Ashtanga Yoga 70 years or 2000?

A Side Thread to Matthew Sweeney’s Article

‘The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga’

In Matthew Sweeney’s article The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga that we posted here a few weeks ago, he writes the following:

“Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a relatively new system, despite some opinions to the contrary. Apart from the obvious fact that the sequences have been changed by Pattabhi Jois over the years (usually for the better in my opinion) most would agree that Prof. T. Krishnamacharya (K.P. Jois teacher) invented the system during his years at the Mysore Yoga Palace – and was influenced by the Western Gymnastic tradition, no less. I find this inspiring. He brought together concepts from his own traditional background and made something new, vibrant and useful for people around the globe.”

This sparked a little debate of it’s own that I thought would be of interest to a lot of people, so I have moved the comments here to a new post.

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29 Responses

  1. Andreja says:

    if you read a book called YOGA MAKARANDA ( =The Nectar of Yoga) written by T. Krishnamacharya in 1920s you would clearly understand where the Ashtanga Vinyasa is coming from! what was the inspiration etc. …and as stated in the preface of the same book by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar: “… opinions that Krishnamacharya was inspired by western gymnastics are not only erroneous, they challenge his intellectual capability, trivialize an ancient holistic practice that integrates body, breath and mind and also clearly display a lack of quality in the research conducted. ” Couldn’t agree more!

    • Matthew Sweeney says:

      Hello Andreja,

      I am aware of Mr Desikachar’s (snr and jnr) thoughts regarding their father/grandfather. I also read the Yoga Makaranda some time ago. Personally it does not matter to me whether Ashtanga Vinyasa is only 70-90 years old or so or a lot older, or whether it is coming from the Yoga Korunta. It also does not bother me the possibility that Krishnamacharya may have borrowed some ideas from Western Gymnastics. If any of those things could be proven, either way, would not offend me. It would interest and fascinate me, something new to learn.

      In the end the only thing that really matters is whether the practice (whatever that is) works for you. Does it help you to connect with your body, to expand and grow as a human being? Where the practice comes from does not, and should not matter. For me it is mostly out of intellectual curiosity. And the kind of debate it provokes… πŸ™‚

      The Yoga Makaranda was written in 1934 at the behest of the Maharaja of the Mysore Palace – and at the time when K. was around these other teachers – and thus influenced one way or another by them. This clearly comes through in some of his writings in the Makaranda. What I am saying is that Krishnamacharya was not isolated from his environment, clearly he was affected by it, and influenced by the Maharaja (effectively his boss) and the other teachers (his peers) that were there at the time.

      If the possibility of K. borrowing ideas from the Western tradition offends you, or offends Desikachar, or offends some concept of Yoga or offends the genius of Krishnamacharya – I find this an interesting attitude. That strikes me as being a bit of a “sacred cow”. The fact that you believe it trivializes K. or trivializes Yoga is of great curiosity to me. In addition just because someone writes something down, does not make it so – whether it is Mark Singelton, Mr Desikachar, myself or anyone.

      If Yoga is universal, it embraces aspects outside of the culture of India. It is not particularly Yogic to deny this possibility. If you take that attitude to its logical conclusion, then only an Indian teacher can teach Yoga, as they understand their culture best. Does that mean only Indian teachers and Indian people are properly spiritual? If you take the purist or fundamentalist approach to Yoga, therefore, no one is allowed to change the method or tradition as any change is not Yogic. Yoga is set in stone, this is traditional…

      I have a great deal of love, respect, and gratitude for the culture of India for giving me my life purpose and profession. I think anyone teaching Asana should have some sense of the origins of Yoga, India, it’s history etc etc, but I also think it is absolutely vital not to limit yourself to the idea that Yoga should only be based on that. The culture of Yoga is now worldwide, and embraces a wider perspective than only an Indian cultural one. It is limiting to assume that Yoga has to be only from a strict traditional perspective, that Yoga is only Indian, that Yoga cannot use other modalities – the very definition of Yoga is “Universal “.

      So Yoga must embrace all of it. It is simply a matter of how you go about that – not to abandon tradition and technique, but rather use it when necessary and let go when not. Personally, I don’t like to deny the importance of tradition, technique, the learning process, following the rules, devotion to the Guru and lineage etc. But I do like to notice when this is an excuse to be limited and narrow minded.

      To give another example, Mr Iyengar who I consider to be a brilliant teacher and innovator of Yoga, in his early days got together with a family friend, a western medical doctor, and thus “invented” the Iyengar method. He married Yogasana practices that he had learned with anatomy and physiology concepts – prior to this, to my understanding, in the tradition of Asana, anatomy and physiology was not general considered that important. Was Mr Iyengar wrong?

      Yoga also means to unite – to bring together opposites. Mr Iyengar has done a wonderful job of this. I like to think Krishanamcharya did the same.

      If you have ever met any professional gymnasts and worked with them (as I have) you would find a similar range of personalities just as in the the Asana community. For example, a deep interest in exploring the body, an interest in the mind/body connection – and what may surprise you a deep interest in the spiritual connection therein. Of course there are a number of gymnasts not interested in the latter, but this is also true in the general Asana community.

      Why is the possibility of Ashtanga Vinyasa being gymnastic offensive? It does not make it any more or less Yogic than it already is. It changes nothing. Physically speaking Ashtanga Vinyasa has gymnastic qualities. Whether K. invented that himself or borrowed those ideas from what he saw in the Mysore Palace, or obtained these ideas from the Yoga Korunta is not particularly relevant.

      Consider the salutes, the jumps, the back bends, handstands, handstand drop overs and tic tacs. Is that not a little “gymnastic”? If you don’t like the word, substitute energetic, physical and dynamic… What is of interest to me is whether the words and concepts bother you, and why.

      All the best
      Matthew Sweeney

      ps although I realise my longer response may be a little disproportionate to your smaller comment, nevertheless I felt a more detailed reply would do the whole subject more justice.

    • Terry Macartney says:

      Hi Andreja,

      On your advice I re-read Yoga Makaranda. What struck me was the first photo (Figure 1.1: Yogasala). I can’t post the photo here (or at least I don’t know how to) but it can be seen on page 2 of the the book at http://www.yogapeople.eu/img/YogaMakaranda.pdf. Surely looking at the room I sense some syncretism from other physical pursuits: Possibly gymnastics, possibly Indian wrestling, etc.

      I think Matthew Sweeney’s response to you has answered your comment in a wise and expansive fashion. I am not a gymnast but was wrestler. One thing for myself that distinguishes vinyassa asana from wrestling (and I imagine gymnastics) is that I could not wrestle for 2.5 hour straight. I imagine the same goes for dancing but you would know more about that than me. However, this is not to say that gymnastic techniques or other physical cultures has not entered yoga. I do remember reading somewhere that perhaps the surya namaskara came from Indian wrestling to yoga and not visa-versa. If this is true, I don’t think it at all cheapens the yoga tradition but shows the ability to embrace.

  2. Jacquie says:

    Dear Matthew,
    Huge respect for what you wrote here, and really hope to do the 1 month training with you in 2014.

  3. Paz says:

    Thank you Matthew for this great article.
    I practiced for five years primary series getting stuck in the drop backs and a little bit bored of the rigid and almost dogmatic view of ashtanguis towards the practice.
    I also believe that some of the rules in ashtanga come as a practical response to the the large number of students in the shala, but unfortunately these rules become also part of the teaching, which goes beyond the asana sequence drawings in a paper.
    I am happy to have met BNS Iyengar in a trip to Mysore, he teaches that old version of ashtanga, I am sure with some modifications of his own as well. I love him and the ways my yoga practice changed.

    I hope I can attend some workshop with you and learn your sequences!

  4. We were discussing your article Mathew as well as yours and Tim’s comments here on my blog and in response to this particular thread regarding the origin of the sequence, the question came up as to why Krishnamacharya ‘stopped’ teaching Primary. I often wondered this myself having started my practice with Ashtanga but then later studying the Vinyasa Krama that Krishnamacharya taught Ramaswami ( I currently practice both). There always seemed to be an early and late period Krishnamachrya and the assumption that it was Krishnamacharya who had changed his teaching, I think many hold this view.

    Since working with the translation of Yogasanagalu however my thinking has changed somewhat.

    We’ve been working on a translation of Krishnamacharya’s 1941 book Yogasanagalu on my blog (one more chapter to go). In that book Krishnamacharya presents a table of asana divided into three groups, Primary, Middle and Higher or proficient) asana. I just checked with Satya, a native Kanada speaker, who has been working on the translation and he confirms that the translation is indeed ‘groups’ rather than ‘sequences’.

    My current thinking is that Krishnamacharya NEVER taught Primary SERIES. What he did seem to teach I think is a Primary GROUP of postures. He calls them groups in Yogasanagalu. Now they are very very close to Patabhi Jois Primary sequences but I think that’s the big difference. K’s teaching was flexible, PJ’s more fixed. Eddie Stern says that Pattabhi Jois complained that K. taught a ‘Mountain of asana’ and when he went to teach himself at the Sanskrit college he went to K. with a rearrangement of the postures (I’m assuming a rearrangement of the groups we find in Yogasangalau no doubt closer to what he typed out for Nancy Gilgoff (original 1974 syllabus also on my blog).

    If we go back as far as Yoga Makaranda( 1934 ) we’re still finding groups, variations of asana (even hatha and raja versions)…K was in a sense always teaching Vinyasa Krama. I think in the beginning Vinyasa Krama and Ashtanga were quite close but as Ashtanga became seemingly ever more simplified and fixed they began to seem further apart. Thus it’s not perhaps Krishnamacharya who changed so much the teaching of his approach that changed, Pattabhi Jois effectively changed what he seems to have been taught by Krishnamacharya.

    It should be noted that Krishnamacharya supposedly tended to teach for one hour in Mysore. Given his approach in Yoga Makaranda suggesting slow breathing and long stays one questions how many asana one could get through in an hour, certainly not a full sequence, flexible groups of asana following a general intuitive frameworks seems to be more likely.

    The problem with a fixed sequence is that you have to get through the sequence, so the stays get shorter, ten then eight then five breaths, the breaths get shorter too and you do away with the kumbhakas, found on the most basic asana in Yoga Makaranda, discarded altogether (except perhaps yoga mudra and baddha padmasana). And of course you do away with many of the variations, it becomes simplified. Also of course there’s no time for the other limbs.

    As for the Yoga Korunta, if there ever was such a book in written form (Desikachar suggests it was more related to yoga philosophy than asana practice) then surely have been closer to Yoga Makaranda than Yoga Mala or at least the current approach to teaching Ashtanga. My guess is that it was all about the breath, K’s interpretation of asana in yoga Sutras as being focused on the breath and then that coming through practice, linking breath and movement, exploring the breath in postures all those things Krishnamacharya kept throughout his life. If he dropped the actual vinyasa count (although kept the vinyasa between subroutines) then no doubt that was because it was just useful for the boys of Mysore by showing up the breath focus clearly and keeping discipline. If the vinyasa count was indeed in Yoga Korunta then perhaps it more a detail of practice than an essential element.

    One more thing on Yoga Makaranda and Mark Singleton’s work. Krishnamacharya is in a sense responding to Mark back in 1934
    “But we cannot say that people outside India are practising yogabhyasa and not just some form of physical exercise. I don’t know about their practice earlier, but their practice nowadays may resemble or be based on yogabhayasa as noted by people who go abroad”.p16

    But I’m with Matthew on this, whether there was or wasn’t a Yoga Korunta or whether it does or doesn’t support the practice we have now, what’s important surely is whether our practice works for us individually. The problem is perhaps when Krishnamacharya and/or the Yoga Korunta are used to keep us in an illusion of an authentic, authoritative ground to the practice that frowns upon us following the self practice our intuition leads us to.

    Sorry that was longer than I intended but there have been so many good points and questions raised by Tim, Matthew and others here and on the original post.

    • Matthew Sweeney says:

      Thanks for the addition Athony, excellent.

      Matthew

    • Terry Macartney says:

      Hi Anthony,

      From your research, within each GROUP as defined by Krishnamacharya, is there a flexibility in the order of asana? For example, on your blog (http://grimmly2007.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/did-krishnamacharya-teach-ashtanga.html), I see a table with 39 asana for the primary GROUP. Does the ordering 1-39 have any relevance?

      Much thanks for sharing!

    • Bendish says:

      I’m with you most of the way…however are we not in danger of simply saying anything is fine?….a ‘do whatever’ post modern melange….’Yoga’ rather than being based purely on asana centred practise is part of a tradition….a philosophy…a deep history….if we focus on the evolution of asana we are surely missing the big picture….i.e. what is yoga? I don’t think it’s really about 70 vs 2000 or India vs the West…..it’s about whether or not the practises…whatever they may be lead to transformation and freedom….not subjective freedom….true freedom (whatever that is…I’m not saying I know)…it seems that many fear commitment to the yoga tradition mainly because we can’t really bear having to confront what it really means….we still want to have our cake and eat it too….

  5. Sorry Terry, only just saw your comment, haven’t worked out how to get notified of follow up comments from this post/site.
    In answer to your question, YES, I think the groups are essentially flexible and surely only contain a number of key asana representative of the proficiency level of that group There are of course several variations that Krishnamacharya would employ, probably why Pattabhi Jois referred to him as teaching a ‘mountain of asana’. The later editions of Yogasanagalu include a wider range of asana than those mentioned in the original table.
    I think the order of asana is only a rough guide, the primary group starts off with the vinyasa into paschimottanasana followed by its counter pose but then we have the standing postures which seem to be thrown together in no particular order. The seated postures in the primary group do seem to follow a general intuitive order asymmetric to seated, same goes for the middle series group with the backbends all together going from light to deeper backbends.
    My impression is that in the Mysore group classes Krishnamacharya would teach a rough framework of postures similar to what we have in current ashtanga but no doubt with substitutions and variations. Certain boys who were more advanced would be told perhaps to practice some of the more advanced postures from the middle and higher/proficient group. Demonstrations would no doubt be asana from the middle and proficient groups. In the Breath of Gods documentary on Krishnamacharya it was mentioned that K would have the boys stay in some postures for an extended period while they chanted mantras of different lengths. So this too I would imagine was flexible, some postures they would move through more quickly than others, others would entail longer stalls. We see this now in Ashtanga, the breathing in the standing series is slow, the middle series a little quicker(these days a lot quicker) then the finishing sequence slowest of all and with longer stays. Ramaswami mentioned that when he was being taught by Krishnamacharya the practice was always fresh, rarely the same twice. I imagine K. taught like that to an extent in Mysore also.
    But of course this is all speculation. However we do have Krishnamacharya’s texts that we can now turn to. When Pattabhi Jois and Sharath suggest that they teach just what Krishnamacharya taught we can now turn to the primary texts and see exactly how Krishnamacharya taught, the subtleties of the breath for example, with kumbhaka’s, the stress on long and slow breathing and long stays in certain vinyasas. the variations of asana, the details of the asana themselves, the pranayama. Krishnamacharya several times directs the reader to look carefully at the picture he provides, he is being very clear and careful in his presentation of his Yoga, in Yoga Makaranda especially. He will indicate every vinyasa to and from a key asana, whwther it is a hatha or raja yoga version and the subtle differences between them, the breath, kumbhakas, length of stay and provide clear pictures. If he doesn’t provide a clear fixed sequence of postures then that would suggest he didn’t intend one.

    • stu says:

      Hi Anthony, thank you for all your detailed and insightful comments.
      I think I have sorted out the comment notification, you should be able to now check a box to receive emails when you post a comment. I know you have your blog but If you feel you would like to post an article yourself here, please get in contact.

  6. Christopher Conn says:

    I’m curious about the origins of the series but more interested in the energetic context in which they are practiced. The belief that the practice is relatively modern is often held in conjunction with the belief that tweaking (enhancing) the sequences is necessary. To me this is a material belief used to change an energetic emphasis. The static nature of the practice is like a way in to God, i.e. an energetic map of the state of union, singularity, no doubts, no questions. The flow is an effect, the cause is the unchangeability as multiplicity manifests from singularity. For me changing the emphasis around and saying accommodate struggle by enhancing sequences is putting the cart before the horse and I can’t help but notice that it also sells product.

  7. Christopher Conn says:

    I am curious about the origins of the series. I am more interested in the energetic context of the practice. It seems that those subscribing to the “ashtanga is 70 years old” view also believe that the tweaking (enhancing) of the sequences is desirable, a kind of atheism confusing fact and faith. A material belief changing an energetic emphasis ie missing the point. The unchangeability of the series is a map of God, union, singularity, no doubts, no questions, no need to change or enhance anything. To seek freedom from this “yoke” is putting the cart before the horse. Freedom is an effect, the “yoke” is the cause.

    • Matthew says:

      I wasn’t going to respond to this as I though your were too far at one of the spectrum for me to offer my understanding. However, if not for you then for me and others who read here. My first question to you Chris is do you believe the sequences have never changed? For I think it is only with that belief (a false one I might add) does your theory above hold true. Energy is energy and whether you change the sequence or don’t change the sequence either way you can be connected to the Divine (or not.)

      Your assumption that NOT changing the sequences somehow is better energy, universal and closer to God is exactly that. An assumption. I feel sadness and sympathy for your plight and contradiction.

      All the best
      Matthew

      • hey Matthew, everything changes. For me the practice is a movement towards the whole. Like counting japa beads or meditating or just being in nature. All the bells and whistles of tweaking the sequences are fun but unnecessary to me. My “Plight”, well thanks for the sympathy but it really ain’t that bad πŸ™‚ Best from Mysore.

        • Matthew says:

          Hi Chris, thanks for a nice reply. However you did not answer my question.

          • hi Matthew,
            I’m certain that the sequences have changed. Just today Sharath was inconsistent. My point is that there is a balance in this. Too much go with the flow leads to dissolution. Systems are useful if they’re in context. In the words of Alan Watts it’s prickles and goo. For me the Ashtanga system is not rigid. I have met people who are rigid in their need to be flexible around systems. Polarity is problematic. As far as divine / God goes, man I can get there just by taking a bath. πŸ™‚

  8. guest says:

    Some one was having trouble posting so I have done it for them.

    I would be curious to know what all of you think about Gregor Maehle’s contention (that is if you are familiar with his books) that Vinyasa is a subset of a much larger body of asana from antiquity. He also contends that Vinyasa form in general was created, again in moderate antiquity, for the householder because of the constraints on time and energy necessitated by householder duties. To me Matthew’s article begs the question that If K. invented the asana that has come to be known as Primary Series, did he also invent or reformulate other aspects of the 8 Limbs? After all, isn’t that what Ashtanga means? To speak of tradition in regards to asana seems to me a little absurd given it’s place on the ladder, without wholly locating it in context to the goal of Yoga in at least it’s commonly perceived historical moorings. I read the article, it’s comments and the comments in the side thread. Tim Feldman was almost alone in doing so, and he didn’t delve very deep. It’s as though for many Ashtanga stops with pranayama, at least in terms of what seems worth discussing. On the other hand, I tend to agree with Matthew that K couldn’t help but be influenced by the clash of cultures that was the milieu which he was reflecting to some degree or other. Indeed, what we have come to regard as “Yoga” (and not just in the West) more often than not resembles early 20th Century ideas of “Anglo-American physical culture” more so than any concepts one could glean from Vedic text. Have any of you read The Subtle Body or American Veda? Both books help one gain a sense of the type of things that were going on in the world when K and PJ were coming up in the world (as do many others but these are very recent and easily obtainable). I would like to close with a quote from Maehle’s book “Pranayama:”

    …… “I have explained in some detail to show that there is not, as some Western scholars argue, a yoga of the Vedic seers, then a different yoga of the ancient Upanishads, then a classical yoga of Patanjali and then a more modern yoga of the Hatha Yoga texts. This is not the case. Over thousands of years there is a continuous, congruent tradition of sages and siddhas who had the same mystical experience. What changed was the audience and its capacity to understand the teachings. Hence the one teaching of yoga was clothed in different languages and adapted using different methods to bring the same mystical experience to an audience whose make-up had changed as the millennia went by.”

    Can’t say that it is true but it’s interesting to think about.

  9. Chad Herst says:

    I am fascinated that Kausthub Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s grandson, was insulted at the notion that Krishamacharya might have been influenced by gymnastics, that somehow this notion was an affront to Krishnamacharya’s intelligence. That is to say, that if Krishnamacharya’s yoga was influenced by outside, non-yogic sources, that would somehow debase his authority. Like Matthew, I stand in a particularly different place. If Krishnamacharya was capable of incorporating another system or set of systems within the broader philosophical framework of yoga, then he was a brilliant syncretist and modernizer. Ancient texts and practices need constant upkeep. They need to be translated for the times we are living in.

    The King James’ Bible, for example, was a 17th century translation of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew Bibles for Elizabethan times. To an Elizabethan, that translation would have been a revelation. It would have given the reader access to the Bible in his or her own terms. But if we English speaking readers try to comprehend that translation today, we’re often mystified by the language. And so the Bible keeps getting translated into terms that are accessible to the times we are living in. But we don’t stop there. We have theologians, priests, ministers, preachers, and academics who help translate the work for us, now. And as the translation occurs, The Bible continues be a living, breathing text.

    All bodies of work keep evolving out of necessity. Otherwise they get stale, antiquated, and inaccessible. And so what Krishnamacharya did was attempt to make the tradition of yoga come alive for the times he was living in. Whether he borrowed from gymnastics or not cannot be proven, but what is clear is that he wasn’t living in a vacuum. He knew about all sorts of different body practices, both Western and Indian. And he, like all of us, had to have been influenced or touched by them in his attempt to ignite an interest in yoga amongst his countrymen.

    Like him, we too are part of yoga’s evolution, whether we acknowledge it or not. As each of us stands on our mats each morning, we are negotiating between two worlds: that which we are carrying forward from our teachers and that which authentically serves us in the given moment. We are constantly distinguishing: what is essential and what is ancillary; what will serve my transformation and what will hinder it? And if we’re teaching yoga to an individual or groups of people, we are asking ourselves, how do I communicate this teaching in such a way that I remain true to the method while making it accessible to the person or people I am working with. It’s an interesting dance, but it is the dance of keeping the practice alive. And it requires that we allow for the myriad of influences to enter, to allow all of the things we’ve been exposed to come into play with the basic aim of making yoga alive and accessible each moment. And so yoga keeps evolving through us.

    We’re living in a particular time in history where there is a particular craving for something that is age-old and, thus, timeless. When something, like yoga, appears to be ancient or practiced over millennia, then it settles us in some way. Maybe it is because we are seeing such rapid change in our lives at this moment in history. I think that’s why we see such a strong surge in fundamentalism throughout the world these days. We want to have something that we can hold onto amidst the chaos we see. And we look for ways to make sense of all the uncertainty. But what’s clear is that no tradition is static. The fact of the matter is that we are all heavily impacted by the myriad of social, intellectual, cultural, and environmental forces that surround us. These various influences cannot help but affect the way we work with a tradition. It is simply not possible for any of us to remain untouched or uninfluenced by these forces, not even the brilliant father of modern yoga.

  10. Gopi says:

    I am an Iyengar Indian, learned Yoga in India , from various schools and none of them emphasized on the breadth. I was unfortunate not to learn yoga from Krishnamacharya even though I grew up in Chennai until I was 25 years old.I am currently living in NJ and Just started learning Ashtanga from Eddie,

    Whats funny is when growing up in Chennai I was not aware of PJ and knew nothing about him his series and whatnot.. I understood he was popular because of his following here.

    Since breadth is the key for self realization Krishnamacharya and later PJ , BNS iyengar , Desikachar correctly emphasizes the importance of it using the sound breadth technique(true ujjai or not).

    Whether Krishnamacharya felt that the only way to keep the attention on the breadth between asana’s is by using the famous Jump backs and jump throughs( which apparently is borrowed from Gymnastics) is debatable, but he correctly cultivated to the practitioners the essence that breadth is the key to the practice and the gateway to self realization.Once the practitioner becomes old and not able to perform the Jump back and jump through he or she will have the sound grounded knowledge on when to inhale and when to exhale.

    Does it really matter if Krishnamacharya + PJ put together the structure to understand the true self of the eight limbs?

    “In my opinion” I am disappointed at BKS Iyengar even though he has learned the correct technique from K , failed to pass on the tools to his students that Breadth is the key and every thing else follows suit. (allignment etc….) . Focussing too much on the posture (even though needed not to get injured) and on breadth will not advance the practitioner in a spiritual path.

    • Gopi says:

      Correction.

      I meant to say this

      Focussing too much on the posture (even though needed not to get injured) and not on breadth will not advance the practitioner in a spiritual path.

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