Many yoga studios, classes and styles have been built on the belief that you don't have to study the spiritual side of yoga. That by physical practice, the student eventually will want to know more & will intrinsically turn inward. This belief may have been birthed from Ashtanga. It is commonly believed that Pattabhi Jois taught this and many modern westernized forms of yoga are based on it. What if this is not true & just a misunderstanding birthed from Jois's limited English?
I have always postulated that Pattabhi Jois would have taught more philsophy and theory if his English would have been better. An interesting artcle released from one of his earlier students seems to suppor this. Below is an excerpt from, Reflections on "Guruji: A Portrait"-Interview with Elise Espat- Part I.
According to this article, it was frustration that led Guruji to drop the philosophy. I have also taken workshops from Guruji's earlier students that support that he did have these types of conversations and they were dropped later.
Recently Gregor Maehle, arthor of two popular Asthanga books,
broached this subject on his Facebook Page.
"much of todays Ashtanga Vinyasa culture is lost in physical prowess, acrobatics and athleticism. Don’t get me wrong, I do practice asana (posture) daily (including Advanced A if my body let’s me) but after practising one form or aspect of yoga or another for over three decades I feel that asana makes up about only 20% of yoga total. Now the belief that you actually get to the other 80% merely by practising asana I consider a myth. In my practice life I found that you get to the other 80% by practising them.
Another myth of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga that I would like to dissect is the belief that any practitioner, if they only would practise enough, could progress through to the Intermediate and Advanced series and from there straight into yoga heaven. After having taught thousands of students including being able to observe their progress I have to say that the single greatest determinant factor of your progress is your genetic make-up (including shape and articulation of your bones) followed by the age with which you start (the younger the faster the progress). Only after those two factors come things like the frequency of your practise and your ability to technically improving your practise either through your own insight or input from your teacher. Additionally the practitioners that look the most flexible are often not even the most healthy as there flexibility is often linked to ligamentous laxity deriving from a liver and metabolic imbalance. Often these very flexible people have greater instability problems later on and their flexibility represents imbalance.
Through my 10 years of practicing and my 4 years of teaching, I am starting to see this as so. As more and more people come to studio just for a workout, I have been discouraged from speaking about the higher limbs of yoga in my classes. I am told that, "The students just want to move. They are not there to hear you talk. They will naturally progress to the other limbs on their own." I bought into it because I am an Ashtangi and Ashtanga classes are not about theory. After all, I did started to study yoga philosophy on my own, so it must be true, right?
However when I started to look back on my years of practice, my most influential teachers managed to get some philsophy into a highly physical practice. My first Ashtanga teacher, Adele Gail, used to always so "Yoga chitti Vrritti Nirodha, yoga is the cessations of the fluctuations of the mind". While I was attempting to bind or stand on my head, these words were sinking into my mind. If it wasn't for her and many other teachers, giving little nuggets of yoga philosophy throughout class, I am not sure if I ever would have seen my practice as more then exercises that help me with stress and focus.
For this conversation, over the years, I have taught two different classes. These are Strictly physical & Physical with philosophy thrown in. The Strictly Physical group usually stays that way. Their yoga evolution usually takes them to harder more intense forms of physical yoga. The group that gets a little bit of philosophy either heads down the intensely more physical path because the philosophy is not for them or they continue wanting classes that include philosophy and eschew classes based on physicality alone.
Don't get me wrong, if people want to teach and take yoga just from a physical standpoint, it is fine. There are still alot of benefits to be gained. I am also not saying that I will starting incorporating sutras into all my current classes either. However, the argument that a strictly physical class will take you into the spiritual realms of yoga is a little flawed. I know yoga teachers who just call out poses and talk about anatomy and alignment. They barely talk about breath & they would never quote from the sutras. It is hard for me to believe that if the average student looking for a good workout only took from that person, that they would eventually start asking questions about the other limbs.
The idea that Guruji felt that physical practice is enough, which actually may not be true, may have set the foundations for our strong physical yoga culture today. It let teachers, studios and wanna be yoga Gurus off the hook. Filling up a studio or class with the same rhetoric you would use to fill a gym aerobics class is much easier then getting students to listen to you talk about the sutras. Is it a coincidence that once Guruji went more towards the physical side that Ashtanga took off? Reading the book, Guruji or talking to his older students will reveal that his classes were extremely small in the beginnings. Now Mysore is so packed that people are now doubting if there is any real benefit to going. I am no Ashtanga scholar. As a matter of fact, I have never been to Mysore to study with him, Sharath or Saraswati. I am however an avid scholar of yoga. What do you think? Weigh in below.
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