Yoga’s changing. And that’s a good thing

At the heart of my posts about dog yoga and yoga with (and for) horses is a serious issue: What’s becoming of yoga in the West?

It’s not a new question, obviously. And each time another million people are “counted” as being among those who are doing yoga, the question rises again.

I hope, and expect, that the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence’s teachers will address Ashtanga’s particular struggle with this issue, especially in regards to how the practice evolves (or doesn’t) now that Guruji has passed. The loss of the sole “authority” figure is, really, only a part of the larger question of how Ashtanga will shape and be shaped by its spreading throughout the world.

It’s an interesting question, although also one that easily could be ignored — for now. I believe there will be some ramifications on everyone’s practice, eventually, but I can see how a person doing First, Second or even Third series could continue on his or her merry way and not let it be a worry.

The same is probably true of the broader question as it relates to yoga. But Forbes has a piece online from last month’s “Being Yoga” conference that tackles this question and gives some of yoga’s big names a chance to say their piece.

It’s here.

Among the yogis and yoginis includes are Seane Corn and Rodney Yee; they are set somewhat in counterpoint to each other.

Here’s Corn:

“Sometimes,” she says, “the spiritual message is diluted, but this can draw people to the practice in the first place. It’s offered in churches and synagogues and schools. That’s incredible.” In other words, the dilution of its spirituality may be its hook. Once they’re in, says Corn, people then begin to see what the practice is all about, and can move around within it. “People come to yoga for one reason and realize that they’re there for another reason. They begin asking very big questions of themselves.  What is truth, love, god?” Anything to lessen the initial hump of resistance is probably a good thing.

And Yee:

While he acknowledges that the natural evolution of yoga adds to its vitality, he says in most ways we’re getting a little too far away from its core. He reminds us that yogis were asking the hard-hitting questions 2,000 years ago, ruminating on the meaning of life, one’s personal purpose, what it even means to be human. While in many ways yoga does “surf the wave” of how these questions apply in the modern day, he is concerned for the overall thinning of the philosophy. He says that he and his wife and fellow teacher Colleen Saidman are routinely amazed at the fact that “people are continually trading the more valuable things for the more superficial things. That’s astonishing. Why are we trading most valuable aspects of ourselves for most transient, which keep us constantly craving?” Distilling it even further, Yee sums it up well: “It’s great to get a nice yoga butt, but peace and stability in one’s personal life are important too.”

I have to admit, I always get nervous when people throw the “1,000s of years” descriptor onto yoga. The yogis Yee refers to weren’t doing the types of asanas with which yoga is now mostly identified. And the influence of many cultures and many people are in even the oldest Hindu texts. (Check “The Hindus” book for a really deep dive into this, if you want.) That isn’t meant to minimize their value, just to act as a reminder that nothing is simple and there are no straight, direct lines between our down dogs and age-old tapaysa.

I also wonder just how “sacred” a lot of the people who disparage “yoga” (as opposed to Yoga) would find it if they recognized how many of its roots are closer to 150 than 5,000 years old.

That said, I am not discounting yoga’s value or equating it with Spin classes or climbing a Stairmaster. It obviously is something more — and, I’d argue, it’s even more than the neatly wrapped package of a “5,000-year-old system” makes it appear. It’s both old and new, contemporary and ancient. And it’s evolving, which I think is its greatest strength and truest value.

Posted by Steve

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Should Ashtanga keep changing and adapting?

During Sunday’s Moon Day, I did something unusual.

I practiced.

Normally, I’m more than happy to veg on a Moon Day and to thank my lucky stars/Gurus that I get the day off. But I’d missed a few days the previous week, and there was an Intro to Ashtanga class I could make. So I thought, “Why not?”

Urdhva Dhanurasana. Photo via Yoga Journal

It was the right decision, for a number of reasons. A central one was the opportunity to practice a few Second Series back bends before my Urdhva Dhanurasana. You know the ones: Salabhasana and Dhanurasana. (Forget that crazy Urdva part!)

Both felt terrific, and in Dhanurasana especially, I could feel some too-neglected muscles in my lower back at work. And my Urdhva Dhanurasanas after were better; even my sadly tight shoulders felt relatively, for me, open.

It made for a wonderful practice, but it also served as a reminder of one of the main “knocks” on Ashtanga — that its sequence of poses can be unbalanced.

This “charge” against Ashtanga is really only true for people, like me, who are slow to progress. If  you were one of the initial Westerners to practice with Guruji, changes are you were bendy and strong and that Guruji moved you through the first two or three series relatively quickly. In that case, the practice was plenty balanced — not to mention plenty hard.

But we’re not all David Williams.

But, even if you are, in recent years — and, I think, certainly now — there has been far less quick progression through the series if you are working with a teacher who keeps to the Ashtanga tradition.

OK, so here’s the moment where I, still a fairly new practitioner and not very advanced in the asanas, meekly raise my hand and ask: “Is this a problem? Do changes need to be made so the practice best serves its students?”

I only can judge by my own body — and I’d be open to hearing counter arguments — but additional preparations for back bends always seem like a blessing. Would I love to jump through to my stomach after Setu Bandasana and do Salabhasana during my Mysore practice? Yeah, I would. (And no, this is not an end-around on getting a “Second Series practice.” I know that’s well off in the distance.) I think it would help, much as doing Ubhaya Padanustasana has helped open my hamstrings and thus helped much of my practice.

But I respect the practice, and so it isn’t something I’m going to do except on those rare occasions when I’m essentially in an improv class. I can’t help but wonder, though, if adding in “research” poses as a part of each individual’s practice wouldn’t improve the practice. Certainly, the Mysore environment seems designed just for such individualized sequences.

Now, this probably is already happening in some places and with some teachers more than others. And I’ll be interested to see how the five Confluence teachers approach the issue.

But we all know that the tradition that broadly guides the practice makes little, if any, room for such alterations. It may even be getting more stringent and systematized, not less — just how much that follows Guruji’s thinking, I am far from expert enough to answer. It is plain that Ashtanga did evolve from the early and mid-70s through at least the 1980s, if not later. One only need look at Guruji’s Yoga Mala to find a practice different from the one now being taught.

Perhaps a little more change wouldn’t be a bad thing if it served the students more.

The question I’m asking, I guess, is whether that change should be something along the lines of: Without fundamentally changing the essential sequence of poses, shouldn’t teachers be able to make informed decisions about what’s best for their students and adapt accordingly?

And I know the first argument to that point: Don’t those adaptations risk changing the practice so it isn’t Ashtanga any longer?

To which, I wonder: Is Ashtanga really meant to be that regimented?

Posted by Steve

Ashtanga briefly in the news: A primer from Canada

A Tantric diagram of five-faced Hanuman. Via exoticindiaart.com

If this keeps up, I may have to take back my pronouncement that Ashtanga doesn’t get much news coverage.

Another — albiet brief — mention of our branch of the yoga line today in a quick, down-and-dirty “history of yoga” piece in the Vancouver Sun. The reason forthe story seems to be the Indian Summer festival, which just finished there. It looks like it still is offering yoga classes, though, so I think that’s the “hook.”

Ashtanga, and Guruji, get a mention as the story traces the “history” of yoga from those measureless moments in history to the present day:

Yoga returned to the classical philosophy with the father of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya who brought it back to the public in the early 20th century.

Krishnamacharya studied yoga from the monks living ascetic lives in caves in the Himalayas. When he returned to his home in Mysore, he started working for the royal family many of whom were ill. He taught them yoga and when they experienced the benefits, they decided to start a school and supported spreading the teachings.

“Most of the lineages of yoga today come from Krishnamacharya,” says Luce adding that Krishnamacharya had three disciples; B.K.S. Iyengar of Iyengar yoga, Pattabhi Jois, who developed Ashtanga yoga and Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikachar who developed a lineage called Viniyoga.

There’s not too much there, I’ll grant you. But the story does end on a teasing note; this is probably what the story should be, although I guess it is a better topic for a yoga-focused publication:

Luce says there is a debate raging in the yoga community now between classical thinking and tantric ideas. Most of Western yoga, like Hatha, Kundalini or Ashtang [sic], adheres to the classical approach in which the goal is to transcend the body.

But newer lineages have emerged in the last 20 years such as Anusara, which takes a tantric approach embracing the body as part of the sacred whole.

“It is coming to the surface, the texts are being understood and there is a new take on it now,” says Luce.

Ah, Anusara. When I was at Tim Miller’s Tulum retreat earlier this year, the resort was filled mostly with an Anusara training group. From what I heard, they thought all of us Ashtangis were up-tight and humorless. From my perspective, I thought their slow, precise meditative walking on the beach was a little silly. And their cheering and clapping from the bigger of the two yoga studios was in sharp contrast to the vibe with Timji.  (That’s just me, though, and I admit up front I don’t know much about Anusara.)

All that said, I’d love to see some of these newly translated Tantric books. Richard Freeman’s Mirror of Yoga does a great job of describing Tantra, and it certainly piqued my interest.

Eddie Stern on the goal of spiritual practice

I joked once to Tim Miller that my most flexible muscle is my brain. I’m sure it must have come after he directed another shake of the head toward me and followed it with a “still stiff” in the Indian accent he puts on when he’s about to hurt your feelings, but wants to do so gently.

When you see me at the Confluence, you’ll know what I, and he, mean.

But my joke isn’t entirely facetious. I’m pretty sure my brain is my most flexible muscle; sadly, Ashtanga only is 1% theory, but it is a 1% I try to give at least 4% of my time to as part of my practice.

And it is why I’m as excited by the afternoon talks at the Confluence as I am the morning practice sessions.

Initially, I’ll admit to being most excited about hearing Richard Freeman. I read his latest book, “The Mirror of Yoga,” earlier this year, and I found much in it to absorb and contemplate. (Ala Bobbie’s review of “The Ramayana,” I’ll do something more complete on it at some point.) I have a suspicion I might really take to his perspective on the practice and on yoga in America.

Puja, via Ashtanga Yoga New York

But since the Confluence announcement, I’ve also being paying more attention to Eddie Stern, who may represent the great unknown for me when it comes to the five teachers.

What did I know about him? Well, the usual “rumors”: he’s super strict and super traditional, in that New York way. And before any New Yorkers/East Coasters jump on me, you know you think we’re all laid back and too free with things out here in California. I also know he’s embraced Hindu practices. But, really, that’s about it. (In the past few weeks, I’ve gotten more information from a local source, who I’ll keep anonymous. But it sounds like Eddie is a great teacher, which is no surprise.)

His blog at the Ashtanga Yoga New York site is great, and it is certainly making me more interested in hearing what he has to say about the 1% theory of Ashtanga. His latest, built around a puja for Guruji’s birthday, includes these wonderful words:

The goal of spiritual practice is to awaken inner happiness, happiness that is not caused by the fleeting, changing objects of the world, but is the uncaused happiness of the Self. Purnima refers to the full moon, when the moon is complete and reflects the full light of the sun. In the Hindu tradition the moon is the mind, and the sun is the heart – so when our mind completely reflects the inner happiness of the heart, it is said to be full. The yoga master Krishan Verma spoke this past Friday on this idea, remarking that the Guru is said to be the one to awaken this fullness, hence the special name Guru Purnima – what is fullness, he asked? Happiness. Where does this happiness come from? Devotion to the Guru. The Guru can be a person, but in essence is a principle, called Guru Tattva. The principle of the Guru is the light of knowledge – a light like the sun – which is shining in the heart of each and everyone of us. We can access that principle, and have our own experience of it. But while it is true that the Guru is within us, the need for an outer guide should never be discounted, one who can point us in the right direction – and especially in the cases where this principle shines forth brilliantly, and the vessel has become the embodiment of the principle.

Now, I’ll readily admit to being one of those not-so-rare Westerners who are reluctant to “surrender” to a Guru or, really, any authority figure. My embrace of Hanuman is mostly about tapping into his devotion to another.

And I’ll also admit to having hesitation to what I’ll broadly, and reductively, call “the new age spirituality” of yoga. I don’t mean to turn anyone off by that phrase, and don’t mean it pejoratively; it is more a reflection on me than yoga or Ashtanga or anyone practicing it. It places me in that grand continuum of American males, I think, who have some sort of ingrained skepticism or even hostility to anything “hippy dippy.” On one end is, I don’t know, Rick Santorum, maybe? On the other is probably Ram Dass.

As my practice has deepened, I’ve definitely moved toward Ram Dass. I’m trying to access what Tim Miller has referred to as my “gooey inside.” It’s not an easy task. But it is part of the practice, and it seems like it is an inescapable one after a certain point. There comes that moment when Ashtanga is either going to stay a really good workout or become something more.

That’s something we’ve all experienced, right? It is something I’m still trying to put into words. (One of the goals of this blog.)

I’m looking forward to the Confluence, in large part, to help push me further down that path toward “something more.” And I’m very interested to hear Eddie, and Richard, and find out if anything they say gives me a firm shove.

Guru Purnima

Over the course of the past 24 hours, we’ve entered Guru Purnima, the full moon in June and July. (Some called it yesterday, some today. It is the very definition of the inconstant moon.)

I’ll defer to Eddie Stern on the weighty meaning of the day:

Sri K Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) was born on the full moon day (purnima) of the month of June-July (Ashadha) in 1915. In the Hindu tradition, this day is called Guru Purnima, named so because the sage Vyaas, the compiler of the Vedas and author of the Mahabharata was born on this day. Guru Purnima is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists alike, and is the traditional day for honoring one’s Guru. It also marks the beginning of chaturmas, the four months of the rainy season when sannyasis (wandering ascetics) would halt in one location to give teachings, blessings and advice to the public before commencing their wandering again. For householders, it is a time of engaging in renewal of spiritual practice, practicing austerities (such as increased repetition of mantra), giving charity, and listening to spiritual discourses.

It is very fitting that Pattabhi Jois, who was a staunch believer in adhering to traditional practices and following the teachings of ancient lineage, was born on this auspicious day. Please join us as we celebrate his birth with sacred pujas and chanting. It is not necessary to attend the entire four hours, any time that you can come is great.

At our local shala, Omkar108, Jörgen Christiansson led a Guru Puja for Guruji that was wonderful in its simplicity. The highlight, without doubt, was Jörgen’s playing a version of the invocation call and response by Guruji before the Led class.

I would definitely encourage people to pick that up as a yearly, at least, remembrance of Guruji and his gift of the practice.