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

Via elephant journal
on Aug 12, 2011
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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 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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7 Responses to “The Box: Being Outside, Looking Inside: an Ashtanga Story. ~ Norman Blair”

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  4. […] The Box: Being Outside, Looking Inside: an Ashtanga Story. ~ Norman Blair […]

  5. […] The Box: Being Outside, Looking Inside: an Ashtanga Story. ~ Norman Blair […]

  6. Sati says:

    Response Part 1:

    I really appreciate the time and thought Norman put into this article. He brings up a lot of good points but overall the primary question that moves in and out seems to be: Can committing to an established, codified form (like Ashtanga Yoga) be liberating? And throughout he answers his own question by pointing out that MOTIVATION is a determining factor.

    Spiritual teachers always telling students to “be sure your motivation is pure", aims to help the student so they don't ground their spiritual practice in an unsustainable path fueled by kleshas. Of course you have kleshas and you do practice to see them and purify yourselves of them BUT if your Yoga practice is consciously motivated by the nectar of love, of bhakti, there is less of a chance your delusions will be the fire behind your practice. If love is the fire, then not only does practice become sustainable, but it provides a light to get you through your darkest moments. If afflictions are the drive behind your reason to do Ashtanga Yoga, then suddenly, your practice is your darkest moment. But this is solely determined by the practitioner. We animate it. We bring our being and all our karma to it. Hatha Yoga in general shows us that what makes asana a gift of a spiritual practice is its reflective capacity in helping us gain self-awareness through the body. The more consciously that capacity is being cultivated, the more strides are made along the path.

    In regards to the physicality of Hatha Yoga, any broad comparisons between traditions as a means of trying to define one path as better then another is purely ridiculous. To say Ashtangis have bad knees and Iyengar Yogis have bad hips is misleading generalization and totally and utterly besides the point of Yoga practice in general. It’s not only how a teacher adjusts a student but how the students receives the adjustment that also plays a huge role in how things unfold in the mysore room. Years of personal history are at play in every moment in the mysore room. This can never be over-simplified. This is what defines each student’s relationship to the practice on a moment-to-moment basis. Every body is living storehouse of karma and beliefs and emotions and it manifests specifically in the physical kosha in everyone. A physical kosha that is temporary and will die, by the way. We must keep this in perspective!

    I didn’t choose a practice like Ashtanga Yoga because it's "perfect" which I feel is a concept that can only be applied to pure, formless awareness. I do it because I love it and because it’s a brilliant language to build fluency in. I do it because I received a transmission of love so deep and so wide that I was in tears and swimming in waves of bliss while my chakras danced for a week after meeting one of my teachers. And if I continue to cultivate and nourish this love, there is a better chance I will get through my darkness, delusion, and sadness. I do it because I have chosen this vehicle to traverse my inner landscape to reduce my suffering.

    All of Norman’s examples of competitive, greedy, angry, mean, isolated Ashtanga Yoga practitioners are all examples of fear-motivated actions. These are shining examples of Gita 101: fear leads to grasping and clinging = suffering and it’s various manifestations. And suffering begets suffering. It doesn’t matter what practice you are doing, that universal outcome is always the same. That has nothing to do with Ashtanga Yoga (or any spiritual or religious discipline) as an external entity and everything to do with mind training and heart training. Those practitioners are in their own cages and will have to do the work to get themselves out by actually using the tools of spiritual purification to transform instead of wearing them as an outfit to display.

  7. sati says:

    Response Part 2:

    Norman also posed another good question, regarding Ashtanga Yoga inflaming negative tendencies in certain humans and if so, would it make a poor choice for particular yogis to practice? Of course this a case-by-case basis, but if the student is working on establishing healthier physical/emotional/psychological patterns in their practice, (which is why it exists in the first place) I see no reason why they cannot maintain their current practice and USE IT to overcome their ailments. However, if the student’s negative tendencies are so strong and so compelling within the practice where they cannot even discern the difference between the practice and their own personal demons, perhaps a shift or a temporary break may be needed until love and wisdom can fill in all the places where delusion once held court. In doing so one can remake their relationship to spiritual practice.

    Ultimately, if one DEEPLY practices any form, any tradition, any lineage they will eventually start to see that the point is to take them BEYOND the form, the tradition, and the lineage. In short: they will start to experience the call of formlessness through form. They will see the use of form but no longer without any remnants of clinging/grasping/attachment/fear. They will dwell in love. And it will free the yogi to commit more fully to their particular tradition, from the purest motivations! No longer will practice be a life raft, with one holding on for dear life to get through one’s suffering (which is a probable phase of the relationship in the first years of practice, I think) but a joyful explosion of the play of Brahmin/Emptiness/Prakriti. Instead you will do that form of meditation, perform that asana or recite that prayer because you have a body, you have a mind and you have a voice. Letting go of the need to assert the primacy of one’s tradition or one’s role in it (in this case Ashtanga Yoga) frees up the practitioner to really be a living, breathing, shining example of that tradition! That is the paradox that all genuine spiritual practitioners slowly realize. And that is why true realization always leads to greater compassion and recognition of the value of all genuine spiritual practices and traditions. Success in Yoga is not determined by which path you choose, but by how far you take it.

    I appreciate Norman’s genuine exploration. Thanks for posting.