The So-Called Tradition of Ashtanga

By Chad Herst

I have noticed that as the Mysore-style Ashtanga method becomes more popular over the years, the individual connection between teacher and student is disintegrating. The practice, which was originally designed to be individualized, has become increasingly supplanted by a one-size-fits-all approach.

This is a natural outgrowth as more and more people both learn and are touched by the method. The unfortunate thing is that it misses the point of the Mysore-style methodology, which by its nature honors each student’s constitution, body, emotions, personal development, culture, etc. The problem is that as yoga becomes increasingly popular, the practice is morphing into something that alienates the practitioner from his or her own wisdom. In the Ashtanga world this change is being called “traditional” ; however, I want to posit the notion that there is nothing traditional about it; in fact, it is an unfortunate and new result of the popularity of yoga. And if we continue to alienate our student’s innate wisdom from the practice, Mysore-style yoga will become a practice for only the select few.

Unlike led classes, the Mysore-style allows for a relationship to arise between the student and the teacher in such a way that the practice can be made to fit the student, as opposed to the other way around. In led classes, generally speaking, it is difficult for the teacher to work much on an individual basis with the student because he or she has to ensure the flow of the class as a whole. Mysore-style, however, is the equivalent of a private master class with the support of group energy. In other words, a student has the opportunity to be inspired both by the intensity of the class and the direction and support of the teacher. When a student finds his or her yoga home, indeed, it is like coming home. Both the relationship with the teacher and the class as a whole cradles and supports them in achieving yoga, however the student chooses to define that word.

Breakthroughs

Over the years, I have noticed within the Ashtanga world that yoga has increasingly become defined as the mastery of asanas as opposed to the achievement of yoga. The goal of yoga has become the need to bind the hands in marichyasana d in order to progress through primary series or stand up from a back bend in order to move to intermediate series. Frankly speaking, milestones like this are not helpful. Many, many individuals will never be able to bind in marichyasana d because constitutionally they just cannot. What often happens is that people will compromise their knees in order to get into the posture. So marichyasana d becomes the source of a medial meniscus tear. Likewise in an effort to stand up from back bends, students often injure their backs. The result of trying to master asanas is often a long-standing injury from repetitive strain. As Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Health will result from good yoga, ill-health will result from bad yoga.” Clearly, this is bad yoga.

The myth generated amongst practitioners of this method that if we push through pain, we are likely to have a breakthrough known amongst so-called ‘aficionados’of this method as an “opening.” When someone says “opening” they mean the ability to complete a posture that they could not previously complete because something opened up or let go. Most so-called ‘openings’ that I have seen over the years are repetitive strain injuries caused by a blatant disregard for the body’s signals that what they’re doing is painful. I have to admit that I stand in contrast to most so-called ‘traditional’ practitioners when I admit that, generally speaking, I don’t believe in openings. I have wanted to over the years. There have been many, many times when I have told myself and my students that the pain they’re experiencing is just an opening, but I have seen enough ‘openings’ to know that the idea is wishful thinking.

The first time I visited Mysore, in 1993, I saw a friend from New Zealand get injured in janu sirsasana c. His visit to Mysore was shortened from a three-month stay to one-month because his lateral collateral ligament had been totally ruptured. What struck me about that particular incident was that my friend had been complaining of pain in his knee. Various prominent practitioners and member of the community had advised him to keep pushing forward, that he would eventually have a breakthrough. Essentially, he was discouraged from recognizing his own pain receptors telling him that his knee was in danger.

Ashtanga is a rigorous practice and injuries do take place sometimes that are deleterious, but to overlay the problem with a false statement, like “oh, it’s just an opening” is like putting ice cream on top of crap and saying that the whole thing is ice cream, so eat it up. That’s the problem when we disregard our own common sense in place of tradition. I am not saying that it isn’t useful to look at the experience of pain and injury as an opportunity to grow or develop in a inner way. Our injuries can be some of our best teachers. What I am saying is that pain is usually an indicator that there is something wrong. It is the body’s intelligence speaking. In all the years I have been practicing and teaching, I have rarely seen the notion of breakthroughs pan out

Tradition

We all want certainty. We somehow think that if we align ourselves with a lineage that is thousands of years old, that its wisdom will keep us warm on a cold night. After all, if we look at our modern lives in reference to more traditional cultures, we can see that in many ways we are lonelier, more isolated, and have a greater propensity toward feelings of meaninglessness . I think it’s natural to want to align oneself with the  old and great traditions in order to feel a part of something greater.

Unfortunately, more often than not, we see individuals clinging to traditions that are foreign or “other” who may in some sense find a connection but often are, likewise, cut-off from themselves. One of our students told me that when she discovered yoga and its teachings, that she was so enamored by the truth of the words that she heard and the practice, that she decided to park her old, lonely self at the door in order to embrace the teachings fully. Through our discussions together, she discovered that what she had done is cut herself off from sides of herself, wisdom and intelligence that had been cultivated for years before her introduction to the practice. And by parking her lonely self at the door, she cut off from those sides of herself that needed tending to. Since making that decision, she felt very satisfied when reading about, discussing, or practicing yoga, but her parked problems kept nagging her. Eventually through probing, she came to discover that the true test of the practice was to use them on those parts of herself that felt lonely and isolated as a way to discover the their actual power.

When I started yoga, I remember there being a sort of strict division between Ashtanga and Iyengar practitioners. Somehow for the Iyengar yogis, we had it all wrong. We lacked alignment and precision, and every one of us was prone to injury. And we thought they had it all wrong. Their practice was totally boring, static, and mental. As Ashtanga has become increasingly popular in the last few years, I have seen this division between practitioners within the method itself that is similar, either you’re traditional or you aren’t. This idea of being ‘traditional’ is a new creation. It simply didn’t exist until recently. Not that the method wasn’t exact. Indeed, it was, but because the room in Mysore was so small, each individual was tended to in a unique way. Many of Guruji’s old students, including myself, will tell you that he would tell one person one thing about a particular asana or about the method as a whole and then absolutely contradict himself with someone else.

This idea that somehow the method is monolithic, ancient, perfect, and precise is something we wish were true but isn’t. Pattabhi Jois said that he received the teachings exactly as he taught them from his teacher, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who learned the method from his teacher, Rama Mohan Brahmachari, and so on. The idea is that at no time was the system tainted, but, instead, it was passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years in pristine form. The system is linked to a source text no longer in existence called the Yoga Korunta, which was supposedly written by a sage named Vamana Rishi and was imparted from Rama Mohan Brahmachari to Krishnamacharya. At some point the text was written on palm leaves, which were in the safe keeping of Pattabhi Jois, as the legend goes, but somehow insects destroyed the text. All of this description creates the myth that somehow the practice has some profound history and its transmission has been untainted from time immemorial.

But in purusing the notion of tradition a bit further, I came across The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace by N.E. Sjoman. Sjoman makes the following compelling argument: the yoga system taught by Krishnamacharya comes from a merging of gymnastics with yoga. The author drew his conclusions by mining the royal library in Mysore, where Krishnamacharya taught during the time he taught Pattabhi Jois. Krishnamacharya was appointed to the Mysore Palace in the early 1930s to teach yoga to the Arasu boys, the maternal relatives of the royal family. Through the patronage of Nalvadi Krishanarja Woodeyar, he opened a yoga shala or yoga school which continued until 1950. The author makes a very compelling argument that Krishnamacharya not only developed the Ashtanga system as taught by Pattabhi Jois during his tenure in Mysore, but that he drew on elements of gymnastics and Indian wrestling.

So, not only is it a misnomer that somehow the system has been perfectly sustained for thousands of years, it is easily argued that the system was created in the 1930s to some degree or another and has sources outside of the yoga tradition. And in the bit of history we have of Ashtanga from the vantage point of long-time Western practitioners, one can see that the system has been changed to one degree or another since 1973. Postures have been added and subtracted. The length or duration of holding postures has been changed. Even sequences have been changed. Third series today is only a fraction of the old Advanced A series and its sequencing has changed somewhat. Students who completed first were moved on to second without the barrier of getting up from backbends. Pranayama was taught after completing primary series initially. Then eventually, it was taught after completing intermediate series. Now, supposedly, it is taught after completing Third series. To say that the practice has sanctity through historicity just is not true. It is a living, changing phenomena.

The New Tradition

And as the method is being passed to the next generation of practitioners, it continues to mold and change. So to say that there is a ‘traditional’ way to practice doesn’t actually mean that there is this vast history that supports it. Instead, what traditional means is what is currently being taught in Mysore at the given moment. Pattabhi Jois’ family, essentially determines the ‘traditional’ nature of things. And as the torch has been passed on to Jois’ grandson, Sharath, he currently determines what, in fact, is traditional.

The notion of standing up from backbends in order to progress to intermediate series was created by Sharath. This is just one so-called ‘tradition’ that has recently been added to the practice in order to manage the influx of students coming to Mysore. So many people show up in Mysore today that it is increasingly impossible for the teacher to give much individual instruction. In order to counter this, every Friday and Sunday, led classes are given. Led classes, generally did not exist before Pattabhi Jois moved from his yoga shala in Lakshmipuram to his shala in Gokulam. In addition, more focus is being played on backbends than ever before. Essentially the tradition is going through another metamorphosis and is being influenced by the influx of people attracted to the power of yoga.

That being said, tradition is based upon agreement. When that agreement lacks discrimination the risk of damage can be great. I write this because the practice and community have meant so much to me. I hate to see Ashtanga Yoga go in this direction. What lead me to the practice, in the first place, was the fact that individuality was honored. Each of us who maintains the practice has a stake in maintaining its authenticity and longevity. My personal stake is that as Ashtanga continues to develop that it continues to honor the individual rather continuing to evolve  into a one-size-fits-all method in the name of tradition.

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Author:  Chad Hurst

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Visit Chad’s Website: http://www.herstwellness.com

Here are other articles by Chad that are posted on this site:
  • Ashtanga: Aging and Fatigue February 23, 2014 By Chad Herst A friend within the Ashtanga community recently reached out to me because she has been struggling to find a way into her practice such that it supports her fatigue and depression.  She wrote, “I have had chronic fatigue for many years, and used to find my practice helpful with my energy levels, but ...

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19 Responses

  1. Annie says:

    Oh! So perfect! Thank you Chad, for this beautiful piece. As a Craniosacral therapist and long time anatomy buff as well as an on again off again yogi, I love hearing this take on Ashtanga. Listening to the language that the body truly speaks can take us so deep. Not just pain but aliveness, vibration, numbness, emotion, the mind becoming overly active etc. These can all be communication from the body and the likelihood of missing out on the diamond in our own pocket is huge when we fixate on a result.

  2. Dan says:

    Hi! Just wanted to thank you for this post. I’ve been practicing for nearly 4 years, and have had a daily practice for about 3 of those years. I’ve also been through several injuries in that time – wrist, knee, hamstring fascia tear, among others more minor. None of these injuries have ever healed by pushing through them. Patience, good teachers who know how to modify a practice around injury, and intense attention to pain sensation have been the keys to getting through.

    I’m in my early thirties, and when I began my Ashtanga practice, I was intent on accomplishing difficult asanas: Marichy D and Janu C. Within about six months, some sort of meniscal tear / baker’s cyst and associated tendonitis cropped up. From a physical perspective, these injuries and the others listed above all reflected a latent, related weakness. The knees was injured because my hips were not open enough. The wrist was injured because of a lack of shoulder strength to grant stability in arm balances. The hamstring (still working through this) was injured because of a lack of balance in arda baddha padmasana. Unfortunately, the by-the-book primary series doesn’t give unfit or inflexible practitioners enough space to really work on these problems before throwing them into the fire. It took me a while to admit that I was unfit.

    Ashtanga is alluring. It would be incredible to be able to practice advanced series asanas, but I’ve learned to accept that I’ll never get to that level. I started my practice too late in life, after too much time at the computer desk. At the same time, a modified practice has given me freedom from back pain, ujjayi has essentially cured my asthma, and I have level of physical energy I would never have thought possible just a few years ago. And beyond all this, my injuries have taught me aparigraha in a most practical way. It’s taken me four years of “rehab” to be able to realistically attempt primary.

    I’ve recently moved to a new city, and begun practice in a new shala, more adherent to the strict primary series. Because I’ve worked on the aforementioned weaknesses, I can make it through most of primary without any pain… but I have noticed a twinge in marichyasana D in one knee. Your writing reminded me to return to the common sense I’ve cultivated over the years, and to let go once again. I’ll be backing off of this while I work on my hips a bit more.

    Hence the thank you. 🙂

    Your message resonates and is highly valuable.

    Namaste

  3. Shikha says:

    Dear Chad,

    I am Indian in my roots, raised in a Yoga-practising household. My mother has been a Yoga instructor for the last 33 years and my Grandpa (no more) practised Yoga since his training days at the wrestling school right from his teenage years until his 80th birthday. I, myself, have now finally completed a year-long Diploma in Yoga after spending a few years working for corporates. In course of this certification, I have studied in depth the Patanjala Yoga Darshana, Hatha Yoga Pradipika , GherandaSamhita, Shiva Samhita, Bhagwad Gita’s Yoga philosophy right from where they all began – i.e. Sankhya Philosophy. I have also practiced advanced Yoga postures though not mastered them the way my teachers expect me to 🙂 Not yet. I don’t mean to say that I am an expert or anything, but it’s my attempt at introducing myself so you get an idea of where I come from.

    Coming to the purpose of why I am writing to you – I must say that I get really confused when I read people in the West talk about Ashtanga Yoga vs Hatha Yoga vs Iyengar Yoga.

    In one sentence, can you please define for me – what is Ashtange Yoga? Your definition in your words on Ashtanga Yoga alone will help me get the article you have written 🙂

    That’s all for now, might make for an interesting conversation.

  4. Chad Herst says:

    Hi Shikha, I’m looking at your pedigree and am incredibly impressed by all of your study along with your family’s relationship to Yoga. I can understand your confusion when people in the west talk about Ashtanga vs Hatha vs Iyengar. These distinctions were useful for yoga studios in The States. It was an attempt to create distinct brands of yoga, a lot like the way we distinguish Pepsi Cola from Coca Cola. So what I’m referencing in this article is not Patanjal’s system of Ashtanga Yoga. When I say Ashtanga Yoga, I’m implying a practice and set of teachings that were taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois to his Western students starting in the early ’70s until his passing in 2009. In other word, I’m speaking specifically about his teaching, it’s evolution, and it’s continued evolution in the hands of his grandson, who is considered by many within the community to be the lineage-holder. I’m also speaking of the community of practitioners that surround Jois’ teachings.

    • Shikha says:

      I see what you mean now Chad, thank you for the clarification.

      I guess in India they refer to it as ‘Ashtanga-Vinyasa-Yoga’ because ‘Ashtanga’ by itself, refers to Patanjala Yoga Darshana’s 8-limbed practice as you rightly mentioned.

      In that sense, I would then call my training to be that of ‘Hatha Yoga’ tradition based around the macro and micro yogic warm up exercises given by Dhirendra Bhrahmchari, except he never gave a brand-label to it lol!

      Anyhow, thanks a lot for your response, I may bug a few other authors as I am trying to clarify for myself what the interpretations of so many terminologies are. I must say it’s a little sad that we as a community of Yoga practitioners still need to standardize a fair bit of nomenclature used in Yoga.

      Having said that, I admire the in-depth knowledge most of you all have which reeks of dedication and respect towards this ancient science-of-life, really helps connect with other Sadhakas across borders!

  5. Shikha says:

    Hi Chad,
    Sending an email out to you. Would love to hear back.
    Best,
    Shikha

  6. Have you read Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body? Written a decade later than Sjoman’s ’96 book, but he sources it and tells a similar story.

    As to a distinction between ‘Vinyasa Yoga’ and ‘Hatha Yoga’ and lets say ‘Power Yoga’ styles. Sticking with Singleton for a moment, he characterizes there being, within India round 80-100 years ago, somewhat of a distinction, but not a hard division. But, if you imagine that the new introduction of asanas coming from, on the one side stretching and relaxation techniques, and the other side weight-lifting and gymnastics, there is a distinction between ‘harmonial’ and ‘martial’ varieties.

    Yes, the overlap of standing postures being introduced, and modern gymnastic influence within India, seems established and nearly exhaustive. On the other hand, there is a deep tradition of yoga that involves more sitting and meditation, for yogi practitioners in the west to tap into.

  7. Jan Stanbury says:

    Hi Chad .. thank you for posting your comments on Knee injuries..
    I am a very active 66 years old male started my practice back in the early 1980 s with Norman Allen…
    I have never suffered any injuries in my 35 years of practice. I month ago i was in a mysore class on Miami Beach when one teacher started to bind my hands in marichyasana B then called another teacher over to help in the forward pushing… before i knew what was happening i heard a pop in my left knee and pain.
    Never have i ever had 2 teachers twisting and pushing at the same time. One MRI later and i had a complex tear in my medial meniscus… Daaaaa…
    i have been a fan for so many years but now realise that my big toes have chronic arthritis due to all the jump backs and my wrists are shot from all the flat palm push ups.. ( it only hurts when i do Yoga)
    SO as much as i would love to continue my practice and i will … the postures will be the ones i select and the ones that i request assistance with…. The long lasting destructive effects of yoga practice on the body only show up later in life… Now we have to fess up to who is responsible for the damage and recovery.
    regards

  8. cherst says:

    Hi Jan,

    What does that mean: “Now we have to fess up to who is responsible for the damage and recovery”? I cannot decipher whether you mean that the teacher is responsible or the student?

    Chad

  9. Jan Stanbury says:

    I have never had 2 teachers twisting and pushing me at the same time, especially in a posture that i have not fully performed in over 7 years. Yes of course its the teachers fault.. i never asked to be touched for that posture. listening to a students breathing and feeling the resistance in ones body is of paramount importance with good teachings and alignments. I have also taught ashtanga yoga so i know how to behave in class.
    I have been such an advocate of yoga all my life and it has just devastated me to think that my yoga teachers have cause such costly pain and suffering with this injury. Luckily they have insurance and we will be filing a claim against them.
    regards

  10. EMS says:

    You say that the length or duration of holding postures has been changed which I find interesting. Could you give some examples of what they used to be and what the changes were?

  11. Pia says:

    From my studies, I learned that Krishnamacharya tailored a series of asanas to address Pattabhi Jois ‘ particular dosha…a series that required more movement and fire to be built up. Krishnamacharay also crafted a series for Iyengar based on his dosha. Seeing that we all have different constitutions/doshas that require different foods and practices to stay in balance, it is odd to me that these practices got packaged as “types” or schools of yoga that everyone can take. There has been something sorely lost in translation. At the end of the day asana yoga is called hatha yoga. Right? Or am I way off base?

  12. cherst says:

    Hi Pia,
    It may be possible that Krishnamacharya tailored a series of asanas to address Iyengar’s and Jois’ particular dosha. Anything is possible, since we do not know how the facts of that transmission. We can only speculate. I personally doubt that hypothesis. For a few reasons. The first being that overall the series Guruji taught tend to generate a lot of heat and movement, meaning that they would greatly benefit someone with a lot of kapha (water and earth element), but if you look at Jois’ body as a young man, he doesn’t tend to fit that description. Also, have a look at this 1938 footage of Iyengar (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmOUZQi_6Tw). In it, you will see him demonstrating Advanced A or Third Series, which means that Krishnamacharya must have taught Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois more or less the same thing.

    The differences we see between what Jois taught and Iyengar taught had a lot to do with differences in life’s direction. Iyengar only studied with his teacher for a very short period of time. He took what he learned and then tailored it to his own psycho-physical circumstances and to those of his student. Jois, on the other hand, spent a longer period of time with his teacher. It is unclear, however, whether Jois learned only the sequences he taught or whether he learned a more nuanced approach to yoga. Finally, if you read Iyengar’s description of studying with his teacher, I get the sense that he was simply being trained and sometimes even broken in order to give yoga demonstrations for The Maharaja.

    I tend to side with Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice in his theory that the sequences Jois taught were, in fact, demonstration sequences. Krishnamacharya was funded by The Mahraja of Mysore to propagate yoga throughout India. To do so, he brought the boys he trained to demonstrate fantastical feats. While K was able to demonstrate a total cessation of his heart beat, he also had the boys bend and move in miraculous ways. The younger and less advanced students demonstrated primary. The intermediate students demonstrated intermediate. And so on.

    Likewise, if you read TKV Desikachar’s comments in Health Healing and Beyond, he says of his father: “He devised a particular way of teaching the young called vinyasa krama, which is a continuous energetic flow of movement because he knew they required animated exercise.” In other words, suryanamaskar between poses was designed to keep children interested and focused. This is a lot like martial arts in China. Young practitioners learn “hard styles,” like Gongfu (or kung fu), while older practitioners learn Qigong (or chi gong). As we age, the approach changes. Jois’ approach tends to be more appropriate for younger yoga practitioners. Of course there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. Nevertheless, I do believe jumping back between sides and poses tends to be for those with greater exuberance than those with less.

    Once again, this is all speculation. It’s also quite possible that the sequences were, in fact, described in The Yoga Korunta. We will never know since, according to Jois, the text was devoured by ants. So all we are left with is our own intuitive sense.

  13. Adrienyoga says:

    I tend to disagree at least partly with that approach since Mysore style as opposed to led practice is precisely the way to individualized the practice since let’s be sincere the only real way to individualized is 1)to bring the student to draw from inside which, one might argue is none of the teachers business to interfere with 2)let the student try different methods or teachers if one consider that ashtanga is not the only way to practice yoga at any single time, which i do.
    But still the precise point and value of this method is in its rigor. That’s why it is accurately called a method. And asking of Ashtanga to deviate from that is missing the point of this practice.
    I derive this argument as a practitioner not as a teacher since at least where i live few people seems to be ready to go that route with me so far.
    namaste

  14. Patrick says:

    Hi Chad, I am 44 started with all kind of Yoga 7 years ago. Since 2.5 year doing primary serie. After badha konasana I go to the finishing. I have for 9 months pain in my left knee. During the day and night it is sometimes like knifes cutting in. I hope the pain will go away. I modified my practise and being gentle. What do yo advise to me. Contineu practise every day? Teacher is saying that pain will go away. I have the feeling it will go away but I have doubts.
    Namasté Patrick

  15. Chad Herst says:

    Patrick,

    That sounds pretty painful. Since you’re asking my advice, I’d suggest you go see your medical doctor to find out if there is any structural damage to your knee. You want to find out what’s creating the pain. You might also consult with your teacher about how to back away from postures that hurt it. If the messaging you’re getting is to just push through, that somehow it’ll be better at some point but your intuition is saying otherwise, you might consider a home practice or practicing with a teacher that aligns with your own innate sense of what’s right for your body. In the end, you only have one left knee. I promise you that you will neither be happier nor more enlightened by having a bendy one.

  16. Patrick says:

    Thank you Chat. I really appriciate you taking time to answer my question. Your answer helps me to go through.

  17. Chad Herst says:

    Patrick, Always happy to help. Sounds like my words confirm what you already sense. Go for it!

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