Amma, Tibetan monasteries and exceptions to the Ashtanga rules

As I work on figuring out what the yoga of gardening might be, I’ll pass on a few things out there that seem worth a little time on a Sunday.

First off, Eddie Stern knocked out a few new blog items this week; one was passing on Amma’s Guru Purnima message, another was a video of Louis C.K. and then, the one I’ll point you to as a read, was about the Abbot at Rato Monastery:

It is through the Avedon’s that he was introduced to the Tibet Center and ended up meetingt His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This past April, His Holiness appointed Geshe Vreeland as the new Abbot of Rato Monastery. This was an historic moment; the first time that a Westerner had been appointed abbot of an important Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

Read more to see how he and Eddie met.

The next touches on a subject that’s reappeared here a few times: tailoring the Ashtanga practice to individual students’ needs. Paul Gold of Ashtanga Yoga Shala Toronto talks about how he hasn’t seen much change in the practice over the past decade plus nor has he seen individual students get specific treatment very often:

Firstly, my wife and I made our first trip to Mysore at the end of 2000. We had the opportunity to practice at the Laxmipuram shala which held only 12 students practicing at one time. During that time, I didn’t see anything different in terms of how Guruji and Sharath taught students than what I saw on my next trip after the move to Gokulam nor on any of our subsequent study-visits. So, over the course of thirteen years and nine trips to India, I haven’t seen much change.

In addition, when asked directly whether in conference or during our teachers’ course with him, Sharath has said repeatedly that the reason students need to stand up and drop back in backbends before intermediate is to ensure they are strong and flexible enough to take on the more difficult intermediate series asanas.

The whole thing is worth a read, and I say that as someone who’s been taught by people who have a different perspective.

I absolutely don’t count myself anything near an authority on this topic, beyond what works for me. For me, for example, there are backbend poses in Second that help strength me as I work through First Series poses. But, in general — the vast, vast majority of the time — I go through First as I was taught by Tim Miller. (Yeah, there have been other voices now and again.)

Here’s my guess on why Ashtanga may seem more regimented these days than it did in say, the early to maybe mid 1990s. (I’ll say my main hesitation around Gold’s post is that 2000 doesn’t seem that far back. A lot went on before then.) I suspect now the students who go to Mysore — and, ultimately, most of the students who “stick with” Ashtanga — fall into a physical group that more or less can do the difficult and strenuous asanas, and thus a more rigid system works. (Other students who don’t have that physical ability may end up in other asana classes or give up yoga entirely.)

This, sadly, is what I see as Ashtanga’s greatest limitation, something that feels to me directly opposed to the notion that only lazy people can’t do the practice. It may succumb to a self-selection process of sorts as strong and flexible people continue to practice it and others don’t. Given how Nancy Gilgoff describes her first experience, it is hard to imagine her staying with Ashtanga if she’d been told to do sun salutes and given some poses, slowly. And I’m sure if someone who kept very hard and fast to the system were to take over my teaching and stop me at, say, Navasana (where I was stopped for many months), I wouldn’t keep at it, either. That can come across as “ego” — and certainly there is something to that, no doubt — but I also know that my most gross kosha, my heavy and stiff physical body, needs more to get things burning, to light the Sacred Fire. I’m self-aware enough to know that (in large part thanks to the Ashtanga I’ve done), and so I suspect I’d have to look elsewhere.

Unless that teacher added something else that altered the system a bit.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

6 thoughts on “Amma, Tibetan monasteries and exceptions to the Ashtanga rules”

  1. Very nice post. I think many people would agree w/ you. What some studios require before teaching second is nuts.

  2. When Nancy was in LA recently (was that last May 2012 ?)I had the pleasure of hanging with her a bit and she told me about Pattabhi’s work with quadraplegics and other folks who are/were not fully able bodied. I shared with her that I do yoga with 2 kids who have cerebral palsy and how I physically move them into poses and use cushions to support them. She replied that Guruji would say this is ashtanga yoga.

    I think the rigid emphasis on acquiring poses as ends in themselves without modifying the practice to suit the needs of individuals misses the point entirely. The end goal is always to minimize suffering and move towards samadhi.

  3. “The end goal is always to minimize suffering and move towards samadhi.”-yes yes yes.

    i ran a daily mysore program for years. it has it’s challenges, but mostly it’s very taxing on the body. physical adjustments is the big part of that style. now

    i teach mostly astanga newbies who do one or less practices a week. the great challenge is teaching correct method AND adpating that to the individual. i have, with plenty of daily teaching/practice, been able to help even these people usuing astanga as the framework. the system is SO strong that even a teaspoon of it will bring a dusting of strength & flexibility to the individual.

    the local teacher who introduced astanga to me in the mid 90s always says “flexible body good. flexible mind better.”

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