The Elusive Ashtanga Cult by Jessica Blanchard

This article was published in Elephant Journal -> Read it here.

I recently read a funny, well-written article on Elephant Journal – Are You in the Ashtanga Cult?   The article unleashed a slew of reflections on many of the preconceptions and many misconceptions that people have about Ashtanga yoga.

Now that yoga has ballooned in popularity, practitioners often place themselves in one group or another. We want to feel like our yoga group is better, and we may construct a whole reality around how we must act to be a part of that group.

Like any social circle, in yoga there can be pressures to conform to the norms of the group.

Since starting yoga in 1999, I’ve practiced Ashtanga in Ireland, France, Thailand, India, and now New Orleans.  In each place the local culture influences how the “Ashtanga” group and yoga works. I’ve noticed social pressures in each place.

Reflecting back, the biggest pressures came during my many trips to the epicenter of Ashtanga – Mysore, India. The level of yoga talk  there is unbelievable – on all subjects – whispers about who has been given a new posture, who has been started on Intermediate or Advanced A Series. Who eats dinner in the evenings? Who pigs out on ice cream and cakes after practice? Who smokes pot and who comes to class stoned? (might be the same who pigged out) We would also have long conversations about pooping habits and which naughty students were studying with another philosophy teacher against Guruji’s wishes.

What are some of the preconceptions around Ashtanga yoga.?

1. If you’ve been a “serious” or “dedicated” practitioner you’ve experience some type of injury in years of practice. I beg to differ. I hate to say this, but Ashtanga is often badly taught. Students are encouraged to push themselves through pain or to see pain as some type of spiritual awakening. Give me a break. Pain hurts, and we should not continue to do something that hurts us. This seems like common sense . I have not had any injuries from yoga. Seriously. And I’ve gone pretty far in my practice.

If we begin the study of yoga with the first limbs of yoga, we learn two concepts Ghandi adopted and spread: non-violence and truthfulness. Non-violence (ahimsa) is the first yama of the 8 limbs, and in Sanskrit writing the most important. Being violent to oneself goes against an extremely important concept of yoga. And the second yama, truthfulness (satya), helps you to see and be honest with yourself about what you are doing.

If trying to achieve lotus is hurting your knee, rather than let your ego take charge and continue to hurt yourself , maybe you should step away. This is how one really progresses at yoga, not by pushing through the pain.

2. Dedicated ashtingis don’t eat dinner, or at least don’t eat after 6pm.

I tried this one. I tried having warm milk for dinner, I tried to fool myself into thinking I wasn’t hungry in the evenings. It wasn’t true, and I ended up compensating by eating more at breakfast and dinner and not feeling very good. My weight was also more when I tried to restrict myself unnaturally. I do not eat big meals in the evenings, especially if I’m waking early, but I usually have something. If I don’t, I wake up starving and have trouble getting through practice. Also, so many social engagements are in the evenings, I don’t think it is healthy to exclude a whole time period of socializing due to a silly rule.

I would often ask Tiwariji, my pranayama and philosophy teacher what I should be doing with food, looking for strict guidelines. He would laugh and reply: (a great line from the Hathapradipika) “Remember Jessica, Too much insistence on the rules is a hinderance to the yogi.”

Over the years I’ve noticed strange eating behaviors around yoga, some could be eating disorders masquerading as rules around practice.   It seems sensible to eat when you are hungry and stop when you’ve had enough!

3. When you get serious about this practice, you must become a hermit.
When I started Ashtanga, I was a corporate junkie who worked crazy hours and drank a ton. Practicing yoga prompted reflections on how my partying could be destroying my body. And it created a bit of a chasm with my boyfriend and social circle. Slowly though I met more people who were not as obsessed with partying. I began to study Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science; I quit the corporate job.  Socializing in the evening is a healthy part of life, we do not need to give it up to be “serious” about yoga.  A more balanced approach might be to try to balance having a social life with managing a yoga practice.

4. Ashtangis are obsessed or at least pre-occupied with their looks. Don’t most people care to some degree about their looks? I think so. We might pretend not to. I don’t care enough about my looks to get surgery or to dye my hair.
Unfortunately, many Westernized styles of yoga put a lot of emphasis on the “body beautiful.” Many people practice yoga to have a nice rounded, firm, derriere in their Lulu lemon yoga pants. I would find it hard to believe that Ashtangis are any worse than others. I would argue that Westerners in general or much more obsessed with our looks. If you’ve ever visited an Ashram in India, you will find people who are wearing baggy pants and covering themselves with shawls. These people are probably less-obsessed, or at least pretending to be, than we are. So there.

5. We practice to be able to do hard poses. Is this the goal of an Ashtanga practice? Each person has a different goal. When I practice yoga regularly, I find that my mood is better, I’m more aware, and I am a much nicer person. A nice byproduct of consistent practice is increasing strength and flexibility. This is true, but again, not a bad thing. Through years of practice, I’ve surprised myself. I remember practicing in London years ago, and seeing someone do Pincha Mayurasana – thinking, wow, I’ll NEVER be able to do that pose in a million years. A few months ago, I was practicing this posture while pregnant. Ashtanga has helped me to see past certain limitations that I put on myself – accomplished through the format of a yoga pose.

6. We loose our common sense and discernment when around yogis like Kino, Sharath or Richard Freeman. I have deep respect for all yogis, especially those who have paved the way for us younger generations, like Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, etc. I loved and still love Guruji with all my heart. This does not mean that I think they are beyond reproach. We are all humans living on earth, by default, none of us is perfect. Many people criticized Guruji for his love for money and the way he attended to women practitioners. He was not perfect, but he was a special, wonderful teacher. THe same goes for Sharath, Kino and Richard Freeman – none of them are perfect. I love studying with the more experienced teachers, but I would not loose my common sense around them. I do not put these teachers on pedestals. When we do this we loose our sense of discernment. We’ve seen this a lot recently in the sex scandals that have surfaced around yogis whose followers put them on a pedestal. I urge yoga practitioners to question what their teachers say. I never want to be a Guru as a teacher. I expect my students to question me if I say stupid things.

7. Ashtangis dismiss other forms of yoga as fluffy. This is a generally tendency in many styles of “traditional” yoga. I’ll admit that I have done this in the past. Again, the wise words of my teacher Tiwari come to mind “Jessica, never, ever condemn other styles of yoga. They may not be for you. So what? Worry about your own practices.” He is so right.

8. We must wake at the crack of dawn to practice. There are many ways to fit yoga practice into a day. During many trips to Mysore I would wake up at 3am to be ready for the 4am practice start times. DUring my years working at Yoga Thailand, I would wake at 4am to practice Pranayama and Asana before teaching at 7am. I’ve tried that practicing before teaching approach, waking up at 4am to practice before 6:30am Myosre Class. I found that I was very tired all day and my brain turn to much by 2pm. Now that I have a husband and more recently a baby, I’m a lot less rigid. I would practice after I taught, or sometimes in the afternoon.  I understand that practice in the morning is great, and I love to do it when I can, however, a little practice any time of the day is better than none.

9. Ashtanga yoga is addictive.   Addiction from Wikipedia: “Addiction is the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences, or a neurological impairment leading to such behaviors”  People can be rigid about their practice – prioritizing the need to practice every day over time with family. I’m learning all about Karma yoga – having my baby boy puts everything into perspective. I’ve often told students that yoga is practiced 24/7, but now I really know what that means. Addiction is a physical need for something. Generally, I don’t think that ashtanga has negative consequences from practicing, nor does it encourage neurological impairment.  It does encourage discipline. Many people have difficulty with the discipline that it takes to drag our butts out of bed for yoga. I did in the beginning. It changed after spending a weekend in Rome in 2002 studying with Lino Miele. We started at 6am each morning. Yep, on a Saturday in Rome. And I arrived to a packed room full of Italian yogis. Upon returning to Ireland, I thought, I guess I can drag my ass out of bed early in the morning to practice yoga. Once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes easy. I realized how good i felt when I did yoga first thing in the morning. This is not an addiction, but something AWESOME that I do for myself when I can.

10. No pain no gain in Ashtanga yoga.  I beg to differ. I covered this in point 1. I think this approach comes from the ego rather than the smarter “buddhi” or intuitive self.  Pain is our body telling us that we are doing something we shouldn’t.  It means we need to re-examine our approach to the posture.   Part of yoga is learning to tell the difference between soreness from extending our muscles a little farther or working a little harder and sharp pain from injury.

What are your conceptions around Ashtanga yoga?

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