Two — or more? — Ashtangas

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing. We’ll see if we have an experience this time around similar to the one detailed below.


It may be there are two distinct types of Ashtanga.

It may be there are more.

After reflecting more on the post about making exceptions to Ashtanga’s rules, I’m struck, or stuck, on the possibility of there being two fairly different types of Ashtanga.

And I want to say, up front, I don’t intend to favor one over the other. I’m sure I fall into one, and I may therefore want to be sympathetic to it, but both have their pluses and minuses.

Both, I’d like to think, can fit into a fairly comfortable “Ashtanga tent.”

One I’ll call “Mysore Ashtanga.” It’s what is being taught and spread from Mysore these days, with the authorizations and the packed shala and the early morning practices.

The other I have a harder time naming. So let’s call it, “Shala Ashtanga.” It — and these descriptions are a bit broad — is what it seems from my experience many of the senior students are offering. But I don’t believe the distinction lies in an older vs. newer teacher dynamic.

I think it more lies with the students — and from them differences flow.o

It’s also worth noting that both types of Ashtanga are taking place in shalas all over — maybe in most. (I haven’t been to most, so I don’t know.) More experienced teachers can teach both; many younger teachers can, too.

As I wrote in the previous post: “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.)”

“Mysore Ashtanga,” I think, has a certain self-selecting process built in. (This Ashtanga may be the kind that keeps up the strongly held idea that Ashtanga was designed for adolescent boys.) There is a level of physical asana mastery that’s almost a prerequisite. That isn’t to say that only people who can bind in Marichy D and stand up from back bends need apply. But most of them, experience has taught me, can get those poses — and the poses in Second Series, and then maybe some of Third — after some practice. (“Practice, practice and all is coming,” right?)

“Shala Ashtanga,” on the other hand, allows for the less physically gifted to practice. There are research poses added. People — and here I’m included — are allowed to work on poses that may be beyond their reach (especially per strict “Mysore Ashtanga” rules) on the basis that those later poses in the sequence can assist with developing the physical ability to perform other poses more successfully. This Ashtanga may give some Second Series poses out because, otherwise, the students would not reach a balance or even hint of benefit from those more “advanced” poses.

“Mysore Ashtanga” is characterized by adjustments. “Shala Ashtanga” is characterized by modifications, even props — a certain personalization of the practice.

This, I think, may be an important distinction. As we found with our posts earlier this month on pain, it can sometimes be tough to agree on the meaning of some words — even some words that wouldn’t seem to demand clearer definition. For Ashtanga, “teaching” is one of these words.

It also may be the distinction that is the most divisive, which isn’t my intention.

I haven’t been to Mysore. I know plenty of people who have, and I’ve talked with people about it. I have a picture of the crowded room, with the teachers/assistants “working the room,” helping students — stories of drop backs are popular — and providing adjustments.

My sense is when people say that a lot of teaching goes on in the room, they mean a lot of adjustments. Adjustments are helpful; and adjustments allow the practice to be primary — for the practice to be the teacher.

But these adjustments — on what I’ll call a mass scale, again not meaning that to sound pejorative — are being done on bodies that, more or less, are strong and supple. I know everyone has their problem poses, their problem areas, but the bodies in Mysore, and in “Mysore Ashtanga” room, are at a base level of competency and similarity.

The people in “Mysore Ashtanga,” I guess I’m trying to say, have the physical ability to let the practice do the teaching. They benefit from some nudges along the way.

In “Shala Ashtanga,” however, the bodies aren’t at that level. Adjustments can help a student get deeper in a pose, but the students need more — more verbal cues, more teaching — to sustain themselves in those poses, or to try to get back to the poses the next practice. Adjustments alone aren’t enough.

And so modifications are added. Research poses are included. Props are used. The teacher has to offer more, where the practice fails.

I’ll try to bring this down to the personal. I would never presume to go to Mysore. Partly it’s ego: I think I once wrote that I might get stopped at Navasana, if I did. It’s more likely I’d be stopped earlier. What fun is that? What bruising of my ego is that? Who would want to be surrounded by all these “great Ashtangis” with one’s limited practice on display?

But also: what benefit would I receive? Unless something was added — to make me feel special, I guess? — I’d go in, do my shortened practice for not a very long time, and leave.

Mysore isn’t for Ashtanga practitioners like me, from everything I’ve heard. (I’m happy to hear otherwise.) And I don’t expect it to be. I’m pretty realistic. There are hundreds of students there at any given time. I wouldn’t expect an adjustment in every pose for which I could use an adjustment. A teacher may as well park him/herself in front of me, if that’s the case. And that’s not fair to the teacher or to the other students.

I suppose I have to return to the question of who is teaching each of these Ashtangas, although I’ve noted I don’t want to do so. I think it is probably true that older, more experiences teachers are leading “Shala Ashtanga” but not for any nefarious reasons. They’re just more experienced. They’ve seen many more students like me. Again, Ashtanga (like traveling to Mysore) is a bit self-selecting. And a “Mysore Ashtanga” would be more so. Believe me, I’m sure I’d be hard-pressed to stick with such a practice, with the rules. We’ve all seen new students come to an Ashtanga studio, get the basics — sun salutes, some standing poses — and then they either come back or they don’t.

That’s self-selecting. And I think it means that some teachers — newer ones — don’t cross paths with a lot of students of limited ability. (They may if they teach other types of yoga, or flow classes. There may be an argument in here that Ashtanga teachers should teach other classes in order to broaden their experience with students.)

I know I’ve stymied newer Ashtanga teachers. Or, I should say, my hamstrings have.

That may be ego rising again. Obviously, I’m partial to “Shala Ashtanga” because it allows me — perhaps encourages is a better word — to practice. Maybe there’s some level of cop-out there, but I don’t think I’ve not tried, to put it bluntly. At the same time, I don’t think “Mysore Ashtanga” should limit my experience with the practice.

But I’ll admit that there are aspects to the practice that, because of my limitations, I can’t access. I know there are times when there’s no benefit. But there’s some benefit at other times, and that’s better than none. And maybe there will be more, someday.

I promised I would try not to favor one of these types over the other. I’ll just say that “Shala Ashtanga” allows for more people to practice, to catch a glimpse of what’s possible, of what Ashtanga promises. But I suspect “Mysore Ashtanga” opens the door to those possibilities much wider.

The world isn’t a worse place having both types in it.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

One thought on “Two — or more? — Ashtangas”

  1. What a thoughtful meditation on this forking of the Ashtanga path. I agree that there are two schools of thought. I’ve got a teacher who works well in both, so I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of both. I’ve been stuck on a pose for a year at a time (Hi, Supta K), and I’ve also received props to modify poses to help make them more accessible or more correct for my body (Howdy, dropbacks). I’m glad for both sides, because I want Ashtanga to be accessible to anyone who is willing to commit to the practice.

    Thanks, as always, for posting.


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