtanga yoga after experiencing life altering events but ultimately it’s not the same as what strength does the practice give us should we loose the ability to practice asana. It’s that strength i’m looking to strengthen if that makes any sense.

      5. HI Brad.

        I understand the difference we’re talking about here — those who had some injury before beginning practice and those who have to deal with something after they’ve developed a practice. I think I was trying to wonder if, given the seeming high number of people who come to Ashtanga (in terms of Pattabhi Jois’ teaching) with some background of injury, if it is somehow of more use/help for those who have the later injury.

        Perhaps another way to put it:

        I wonder if there is a particular yoga practice — thinking as broadly as possible, from Bikram to Bhatki — that would provide the greatest strength you are talking about.

        Or what particular aspects bring forth that strength.


      6. I am sure that ashtanga is my asana practice and Guruji and Krishnamacharya my Gurus. My mind is wondering into the theological realm. I was just wondering about the religious practice but I do understand Guruji was a brahman hindu. Ramaswami seems to get deeply into the curative aspects of yoga, mantra etc. Just thought i’d throw it out there and see what came back. As far as asana practice goes i’ll stick with the ashtanga and vinyasa krama path.

    2. The Bhagavad Gita ~ translated by Eknath Easwaran
      Chapter 5 Renounce and Rejoice
      ‘O Krishna, you have recommended both the path of selfless action and sannyasa, the path of renunciation of action. Tell me definitely which is better.

      ‘Both renunciation of action and the selfless performance of action lead to the supreme goal. But the path of action is better than renunciation.

  3. This is a great post Steve, and its a thought I have had many times myself. In a way I am a bit like both you and Bobbie – I’d done different types of yoga asana for a year or two, but then I went to an ashtanga class – and I remember being in Savasana going “whoa, I dunno what I have been doing up to now, but I want to know MORE about this!!” Fast Forward to a couple of months and I took my first Mysore class with my teacher (who is still my teacher, and I think will probably always be, even though because of where he, and I live, means I am lucky if I get to connect with him once a year). I remember feeling like I woke up for the first time. I know that sounds dramatic. but it was the “Boom!” moment. I literally and physically felt like I had been plugged into the universe for the first time.
    It’d be great if all my practises felt like that!! hahahaha but for me I that the ” yoga practice” as in the asana may have come first…… but my connection to the practice would not be possible without my teacher.

  4. Thanks Brad and nick. As a 28 year old who hasnt seen as much life as you guys have, I feel very thankful for stumbling upon this blog. Good wishes to your family and health. -seshank

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