February 4, 2015

Serial Monogamy in Ashtanga Yoga.

 Luggage and yoga mat

I have always believed that Ashtanga yoga Mysore style is a perfect practice for vocational travellers like me.

Once the basics have been taught and (part of) the sequence is learned by heart, it can be practiced anytime and anywhere, without a teacher. It can give routine, stability and focus in an otherwise hectic life.

At the same time however, practicing under the guidance of a teacher is crucial for correct progress and development.

Over the past four and a half years, due to a very nomadic lifestyle, I have practiced and studied with over 20 different teachers all over the world. Some I was with for one morning practice only, to others I return whenever I can. None of them I have stayed with for longer than four uninterrupted weeks.

I must confess I have issues finding space for a daily practice in my routineless life. However, throughout the years I have managed to scrape together the full Primary Series and I have made progress, both in terms of focus, spirituality and asana practice.

For the benefit of other roaming Ashtangis like me, I have listed my main observations regarding practicing without a “main teacher.”

The most obvious advantage of studying under different teachers is that I developed a broad view on Ashtanga.

Ashtanga is known for its traditional and rigorous practice, but within this framework, I have experienced many gradations.

Some teachers will prefer to hold back and have more focus on less asanas with emphasis on alignment and injury prevention. Others will allow more poses for they believe that postures later in the series can help improve earlier ones. I have done independent drop backs under the supervision of some teachers, whilst others still make me come up off the floor in Urdhva Dhanurasana.

Different teachers instruct different modifications for the same asana, focussing on different actions of the body. Others will cringe at the sight of any modification, believing that practicing the asana in its purest form is the only way. Especially in postures like Parshvakonasana B and Marichyasana C and D, I have been taught numerous modifications.

There are also varying interpretations of what exactly the correct asana is. In seated forward bends, some will tell me to look at my toes, whilst others will press my nose towards my knee. In Baddha Konasana some want to see the elbows against the ribs, others let the arms wing out a bit.

Hands-on adjustments also vary greatly from teacher to teacher. Some like to squeeze hard and pull tight, whilst others just nudge with their finger and let the student find it by themselves.

Despite the reputation of being rigid, the Ashtanga system allows for multiple interpretations and applications in order to get there, wherever that may be for the practitioner.

The most obvious disadvantage of studying under different teachers is clear: it’s bloody confusing.

Especially for beginners who are still establishing their own practice, it can be disruptive and unbalancing to be faced with sometimes completely opposite instructions. It is then easy to discard the teachings of one person entirely or to completely give up, not knowing anymore what is right or wrong.

Here is my take on it.

Everything I have learned from each teacher has been valuable. Each instruction and each modification has come from a heart that cares and wants the best for me and my practice.

So when I practice with a teacher, I have one golden rule: I do as that teacher says. Unless I have (physical) issues I feel I need to tell them about, I never talk back and certainly never point the finger at another teacher “who told me to do it like that.” I simply adjust my practice, do as I am told and stop wherever I am told to stop.

Most changes need time to take effect. At the beginning, a change feels weird, uncomfortable, perhaps even wrong. Over time, once the body and the mind have adjusted, the benefits of the new modification or adjustment will become clear.

So for as long as I practice with the same teacher, I have only one teacher and that’s the one in the shala.

However, when I am back to practicing alone, I have the voices of 20 different teachers resonating in my head. “Go longer,” says one when I’m in Virabhadrasana. “Lift your shoulderblades,” says another one when I lower in Chaturanga. “Breath before movement,” warns someone else when my head is up before I start inhaling.

One day, I may go for the modification of teacher A because I feel a little stiff in the hips. The next day, I practice the modification of teacher B, because I feel I need to open up the chest a bit more. Another day, I just go for the full pose, because I feel strong and balanced.

I have gathered a wealth of information along my Ashtanga journey. I have learned there is not just one way to get there. I take advantage of all the teachers that I have had the honour studying with and put all their good advice to use at different moments of my practice. Some resonate better with me than others and sometimes I take that as a challenge to practice acceptance and patience.

All in all, I would say that, although I would like to practice with a teacher on a more regular basis than I have until now, it is okay to swing around a bit.

Monogamy has its advantages for it helps developing trust and intimacy, which in turn can be greatly beneficial for straightforward progress. But religiously following one teacher only can also foster a certain narrow-mindedness and blindness with regards to the possibilities of the practice.

Clearly, continuous polygamy and countless one-morning-drop-ins do not lead to the best of results either. Without the steady support of a teacher who has the opportunity to get to know you and your body, it is difficult to overcome blockages and other issues. Some form of focus and continuity should be had.

Basically, I would say serial monogamy is the way to go. Learning different ways of practicing gives a practitioner the tools to learn how to feel what is best for him or her at any particular moment. It teaches how to adapt to changes in the body and mind. It fosters independent thinking, flexibility and acceptance. It teaches that one size does not fit all and that the right size today, may not be the right size tomorrow.

vande gurūnām caranāravinde

(I bow to the Lotus feet of the Gurus)


Confessions of a Serial Monogamist.


Author: Yaisa Nio

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Author’s Own

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