Apart from the obvious – the climate, the laid back, free-wheeling lifestyle (for ex-pats and visitors, at least), and the bright, colourful landscape of Goa – something that made me smile on arrival here was the big box of blocks and belts in the corner of the shala.
All along one low wall at the side of the space, students of all levels are working on hip openers, shoulder openers and backbends using blocks and belts, while others are using props here and there while they practise. Now that’s a rare sight in a Mysore-style class. I’ve been in classes where props of any kind are banned, according to strict “regulations”. But Rolf Naujokat, who spent 3 to 6 months in Mysore every year for 16 years, and is certified by Pattabhi Jois to teach, is married to Marci, and has thankfully maintained an open mind. Marci, although an Ashtanga practitioner herself, has a strong Iyengar background, and takes a very dim view of Ashtangis ”throwing themselves into backbends and grabbing their ankles before they’re ready”. As she put it to a young student the other morning, “You’re going to need that lumbar spine in later life”. (For the record, the only people taking their ankles here are practising 3rd Series).
Not that I’m a fan of being belted and blocked up without good reason, I should add. But – dare I say it – there is sometimes a place for props, and this time with Rolf and Marci is making that even more clear to me. Richard Freeman thinks that “judicious use of props” is sensible. David Swenson says to “think of them as training wheels”. Everyone’s body is different and every now and then, props are a good idea. I don’t get my heels quite to the floor in Pashasana, for example. So if I roll my mat up under my heels, just a little bit, I can align myself correctly, put the weight in the right place and get the most benefit from the asana. I’ve been ordered to unroll my mat in a Mysore-style class (one I didn’t return to). But it was in a Mysore-style class with Richard Freeman that I was first advised to use my mat under my heels. And you know what? If it’s good enough for him, I think I’ll stick with it.
What first attracted me to Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, and drew me away from other forms, was the freedom of the practice, the dynamic power of movement with breath, the way 90 minutes on the mat leaves you with that extraordinary, joyful combination of energy and calm. In the 12 years since I began practising, I’ve seen a lot of change. Some eager Ashtangis, the ink not yet dry on their Mysore-issued authorization papers, seem to come back, as a fellow-student here put it, “not as teachers, but as rule-enforcers”. A dogmatic approach has crept in where before there was none. You can walk into a shala and feel that instead of supporting you in your practice, the teacher is casting a critical eye across the room, looking for faults, hard evidence that you’re not “doing it the right way”, so they can swoop in and “correct”. It’s an unimaginative and boring way to teach, and for the student, an inhibiting way to learn. It’s a shame that the term “The Ashtanga Police” exists, and elicits wry smiles and raised eyebrows from weary Ashtanga lovers. But I can understand how it’s evolved.
All kinds of nonsense is proclaimed at workshops and classes as absolute “truth”. Anyone who tells you that the practice is thousands of years old, for instance, and has been passed down, absolutely unchanged, or “unadulterated”, in the form in which it is taught today in Mysore is naïve, delusional, or both. Of course the practice has evolved and changed over time, and continues to do so. Everything changes over time. No-one ever had to come up from backbends before moving into 2nd series, for example, until Sharath introduced the idea in recent years. I’m sure he had his reasons – not least enabling a bigger turnover of students in a busy Mysore shala. But that’s just one example of a change, and a pretty significant one, (ask anyone who’s stuck at that particular hurdle). I’m personally very glad that my teacher, Marianne Jacuzzi, had the wisdom to help me move on into 2nd series and enjoy all the benefits of its early back-bending sequence, which helped me eventually come up from Urdhva Dhanurasana.
If you’re in any doubt that things ain’t how they used to be, read Nancy Gilgoff’s personal account of how she and her then partner, David Williams, were taught by Guruji in the late 1970’s.
And if you want to know more, Chad Herst, authorised by Pattabhi Jois, and co-founder of Mission Ashtanga in San Francisco, has written an insightful piece about this recent development of the so-called “traditional” method and ideology.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is an extraordinary, life-enhancing and transformative practice that was originally taught in a far less rigid way than it sometimes is today. First generation teachers like David Swenson, Richard Freeman, Nancy Gilgoff and David Williams all attest to the fact that Guruji taught each student according to his or her individual body, ability and stage of life. He would instruct one student to do a pose in a certain way, then walk to the other side of the shala and tell another student something entirely different. It was a creative, caring and intelligent approach that respected the individual and evidenced a true connection between teacher and student. Sadly, it’s an approach that is sometimes missing in Mysore-style classes today.
A good teacher is a wonderful help, so find one if you can. You won’t be able to identify them by official credentials, whether it’s a certificate from Yoga Alliance or an entry on the list of that ever-expanding “small handful” of teachers authorized at Mysore. Some teachers with all the “right” credentials are wonderful. Some are not. And some without any of those much sought-after credentials are amazing. You won’t find David Swenson, Lino Miele, Nancy Gilgoff, Graham Northfield, Paul Dallaghan or any number of other brilliant and passionate Ashtanga teachers on any official list. And it doesn’t matter a fig. What matters is the teacher’s own knowledge and love of the practice, passion for passing it on and ability to truly connect with their students as individuals.
If you’re lucky enough to find a teacher with these qualities, get all the help you can from them. If you can travel to great teachers from time to time, even better. Most of all, enjoy your practice, and remember that although some things have changed, the template for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the same as it’s always been. While it’s not about obeying rules, the things that matter will always matter: the sequence, the bandhas and most of all, the connection between you and your breath. The best teacher of all will be your own practice, on your own mat, in your own space. Keep it up, and you’ll see.