An interesting conversation has sprung up on Claudia's blog in response to her latest post about the poll that she recently conducted about the popularity of Ashtanga. As usual, I will jump in here with my two cents'.
Frank, one of the commenters on Claudia's post, said some really interesting and thought-provoking things, so I'm going to "steal" his words here (and in the process, "violate" Asteya :-)), and use them as a jumping-off point to express my own views. Frank observes:
"Ashtanga requires a committment to some extent. It also requires getting over the idea that it is or will be boring because you're doing the "same thing" every day. This might be the biggest issue. People like creativity and mixing things up... People generally don't want to have to put in months or years of work just to be "allowed" to practice Pincha Mayurasana or Handstanding (in particular) or the cool arm balances of 3rd Series..."
I really relate to this. One of the things that kept me from becoming a full-time Ashtangi for so long was my perception that doing the same thing everyday was boring and probably unbalanced as well. The idea of doing the same thing everyday goes against much of the conventional wisdom of sports medicine, which holds that one should work different muscle groups everyday. It was only when I met my teacher and decided to just "take the plunge" into doing primary everyday that I began to see that repetition is the only way to cultivate perfection and a spirit of equanimity in the face of whatever the practice (and life) has to throw at us. So I can understand why people would see this "Ashtanga thing" as boring. It literally took me a leap of faith to be able to see things from the other side, so to speak, and appreciate the beauty of this practice.
"Most people who like working on those things I mentioned have a certain amount of shoulder strength (which I've always lacked), which makes those things easier for them (thus why they like doing them), but it makes back-bends harder, and practing arm balances/handstands only makes back-bends even more difficult.... If you have strong shoulders and can do Pincha or free-standing handstand without a problem, why do Ashtanga, a practice that will likely force you to be stopped at Kapotasana (or earlier) for months or even years? Unless you're willing to "detach" from those arm balances and allow your shoulders to open up for back-bends first, Ashtanga is going to be a really hard sell."
This is a very well-taken and thoughtful point. I have never been particularly attached to arm balances, but I do have a certain amount of upper-body strength and some openness in the hips, which means that those fancy arm balances in 3rd (Vasisthasana, Visvamitrasana, Astavakrasana etc.) came quite easily to me. I still have pictures of me in Astavakrasana from my pre-Ashtanga days (no, you won't get to see them here :-)), and at the risk of sounding very immodest, they're not half-bad.
On the other hand, I've never been a natural back-bender, and never had a desire to be "good" at backbends. Probably because of this, I could never understand why people were so obsessed over, say, grabbing their heels in kapotasana or touching the foot to the back of the head in Ekapada Rajakapotasana. This, combined with my facility in those fancy arm-balances, made me feel for the longest time that Ashtanga had nothing to offer me. However, as I related in an earlier post, one can only make so much progress doing only those postures one is "good" at. At some point, I hit a "stuck" point in my yoga practice beyond which I couldn't progress. And then I met my teacher, and decided to just give this "Ashtanga thing" a shot. The rest, as they say, is history... Well, not quite, but you know what I'm saying :-)
"Really, people in the West don't want a system or a method; they just want to do a bunch of fun things and sweat out last night's pizza and ice cream in the process.. I think many people had bad experiences with super-hard-ass teachers. If those people came across Ashtanga teachers who were more welcoming (not needing to change or dumb-down the practice, but just not having a drill-sergeant or otherwise nasty attitude from the first moment), I think many more of those people would stick with it."
Well, I know at least one Ashtanga teacher who is neither super-hard-ass nor has a drill sergeant attitude: Kino! At the risk of sounding like a shameless Kino groupie, I have to say, from having taken two of her workshops, that she has a very accommodating attitude, and is willing to work with whatever issues people have (injuries, etc.) and challenge them to grow their practice where they are at.
As for doing a bunch of fun things and sweating out last night's pizza and ice-cream... At the risk of sounding like a fundamentalist, I'm going to say a couple of things that I have observed about some yoga practitioners in this country. I think many yogis see yoga as a welcome break from the rigidity of "conventional" fitness modalities (aerobics, running, etc.). They find the accommodating and all-embracing atmosphere in many yoga classes to be a welcome change from the sort of drill-sergeant fitness classes that they had previously been exposed to before they came to yoga.
Which is very well and good. More power to yoga for this. But as I said, at the risk of sounding like a Yoga-Sutra-thumping yoga fundamentalist, I venture to speculate that these yogis may have overlooked two things:
(1) Like anything else that is worth doing in life, yoga practice demands great disciplined effort on the part of the practitioner.
(2) Any yoga tradition worth its salt encompasses a great body of wisdom that is beyond the limited intellect of the individual practitioner. In order to access this great body of wisdom, it is important to embrace the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to God) and to have a guru. Without Ishvara Pranidhana, one's practice can easily degenerate into an ego-boosting exercise. The guru, being somebody who has seen the light of ultimate reality even if only for a moment, is somebody who has the capacity to lead the practitioner from the darkness of ego to the light of liberation.
If we put (1) and (2) together, we'll see that although yoga is an accommodating and all-embracing practice, it is not ultimately an "anything goes" or a "you can do whatever you like so long as it feels good or right for you" system. True freedom -- freedom from fear, freedom from the limitations of one's ego -- cannot come about just by having the liberty to do whatever the heck we want.
My apologies if this is beginning to sound like an angry rant, but I think there exists this fundamental misunderstanding of what yoga is about in the hearts and minds of many a yogi and yogini. As I understand it, the purpose of the Ashtanga practice is not to bore or torture us with its fixed sequences, but to give us a fixed space within which we can take a hard look at various aspects of our selves as they arise. Because the practice is so fixed, there is no place to escape to when things come up, and one is made to face them and work through them in a creative and productive way. In this sense, the physical constraints of the practice might very well be its greatest gift to us. I'm not sure if this same effect can be achieved by a "do whatever feels good/right to you" type of vinyasa practice.
Whew! That was quite a rant, wasn't it?