Does Ashtanga Yoga work? "Of course it does!" Say its adherents and teachers. But what does it mean - to work?
In his introduction to the section on Ashtanga Yoga in the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali states:
yogāṅgānuṣṭhānād aśuddhikśaye jñānadīptir āvivekakhyāteḥ -YS II 28
This was one of the sutras that Pattabhi Jois quoted most often. It means:
"The practice of ashtanga yoga diminishes the impurities (in the mind and body) and cultivates the light of knowledge up to the point of (ultimate) discriminating knowledge."
Discriminating knowledge - viveka khyāteḥ - means the ability to see the difference between the true Self and the mind that is experienced in the state of samadhi.
The question is, does Ashtanga Yoga as taught by KPJ actually do this?
When I started making the interviews with senior teachers as a relatively immature practitioner, this was one of the questions that most intrigued me. Does the practice as taught by KPJ actually lead to samadhi and Self realization?
Only one interviewee was even remotely comfortable with talking about samadhi - you will not have to guess too hard who that was. Maybe it was because of my immaturity, maybe I did not know how to ask the right question or maybe I could not recognize the answers, but my conclusion at the time and since is that the answer is no!
To be fair, I should go back and do the interviews again - it has been 20 years since I made the first interviews - that is a significant period of time to deepen practice.
There is obviously an intended connection between what Pattabhi Jois taught and the Ashtanga Yoga as described in the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. In fact, KPJ often stated that what he was teaching was the "original" Patanjali Yoga.
So how did we become so confused or misguided about the purpose and effect of KPJ's method? I believe it is because KPJ emphasized the practice of asanas so strongly and failed to elaborate the other limbs of yoga in much depth.
He encouraged us to focus on discipline, strength and intense practice that should be continued, it seemed, indefinitely. Today, success in yoga is equated with "advanced" asana practice. Unfortunately this is KPJ's legacy.
"The term 'yogabhasya' is current in the sense of performing some asanas or physical postures and breath exercises called pranayama and even acrobats demonstrating wonderful physical feats are called yogis. This is a disparagement of the term. The Rishis who gave that word to us used it in the sense of the highest state in which the supreme goal of life is realized. It is derived from the root 'yuj' which means 'to unite or to be in the state of tranquility' - the state of union of the Jiva and Paramatma when all problems are resolved and the Self enjoys its natural and normal rest." *
KPJ always reiterated - yoga is chitta vritti nirodha - yoga is samadhi. Does the method of KPJ lead to samadhi? It seems, in general, the way his yoga is practiced is good for health, strength and a degree of mental calm - but not the kind of peace associated with the state of samadhi.
He never gave much teaching about the other angas. He would only teach pranayama to very few people and said very little about the yama and niyama - his basic teaching was that they were very difficult and that they could not be perfected and one should not give them much attention until you had a strong body and mind, until you had perfected asanas and pranayamas.
Advanced Kindergarten Teachers
Asana practice is therapy. According to KPJ the first series is physical therapy, the second series is therapy for the nervous system and the third series is for strength. The third series, also called "advanced" is subdivided into four separate parts - these postures have no particular benefit beyond the first two series apart from greater strength - according to both Sharath and KPJ, these series are for demonstration purpose and for "circus".
And yet, many of those who practice these "advanced" asanas are at pains to advertise that this constitutes "advanced" yoga. Many of these "advanced" practitioners have little interest in the other angas - they do not like to do pranayama or meditate. It is a bit like saying you teach calculus when in fact you are just teaching adding and subtracting in kindergarten.
Those obsessed with asana practice have no time or interest to graduate from kindergarten - they are super advanced kindergarten teachers!
Since asana practice is therapy, what is the implication of continuing to practice with such intensity, for so long? Do "advanced" practitioners need more therapy or does the therapy not work for them?
Yoga is natural. If the body and mind are in a healthy condition, an inclination to sit quietly leads easily to deep states of meditation and samadhi. A truly healthy person does not need to practice asanas. The obsession with long advanced practice is a bit like the way many people have become addicted to medicinal drugs: what was intended for therapy has become an addiction or abused for recreational use.
Assessing the Teacher
It is said that the methods of the Guru are obscure and mysterious, that as neophytes one has no way of understanding why he may act in a particular way or why he may suggest certain practices. Only after long and devoted practice do we (possibly) gain understanding and in the meantime it is not productive to question, we need to surrender, have faith and devotion, we need to trust that the method will bring the results we desire: we thought that pain was part of the process, that KPJ's touch was healing - it did not occur to us that he was sexually assaulting his students.
We have a huge problem as yoga students: we cannot initially assess if what we are being taught is truly wholesome or genuine. Often there is discomfort and pain when starting a yoga practice. Is this normal? Is it the student's fault or the practice? Yoga cannot be understood intellectually, only through experience. Only through (decades) long and devoted practice does proper understanding come - but then only if the method/teacher is genuine.
It really does take a long time to understand what yoga is. Intellectual understanding devoid of experience does not get one far, nor does experience without theoretical understanding. It is said that it takes around 12 years for a practice to become properly established. Until that point, it is hard to make an assessment whether the practice yields the desired result.
Even after twelve years, understanding is scant. Don't be mislead by the apparently wise asana teachers whose words of wisdom demonstrate deep knowledge... asana is just the kindergarten of yoga. Intellectual study does not reveal proper understanding - yoga changes you to experience something different, something that cannot be understood rationally.
What is yoga? We do not know! Yoga is not understood through putting on the garb of a yogi or through much study - yoga can only be known through yoga - deep meditation and samadhi. Yoga is the transformation of the mind into a different state - it is experienced in that state but cannot be understood intellectually.
If practitioners do not desire to progress beyond the stage of asana, how can they be expected to know what yoga is? If you practice asanas for several hours a day, where do you have time to meditate? If you need to continue practicing asanas for decades, for your whole life, does this indicate either that you need a lot of therapy or that the therapy is not working? KPJ gave little indication about how the subsequent stages should be practiced or experienced - as a result, most of us remain at the level of asana and do not progress much beyond.
Some years ago I used to meet regularly with a famous certified teacher to discuss yoga philosophy. On several occasions, he concluded our discussion by saying: "I don't really know what yoga is!" The first time he said this, I thought to myself: "Really?" But when I reflected on his remark, I realized that I, too, did not know what yoga was. It really takes a long time to get a depth of understanding, and I have realized since that time, that without developing all the other limbs of ashtanga yoga, a proper understanding will continue to evade us.
For this reason, I believe, practitioners should not become teachers until they have progressed well beyond the asana stage. How can one teach yoga if one does not know what it is? Even if you know asanas "well", how do you know if the way of practicing will lead to the further steps? If the practice method is faulty in some way, one may never get insight, one may continuously lead your students in a false direction.
Immature teachers have no choice: Fake it till you make it - or just follow parampara!
I do not believe that KPJ was properly familiar with the higher stages of yoga and that is why he did not teach them. Instead, he told us to practice intense asanas continuously. The result is that his "ashtanga" practice is misdirected or limited and leads, instead, to an obsession with asanas and the physical body. He did not allow inflexible students to progress even to the stage of pranayama.
Flexibility is not a qualification for yoga. Flexibility is mainly genetic and has nothing to do with being adept at yoga. In fact very flexible practitioners are often excessively tamasic (lazy, depressive, dull minded, unstable) - they need strong asana practice to gain stability. Stiff students by contrast often develop a much better grasp of the other limbs of yoga.
Jocks and Intellectuals
Today there is a schism between yoga practitioners and yoga theorists. This has generated a huge confusion about what yoga actually is.
On the one hand we have books by "advanced" asana teachers and on the other hand we have books by armchair intellectuals. Very few books about yoga are by experts in both theory and practice.
The reason for this, I believe, is that in general people are either good with their minds or with their bodies but seldom both. There are, of course, exceptions. Intellectual academics in their ivory towers are generally not so comfortable in their bodies and those who become obsessed with their bodies are seldom facile with their minds. As a result, our books about yoga are produced by disembodied minds on the one hand and mindless bodies on the other - the result is a great deal of confusion!
McShtanga and Kentucky Fried Jois
It is said that it takes twelve years for a practice to become properly established. Until we have practiced asanas for this significant period of time, our understanding of this stage will be superficial and incomplete. It takes twelve years to master each stage. Fortunately the rudiments of pranayama, dharana etc. are integrated into the asana practice taught by KPJ, so some of the other limbs are being developed simultaneously. But unless one pays attention to yama and niyama and until one develops a formal pranayama and meditation practice these stages do not evolve and proper knowledge about yoga and how to teach yoga will not arise.
As ignorant neophyte yoga teachers we have no choice but to follow parampara - follow tradition. An honest immature teacher admits he or she knows nothing. Since we are ignorant, perhaps the best option is to become a vehicle for our teacher's teaching. This can become hugely problematic if the teacher's guidance is in some way tainted.
It would seem that students should not become teachers until they have practiced for at least twelve years - enough time for asana practice to be established. Even then, teachers would only be established in asana. Another twelve years to establish a practice of pranayama. Until we have properly understood, it is just a case of the blind leading the blind.
All of us departed to some extent from what we were taught. We all saw that some of KPJ's adjustments could not be or should not be replicated in the West - this was the first departure. From here on, everyone, including the KPJAYI has made changes. These changes are made incrementally over the years as we discover better ways to serve our students.
But in the beginning one has little choice but to imitate the teacher. This is what we were instructed to do: to teach exactly what we had learned. We were given rudimentary theory but were mainly instructed to practice with diligence and not think too much.
This presents a great problem both for teachers and for students. Students cannot asses if a teacher really knows what he or she is talking about and teachers do not know what they are talking about! As ignorant teachers we have no choice but to say - "my teacher taught it this way" - we have to fake it until we make it! We are all deceivers - we do not know what we are talking about - and the danger is that we lead our students astray - or worse!
Warning to New Students!
There are several deceptive ways that teachers promote themselves to give the impression of authority and authenticity:
On the one hand teachers "demonstrate" their advancement - they "put on the garb of the yogi" - they post selfies and youtube videos of their "advanced" practice - they proliferate the false idea that advanced asanas are advanced practice and that this makes them authorities on yoga.
On the other hand teachers can demonstrate their authenticity by speaking in sanskrit, chanting mantras, performing pujas, teaching philosophy and claiming to teach the pure method learned from the guru.
A third way of gaining name and fame is celebrity endorsement, elevating one's name by performing virtuous acts and by promoting the guru and showing how close you are to him.
Promoting oneself through asana brings yoga to its lowest common denominator - it is yoga for the masses - McShtanga Yoga - "over one billion yogaburgers sold!"
Advanced teachers promote the idea that it is virtuous to get up at the crack of dawn to do practice and to dedicate many hours and much effort to it. Yoga practice is totally self-serving! It does not serve anyone else, if anything it easily becomes a narcissistic endeavor.
Teaching long hours and having many students makes you rich, famous and adored, not virtuous! Giving generously to charity while letting others know about it is not charity, it is self-promotion! Looking good! Don't be deceived by these transparent marketing and self-promoting devices!
Promoting the idea of authority via closeness to the source, celebrity endorsement and demonstrating authenticity through showing other practices such as talking or teaching in sanskrit etc, may make students feel it is the "real thing" - finger-licking "authentic southern style" good!
Why is it that nearly all the biggest spiritual gurus have been found to be corrupt? The bigger the name, the more likely that power has gone to their heads and that they have been corrupted. The more their teachings are promoted, the less likely that there is authenticity in them.
A teacher's grasp on truth is inversely proportional to how much their teachings are promoted: the number of posted yoga selfies, youtube videos, facebook friends, and instagram followers they have.
A real yogi never shows her practice, avoids crowds, lives simply without possessions or wealth and wants to maintain peace and quiet to support meditation and samadhi and is thus hidden from the world.
How do you find a true teacher? How do you find a true yoga? It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
Real Ashtanga Yoga
Pattabhi Jois' method is a potentially effective way to establish an asana practice. It clearly does not work for everyone in the way it is taught "traditionally", however it is a wonderful blueprint for establishing an asana practice if elaborated with intelligence and sensitivity.
Ashtanga Yoga has eight parts and without elaborating all eight limbs it is not complete nor will it lead to the desired end. Pranayama is one of the most valuable tools of yoga practice and is the gateway to the internal practices that lead towards the ultimate goal - unfortunately KPJ did not help many students to establish this practice.
He set the bar too high for developing a pranayama practice and he invested too much intensity into asana practice. He imprinted his own rajasic, violent and controlling nature onto practice and created confusion and doubt rather than clarity and confidence in the true method of elaborating all eight limbs.
* Swami Sri Ranga Priya - from The Mahaguru and the Mandiram - published in "A Souvenir" 1974