Sunday, November 24, 2019

Mantras of Misdirection

I have said on various occasions that ashtanga practice and teaching need to be re-thought. Here is a first attempt to address the subject.

One of the most problematic issues is that Pattabhi Jois told his students that they should teach exactly the way they learned to practice without changing anything.

Many long term teachers, recognizing various problems with and limitations of the method as imparted to them have, indeed, made changes. Some teachers have adapted their teaching based on their own personal research with decades of practice and others have incorporated teachings from other teachers.

However, since the beginning of the 90s, a growing obsession with the "purity" of the practice as taught by KPJ has ensured a greater and greater coherence and obsession with the "correct method" - with an exact following of the way it was handed down in Mysore.

I was myself part of this trend, someone who had the desire to find a definitive and authoritative method. For me, this came from a growing disillusionment with KPJ and the belief that at least he was passing down a coherent and pure method from his teacher (something I now recognize as being untrue), that allowed me to free myself from his authority. But for many it was a way of feeling that they were close to the source, that they could, themselves, be authoritative.

Those who did not follow the correct method - that included teachers who never studied in Mysore, or were never authorized or certified by KPJ - were derided and devalued by the Mysore faithful. Those who adhered most closely to the Mysore way were praised and elevated in status.

There are many features of value in what KPJ taught, but also a number of features that are problematic and lead practitioners away from the true goals of yoga.

People regard Ashtanga Yoga as a "thing". This is an inaccurate definition. Ashtanga Yoga, whether you are speaking of KPJ yoga or Patanjali yoga is a collection of practices not a coherent unity. Practitioners adhere to some but not all of the principles, parts but not all of the sequences.

The different features are:

specific sequences of asanas and vinyasas
specific way of breathing
specific way of developing a practice
specific collection of principles while practicing i.e drishti, bandha etc
specific alignment in asanas

No two people have the same practice or adopt all the principles completely. In fact, there has been variation in the way each of these principles has been taught over the years. But there is a false idea that there is a definitive or perfect way. This idea is one of the obsessions that needs to be discarded both because of its plain impossibility and because of the inappropriateness of the idea (each individual has unique needs and should adopt a unique practice).

The differences may seem subtle or even non-existent when practice is taught in a led format, however, it takes just a little observation to see that no two people in such a class can or do have identical practice.

These are some of the principles that, in my opinion should be thrown out. As mentioned above, those who have been teaching for longer, have already eliminated most of these ideas - this piece of writing is mostly provided for my generation and later, for those who have trained in Mysore since the early 90s.

Mantras of Misdirection:

"You should have only one guru"

This holds true if you have an enlightened teacher who can give you comprehensive knowledge but is incorrect if that teacher is limited in knowledge and furthermore it is dangerous if that teacher is giving wrong knowledge or is abusing your trust, mind or body.

Guru bhakti is valuable if the teacher is pure but plunges one into delusion and pain if the teacher is tainted. An imperfect teacher is capable of transmitting authentic knowledge if he or she is connected to a true source but devotion to such a teacher is dangerous and inappropriate.

Telling students they should not have any other teachers is a way of cementing power, ensuring dependency and guaranteeing a revenue stream into the teacher's pocket. It is a cynical ploy justified by scriptural authority.

"Inhale should be the same as exhale"

Although this is an interesting concept and worth exploring it is not a traditional approach to breathing in asanas and is definitely wrong for many students.

This is definitely at odds with what Krishnamacharya and all other authentic teachers have taught. Breathing is related to mind. Through controlling the breath, you control the mind. Perhaps, when the teacher controls the student's breath, he also controls the student's mind. Could this have been the way KPJ and other teachers are able to gain power over their students?

Exhale is the pranic breath, the purifying, relaxing breath, the breath used for meditation and introversion of mind. Inhale is the apanic breath, the breath that supports extraverted activity. Should these two be balanced, or should one emphasize developing prana over apana?

It depends if yoga is being used for meditation, exercise or for therapy. It depends on the inherent constitution, health condition and needs of the student.

In emphasizing equality of inhale and exhale, while performing intense asanas, is it more likely that inhale gets emphasized, that apana is cultivated rather than prana? From my observation, this is often the case.

KPJ also stated that there should be no pause between inhaling and exhaling, but that the breath should flow smoothly. This is also at odds with what Krishnamacharya taught - he often taught breath retention in asanas - even in vinyasas!

"You should always practice mula bandha"

It is wrong to be thinking about practicing yoga 24/7. We have responsibilities and should experience pleasures and joy in life, as well as pursuing spiritual practice. If we devote all our time to sadhana, then we will not fulfill our responsibilities properly and tend to our families in a wholesome way.

Yoga has to be balanced by bhoga (experience/pleasure). If we spend too much time on either one of these two, the other suffers. Each individual is unique: some are born with strong detachment and samskaras suitable to intense sadhana and others with strong attachments, family ties and responsibilities. Each person has to find the healthy balance.

"You should teach exactly the way you learned it"

The "traditional" teaching method is imbued with authoritarianism. There were many injuries and abuses. Little needs to be said about the danger and falseness of this statement.

"There is one way to practice - do not us an incorrect method"

Everybody learned it differently - every body should have a unique practice. Uniform practice engenders envy, ambition, self-judgment and doubt.

There is a religious belief amongst many practitioners that is if you do the "correct" physical method, it will lead to definitive results. Contrary to the assertion of many ashtanga teachers, asana practice has a minimal impact on spiritual evolution.

Asana practice is good for health.

There are many types of asana practice, some are a bit better than others. Ashtanga yoga is not the best, is not the one method for every one, is not even a specific method but a collection of techniques that each individual selects from but does not practice completely.

If this perfect method yielded the imputed results, then the proof of that would be the teachers who have practiced for longest with the most adherence to this method. Have a look around and ask yourself if those long term practitioners actually imbue the qualities of realization and enlightenment?

I would venture the idea that the more intensely you practice, the longer you practice with intensity, the more you need the therapy that practice brings. But also, since this practice has to be continuously maintained for so many decades, you have to wonder if the practice actually works? Surely, if you got the therapy, you could stop the practice?

Asana is good for health and stress relief - it does not lead to an ounce of enlightenment! Well, maybe just an ounce. Teachers who promote such an idea are pulling the wool over your eyes and taking your money.

"Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory"

Patanjali explains that sadhana (practice) has three components - tapas, or discipline/austerity, Svadhyaya or Self study and Ishvara Pranidhana - surrender of the ego to higher principles.

KPJ was reacting to pandits who professed knowledge about yoga without practical experience. Many of his sayings, that have become mantras to the faithfully devoted, were spoken for effect and were not intended to be taken literally.

If you practice asanas without knowing why or what your destination is, where will you end up? If your teacher has an incomplete idea about which direction he is guiding you, then you will not reach the destination.

You need to have an idea about the goal. Then you can understand better how practices can lead you to the goal. Without this basic information you will have no sense of direction. Without a road map to reach this destination you will be lost.

What is theory and what is practice? Abhyasa - practice, according to Patanjali, is the effort to establish purity and concentration of mind. It is not the effort to do a handstand or deep backbend. The effort to establish concentration in meditation involves a process of self analysis. Obstacles to meditation are physical and mental - in order to eliminate them, one needs to observe them, understand them and find ways to eliminate them.

In the process of analysis, one is also involved in observing what belongs to the mind/body complex and what transcends or lies beneath it - what is conscious, witnessing or aware - and what is the content or object of that conscious attention. This is a process of understanding theory - practice is understanding theory as reality - only once reality has been experienced is theory no longer relevant.

If you just practice with no understanding or no effort at understanding theory you will have no sense of direction and no success.

"Practice and All is Coming"

This is meaningless. "Don't practice and all is coming" is an equally valid statement. As with most things KPJ said, his quotes have been taken out of context and re-framed as part of the branding of his method.

When students were craving for new postures, disappointed or envious, this is something he would say, to reassure them. Do not stress, if you practice diligently, you will progress.

The way this statement has come to be a strap-line advertisement for ashtanga branding has become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Yoga practice should bring us peace, tranquility, compassion, concentration and Self knowledge - not sexual assault, physical injury, psychological manipulation, doubt, envy, wealth, narcissism and flame wars!

Having done this practice, the result for many has been all these negatives and not the serenity and enlightenment that yoga should lead towards.

Appropriate practice with a clear target will bring the right results. Defective practice without a true goal will bring delusion and pain.

There are probably other factors that should be mentioned - I do not have all the answers or all the questions - my purpose is to open up discussion, not to give solutions.

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