Becky isn't recording here so there's no transcription, however she reports Sharath's response to a question.
"There was a question I didn’t hear, but that I assume asked something along the line of why different students of Krishnamacharya teach yoga so differently.
‘Pattabhi Jois was a student of Krishnamacharya for 25 years. Go and ask those students who changed his teaching why. I didn’t waste my time wondering why other teachers changed the teaching – you ask them!’"
This started off simply as a comment and share of the blog below but became a little longer as I tried to work out my own thinking such that I decided to turn it into a blog post
It is not intended as a criticism of anybody but rather of a questioning, of choices made, paths taken that I am far from qualified to pose let alone attempt to answer, it also of course reflects my own prejudice for practice, still.....
It questions the essential meaning/purpose of our practice, has it been lost, mislaid, is it hidden from view by other more urgent but perhaps more mundane reasons for practice, have we replaced transcendent with worldly transformational. This is a search for answers to these questions by retracing our steps, to look again at turnings that were chosen.
When I look at the Ashtanga practice I was first exposed to eight years ago and then at Pattabhi Jois' Yoga Mala as well as Krishnamacharya's original texts I find major differences. Pattabhi Jois claimed on several occasions that he only taught that which Krishnamacharya taught him. We now know that the sequences, as well as the approach to the practice of them, that Pattabhi Jois presented was closely based on the groups of asana that Krishnamacharya presented, there are differences however, perhaps they don't matter so much, mere details only... or perhaps the changes are so dramatic as to question the basis and purpose of the practice we engage in.
Yoga history might be seen as one of democratisation*, the ancient shrouded ascetic practices and texts made more readily available by the medieval Hatha yogis in their manuals but even these became ever more obscure, connected as they were to individual sects often requiring initiation into how to approach the practices outlined.
*train of thought inspired by James Mallinson
Krishnamacharya stripped back some of the more obscure practices that had grown up in the different sects and presented an approach to yoga, influenced by hatha yoga texts but tied more closely to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and made available to the householder.
The practices may have changed but not the purpose, still essentially soteriological, one of self realisations, and/or of knowing god.
Pattabhi Jois might be seen as having gone even further, along with his fellow student of Krishnamacharya, BKS Iyengar, he made Krishnamacharya's presentation of householder Ashtanga yoga available outside India.
Yoga's soteriological justification however may have become lost along the way
“metaphysical knowledge always has a soteriological purpose.” Mircea Eliade.
For me this may have happened with the change from Krishnamacharya's loose groups of asana to Pattabhi Jois' fixed sequences. A quirk of history, a response to a pedagogic imperative to produce a four year syllabus.
Krishnamacharya may well have presented a simpler version of his understanding of yoga to his students, the boys of the Mysore palace ( or what he felt was appropriate to them at the time), but his texts give us a clearer understanding of how he himself saw the possibilities of yoga.
For Krishnamacharya, asana was always intended as part of an integrated practice, but even in asana practice, in that one limb, Krishnamacharya saw possibilities for seeking realisation, he saved a place for it, there between every inhalation and exhalation and between every exhalation and inhalation.
With the move to a fixed series the focus can have a tendency to shift to completing the series. If time is an issue then compromises are often made with the breath rather than the series itself, the length of each breath, the pace, the number. To complete the sequence more attention is perhaps given to the mechanics of the asana, to it's place within the sequence. And then, once a series is completed..., well, there is another and then another.
Note: Pattabhi Jois does outline some different approaches to the series in Yoga Mala dependent on age and health
People were drawn to these flowing series for different reasons, transformations of sorts perhaps but often at a more mundane level, necessary perhaps but more worldly transformations in physique, habits... mood.
Pranayama teaching was offered in the beginning but mostly seemed tacked on the end and that too turned into a series. Pattabhi Jois' philosophy talks were so under attended that he gave up on them altogether, students were given a pass as far as mediation was concerned although many would look outside for alternative forms of meditation rather than from within yoga.
The Yoga Sutras with simplified commentaries were flicked through but rarely studied and if studied then seldom practiced.
Yoga became asana, asana posture, posture shapes.
It is that which was picked up by the west as it became available just down the street, in the local studio, rather than committing oneself to extensive periods of study in India or with teachers who had made that commitment themselves whether in India or in their home practice. Free from purpose, from meaning, yoga was free to be appropriated, adapted beyond recognition. The irony is that many, believing they came from an authentic practice, would criticise the offspring as 'Not yoga'.
Much the same seems to have happened in Iyengar with it's strong focus on alignment and however much Iyengar himself referred to each asana as a prayer. In the Desikachar lineage perhaps something similar happened with the attention on asana ( and admittedly some pranayama and chanting/meditation) shifted to health and therapy.
And yet all one perhaps needs do to rediscover the yoga is to compromise elsewhere, question the Series, the obsessive attention to alignment, to health benefits claimed for the asana, focus instead on this asana, this seat, this moment rather than the next....., slow the breath, leave a space at the top and bottom of the inhalation, the other limbs I suggest will follow.
I want to believe yoga can still mean more than the mundane.
Most of the changes I list below happened before Sharath joined his grandfather, some reach back to Pattabhi Jois' first independent teaching position in the 1940s at the Sanskrit college.
I imagine that as far as Sharath is concerned his grandfather was indeed presenting the practice just as it had been passed to him from Krishnamacharya.
Pattabhi Jois may have felt the same.
However Pattabhi Jois studied under Krishnamacharya as a boy, he assisted Krishnamacharya in his teens and was offered his first teaching position in his early 20s. It may well be the case that the practice Krishnamacharya passed to him was a version aimed at the large number of young boy's of the palace in their one hour asana class. This perhaps explains the differences between the practice Pattabhi Jois presented in Yoga Mala and the mature practice found in Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda.
We don't however have to go back so far, we can find major changes, not merely modifications of the series in Pattabhi Jois' own presentation of the practice between that which we find in Yoga Mala and that presented in the World tours of the late 80s and early 90s, the period when Sharath would spend more and more time assisting his grandfather.
What Sharath is perhaps defending then is the presentation of Ashtanga Vinyasa that his father is offering in response to the growing number of students, a practice that had already traveled a long way from that which T. Krishnamacharya had presented in Mysore and perhaps changed irredeemably through the shift to a fixed Series from the more flexible asana groups.
With a fixed Series the impetus was to complete the series and as popularity increased, practicing for three hours or more became more of an issue. With less time to practice the same number of asana one was forced to choose were to compromise, as we shall see, the length and pace of the breath, the number of breaths taken, the repetitions, variations, the full vinyasa count of each individual asana...
Did Pattabhi Jois himself change Krishnamacharya's teaching?
In the quote at the top of the post I'm guessing Sharath is referring to Iyengar, who himself claimed to have changed elements of Krishnamacharya's "jumping" practice, so nothing controversial there.
There was certainly a turning of Krishnamacharya's flexible groups of asana into several (mostly) fixed Series and I would argue that this was a dramatic change in approach that completely changed the character and direction of Krishnamacharya's original practice ( in some good ways but perhaps in others less beneficial).
As for the rest, the longer, slower breath that Pattabhi Jois also referred to in several interviews as the ideal, was we know changed (shortened, speeded up) for beginners. We know from his son Manju that Pattabhi Jois himself practiced long stays, so that too was a departure.
My guess is though that there was a difference between Krishnamacharya's own practice (which included kumbhaka, short breath retentions ) and what he presented to the boys of the Mysore palace (a hundred students at one point supposedly and only an hour class), as well as his senior students, like Pattabhi Jois.
I find it unlikely that the young Pattabhi Jois dared to ask the terrifying master that many questions. He did supposedly ask one however, It's said that when Pattabhi Jois was asked to teach the four year yoga course at the Sanskrit college he asked Krishnamacharya to approve the syllabus. Looking at the syllabus now we can see the original four Ashtanga series (primary to Advanced B) based on on Krishnamacharya's three groups ( Primary, Middle Advanced).
Did Pattabhi Jois make it clear that he intended to teach fixed series rather than groups of asana, had he at that point even made that decision or did that come about in those first years of teaching? To Krishnamacharya it may have merely appeared as though Pattabhi Jois intended to teach those particular asana outlined under each year and that they were based on Krishnamacharya's own division of asana groups. However, Krishnamacharya would surely have know what was being taught, just down the road, by his senior student, he perhaps saw it as an acceptable approach given the pedagogic situation. He continued to be supportive it seems of the Jois family up to a point at least into the 1970s providing Pattabhi Jois' daughter with a teaching certificate seemingly based on the sanskrit count of individual asana in 1975.
While I'm suggesting above that the essential soteriological purpose may have become lost somewhere along the way and that I indicate this happened with the shift to fixed series ( even though many approaches to yoga later abandoned fixed sequences, the damage I suggest had already been done). This is not to say that there is not a search for meaning and purpose to the practice within Ashtanga Vinyasa. With it's dedicated, six day a week practice, Ashtangi's are well placed to search for meaning but more often than not those so inclined seem to turn to other meditative practices, thus Ashtanga practice became at most an exercise in dhrana rather than dhyana, concentration rather than contemplation.
That said Krishnamacharya himself seemed to abandon the full vinyasa in favour of moving directly from one asana to another although Ramaswami has stated that for Krishnamacharya the full vinyasa was always implicit.
Clearly Pattabhi Jois changed Krishnamacharya's core teaching... for pedagogic reasons and I would argue just as dramatically as Iyengar although perhaps Pattabhi Jois failed to see it thus.
How he was taught by Krishnamacharya in the Mysore palace and what he went on to teach himself may have seemed consistent, it's only now looking closely at Krishnamacharya's early Mysore texts, Yoga Makaranda and Yogasanagalu ( texts that Pattabhi Jois would have had access to) that we can perhaps appreciate how simplified ( for the pedagogic situation) a version of Krishnamacharya's own practice came down to us.
And yet there are still great riches to be found in the practice, the fixed series has many benefits and practiced daily with dedication and devotion Modern Ashtanga vinyasa can for some be considered a transformational practice, much that Krishnamacharya presented in his texts has perhaps found other routes to the surface. The approach Sharath passes along whether differing or changed from that which Krishnamacharya perhaps hoped to see passed along is often appropriate for beginner and even intermediate students of asana, at some point the practice becomes internalised and the seed responds to that particular soil in which it finds itself.
Asana, however we encounter it can lead to Yoga, can even become yoga