In this article I describe my history with Ashtanga Yoga, how my approach changed over the decades, some of the problems that I encountered, their solution and how this has influenced my teaching.
How I came to Ashtanga
Initially I was only interested in the meditation and philosophy aspects of yoga and practiced and studied those for many years. I came to asana only once I realized that the vitality of my body had peaked. I tried out various yogas such as Satyananda and Iyengar but found them either not intense enough or too static.
Meanwhile when travelling through India I heard that somebody was teaching Ashtanga Yoga, the apparently original yoga of Patanjali. I travelled to Mysore and interviewed the then teacher and meanwhile deceased K Pattabhi Jois, who confirmed that this was in fact the Patanjali yoga.
Encouraged by this confirmation I set to work with great zeal, although initially surprised by just how much effort and vigor I had to invest into the practice. For many years I practiced asana for three or more hours per day. For quite a while I even did two asana practices per day.
How I succeeded with Ashtanga
After I accepted just how much energy I had to put into it my body changed radically and quickly. I then hit it big time with Ashtanga. To this day and this is decades afterwards I have to credit Ashtanga with giving me a body that is capable of sitting in Padmasana and Siddhasana for seemingly endless sessions of pranayama and yogic meditation. But let’s not get ahead in our story.
Boosted by physical prowess I turned into an Ashtanga zealot, with a strong fundamentalist tinge. To get my teacher authorization in India I had worked for many years very hard and tenaciously to complete the Intermediate Series of asanas. After I had achieved that goal I intended to enforce that standard by whatever means necessary.
For this reason for a long time I only accepted apprentices that either had completed or were on the way to completing the Intermediate Series of asanas. I had lengthy discussions with my co-trainer and wife Monica (also an authorized teacher in this method) about this issue. She argued that physical proficiency should not be the only measure to assess readiness to become a teacher whereas my line of argument was to uphold the standard.
First doubts: What makes a good teacher?
While for many years I did not accept any apprentices that didn’t fit those criteria, I nevertheless started to critically assess whether there was any link between physical proficiency and ability to master challenging postures on one hand and the ability to teach yoga with its many aspects on the other.
In the end I had to admit that there was very little connection. Most of my physically promising students did not go on to become great teachers. On the other hand there were many students at whom due to their physical limitations I initially sneered at, who went on to become excellent teachers. This is comparable to many other arts in life where the great trainers are not necessary the ones that are gifted in a particular discipline.
To be gifted can mean that you do not have to enquire deeply into what’s necessary to succeed since you can just do what’s required. On the other hand if you are not gifted this can provoke a deep inquiry into what needs to be done to succeed. This in turn can lead to the capacity to convey that to other students who are also not gifted. That vast majority of our students will not be of the gifted variety. As teachers we need to learn to cater to those.
The only area of teaching where it comes in handy to be an advanced asana practitioner is when you are teaching advanced postures. Looking back over decades of yoga experience this, however, takes less than 0.1% of my entire teaching activity, in other words it is a negligible part of the whole bandwidth of yoga teaching.
I critically examined my trainees to find out what made some great teachers and others not and found that apart from immersion in all limbs of yoga (and not just asana) what played a role was continued theoretical study of the subject, the ability to communicate and finally and most importantly a feeling of self-love and self- acceptance in which atmosphere the student can heal and experience the same.
This final and most important aspect of yoga teaching can be learned through spiritual practice (i.e. practice of the higher limbs) but it cannot be gained simply through asana.
On the contrary I found cases in which a great, strong and powerful asana practice was actually driven by self-loathing and the need for self-punishment. Some practitioners force themselves to attain such a coveted practice simply because they found themselves unworthy of love, that is the opposite of self-acceptance. To heal such practitioners it would be necessary to instill into them that they are okay as they are.
But what is being sold to them instead is the myth that they will be accepted as okay once they have achieved prowess in asana.
More doubts: It’s not your practice it’s your genetic make-up
Looking back over a life that has been predominantly spent with yoga I have to say that contemporary Ashtanga places too much emphasis on the body and asana. I probably have seen tens of thousands of students and the outcome of this observation is that the most important contributor to your ability to perform fancy postures is not how much you practice, or how many years you practice or how intensely or how devotedly. I consider all of this a modern myth. The number one denominator is simple your genetic make-up, whether you got the right parents, the right shape of joints and bones, length of ligaments and muscle tension. Yes, you can alter things to a certain extent but if I see a new student entering the room I usually can tell within an hour how far they will make it in asana practice. To pretend that everybody if they just practiced enough could master all these postures is fooling them and creating a thirst within them that can probably never be quenched.
How I changed
In the meantime I had two bad accidents, which meant that for quite a while I had to walk with the help of a stick. During that time I had to significantly modify my own practice. I asked myself what would my yoga be if my body was left, for example, quadriplegic. What would I do if I could not be an Ashtanga zealot anymore? Hang myself by means of my twisted yoga mat? Or was there more? What was this yoga about if we take the capable body away?
I realized that I needed to access an inner state that was not impinged on by the body whatsoever. I took all of the excess energy that I suddenly could not expend on athletic pursuit and threw it at studying yogic texts, Sanskrit, pranayama, kriyas and meditation. The transformative experience was so deep that I almost regretted that when my body eventually healed after years of yoga therapy, I could go back to advanced asana practice.
This experience also fundamentally changed my attitude to my students. To this day my old students tell me that they were all frightened of me when I walked into the shala, that there was something ferocious and imposing in my attitude. Today some of my students instead call me Papa Yogi Bear. I think that says it all. From zealot to Papa Yogi Bear.
The most important thing I understood is that it is not that the students are there for the yoga but that the yoga is there for the students. That means that if the practice does not serve the current needs of the student it must be adapted until it does. This is a maxim that was pointed out by Shri T Krishnamacharya but is lost in much of today’s competitive Ashtanga culture.
The goal of yoga is spiritual liberation. Through the many phases of human history yoga has changed over and over again to bring this goal in manifold ways to humanity. What was important was that this goal was reached and not through which form of practice it was reached.
How I teach now?
I hear that some people now call Ashtanga ‘the box’, indicating that it consists of a very narrow set of rules. I don’t think that people should be forced into a box that narrow. To be honest I don’t care much about the form of the box. What I care about is what it does to people. From looking at the many students that came to me I can discern four groups of people, let me call them the total ashtanga yogis, temporary adapters, permanent adapters and complete modifiers.
The first group is the one that fits into the box neatly. Somehow they have the right genetic make-up and with some work, they’ll be able to stick both legs behind their head, perform backward summersaults and stand on one hand, all what is to a great extent expected of a good Ashtanga practitioner. But these are actually the smallest group and they take the least amount of work. I simply just keep throwing more postures at them and explain once or twice how to do them and they’ll learn it.
The second group of students is much larger than the first. While they can stick to the rigid Ashtanga sequences most of the time, at times they have to modify their practice to address preexisting issues in their bodies that have surfaced. If you have for example serious knee or shoulder problems, it is unlikely that you heal them without modifying your practice. I belong to this group and by modifying whenever necessary and in what way necessary I can still practice most of the time straight Ashtanga after 25 years. It takes a fair bit of skill to teach this group.
The third group is even larger. They are students who will never be able to do a straight Ashtanga practice and will need some element of modification straight from the beginning and will need to stay with it. For example I have seen many students, often a bit older, that arrive with such stiff, hard, calcified hip joints that even ten or twenty years of practice including adjustments (yes, seen it) will bring only a slight improvement. If one is not prepared to think outside to box and enforces a presumably God or Rishi-given order of the postures these students can come to harm. One thing that I learned in over 35 years of yoga is that the Divine is infinite intelligence. I can positively guarantee you that he/she/it would never do or anything that would put the student in harms way, because harmlessness (ahimsa) is the number one rule of yoga and yoga is a creation of the Divine (Yoga Sutra I.26).
This leads me to the fourth and last group of students. For this group the practice must be individually custom built since as they have such ailments and difficulties that even a slightly but permanently modified Ashtanga practice is not suitable. Typical examples are elderly people with arthritis that have difficulties doing vinyasas, or upward and downward dog.
So there are at least four categories of students or four boxes that we have to fit students in and not just one. Of course the separations of the boxes are not made of boards but are fluid and we need to watch out for new categories and new approaches that become necessary.
More problems and the solutions
Another issue is the fact that a lot of long-term Ashtanga yogis develop problems. There are quite a few areas but to look at all of them would make this article unwieldy. Let’s just look at three of them, knee issues, shoulder problems and flexion dominance.
If you look at the Primary Series you can see that it was originally developed for students who had already reasonably open hips. This is due to the fact that in India in the old days people didn’t use table and chairs but lived sitting on the floor. If you sit cross-legged on the floor from an early age on, your hips will never stiffen and you will be able to do complex postures such as Marichyasana B or Garbha Pindasana without harming your knees. I found that dealing with Western students is as necessary to introduce postures such as Baddha Konasana first and only once hip joints had opened would I insert the more difficult postures to arrive at the original sequence.
Another issue is that there is not enough pulling in the Ashtanga practice and people end up with underdeveloped shoulder stabilizers. I call this a front/back imbalance, meaning the pectoralis group becomes overdeveloped and the rhomboids and lower trapezius underdeveloped. This can easily be countered by some simple therapeutic exercises but a lot of orthodox teachers refuse to integrate them into their classes because they don’t want to contradict the myth that simply repeating the same practice without questioning would fix all problems. Remember the old adage, “The definition of madness is to repeat the same actions and to expect a different result.”
Yet another important subject is what to do with a student that has practiced the primary series for a few years and due to stiff hips or other limitations has absolutely no chance of ever moving on to the Intermediate Series with its important backbends. The orthodox view is to leave the student in Primary Series forever. I have noticed that this often does not work.
If a student practices Primary over and over again for years their body will eventually become flexion dominant since the Primary Series contains nothing but forward bends. This means that in the body of the student a strong imbalance develops. We can easily counteract this by allowing the student to include a few or in some cases more than a few (intermediate) backbends to balance the acquired flexion dominance. However in orthodox Ashtanga this is seen as going against the sacrosanct order of the postures. What’s more important, the dogma or the well-being of the student? Unfortunately I have seen many students switch styles because teachers were inflexible in their minds.
And the bottom line and heart of the problem
My most important point, however, is that the spiritual aspects of Ashtanga are today not emphasized enough. I am trying through my books to open people more to this side of this magnificent practice and although the response was overwhelmingly positive I also encountered people who stamped their feet on the floor and yelled, ‘This is only a physical practice and it will remain that way’. I kid you not.
Although the term Ashtanga implies that it is a spiritual pursuit, many teachers only give some vague references to attention, breathing, bandhas and sweating and just do it and you will see.
Strangely enough if you study the yogic scriptures they don’t mention this narrative but clearly say that asana is only practiced so that you can spend extensive periods in Padmasana and Siddhasana practicing kumbhaka (breath retention), then an intricate school of yogic meditations and then finally the eight samadhis. But why are so few people doing it?
But not all is lost and why and how after 25 years I still practice Ashtanga daily.
I still think that Ashtanga is miraculous but only if you use the prowess and energy generated in your asana practice to then spend invest it into the higher limbs. And it is not that difficult either (if you have the right information) but you need to make a beginning.
I think it is exactly through this refusal to move on to the higher limbs that much of todays Ashtanga has earned its reputation of leading to physical problems. Because students are not led on to the higher limbs they are desperately trying to wring out of their body something that is not to be found in the body.
What we are really looking for is spiritual ecstasy and let me even call it some form of divine revelation, meaning the ultimate proof that we are indeed worthy of love. No human being will ever stop short of that ultimate confirmation, if we look for it in the strangest places, and we will go on and on until we reach it and in the meantime make a mess of our lives and the world in which we live.
If you get stuck with asana you will so desperately look for this ecstasy in your body that you will turn it inside out and in the process undo the body. But ecstasy is spiritual not physical. The mere name ecstasy implies this coming from the Greek ‘ekstasis’ – to be outside of the body.
You have to go beyond the body to harvest the many fruits of yoga. It was T Krishnamacharya who said that benefits of yoga can only be derived to the extent to which the respective limbs are practiced, i.e. asana will only give physical benefits and if you want more, more limbs have to be practiced.
I still consider Ashtanga yoga the ideal tool to transform the body into the vehicle on the road to spiritual liberation. But I teach it with a different twist: I tell my students to start with pranayama and yogic meditation as early as possible because too many students get bogged down in the quagmire of the body. To prevent that, I tell them to develop a dedicated pranayama practice to prepare for the Intermediate Series. I consider Intermediate too powerful to be unleashed onto a body not prepared by pranayama, even if such pranayama practice would be simple at the beginning.
I then tell my students to practice chakra and Kundalini meditation as a preparation for advanced asana practice. This creates the necessary distance to ones body and to ones achievements and prevents identification. In sutra I.12 Patanjali says that in order to still the mind, practice needs to be accompanied by disidentification.
Try it out and you will see that this desperate edge, sometimes even turning into auto-aggression, that one sees in some modern yogis, completely disappears. This inner peace and self-acceptance we look for cannot be found in asana but it is easily found in yogic pranayama and yogic meditation.
Asana is only the way to prepare the body. If we manage to restore this original purpose of asana then Ashtanga Yoga will return to what it once was, a path to spiritual freedom based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.