Friday, 20 March 2015

Updated: Yoga's loss of purpose.

UPDATE

This post was a response to quite aggressive criticisms sent to me regarding Sharath Jois following notes, recorded in good faith, at his recent conference see here Frond yoga with Becky May​ 

Included  in this post is an exchange on Krishnamacharya....

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!’"

The post below suggests that many of the important changes or alternative approaches to practice introduced into Ashtanga Vinyasa were already in place before Sharath joined his grandfather, the most significant being for me the fixed sequence.

Pattabhi Jois studied with Krishnamacharya for twenty-five years or more and I imagine he experienced many forms of Krishnamacharya's teaching; one to one or in a very small group of students for two years in Hassan in 1924, as part of a much larger group in the Mysore Palace classes in the 1930s and no doubt on a one to one basis as one of Krishnamacharya's advanced students and assistants. 

I imagine in that time he was taught in each and every variation of practice outlined here, from slow breathing to fast, long and short stays, following both a more generally fixed and a more flexible format. 

Many of the changes presented here are changes to how Pattabhi Jois himself first presented the teaching in Yoga Mala but it doesn't follow that it went against how Krishnamacharya taught him at different periods. 

How Pattabhi Jois taught in later life may be different in certain details from how Krishnamacharya presented practice in Yoga Makaranda but so too is how Krishnamacharya himself taught in later years, the vinyasa count for example, implicit but not necessarily included for every asana. Pattabhi Jois may well be taking aspects of how he was taught by Krishnamacharya in different situations and applying them to similar pedagogic situations he encountered in his own teaching. The large groups of boys at the Mysore palace, put at 100 by some, and the large room of 80 today in Gokulam, Mysore.

The changes I present here might be better seen as alternatives, or options for practice as I suggest, that can be reclaimed and reintroduced into our practice, perhaps one at a time rather than all at once and explored in our home practice.

Kumbhaka however seems to be something that Pattabhi Jois never taught, Manju has gone so far as to suggest that it is 'wrong' and there are cases where Krishnamacharya has indicated not to include kumbhaka, when for example first practicing certain asana and mudra, Sirsasana and sarvangasana for example ( although later one may introduce short kumbhaka of a 2-5 and perhaps later even 10 seconds). That doesn't imply however that we can't or shouldn't explore kumbhaka for ourselves following the guidelines for practice presented to us in Krishnamacharya's own Yoga Makaranda (1934). Kumbhaka is also something that Krishnamacharya continued to teach and encourage throughout his teaching career.

It may just be that Kumbhaka in asana was something that Krishnamacharya never taught Pattabhi Jois directly. Perhaps, after encountering or being given by Krishnamacharya a copy of Yoga Makaranda perhaps) he asked Krishnamacharya and was told to practice as he had been taught, just as Pattabhi Jois told Nancy Gilgoff

“Guruji… everything is changing… what will I do… how should I teach?”
Without hesitation he said “You teach the way I taught YOU!” 
Nancy Gilgoff from HERE

See also this on parampara and how change can come about authentically

Once our practice is established the onus is on us to consider taking it forward rather than perhaps pursuing it as an end in itself, employing our practice towards attaining a purpose that may be free to change and broaden. 

That purpose may change from more worldly concerns to those of a soteriological nature (the attainment of transcendent moksha (liberation), my contention below is that following a fixed sequence may maintain us in the former and be a distraction from pursuing ( or exploring) the latter, the natural progression towards the other limbs of Ashtanga yoga.

SRI PATTABHI JOIS
"Three of the disciples of my Guru, Sri Pattabhi Jois, Sri B K S Iyengar and Sri T K V Desikachar, propagated Yoga in the modern times and their influences have been phenomenal. The oldest of them, Sri Pattabhi Jois, taught the unique adaptation of my Acharya’s asana teaching, christened Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. It has caught the imagination of hundreds of thousands of Yogis all over the world and is practiced with tremendous enthusiasm. His passing away at the ripe old age of 94 leaves a void in the Yoga World. A tremendous teacher, Guruji was dearly loved and highly respected in the Yoga world. I had not met him but am aware that he was an ideal student of my Guru. The debt to a father is repaid by the offspring by exemplary conduct. “What good karmas the father should have done to get such a wonderful offspring”, people should say of the son/daughter. Likewise it is said that a student should bring out the glory of the teacher by his teachings -- “Acharyam praksayeth.” People should wonder, “Who was his teacher?”
Sri Jois by his relentless and pioneering work on Yoga brought name, fame and respect to the legacy of his teacher Sri Krishnamacharya.
Om Shanti".

Sivatsa Ramaswami



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Yoga's loss of purpose

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.

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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.

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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...

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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.



10 ways Pattabhi Jois Changed Krishnamacharya's teaching


1. Series rather than groups of asana (1940)

This had the most far reaching effect and changed perhaps the whole character of the practice, students tend to have to fit themselves to the series rather than the asana to the student. That said, the Mysore approach to teaching allows for a degree of flexibility in this. No one is expected to practice more than they are comfortable and yet peer pressure as well as that from some teachers and the images of advanced practice that flood the media should be taken into account.

2. Quicker shorter breaths.

Pattabhi Jois stressed in several  interviews throughout his life that a long slow breath (15-20 seconds each for inhalation and exhalation), just as we find in Krishnamacharya, was the ideal, however beginners begin with half that or even less. What has in fact happened is that short breaths have become the norm for beginners and experienced practitioners alike.

3. Shorter stays in asana, less breaths.

Krishnamacharya talked of long stays and both he and Pattabhi Jois mention staying in the asana and breathing for as long as possible, again as an ideal. Pattabhi Jois later reduced the number of breaths still from 8 in some postures down to 5 although the number of breaths in the finishing sequence seems to have remained the same as in Pattabhi Jois' early presentation.

4. Half Vinyasa rather than Full Vinyasa.

Each asana as a vinyasa count leading to and from the asana, we find this count outlined in Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda (1938) just as in Pattabhi Jois' Yoga Mala.
At some point this was abandoned by Pattabhi Jois in favour of half vinyasa. The argument given was that students would become tired. The tiredness however comes from having to complete a full, fixed, series rather than from the full vinyasa of an asana. This is another example of an essential element of Krishnamacharya's practice that was changed to accommodate the shift to a fixed series.

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.


5. Drishti

Krishnamacharya had two dhyana/dharana drishti, between the eyebrows and the tip of the nose, Pattabhi Jois seems to have changed this first to five and then later to nine, points of attention rather than contemplation.


6.  Reducing time spent in an asana

These are more related to Pattabhi Jois' own presentation of a fixed sequence and not related to Krishnamacharya who seems to have had a more flexible approach to asana. The changes tend to be minor however some of the changes suggest adapting the practice to the demands of growing popularity rather than the integrity of the practice. Cutting out repetitions and variations, cut down even further the length of time spent in an asana. Taking paschimottanasana where Krishnamacharya recommended a long stay that was accommodated with the original four different hand to foot variations was reduced first to three and now to only two variations.

7.  Gateway postures

Some other changes are of note, Marichiyasana D was part of Krishnamacharya's Middle group of asana but came to be included in the Primary series and as a 'gateway' posture, often holding students up from practicing other primary group postures ( although Manju teaches that one should be held back in a posture but continue to work on it while progressing to other appropriate postures). More worrying however is that 'gateway' postures engender a sense of challenge, something to be overcome, achievement, competition when perhaps what is most desirable is to reside comfortably in an asana whether that at be Marichiyasana A or at some point D. 

8. Kumbhaka

It is unclear if Pattabhi Jois was ever taught to include Kumbhaka in asana, he was a boy at the time and even though a senior student, Krishnamacharya may not have considered it appropriate to introduce it into the boys practice. That said Krishnamacharya was happy to include it in both Yoga Makaranda and Yogasanagalu. Kumbhaka for Krishnamacharya seems to be an essential, almost defining aspect of practice that he continued to teach throughout his life.  Kumbhaka is related to dhyana what is left is a focus on the breath rather than the space between the breaths, it also has an impact on the employment of bandhas.


9. Chin to Knee rather than head to knee

Krishnamacharya mentions, head to knee, face to knee and chin to knee in certain forward bending postures and says all should be practiced, however it's clear that he favoured forehead to knee this makes sense with the employment of bandhas and especially of kumbhaka. Interestingly in the pictures of Pattabhi Jois in Yoga Mala he has his head to knee in every forward bending posture, the shape of the asana then seems to have been passed on to Pattabhi jois if not the kumbhaka. In the later pictures included in Yoga Mala of Sharath it has changed to face or chin to knee and this continues to be what is taught today.

10. Pranayama

Pranayama was an essential element of practice for Krishnamacharya as were the meditation limbs, they were to be taught once a student was able to sit comfortably in a few asana, "...a reasonable degree of proficiency", there was no suggestion of being able to sit in padmasana for three hours and the Modern Ashtanga pranayama 'sequence' takes 20-40 minutes, japa mantra meditations anything from 15 minutes. Pattabhi Jois did teach pranayama to his early students after asana practice and his Son Manju continues to do so along with post asana/pranayama chanting. This too has changed no doubt as a response to the growing popularity of the system.

*

In most of the above cases the changes seem to have come about either by accident or as a response to the growing popularity of the system and it's pedagogic demands. I would argue however that essential defining elements of Krishnamacharya practice were unintentionally compromised and the purpose of yoga lost in the process.

*

The minor changes within the Ashtanga sequence over the last few years seem less important to me than they once did  although they do question the idea of the practice as a 'sacred', handed down intact, practice. They suggest however an adapting of the practice to the demands of it's popularity. Pattabhi Jois originally called his shala a research institute, Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute AYRI. 'Research' has since been dropped from the title and the institute is now called  Krishna Patabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga institute, KPJAYI.

In summary

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

There are changes to the practice made as a response to a pedagogic environment, those made for economic and or promotional reasons but there are also those subtle changes that are organic and represent growth and development.



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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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