A skeptic’s look at the traditional Mysore learning environment

I’ve been sitting on this post for more than a week. I can’t quite get it to a state I’m happy with, but the question at its heart is one that isn’t going away (it was stronger after Monday and Tuesday’s practices, even). I’ve decided I’m just going to toss it out in the ether and see what the response it. So…

I’ll admit I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic when it comes to how the traditional Mysore method of teaching Ashtanga goes.

You know what I’m talking about: The first set of practices might only be 15 to 20 minutes long; poses are provided methodically; a student may not actually practice any of First Series for a while. Much is incumbent on the student — he or she has to really get engaged to keep coming back for the promise of something seen in other parts of the practice room. Or, as Eddie Stern describes it:

In the Mysore class, new students are instructed individually, and taught small amounts of a sequence of poses that increase each day according to the capacity of the student. When practiced in a consistent manner, this method of yoga will strengthen, purify and align the body, steady the nervous system through even breathing,  and give equilibrium to the mind. When the initial poses of the sequence have been committed to memory – which does not take very long –  new postures are introduced, adding to the sequence when the student is ready. The teachers are present to give help in the poses as needed, and to answer questions that may arise. Mysore style is a simple, effective and ancient method of learning yoga. A beginner can expect their first class to last about 20-30 minutes. The practice will gradually increase in length up to about an hour and a half.

Again, I’ve been a skeptic. Accuse me of being too Western minded. (Probably true.) Claim I’m impatient. (True fact.) Tell me I shouldn’t be doubting. (No doubt.) But my experience back in my early days of a Mysore environment didn’t leave me thinking: “Oh, yeah, this will spread like wildfire.”

That’s me, and my experience. But as I’ve been plodding through my own back-to-basics practice for the past nearly two months, something has slowly dawned on me about this attitude of mine: I think it results from my introduction to Mysore having some flaws to it, which I can see more clearly now. (Thanks, hindsight!)

By the time I got to Mt. Shasta with Tim Miller (sadly enough I’ve never had a sustained practice with him) or Jörgen Christiansson, I had enough knowledge that starting me from scratch — with those standing poses — probably made little sense. (I guess I suspect Tim would have done something different had I appeared daily in his Mysore room.)

Important note: My intent is not to throw anyone under the bus. The teacher during my first extended run with Ashtanga has never been mentioned by name on this blog. If you’ve seen someone’s name, then that person isn’t who I’m talking about here.

Plus, the experience was what it was, and I’m certainly complicit, too. (See the list of my personal limitations/challenges above.)

That said, here are the problems — I can’t think of a better word — I now see in my early Mysore experience. I raise them in part to see if any experienced teachers (or students) might have reactions. I also wonder whether these are issues that can arise just from the nature of a busy Mysore room, from the set sequence of Ashtanga and how it is introduced. Problems, in other words, that come with the territory. (Nothing’s perfect.)

Here goes:

Problem: Making the practice physically challenging enough while keeping it simple and basic. My reticence to the above way of going about teaching Mysore (and here’s where I think I especially was complicit in its not going as well as it could have) was a desire to get enough of a physical workout from the practice. Here’s where my strength/stamina vs. lack of flexibility collide. I was physically able to do more than the standing poses or half primary — but also (and still) incapable in some ways.

Solution: Ratchet up the physical demands within the system. I was never in those early days given the option to do the standing poses twice, for instance, to create a more tapas-producing practice.  Tim suggested 10-breath standing poses; I still do that. Eventually, the idea of the full vinyasa practice came along — but it was sort of too late. Another solution: Find time to have that beginning Ashtanga practice and still do something else for one’s physical well-being.

Problem: Not focusing enough on flexibility. I knew by the time I got to the mat that I was going to have to work on something I’d more or less been avoiding all my life: stretching. I finally was ready to try, even was anxious to work on, what came hardest (loosening things up) rather than on what came easier (building muscle, for instance). Finding a way to make that challenging, rather than making any modifications seem like failure, would have been motivating.

Solution: Ummm… focus on stretches. I know it goes against some of the more systematic routines, but I probably would have benefited from 20- or even 30-breath poses at the beginning, with the encouragement being on finding the stretch rather than seeking out a posture that wasn’t yet within reach. This would have needed to be balanced against the need for the physical challenge, though. (I think one thing I initially appreciated about Ashtanga-style yoga was the dynamic nature, versus something like Iyengar.)

Problem: Bandhas? Breath? Huh? I know finding the bandhas is an ongoing challenge, and maintaining a slow, controlled breath is, too. But I think I could have used a little more (OK, maybe a lot more) instruction around these aspects of the practice.

Solution: More one-on-one or small group teaching. This one, I think, is difficult, especially within the confines of a two-hour Mysore program at a yoga studio that offers the full buffet of asana — or with a teacher who is, in our day and age, racing off to his or her next yoga class at a different studio. How does a teacher spend that extra time trying to explain these elusive aspects to the practice? Workshops are one way — but those don’t just pop into being with the wave a magic wand. I think this comes down to the success of an experienced and very good teacher finding the right way to address (quickly) questions on these topics.

There’s an at least partial list. As I read through them, I guess the best way to sum it all up is: Mysore works when there is a strong back-and-forth between teacher and student. An individual connection. A relationship. It is a method that demands excellent teaching — maybe more so than other asana styles. (That’s my not super educated guess.) And, as we all know, it is a method that demands time and dedication — from both student and teacher. And time can be a precious commodity.

Or it may be that I still wasn’t ready. (If I even am now.)

This list also leaves me thinking that it points to Ashtanga’s holding the most potential and the most pitfalls when it comes to “yoga styles.” But that may be a different topic.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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