Articles Tagged with: Mysore
Ashtanga Yoga’s Bad Rep

I see it as part of my role as a teacher of ashtanga yoga to change the reputation it has gained of being ‘the hard yoga’.

We get so many students that arrive into the shala (who have done lots of yoga before) who say they are a bit nervous about trying out Mysore-style ashtanga yoga. A lot of the time they have done ashtanga yoga before but only led classes. That’s when I know that I am going to have to work hard to change their opinion of the practice.

Starting with led classes is the absolute hardest possible way to start with ashtanga yoga. A new student goes along to the class and goes through all, or at least half, of the primary series on the first day! It would be like joining a boxing club and being expected to fight for 12 rounds on day one. The main impression new students will get from that is that ashtanga yoga is really hard.

Then, when they first hear about Mysore-style (or ‘self-practice’), they think “Ok, that’s already hard, and now I have to memorise the sequence too!?” You can see why that would be a little intimidating for a new student.

I want to put this on the record once and for all…

Ashtanga yoga was NEVER intended to be taught that way.

It takes most people years to learn the whole of the primary series. And many never even get all the way to the end of that. That’s absolutely fine.

The idea of the traditional Mysore-style method is that each student can start (and continue) at their own pace with the practice. The postures are taught one by one, at a sensible pace, so that the student can build up strength, flexibility, stamina and concentration over a long period of time. In that way, not only is it so much easier for a student to build up towards doing the primary series but it actually feels good along the way, and it’s a lot safer for the body.

Almost all of us have the desire to learn more and more postures but it doesn’t take very long in this practice to get out of our depth. Sometimes it’s fun to try a few of the later postures, beyond what we have learned. If, though, we were to suddenly decide that we were gong to do that every day we would end up sore, injured and worn out pretty quickly.

Ashtanga yoga, learnt and practised in the way it was intended, is a beautiful practice that can give us so many incredible benefits.

It saddens me to see that people are intimidated by the practice because of the way it has been taught to them in the past.

How many more students would come to ashtanga yoga and gain its benefits if they didn’t have misconceptions about what it really is?

Spread the word!


Fanning the spark

I’m a regular listener  to the Rich Roll podcast. It’s a very popular podcast and I’m sure some of you will have heard of it. For those of you who haven’t, Rich Roll is an endurance triathlete who has a background in competing at ultra-ironman distance triathlons. “Ultraman” is a three-day race consisting of (day 1): a 10km swim followed by a 145km bike ride, (day 2): a 276km bike ride, and (day 3): an 84km double marathon! And I thought primary series was hard…

I think his podcast is great; long-form interviews with some of the world’s most interesting and inspirational figures in sport, health, diet, politics, business and more.

I was listening to a panel discussion the other day between Rich Roll and Marco Borges in which they were talking about veganism (Rich Roll also happens to be a vegan and an advocate for following a plant-based diet). It’s a point that I have heard Rich make on a good few occasions on the podcast and I wanted to share it with you and how it relates to ashtanga yoga.

The point is that, within the vegan movement, there are many people who take a very hard line on what other people should and shouldn’t be doing. For example if a celebrity says they are going to follow a vegan diet for 30 days they get abuse online for only doing it for 30 days. If someone starts to follow a plant-based diet but doesn’t immediately throw out all of their leather shoes they get called a disgrace. The list goes on.

The point the two speakers were making is that, rather than pointing fingers and judging each other, what the vegan movement needs to do in order to grow is to ‘fan the spark’ of anyone who comes to it with any sort of interest.

I feel like this is very closely related to ashtanga yoga. I have seen so many teachers and students of this method judging other people based on the various criteria of what they personally consider to be ‘correct method’ (how often they practice, how they practise, even how far along in the series they are… seriously!).

I would like to propose to the wider ashtanga yoga teaching community that we need to make more effort to ‘fan the spark’ of practitioners who are coming to ashtanga yoga and Mysore-style regardless of their background, who their last teacher was, what they practised before (anti-Bikram snobs I’m looking at you), and even their level of apparent commitment.

Not everyone is going to walk into a Mysore-style class, love it, and then commit to practising every day for the rest of their lives. We need to meet people where they are at and not judge them for trying and failing to establish their practice in a way that we deem valuable. The beauty of ashtanga yoga is that it is a useful tool for many of the afflictions that humans are susceptible to. It is useful to practise regularly and it is less useful to practise sporadically but, even sporadic practice, if done in the right way, has huge benefits on many levels.

If we fan the spark, rather than pouring cold water on it, the potential for practitioners to develop a practice over a number of years is hugely increased. Then we might see the practice spreading even wider and, who knows, even becoming a mainstream thing. If that happens we all know that the world will be a happier, healthier place.


The value of learning a practice

A couple of times over the past few weeks I had the new experience of being confronted by first-time students over the value of Mysore-style method of practising. Both of these new students had already done a lot of ashtanga yoga classes before (I didn’t ask where) but they had never done a Mysore-style class.

So, as I almost always do, I spent a lot of time carefully explaining exactly what our approach is and then I proceeded to teach the sun salutations and the beginning of the primary series (any of you out there who teach Mysore-style will know that you have to give a lot of attention to new students, both so that they learn the practice correctly and also so that you can get to know them and their bodies). It is always our intention to send new students away with something that they can practice at home, even if it’s just Surya Namaskara A. Most students appreciate this, and see the value in learning the practice for themselves.

But occasionally you can see that this way of teaching doesn’t sit well with certain students. In my experience it’s usually the ones who have already attended a lot of led classes and are new to Mysore-style who end up having problems with it.

Here is the main problem: When you go regularly to a led ashtanga class for a long time you end up getting through quite a lot, or even all, of the primary series. But, unless you’re exceptionally switched-on and have a really good memory, you don’t actually memorise any of the sequences of poses (let alone the correct vinyasa for each one). Then, when you come to a Mysore-style class we get you to memorise the beginning of the series (we could, of course, bring you through the entire primary series but that’s not really the idea behind Mysore-style) and you are limited in how far you get by how good your memory is, not by how much stamina you have or by how flexible or strong you are. This can be frustrating.

The experience in your first few Mysore-style classes can be “I can do waaaay more than what I’m being taught here”, and  “I thought yoga was supposed to be about switching off my mind; they’re making me really think a lot here”. Then, after the class, these two particular students who I mentioned at the beginning both said that they didn’t feel that great feeling that they usually get after doing their ‘regular’ class. Well, of course not, they only practised the sun salutations and the first few poses of the series.

It’s a tricky thing sometimes, trying to sell people on the benefits of this way of practising when they don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way they were doing it before. But here are my thoughts on why you need to persevere and get over that initial resistance:

Please don’t get me wrong here, there are some great teachers out there who, for one reason or another, are only teaching led ashtanga classes but the majority of ashtanga led classes are, in my opinion ‘exercise’ classes as opposed to ‘yoga’ classes. The ashtanga yoga primary series is a fantastic exercise routine and so there is, of course, huge benefit to practising it in any setting. However, if we are ever to go deeper with the practice so that it affects not only our bodies but our minds, emotions, and way of life we are eventually going to need to go much deeper than is possible in the typical led class. When we learn the series ourselves and remove the external stimulus of having to be talked through the whole series, we are narrowing our focus considerably. Then ekāgratā (single-pointed focus) has more potential to arise.

Once you learn the ashtanga yoga method for yourself it is yours forever. It is a practice which you can do for decades, slowly refining and going deeper into its many aspects. And you’ll still get all the physical benefits that you were getting before in the led classes.

If you practice for a long time, without interruption the potential is there for you to experience quiet and stillness on a profound level and even to get a glimpse of your real self, the self that is untouched by modern existence. This is spelled out for us very clearly by Patanjali in the first 16 verses of the first chapter of the yoga sutras.

  • 1:2 Yoga is the stilling of the mind.
  • 1:3 When the mind is still the seer sees his/her true self.
  • 1:4 At all other times the seer identifies themselves with their thoughts.
  • 1:14 The mind can be stilled through practice and detachment.
  • 1:16 Practice is firmly established when done for a long time without interruption and with a positive attitude.

I’m not saying that none of this is possible in a led class but I am saying it is much more possible to experience what Patanjali is describing when we take ownership of and responsibility for our own practice.

Some people, of course, will disagree.

If you are thinking of transitioning from led classes to Mysore-style remember:

  • The object of yoga practice is to quiet the mind. At the very beginning of your experience with Mysore-style you will find that your mind is busier than it was in the led classes, because you are having to think and remember all the vinyasas. After a short while of practising in this way you will find, however, that it is possible to go much deeper into the experience of stillness as there are much less external stimuli.
  • You will generally do less than what your body is able for in the first few classes. This is so that you can remember everything that you need to. We could teach you the whole series but, if we did that, you wouldn’t remember any of it. Be patient.
  • You might not feel that post-yoga-glow that you experienced in the led classes right away. After only a few classes you’ll be back up to the same number of poses that you did before but, this time, you’ll know it yourself and will be able to recreate that feeling anytime and anywhere by practising alone wherever you are.
  • Yoga is a personal practice. It becomes personal when you take ownership of it.

 


What does being ‘good at yoga’ even mean?

The winner of the prize for “most meaningless phrase used by yoga students” is:

“Good At Yoga”

I have heard people use this phrase so many times over the years. It’s always in reference to someone who finds the yoga asanas easy to do. In other words the person who uses the phrase “good at yoga” believes that it is important to be strong, flexible and (usually) lean. They see yoga as being equivalent to football, gymnastics or playing a musical instrument, and in order to be proficient in yoga one has to display talent and ability in achieving the asanas.

To be clear, I do believe that it’s important to cultivate flexibility, strength and to live a healthy lifestyle (that usually results in a lean body) but (as I have realised through my own yoga practice and through having a few hundred yoga students walk in our door over the last few years) many of us will never find the asanas to be easy.

The level of ease that we experience in the ashtanga yoga practice is dependant on many factors. Genetics, age, previous injuries and illnesses, and diet are all very big factors in determining whether we’ll find the asanas easy or difficult (or even impossible).

I’ll try to illustrate what I’m trying to get at by way of two hypothetical examples:

Patrick is a 63 year old man who has a history of lower back pain. He ate a diet of rich and refined foods for many years, causing him to gain a lot of excess weight, and he has had reconstructive surgery on both knees after a car accident. He has been practising ashtanga yoga for 2 years and has found that it has given him a new lease of life; greater energy, more mobility, better concentration, and a general feeling of being a bit more in control of his life.

Because of his physical limitations, age, and previous history Patrick is very limited in which asanas he can currently do. Some days, if he feels his energy is low, he does even less than he has been taught, but he does practise every day.

When Patrick is practising yoga he is very conscious of focusing on his breath, he maintains uddiyana and mula bandha as much as possible and his drishti never wavers. If you see him practising you can tell immediately that he is a very focused practitioner. 

Jenny is a 32 year old woman who has a background in dance. She has also been practising for two years. She was able to do all of the poses of the primary series within about two weeks of starting and now practises about half of the intermediate series too. She can drop back into a backbend and catch her ankles easily. She is flexible, strong and lean.

When Jenny is practising it is hard to tell whether or not she is breathing. She often looks around the room to see what the other students are doing and whenever someone walks into the shala she looks up to see who it is.

Which of these students is “good at yoga”?

In the context of the (quite obvious) thrust of this blog post it is easy to recognise that Patrick is really practising yoga in a more productive way, despite being dealt a set of cards which restrict him in lots of ways. However, if most of us were to witness these two practitioners side-by-side doing their practice then we might suggest that Jenny is “better at yoga”.

I have heard so many people over the years suggest that they would like to start to do yoga but they’re just so inflexible that they’d be “awful at it”. “I can’t even touch my toes”, they say, as if that fact alone somehow instantly disqualifies them from beginning a yoga practice. This would be the equivalent of saying “I can’t take piano lessons because I really can’t play the piano at all”. It’s nonsensical.

Yoga practice is purely a means to gaining health, calming the mental chatter of the mind, and ultimately (if we’re really on the right track) gaining some knowledge of ourselves. The asanas, breath, bandhas and drishti are tools to achieve that.

Let us please retire the phrase “good at yoga”.

“Yoga is a spiritual practice. The rest is just a circus”-Pattabhi Jois