A friend recently asked for a contribution for a book he’s writing on the “Why To” of yoga practice. Here’s what came through:
When a friend showed me some yoga poses just after we graduated from college, in 1998, they felt good, physically, and so it only seemed the intelligent thing to do to begin doing them regularly. I knew nothing about yoga at the time – growing up mainly in Omaha, NE, in the mid-’80s to ’90s, I’m really not sure I had ever even heard of yoga until near the end of my college days. After college, I became extremely nomadic, mostly working on organic farms in exchange for food and shelter (WWOOFing), and while I had very little money to spend on classes, whenever I found myself somewhere with a free community yoga class, I would drop in and pick up one or two more things.
This is how I started down the path of yoga – so simply, and that simplicity has never changed. I love my yoga practice; I generally find the approximately three hours a day that I currently get to spend in meditation, asana, and pranayama quite heavenly. I do these things because I enjoy them, and it has always been this way. They feel good, as they should. As I have heard said before by some senior teacher – or maybe many of them, “if it doesn’t feel good, you’re not doing it right.”
In 2001, I spent a couple months as an apprentice/intern at the EcoVillage Training Center on “The Farm” in Tennessee, an old commune from the ’70s now turned community. As part of the apprenticeship, we were able to take yoga classes at no charge at the community yoga studio, where the most challenging class, which I preferred over the rest, was called “Ashtanga.” Later I would realize that the class was more “Ashtanga-based” – it was not a strict following of the Primary Series; but what I took away from that class were two things: #1) the word Ashtanga – that this was the style of yoga that I liked; and #2) Surya Namaskar A and B (Ashtanga’s sun salutations), which I learned well enough to remember, and each of which I began to do a few times every morning.
In my first weeks of practicing Ashtanga’s sun salutations (and nothing more than these), my arms and shoulders were killing me!!! I had so very little upper body strength back then. Growing up, I was always very skinny (despite the colossal amount of food I generally consumed) and weak, as well as completely un-athletic – typically one of the very last kids picked for teams in gym class. The only sport that I got into was horseback riding (jumping and dressage) – which, for me, took more strength of will than physical strength. I rode from about age 9 to 17, and as I was never taught to stretch before or after riding, I also became extremely stiff during this time.
About a year and a half after starting to practice the sun salutations, I was working in a raw foods restaurant in New York City, with a waitress who was an Ashtanga teacher. It wasn’t until the very end of my five-month stint in NYC that I made it to one of her classes. This was the first time I saw the entire Primary Series being practiced, and I was blown away – I think it must have been seeing Supta Kurmasana that really shattered my mind. I bought David Swenson’s Practice Manual the next day, and I took it with me to the farm I was heading to in Costa Rica, where I had lived once before, and where, I found upon returning, they happened to have just built a yoga platform. On January 1st, 2003, I took my Manual out to the platform and began my daily practice of the Primary Series.
I liked Ashtanga because it was active – not nearly as active as West African dance, which by then was both my primary physical and spiritual practice, but much more active than any other type of yoga I had ever found. And I liked it because it involved a set series of postures; I liked that I could learn the series and then practice on my own, meaning that I could take it with me wherever I went and didn’t need to always be in a class. As for classes, too, I liked that I did not have to listen to continual instructions, or watch someone, in order to be led through what to do, and that I could advance at my own pace – for me, the Mysore class was the perfect way to learn (and, eventually, teach, as I generally prefer to keep the talking to a minimum).
By about five or six months into my daily practice, I knew I was ready for a teacher, that I needed to be pushed further within the Primary Series or start learning the Intermediate Series, that I couldn’t go further on my own with just the Practice Manual and occasionally dropping in on a class. I researched each of the teachers in the old picture shown in the first few pages of Swenson’s Manual and then signed up for a workshop with Nancy Gilgoff, the only active teacher from that original group who was female. By the end of a powerful two or three days with her, I had decided to travel to Maui the following winter to study with her – and, as it turned out, with her assistant Casie, who took over the classes while Nancy was traveling. On January 1st, 2004, I was on a plane headed to Maui.
INTERMEDIATE/SECOND SERIES – HEALING – PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY
Whereas Primary Series had felt like a way to keep my body together, to keep me physically fit and able to safely do the other physical activities in my life, Intermediate Series was very plainly HEALING me. For a few years before I began the Intermediate Series, I was visiting chiropractors all the time, putting my out-of-alignment back back in order. Once I began to get strong in Second, I never went to another chiropractor.
But now I also began to access the emotional body. The reason my back was so “broken?” Well… a little back-story on me (no pun intended)… A couple years before I began my Ashtanga practice, I had suffered the biggest trauma of my life thus far, becoming a widow at the age of 24, losing not only my (Ghanaian) husband, after being given less than a year with him, but also the sweet, simple life in West Africa (my dreamland) that went with him. What I saw as my whole life and future were suddenly, quite unexpectedly, gone, as was my best friend and other half – which, of course, was the worst part. In the following year of profound mourning, I had stored a great deal of my grief and pain, which I was not ready to deal with, in a certain spot in my upper back; and this spot hardened, layer after layer – eventually becoming numb, as I also worked for about five months as a cashier – stuck behind the cash register in the same repetitive motions for eight hours a day (at a new health-food-store chain called Whole Foods)…
As the backbends in Second Series began to strengthen the muscles in my back, getting them to the point where they could hold my spine in a more comfortable position – a more proper position for functioning in the world, they also dislodged the emotions stored in that physical, knotted-up spot. I was told that moving into Second Series typically brings out anger or sadness, or both. For me, it was pure sadness. Tears and tears and tears and more tears… And some of my ribs began moving – moving out of place before they could move into a more proper place – and the whole thing was really quite painful! But so very necessary – and by then I thoroughly trusted the practice and whatever process it was going to put me through. And thank goodness I had found this healing space on Maui, where I felt so supported – in the yoga studio, in the ocean (which always helped tremendously during those physically painful times), and in Nancy’s and Casie’s hands – which I also always trusted completely.
In my first couple years of practice, there were times when I would miss my practice for a few days or maybe even up to a week or so, due to travel or some other life event, and by the end of that week or so, my body would be feeling it – in particular, my back pain would return. But I soon realized there was more that I was missing than just the asanas that seemed to be putting my body back in a proper, non-painful position. I missed the breath. The quality of my breath soon began to feel different without the Ashtanga practice and its particular breath. And I began to see a piece of the truth behind what my teacher had been professing – that breath is the most important part of this practice. Then pranayama came into the picture (following Second Series), and the quality of my breath changed immensely. It wasn’t long before I felt I simply could not take a deep breath if for some reason I missed a day or two of pranayama.
By now, in 2018, 15 years into my daily practice, my understanding is that it’s not just a matter of “breath,” but it’s prana, it’s life-force, it’s vital energy, and that through this practice, we are learning not only to take it in and refine it, but also to direct it within our bodies – the physical body as well as the emotional, mental, energetic/subtle, and spiritual bodies that are so intricately entwined with the physical. The more we do the practice, it seems to me, the more conscious of the prana we become, and the better we can become at harnessing and directing this vital and incredible energy that is the source of life itself… Wow – pretty big stuff!
So here we go, bringing prana, life-force, vital energy, into the body through the breath, spreading it through the body as we open the body’s nadis – energy channels, via the movement of the breath/prana within the postures… meanwhile gaining more and more interesting postures as we advance along… accessing ever more nooks and crannies in our bodies (and not just our physical bodies)… waking up ever more of our Selves…
THE MAGIC OF ADVANCED A/THIRD SERIES
For me, Advanced A, or the “old” Third Series, feels like magic – and always has, even in my early days of practicing it when it was SO CHALLENGING! Advanced A has so clearly had the power to completely transform me; if I’ve started off the practice feeling unwell for any reason (not enough sleep, dietary mishap, etc.), Third will have turned that around before I know it, and by the end I’ll be feeling amazing again, my entire body charged with energy. (And what better way is there to walk through your day?) I have experienced this countless times over the years. And yes, to a certain extent, I have experienced this with any series in the Ashtanga syllabus, but with Advanced A, for me, the feeling tends to be much more pronounced.
It has also served to make me strong like never before; on a physical level (though I suppose also, simultaneously, branching out to all the other levels), Advanced A has helped me tremendously with developing my strength. Once I had started to do West African dance on a regular basis, a couple years before I began my Ashtanga practice, and was stretching before and after dance class, the flexibility had begun to come to my body pretty easily. But the strength… for me that took much more time to develop. A great deal of Third was hard in the beginning. And the fact that eventually, after some years of practicing it generally three times a week, it became not hard can still feel a bit surprising to me. Watching other people in the Maui yoga shala doing certain parts of Third, I used to think… no way – I cannot see myself ever being able to do that. …But this is the power of practice. You do the practice and you change, and your body changes; the practice develops you. It can feel quite miraculous, but it actually makes perfect sense.
Advanced A has also taken me into deeper levels of healing the wounds in my back. Just as I had this experience with the Intermediate Series in the early days of practicing it, I have also had the experience of some degree of back pain/discomfort returning if for some reason I’ve been slacking on my practice of the Advanced Series. On an emotional level as well, Advanced A has helped to facilitate more “letting go” of past trauma – coming along with not just the further opening but the strengthening of that wounded spot in my upper back – and with the bringing of ever more prana into the area, as some of the postures have provided me with a way to gain deeper access.
Looking back, I think that for me, the main effects of starting a daily practice of the Primary Series were that it started to get the body in shape and realigned, and it started to develop the breath and the movement of energy. Starting on Intermediate Series began to really open the energy body for me, to “clear the nadis,” as they say – to clear or open the body’s energetic pathways for the prana to traverse. And, of course, it began to strengthen my damaged back, and all of this also resulted in a hearty dose of emotional cleansing. …As for Advanced A? Besides the dramatic strengthening of the entire body, all I’ll say is… MAJOR MOVEMENT OF ENERGY. And while these have been the most notable, or noticeable, effects, meanwhile, all of the series, always utilizing Ashtanga’s signature breath-with-sound, have subtly been working on calming the mind…
FALLING IN LOVE WITH ADVANCED B/FOURTH SERIES
After about six or seven years of practicing Advanced A generally three times a week, and by then feeling quite strong with it, I began to feel interested in Advanced B, the old Fourth Series – the final set series in the “old-school” Ashtanga syllabus. For one thing, I was curious about what it would do for my body (maybe even deeper levels of healing in my back?); but my biggest reason for wanting to do it, if my teacher felt me capable and ready for it, was to keep Advanced B from dying out. I knew of only one woman who was definitely still practicing it at the time (an amazing and beautiful badass of a woman, incidentally), and she was in her 60’s and not a yoga teacher – and therefore, I thought, would most likely not be passing it on. It seemed that all the other folks in my teacher’s generation who used to practice it in their younger days were no longer practicing it – or teaching it, and that outside of my relatively small “old-school” Ashtanga community, the younger generations of Ashtanga practitioners who made it to the advanced series were all learning the “new-school” way (in which the old Third and Fourth have been divided into more series, as well as switched up into a different order of postures – an order that generally seems much less sensible to those of us still practicing the old way). At that time, my teacher – one of only a few senior teachers, as far as I know, still teaching the advanced series in the old way – had only successfully passed Advanced B on to a couple of people, and that was decades before and I had no idea if those women were still practicing it. …So I really felt strongly that if I was able, I should do all I could to keep my beloved “old-school” tradition fully alive.
…I had no idea what a gift Advanced B, the “old” Fourth Series, would be. I fell so instantly in love with it, from the very first day of trying just the first piece of it, that I soon felt like I was having an affair – cheating on my beloved Third Series!
While I had seen the previous three series working on my physical, emotional, energetic, and mental bodies, for me, Advanced B finally clearly tapped into the spiritual body. …While for so many people yoga was what they considered their “spiritual path,” I had never felt that way about it, and I had never strongly felt the “spiritual” side of my yoga practice – at least not more than in the way that any of my practices have a spiritual element to them, which really they all do… Perhaps it was because I already had established West African dance as my most spiritual practice by the time I started the yoga that I never had felt the yoga was my “spiritual practice;” the dance had always so strongly and clearly tapped into the spiritual body, making my spirit soar, giving me my most easily-accessed and straight-forward experiences of blissful Union with the Divine One, that everything else paled in comparison. …But with Fourth Series… The best way I can describe its effect on me… was that it reached down into the deepest discovered levels of me – into that Divine I – the Self with a capital “S” that dancing and drumming had always accessed so much more easily… it found its way to reach down into this deep Divine level of Me, and then to pull it out/up/forward/backward, inward/outward/surround-sound/all-around… to encase me, fill me, shine forth from me… and calm me… It was so calming, this Fourth Series. And I have always been an extremely CALM person, life-long, but even for me, such a calm person, wow… this calm feeling that started to come to me within both the practice and the aftermath of Advanced B… I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I still like it a lot. I don’t know whether this calm, peaceful feeling that this series brings to me comes from its particular postures themselves, or from its design of intense, strength-inducing postures followed by either calm, meditative postures or intensely deep stretches… or whether it’s just from the calm and ease and grace and peace that naturally come to us when that Divine aspect inside radiates through us – that come to us when we experience our Divine Nature… But whatever the cause, every single time I do it, which is generally twice a week, Advanced B is such a gift, a prize – it really feels like one of the greatest gifts I have ever received in this lifetime.
SELF-REALIZATION IS THE NAME OF THE GAME
From my very oldest practice for knowing the self, writing, through all my practices… I feel that essentially it’s all Yoga – it’s all Union; it’s all about Consciousness, Self-Realization. Whether it’s feeling the Divine take over and move my body in dance class, shoving the ego out of the way as I am united with the rhythm, the music… or whether it’s feeling the music pass through my own body, as I play West African rhythms with a group of other drummers, all of our different parts clicking together in Union within the same groove… or whether it’s feeling the Divine flow of words spilling forth onto the page, as they use me as their vessel to manifest into the world… or feeling the Divine flow of creativity as I contentedly work on some sewing or textile project… or whether it’s feeling the Divine Prana filling me and moving me as I do my yoga practice, moving through me and subtly expanding my consciousness… it’s all a piece of the puzzle of my own journey into Self-Realization.
This is Yoga – this Union with the One, this Self-Realization, this knowing of, and living with – being, the Divine Self. There are countless ways in which we can come closer to ourselves, to our Divine Natures, countless paths we can take, practices, etc. For me, walking through this lifetime, it wasn’t the yoga that first led me to the Divine – I first found the Divine, within me and within all I witnessed around me, during my first, profoundly life-altering trip to Africa, immersed as I suddenly was in a God-conscious culture. And so I was never seeking anything spiritually with the yoga practice – it just felt good physically, so I kept with it because that seemed the intelligent thing to do. And over all these years, I have found it to be one of the most essential ways for me to keep my physical body functioning well (proper rest and diet being the only two factors I have found to have an even greater impact on me). Over time, I have also seen the yoga help me to heal old wounds; certainly I have seen its calming, clarifying effect on me; and perhaps what has lately come to have the greatest impact on me has been its contribution to the development of my awareness and use of prana… All in all, eventually the yoga practice became one of the most significant practices or tools that I have welcomed into my life – to help me find or remain in balance, to help me heal and evolve, and ultimately to bring me closer to the Divine.
It can be hard to gauge the effects of a daily practice you have done for years (a mere 15 for me, as I write this in 2018) – it is like a mother not noticing how much her toddler has grown in half a year because she is witnessing/living the growth on such a steady, subtle level every single day. But I will say that, within two or three years of daily practice, and continuing on through the present, I could feel the following effects. Physically, I simply can’t imagine being comfortable in my body, as I walk through my life, without the asana practice. I can see that, through this practice, I have been learning how to hold/inhabit my body, as I move through this world. And I have been learning how to breathe, how to more fully access and use my lungs – which also amounts to learning how to take in more of the prana all around me. Mentally, I know the meditation and the pranayama, along with the asana practice, work wonders for me – I have felt the difference in the quality of my mind, my thoughts, my focus, when, at times, I have missed a couple days of any of these elements. Emotionally, I know the practice has helped me evolve – I have experienced it, mostly through the spontaneous sobbing – and the resultant feeling of “letting go” – that has often sprung from me in the midst of my asana practice (predominantly in the early years of developing the Intermediate Series). The practice has also certainly served to increase my awareness of the energetic or subtle body, and it has helped to remove blocks that get in the way of the free flow of energy within it. …And as for the spiritual body? …To me it seems the spiritual body doesn’t need any help – it is so clearly perfect as it is, always; but I suppose the practice can help reveal that fact. If nothing else, it seems that getting those other major bodies more in order and alignment – “in good shape” – is what we need to do in order to let the Spirit, our Divine Essence, be realized, experienced, and shine forth.
Physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically, spiritually… the yoga practice has made me so very much stronger than I imagine I would have been without it. And it has helped me to feel… whole, and together, and… just… how I am. It is a gift for which I am ever thankful.
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.
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...