Ashtanga Yoga…Lineage versus Nepotism

September 16, 2008

 

Postings on Ashtanga News (ashtanganews.com) as well as many other sites, are discussing the changes recently made to the requirements for teachers to be certified or authorized to teach Ashtanga yoga by the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI). While many views are set forth, none seem to address what I feel is the real issue, the difference between lineage and nepotism. The lineage of Ashtanga yoga has come to us through T.K.V. Krishnamacharya and K. Pattabhi Jois, Through the years, Pattabhi has given many of his students permission to teach Ashtanga yoga and supported their efforts long before any list of authorized or certified teachers existed. Many of those students of Pattabhi have dedicated their life to passing on the Ashtanga yoga lineage to students of their own. In fact many of those early students of Pattabhi Jois who began studying in Mysore in the 1970’s or early 1980’s have students of their own who have been practicing and in some cases teaching Ashtanga yoga as long or longer then Pattabhi’s grandson, R. Sharath Rangaswamy.

Tracing the roots of a yoga lineage from one teacher to another is important. Parampara means an uninterrupted series or succession and describes the tradition of the passage of knowledge from teacher to student through successive generations. Respecting parampara is also one of the requirements to be authorized to teach by the KPJAYI. Nepotism on the other hand, is the showing of favoritism towards relatives, based upon that relationship rather then an objective evaluation of ability. Sharath is certainly one of the teachers passing on the lineage of Ashtanga yoga that he learned from his grandfather, Pattabhi Jois. However, there are many others who are also passing on the lineage of Ashtanga yoga as they learned it from Pattabhi Jois. Trying to institutionalize the tradition of parampara through the KPJAYI is no more then an act of nepotism.

Pattabhi Jois essentially planted many seeds of the lineage of Ashtanga yoga through his teaching. Those who in turn have taught others are also planting seeds of the lineage. It can begin as simply as a friend of family member of a serious Ashtanga student asking to be taught some Ashtanga yoga. The student becomes a teacher for a moment, day, or lifetime depending on the strength of their personal calling to teach. After all, there is a teacher inside some of us and not others. If there is not a teacher inside, a name on a list will not make one exist and conversely, if there is one inside it will shine through with the accumulation of knowledge and not by the granting of a certificate.

I fully support any and all efforts legitimately aimed at insuring quality teachers pass on the lineage. However the list being created by KPJAYI is made up of individuals who spent enough time practicing with members of Pattabhi’s family in Mysore, India, completed the primary series, and demonstrated a sufficient understanding of the Ashtanga system through their personal practice. It does not say they have ever been trained to teach or are good teachers. Obviously, those whose names are on the list want it to represent a significant endorsement of their teaching ability. In reality it is not, for there are no checks made to determine the quality of what is being taught. In fact the only monitored criteria is that you must return to the KPJAYI every eighteen months for at least a two month period. The list is not even complete and already there are names on it that don’t meet the stated criteria in any number of different ways.

In the numerous years that I have practiced Ashtanga yoga, I have had the fortunate experience of practicing with many of the teachers whose name appears on the list of KPJAYI, both certified and authorized. I have also practiced with teachers not on the list maintained by KPJAYI but who were clearly passing on the same lineage of Ashtanga yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois. When I talked to those teachers, they frequently told me that they had predominately learned Ashtanga yoga from a disciple of Pattabhi rather then Pattabhi himself. I have great love, respect, and affection for Pattabhi Jois and his family and feel lucky to have been taught the practice of Ashtanga yoga. However, it saddens me to think that this beautiful and important practice of personal growth and exploration is not above being reduced to arguments over a list of names or acts of nepotism.

The point I am trying to make is that it is not a name on a list or a certificate that makes a teacher good or guarantees the continuation of a lineage. It is a combination of many things, such as: dedication, commitment, understanding, experience, compassion, intelligence, and to a certain extent innate disposition to teaching. Some teachers whose name appear on the KPJAYI list are good teachers of Ashtanga yoga and some are not. Some teachers not on the list are also good Ashtanga teachers and are true to the lineage and some are not. The important thing from a student’s perspective is to find a studio and teachers that truly honor and respect the lineage of Ashtanga yoga. Find ones that based their teachings on the Ashtanga system and not ones that just offers classes called Ashtanga. Ask the teachers how they learned and who they studied with. Then try classes and teachers for there are variances and find one that resonates with your needs, for as the saying goes, when the student is ready, the appropriate teacher will appear.


 

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The Ashtanga Primary Series – Yoga Therapy

September 04, 2008

The first series of the Ashtanga yoga system is known as Yoga Chikitsa, which translates as Yoga Therapy.  At a time when many try to challenge Ashtanga yoga as too hard or not appropriate for their age or body type, it is important to remember the intended use of the practice of the first series.  Taught by skilled instructors, Ashtanga yoga is appropriate for all ages and body types.  In fact I would argue that Ashtanga yoga taught in the Mysore style is the most appropriate yoga for all, because students are taught to practice only what they are capable of safely doing.  It can begin as gentle as needed and progress as the students are ready.  It is not taught to large groups who are lead through a practice together but rather to each student individually in a group setting.  Part of the practice for a student is to learn to let go of their ego that constantly cries for more difficult postures that they may not be ready to safely practice.  A teacher must also control their ego, for it may want to give students more postures so they keep coming to the class.  With egos in check, the practice is safe for all.

The therapy of the Primary Series occurs on many levels.  To be certain, correctly practicing asanas will help build strong and flexible bodies.  Proper use of breath combined with movement also builds heat to cleanse and purify the body.  In addition, most asanas have therapeutic benefits of their own.  There is another type of therapy that is also involved in the practice.  Once we have gained enough strength and flexibility to practice an asana with ease, we begin to practice bringing the breath under control as we do the asana.  This can be much more challenging then practicing the asana alone but is the center of the Ashtanga system.  According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika the method for stabilizing the mind toward the inner self is hatha yoga.  In this case hatha yoga means the process of controlling the prana (breath) through the surya nadi and the chandra nadi.  As we steady our breath, we steady our mind.  As we practice asana with pranayama, we strengthening our body, calm our mind, and grow healthy in many ways. 

We live in a scientific age where we accept only what we can see and prove.  The use of yoga postures is being explored as a form of physical therapy to alleviate back pain, correct kyphotic conditions, injury rehabilitation, etc.  There are registered yoga therapists conducting studies, publishing papers, and giving lectures at conferences around the country.   However, it is worth remembering that yoga is a much larger tradition then the practice of postures.  In fact, the path of yoga first set forth thousands of years age by the sage Patanjali in his classic Yoga Sutras was a way to merge the mind with our unchanging nature of pure consciousness (“Yoga chitta vritti nirodhaha”).  In other words, we practice yoga to gain control of our minds, and the asana is just a tool.  Certainly science is important but when it comes to yoga, we need to apply our own test to its therapeutic benefits.  Take up the practice under the guidance of a skilled teacher.  Put your ego aside and follow the guidance you are given and practice regularly.  If you do this, I am confident that you will fill better and after all, isn’t the ultimate test of therapeutic benefit whether or not it makes you feel better. 

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