Thursday, February 28, 2019

Ashtanga Parampara or Brand?

Shortly before KPJ’s death, Sharath started talking about parampara. There was a concern that after his death that the “practice” could become corrupted or impure without a central authority linked to the “original teachings”. Parampara is tradition which goes back through generations of teachers linked to a particular guru - it implies tradition and is intended to indicate authenticity and consistent teachings going back through generations.

In this case, talk of parampara was also intended to solidify authority in a forward direction - ie to establish that authority was shifting from KPJ to Sharath. Sharath even changed his name from Rangaswami to Jois to complete the branding process and establish himself as the rightful successor. Now he calls himself Ashtanga Paramaguru - a title bestowed by whom exactly? A title, perhaps no more meaningful than a degree certificate you can purchase online.


Is there actually an identifiable succession of knowledge? Is the word parampara, used in this context, in any way meaningful? Is the practice the same today as it was 20 yrs ago, 40 yrs ago? Or 100 yrs ago? Were the postures practiced in the same way? Were the vinyasas the same? Was the breathing method the same? The answer to all these questions is No! All of this has changed.


Pattabhi Jois always used to say: “I teach exactly what Krishnamacharya taught me without changing anything.” If we take the statement literally it is clearly untrue. He also implied that the sequences and vinyasas were taken directly from the Yoga Korunta - this also seems very unlikely.


We can see many differences in the teachings of Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya. We can easily compare the vinyasas and sequences and see major divergence. Instructions on breathing, use of bandhas and alignment in postures also differs significantly.


But the KPJAYI’s website states about parampara: “the teacher and student form the links in the chain of instruction that has been passed down for thousands of years.” 


This is clearly not true - the practice is new. The Ashtanga lineage really starts with Pattabhi Jois. Although he owed his foundation to Krishnamacharya, his research led him in a different direction.



This posture was practiced by Indian students at AYRI in the 90s

The old shala in Lakshmi Puram was small, intimate, womblike. It was known as the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. KPJ was researching, innovating and adapting yoga practice to the individual.


His work was therapeutic and healing: he taught at the Ayurvedic Hospital, he worked with diseases and disabilities. The practice was more adapted to the individual. But we were the lab rats on which he did his research (not all of us survived).


In Yoga Mala he clearly states that not all postures are suitable for everyone - sometimes another posture should be substituted. Although in the early years he followed this principle, in later years this approach was increasingly abandoned. As more and more students came, the practice became more uniform and streamlined.


There have been many changes to the sequencing and vinyasas over the years. For instance, when Nancy Gilgoff and David Williams originally learned from KPJ, there were far fewer vinyasas -  whole groups of postures were practiced, left and right side without jumping back. This is only one example. There are many.


In the old shala, every student had a unique experience of studying with KPJ. He told each of us to teach exactly the way we had learned it from him. This means that students who became teachers in the old shala have a variety of different interpretations of how and what to teach. In the beginning there were only a few Western students and we practiced together with the Indian students. Their approach to yoga was very different from ours: for us it was intense spiritual sadhana, for them it was exercise, therapy and social.



Parsvottanasana as taught by Krishnamacharya
Note the head position and toe grip
Drishti and Alignment?






















Western students also played a significant role in the way the practice evolved. For instance, even though KPJ rejected BKS Iyengar's teaching techniques, Western students brought his alignment principles into the Ashtanga Practice. KPJ also adapted the practice to Westerners needs and interests - to their ambitious nature, their interest in strength and power and away from traditional yogic values.

Western bodies were typically stronger, fitter and younger than the Indians’. We were also much more ambitious, motivated and competitive. Perceiving this, I assume he adapted the practice giving more and more emphasis on strength and deep flexibility. But I think KPJ underestimated Western ambition, competitiveness and narcissism.


It seemed the perpetual theme in Mysore was ambition - ambition to progress. The structure of learning tended to emphasize the prowess or achievement of the body and hence narcissism, instead of being destroyed by yoga was often amplified.


As his shala became more and more popular with Western students, he also began to travel more and more. Although he always encouraged students to come to Mysore to practice, his system was being presented more and more in the led style. At the same time increasing numbers of people were able to learn from videos - thus completely undermining the traditional way of teaching with its emphasis on the individual needs of each student (beginner students are no longer welcome in Mysore).


I felt like Norman Allen, who stated on meeting KPJ: “I could see which way he was going, and it was opposite (to mine).” (KPJ's interest was moving towards the West, ours was moving towards the East)


In the early days, KPJ spoke about yoga philosophy and the spiritual aspects of yoga but with the surge in student numbers and all the different languages, communication became more and more difficult until he pretty much gave up and mostly offered the following explanation:


"Yoga is concentration. You are here, your body is here, but your mind keeps going to other places. One minute it is here, the next minute you are thinking about some delicious food, you are thinking about your home... concentration is very difficult.


That is why you take asana practice. Practice, practice, practice for a long time without interruption. That way your body, mind and sense organs will become strong and pure. Then you will properly understand the yoga method."


Because there was nothing on offer beyond asana and pranayama (in later years pranayama was hardly taught at all) one was left with the impression that asana practice is everything - that one should not bother about the other aspects of yoga too much. But he was emphatic when he said: "This is Patanjali Yoga" and told us to study the Yoga Sutra. According to Krishnamacharya, the Yoga Korunta (the supposed source text of Ashtanga Yoga sequences) was a commentary on the Yoga Sutra.


By the end of the 90s the old shala was so full, it had to move. The new shala could fit 5 times as many students. From a small group of 10 to a community of 3-500 - this was a huge change. At the same time KPJ's foreign tours became more and more popular with 100s of students practicing at the same time. With the huge crowds, yoga became increasingly taught through led style (2x a week in Mysore), and with the advent of the social media has increasingly been presented more as a performance than a practice.


This is what Sharath inherited. KPJ's method changed with the students - he became more adept at managing large numbers - he increasingly taught to the lowest common denominator - the physical.


If there is a tradition, it is not the sequencing or vinyasa. It is not observing moondays or saturdays or sundays as rest days. It is not chanting the “Ashtanga mantram” (chanting was only introduced at student request).  All this has changed over the years. Is it faith in and devotion to the Guru? That is mainly what is suggested. But if the guru is tainted, his teachings may also be tainted - they may not necessarily produce the desired result.


Ashtanga Brand


Commodification of yoga started in the West. For decades, Sharath assisted his grandfather and hardly saw a penny of the large pile of cash that Pattabhi Jois started to acquire.


He was clearly jealous and disapproving of those Western students who exploited yoga for financial gain. Western students were making large sums of money, while he had to serve his grandfather for nothing. Unfortunately, this turned into a kind of bitterness and a desire to control student behavior and the revenue stream.


Now Sharath is a multimillionaire. A millionaire yogi? The mere association of the two words should make us pause for thought due to the incongruity. 


He enjoys making $250,000 per month while teaching in Mysore and probably much more when he is traveling. At the same time he controls how all his authorized and certified teachers practice and teach - they are forbidden from taking training from other teachers and channel a source of funds and reverence back towards him. He is the king, they call him the boss - they bow to his authority.


Ashtanga Yoga is not a practice. Everyone's practice is unique, based on individual samskaras, genetic inheritance and other factors. Everyone's experience through practice is also unique.


Sequences are unique, inner experience is unique but there are some common principles - I believe the sequences are a blueprint from which we can draw as teachers, but the actual practice of each individual is elaborated in a unique way based on individual needs.


It is not meaningful or accurate to say Ashtanga Yoga is Primary, Intermediate or Advanced Series - these are collections of postures which work therapeutically and are applied uniquely, depending on individual circumstances.


The Ashtanga Yoga Method KPJ often referred to is not the sequencing, but the principle of elaborating a practice in a step by step process. It is meaningless to talk about parampara - unless it means simply: "the way Pattabhi Jois taught it" and even this is meaningless because KPJ taught it differently to different students and at different times.


The end result (what Sharath inherited) is an inferior version. It is superior in its ability to generate financial value but much inferior in its ability to adapt to individual needs or to elaborate a genuine yoga practice.


It is unfortunate that the reigns of the ashtanga lineage were passed to Sharath when there were other teachers with more experience and insight. Many ask why Manju was not chosen.


Sharath often says that KPJ taught him so much. One has to doubt this - if it is true, he does not share that teaching... His interview in the Guruji book is one of the weakest. In fact we had to combine two interviews to get a bit more substance. He really only says one meaningful thing (which is not particularly helpful): "If you want to get to Bangalore, you have to get on the Bangalore bus." 


What happens when the bus has broken down and we can't get online to check google maps?


Do we really want to go to Bangalore? I suspect not.


We have to know where we are going and how to get there. Parampara purports to show how to get there but has not elaborated where there is, therefore one has to seriously doubt where that bus is headed...


We can see teachers getting richer. Can we see students becoming more enlightened?

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