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December 2, 2013

Can We Be True to Ashtanga & Honor the Spirit of Yoga? ~ Pranidhi Varshney

I just finished reading Genny Wilkinson-Priest’s article on the importance (or lack thereof) of authorization in the ashtanga yoga lineage and I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling.

Perhaps my ego is a little bruised.

I teach ashtanga yoga and I’m not authorized. Props to Genny for writing a well-researched, well-rounded article. I found myself resonating with the perspectives of many of the teachers and practitioners she interviewed.

The discomfort lingers though, and I’m realizing now what’s at the root of it: as teachers of a practice that aims to unite, why are we tearing each other down? This is an important discussion to have but let’s get to the heart of the matter: how can we develop good ashtanga yoga teachers and how can we, as teachers, support each other with the ultimate goal of furthering this practice?

Ashtanga teachers are few and far between. Whether or not we’re authorized, we’ve dedicated years to this practice and most of us have dedicated years to assisting and learning from senior teachers. The fact that we’re not authorized does not mean we don’t value parampara, the direct transmission of wisdom from teacher to student.

One of my first teachers was Manju Jois, Guruji’s son, and I continue to practice and learn from him on a regular basis. I’ve been to Mysore once and practice with Sharath when he comes on tour to the United States.

I’ve spent time practicing with Nancy Gilgoff, one of the first women to learn from Guruji. She’s a wonderful teacher and, shockingly, not authorized or certified as far as I can tell.

One of the teachers Genny interviewed said, “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?”

I respect this teacher’s devotion to the lineage and I understand the need to maintain purity in the practice. I also think we have something to learn from Guruji here. Pattabhi Jois did not choose to call the system he developed Jois yoga. He called it Ashtanga Yoga. That in and of itself is an act of humility and reverence for the practice.

Every time we chant the opening mantra, we give respect to those that came before us and ask for their guidance. Every time I bring my hands together, I give thanks for the Jois family and all the teachers who’ve brought this practice to life. I believe that teachers should teach what they practice. Teaching the method that’s worked for me and calling it anything but ashtanga yoga would be disrespectful, disingenuous, and yes, would indeed be stealing.

I made a decision early on in my teaching career that I was going to teach this method as traditionally as possible, even if I wasn’t teaching in a traditional setting. I teach at a local Y in Los Angeles, and at an ashtanga studio founded by a certified teacher. I teach a mix of led and mysore classes at each location and have had the honor of sharing the practice with many beginners. Instead of demeaning young ashtanga teachers, we should be encouraging them to teach in community centers, gyms, and small studios where people are yearning for authentic yoga.

Let’s also break down the notion that going to Mysore is the path toward advancement in the ashtanga yoga practice. Mysore is what you make it. I know—I’ve been there. There are many students who go to Mysore and experience tremendous growth and connection.

On the other hand, I’ve witnessed and heard about many students who go to Mysore to socialize—smoking pot all day and having sexual relationships with fellow students. That’s cool, there’s no judgment here. But let’s not mistake that for furthering the path of ashtanga yoga or learning how to teach.

While there are many lessons to be gained in Mysore, there are also many lessons to be gained back home by figuring out how to commit to practice midst a busy work and family life. Most of my students are householders: men and women who come before or after work, moms who leave their kids in daycare for an hour and half so they can practice, students who are passing through town, etc. They need a teacher who can help them navigate how to incorporate this practice into their lives, how to use it to be kinder and stronger. I’m there to support the life of each student, not simply to give good adjustments and get people into difficult postures.

To the teacher who “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,” I say, the same reason anyone teaches: because the practice has transformed our lives and we feel compelled to share it. I’m not a single parent myself, but I know yoga teachers who are and their lives are indeed challenging. With the right combination of family, community, and societal support, though, it can be done.

They may not be able to go to Mysore, but their dedication to their practice and their students in unwavering. Yes, the hours can be grueling. Yes, the pay can be low. This is true for all teachers. But the rewards can also be bountiful and we can inspire students, through our own example, to practice in a balanced way. That’s not something one can learn just by going to Mysore. That’s something one learns through dedication to the practice, regardless of where you wake up each morning.

Instead of deepening divisions, let’s search for what binds us together and support each other as we move through the journey of teaching.

If going to Mysore every year is a part of your journey, I’m truly happy for you. I wish you continued growth and discovery on that path. I ask that you also respect my path and honor it as no less authentic than yours.

Are there inexperienced teachers out there? Yes. Are there inexperienced authorized teachers out there? Yes. Are there qualified, caring authorized teachers out there? Yes. Are there qualified, caring non-authorized teachers out there? Yes.

So what makes a good teacher? In my opinion, humility and love for the practice and for the students. The experience of yoga is not transmitted through a piece of paper or from a certain location. It is transmitted through the breath, the hands, and the heart. Find a teacher who can do that.

I plan to go back to Mysore next year. That might be my last opportunity to do so before having children. Maybe I’ll come back with an authorization. Maybe I won’t.

I will have deepened my practice, I will learned from others, I will have spent wonderful moments being in Sharath’s presence and listening to his talks. All these experiences will make me a better teacher.

Whether or not I come back with an authorization will be of no consequence.

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Asst. Editor: Edith Lazenby/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Ashtanga Yoga School of Philadelphia


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Pranidhi Varshney