Parampara- The Importance of Lineage in Yoga

by May 14, 2012

Later this year I will celebrate 20 years of Ashtanga Yoga practice. My first year of practice was like most people, attending a class 2 evenings a week, but from Nov. 1993 I have maintained a daily Ashtanga practice. In this time I have learned many things. One of the most important being the concept of Parampara, or Lineage. Parampara is the passing down of knowledge over generations, from teacher to student. This concept is central to Yoga philosophy. The more I practice the more I see the value of following the tradition that I have been fortunate enough to have passed on to me. There is an intelligence of design there that I could never presume to improve upon.

One of the criticisms often leveled at Ashtanga is to question the validity of its origin. The Yoga Kuranta text that both Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois claim it is based on has never been sighted. This naturally leads to some doubt. In my own experience, Guruji was adamant that Ashtanga was based on this text and that he had not changed it. I can find no reason not to believe him. He sincerely believed he was passing on a tradition given to him by his Guru. As for Krishnamacharya, if you care to read the very good Biography of him by A. G. Mohan* you will discover that in his early life he studied Vedic philosophy extensively, was renowned as a scholar and was called upon as an expert in the correct performance of Vedic ritual. To suggest that this man would later in life invent a Yoga system that was some sort of hybrid of traditional asana and Western gymnastics seems to me incredibly disrespectful and lacking in knowledge of who he was and what he achieved. It also shows a lack of knowledge of the Ashtanga practice itself.

For me, asana practice is developing and strengthening the relationship between Breath, Bandha and Dristi which cultivates a field of energy in the body out of which Contentment will grow. This is the basis of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system as I experience it. The way the method is structured, if you persist gently with discipline and a good teacher the result is inevitable. You simply cannot continue in this practice without cultivating Breath, Bandha and Dristi and Vinyasa is central to this. Following the proscribed sequence is also essential as the asanas are combined is a way that generates the correct flow of energy and obliges a practitioner to work on their weak points through practicing the asana that they find difficult. A good and dedicated teacher is crucial to this process.

A good teacher will be like the conductor of an orchestra. He will have the framework of the piece of music he wants the orchestra to play, but he will work with each player to get the best out of them. He will encourage them, laugh with them, challenge them, do whatever he thinks necessary so that they will play as one. Guruji was the master of this.

Many in the West struggle with the concept of bowing to their teacher and through the teacher, to the Lineage. I have heard “I am my own Guru”, and “in the end it is about me and the practice”, as if a guru is not crucial to the process. Instead it is all about “I know what is best for me” and “I know when I am ready to move on” and “I am going to achieve Kundalini rising” and “why should I work on those asana that I can’t do”. Focusing so much on doing what you please is a cul-de-sac you can go down that will give the appearance of moving ahead, but is ultimately a dead end. This is when the wisdom of your teacher and all those who have gone before will assist.

The first lesson of Yoga is humility. Every day that I practice I humbly bow to my Guru’s feet and offer the practice to him and to the Lineage he represents. Many of us struggle with this. Every time I hear of a new type of yoga started by some very clever person who wants to combine their cleverness with an ancient tradition, I wonder about the ego involved in that. It never surprises me when people like that seem to inevitably crash and burn. What does surprise me is that they attract so many followers who are shocked by their fall.

After 20 years of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga I still accept my Guru’s exhortation. “Practice, practice, practice…and all is coming”.

* Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings. A.G. Mohan, Shambhala, Boston & London, 2010.

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  1. Donna Nichols

    Exactly the reason I attend your class whenever possible and consider you the best I have studied under.


  2. Fiona Johannessen

    Inspiring words! Thanks Mike. And a good reminder to us all as to why we are practicing and the benefits of following the path set down by Guruji

  3. Maggie Wear

    Mike – What a wonderful update and good to be reminded of where it all came from and the intelligence of the practice. We are so lucky to have it and you.

  4. Olivia Richardson

    Very refreshing!

    Clever marketing and a deep understanding of the human emotion is what keeps commercialized yoga alive. I myself started with a “power yoga”. It was being taught at a local gym and I thought, “this is yoga!”, a few namaste’s and random animal poses. I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon Ashtanga. When I actually understood the difference between commercialized yoga and the real deal, I wanted to spread the word.

    Sadly, I have discovered that some people do not want to face themselves… The one’s who like feeding their egos with commercialized yoga. They get to drop in whenever they want, and partake in a watered down yoga that leaves them feeling a false empowerment. More interestingly, I have practiced with people who seemed to be light and wound up being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    I’ve only been practicing for a little over a year and so far it’s been full of emotions, challenges and fear. I’m enjoying the journey. Thank you for offering a wonderful place to continue the experience. 🙂

  5. Pauline Harper

    Thank you Mike for that very inspiring piece. I am hoping I can get back to catching that 5-25 am bus very soon. The wisdom of the teacher is needed!