Yoga Journal calls it: Pattabhi Jois among ‘master influencers’

When we posted the interview last week in Yoga Journal with Maty Ezraty, we didn’t mention it was part of the magazine’s 40th anniversary.

And that one’s official. Yoga may be 5,000 years or old 500 or 100, but we know for sure that YJ is 40.

As part of its celebration of its hitting the big 4-0, it has posted a list of 14 pioneers of “Western Yoga,” people without whom our practice today “wouldn’t exist.” And Pattabhi Jois, no surprise, is among them:

Krishna Pattabhi Jois

(1915–2009)

Also a student of Sri T. Krishnamacharya, Jois visited the United States in 1975 and set off a wildfire of Ashtanga Yoga. After he was featured in 1967’s Yoga Self-Taught, Westerners flocked to his Ashtanga Yoga Institute in India.

Also on the list: Iyengar, Swami Visnhudevananda (guru to Robert Moses at Namarupa) and Thoreau.

Posted by Steve

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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

A few controversies that (mostly) don’t have anything to do with Ashtanga

Given we’ve followed the Bikram lawsuit story — because of the question around copyrighting of a yoga sequence — it seems only fair to note that ABC’s Nightline program ran a piece on the issue and another lawsuit against the guru behind the hottest yoga craze.

Can’t get the video to embed, but here’s a link. A highlight, I think, is video from a deposition by Bikram that comes fairly late in the piece. And here’s a link to the online story. A few excerpts:

To his hard-bodied disciples, Bikram Choudhury is a yoga rock star.

Bikram, who, like Madonna, tends to go by one name only, developed the original “hot yoga,” a rigorous sequence of 26 poses performed over the course of 90 minutes in a room heated to a stifling 105 degrees.

[snip]

Bikram insists his form of yoga doesn’t just improve the body and invigorate people’s sex lives but that it also saves lives.

“I can make you live 100 years,” he said. “Say you have a bad knee, you want to fix your knee, come to my class… Do the same 26 postures with a woman who has a uterus problem. Same 26 poses, the uterus will be taken care of. Your knee will be taken care of.

“I’ve cured patients who have absolutely no hope, 98 percent of heart was clogged, they don’t even want surgery,” Bikram continued. “Send him to me and eight months later I send him back, brand new heart like a panther heart.”

The piece really picks up when it focuses on a different lawsuit from the one involving Yoga to the People and Bikram’s trademarking (it involves the deposition I mentioned above). Here are some of those details:

In 2010, Pandhora Williams spent about $11,000 to attend Bikram’s intensive teacher training course in San Diego. She claims she was offended by portions of what she said Bikram said in his “dialogue,” the banter that helps distract students through 90 minutes of body-bending poses. She claims that during class, Bikram made derogatory comments about women and homosexuals, saying, “Women are bitches and whores. They’re here for one thing, and that’s to make babies.”

After completing seven weeks of the nine-week course, Pandhora said she confronted Bikram.

“I walked up to him, and I said ‘Bikram, You’re breaking my heart.’ That’s what I said to him. ‘Why are you preaching hate when there’s already so much hatred in the world?'” said Williams, who claimed his response to her was, “‘We don’t sell love here, you f**king black bitch. Get out.'”

Bikram declined “Nightline” requests to talk about the case, but ABC News obtained video and transcripts of his deposition in which Bikram denied making hateful comments and claimed Williams approached him in a way that made him feel threatened for his health and safety.

“I’m the most successful man in the world,” he said. “It will keep going like this way as long as I live. If some sick crazy person think what I am it’s their problem. It’s not my problem. I’ll still continue keep doing it.”

Williams is now suing Bikram for unspecified damages. The case is scheduled to go to trial in March.

Another controversy happening now kind of, sort of, involves two of the Confluence teachers. It wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve already heard about it, but here it is on “our record”: This weekend’s Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco, where Richard Freeman and David Swenson are teaching (and MC Yogi is doing his thing), is under fire for taking place in a hotel where workers are picketing. Here is a bit from the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

[J]ury’s out in this particular case: this weekend, the Yoga Journal Conference will cross a hotel workers’ union picket line for the third year in a row at the Hyatt Regency.

“Yoga Journal has ignored years of outreach from hotel workers and their union and chooses to hide behind logistical concerns in a matter of right and wrong,” says Julia Wong of UNITE HERE Local 2, whose union called for a worldwide boycott last year in light of unfair treatment of its workers. Supporters of the boycott include the NFL Players Association.

So what’s up with the yogis? “For years I’ve looked into moving the conference,” says conference director Elana Maggal. But, she told the Guardian in an email, the only other hotel that’s large enough to accomodate [sic] the 2,000 flexibles forecasted to attend the event — the Marriott — was unable at the times Yoga Journal needed. “So [the choices were] either not have an SF conference or hold it at the Hyatt,” says Maggal. “We’ve chosen the latter, fully aware that it is not a perfect choice, but hopeful that both sides will finalize the remaining issues quickly and fairly.”

I’ve seen some Facebook chatter about whether the conference should be held there and Yoga Dork has a discussion going. (While grabbing that link, I see she’s also got up the Bikram stuff. Great minds think alike?) My guess is this story, which seems on the surface to be fairly cut and dry, might be a bit more convoluted; perhaps not. That Yoga Journal is the entity behind it probably encourages people who have opinions for or against that publication to speak up more loudly than they might otherwise.

I don’t know what the workers’ issues are or whether not having a big yoga conference there would help their plight. But these are the stories of the day in our shared Maya existence.

Posted by Steve

Yoga Journal finds bazilions are doing yoga in America, and they’re mostly women

This just in:

Millions and millions of Americans are doing yoga. Oh, and they are mostly women.

You didn’t know that, did you? Well, thankfully Yoga Journal has updated its last — circa 2008 — survey of “Yoga in America” and discovered that 29% more people are doing yoga in 2012 than four years ago.

That’s right, there are now 20.4 million Americans practicing yoga, up from 15.8 million in 2008. (Do you suppose Yoga Journal times this survey on purpose with presidential elections, when we all need a little extra calming?)

The other big — and, in my mind, almost meaningless — number from this new survey: 44.4% of non-practitioners are interested in trying yoga. I’d love to know what the questions were to draw out that info.

Here’s more from Yoga Journal’s press release:

Gender:
•82.2 percent are women; 17.8 percent are men.

Age:
•The majority of today’s yoga practitioners (62.8 percent) fall within the age range of 18-44.

Length of practice:
•38.4 percent have practiced yoga for one year or less; 28.9 percent have practiced for one to three years; 32.7 percent have practiced for three years or longer.

Level of practice:
•44.8 percent consider themselves beginners (22.9 percent are new to yoga; 21.9 percent are beginning to practice yoga after taking some time off); 39.6 percent consider themselves intermediate; 15.6 percent consider themselves expert/advanced.

Motivation for practice:
•The top five reasons for starting yoga were: flexibility (78.3 percent), general conditioning (62.2 percent), stress relief (59.6 percent), improve overall health (58.5 percent) and physical fitness (55.1 percent)

My favorite part of the press release is this: “The growth in the yoga market is reflected in the growth of Yoga Journal magazine, which recently announced a rate-base increase to 375,000 from 350,000 effective January 2013.” Gotta get that bottom-line stuff in there. (Given that the overall numbers are up 29%, I have to point out that Yoga Journal isn’t keeping up. It’s growing at about one-third of that rate.)

The total number of people — it’s actually adults — doing yoga is about 8.7% of Americans. I wonder what the break down is by geographic area. I wonder where the highest and lowest percentages are.

Hmmm… maybe adding in ganga yoga would bump the numbers even more in Colorado and Washington?

Posted by Steve

The wireless Ashtangi — Nancy Gilgoff

Nancy Gilgoff teaching, from her Picasa site.

Unlike the other quartet of teacher/students at the Confluence, Nancy Gilgoff doesn’t seem to have a regular blog or anything of the like.

A wireless yogini, indeed, in this day of constant Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and, yes, blogs like this.

I’ll admit I know less about her than I do the other four — perhaps as a result of her not being quite so present online. Yes, her site exists, but the “about” page is pretty short. Perhaps on purpose?

That leads, then, to other searches. I know, from a one-day session with David Williams, that he introduced her to Guruji and that she had a serious of ailments. But I was shocked to find out what they were.

This old Yoga Journal piece lays it out in pretty stark detail. (Note to Yoga Journal: It might be good to date these articles; I have zero idea when it is from.)

Here are some key moments:

The earliest of Gilgoff’s injuries began when she was a child. She loved horseback riding, but it put such a constant pounding on her lower spine that she was left with chronic back problems. “By the time I was a teenager,” she says, “it had manifested in my neck, where a vertebra was jammed forward.” Along with this, childhood dental work had been performed with her mouth left open so uncomfortably, she would literally scream in pain, a torture she believes compounded the neck injury. Later, as a junior in college, she began getting severe migraines she believes were triggered by the then-new birth control pills. This experience left her with jaw pain so intense, she couldn’t open her mouth for days at a time.

[snip]

Her pain was so acute, doctors suggested surgery to deaden places in her brain, in effect to numb the pain. But Gilgoff had other ideas. She had watched a close friend go through hospital treatments for cancer, and the idea of surgery appalled her. “I knew I didn’t want to end up in that situation,” she says, “so I started looking around, taking the first steps to another way of being.”

When Gilgoff left college at age 24, she’d already become a vegetarian, and it wasn’t long after she took up yoga under Williams’ tutelage that the couple traveled to India, where they ended up at Jois’s Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore. The challenge of Ashtanga would change her life.

I’ll be very intrigued to see how that beginning manifests itself in her teaching and what she has to say about the practice; and it makes me a bit disappointed that I didn’t sign up for her Led class.

Her story also reminds me of something else, something that seems strangely common to Ashtangis: A lot of them have had some injury at some point, whether before finding the practice or some time during it. Shoulder and knee injuries are common; I’ve heard stories about recovering from car accidents; there are those who were athletes who got hurt and then found Ashtanga.

Is it, I wonder, because at its heart it really is a healing practice — or is there something about it that attracts folks whose dharma passes through injury?