I recently returned from my first three month trip to practice with Sharath Jois in Mysore. I am not a newcomer to the Ashtanga system – I completed the 4th series with my previous teacher Rolf Naujokat earlier in 2014, and have maintained a daily Ashtanga practice for nearly 12 years. I knew that when I went to Mysore for the first time, none of this would matter.
When I went to register at the beginning of my three months, Sharath asked me his standard question, “Who is your teacher?” I replied that I had been with Rolf for the past 8 years and first learned the system from Mark Darby a few years before that. Sharath didn’t ask which posture or series I had learned, nor did I volunteer this information; he had no further questions for me.
Regardless of a person’s background, Sharath has everyone start over from the beginning when they come to Mysore for the first time. There are good reasons for this. The way the practice has been taught in Mysore has changed over the years. The practice itself and the method remain the same, but one thing that has changed, and continues to change, is how quickly and under what circumstances people are taught new postures and series. Each Ashtanga teacher also has their own interpretation of how SKPJ or Sharath taught them.
Due to all this variation, the level of integrity in the practice of a first time student in Mysore can vary. Sharath takes everyone back to the beginning, and observes their practice based on his own standards. What stood out to me right away is that Sharath has high standards, demanding great integrity from the students who come. These perhaps arise from Sharath’s own high standards that he sets for himself.
Sharath has been a part of the Ashtanga lineage in Mysore longer than any other living person. Although he was only a small boy when the first Western students came to practice in Mysore, he began his life in SKPJ’s house, and lived and breathed alongside his grandfather until his death. Sharath’s connection to the lineage is quite different from a few trips to Mysore – or even many trips – punctuating an otherwise separate life on the other side of the world.
Sharath has completed 25 years of “serious practice” as he calls it – not counting the years he learned asanas for fun before the age of 19. He has been teaching for nearly as long, and in recent years has taught hundreds of students per day, every day of his teaching season. Sharath witnessed firsthand how SKPJ’s teaching method changed over the years, and how different types of bodies and minds responded to those methods. He has spent 25 years applying his own evolving interpretation of the method to many different types of bodies and minds.
Sharath has also gone further in his own practice that anyone else in this lineage and system, and still maintains his daily personal practice in spite of having enormous personal responsibilities of family and institution.
Sharath Jois has had more direct experience with the practice on his own body, and in the bodies of thousands of students, than anyone else alive. His perspective on the practice is unique in it’s macro and universal, as well as micro and personal aspects.
For my own first trip in Mysore, Sharath had me do primary series only for the first three weeks. He began giving me intermediate series postures in the fourth week, one or two or three at time. He would wait for a few days or a week and then would give me the next set of postures. This started to become a familiar routine during the second month. At the end of the second month he told me to practice up to Eka Pada Sirsasana and the next day he instructed me to join the Led Intermediate class.
During my first Led Intermediate class, after completing Eka Pada Sirsasana I began to roll up my mat and make my way to the change room for finishing postures. As I stood up, Sharath came over and said “You try Dwi Pada”. I had to unroll my mat in a hurry, and was still setting it back up as Sharath started counting the five breaths for the posture. I quickly tried to zip myself into Dwi Pada. During the exiting Vinyasa, Sharath stood in front of me and said “You stop there”. I nodded in understanding and as I moved through upward and downward dog, he looked at me again and repeated for emphasis, “You stop there.” I wasn’t surprised. Out of all four series that I have learned and practice, two of my most challenging postures are still in Intermediate series – Dwi Pada Sirsasana being one of them.
My previous teachers had deemed those postures to be good enough to move beyond, and for the past 7 years I have only been practicing Intermediate series once per week, devoting the main days of the week to practicing the 3rd and 4th series.
Although I have been well aware that two of my intermediate postures are not up to the standard of all my other postures, the fact that I only encounter them once per week has allowed me to avoid doing the necessary work to go deeper into them. When I would occasionally reflect on this, I would chalk it up to the fact that my 6 ft 3 body and its natural lordosis would not be capable of doing those two postures to the degree of perfection that I have observed other advanced practitioners doing. “Everyone has one or two weak postures”, I told myself. I continued to gloss over these posture in my once a week Intermediate practice.
While just about any other senior teacher would judge my Dwi Pada to be good enough, Sharath has higher standards. And even if it was good enough, Sharath knew that it could still improve.
You stop here
Once he gave me that instruction, I knew the now familiar pattern of me getting new postures regularly was broken. There would be no new set of postures later that week, or the following week. In fact, he kept me on Dwi Pada for the entire third month until the end of my trip. I was not surprised. Each week, before the Monday Led Intermediate class, my girlfriend Susan would say “I think Sharath will move you on this week.” I would smile and say “We’ll see”.
It wasn’t so difficult for my ego to accept that I had been stopped in Intermediate series. I knew I wouldn’t get beyond Intermediate Series on my first trip, and expected my two challenging postures to be noticed by Sharath. What was difficult was that I had to actually do the work on Dwi Pada!
Nothing changed in my Dwi Pada for the next few days, so I decided to give it a little more examination at home. I asked Susan to adjust me more deeply into it, to the degree that I felt Sharath wanted me to be able to do on my own. She did this once or twice so I could get the feeling of the posture. We took before and after photos.
For the rest of that week I played around with it at home, trying to find my way into what it felt like when I was adjusted more deeply by Susan. I started to have some degree of success in what I had previously considered to be impossible for my body. In class at the shala I would also spend more time on it, doing it 2 or 3 times before moving into my finishing postures. Within two weeks of Sharath’s “you stop there” instruction, my Dwi Pada had improved significantly and visibly. I could feel a whole new level of extension in my upper thoracic spine, ease in lifting my head, and evenness throughout my body.
Still, it was not yet as good as it could be. As I was leaving the shala after practice one morning, Sharath asked: “Iain – you did Dwi Pada?” “Yes”, I replied. “OK”, he smiled and left it at that.
It was during my third or fourth Led Intermediate class that Sharath came up behind me during Dwi Pada. “Lift your head more!” he exclaimed. I tried. “Iain – lift the head, spread your feet more!”. He half-heartedly pulled my left foot to the side. He clearly was not going to adjust me; he wanted me to do the work myself. As I rolled up my mat to leave after Dwi Pada, he again said “The head must be more up – spread the feet!” He looked perplexed, as if I was ignoring his instructions on purpose. “I’m trying”, I assured him.
Day by day, Dwi Pada became deeper and fuller. I no longer needed to play around with it at home outside of regular practice time, the transformation of the posture had taken on a life of its own and was steadily moving in a particular direction. In the three weeks since I have left Mysore, it has continued to improve, and the new state of the posture now feels very natural. It’s been so enjoyable for me to see the changes in a posture in which I previously assumed I had already reached my maximum potential, that I have continued to practice Intermediate series only instead of immediately going back to my regular 3rd and 4th series practices. It’s nice to spend some more time with what Sharath has taught me.
For this change to occur, I needed no technical instruction, and I only needed two adjustments from Susan. I didn’t need a two-hour workshop, breaking down the mechanics of the posture, or a special adjustment clinic. I didn’t need bodywork. I didn’t even need to be adjusted by Sharath in the posture. All I needed was to hear the words “You stop there” in order to begin to focus and develop the posture myself.
This clarifies and validates some of my understanding of how the Ashtanga system works, both as a practitioner and as a Mysore-style Ashtanga teacher.
I am now based in Ubud, Bali and I am exposed to a wide range of students, coming from all over the world and coming from many different teachers. This is quite interesting and a great experience for me. I can now understand much more clearly why Sharath takes everyone back to Primary Series when they start with him.
My perspective is that a significant percentage of students who come to practice with me are practicing further into the series than is appropriate for them. I have frequently felt the need to pull people back when they join practice with me, pointing out which postures they have not yet properly integrated or developed, and asking them to stop their practices there. Some students are quite open to this, some are not so happy. It’s a bit tricky as a teacher, to be able to do this in a compassionate way, so that it doesn’t feel like I am taking something away from the student. The reality is, I am giving them something, by showing them where they need to work.
By saying “you stop there” at Dwi Pada, Sharath didn’t take away the second half of intermediate, 3rd and 4th series away from me. I still have all those postures, and I can still practice them whenever I want (just not in Mysore yet). But what Sharath did is to give me Dwi Pada, and that is a real gift. By being asked to stop and do the work, I now feel what Dwi Pada should really feel like, for the first time – 11 or 12 years after I first learned it.
Having realized this, I am now finding it easier as a teacher to ask students to “stop there.” And if the student is receptive to it, within a matter of days, I can see, and they can also feel, how the posture I have stopped them on starts to transform and change.
There is also the potential to take this concept to an extreme and demand an ideal of perfection that is unattainable. As in anything else, it takes skill and experience to find the middle path, and to find the middle path with compassion. Becoming rigid and overly idealistic will be just as detrimental as being the opposite way.
Each student is an individual, and each individual has their own unique capacity for the different types of movements. As I worked on Dwi Pada in the shala in Mysore, I couldn’t help but look around and start to compare. Especially during Led Intermediate, I noticed that some of the people who were allowed to move on past Dwi Pada and do more postures were not doing Dwi Pada any better than I was. In fact, some were significantly worse than me.
I would sometimes grumble to Susan later in the day about this. She would remind me that they had probably also been stopped on Dwi Pada for some time, and that Sharath had eventually decided that they had reached their maximum potential and moved them on. “He knows that you can still do it better”, she told me. Of course, I knew she was right.
The act of stopping students at a particular posture in the Ashtanga system is not to force everyone to conform to a set standard, but to make sure that each individual develops the posture to their own maximum potential, in a way that is healthy for them.
This is why the standards are different for each individual. The expectations for Marichyasana D are going to be very different for an older person who has had 5 knee surgeries, compared to a younger person who is healthy, but just a bit stiff. The young and stiff person will likely be asked to stop there until they open up and can bind the posture, whereas the older person with damaged knees may be given different expectations.
It takes perceptiveness, skill, and experience on the part of a teacher to do this kind of analysis well. This is the correct application of the Ashtanga system, what I believe is the most important insight we as teachers should be trying to develop in ourselves.
It’s my observation that some Ashtanga teachers can get involved in other aspects of teaching at the expense of this insight. It’s especially easy to get caught up in teaching that makes the students feel good on a superficial level. Examples of this are giving great adjustments, giving students new postures, and displaying a lot of intellectual knowledge around the anatomy and physiology of the body and how it works in the postures.
When you hear praises being spoken about some Ashtanga teachers, often “he/she gives great adjustments” is a part of this description. And, almost everyone feels good when they come away from a few weeks with a senior teacher and have been given a bunch of new postures to work on. And, teachers who have a lot of intellectual understanding of anatomy and physiology, and can give long workshops discussing and expounding this understanding are also given a great deal of respect. These are all good recipes for popularity and influence for the teacher. It’s an understandable challenge for teachers to resist focusing on these aspects of teaching. The result, however, can be to lose perspective on what the actual point of the practice is.
Receiving a quality adjustment can be very transformative. In fact, it is often an essential ingredient in instigating a transformative process. As I mentioned earlier, when I started to explore Dwi Pada more, the first thing I did was ask Susan to adjust me more deeply into it, so I had a bodily experience to work towards. Getting a good adjustment can help to open things up, but more important it gives the mind and nervous system an organic experience of what the end result should FEEL like in the body, so that one can try to recreate it when working on one’s own.
Though I asked Susan to adjust me in Dwi Pada, I only needed her to adjust me two times. Once I had that experience, I knew my job was to then recreate it myself. It just gave me an understanding of what I was looking for. Sharath never attempted to adjust me in Dwi Pada. He merely verbalized in the simplest terms what was lacking in the posture, and then left it up to me to figure it out.
This is how the most skillful teachers will work with students – give them the minimum amount of input necessary for them to understand where they should be going, and then leave it up to them to work it out for themselves. This approach produces the strongest, most stable and most integrated result in the students, and it gives the students greater strength, confidence and power in the long run.
All good teachers know this. When I was practicing Iyengar yoga 15 years ago, I also had this experience. One day I was trying to do an arm balance, struggling and falling over again and again. My teacher (who also happened to be named Sharat) was standing a few feet away quietly watching me. After a lengthy period of time, one of the other students asked “Sharat, why won’t you help Iain?”. My teacher replied “as a teacher, you have to watch, and see how far your student can go”. This wisdom is there in all good teachers, from all traditions of yoga, and other forms of practice as well.
Over-adjusting takes power away from the students, and gives it to the teacher. The students become dependent on the teacher for those “great adjustments” to help them feel good. They never develop the ability to make themselves feel good. This dependency serves the teacher by giving them more popularity, student numbers and income, so it can be difficult for the teacher to resist giving out “great adjustments” like candy. I remember my first Iyengar teacher describing this dynamic. He said “I could give you all an amazing buzz in class every day, and make you addicted to me. I have the power to do this. But, my job is to teach you independence, so you can rely on yourselves. This is real yoga.”
Understanding of anatomy and physiology is also important. To know how the joints should be rotating, where a particular movement should and shouldn’t be coming from, what specific part of the body is actually stuck, and similar categories of knowledge are helpful and important, especially for protection against injury. But – they do not replace the real work that needs to be done to get unstuck.
Years ago I attended a couple of workshops with senior Ashtanga teachers. In these workshops, the teachers broke down the mechanics of Eka Pada and Dwi Pada. It was interesting and illuminating – intellectually. But, these workshops did not change my experience of Dwi Pada even slightly. I came away feeling like I had just spent hours with a teacher who had a lot of knowledge – but my Dwi Pada did not change one bit from it. Years later, it was only when Sharath told me, “You stop there” that I finally did the work to change my own Dwi Pada.
Teachers who give out a lot of new postures can also be very popular. Some students may attend a 2 or 4 week workshop or a few weeks of Mysore classes with a “posture-happy” teacher coming away with a handful of new postures to “work on,” whether the student is ready for them or not. At the same time, the teacher might be giving “great adjustments” in the difficult postures that are already part of the students’ practice repertoire — instead of stopping them there and asking them to work more deeply. This dynamic can breed misunderstanding of how the system works on the body-mind, what the job of the teacher is and what the goals of the practice actually are.
Other, less experienced teachers — with little or no traditional Ashtanga training — develop liberal interpretations of the Ashtanga method and offer Mysore style and Led classes under the Ashtanga name. These teachers are giving out as many postures as a student can handle without collapsing from exhaustion. The goal is to give a strong workout. The result is usually very little integration and a lot of pain and injury. This is also a gross misinterpretation of the method.
The Ashtanga practice is here to help us see where we are stuck. This can manifest on the physical, energetic, mental or emotional plane (or most likely all four at once). Stopping at the postures that force us to encounter where we are stuck is how we actually get to work through some of this, and this is how the practice transforms us as people – physically, energetically, emotionally, and mentally.
The very best Ashtanga teachers will be the ones who show us where we are stuck, and where we need to stop and do the work. The best Ashtanga teachers will be the ones who don’t keep giving us great adjustments every day, or spend hours explaining to us the anatomical details, or hand out new postures that we are not ready for. The best Ashtanga teachers will encourage or even force us to stop there, give us minimal guidance, and ask us to do it ourselves. This, in my humble opinion, is the role of the Mysore style Ashtanga teacher, and the correct application of the method.