July 14, 2011

The Box: Being Outside, Looking Inside: An Ashtanga Story. ~ Norman Blair

Part One.

(Editor’s note: Due to the depth and richness of Norman’s article, we have chosen to
publish it as a three-part serial. Please look for parts two and three, coming soon…)

I would like to present this piece in the spirit of compassion, co-operation and communication. My thanks to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Sharath Jois and all teachers who have developed this practice and helped me along this path. The purpose of writing is to encourage debate and dialogue amongst practitioners. Some of what is written might be controversial but this is not a rocking of the boat simply for the sake of provocation. If I see an elephant in the room it needs to be said – even if that elephant is Ganesh. This is a heartfelt attempt towards understanding this tradition and the possibilities for transformation.


There are endless beginnings: one beginning is a morning in March 1963 when I took my first breath (it was an inhale). Another beginning was a day in 1973 when a young American called David Williams turned up at a house in Mysore to ask its inhabitant – a Brahmin in his late 50s called Sri K. Pattabhi Jois – to teach him yoga. I was 10 years old: I imagine myself happily playing in short trousers without too many worries. David Williams was 23 years old and on a mission not only to find himself but also to discover a source of living long life. He had been inspired by stories of Indian yoga practitioners who did miraculous feats and lived forever and while travelling in India he came across a demonstration of physical prowess by a yogi called Manju Jois. Manju’s father was his teacher – hence the journey to Mysore.

This has been a journey subsequently followed by tens of thousands in search of…well something: something that might be variously described as a place of peace, a well of insights, a way of health. After months of intense study with Pattabhi Jois – which included 2 ½ hours of asana practice in the morning, a brief rest and then a pranayama practice – David Williams returned to the USA where he taught such people as Danny Paradise and David Swenson: the Ashtanga yoga wheels were rolling.

Fast forwards nearly 15 years: Ashtanga yoga is becoming firmly established in the USA. There is growing interest in this athletic and physically demanding form of yoga. It’s 1987 and Richard Freeman – a long established Iyengar yoga practitioner and Sanskrit scholar – meets Pattabhi Jois on one of the now regular tours that he’s making to the west (he first visited the USA in 1975). Now I was 24: an anarchist rebel struggling against the state and on the cusp of the second summer of love when we would find ecstacy teaching the white man how to dance.

Long gone were the short trousers: it was about to be baggy trousers. It was also in 1987 when Derek Ireland and Radha Warrell first went to Mysore: Derek and Radha being among the most important individuals in the introducing of Ashtanga yoga to western Europe. Six years later – 1993 – and I would start regular attendance at a yoga class that subsequently became an Ashtanga practice when the teacher studied with Derek and Radha.


For more than 15 years I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga: first in led classes and since 1999 in the self-practice environment with a certified teacher. This has been a journey: from straining to touch my toes to a practice that has a level of smoothness flowing through the poses. But what I am interested in knowing is if this practice reinforces or reduces neuroses? We are all neurotic to a greater or lesser extent: we all experience differing levels of unease which in the words of Carl Jung are expressed as “restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications”. There is a similarity to the kleshas of yoga philosophy: a translation is “torments of the mind”. A contrast to the kleshas is ‘metta’ (sometimes translated as “gentle”): can our practices lessen the kleshas and increase the metta? Can there be a diminishing of torments and a growing of gentleness? Are we trapped in Ashtanga or can it be transformative?

Richard Freeman wrote “as yoga students and teachers, we tend to become attached to and prejudiced about our own school and methodology… consequently it is not uncommon to simply rest on the superficial levels of the school we consider to be our own”. Might this be true for us Ashtangis? These are questions that puzzle me – perhaps I am looking for answers in writing this piece.

One criticism that comes from those outside Ashtanga is that of its self-declared ancient origins. Pattabhi Jois claimed to discover the original postural sequences on banana leaves (sometimes it was said to be palm leaves) that were a few thousand years old. Conveniently these leaves then promptly crumbled to dust leaving no evidence at the scene. Often when Pattabhi Jois recounted this story it would be with a smile – and as has been documented in books such as ‘Yoga Body’, the origin of the Ashtanga postural sequence is probably more about 19th century physical health movements in Europe than distant yogic texts.

On the basis of this evidence Ashtanga has been described as “fraudulent deception”– which somewhat misses the point. An authorised Ashtanga teacher said “one of the reasons I got into this yoga thing was because I was looking for an alternative to the likes of the creationist Christians…now looking at it, it is as if the whole raison d’etre of practice is based on a similar creationist myth”. But the important point is that for Indian religions this method is a tested way of introducing new ideas into tradition. Rather than Pattabhi Jois being a fraud, in fact he (along with his teacher Krishnamacharya) were original thinkers attempting to adapt and update their tradition. This practice of introducing innovation into tradition existed for example in Tibetan Buddhism (see footnote 1).


Far from being a fraud, Pattabhi Jois has been a significant figure in the western turn towards spiritual practices. The vehicle of Ashtanga has been a transmission belt for many people to enter practices they might not have considered. The athleticism of Ashtanga has been attractive to those who could dismiss yoga as navel gazing. Plenty of people have come to practices that they otherwise would have not been reached – which is great. Because in this western world (for all its material abundance and relative egalitarian openness) there is loss of meaning, there is breakdown of human community, there is lack of appreciation, there is unsustainable strain placed on environment. Cultures that were more contemplative have been replaced by absorption in distraction: rather than arts of storytelling we have fascination with celebrity and an endless parade of so-called information in the mass media. These are the anxious ages – though anxieties have been part of the human condition since the start of our species.

There is profound dislocation in modern society and not only are we dislocated, this is an unsustainable social structure. We are living out Easter Island (where they cut down all the trees and then civilisation collapsed) on a global scale. Despite the abundance, despite the great social gains of the last 150 years, this is our reality within the materialism of modern world.

That brings us back to the question: does Ashtanga yoga help in resolving such dislocations and this meaninglessness – in bringing us closer to places of insight and peace? For some people definitely yes and for some people probably no: because we are disparate individuals with our own storylines. So for one person Ashtanga can become a meditating in movement which creates ground for stillness and lucidity in mind. For another person Ashtanga is the basis for more striving, the struggling and the straining where we are simply replicating already present patterns in the fixation on postural success.

According to Richard Freeman “if you practice a system unwaveringly, something will remain unaddressed or unresolved and there is likely to be residue from the practice and some aspect of your life that remains unconscious”. We come to the requirement for paths to be plural – what can be problematic is that some people who are drawn to Ashtanga are the ones who might need it least: what could be called the type A success oriented personality.


It’s these personalities – and there are many of us like this – who are easily caught in the ladder of Ashtanga yoga: climbing through the postures so practice just strengthens the wanting mind. One experienced student came back from a week retreat with a certified teacher stating “I was the worst practitioner there” – when the actual reality is that she has a strong practice. Ashtanga can be such a hard taskmaster with its narrative principally written by winners rather than losers. One senior teacher said “that’s why you get such good results” (which some would query). But how many have to be broken on the wheels of rigidity and dogma?

It is these wheels that can cause the failure to point out the obvious (such as jumping straight into chaturanga can damage shoulders, such as turning feet out for drop-backs can damage knees). The acrobatic aspects of practice does mean that the inherently flexible rise up the hierarchy of teachers more rapidly then others. Admired for their circus skills, maybe more essential aspects of teaching – such as personal integrity, ethical foundations, empathetic connection – are not as well developed.

This wanting mind means that we might be less likely to critique the way that these postures are adjusted by teachers: some adjustments are verging on brutal because of that drive to be getting further on through the sequence. There are the nightmare stories of over-enthusiastic teachers struggling to force round pegs of individuality into what could be viewed as the square holes of Ashtanga.

Too many adjustments have been done with too little awareness and rather than the body being a temple, it becomes a battlefield to be bullied into perceived perfect posture. How many authorised teachers have broken people’s knees in postures such as bhekasana or garbha pindasana – and certified teachers breaking femurs in Marichysasana B? And the many examples of everyday Ashtanga teachers causing injury through too much zeal, too much attachment to how a posture should be (and also of course making mistakes – that human fallibility).


But at the same time adjustments – when done well – are a powerful way of encouraging and enabling practice: showing us what is possible within the body, gently leading towards places where we probably thought that we would never arrive, a genuine conduit for connection. This requires skill and sensitivity to ensure that adjustments are not just a copying of what someone else has done: that the adjusting arises from a place of care and love. Because often this does not happen – at times when being adjusted I have wondered where is the love.

There has been no serious attempt made to study the rate of injuries amongst Ashtanga practitioners – there do seem to be a number of sensitive shoulders and sore backs. And those knee operations that are held up almost like badges of battle honours, the long-term practitioners who experience degrees of discomfort in their bodies. But it has to be noted that this applies to other yoga styles – two teachers (one teaching since 1985 and the other from the early 1990s) told me that as much as there are knee issues with Ashtanga practitioners, there are hip issues with Iyengar practitioners. Both of these teachers trained and taught within the Iyengar tradition before branching out.

There is anecdotal evidence of long-term intense yoga practice wearing out joints – though it could be said that so does life. If it’s all about sitting in padmasana surely something has gone wrong somewhere? And it’s not just about sitting in padmasana – in Ashtanga it’s sitting in padmasana always leading with the right foot. This might have been one of the straws that broke the camel’s back for a third series practitioner – she simply said “I got fed up with putting the right foot in first”.


Norman Blair has been practicing yoga for more than 15 years and teaching since 2001. His practice and teaching embrace both ashtanga yoga and yin yoga as well as mindfulness meditation. Through significant periods of training with his teachers Hamish Hendry, Richard Freeman and Sarah Powers he has gained the Yoga Alliance 500 hour accreditation. He believes that yoga is accessible to all of us and through regular practice we can experience profound changes in our mind and body. He teaches classes and workshops in London – for more details go to www.yogawithnorman.co.uk. Right now one of his favourite quotes is from Aldous Huxley “it’s a little embarrassing to have spent one’s entire life pondering the human situation and find oneself in the end with nothing more profound to say than try to be a little nicer”.

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