Friday, February 11, 2011

A short meditation on the matrix of Ashtanga

Recently, Loo wrote a very interesting post about Jois Yoga and the concept of Ashtanga as a matrix. I'm going to run with this concept, and use it to meditate a little on the nature of the Ashtanga tradition and practice. Introducing this concept, Loo writes:

"Ashtanga has lost its main Guru, but all this really means is that the model has shifted from a hierarchy with Guruji at the head, into a matrix, with Sharath being just another one of the very gifted and fine teachers carrying on the lineage."

There is a contentious issue here, and I may as well bring it up right now, so that we can get it out of the way. The issue, as I understand it, is whether the lineage (1) should properly be passed down in a hereditary fashion, or whether (2) it should properly be passed purely from guru to student, regardless of whether or not the student is biologically related to the guru.

I personally lean towards (2), and I think Loo does too. But I believe that the matrix concept is something that adherents of both (1) and (2) can find common ground on, as I hope to show in this post.

To say that the Ashtanga tradition constitutes a matrix is to say that it contains a core framework of yogic doctrines and practices, one that can be clearly articulated to every practitioner, whether this person happens to be someone who has been practicing for his or her entire life, or whether this person is an absolute beginner who is stepping into a shala for the very first time. This matrix is passed directly from guru to student, and from the senior student-teacher to newer students. It serves as the "vessel" through which the timeless teachings of yoga can be passed from one individual to another, transcending differences of time, culture, familial, ethnic and national affiliation, as well as differences in individual personalities, quirks and idiocyncrasies (hmm... have I left out anything else that the matrix is supposed to transcend? :-))

All this talk about the matrix can quickly become very abstract. Fortunately, in the Ashtanga tradition, the matrix is built into the very nature of the practice itself: The practice, with the six fixed series of postures, is itself a matrix. I believe that Krishnamarcharya made it this way so that after he was gone, his successors would have something very concrete to work with, and can readily pass the practice on in this concrete form to future generations. And so it is up to Sharath and the senior teachers today (and maybe to a lesser extent, we ourselves) to pass on the practice to others in this very concrete form. People will come and go, but the practice will endure. And the matrix, which is built into the very structure of the practice, ensures this.

On a personal level, this matrix gives us a way to access and express an age-old body of yogic wisdom in a very immediate and visceral way. We step into this matrix everyday when we step onto our mats. Heraclitus famously said that we can never step into the same river twice. This is true, but there is still something about the nature of the body of water that I am putting my foot into now that allows me to say that I am standing in the same river as the one I stepped into yesterday. In the same way, we never step into the same practice twice. And yet, there is something about the nature of what I am doing today that allows me to say that I am doing the same practice as I was yesterday. It is the matrix, expressed in the form of what we know as the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, that ensures this continuity. And in my opinion, this continuity is important because it allows us to grasp in a concrete form a reality that would otherwise be inscrutable and inexpressible. This continuity, expressed in the form of the matrix, serves as the interface between our finite selves and the infinite power and wisdom of the yogic river.   


  1. Not so much contention really, Jois was unrelated to Krishnamacharya or K. to his teacher Brahmachari so 1. is a little problematic wouldn't you say.

    A matrix as you define is problematic here too. It used to be four series, Primary, Intermediate and Advanced A and B, it seems, not six and they were probably knocked up on the back of a napkin over chai latte's one afternoon when K asked J to take over a couple of kids classes for him. Does anyone really believe that K was taught those four series as we know them by Brahmachari? No led classes, eight breathes rather than five, postures in a different order, full vinyasa between each asana not half... so many changes that the matrix idea folds in upon itself or your just left with the tristana but even here there's a problem as K doesn't seem to have been concerned with drishti. So movement with the breath, that's our matrix.

    But we should go with the more recent manifestation of the lineage right? but hang on, Krishnamacharya continued to teach for fifty years after he left Mysore, how come it's that Mysore palace style practice of the late 20's early 30's that is passed down as the 'lineage', unchanged....well, apart from the changes mentioned above of course.

    Having trouble seeing the matrix here.

    Not that it matters, it's a pretty practice as we have it and worth preserving, even if we top it up with a little more fruit every once in a while.

  2. Very interesting thoughts and points you bring up, Grimmly.

    Well, perhaps the matrix isn't quite the right analogy here. Perhaps this is what's going on: There is a vast body of yogic knowledge/wisdom. It is so vast that if one were to try to teach everything to every student at once, people will be totally confused and disoriented. So Krishnamarcharya (and probably Brahmachari before him as well) packaged these teachings in differently-shaped "vessels" for different students, depending on the students' backgrounds and physical and mental conditions. So perhaps the teachings were taught to Krishnamacharya by Brahmachari in a certain "vessel", Krishnamacharya taught Jois with another "vessel" (the one we recognize today as the Ashtanga Vinyasa system), and Krishnamacharya taught other students with yet other vessels. But the "liquid" that is contained within these vessels is essentially the same.

    As to your observation, "Krishnamacharya continued to teach for fifty years after he left Mysore, how come it's that Mysore palace style practice of the late 20's early 30's that is passed down as the 'lineage', unchanged...."

    This is my personal take on this: Jois felt that he was only qualified to pass on whatever he has been taught by his guru, and nothing else. Since his guru only taught him the Mysore palace style practice, that was the lineage as it ran through him, at least as far as he himself was concerned. And he saw his role in the lineage-passing as being confined to passing on this Mysore palace style practice.

    Jois was probably aware of the subsequent changes in Krishnamacharya's teaching over the next 50 years (indeed, I find it hard to imagine that he wasn't aware, especially if he had stayed in touch with his guru), but he probably reasoned to himself that since he wasn't privy to his guru's subsequent teachings, he should only stick to what he knows, and teach only that.

    All this is, of course, strictly my personal theory. I have no way of knowing what goes on in other people's minds. But it is the most reasonable picture I can put together, from what I can see.

    And I, of course, have chosen to go with what Jois has learnt from Krishnamacharya, even if it might not be the whole picture. It seems to be working for me so far :-)