Finding Our Way: In Response to Some Recent Exposure to the Greater Ashtanga Community… (June, 2018)
The following is what came through me after reading the two posts linked below, which I highly recommend reading. Though I’m not in the habit of sharing my thoughts or writing so publicly, something is inspiring me to share now – perhaps it’s the raw courage it must have taken for all of the people involved in these posts to share their own stories, and the connection and inspiration I felt from reading them…
Being exposed to the information in articles like these, I feel thankful that my Ashtanga education was cloistered away on Maui, within a small, loving, supportive, ragtag community, and isolated, for a long time, from the now vast Ashtanga community out in the world. I feel thankful that I was always taught that this particular practice is about the breath (as well as the natural development of the bandhas (energy locks), and the movement of energy in general), and not the asanas (postures); thankful that I was taught that my own practice is my best teacher; that I was taught that the first priority in any posture is to not be in pain – to find a way to get out of pain if you are experiencing it; and that meditation was encouraged (for everyone). I feel extremely thankful that I had already found, long before finding Ashtanga and beginning a yoga practice, the Divine One Within, and that I already knew that I know myself better than anyone else can know me, that only I alone could figure out my own unique path through this life, or how to live it in the best way. I feel thankful that I sought out a female teacher, knowing that would work best for me; thankful that I found, straight-away, the very gifted teachers that worked so well for me – not only in the senior teacher I sought out, but also in the one I was lucky enough to discover was her assistant in her home studio, as well as her substitute there during her many travels. And I feel ever so thankful that I was taught, by these two women, in Ashtanga’s “old-school” style. I feel thankful that I have never cared about authorizations or certifications and so certainly did not pursue that route. I never went to Mysore (nor felt much of a pull to go), only ever practiced with Pattabhi Jois in a workshop in San Francisco near the end of his life, had no personal relationship with him, and only knew him through the many stories of my teacher, who was one of the first Westerners to begin practicing with him, back in the early 1970’s. (Back then, as she has described, classes were generally comprised of only four to six people and were taught quite differently from how the whole scene became when the population exploded, moving from a handful of Westerners studying with the Jois family in Mysore to hundreds of Westerners.) Aside from my deep gratitude for the fact that Pattabhi Jois developed and shared this particular practice that I love so much, I feel the lineage to the Jois family in my own practice only through my main teacher’s deep connection to Pattabhi Jois, and through my own studies with his son, Manju – who left Mysore and stayed in America at his first chance, who also still teaches in the “old-school” manner that I have found to work so well for me, and who has always seemed fun, filled with good humor, easy-going, and lacking in dogma. And for all this, too, I am now feeling thankful – for all the recent drama surrounding Pattabhi Jois is hard enough to get one’s head around without having had a personal relationship with the man.
Above all, I feel thankful, so very, very thankful, that this particular practice did come into my life, because it has helped me heal and evolve and get strong, and because I just plain ENJOY it so much.
I’ve recently been working on a little article/essay for a friend on the “Why To” of my yoga practice, for a book he’s writing, and it has made me think about this so much – why I do it, why I love it, how thankful I am for it. I also have been feeling thankful that he asked me to contribute, this old friend from my yoga community/family, because in the past year and a half or so, I have felt a bit… excommunicated from this special group of yogis of which I was always so happy to feel a part. This feeling has eventually arisen in the wake of the dissolution of my relationship with my primary Ashtanga teacher. To me, from my perspective, this ending of our 13-year relationship seems to have stemmed from me needing, as always, to follow the guidance of the “Guru within” – the most knowledgeable and true guide of all; to walk my own course – live my own lifestyle; and one major aspect of that lifestyle – diet (an admittedly “radical” diet for most people to comprehend) – not fitting into what my teacher believed to be appropriate or even safe for this particular practice (no matter what I may have found to the contrary in my own experience over the past 15 years of daily Ashtanga practice, including 11 years of “Advanced” series practice – decades of practice behind me certainly not, but I don’t exactly feel like a newbie either…). Because of my need to live in a way that works for ME, my need to take responsibility for my own health, and listen to my own body, to do what’s right for me personally, using my own knowledge of myself and what I have experienced to work for me over the past twenty years now of increasing consciousness around dietary changes, etc. (but also perhaps because of misunderstandings/communication issues, hurt feelings, and my deep-seated need for total, and admittedly sometimes tactless, honesty and openness when communicating with someone, especially someone important to me, and especially on a topic important to me…), I lost not only one of my yoga teachers, but also, I feel, my place in my yoga community (though certainly not my close friends from that community). And this makes me feel like I have lost my voice. Hence the deep appreciation for this writing assignment from my friend – and perhaps also this impulse I feel now to share this post so publicly, something I am by no means in the habit of doing…
…Until I began to do some traveling with my teacher, my Ashtanga education always took place in such a sheltered little world on Maui that when I finally did start to see some of what was happening out in the wider world of Ashtangis – with people so often getting injured, and with the “new-school” way of practicing and teaching and all that involves (people being held in Primary Series for so long, an apparently increasing emphasis on the postures in general, etc.), I was truly shocked. I remember being at a workshop with David Williams in Chicago, about seven years into my practice – I think it was my first time “out in the wider Ashtanga world;” and when he said that the practice should feel good, that you should feel better and better with every breath, it was a revelation to the vast majority of the people in the room, many of whom were now expressing how very thankful they were to be “given permission” to enjoy their practice, and to not hurt themselves. I saw then that a lot of people were having a very different experience with their practice than I was; that not everyone who practiced this yoga – or any kind of yoga – enjoyed their practice was the revelation unfolding for me.
And so eventually I felt the importance of spreading what I considered “the old-school way” – this no-dogma, teach-to-the-individual way of practice that felt so good, that allowed for so much flexibility regarding how an individual will actually manifest/express the practice, and that I could see had so much potential to help people heal and grow and evolve, as I had seen it help me… And I don’t mean to say that these things cannot be found within the “new-school” tradition (with which I really have had no personal experience), or within any other system of yoga – we all just have to find what works for us as individuals. But within the realm of Ashtanga, my beloved and joy-filled “old-school” way and lineage definitely seemed greatly underrepresented, and when I went to workshops with my teacher “out in the world,” there seemed to be many people getting hurt in the “new-school” system and consequently looking for an alternative…
…But now? Now that I feel I no longer even have a place within my “black sheep” of a yoga community (the “black sheep” of the “black sheep,” I suppose – as many in the wider yoga world seem to consider the Ashtangis to be “black sheep” in the first place…)? …Now I’m finding that I don’t feel I care about any of it. Now I only know that I love my practice – which I certainly have not lost, which I am ever-thankful for, and which only seems to be getting stronger and ever more enjoyable as I continue my daily practice on my own, in my home (nothing new to me – home practice, as I have always practiced alone at home outside of the many visits with my teachers). And I find myself continuing to teach simply because I love my students, and they keep coming back for more; and because, yes, I do still enjoy the exchange of energy I experience in the yoga room; and because, yes, this practice has helped me so much that I do feel it’s the right thing to do to share it, if there are others interested in learning it. But… while I certainly have no desire to change anything concerning the particulars of the way I was taught to do or teach this practice in its “traditional, old-school” form… I am finding that I no longer feel like it is important for me to be a representative of the “old-school” way or of my particular teachers and lineage, that I no longer feel the call to make the “old-school” way known and available to a larger population of the Ashtanga-practicing world. Now I just do my little part and trust that everyone will find what they need to find – whatever works for them.
…And now, too, as I write this, I find myself questioning what a “lineage” even means – what it amounts to. A list of people to be remembered and honored and for whom to feel grateful? A spirit or teaching or Guru coming through a line of teachers? Yes, if we are benefitting from a practice, then we are blessed by the sheer existence of the lineage through which it came to us… but do we tend to place too much importance on our ideas or feelings concerning that lineage? …Let’s not forget that the Guru resides within all of us, and if it has not been realized yet, then it is waiting to be discovered, and any teacher should ultimately just be assisting his or her students to find it. …These ideas we get about lineages and this school or that school and what is the “proper” way… these ideas that can so often seem to fracture our communities… what significance does any of it have when compared with the real inner workings of Self-Realization? It all leads to the divine One; and ultimately that everlasting and omnipresent One is all that really matters.
When I read articles like those I have linked above, and get exposed to some of what’s happening in the wider community (which doesn’t happen very often)… it reminds me of why I never liked organized religion, why, as an adult, I never felt to be a part of one. It’s not due to a problem with the Divine itself – or in the case of a system of yoga, with the practice itself, but a problem of, or stemming from… hierarchies, egos, dogmas, human fallibility, perhaps the whole thing just getting too large-scale, etc., etc. Human stories, human problems.
…And I am so thankful that none of that interferes with my actual practice.
What reading these articles/posts also reminded me of – especially as I learned a bit about whom the authors were and saw that they have been practicing and teaching Ashtanga yoga for all these years, despite their withdrawal from the Mysore community and the stories they have now shared… is how I have always seen traditions as living, evolving organisms. Traditions last over vast periods of time because there’s something in them, some root, that consistently works well for the people performing/practicing/using them; but they’re not stagnant. To remain alive – to keep from dying out and eventually becoming forgotten, they must be put into living practice, must manifest through living individuals – and this is why traditions must naturally (though perhaps imperceptibly) evolve – because each individual is unique and humanity is always evolving. Change and evolution seem to be in our nature – it seems that to grow and evolve is what most of humanity is generally here to do. And how can traditions not naturally grow and evolve along with the humans and the cultures that are using them? As we take from them the good they have to offer us and give back to them by keeping them alive and sharing them with others, we meanwhile must also live our unique lives. Whatever we might find to help us in our own healing and growth, whatever we decide to pursue or practice amongst the myriad options now available to so many of us privileged beings, we ultimately have to use the tools we come across in a way that works for us as individuals, in our own personal and perpetual path of evolution, as we all simply find our own way.
…For years I tried my best to teach from the source – to pass on the practice unchanged by trying to learn every minute detail I could – always taking my notes, recording and remembering it all, which teacher said what and when, what of this is coming straight from the mouth of Pattabhi Jois and what is coming from the experience of which one of my teachers (and has that teacher had any other influences outside of pure Ashtanga?)… And always I would reference my source when providing instruction to one of my students – because, after all, who am I? What do I know? Better that it should be coming from a senior teacher, someone “deep in the lineage.” …But when the (unintended) split from my main teacher occurred – or after it occurred, really – after I realized I could not abandon my students, whether or not my main teacher felt I should be teaching… eventually, after some time – and after going through some of my process of grieving the loss, I stopped wanting to reference her, or any other teacher for that matter, so very often, started to want to teach more from my own experience as well as that of my teachers. And I think this, too, is only natural – to want to share our unique selves. As individuals with different life experiences, we all have our own unique offerings. I want to be me and no one else; and I want to share and teach from that place of fully being myself.
We all have personalities, deep-seated beliefs, the myriad experiences of our lives informing us, etc. – all those things that give us our unavoidable subjectivity. Pattabhi Jois was the first teacher through which this particular practice came to us, but any teacher in the following generation, all the teachers who sprang from that source, although they might do their best to teach the way he taught them, to not make any changes but to keep the practice in its “pure” form, from the source… all they have to share will pass to their students through their own filters – how can it be any other way? We can try to keep the practice as “pure” as possible, but to me it seems that our notion of purity is perched precariously atop a slippery slope, that maintaining a tradition’s “purity” can only be a slippery affair, that change (perhaps imperceptible change) is unavoidable as traditions get passed down from one generation to the next. How many details or subtleties get lost in translation – not only in translation from one language or culture to another, in the many circumstances of traditions crossing cultures, but even in the “translation” of one person’s mindset or understanding to another’s? We all have our unique mental filters that all information will pass through – both on its way into and on its way out of us. …And while we take the root of the tradition and we keep it as is; and while we can honor our teachers and continue to teach the way they taught us (for those of us lucky enough to have been taught in a way we found to work well); as we pass something on, as it comes through us, there will also naturally be things we share from what we have learned on our own, through our own practice. Some of the most helpful information my teachers have passed on to me has come to them through their own experience with the practice – not from some acquisition of knowledge from “the source” as Pattabhi Jois, but from “the source” as an inner knowing, an inner experience, “the source” as the Guru within. “Your own practice is your best teacher.” Again, I am thankful that is what I was taught. I still find it as true as ever.
In closing, while I might feel that in the end our lineage is not what is of prime importance – that it’s doing the practice that matters, and the Self-realization that matters, that experience of finding and knowing and living with the Guru within, the Divine One within… I do continue to give thanks after every single practice for my particular teachers, and for the lineage of teachers back to whom I can trace the blossoming of this practice that I’ve been gifted; and here, too, I feel to end by saying, again, that I am so thankful for the school, the teachers, and the community within which and from whom I had the privilege of learning this practice.
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Aharona Shackman has used writing as her primary practice for connecting with the Self pretty much since she learned to write. With the commencement of this blog, she is now beginning to practice the sharing of some of her writing...