Thursday, January 24, 2013

it's totally cool to dip your toes in the water first

My student Annette sent me a link to an elephant journal blog yesterday.  It was called "How I Dismissed the Ashtanga Police."  Here:  I went through several responses.  First, annoyance at the deliberately provocative title.  Second, annoyance to the point of homicidal ideation as I read through the first two thirds of the article.  Third, relief when the writer got to her point, and finally back to milder annoyance at the deliberately provocative title.

It boils down to this: if I read one more fucking thing in elephant journal, recovering yogi, facebook, or the blogosphere in general in which somebody complains about Ashtanga police or Ashtangis' lack of a sense of humor, or boasts about not practicing six days a week, practicing on moon days and Saturdays, eating meat, never going to Mysore, omitting vinyasas, practicing other styles of yoga, or expresses indignation about Sharath or any other senior Ashtanga teacher's wealth, or self-identifies as a "rogue" or "maverick," etc. etc. I'm going to shit a whole chicken.  I'm fucking over it.  Ah.... Catharsis.

Now that that's off my chest, we can examine the root causes of the problem.  Why do some people feel compelled to write snarky, clever things about Ashtanga yoga?  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that it's probably often a case of too much, too soon.  To be sure, the Ashtanga yoga life, i.e. six day a week practice (regardless of whatever crappy circumstances short of fever or swelling), vegetarianism, trips to India, holding to the yamas and niyamas as best as possible, all that, is a daunting one.  Lots of sacrifice.  I sense that for some people the asana side of the practice gets its hooks into them and they want more, but are resentful of the encompassing life changes required to get more.  The bad news is that while there may be a way to get a really advanced asana practice without the aforementioned sacrifices, I don't know what it is and if anybody does, he or she isn't sharing it.  .

The good news is you don't have to jump into the deep end right off the bat.  Rather try, if you can, to shift your asana expectations and focus on what you're willing to sacrifice, and only sacrifice what your willing to sacrifice and not a scintilla more.  My own experience of Ashtanga yoga has been incremental.  I've been very fortunate to find that with each step I've taken towards immersion into the life, my asana practice and the other aspects of my life have improved.  I always went at my own pace and although I started out a little skeptical and cautious, I never got resentful.

Finally, I would like to defend some of my fellow Ashtanga teachers and call others of them out.  I think I speak for many of my colleagues when I say we don't care if you think Hinduism is silly or that moon days are mumbo-jumbo, or that we're all in a cult, or whatever.  As long as you come to practice and you don't show contempt to me or your fellow students in the shala, we're cool.  To paraphrase A Tribe Called Quest: "if you came to the party then I'm glad you came."  And if you open up to more, when you're ready, then we'll both be happy, trust me.  On the other hand, if you are a teacher who has ever made a student feel bad for not fully embracing the life, or pushed him or her into embracing the life faster than he or she was ready, then you are a dick and a fool.  For whatever reason, valid or not, Ashtanga does often get a bad rap for being to dogmatic.  Let's change this, shall we?


  1. Patrick, thanks for writing this. Sometimes I liken my Ashtanga practice to being in the closet. I'm in the closet with non-yogis who think I'm nuts for getting up at 5 am, 6 days a week. And I'm in the closet with my fellow Ashtangis that as Cordon Bleu-trained chef, I still like to eat a bit of meat.

    I went to Mysore for the first time this Summer, and it only affirmed my 12-year practice as a life-long one. I've made many changes along the way, and am sure that more are to come (vegetarianism probably chief among them!)

    In the meantime, my practice both on and off the mat makes me happy. It's as simple as that.

    1. mr. unknown,
      i was in mysore this summer. did we meet? come out of all your closets, i would say. remember the expression "if i can't dance, then i don't want to be part of your revolution." besides, not everybody is going to judge you for eating meat. i have fish about once every other month or so, but less and less i must say. last time i made a ceviche of grouper with shallots, cumin, fresh oregano, pomegranate seeds, and meyer lemon juice. morroccan style. so there. hopefully we'll see each other some time in mysore. thank you for responding.

  2. Seriously.

    The screaming headlines of the posts may say something about the writers' experience of ashtanga itself as having sort of screaming headlines. Sigh. It really does not help the practice to whip up vrittis like that.

    1. if you can allow me some hypocrisy here, as a blogger, but i think all of us should probably take blog fasts every so often. maybe more often than not. hard to know when discourse ends and needless vritti whipping begins. thank you for reading and responding

  3. I've been practicing Ashtanga for almost two decades. I've never been to Mysore, nor do I plan on going. I have a daily practice, although not a 6am practice. It's the only time of day I spend with my partner, who is not a practitioner. My relationship - and my family - is more important to me than my practice.

    The practice fits my lifestyle, not the other way around, although, admittedly, it has become my lifestyle....vegetarian, non-drinking, early to bed, yama, niyama, yada yada yada.

    I think what bothers me and makes me want to no longer self-identify as an Ashtangi is the dogmatism that is being spewed by folks who are recently authorized or are returning from their first or second trip to Mysore. Maybe I read too many Ashtanga blogs, but Sharath's most recent conference, where he chided folks who choose their families over a trip to Mysore rubbed me the wrong way, too. The judgment of the recently converted may arise from their need to validate their own choices and sacrifices. The apparent harshness of Sharath may arise from a heavy mantle to bear and the apparent schism between himself and the Western senior teachers - and even Manju, who I know has said that you can get authorized with him and need not go to Mysore. That must rankle Sharath a bit, I imagine.

    Whatever the reasons for the recent surge in dogmatism - and it does exist - it comes down to this: there are many paths, and one Truth. The insistence that we all must follow the path "this way" for it to be "correct" and that study in Mysore is the only legitimate training is clouded thinking, frankly, and I think that's why so many Ashtanga practitioners are pushing back.

    1. Michelle - I agree with you on Sharath's last conference, but only to a certain extent. I think what he might have meant is that IF you want to make the trip badly enough, you'll find a way. The next question would be, must everyone desire to make the trip that badly in order to be considered a "real" ashtangi? I would venture to guess that most reasonable people would say no, unless you want to be a teacher. And that's ok!

      I can barely get a weekly practice going, but even if I could get a daily practice, my husband and I don't have money to travel. So if we did, I'm sorry, I'd go away with him, not drag him on a month-long trip he wouldn't want to go on anyway. So, a possible trip to mysore may not happen until many many many decades from now. But maybe that openness is ok, too?

    2. thank you for responding michelle. i don't know where to start... your family should be more important than your practice. that's a no-brainer. i don't think any senior teacher, not sharath, not anyone, ever said that practice should take precedence over family. this was, after all, a system designed for householders specifically so people could get all of their spiritual/religious obligations out of the way in about an hour and half, two hours tops. i guess i'd like to apologize for all the dogmatic teachers out there, the dicks and fools i wrote about. for what it's worth, i'm making it my mission (starting with this blog) to shatter all that dogma and take it down a peg.

      on the other hand, i'd like to re-direct you to your statement about teachers needing to validate their sacrifices. can you cut them some slack, knowing that they did make big sacrifices? it does nobody any harm to just nod and smile while they're being dogmatic. and if push comes to shove by all means tell them to kiss your ass if they get too dogmatic.

      finally, yes, many paths, one truth. however, it's best to stick to just one path, don't you think? in this path, parampara, or chain of command, as i like to call it, plays a big part. i don't think that that means studying with manju, or lino miele, or anybody like that means you aren't practicing ashtanga yoga, though. my thoughts on this particular matter aren't crystal clear yet, as you can see.

      it's a bummer you feel like ceasing to self-identify as an ashtangi. i would still like to extend an invitation to you to come to practice at miami life center with me or one of my colleagues if you're ever in miami.

    3. I'm all for digging the well in just one place, for a long time, with reverence and consistency. I know that the well is deeply dug in Mysore, and, absolutely, I am truly happy for teachers who have been able to go. I respect their sacrifices and understand how transformative the experience, including the effort to get there, is. I'm certain that for many, practice in Mysore strips away a great deal that is clouded, revealing what is true and permanent. A positive transformation towards greater consciousness. I know it happens for many who go there.

      But, for others, the dicks and the fools as you call them, it's become a source of increasing their sense of small self - an ego boost. The idea they are teaching the practice, and pontificating, from that state of increased ego - from false self - because they "went to Mysore," well, it just got to me this week. Most of the time, I shrug it off as so much hot air.

      As for this being a householder practice - absolutely, that's the beauty of Ashtanga: for all the effort you must put into it, it gives back so much more, and when used as a tool for increasing clarity and ridding yourself of what's false and unnecessary, it can enhance and improve your life experience and behaviors as a parent, partner, human being. That's why I practice :)

      Although I've never been there, I follow what Sharath is sharing and teaching through the cybershala. I respect that he is the main holder of the lineage, the parampara (although I do not feel he is the only holder of parampara.) I do my best to practice correct method, and make an effort to study with my authorized/certified teachers as often as possible, every year. And, I read the blogs of those who practice and who go to Mysore - the cybershala - to help remain informed, too. I do remember reading conference notes a couple of years ago where Sharath essentially said that your family is more important than your practice.

      Yet, the most recent conference notes had a change in tone that was more chiding and critical of those who don't make the sacrifices to get to Mysore. It may have been the interpretation of the person recording the info, but his statements implied that selfishness and attachment to material things was what prevented a trip.

      Future pain can be avoided. Self sacrifice leads to self-preservation. If I know leaving my job, family or partner is going to be a source of difficulty for those I leave behind, I am less willing to go. It's a simple as that. The right choice for some may be putting your needs behind those with whom you are householding! To work more deeply, maybe to speed up the process that I am slowly but surely working on right here, is something I was never willing to put my family through. That's what's was best for me. I respect and applaud folks who can carve out Mysore time for themselves to do the work there. Perhaps it's unreasonable or egotistical, but I simply want my choice to be viewed as just as valid.

      Anyhow, thanks for the invite, Patrick. I may take you up on it - a quick trip to sunny, warm Miami is probably what I need to rid myself of these dark thoughts that are arising, probably because it's so damn cold (-5 degrees this morning) where I live!

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