Why everyone practicing yoga might not save the world

The world would be a better place if everyone practiced yoga, right?

New Imagealtar

That seems to be a fundamental assumption among yogis — at least yogis in the West. It’s one of those a priori pieces of knowledge. It just is true.

But is it?

In her now widely circulated piece, which I promised we wouldn’t comment on, Kino MacGregor bases her “confession” in part on this unassailable truth, that spreading yoga to the most people possible is absolutely a good thing. It also seems fundamental to projects like Off the Mat, Into the World.

It’s a belief that, I’ll admit — in the spirit of confessions, I guess! — I don’t share. I just haven’t been exactly sure how to define my concern about it.

Then last month, the good folks at Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor posted the following quote attributed to David Swenson on their Facebook page:

“I have understood that meditations, prayers, asanas are just a tool. And this tool can be used to plough the soil and to make it fertile. This is what practice does – it makes the soil fertile. If a person fulfills difficult asanas or prays constantly it does not mean yet that this person is spiritual. It simply means that inside him there is a fertile soil. And what the person plants into this soil will grow. Therefore, the more intensively we practice, the more cautious we should be. If you plant an ego into this fertile soil it will grow up much more than an ego of a usual person. Spirituality is not defined by practice. Spirituality is defined by concentration, intention and actions of a practitioner.”

I’m pretty sure I heard David say something similar during a workshop. It likely was sometime around when he talked about whether getting a particular pose would make one happier or a better person. (The implied answer: No.)

I’ve kept this statement in the back of my mind, letting it root about to see what might grow. And where it has sprouted, for now at least, is as part of my thinking about the spread and transmission of yoga, and Ashtanga, to a wider audience. That spread isn’t necessarily a good thing. Yoga, asana especially, is just a tool. It isn’t good or bad, anymore than a rake or hoe is good or bad. (In this metaphor, is fertilizer bad? Does it depend?) We have any number of examples of exalted teachers who clearly tilled an ego-filled soil with their practice.

At its most harmless, this belief suggests to me a level of naivety. (I’m sure one answer back at me is that I don’t really understand the power of yoga. Maybe not. But that’s why I was struck by David’s quote.) Doing yoga isn’t enough. Certainly an introduction isn’t. There needs to be something more.

And that leads me to what I think is dangerous about this belief: it removes a sense of responsibility from the teacher-student relationship. Rather than a teacher having to take responsibility for a student’s education, progress, injuries and ultimately the product of that training, just providing the training is enough. A person being introduced to yoga becomes the goal.

But that isn’t, really, enough, as David’s quote suggests. (Somehow, this relates to the giving of boons to demons like Ravana, but I can’t quite tie that in a nice bow right now.) It is why a direct teacher-student relationship is best, is perhaps necessary. But, in 2013, we know that isn’t always possible, and it is only getting easier and easier to create broader and larger channels of information. If spreading the gospel of yoga is the goal, that’s great. But if you add in a layer of responsibility, it gets much trickier. Are there yoga poses that shouldn’t be on Youtube? Is there teaching that shouldn’t be online? Is there a neat and easy disclaimer that could be added? (The passing along of mantras, as I understand it, also is facing these questions.)

How yoga should be spread and taught is a debate worth having for those who are in the public realm of yoga — the teachers, in other words. As the 1995 Yoga Journal article about Ashtanga, which I linked to earlier, suggests, it’s a debate that isn’t new. (For those who are just doing their practice, it might matter little beyond its effect on how they will keep getting more training and information.) It may be a debate that is increasingly important when you add in the new forms of communication we have at our fingertips, the new ways there are to teach; there are nuances that swamis and teachers from just a few decades ago would never have encountered.

And it isn’t as though we can or should go back. I’d just argue that as part of this debate it is worth asking whether we should be trying to spread yoga as far and wide as possible, and if so, whether some additional care is needed.

Perhaps it is something that will come up at the Confluence.

Posted by Steve

The lesson a ‘Hated Ashtangi’ taught me today

There’s an Ashtanga story swirling around the Internet that, I’m afraid, we can’t ignore.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Kino MacGregor has put up a piece at elephant journal defending or describing her approach to spreading Ashtanga and yoga to the world. “Confessions of a Love & Hated Ashtangi.” it is called. (That period is included.)

The most specific impetus is something we mentioned a few posts back: Apparently some people in her video about Ashtanga and Mysore didn’t appreciate being included without their knowledge. But according to MacGregor, it goes deeper:

I had no idea that the people that I practice with in Mysore who are friendly with me post-practice hold such strong negative views of my teaching and presence in the world. I have read the negative blogs complaining about my shorts, my Youtube videos, and generally me but I just didn’t think that it was from people I shared practice space with in Mysore.

More generally, the piece allows MacGregor to explain her rationale for spreading the “gospel” of yoga the way she does. Yes, she talks about the clothes she wears. She explains all the videos and her embracing of social media. She makes it clear it all is a very conscious decision.

This is sure to dominate Ashtanga blogs and more than a few studios in the days ahead. What I imagine will be even more exciting will come after her planned arrival in Mysore next week.

We aren’t going to add to that chatter. The main reason is that we don’t know Kino MacGregor. Like any Ashtanga practitioner who doesn’t live in an Internet-less cave, we know of her. (We have always heard more positive than negative, but we have heard the negatives she addresses.) But nothing more. And so we can’t and won’t judge whether we think she’s being honest, whether she is serving the Ashtanga tradition faithfully or if one can be a good yogi and color her hair. (I’m kidding. We don’t think that matters.) We will continue to look forward to her coming to Los Angeles this spring so we can meet and can learn from her. Probably like anyone else, once we have spent a weekend workshop with her, we will reach some kind of basic judgement about her.

That’s natural.

Instead, I want to trace for you where reading MacGregor’s piece led me. Maybe because it seemed like a bit of an antidote. I first ended up at Guruji’s famous (or infamous) letter to Yoga Journal back in 1995. And then to the article to which he was responding.

I found Guruji’s letter here. In part it says:

The title ‘Power Yoga’ itself degrades the depth, purpose and method of the yoga system that I received from my guru, Sri. T. Krishnamacharya. Power is the property of God. It is not something to be collected for one’s ego. Partial yoga methods out of line with their internal purpose can build up the ‘six enemies’ (desire, anger, greed, illusion, infatuation and envy) around the heart. The full ashtanga system practiced with devotion leads to freedom within one’s heart. … The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with ‘power yoga’ or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga shastras (scriptures). It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant body building.

What may be more informative is the Yoga Journal article, sort of a pre-craziness Vanity Fair piece. Although even then there was craziness, as the article makes clear. I found it here. It tells Ashtanga’s history, from David Williams and Norman Allen’s encounter with Manju Jois, to Guruji’s first trip to Encinitas (at which point Tim Miller makes his appearance) and then Williams and Nancy Gilgoff’s bringing Ashtanga to Hawaii.

But you probably know this and are familiar with the article.  (Is it the first history of Ashtanga that “the masses” would have seen? Does anyone know?) Still, it is a good reminder of, I don’t know take your choice, that there’s nothing new under the sun; that everything is impermanent; that this, too, will pass. By which I mean, take a look at this from the article:

And like any family, the Ashtanga community has its disagreements. Off the record, every instructor I spoke with had his or her own list of who wasand was nota bona fide Ashtanga teacher: No two lists were exactly the same. Even the venerable Pattabhi Jois comes in for his share of criticism, from practitioners who feel that his method of firmly pushing students into the desired posture is risky or even violent. In some heretical Ashtanga circles, rumors abound about torn muscles, blown-out knees, and even crushed vertebrae resulting from overly forceful adjustments.

Sound familiar?

The piece then explores the different strands of yoga that were emerging at that time: Bryan Kest’s, Beryl Bender Birch’s, among others. It includes quotes from Richard Freeman and Maty Ezraty.

It’s a little goldmine, in other words, that captures Ashtanga nearly 20 years ago. One I was glad to be forced, or encouraged, to find again. Like with the practice of Ashtanga itself, reading through it this time — with a trip to India under my belt, more time with Tim, a home practice now — I discovered new moments that resonated, new strands of illumination, new ideas to consider.

That doesn’t mean the gossipy side of me wouldn’t love to be a fly on the walls of Mysore in the days ahead.

Posted by Steve

Kino MacGregor and more: Yoga Research for the Blind update

Pam and a young yogi, via baltimorefishbowl.com
Pam and a young yogi, via baltimorefishbowl.com

My friend and fellow Tim Miller teacher trainee, Pam Jeter, has been hard at work on her research on the benefits of yoga for the blind. Pam’s a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. What was an interest (we used to practice together at Diana Christinson’s shala) became a passion for Pam.

Her program has started to grow. She’s sent us along an update.

Says Pam:

The short-term effects of this work will determine the benefits of yoga for falls, stress and anxiety in the aging, blind population. We hope that the long-term effects of this work will be more accessible classes in for blind students and education of teachers in this field.

And last week, she got some good news:

I was in the office on Thursday when I received a call from Kino MacGregor. She called to offer to donate more yoga mats to meet the target enrollment of 24 blind patients for our study. Of course, I was thrilled! The donation is coming in part from Kino and in part from Ashtanga.com. We are so grateful for the donation! After the study, our blind participants get to keep the yoga mats for their continued practice.

Kino MacGregor has already donated mats (covered here), so it’s good to know her support continues. Her program is also getting some press, including this great summary of her program at the Examiner, and this in the Baltimore Fishbowl. Pam explains the benefits of yoga for the visually impaired this way:

The short-term effects of this work will determine the benefits of yoga for falls, stress and anxiety in the aging, blind population. A good sticky, textured mat is especially good for individuals that rely on more tactile sensation than your average normally sighted individual. And the practice of drishti can cultivate the inner focus needed for a blind student to learn where their body is in space, as well as body awareness for better balance and mobility. We hope that the long-term effects of this work will be more accessible classes in for blind students and education of teachers in this field.

If you’d like to help, you can make a tax deductible donation here. Designate “yoga research” in the “Other” field to ensure your donation reaches Pam’s program.

Posted by Bobbie

Let’s bring a little seriousness back to our Ashtanga practice, shall we?

In a week filled with naked yogis (and, can I mention for a second that the Kardashian naked yoga thing didn’t involve the “practitioners” — from my understanding — being naked, just the teacher… actually a new spin on naked yoga), Jason at Leaping Lanka explains why he has returned to Encinitas and Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Yoga Center.

Read it. Then return here for my reaction:

Yes.

That sums it up. And it is good prep for the Confluence: every moment will be worth many.

And a second thing to consider: Kino MacGregor on Ashtanga’s six-day-a-week practice. Here a few random bits of wisdom from a weighty post:

Memorizing the postures allows students to focus internally, which is the real goal of yoga. When you do not know what you will be doing next your attention will always be on your teacher rather than within yourself. Once you memorize the sequence of postures that your teacher determines is right for you the entire practice transfers deeper into the subconscious level.

[snip]

On a purely physical level a six day a week practice is both advantageous and challenging. You will perform the postures more often so will actually see results faster, building strength, stamina and flexibility at a far greater rate than if you were only to practice once or twice a week.

[snip]

It is no secret that if you do practice six days a week you will also be physically sore, but it will be a qualitatively different type of soreness than the once-a-week yoga practitioner. If you practice six days a week you are more likely to feel the pain or purification and learn the mental state needed to stay through the often uncomfortable healing phase. In Sanskrit the word for this type of endurance through challenging situations is “tapas” which literally means heat, but can be understood as the acceptance of pain that leads to purification.

Ah, the acceptance of pain. We all are familiar with that by now, aren’t we? And the beauty of the practice, of course, is that it provides constant reminders. Today, for instance, it was during Prasarita Padottanasana D, when Jörgen Christiansson decided it was a good time to press me down and forward, or perhaps it was forward and down. It was a brief moment of hell, I can attest, followed by a very, very slow rise back up to standing, as I determined if standing was, in fact, an option.

And then I went on with the Led class. Tapas, indeed.

Posted by Steve

Kino’s lesson on Bujapidasana: You stop when you are done

Bobbie earlier made fun of me for making a list, given you can’t swing an LOLcat around the Internet without hitting a bunch of yoga blog lists.

So, I’m going to do another. In fact, two more.

Three months ago, if you had asked me which five yoga teachers I most wanted to practice with, but never had, I would have answered:

5. Bryan Kest

4. Shiva Rea

3. Seane Corn

2. Bikram (Gotta get some use out of my bikinis, right?)

1. Richard Freeman

Today, the list looks more like this:

5. Bryan Kest

4. Seane Corn

3. Eddie Stern

2. Kino MacGregor

1. Richard Freeman

Subtle difference, I know, but an important one. This blog has me paying much more attention to the various Western Ashtangi teachers, and two really have entered my consciousness. Probably pretty clear from the second list: Eddie and Kino (I’m going to default to their first names).

Eddie we’ve talked about, and had others talk about him. And I highlighted Kino twice, once in relation to Freeman.

But reading her writing (not to mention seeing her practice via video), it’s clear that Kino deserves some more attention. She’s not only got game, she’s got the coaching staff with which to back the game up.

I’d certainly heard of Kino before a few months ago, but as I dove deeper into tracking (for you!) Ashtanga happenings, one of my first re-introductions to her was some stupid debate online that boiled down to: She’s pretty and she wears little shorts and tops. (I mentioned it before.) Fact of the matter is, she knows her yoga, in the widest sense of that word.

Which brings us to today’s humbling lesson from our Miami pal: Bujapidasana.

I wish I could find a succinct quotation to impart, but her whole piece is full of wisdom of the bodily, spiritual and inspirational kind. (And remember, I’m not much for… well, any of those!) What I react to is how her writing seems to press just up against a “new agey” sensibility that wouldn’t speak to me so well, but doesn’t go past it. To whit:

There are excruciating moments where the only thought in your mind is how tired you are. There are emotional moments when you doubt your strength and resolve. By touching these difficult places you also touch your limitations. When you brush again the limits of your known consciousness you also get very close to your spirit. As you push your boundaries a little bit of spirit seeps in and give you strength where you would not otherwise have.

Now, maybe it’s because I’m all too familiar with the “excruciating moments” of yoga, but those five sentences don’t push me away with an over-emphasis on something I can’t touch or feel. (I find Tim Miller to inhabit this same space, thus the connection I have with him, I suspect.) Instead, I stop for a second and think: “Is that what I experience in that pose? Hmmm.. maybe.”

And, if you’re reading an Ashtanga blog you know, once “it” has you saying, “Maybe,” it has you saying, “Yes, please sit on me in Supta Kurmasana!”

As I said, there’s an absolute tone more great stuff at the link above. Here’s one of my favorites:

The lesson of Bujapidasana is that you cannot stop when you are tired, when you doubt, when you feel like quitting or when you want it to be over. You stop when you are done. Practically speaking what that means is that you are not “done” with the posture until you jump back to Chaturanga Dandasana.

There are many more. I will have a whole new attitude toward the pose when I next practice it, which probably would be Sunday — I think I have to do a short home practice tomorrow, but I might sneak it in thanks to the inspiration.

Oh, and for those too lazy to click on the above link, here’s Kino’s demonstration of Bujapidasana. Watch it, and weep:

I’d say, by comparison, I’m a little steadier — more Sthira — than that. But she’ll get it, eventually.

Posted by Steve

Kino on Freeman and that mula bandha thing

Kino MacGregor posted a delightful tale on Monday about an interaction with Richard Freeman. It can be found here, and you should partake of the whole thing.

The post is probably more informative about MacGregor than Freeman; there’s an appealing self-deprecation about it that, I think, boils down to her still considering herself a student, although a bunch of us would consider her a very experienced teacher.

She covers something I’ve heard before attributed to Freeman when it comes to mula bandha:

Mula bandha according to Richard is not a mechanical thing but more like a devotional experience. He suggested doing a bhakti puja to Ganapti in the pelvis to get mula bandha and to invite the god into the temple at the base of the pelvic floor.

If I’m not mistaken, Freeman takes that directly from Guruji from way back early in the West’s first interactions with him.

There’s much more there, but as MacGregor says she’s worried she may be committing an “Ashtanga crime,” I won’t pass it on. That way you can’t even say I was driving the getaway car.

I will say that it does involve on our the more famous definitions of yoga among Ashtangis (think vrittis) and mula bandha, if you can believe that.

Posted by Steve

Kino MacGregor, two legs and the back of your head

Bobbie showed the following video to me.

I’m not sure if it was supposed to be encouraging or not.

It’s of Kino MacGregor, explaining how to get both your legs behind your head in Dwi Pada Sirsanana.

Obviously, there is zero I can add by way of instruction. It’s pretty amazing how easily she does it — and while talking.

If you search on the Internet for Kino, it doesn’t take long to find discussions about her — mainly centering on how attractive she is and the clothing she chooses to wear while demonstrating. It all seems entirely silly to me, but I will give it one reaction: Wearing less makes it easier to show what you are trying to demonstrate. Tim Miller — with whom I have the most experience in training and demonstrations — invariably takes his shirt off when demonstrating a pose or requests the person demonstrating to do so (if he’s a he, obviously).

In this video, if Kino was wearing a loose-fitting pair of pants, it would be hard to see the external rotation of the hip joints, for instance.

That’s all I’m saying.

Posted by Steve