The Elusive Ashtanga Cult by Jessica Blanchard

by Jessica on October 15, 2013

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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?

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Myriam October 15, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Hi Jessica,

I love your article. Even though I lack any knowledge of yoga and yogas types, what you write resonates with me for the wisdom it bears. The teacher you cite in particular reminds me of Rastafari elders I have the privilege to know.
Balance, tolerance, love, peace….such important life-giving concepts.

Take care,
Myriam

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Meredith Salvago October 15, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Love this.

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Keith Porteous October 15, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Truly a fantastic article, Jessica. I will be keeping this article in mind for a long time. As you said, these divisive attitudes and at times unhealthy attitudes can be reflected from many styles of yoga. Good to keep these thoughts close to heart. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your story. AND – Congratulations on your baby boy!! Love from me and everyone at Swan River, Keith

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Deepa Savant October 15, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Beautiful article, Jessica! You definitely have hit on some very valuable points that I have been having about Ashtanga. I did think about 6 point when I attended Kino’s workshop!
I have been thinking about another conception or may be misconception that I heard from someone practicing Ashtanga for quite some time. This person has read (may be not studied?) about yoga sutras and said that “Ashtanga makes you selfish as Ashtanga practice and yoga sutras are all about you and how and what you can do to yourself.” What do you think.

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Jessica October 16, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Hi Deepa,
Thank you for your comments! My response to the point about the sutras and selfishness would be that many of the sutras are about how we can refine our consciousness so that we are actually more valuable to the world around us. And the whole set of Yamas are about how we can be better for society – nonviolence, truthfulness, non-hoarding, etc. These are certainly concepts that help others and help us to be happier…..I hope that this helps!

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Michelle Baker October 15, 2013 at 9:21 pm

I truly appreciate this article. Thank you Jessica! ( Meredith and Melissa) at the beginning of this year I began to practice Ashtanga Yoga twice per week at Balance Yoga after David Swenson came here. I was inspired by the integrity of revisiting the roots of Hatha, the sensitivity of meditative movement w drishti & the inner quality this provokes. I honor the importance of moving consciously & listening to the breath (due to no verbal instruction) more than ever due to Ashtanga.
As a yoga teacher, I feel it important to experience the foundations of yoga as we know it today. We are all practicing under this lineage no matter what style we currently feel drawn to. Ashtanga, yes, a “traditional” mile marker with set series, has inspired me to be yet even more creative and excited about my personal practice and teachings. It also humbles me. Yes! It is very hard, yet this has given me greater understanding of the density & struggle we all feel at times in moving through challenge. Getting a personal challenge to become smooth through persistent, meditative, non dramatic benevolence has allowed me to honor all struggle more deeply. I have never felt any need nor force from the teachers present to push beyond my means. I have learned to actually back off more and contain my energy due to the sequence’s nature.
Yes, I do feel Ashtanga activates fire with the challenge presented. I feel it is quite difficult & requires my fullest attention & reveals my deepest intentions right away. I honor the chance to observe what fire provokes in us all as human beings, not always easy to manage. I am grateful for this opportunity. I want to learn how to handle and temper fire without it overwhelming me, hurting me (be it an emotional or psychological drive) or others. It has been nothing but fulfilling. The refreshing quality is there also. I love the quiet mornings with silence, breath & hands on assists. Again, it is all about what we bring and why we are doing it. I am happy I actually get myself there. The rest of my day, clarity & teachings are vastly affected by the level of energy I have accessed, far from damaging in any way. I am very grateful.

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Jessica October 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Hi Michelle, I completely agree that it is important to experience the foundations of yoga, and through this experience we can gain immense insight and creativity. I wonder why we find it hard? Is it because it is a set series and therefore keeps the mind from wandering off and makes us stay with the present posture and breath?

Fire purifies and the building of fire with the Ashtanga practice is part of its purifying effect. It purifies on many levels. Interesting how a seemingly physical set of postures can go so deep.

We love having you in the studio in the mornings – they are sacred times.

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Flora October 16, 2013 at 3:36 am

Yay Jessica! So happy to hear of your wellbeing and of the baby.
Well, I have experienced versions of some of these things and have been injured doing Astanga. But I still got more out of getting somewhere with it and sorting through the injury than I would have done if I had not been practicing. In fact, it is the times in my life when I am not practicing astanga that any injuries I have experienced end up taking more hold.
I live in the neighborhood where Jessica used to teach. And when her studio left my area, I lost my practice for a time. That was the worst injury I ever had from Astanga practice, was giving it up. And we need to keep in mind that…yoga is new in the west. Therefore, as old as astanga is…all of us involved in it…are pioneers of sorts.
All of Jessica’s points are beautiful. And well said.
What a loving, nurturing and wise article.
Jessica, you clearly have landed on this side of motherhood with joy and grace and happiness and wisdom. It is wonderful to hear your voice in your writing and to hear of the birth of your baby boy.
Many blessings to you!
Flora
ps. The thing about astanga creating selfishness…I don’t see it. I do think it has attracted people with a lot of drive…and often when people first care for themselves, when they have previously not done so properly, they can for a time seem selfish. I will say this though. I have experienced…a bit of an unbalanced growth that could be called selfishness…sometimes with Bikram practitioners. I think Bikram could maybe support someone yogically but…I don’t think it provides a chance for the practitioner to slow down and even begin to hear the yoga beyond the physical buffness that comes out of it and can give rise to a huge ego. And it seems to attract the people most likely to fall into this type of response. The thing about Astanga is…as hard as it is and as advanced as people can become…they don’t get there in a push race, but rather with a true rhythm with their own breath. I find that…practicing yoga to a teacher’s rhythm that is not my own…in any form that is not at least balanced by some time at my own rhythm…is really…is hard for me to grasp as safe and good for me. Or for…the true purpose that yoga is engaged in for people and our harmony with the planet.
Also…want to mention that…sometimes Astanga practice can be lonely. Because everyone is doing their own thing. And it can attract people who want deep quiet. But again…I really feel that Astanga, if you keep up with it, can help you reach out socially in the way that is right for each individual. In other words, it has gaps. But also…provides a framework in which you can fill them in yourself and do so in sort of the right hour of your life.

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Linda Munro October 16, 2013 at 4:29 am

Go Jessica Go!!! Excellent article!! 🙂

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Lela Cloud October 16, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Bless you, Jessica, you warm, compassionate mama, and yes, GURU-one of my favs. Thank you writing this thought-provoking piece.
Here are my thoughts on the topic.
1. I do seem to have relentless injuries, though they have all been caused by some manic part of my nature that comes out in my practice. The more I relax and go slow, the less I injure myself.
2. I only eat dinner. I never really thought about it in the context of my practice, I just prefer juice during the day.
3. I have become a hermit, but just because I guess I’m old now?
4. I have been obsessed with my looks since puberty. If Ashtanga helps me to look hot, all the better.
5. Hmmm, the poses. They are seductive and to master any one of them speaks volumes about one’s discipline and patience. And patience. And discipline….
6. Those yogis are pretty impressive. Thank God for them and what they bring to us. Only weak-minded people glorify other humans. We all pooped our diapers at some point.
7. Other forms of yoga do seem kinda fluffy…
8. Crack of dawn?!? It is a Herculean effort to make it to the mat, any time of day, any length of practice.
9. If I am addicted to Ashtanga, I prefer it to all those other addictions I’m working so hard to overcome though my Ashtanga practice.
10. No pain, no gain? This mornings practice was ridiculously challenging. Was worried I might throw up. Was it painful? No. In fact, my body is ringing with the pleasure of practice, now that it’s over. I think the practice is a mirror of life. Some days are better than others. If we are patient and disciplined, we are rewarded.

Love all you fun, joy-filled Ashtangis!!

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Jessica October 16, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Thank you for your honest thoughts Lela! I agree that the practice is a mirror of what is happening in life. And patience and discipline are keys to longevity of practice.
Hope to see you soon here or there!

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Patricia Hsu October 16, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Guilty on all charges, but with no regret. At the beginning I needed all the disciplines I could get, and I’m glad that my ego had push me through these ’obstacles’ because they let me know how well my bodymind functions by maintaining a good practice (i.e. asanas, diet, waking up early, basically a well balanced lifestyle). Now, I’m learning to chill, e.g. practicing at a later time when I need extra sleep, modify postures when my body isn’t up to it, etc. and most importantly is to not feel guilty! Prior to my chilling phase, I went through a do all or do nothing phase, practice all postures on days which I shouldn’t have and got injured, or practice nothing. This chilling phase is teaching me how to modify and adapt, but I do admit sometimes I chill too much, this is not easy work!

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Jessica October 17, 2013 at 9:10 am

It is about finding BALANCE! The point between overly chilling and all or nothing. I was also more aggressive when I started asthanga years ago. The longer that I practice the longer that I have learned to step back and not take it too seriously!

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Lavazza October 17, 2013 at 12:33 am

Good stuff, but I don’t see anything that only or mostly concerns male practioners and a lot of stuff that only or mostly concerns female practioners.

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Violet October 18, 2013 at 1:06 pm

None of these points sound gender-specific to me.

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Lavazza October 30, 2013 at 7:48 am

Not even “Many people practice yoga to have a nice rounded, firm, derriere in their Lulu lemon yoga pants”? I see big differences between male and female Ashtangis concerning attitude, motivation, habits, hang-ups and so on, and this piece is clearly written by a female Ashtangi, describing female Ashtangis (who are the clear majority).

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Violet October 18, 2013 at 1:03 pm

The better teachers I’ve had have been Astanga teachers, but unfortunately by the time I came to Astanga I’d already been seriously injured in a Jivamukti class. The Jivamukti teachers always said to “work through pain,” yet when I would end up injured they would say that “you should have known when to stop,” or “injury is part of yoga,” as if the endurance of pain was a spiritual virtue. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, as I’ve had 14 years of chronic pain from that injury and it’s only getting worse. I’ve had to stop practicing for the last 2 years because the migraines I’ve developed from this injury are more frequent when I practice than when I don’t.

Astanga seems to get a bad rep because it does attract overachieving types of people, but you can find zealots in any walk of life. I found that the more rigorous training of Astanga’s teachers, the more attentive style of teaching, and the repetition of the sequence to be a smarter, less dangerous practice than other styles of yoga.

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Patrick Gallacher October 20, 2013 at 9:16 am

Excellent essay. A great discussion of the positive and negative attitudes and conceptions about yoga. Thanks for bringing attention to the positive and sensible view of yoga.

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