It’s an unfortunate fact that yoga has recently suffered the fall from grace of some of those who popularised it in the Western world. From John Friend (Anusara) to Bikram Choudary (Bikram) to the late Pattabhi Jois (Astanga) and the self-styled ‘Swami Vivekananda’ of Agama Yoga school; all had their unsavoury and in some cases abusive actions exposed, and the yoga they sought to teach has suffered as a result. Whether some of their practices represent yoga at all in the true sense is a matter open to debate – but is all lost, when a guru falls from grace?
Whilst the word ‘guru’ simply means ‘teacher’, it’s often used with a sense of worship and reverence which I find deeply unsettling. Respect for one’s teacher is always valid and indeed necessary, but I would argue that it applies only so far as the teacher shows themselves to be worthy of it and affords respect to their students in return. Sadly this has not, in the case of some teachers, proven to be the case.
I won’t go into the details of the individual scandals here – they’re easy enough to Google if you’re curious – but the ones which I found particularly disheartening were Vivekananda, at whose school I had enrolled to study Yoga Therapy, and Pattabhi Jois, whose Astanga yoga was my dedicated practice for many years. When I discovered the truth about Vivekananda I withdrew my enrollment and subsequently studied Yoga Therapy at the wonderful YogaCampus in London instead, which came to be a very happy turn of events. But what of Astanga? When the misgivings about Jois came to light I was no longer what you could call an Astangi, but the practice had been a huge part of my life in my earlier yoga years and I knew how much it had helped me. Did my disgust at the actions of ‘Guruji’ mean all that was tainted? Or could I take what was helpful and leave the rest? Was it possible not to throw the baby out with the bathwater?
I experienced many benefits first-hand from the practice of Astanga, and am proud to support the practice at regular retreats alongside an incredibly wise and intuitive senior Astanga teacher who is also a dear friend. I find most of what Astanga offers to be of great value, and after much reflection have made peace with the idea that one bad apple does not have to ruin the whole bunch. Whilst there are a few postures in the sequences that I will never teach as I believe the risks outweigh any possible benefits, and the same intention can be more safely and effectively realised in a different way, I feel that there is a great deal to be said for this practice.
The set sequence and encouragement of ‘Mysore style’ self-practice means that the Astanga student develops confidence in practising independently. They don’t need to have done a teacher training to understand how to sequence postures wisely and effectively – all they need do is attend regular Astanga classes for a while to learn the flow and understand how the postures apply to their own bodies, and they will soon have the ability to practise at home. I see my role as a teacher as helping the student to need me less and less – of course it’s sensible to continue to attend classes as their practice matures, but I want them to understand that the yoga isn’t something they get from a teacher; it’s already inside them.
If we want to progress at anything in life we need to show up, again and again, to work on our craft. The structure and framework of a regular Astanga practice helps the student to develop tapas or discipline – a quality which serves them both on the mat and in their wider world.
The beauty of practising the same sequence many many times is that we become our own laboratory. It’s said to take seven years of daily practice to master each Astanga series. That’s a great deal of being ostensibly in the same place – this body, this posture, this breath – and yet the regular practitioner quickly makes a surprising discovery; it’s different every single time. Some days you feel as though your body is made of warm treacle; on others it’s like an icy block of wood. Some days your breath is smooth, strong, both refreshing and relaxing with every cycle; on others it’s tight and jagged. There will be days when the monkey mind relaxes effortlessly into the flow of the practice and you are utterly present; and days when it simply won’t shut up. This first-hand study into the nature of impermanence is only possible when there are as few variables as possible – making the set sequence the perfect place for svadhyaya or self-study.
A balance of effort and ease
The quality we seek from every asana, irrespective of the style of yoga being practised,is that of sthiram sugham asanam: a steady comfortable seat. This means that we carefully observe the breath in every moment: is it becoming strained or shallow? If so, it may be that we need to back off a little, finding our edge rather than pushing or forcing into the pose. It also means that as intelligent practitioners and teachers we might modify or adapt the asana to suit the body of the yogi – never the other way round. In this way we develop this quality of sthiram sugham asanam in the body at all times – the physical yoga practice is intended to lead the body to vital health in such a way that our vessel is always a comfortable place to reside. This is something at which the Astanga practice, carefully taught and consciously practised, excels – the physical body quickly evolves into a stronger, more supple and mobile form; the energy finds an improved state of balance; and the mind settles into a state of relaxed alertness.
By digging deep into a single hole (the Astanga sequence) rather than digging many different, shallower holes, we develop an intimate familiarity with the postures, the breath count, and the flow of the practice. As it becomes absorbed into muscle memory, we find that we no longer need to think about what comes next – instead the body knows where it’s going on the wave of the Ujjayi breath, and the whole practice becomes a moving meditation; which is, after all, the intention of yoga practice.
When we develop independence, discipline and self-awareness in a yoga practice, rather than following the teacher ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’ style, our practice matures. In the comfortable seat of our earthly container, we gradually move from the obsessed mind, to the merely scattered mind, then to the one-pointed mind of concentration, and finally to the suspended mind where we experience ourselves as we truly are: pure universal consciousness. So as sad as it is to see the reputation of the ancient practice of yoga tainted in any way, we can always do what yoga has always asked of us: come and see for ourselves, and experience first-hand the inner wholeness which is beyond the actions of any teacher.