For the past few months, I’ve been teaching an Ashtanga Primary Series class once a week at Bloomington Power Yoga. Overall, I’d say it’s gone well, although I’ve had to modify the sequence quite a bit to accommodate the experience levels of the students coming to my class. This has resulted in a slower paced class that omits about 8-12 poses (mostly seated postures and a few of the finishing poses). From what I understand, this type of modification is quite typical in an hour and a half Ashtanga class, and it is all the more necessary when dealing with a lot of students who are relatively or completely new to yoga. Of course, the downside of modifying an Ashtanga class too much is that when you get a serious Ashtangi in your class, he/she is probably not going to be happy. This is exactly what happened yesterday, and I was especially surprised at how forward this student was in telling me all the things I did wrong in teaching my Ashtanga class.
Even though this student had never taken my class before and was in fact just visiting town, she felt bold enough to tell me after class about all the various things I did wrong. When I tried to explain why I did certain things the way I did, she was quick to respond that she learned how to do things the right way from master teachers like David Swenson and Richard Freeman, who have all studied directly with Pattabhi Jois, the creator and recognized authority of modern Ashtanga yoga.
Here’s an example of something I allegedly did incorrectly. In Uttkatasana, Chair Pose, I apparently held the class there for more than 5 breaths. This student claimed that I held them in the posture for closer to 10 breaths, and, of course, this is blasphemy in a “true” Ashtanga class when you must hold each pose for exactly 5 breaths, no more and no less. (What I find odd about this student’s claim is that not everyone breathes at the same pace, so 5 breaths for one person might take the same amount of time as 8-10 breaths for someone else. And this difference may become even more pronounced in difficult poses like Uttkatasana, where the breath is more likely to quicken. What’s also odd to me is that this student, who was so eager to show that she knew the sequence by constantly going into the poses ahead of my instructions, probably did hold Uttkatasana for more than 5 breaths, but only because she went into the pose before I told her to.)
This student had quite a number of other complaints about my class. Along the way, she managed to name-drop one famous yogi or another with respect to each point in order to emphasize that (a) I was wrong, and (b) she was definitely right because she trained with so-and so celebrity yogi. Needless to say, I was a bit offended and upset by these comments, not to mention flabbergasted by how unreceptive this student was to things being done differently from what she was used to or how she was taught.
For a long time, I’ve been expecting to run into this type of know-it-all person in my Ashtanga class. It’s amazing, in some ways, that I haven’t already. Although most Ashtangis are very nice folks who are open-minded and non-judgmental about different practices and different ways of approaching Ashtanga, there are also some super rigid Ashtangis out there who are incredibly cultish and obsessed with order and “tradition.” Tradition amounts to always doing things according to the precise dictates of Pattabhi Jois (the Pope) or a select group of yoga masters (the archbishops) who have been appropriately christened by Pattabhi Jois. Even the slightest deviation from “What Pattabhi Jois Said” is grounds for chastisement. When I hear this sort of talk, I can’t help but think of parallels in Christianity, Islam, or other traditions where blind obedience to authority sometimes takes the place of reasoned debate and open discussion. It makes me sad to see this kind of mentality in the context of yoga, but perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, even though all religious/spiritual traditions are constantly evolving, and even though all religious/spiritual traditions are highly varied and complex, there is always the potential for oversimplification and fundamentalism.
What really gets me about all this rigidity and formalism in Ashtanga is that it is frequently just about the physical aspects of the practice, as if doing asanas by the book is somehow a valuable end in itself. (E.g., What does it matter if you grab the big toe in Triangle Pose, as opposed to just placing your hand in the floor? Is the toe grabber really in a better position for attaining enlightenment, and is the person with his hand on the floor setting himself up for a life of suffering and ignorance? I doubt it, but you’d think that this were the case based on the nasty looks you get from some Ashtangis if you don’t grab your toe.)
The same rigid and stubborn mentality can often be directed towards other aspects of yoga, like breath and drishti. This rigidity and stubbornness tends to focus entirely on superficial details, like how many breaths you should hold in each pose, or where the gaze should be because “Pattabhi Jois said so.” But asana, pranayama, and drishti are just aids to the true practice of yoga, which is mental or spiritual. When we forget this, we start to think that breathing in a certain way or focusing our gaze on the tip of our nose are somehow the purpose of doing yoga. But if reaching samadhi were as simple as contorting your body in the right position, taking the right number of breaths in each pose, and making your eyeballs go this way or that way on cue, then every person who walked into a yoga studio could be a master yogi in a matter of a few weeks or months. As far as I can tell, though, it’s not that easy.
All this rigidity and stubbornness, it seems to me, is really the manifestation of an extreme and unhealthy form of attachment. But yoga is supposed to be about non-attachment, and we cannot cultivate this non-attachment if we become obsessively and unbendingly attached to the very tools that are supposed to help us cultivate non-attachment. Nor can we cultivate non-attachment if we worship certain celebrity yogis and linger on every word that comes out of their mouths. This is not to say that we shouldn’t learn from others, and this is not to say that there’s no value in committing oneself to a specific style or school of yoga. The point, rather, is that it really doesn’t matter what you do—what matters is how you do it, i.e., how you relate to whatever it is that you do. If you practice yoga with attachment, pride, and stubbornness, it doesn’t matter how good you are at the poses, you still have a long way to go. Conversely, just because you are physically disabled, blind, and/or unable to breathe through your nose, it surely doesn’t follow that you can’t reach samadhi. It just means that you’ll be pretty bad at the Ashtanga Primary Series, which won’t necessarily prevent you from being an accomplished yogi, despite what some Ashtangis might say.
It’s sometimes nice to remember that asana is not ultimately all that important for a genuine yoga practice—if you actually read Pantajali’s Yoga Sutra, there’s no significant mention of asana in the text. Why, then, all this craziness about the physical aspects of Ashtanga? I suspect that the same psychological reasons behind other forms of religious fundamentalism also apply in the case of Ashtanga Yoga (a desire to belong, a desire to feel exclusive, a desire for simple and comforting beliefs, fear of uncertainty and change and difference, etc.). Of course, this all applies equally to Iyengar, Bikram, Kundalini, and other forms of yoga. That is, in any style of yoga, you can find rigid fundamentalists who swear that their form of yoga is superior to others, and that their way of doing their particular style of yoga is the right—i.e., “traditional”—way to do it. Instead of arguing with these types of people, it’s probably best to let them have their say, smile, and then go your own way. That’s what I had to do yesterday, and I will almost certainly have occasion to do so again in the future. Learning how not to argue with someone who is criticizing you is perhaps one of the most difficult tests a person can face. It’s sometimes nearly impossible not to respond with defensive and even angry comments. But, if I’ve learned anything at all from yoga, it’s that it’s almost always better to just breathe and let it go.