1% theory, or the economy of Ashtanga

This one’s about words.

Too many words, sometimes. Maybe too few, at others.

This idea has been bumping around in my head for a while, but I couldn’t think of the best way to package it up, and then I saw a comment on a Facebook post — which will turn out to be ironic. We’ll get to that it.

The comment attributed the following “best advice of my life” to Eddie Stern: “Shut up and breathe.”

We’ve all had some similar, simple, short commands directed our way by an Ashtanga teacher.

Pattabhi Jois was famously economical with his words, for an obvious reason: English wasn’t his first language. That’s led to some carryover of phrases I’ve heard from more than one teacher: “You do.” (Also: “You come.”) “Why fearing?” “Mind stiff, body not stiff. “Do your practice and all is coming.” And, of course: “Ashtanga is 99% practice, 1% theory.”

It also, I think, spilled over with the first generation of teachers who brought Ashtanga out of India. They all at times explicitly channel Guruji. (Is David Swenson the best at that? Possibly.) But they also, when moving about a room, keep the talking to a minimum — and when there’s need for more talking, it still seems pretty surgical.

Even their discussions about yoga more generally — the Sutras, for instance, or the eight limbs — are tight, not flabby. An exception might be Richard Freeman, but I’ll chalk that up to other parts of his learning/training/background. (You know, those talkative Buddhist monks!) And even then, there is a sparseness to his metaphors. And he really captures difficult concepts pretty efficiently.

This economy of explanation, in turn, allows the Ashtanga practice for each person to remain a fundamentally internal, solo experience. We all need help and explanation about both difficult poses and the “say that again-ness” of things like bandhas, but all the talk in the world won’t help us find, as Tim Miller would say so simply, the “state of the pose.”

That’s got to come from us.

And so the conciseness is, perhaps, a fundamentally important aspect to the Ashtanga system. It ultimately allows us to get where we need without distraction or mental clutter. (We are trying to quiet our minds, after all.)

By contrast, the yoga world… well, it is awash with words. (“Words, words, words,” as Hamlet says. [That’s just to prove I can pull out such references as well as Bobbie.]) I haven’t been to a yoga flow class in years, but I still remember all. the. talking. “Arms out straight. Belly in and tight. Your thigh should be rotating out. Keep your head up, but neck long. Try to find the relaxation in the pose.” Etc.

And I see it all the time on social media. (Thus the irony of finding the quote attributed to Eddie on Facebook.) Quotes from a Hindu or Buddhist text or some, excuse me, “poet” (I’m a total poetic patrician, I’ll admit.) Long explanations of what you should experience in a yoga practice or how you need to overcome this challenge (fear, maybe, or lack of attention) or how it all ought to make you feel. Sometimes but not always superimposed on a picture of the person posting it. (We’ve dealt with the selfie thing before.)

Some of my perspective on this, I know, is because I’m just predisposed to a less-is-more approach. I bristle at authority (making the guru relationship a tricky one) and am, at heart, a skeptic. But during the times I do read — more like glance at — those social media posts… they don’t help. They strike me as, at best, gobbledygook and at worst, contradictory and confusing. Also, infuriated. Maybe infantile. Or insipid.

Words, words, words. Words that go on, words that pile up, words — as we used to say in my journalist days — in search of an idea.

Yes, like I was just doing. Recall your Alexander Pope:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.

That’s from “An Essay on Criticism, Part II.” Appropriate.

All of these words* seem so fundamentally antithetical to a practice that is meant to still the mind.

There is probably also a dynamic between older, wiser, more experienced teachers and younger or newer ones. When you’ve taught hundreds or thousands of people, of all shapes and sizes and physical abilities, you have a well of instructions from which to draw. You’ve had time to hone your message, to become more surgical with your instructions.

There’s also the nature of marketing and social media these days**. When what we call the “senior teachers” were starting, they weren’t having to market themselves on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. (There also weren’t a bazillion yoga teachers, from whom you have to distinguish yourself.) It’s no new idea to suggest that the marketing and economics (to use that word a second way) of yoga runs counter to the core of yoga. Yoga in the West, or maybe at this point yoga in the 21st Century, is an amalgamation — an inevitable evolution. (Of course, yogis from centuries past were marketing themselves as they traveled about and performed feats or tricks for food and lodging, right?)

This is the point where — especially if you’ve been following our blog — you rightly would expect me to render judgment. For once, as much as I’ve dismissed wordy yoga, I’m not going to absolutely disparage it. I’m instead going to suggest that Ashtanga’s “99% practice, 1% theory” — which gets parsed this way and that (see Richard Freeman on it here) — perhaps should be interpreted more, rather than less, literally. It is an argument for fewer words, for less efforts to deconstruct a yoga pose or unravel a Yoga Sutra.

And why I’ll try to keep the next post short.

* I do realize the inherent irony of writing about this, on a blog no less.

** One extra dose of irony.

Posted by Steve


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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