Ashtanga: Evolution and research

By now, I suspect, you’ve read through the trio of Q&As that Yoga International did with David Swenson, Richard Freeman and Tim Miller. Our post linking to them is right here.

There’s a lot in them to think about; all three — to my mind — capture a certain essence of each teacher. Putting it another way: If you were given the three Q&As, without the teachers attached, I think you could guess which one is David’s, Richard’s and Tim’s.

I mean that in a good way: All three have clear focuses on different aspects of Ashtanga and yoga and different emphasizes as teachers.

Something that Tim and Richard said, in particular, struck me. Here’s from the Tim interview:

Pattabhi Jois always claimed that he taught exactly as his teacher,  Krishnamacharya, taught him. Based on my experience of being his student for 30 years, I can attest to the fact that, over those 30 years, there were some new asanas added and some sequences rearranged.  If anyone ever questioned him about the changes he would say, “Now is correct.” Guruji was a combination of yogi, scholar, and scientist—he called his school the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. He knew all of the important yogic texts and incorporated these teachings as he refined the system taught to him by Krishnamacharya. Pattabhi Jois practiced and taught this system for 70 years, making little changes here and there.

And then from Richard’s:

Another reason it’s important to meet is to discuss the details of our own particular perspectives, techniques, injuries, solutions for those injuries, and ways that we have adapted the practice to our unique circumstances. Also, it’s wonderful to get feedback from other practitioners who might see things from a new perspective. It can wake us up to see and listen to others who share a common love for the practice, but who might have seen aspects to it that we have overlooked. Even though we are all working within a single tradition, that tradition is still evolving and is bringing in threads of insight from other traditions. A confluence allows this to happen in an above-board, open atmosphere.

Long-time readers likely recognize the theme I’m hitting on: Ashtanga as an evolving, living yoga practice grounded in research.

From the beginning of our exploration of Ashtanga (if I can speak for Bobbie here), one central aspect to the practice that attracted us was the tension created by the combination of the defined practice — Primary, Secondary, etc. — and the different approaches teachers have to it. (This harkens back to the need for challenge that Eddie Stern mentioned during our recent workshop, although it is I putting that idea onto the practice, itself.) The Ashtanga we encountered wasn’t just codified in some book; teachers and students were exploring it, researching it, trying to tease out different nuances.

And I don’t just mean the asana practice, though it looms large. But also the other limbs, as well as explorations of yoga history and philosophy and the Hindu religious traditions.

I’m reminded of one of William Blake’s most famous lines: “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.”

That pretty well sums up my worry — my worry not amounting to a hill of beans, of course — about a restrictive or prescriptive approach to teaching Ashtanga. I understand there are certain parameters, of course, but the ability of Ashtanga to be tailored for particular needs — Guruji’s working with injured and disabled students is the shining example of this — while still allowing students to approach the essence of the practice (and its benefits) continues to strike me as its great strength and beauty.

And as why it works.

Posted by Steve

Published by


Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

4 thoughts on “Ashtanga: Evolution and research”

  1. Above you mention dsabled students and also refer to “the practice.” I think we run a risk in thinking of ashtanga as “the practice” as though it is dogma rather than “a practice of.”
    Ashtanga for me is a practice of asana, of pranayama, of ahimsa, etc. To the sick or disable, asana can transform one toward health and balance. It is practical and essential for the most part. This is closer to the heart of a yogic pursuit. Anyway, i rattle on needlessly…

  2. I think the parameters are Ashtanga’s greatest strength in the fast evolving yoga world where any youngster can become a yoga teacher, give few adjustments, and guide students through classes based on no tradition. These titans of Ashtanga are so vital in keeping 21st century yoga grounded in something real.

Leave a Reply to jgs Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s