August 12, 2011

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

Final Part.

Note: Below is the third and final part of Norman Blair’s rich and researched article on Ashtanga yoga. If you missed the first two parts, you can find part one here and part two here. Enjoy! ~ ed.


The death of the guru can be an interesting transition: the guru often feels free to make it up as they go along (there is freedom in being the guru while the disciples are more rigid).

Recently there appears to be a tendency towards corporatisation of Ashtanga into a brand more like Bikram: an increasing strictness of sequence (Pattabhi Jois introduced postures into the practice over the years); growing emphasis on money-making (one practitioner said a two week teacher training in Mysore could have been easily condensed into two days – and 70 people were present each paying £1000 to ensure their placing in the hierarchy); moving towards studios that are centrally controlled.

Is Ashtanga going to become trademarked as a way of preserving control and maintaining income streams? Transformation might be evolving into a business – like Bikram (how many Rolls-Royces, Rolexes and law suits does one man need (see footnote 4)?). How can we avoid the corporatising of a practice that promises liberation, the institutionalising of a philosophy that preaches freedom?

A question that has to be asked is whether we are being empowered as individuals – with qualities such as insight, kindness, autonomy – or are we being diminished and controlled? Part of the problem is that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. This is challenging work – but necessary for transformation: being aware, being vigilant, being awake. In many ways it’s much easier to just stretch this body and perhaps partially delude ourselves that we are on a spiritual journey.


Maybe it’s a journey that takes a very long time – BKS Iyengar said “the philosophical teaching came to me only after 1960” (about thirty years into practicing and teaching). But do we have the luxury of that length of time – especially when there are many calls for us to sit down and watch the contents of this mind, especially when we are at this stage of so much speeding up? This doesn’t mean enlightenment in one lifetime. What it does mean is that considering all current circumstances then stuff has to shift: are we shifting quick enough?

There was a Zen teacher in the 13th century – Dogen: when he returned from a long period of retreat, he was asked what he had bought back. His reply was simply “a soft and flexible mind”. That reminds me of a journalist asking the Dalai Lama “when were you happiest?” – the answer was “now”. Obviously both Dogen and the Dalai Lama had gone through very long periods of training but these responses – the soft and flexible mind, the experience of happiness right now – does show what might be possible: a lessening of unease, a greater ability to be present: not so neurotic. A young American – Alan Clements – who undertook a rigorous meditation training in 1970s Burma described his experiences as: “awareness put eyes and ears where there had been none…it enhanced perception and revealed greater nuance…sounds were accentuated…colours became brighter…tastes more subtle and sweeter…smells more fragrant…I fell in love with the simplicity of just being”.

Can Ashtanga help us to get to such places – my answer is “I’m not sure”. It can be a stepping stone, part of paths towards awareness – but too often it becomes too stuck, too rigid, too fixated.


Having examined to some extent this Ashtanga culture it is important to remember that there are flaws and failings within all traditions. The life expectancy of Zen monks in Japan is significantly less than average – another example of the harshness within Zen is when a student was experiencing the appearance of a nervous breakdown, the teacher told her “if you feel you’re dying, please die peacefully”. A long-term teacher encountered the rigidity within orthodoxy when she was informed by a meditation centre that “if you don’t give up walking meditation, give up your body movement that we hear you are doing, your mixing Zen practice in, then you are not belonging to our lineage”.

Some meditators can be distant and dry and disconnected – using the tool of meditation as an avoidance strategy to lessen engagement with living life. And in the Buddha’s own time there were splits within the community one of which (according to old texts) culminated in an assassination plot against him by a senior monk. Striving – and the consequent envy – occurs in meditative experiences as much as Ashtanga experiences. Someone recently told me that “I am jealous of my friends’ having sartori experiences”. I reassured him that he had no need to be envious of me as I had not had such events.

In this writing and thinking (it has taken two years to put together this piece) it is worth remembering words from the 7th century teacher Chandrakirti: “attachment to one’s beliefs and aversions for another’s view – all this is thought”. I am conscious that some of these constructs that have been used are just fleeting mental formations. This is human nature – as much as we breathe and we bend how easily we find division and discord. On occasion this has benefits but at times it is about building brands and defending empires.

What intrigues is how well certain paths serve a purpose in our practicing to be better human beings: a problem is that waves see themselves as separate from the water (and then there is that fear which arises from separation). A purpose of practice is dealing with this unsteadiness that one commentator beautifully described as “the mind is more than capable of seeing a stationary blue car and constructing out of it a six act melodrama”. A purpose of practice is to overcome our mistaken perceptions, to enable us to connect inside and outside so we can discover what many traditions describe as the luminosity of mind where there is insight and peacefulness: a brightening of the inner skies.

Some people get stuck and some people don’t: this vehicle of Ashtanga is a powerful transformative practice but all of us need to look at our practicing with an approach of curiosity. I am just one person attempting to make some sense of what is around me – like a young boy faced by the emperor’s new clothes I have to try to see with clarity. Hopefully this piece will deepen our debates and discussions about the meaning of practice. My own feeling about Ashtanga is great affection and respect – but there is much fixation on the external form. Rather than all the sweating and all the striving, practice as a gentle daily ritual with less attachment to asana could have more possibilities for deeper impact. A question for us as practitioners is – in the words of the religious scholar Huston Smith: are our practices “enhancing awareness, patience and generosity and enabling us to respond creatively to the complexities, distractions and uncertainties of modern times”.

I think that there is a requirement for other flavours on particular paths – you could call it a seasoning of path: because otherwise the path might be too tight where there is a tautness which becomes neurotic. The point is this self being less stuck so that in the words of a poet there is a realisation that “we are a process and an unfolding”. There aren’t any particular answers: it’s more how honest can we be with ourselves and how much can we temper that honesty with kindness. The hope is to keep questioning and to stay as open as we can: to feel our way towards a more easeful existence.

Thanks to all those who have talked to me and helped me along these paths.


4. In the words of Bikram: “Before me, there was no money, no business with yoga…From pope to president to prime minister, billionaire, superstar, novelist, sportsman, athlete, hooker, street boy, they say, ‘Bikram, you changed my life, you saved my life’…I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each…Nobody fucks with me…Bikram yoga is so big – this is a bathroom slipper you buy $2 in Kmart” he says, waving a plastic flip-flop in my face. “But you put ‘Bikram’ on it, it’ll sell for $35 in a second…all the time I have to think about law and justice and courts”. (Interview 2005 ‘Mother Jones’). Yet when Bikram first arrived in America, apparently he was humble and gentle – perhaps this might be a sign of too much power and too little dissent, a lack of peer groups and critiques.


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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