Notes on a Teacher Training: The Style Debate

Via Melanie Jane Parker
on Nov 16, 2010
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Needless to say, I am a conflicted human being. These conflicts are woven into my yoga practice, and they are brought to the surface nearly every single day when I get on my mat. I can recognize long-hidden tendencies expressing themselves through standing poses or forward folds; I detect places of emotional resistance while in backbends and inversions.

While I love discipline, structure, detail, and technicalities, I also yearn for moments of unthinking, all-feeling bliss, in which my mind ceases its chatter and allows my body to move and breathe without restraint. I have always envied my friends who are thespians and dancers and performance artists, people who trust in their own grace, balance and strength. This is why I began practicing yoga – to feel more like myself and to be more comfortable in this body. At the same time, I am very drawn to schools of yoga that are strict, demanding, and exceedingly specific in their instruction of alignment, sequencing, and breathing.

I chose to begin my formal yogic education at Laughing Lotus, where the vinyasa flow style is sensual, liberating, and intentional. Each and every class is thoughtfully crafted. The sequencing moves energy up the chakras, creating a truly grounding yet uplifting experience. The school seeks to nurture the individual in his or her beautiful and unique body, and to develop upon the ideas and practices we have been given by sages like Patanjali and Krishnamacharya.

Both Iyengar yoga and Ashtanga yoga grew out of seeds planted by Krishnamacharya, the man credited with inventing what we understand as modern yoga. He taught B.K.S. Iyengar and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, both of whom have millions of students who swear by their respective methods. In either school, there is a tremendous emphasis on specific sequencing. Iyengar is famous for his alignment-intensive style, while Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga is known for its warming, vigorous character. Krishnamacharya’s own family has taken on the task of disseminating his teachings through the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in India, as well as through international workshops. Krishnamacharya’s son and grandson are regularly invoked at the Lotus in discussions of contemporary innovators.

Krishnamacharya’s son, T.K.V. Desikachar, is a modern yoga scientist who emphasizes yoga as a therapeutic healing modality. His book The Heart of Yoga is a comprehensive, accessible guide to creating a personalized relationship with yoga that recognizes the intertwined nature of asana, pranayama, and philosophy.

If you pick up Light on Yoga (like the New Testament to the Yoga Sutras Old Testament), you’ll see that young Iyengar’s practice was once very masculine, rigid, and traditional. As time went on, and his student body grew to include Western men and women, Iyengar had to make accommodations. He began to see individual ailments, injuries and conditions as laboratories in which to apply rehabilitative principles of asana. This is where blocks, straps, bolsters, blankets, and rope-walls made their way into his classrooms and workshops.

The same goes for Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Although Ashtanga continues to be a very strong, regimented practice, it still makes space for ladies’ holiday (menstruation), and many of Guruji’s direct disciples now incorporate longer-held finishing poses and some restoratives at the end of Primary Series classes. This may be in large part due to the many female Ashtanga teachers who must adjust the practice to meet the feminine rhythms of life: menstruation, conception, pregnancy, birth, maternity, and menopause, to name just several major phases.

What can we deduce from this visible evolution? Well, yoga is about transformation. And the students cannot transform if the teachers don’t allow themselves to do the same. Change is human, and it can actually be the pathway towards that which is beyond.

In the midst of a wildly expansive Lotus flow, I find myself at my most elevated and at my most human. As much as I want to move like myself, some days I want to move within the lines, angles and breath patterns of an Ashtangi, or hold utthita parsvokanasana for two minutes, or peel open my heart space in a wide Anusara-like trikonasana. I believe my tendency towards a mish-mosh of traditions (all of which stem from the singular yogic tradition as put forth by Sage Patanjali) comes from practicing asana on my own for the first several years of this journey. Being trained, and even taking classes regularly, requires a degree of surrender that I’m not accustomed to. When a Lotus teacher instructs me to move like myself, it takes a lot of work to know what that means. I can’t help but feel like a truly composite human being. But through the teachings at Lotus, I continually arrive at the notion that we are all much more than the sum of our influences. The truth of yoga – if I can even begin to speak of truth – goes beyond sequences and mantras, though truth is also contained within sequences and mantras.

How does one demonstrate respect for the teachings, while maintaining one’s own creativity and eclecticism? Dana Flynn and her crew at Laughing Lotus NYC have something to say about this. There is much talk of the Divine, of Patanjali, of Krishnamacharya, of the many men and women who have paved the way for contemporary seekers of love and light. At the end of the day, the style debate is a snake that eats its own tale. While it is crucial to maintain a sense of reverence and lineage, hopefully we can approach this practice with a sense of wonder, which requires much discipline in itself.

To learn more about Laughing Lotus founders Jasmine and Dana, listen to these joyful podcasts.


About Melanie Jane Parker

Melanie Jane Parker is a freelance writer, bibliophile, and yogini. A recent graduate of Hampshire College, she writes short fiction, essays and poetry. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, and is currently studying towards her 200-hour teaching certification at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in Manhattan.


7 Responses to “Notes on a Teacher Training: The Style Debate”

  1. Monique says:

    Really nice piece, but I would've loved to see a mention of Desikachar. He always gets the shaft:)

  2. Mel says:

    Thanks for the heads-up, Monique. I added a little something about Desikachar. You're totally right.

  3. Great piece, Melanie. This is a really good overview of some of the most popular styles, but what I liked most about it is the way you wove in your inner personal reactions and coming to terms with the various styles.

    Like you, I also have these two sides of me–the structured disciplined side and the emotional artistic side. I'm sure many others do, too. So I particularly enjoyed that.

    If you're into philosophy and are a bibliophile, you're probably already aware of Robert Pirsig's wonderful book from the 70s that is all about this self-same dichotomy. But just in case you're not, and for other readers, it's called by the very evocative title Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.

  4. Mandy says:

    Awesome, and Yes, Bob is right, there are lots of us out here. I am all over the place trying new styles and trends. I love to weave a variety of things into my classes. I get bored with myself and others if I can anticipate what is coming next or listen to the same playlist a million times. I need to mix it up and the best way to do that is to read a ton, take lots of classes and to spend time alone on the mat.

    Bob, thanks for that book recom, I have heard of it but never read it. I guess "Motorcycle Maintenance" threw me off.

  5. […] realize there are differing schools of thought regarding pose variation. I particularly appreciate the teachings of Sri. T. Krishnamacharya as […]

  6. […] late? Then I realize it’s not a vision at all but a memory. It’s my graduation from yoga teacher training, and I’m dressed in white because my school was very traditional. All teachers had to dress […]

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