Friday, 29 March 2013

Guest post - Ashtanga Yoga: practice with discipline but practice smart, a response to Matthew Sweeney's recent article

Another guest or rather shared post from Marie HALLAGER Andersen's blog who shared her Richard Freeman workshop post with us last year. 


as well as this one on Woman and Yoga


The new one below is a response to Matthew Sweeney's article The evolution of Ashtanga

Guest post by 

Marie HALLAGER Andersen


Ashtanga Yoga: practice with discipline but practice smart

There are two points I want to make in this blog post. One is that, if you practice with discipline and commitment Ashtanga Yoga will give you evident results. The other point is that the strict practice can become a trap when a rigid approach to the tradition takes over. This blog post is about learning to practice in a disciplined way, but also learning to practice smart.

I had already begun to write the post when I came across an article by yoga master Matthew Sweeney, ‘The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga’. In it, Matthew explores the ideas of change within a traditional method.  I was curious to add some comments and so I thought I'd use Matthew’s article as a starting point to talk about the subject and then expand with my own thoughts and experiences. But I urge you to read Matthew's full post here.

Matthew Sweeney
Matthew outlines the pros and cons of sticking closely to the traditional Ashtanga Yoga series. He argues that the practice and the teaching of the practice has evolved and that the idea of 'tradition' depends on who you ask. Is it to deny the 'tradition' and to refuse a sequence that 'works' if you start to modify, to adapt or even to play with postures out of sequence? He points out the uniqueness and deficiencies of the Ashtanga Yoga system. I find his closing words and concluding question intriguing:

    "...every system needs to evolve else it will become stagnant, every system needs stability from which this change can flourish. It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it"?
Matthew Sweeney from blog post: The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga

He addresses the reader directly and asks us to take a stand on this. Can we as hardcore traditionalists embrace change and can we as lovers of variety and change accept the value and depth of tradition?
The pros of sticking to the traditional practice
A very good argument for sticking strictly to the sequence is that of facing postures found to be unfamiliar and difficult. The Ashtanga Yoga sequence doesn't allow you a lazy playlist of 'greatest hits'.
I experienced this with my own body. After committing to the full Ashtanga practice in Mysore classes (no skipping postures!), I found my confidence increase both on and off the mat. The truth is that some of the more extreme primary series postures meant that I had been avoiding the full practice for a long time because of injury and fear. I needed the sequence to confront me with what I found difficult; it taught me not to cop out every time I hit an obstacle.
Read on for Matthew's precise and sharp analysis on this subject. I couldn't have said it better so I will let it stand for itself:

    "The simple fact is that by adhering to the set sequences of Ashtanga, although more discipline is required, the results are definite. Without set sequencing, without some commitment to self practice, both the results of the body and the focus of the mind are generally limited. A key benefit of a set sequence is that it keeps you honest. You are forced to doing postures that are difficult or problematic rather than avoid them, or only doing the ones you may like or which feel good. (...) Avoiding difficult or problematic postures is a major flaw, particularly with styles of Yoga that don’t work with set sequencing. Both beginner and advanced practitioners can fall into this trap, which leads to building up your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses, and then leads to further imbalance, rather than less".
Matthew Sweeney from blog post: The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga

The cons of sticking to the traditional practice
Matthew's main argument in his article against sticking dogmatically to the set order of the sequence is that the majority of the postures in the primary series are about upper body strength and forward-bending postures. Many of us get stuck here due to inflexible hips or hamstrings and hence we build strength in some areas and less in others by vigorously repeating vinyasas and forward bends. As Matthew explains, this focus enhances the upward and energetic aspect of the yoga practice (referred to as masculine energy) and less on the downwards and soothing aspect (female energy).  (For more on such a theme see my 'Women & Yoga' post here) .


It is not that Matthew argues that we should not teach the traditional method but rather that you have to learn to take responsibility as a teacher for tweaking the practice to accommodate each individual student who takes an interest in doing yoga and not only those who have certain aptitudes.

    "After the initial learning phase it is important to consider the needs of the student rather than blindly following the tradition. It is important to consider whether the standard Ashtanga is appropriate (and often it may not be) and then notice if you do not teach an alternative out of fear, rigidity or inability".
Matthew Sweeney from blog post: The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga -A sacred cow?
It is my experience that there is an unwritten rule particularly for more senior Ashtanga teachers to be very faithful to the traditional teaching: 'If this is what Guruji (or Sharath) has said, then it must be the truth'. Therefore I was thrilled to hear Matthew Sweeney talk about the problems of how dogmatically the Ashtanga practice is often approached. Finally: a senior teacher to speak out about what I had been thinking. And no doubt he’s not the first to express this. Matthew says:

 "Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day. There is nothing innately spiritual, holy or sacred about them".
Matthew Sweeney from blog post: The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga

In Leeds
Haven't most Ashtanga practitioners been wondering about this at some point since starting their yoga journey? The approach taken by our teacher (and very advanced Ashtangi) Joey Miles, is probably unusual compared to that in some more traditional Ashtanga Yoga Shalas. Joey teaches a disciplined Ashtanga practice according to the inherited sequences, but he allows for the use of props and modifications (to postures and sequence) where appropriate. He’s influenced by Iyengar Yoga and will spend time with the individual student to help them understand basic alignment for a safe practice. If a student is working with an injury or is otherwise challenged he might suggest modifications or additional postures to work sensibly with this. In short, Joey seems to take the ‘tradition’ less dogmatically, and although he honours it, he has given it his own stamp.
Self-practice for Ashtanga Yoga only?

Joey Miles
Inevitably a led or ‘counted’ Ashtanga class cannot accommodate modifications for every single student in the space of 90 minutes. Led classes, of course, have their place for establishing rhythm, pace and focus to the Ashtanga sequence, and for reminding us of the correct breathing. But what are Mysore self-practice classes for? Matthew Sweeney mentions self-practice aspect several times in his blog post and also argues that it is one of the unique features of the Ashtanga practice, where the student receives feedback and hands-on adjustments during practice. So many other Yogas don't do self-practice. So should a self-practice class only be for people who naturally find jump backs and forward bends easy? Surely no teacher or true yogi is interested in this kind of exclusion.

Why should a student not feel welcome to come and practice a modified sequence for a period of time due to aptitude, age, injury or illness? Or perhaps a more permanent adapted practice if circumstances or body type doesn't fit the Ashtanga Yoga archetype of lean and petite? It is my impression that self practice classes risk becoming exclusive to the type of students who a) already know the full primary series (other students seem to think that this is a prerequisite for doing this class) and, b) have right body type to cope with vinyasas and forward bends and who thrive on the upwards, 'male' energy Matthew refers to in his blog post.

Back to Leeds
As mentioned earlier on in the post one of Joey's strengths as a teacher is precisely to implement what Matthew Sweeney is talking about in his post: to notice the needs of the individual student and have the courage to let go of the established sequence if this benefits the student. The implications of this is that some students will be practicing modifications or adapted versions of the sequence next to someone doing a ‘strict’ Ashtanga practice. Now what are the practical implications of this? How do you make sure that the practice in the self practice environment stays safe for both students and teachers? And all this while acknowledging the usefulness of being disciplined with the practice but still making space for all types of people.

Mysore practice in leeds
To practice smart is to practice with discipline but not with rigidity. So the emphasis of our practice is not to follow slavishly the form of the postures as they are set out in the text books but to practice with ease so doing yoga remains fun and inspiring. Modified with benefits but not discarded to avoid confronting difficulties.

Yoga is for everyone regardless of ability. I will finish with a quote by Matthew Sweeney again:

"For example, how do you teach someone missing one arm(...)"?
Matthew Sweeney from blog post: The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga

Next I’ll be returning to my series of posts about developing a yoga practice for Toke who only has one arm...
Toke Broni Strandby in Downward Dog
See the original post at Marie's Blog here
http://mariehallagerandersen.weebly.com/1/post/2013/03/ashtanga-yoga-to-practice-with-discipline-but-to-practice-smart.html

13 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed this, thanks for posting, Anthony.
    -Elle

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love EVERYTHING about this post. It is SO important to question our assumptions, regardless of the conclusions that we come too. An of course, I came to some of the same conclusions within my own Ashtanga practice, so it's nice to hear an experienced and respected teacher say those magic words: "they are just Asana sequences at the end of the day." Oms to that!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is really good for me to read and thanks for posting!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you Anthony, loved your post and loved Matthew's too.

    In my experience, the deviation from the strick tradition, the need to modify, the need to find hat works eventaully happens for all of us... it is the alchemy that happens when the practice as dictated becomes our own practice, when we begin to see certain fruits and trust our own insticts.

    It does NOT mean we abandon tradition but rather that we stem from it, we ground in it and grow through it, and blossom into our own flower. Our own expression.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Grimmly -- Matthew's original post has forked into a very civil discussion between Tim Feldmann and Matthew about the interpretive history of Ashtanga roots. I wonder if you through your research you have anything to add to this.

    http://loveyogaanatomy.com/ashtanga-yoga-70-years-or-2000/

    PS. One thing stuck in mind about Matthew's originally post is why Tirumalai Krishnamacharya stopped teaching the primary series.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Terry, thanks for the link. I do have a couple of half written posts on this that I might see about finishing off on Tuesday ( my day off) , they were getting kind of long and complicated so needed tidying up.

    As for Why K. stopped teaching Primary series, my current thinking is that he 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 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 close to what he typed out for Nancy Gilgoff).
    In fact if we go back as far as Yoga Makaranda we're still finding groups, variations...K was always teaching Vinyasa Krama. I think in the beginning vinyasa Krama and Ashtnga were quite close but as Ashtanga became ever more simplified and fixed they began to seem further apart.

    The problem with a fixed sequence is that you have to get through the sequence, so the stays get shorter, the breaths too get shorter and you do away with the kumbhakas. 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. it's almost ironic that Jois ended up referring to the practice as Ashtanga because in a sense it could be argued that he stripped the ashtanga out of Krishnamacharya's practice to be left with an asana practice with a strong focus on breath and bandhas.

    As for the korunta, if there ever was such a thing (Desikachar suggests it was more related to yoga philosophy than asana practice) then I suspect it would surely have been closer to Yoga Makaranda than yoga mala. 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 he kept throughout his life. If he dropped the actual count then no doubt that was because it was just useful for the kids and showing up the breath focus clearly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anthony,

      Thank you for the background. All makes perfect sense and beautifully worded.

      Maybe PJ should have called the sequence Ashtanga Lite :)

      Delete
    2. Hi Anthony, I don't believe we ever met. Thanks for your writings and clarity. I enjoy what you have written here and elsewhere - though it is the first time I have come across your work. Good stuff. If you care to share any of these words on Stu's website where I have my first article, or on the second with Tim's comments would be a great addition.

      Thanks.

      Matthew Sweeney

      Delete
    3. hi Matthew, really nice of you to stop by and thank your for your kind words. And thank you too for Ashtanga As it Is, can't imagine writing this blog without it, so quick to find asana that I've forgotten the name of, or spelling for, apart from its other uses (practice resource). I've been wanting to jump in on the discussion on Stu's blog and your article but wanted to double check something with Satya whose been translating krishnamacharya's 1941 book Yogasanagalu (found at top of blog and here)
      http://grimmly2007.blogspot.co.uk/p/yogasanagalu-translation-project.html

      Satya confirms that Krishnamacharya did refer to the asana in his asana table as divided into 'groups' rather than sequences, which suggests to me flexibility. only thing Satya said he might change is that the literal translation of the third group is 'higher' rather than perhaps 'proficient'. off to work now but will try and bring this together in a comment for Stu's place over the week end. Thanks again .

      Delete
    4. Just posted a reworking of my earlier comment, hope that's the kind of thing you had in mind. Got a little long, sorry.
      http://loveyogaanatomy.com/ashtanga-yoga-70-years-or-2000/

      Delete
  7. I always found it a little ironic when I read (and see it referred to) the letter PJ supposedly wrote to Yoga Journal criticising Power yoga and how it lacked the essence of his Ashtanga, figured that Krishnamacharya could have written something similar concerning what had been dropped from what we find in Yoga Makaranda. That said Ashtanga worked for me in the beginning ( and I'll always have Primary as a framework), having a simplified system works pedagogically perhaps as long as you then educate your teachers to then unpack it and reintroduce the subtlety inherent in the methodology, which to be fair some of the senior teachers are doing. In a sense that's what Matthew was writing about.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Anthony, on a side note, in your self-practice have you many injuries? I am astounded about the number of Ashtangis I have me who study at mystore studies under a teacher but have debilitating injuries from Ashtanga. I am starting to question the efficacy of a practice that hurts people. For me, I am looking for a sustainable life-long practice.

    ReplyDelete
  9. this is really great post and great information about various asanas. thanks for sharing this information. i will keep visiting this blog for more yoga related information.

    ReplyDelete

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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