Ashtanga generations

Earlier in the week, when I posted the video of the awe-inspiring Kate O’Donnell, I tried to neatly sum her up — and in the process ended up spiraling down a little Ashtanga rabbit hole.

That spiral got edited out of the post, but I’ll bring it back now: How do we define the Ashtanga teachers out there? More specifically I mean it in terms of their place in the lineage or the “generation” they represent.

We have the “first generation” — David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, Tim Miller, Annie Pace, Richard Freeman, David Swenson, Dena Kingsberg, Lino Miele. The “second generation” might be Eddie Stern, Guy Donahaye. A “third generation” probably is Kino MacGregor and David Garrigues (does he slip between second and third?) and others.

That first had the small, intimate student-teacher relationship with Guruji. The second did, too, although with an initial set of Western students just ahead of them. The “third generation” likely had less time with Guruji, and Sharath was by then more of leading presence.

Are we now to a “fourth generation,” which may have been to Mysore during Guruji’s final years but almost exclusively has been taught by Sharath (and, likely, other earlier generation teachers who encouraged them to go to Mysore)?

Somewhere in there, too — between third and fourth, perhaps — are the teachers who haven’t gone to Mysore but have learned at the feet of the first generation, and perhaps the second.

That’s a pretty quick succession, I realize, which is sort of my point — and why, when I tried to described Kate as a “third generation” I backed off, realizing I’d have to try to explain what I was talking about. But the rapidness of people going to Mysore or learning Ashtanga hints at one of the issues “yoga” faces these days.

Let’s grant it its 5,000-year history for a second. During those centuries, how much change and how much spread of yoga happened? At the first Confluence, Eddie described how parampara really isn’t that hard to grasp and how a yoga practice (or the chants in a temple) can be passed on. If there’s 30 to 50 years separating guru and student, that’s two or three generations every century. To trace something back 1,000 years you need only step through 20 to 30 people.

But in the past 100 years — heck, the past 40 — yoga (and a lot of other things) has spread more rapidly than ever. Rather than one generation, we may have four.

That strikes me as both a rich bed of creativity and learning and a place for potential dissolution and confusion. It’s why the role of the teacher has, perhaps, never been more important — even as there have never been more yoga teachers. It’s both difficult and exciting, full of possibility and problem. Not unlike this movie:

Posted by Steve


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

5 thoughts on “Ashtanga generations”

  1. Another way you could look at the generations is by the decades – 1970’s: Norman Allen, David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, David Swensen, Tim Miller, Chuck Miller; 1980’s: Richard Freeman, Lino Miele, Annie Pace, Dena Kingsburg; 1990’s: Guy, me, etc. Either way, Richard, Lino and Dena probably came along a little late in the game to be counted as 1st generation. You could also look at all 1st generation students to be those who came to Guruji before he began making his tours to the West (1975).

    1. I can’t believe I forgot Norman. (And I definitely had Annie earlier than that in my mind.)

      The way you think about it — and obviously much closer to it than I — essentially, it seems to me, speeds up the passing on of teaching (and its subsequent spread) from being in terms of centuries to mere decades. Or, another metaphor — think about how computer speeds just keep getting faster and faster — more and more quickly.


      1. Clifford’s website says this “In 1974, I met David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff in Encinitas, California and began studying Ashtanga Yoga. A small group of us contributed funds for their Indian teacher to travel to the U.S. and in the fall of 1975 Guruji (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) and his son Manju arrived in San Diego to teach daily classes to our group in Cardiff-by-the Sea, California. In addition to Guruji’s Asana classes, several of us were taught Pranayama and in the evenings we attended his theory classes.”

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