We bring you today’s online Ashtanga debate. First up, Ty Landrum — among Richard Freeman’s teachers — posted a piece titled: “The Practice is the Teacher.” I think the following represents the core, but there is a lot in it, and I encourage you to read it all:
In Ashtanga Vinyasa, there is a comparable saying, “the practice is the teacher,” and the meaning is more or less the same. The practice exposes us to our patterns of impulse, and to the tyranny of these patterns over our minds. When we submit to the practice, we learn to observe these patterns without enacting them, and we begin to release them into the emptiness of the breath. As in Zen, the purpose is to disabuse ourselves of distorting influences, to make our minds quiet, focused and lucid, so that we may begin to see for the first time. There is much to be said for having a competent guide in Ashtanga, someone who has been thoroughly tempered by the practice, and who can point one down the path. Eventually, however, one must learn to face the shadows of one’s own mind, and this is something that one must do alone.
Later, he adds this:
But all of this falls under the head of “supporting” our students in their own self-observations rather than actually “teaching” them things that they do not know. At the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, which is the Ashtanga studio where I practice, we teachers do not follow the orthodox method of “giving” poses to the students, nor then of “taking them away.” Instead, we start students with as much of the Primary Series as their bodies can presently absorb, and we allow them to decide when and how they should progress, with the simple proviso that they ask us for assistance whenever they feel ready to move forward. Our students, therefore, are tasked from the beginning to exercise their own judgment about the practice, and thus they begin, immediately, to cultivate that most important skill of finding balance. Though we recognize that it takes considerable practice to acquire that skill, we do not pretend that it requires some special technical knowledge or expertise. Our method most importantly, places the responsibility for the practice right where it belongs, in the hands of the practitioners. It makes the practice all the more potent for them because it fully engages them in the art of finding internal alignment, and it makes them less capable of hiding out from themselves. Our unorthodox teaching method is not above criticism, and it has it dangers and complicities. Most obviously, it exposes students to their own patterns of attachment and aversion regarding the postures themselves.
Surely you know that there’s a whole lot of weight to the question of “orthodoxy” among the Ashtanga community. (Edit: Note Peg’s comment below, so I want to clarify here.) So I expect you might see some responses. Our online friend Peg Mulqueen’s latest is not, just related (she does mention Landrum’s piece). And it, too, is worth a read: (End Edit.)
Sure, I think the method itself is brilliant in its design and structure. It builds yet another trilogy (tristhana) in of postures (bandhas), breath, and focus (dristhi). Truth is though, it’s taught differently by different teachers. Not profoundly different, but it does vary – and yet, still does the trick. That says something. But to suggest, “the practice is the teacher” is incomplete. Without the inspiration of my community and the guiding force of a teacher, I cannot balance on the single leg. Literally and figuratively.
Peg poses some meaningful thoughts about community, as part of what she terms the “Ashtanga Trilogy” (Coming to a Theater near you this summer, in Real 3D!) along with teacher and method. I encourage you to read it, too.
Here’s where, I suppose, I’m supposed to suggest what I think: Is the practice the teacher — or not? My reaction may be too simplistic: Either they’re both right, or they both are really saying the same thing. That’s the maddening nature of Ashtanga: that it is simplicity in the midst of disorder, confusion, over-stimulation, disquiet. Do your practice, and all is coming. (Alternate version: Do your practice, teach, and all is coming. How does that affect this discussion?) Ashtanga — and accompanying philosophies, sciences, religions, social structures — is fun to talk about; it is helpful to talk and think about. But in the moment of doing, of being (if I can make use of that word), none of that stuff is there. But of course it all is there. It’s just settled and quiet, still utterly informing the individual moving about the mat.
That’s all pretty heavy stuff. So I want to end by pointing you to Eddie Stern’s latest blog post and his lighthearted description of Tim Miller. The thought of Eddie practicing with Tim is, I think, the right one with which to end this post.
Posted by Steve