If you have been practicing Ashtanga for a little while, you are probably familiar with the difference between these two methods of learning Ashtanga. In the traditional Mysore method, the student comes to the teacher as a complete beginner and learns the primary series one posture at a time, starting with Suryanamaskar A. In the led class method (which, I suspect, is probably the way the majority of students in the west first encounter Ashtanga), the student jumps into a led full or half (or less) primary class, and goes along with the pace and the postures as best she can. Over time, by coming repeatedly to the class, the student will hopefully pick up the order of the postures, and start her own practice.
Matthew Sweeney has this to say about the traditional Mysore method:
"...the traditional method of learning Astanga yogasana begins with the mind as much as the body. When a complete beginner learns Suryanamaskara, he or she repeats it until it is committed to memory, that is, body memory rather than just intellectual memory. Self-practice begins with the first class. It does not really matter how well (physically) the individual does it; there should be no judgment on how it looks. Memorising the practice is vital. This is often more confronting for a beginner than physically doing it." (Sweeney, page 7)
However, Sweeney continues:
"This is not to say that this is the only way to teach Astanga yoga. It is common for many students to do led classes for the first few years as a way to become physically acclimatised. However, self practice is the most effective way for a student to remember. If beginning students are shown thirty postures in the sequence, they will only remember the first and the last posture (maybe). If they do just two postures at their own pace, they will remember them both. The slower it goes in, the deeper it penetrates." (Sweeney, page 7)
Sweeney then goes on elaborate on the rationale behind the traditional Mysore method:
"Repetition is a key aspect of learning. As the postures are committed to memory there is a corresponding level of trust in the body: you know what you are doing, you know what comes next. There is no anxiety anticipating what the next thing will be. The physical aspect begins to develop with a gradual increase of flexibility and strength as the body and mind synchronise. It is most important to focus on the process rather than the outcome." (Sweeney, page 7)
I totally feel and appreciate Sweeney's words. However, I did not learn Ashtanga by the traditional method, as much as I wish to be able to say that I did so. I started my yoga practice by doing postures from B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga. I did this Iyengar-inspired practice on my own for a couple of years, making up asana sequences on my own based on Mr. Iyengar's recommendations in Appendix I of his book. By the time I went to my first Mysore class, I was physically capable of doing almost all of the postures in the primary series (I couldn't bind on the second side in Mari D, and I had trouble rolling up in Urdhva Paschimottasana). Because the teacher in that first class was sharp-eyed enough to see this (and was kind enough to keep "feeding" me postures, as I had no idea what posture came after what posture), she didn't bother to put me through the traditional method; which meant that I ended up doing the full primary series at my very first Mysore class. Totally useless factoid: This was actually on Maui, at Nancy Gilgoff's studio. However, Nancy was away teaching a workshop, and her assistant was teaching the class that day. I wonder what Nancy would have done with me :-)
So, for better or for worse, I did not learn Ashtanga by the traditional Mysore method. After that first class, I was so embarrassed by the fact that I did not know the sequence (I also felt that I was hogging the teacher's attention, which made me feel even more embarrassed) that I immediately went to a bookstore later that day and got hold of a book on Ashtanga. I then spent a couple of hours each day over the next few days memorizing the primary series. By the third or fourth (or fifth, I can't remember exactly) day, I had the entire sequence of postures memorized.
Today, I still wonder how things would have been different if I had learnt Ashtanga the traditional way. I also understand that the larger fitness community is quite divided as to whether Ashtanga is really an appropriate form of yoga for people who are totally new to yoga. Just the other day, for instance, I came across this fitness information website that offers a general survey of the different styles of yoga out there. The author of this website suggests (in so many words) that Ashtanga may not be appropriate for beginner yogis, especially those who are inflexible and/or out of shape. When I read things like this, I often wonder if the authors know anything about the traditional Mysore method of learning Ashtanga. If they are basing their claims solely on led classes (and beginners' experiences of feeling overwhelmed and/or disoriented in such classes), then it is understandable that they would think that Ashtanga is unsuitable for beginners.
Anyway, this is an interesting topic (at least for me), and I think this is also a good time to do something I haven't done in a while: A quiz! So I'll leave you with the following questions:
(1) Did you first learn Ashtanga by the traditional Mysore method, or by going to a led class?
(2) In either case, do you wish that you had learnt Ashtanga via a different method? Why or why not?
If you feel that answering quiz questions is too personal and/or time-consuming, you can also vote! I have just started a poll on this question on the top right-hand corner of this blog. This is the first time I have ever conducted a poll on this blog, so it'll be really cool if you can participate :-) Of course, you can also answer these quiz questions (by commenting) AND vote! In fact, I personally highly recommend this; I love hearing what you have to say :-)