Dogma and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

by Mar 24, 2014

I have written in the past that I spend very little time on the internet reading “Yoga Blogs”. In my last newsletter I decided that I would see if I could provide an interesting, broadly yoga based link for each edition. This has meant that I am looking at a few more blogs about yoga and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in particular.

My first impression has been astonishment about how much negative stuff is written about the practice that I love so much. I have read articles saying that Ashtanga Yoga is dangerous, is just gymnastics, is only suitable for high achieving “A type” personalities and on and on. Of course, I have been practising and teaching long enough to have heard all these things before mostly written by people who have actually done very little Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga themselves. One thing I have noticed that is a little bit new and that I want to address in this blog, is criticism of how dogmatic Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is.

I want to say first up that in my experience, Guruji was a very pragmatic man. He had a frame work, Ashtanga, that was taught to him by his guru and he applied that frame work to each person with intuitive regard to their specific needs. He was fitting the practice to the person, not the person to the practice and he was very good at this. He was passionate about parampara the lineage and adamant that he was teaching the same thing that he was taught by his guru, but never seemed to me to be hung up in dogma. He accepted and treated everyone with the same compassion whatever their background or reason for doing yoga. He was unfailingly non judgemental and even-handed in his approach.

So why do we now have a situation where people are saying that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a very dogmatic approach to yoga where you have to practice 5 or 6 mornings a week, only in the morning and you have to be vegetarian and you have to jump back like this and put your foot here and you must not practice on New and Full moons and so on?

I wonder if this is not a result of the explosion in popularity of Yoga, including Ashtanga in the last decade or so. This has created a demand for teachers that has outstripped supply. In response to this many yoga schools or senior teachers have realised there is more money to be made doing teacher training than actually teaching. They have, however taken a very western/commercial approach to this and thus we have 6 month or 3 month or even weekend teacher training courses. You then get people who have paid a lot of money to get a teacher training qualification and believe they are then qualified to teach. In the Ashtanga tradition these may be people who are very good at the Asana aspect of the practice but who have only been practicing for a couple of years. Most of the teacher training courses do not offer teaching positions post training. This means there are people with limited actual experience of practising yoga and with virtually no teaching experience who are opening their own yoga schools.

When you are offering teacher training courses and are trying to get as many people through that as you can, you will necessarily have to present things in a very black and white manner. In other words, you will teach that this way is correct and this way is incorrect. When you have an inexperienced teacher who has been trained in this manner, they will always fall back on the black and white, on dogma. They will fail to realise that, in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga there are as many grey areas as there are students who come through your door. It is about respecting where each person is at in their lives and in their bodies and seeing how you can use the framework of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga to best help them to the end goal of experiencing contentment.

I will give you an example from my own practice. In upavistha konasana the dristi is given as broomadhya or the third eye. I have found that if I actually tuck my chin in and direct my gaze to nasagrai or nose it enables me to get up on my sitting bones and be more stable. This works for me and though it may be considered to be technically incorrect, in terms of “yogas citta-vrtti-nirodhah”, the ultimate goal of yoga, I don’t think it makes any difference. In fact, if a good asana is a stable asana, it is better for me.

So, as a teacher, how do I deal with this? My aim is to give my students a good understanding of the concept of Dristi and of the nine points. I also tell them that Nasagrai is a good option if they are in doubt. I then encourage them to practice, practice practice and in that process to be aware and to observe and to be willing to self adjust to find out what works for them. In my opinion this maintains respect for parampara, the lineage without resorting to dogma, whilst encouraging people to discover how the practice fits them.

I am sure that all the teacher training programmes make their students aware of the concept of parampara. At the same time they are forgetting that the lineage was never passed down by way of a 500 hour training course. Instead, Guruji spent many years in training with Krishnamacharya and Sharath has spent many years training with Guruji. The western construct that most resembles this is the apprenticeship and I strongly believe that this is how any yoga teacher training should be offered. Students who want to teach should be doing an apprenticeship of several years with an experienced teacher. Only in this way will we avoid having so many people out there teaching with little understanding of the subtleties of yoga. People also need to travel to Mysore to study with Sharath and gain the required “Authorisation” or “Certification” as this is also a necessary way to show the proper respect for the lineage, but just doing this and then a teacher training course does not make you a teacher. It is a starting point and in my opinion it is then essential to serve as an assistant to an experienced teacher.

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  1. Kim Penny

    Namaste Mike. I agree with you – like many things in life, it is useful to understand the rules, so that when you break them, you do so knowingly. This is what produces great literature. Likewise, a great Ashtanga teacher understands the asana system in great detail, but likewise is able to adjust it to the needs of the student (sometimes themself!).
    However, a danger with the Ashtanga style I observe, is because we are so focussed on the breath (it is a moving meditation after all), teachers often do not put enough emphasis on the body. I find many students who come to me after years of ashtanga in other places, are habitually locking their knees and locking their shoulders over their ears. It’s really tough on their bodies! And it can take a lot of gentle persuasion on my part that they need to make changes to their practice for the sake of their health. I know from my own experience how hard it is to accept a correction is needed, and then change to habit. (Thank goodness I’ve had some AWESOME teachers.)

  2. Mike

    Hi Kim. Thanks for the comment. For me, it is not about breaking the rules but more applying them with the right mix of rigor and lightness and with a good dose of compassion. This mix will be different for every student. I am lucky enough to be in a situation where I work with people over a long period of time and my intention is always that they should come to understand the beauty of the Ashtanaga Vinyasa method and that it has been around for a long time and was developed by people with a much deeper insight into yoga than we will ever have. For some people I may take a round about route, but in the end I want them to realise that if you follow the method, it works. cheers, Mike.

  3. Fiona Johannessen

    Excellent article Mike, and a good reminder of where Astanga stems from. Thanks.