On Ashtanga. To Whom Do You Give Your Power?

Lately I’ve been listening to podcast interviews of Ashtanga teachers on J Brown Yoga. If you’re not aware, there has been a lot of chaos in the Ashtanga community as victims of Pattabhi Jois come forward to speak of the sexual and physical abuse they suffered under his teaching. Karen Rain has spoken and written about her experiences very eloquently and bravely on Decolonizing Yoga. I believe it’s important that we hold the space for all victims to be heard and believed. I think that we should stop calling women’s stories “allegations”, and instead call into question the teachers and institutions who allowed abuse to happen by turning a blind eye and pretending all is well.

Sexual, physical and psychological abuse is nothing new in the world. It is just as prevalent in the yoga world as in any other community. A quick Google search will bring up countless pages of former and current teachers and “gurus” who have abused their authority to coerce or force victims into situations that have resulted in inappropriate hands-on assists, molestation and/or rape.

Can you practice Ashtanga if you’re not committed 100%?

I have never identified Ashtanga as “my practice”, although I know primary series and usually do it once or twice a week myself. I’ve always been a vinyasa flow and restorative yoga fan, enjoying the balance between the two and the variety of asana they bring. A few years ago I was asked to teach a short-form (60 minute), fully led primary series. Teaching at a vinyasa studio that has a lot of new students, I liked the idea of teaching an abridged primary series because it’s a lot slower than a lot of vinyasa classes. Students have the opportunity to learn the breath and the cadence of the practice. They get to learn Sun Salutations with modifications until the strength is there to do a solid chaturanga with the knees off the mat, or to take cobra instead of up-dog. Holding foundational postures such as an extended triangle or a seated head-to-knee pose for 5 breaths instead of blurring through them helps the practitioners become more stable for the times when they are in a faster paced vinyasa class. In this 60 minute format we still keep the salutations at the top of class, followed by all the standing series, a few of the seated series, an optional shoulderstand, fish and savasana. This shorter format allows me to take out some of the less readily accessible postures like padmasana and supta kurmasana, to name a few. I’ve really grown to like teaching this format and have seen students grow not only physically stronger, but also showing a massive increase in their own body awareness.

Over the years, I will admit to being slightly self-conscious about teaching the primary series in this way. I have heard and felt the “Tsk tsk” of real Ashtangis who think studios like ours have bastardized the practice. As if the yoga we are teaching is somehow less legitimate because we are teaching it pose by pose with all sorts of permissive language thrown in like, “If it is available in your body, you can consider bringing the foot here.. If there is pain in your sacroiliac joint, soften away from that pain by releasing here…” Last fall I started teaching the full primary series once a week, fully verbally guided and with all sorts of options so that everyone can participate, even if they don’t have Magical Unicorn leg-behind-the-head skillz (I don’t have them either, and I’m okay with that)! Depending on the students in class, I still occasionally remove a pose here or there, but I stick to the sequence as is. Serious Ashtanga practitioners may not like the way I teach: offering loads of modifications, encouraging questions from the students, and generally having a good time. I do not need the reverence of any student and I will not encourage them to contort into extreme shapes their body isn’t ready for (and may never be ready for). It is my opinion that yoga asana is done for optimistic longevity of a healthy body and not as a way to destroy joints and whip ourselves into exhaustion day after day. Modern life asks a lot of us (especially if you have small children and/or work 50+ hours a week like most Americans), and there are days where we should probably just mediate, do a supine twist and sleep in the following morning.

Hands-on assists? 

I very rarely make hands-on adjustments, regardless of what I am teaching and if I do, I typically have a rapport with the student, I ask permission and if permission is given, then I lightly and quickly make whatever tweak that I think could help them to understand the pose a little more so. Forcing body parts is forbidden in my book. Using MY body weight to make someone else’s body make a shape I perceive as being  the absolute correct expression will never happen. Force in yoga is violence.

Coming back to where I started… There is a lot to unpack for the Ashtanga community. I have a lot of empathy for the hurt and betrayal many are feeling. At the same time, I cannot support or understand those who continue to have big photos of Pattabhi Jois in their practice space. (They don’t need my support, I know.) Holding reverence for a mere mortal who has used his position of power and  authority to take advantage of and hurt others is not someone who should be revered. Ahimsa has not been honored. The Ego proved to be bigger than the yogic ideals.

When I think of the historically rigid approach of Ashtanga yoga, I can’t help but to compare it to western obstetrics. Bear with me: I tend to compare just about every aspect of life to pregnancy, labor or birth because there’s no way through it but through it and we are in a constant state of transition therefore, totally applicable! Robbie Davis-Floyd, PhD is a cultural anthropologist who has spent over two decades researching reproduction, childbirth, feminism and midwifery. She has published a lot of very valuable and interesting research on these fields of interest and more. One of her more well-known pieces is The Technocratic and Holistic Models of Birth Compared. When I first read this I was newly pregnant with my first child and it really made an impact on me, both as it relates to birth and how I approach a yoga practice. It’s a long list comparing the technocratic and holistic models. Here’s an example of a few comparisons:

T: women=objects     H: women=subjects

T: Mind is above, separate from body   H: Mind and body are one

T: Body=machine   H: Body=organism

T: Doctor=technician  H: Midwife=nurturer

T: Action based on facts, measurements   H: Action based on body knowledge and                                                                                              intuition

T: Only technical knowledge is valued   H: Experiential and emotional knowledge                                                                                           valued as highly or more than technical                                                                                            knowledge

Midwifery is the direct opposite of patriarchal western medicine and hierarchy. Midwifery puts the power in the hands of the individual person.

It has always been my intention in teaching yoga asana, that each practitioner own their movements and postures. As a largely disembodied culture, I want to create a safe place that is encouraging and that allows for each student to come into a healthy relationship with their body, mind and spirit. It’s a practice of discernment and exploration, and I think that should be a path that is both fascinating and fun. Cranking body parts into submission can be sustainable for 15-20 years, at best. I agree with Davis-Floyd, experiential and emotional knowledge is valued as highly or more than technical knowledge. Or rather, what you experience in a pose is more important than the mere appearance of the pose.

We have to continue to ask ourselves: To what end are we doing any one pose? What is the intention of our yoga practice? Why are we on this path? To whom do we give our power, and if anyone, WHY?

If you’re a yoga teacher, reflect on how you approach your role as the speaking person in the shala. What is your intention? Can you teach without believing you’re the voice of authority?



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