November 14, 2013

Does Authorization Matter? ~ Genny Wilkinson-Priest

Technically speaking, only teachers authorized by the Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYRI) in Mysore can teach the intensely physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga.

There are 441 authorized and certified teachers in the world today: 75 in Asia, one in Africa, 28 in Australia/New Zealand, 18 in South and Central America, 157 in Europe and 162 in North America, according to the KPJAYRI website.

But visit any gym or even fully-fledged yoga studio around the world and you probably won’t find a KPJAYRI authorized teacher teaching an Ashtanga class.

It begs the question—does it matter? Lots of people who are unauthorized teachers teach—should they?

I spoke with more than 30 authorized, non-authorized and senior teachers for this article. I also spoke with students, and a major European yoga centre.

Most didn’t want to go on the record with their thoughts for fear of damaging the relationship with the very institution that has sole authority to grant authorization.

To my surprise, some of them were critical of the authorization process—even the authorized teachers themselves. But everyone stood by the value of parampara, where knowledge is passed undiluted from guru to student—and how Authorization is currently bestowed in Ashtanga Yoga.

(Full disclosure: I have been practicing traditionally for 13 years with a certified teacher, and am a British Wheel of Yoga/Yoga Alliance accredited teacher. I went to Mysore last year, but regular visits are not on the cards right now as I have four young children. While I teach primarily Vinyasa Flow, I do not regularly teach Ashtanga only because there’s a certified teacher in London, and several Authorized Level 2 teachers. I recognize their superiority. I might, however, feel differently were I to be living in a city without such experienced teachers.)

The authorization process has been in flux ever since Guruji started giving his casual “blessing” to teach back in the 1990s. (Before that, students went to Mysore to learn yoga, not for authorization.) This loose permission was never formalized until about 2000 when Guruji recognized the need for greater quality control amongst his students seeking to teach.

Authorization was born, and the list grew following three teacher trainings conducted by his grandson Sharath Jois in the 2000s. Though these are no longer offered, at present there are two ways to get authorized: One, visit Mysore a minimum of four times for least one month’s duration each time. And two, under special circumstances some students who have a long-standing relationship with certain certified teachers are given authorization in less time as Sharath sees they are ready.

Within the Ashtanga community, it generally seems to be the view that in order to gain authorization not only do you have to know the practice inside-out, have progressed through much of Second Series, and honour the tradition as taught by Sharath—but you have to have the money and lots of free time to go to India.

You also have to have sharp elbows.

“Too many sincere practitioners, people who don’t have the resources or the time to make it Mysore, people who don’t have the swagger to make it through the throngs of people gagging for a bit of Sharath, people who have children and family commitments, often fall through the authorization net,” said a UK non-authorized Mysore teacher who has been to KPJAYRI four times and practices with a certified teacher.

But one American Level 1 Authorized teacher told me that he couldn’t understand why a single parent or a carer who can’t take time off work to visit Mysore would want to teach this system in the first place as the hours are gruelling and the pay is poor. “If someone is really committed to teaching daily Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga classes then going to India a few times is actually is the easiest part of the job,” he said.

Many people I spoke to noted that many recently authorized (and usually young) teachers don’t always have the life experience necessary to be a good teacher, as compassion and reduced ego usually come hand-in-hand with real-life responsibilities and obstacles.

One long-term practitioner said lately she’s seen a lot of 20-something “trustafarians” that have the money and freedom to go to Mysore three, four times in quick succession and get authorized. “I’m not sure they have gained a lot of depth in the process,” she said.

A European Level 1 Authorized teacher told me the problem lies with the class system within the Ashtanga community as Sharath decides everything—who can teach, and who can progress in the sequence. Both can be very random, he said.

Some fear the authorization has become a vanity badge.

“The currency of the Authorization is devalued because a) lots of people have it, and b) some are not very good (teachers),” said one UK Level 2 Authorized teacher. “We are not given any direct teaching skills. Being told … “teach the method as we have taught you” is at best vague and at worst completely inappropriate. I personally wouldn’t dream of teaching my students in such an intense way—having said that I do push people and have high expectations of them.”

Critics say the authorization stamp doesn’t have enough weight behind it. There is no anatomy course requirement at KPJAYRI, no teaching of detailed alignment or modifications and no formalized philosophy class. An aspiring teacher must learn these things by themselves. (To be fair, most do.)

But here’s where the cultural divide causes confusion and leads to perhaps unfair criticism: it’s hard for Westerners to understand that “teacher trainings” in India are nothing like teacher trainings in the West.

In the Wes,t we learn about femur bones and anterior rotation in the anatomy side of a TT. India’s anatomy classes are based on Aruyvedic medicine, with the study of nadis and chakras.

In the West, you attend TT classes once a month during the weekend over a period of 18 months or more, breaking down essential points of alignment in postures like Tadasana for hours at a time.

In Mysore, you practice. As the Hatha Yoga Pradipika  (Chapter 1, Verse 66) says:  “Neither by wearing the garb of a siddha, nor by talking about it is perfection attained. Only through practice does one become a (teacher).”

As one senior teacher told me: “The hoops you have to jump through in Mysore are not obvious, and Westerners don’t like that.”  Nor do Westerners like the fact that you can’t buy authorization the way you can buy a teacher training in the West.

Whether in India or the West, no teacher training—be it Iyengar, Forrest, Vinyasa Flow—will automatically produce a good teacher. So why, then, is the authorization process important or even unique to Ashtanga?

In a word, parampara—or the principle of transmitting knowledge directly from the teacher (in this case Sharath) to the student.

“There is more to being a teacher than knowing anatomy and being able put your leg behind your head,” Certified Teacher Hamish Hendry told me.

He said Ashtanga is unique in that authorization is secured only through direct parampara with the relationship maintained over a long period of time. “The guru sees when someone is ready to teach. It’s not just that the (aspiring teacher) has knowledge. Only the guru can make the judgement as to whether this person is ready to use their knowledge wisely.”

One U.S. authorized teacher said much of the learning doesn’t even happen in the main shala in Mysore, but over a coconut shared with other highly experienced teachers who have been studying this method for years. “There’s simply no substitute for that anywhere else.”

He does not believe those not authorized should teach at all: “Why is it necessary for someone who is not authorized, or even on the way there, to call what they are teaching Ashtanga? If someone doesn’t want to respect the wishes of the Jois family, why do they insist on using the system they taught and the name that they called it? Isn’t that really a kind of stealing?”

Supporters of Authorization say it’s imperative would-be teachers go to Mysore to pay their respects to the system itself.

“I can’t express how important it is for me to keep coming here to stay sharp and stay connected,” authorized teacher PJ Heffernan told me from his laptop in a cafe in Mysore. “I too would slowly water down the practice if I didn’t return as often as I do. I have a strong opinion on this because I have been on both sides of this fence.”

Before PJ was authorized, he taught Ashtanga, though called it Hatha. “It was bullshit and I didn’t help anyone. Almost all of my students from that time quit. I often feel that I created frankenyogis. Little ego monsters of delusion. That’s my karma and I learned from it.”

PJ—who is based in Wisconsin, USA and is on his ninth trip to Mysore—said only authorized teachers have demonstrated proper commitment, dedication and respect. “We have shown courage and fortitude as India is a tough mama. We have experience adjusting here in India. We have a better cultural codex having lived here for years. We have a guru who knows our name and is available for us to ask questions. We have an epicenter to gather every year to discuss and practice together. We have solidarity and unity.”

Ultimately the authorization questions lies with the students. What do they think?

One London student she would always ask why a non-authorized teacher hasn’t been to Mysore. “If it’s because they are supporting their students or family an can’t leave them for practical reasons then that’s one thing. If they don’t practice with Sharath because they don’t believe in it, or have some issue with the traditional lineage/system then they’re not the teacher for me.”

Still another U.S. student who went to Mysore for the first time in 2012 said when spending money on a workshop or retreat, he looks for the authorized/certified status to help him differentiate between an authentic teacher and one spawned by other teacher training courses, especially those that exist only to spin money.

A New York student who has been to Mysore many times said respect for lineage is paramount.  “But there is something special about the teachers who have studied with Guruji and Sharath and have been blessed to teach. You can’t always have that available though.”

Many students I spoke with in London said they have had some amazing non-authorized teachers who knew and understood the practice better than 20-something newly authorized Ashtangis. “Experience, knowledge, respect and understanding are far more important than an authorization,” said one student.

London—like New York, Tokyo, Oslo, Boulder, Philadelphia and Miami—has a certified teacher and it may be the case that these cities are where the best authorized and non-authorized teachers can be found.

One excellent non-authorized teacher that I have personally practiced with has several teacher training certificates, a committed and advanced practice, and has studied yoga history and philosophy at a post-graduate level. She said of her qualifications, “I don’t think this automatically translates into a divine right to teach. I can tell you why I teach, but I can’t know for sure whether I should teach.”

She says she does not pretend have all the answers. “I can teach from my own experience but I cannot pretend to have any sort of superior knowledge.”

Triyoga is Europe’s biggest yoga studio, offering a Mysore program as well as led classes in three different locations in London. Some of these regular teachers are authorised; some are not. They also have certified teachers like David Swenson, Kino MacGregor and Tim Miller as guests, teaching week-long workshops.

“Every teacher brings their individual teaching qualities and we love the diversity,” Triyoga’s founder Jonathan Sattin said when asked about the issue of authorization. “Our primary interests include the quality, inspiration, intention, safety, authenticity and detail they offer students. This, and the diversity, enables us to appeal to a wide audience who visit with varied agendas to start, deepen and continue their practices.”

Paradoxically, the very success and global spread of Ashtanga is due in large part to the unauthorized teacher.

They are the ones teaching in sweaty gyms around the world, sharing the practice’s physical and spiritual benefits.

Yet as a senior teacher pointed out, “They are the ones who have contributed to the devaluation of authorization if they go on to get it.”


 The Truth about Ashtanga Yoga.

Are You in the Ashtanga Cult?

Why I Still Practice Ashtanga.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise









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