Monday, June 27, 2011

Traditional Mysore method vs. Led class method: How did you learn Ashtanga?

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 :-)

26 comments:

  1. I learned by led classes, and I was taking led classes for the better part of a year before I felt like I was going to be ok in a Mysore class. I was deathly afraid of forgetting a posture-- which is funny, in retrospect, because as it turns out, it's totally appropriate for people to know nothing when they first come. I wouldn't say I wish I had learned it Mysore-style first, though, because I learned a lot of valuable things from my first, led-only teacher. And once I started Mysore-style I was ready to learn from the two teachers who were leading the Mysore program. So I think it all worked out!

    Great post as usual. Nice quotes from Sweeney-- you're really going to be ready for the workshop with him in a few weeks, aren't you?

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  2. Hello Ellie,
    it's really funny; I was actually reading your latest blog post when you were commenting here! I really like your beautiful description of what Mysore practice is about in your post. I'll probably comment on it soon :-) Yes, I think it is true that many people (including me) are afraid/embarrassed about not knowing or forgetting postures when in a sense, this is totally what Mysore classes are for! And yes, I think there is also much value in starting with led classes (my hunch, anyway, is that this is how most people in this country encountered Ashtanga), especially if you have already done other styles of yoga, and have some familiarity with asanas.

    Yes, I am trying to get to know as much about Sweeney as possible from his book before I actually meet him :-)

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  3. Nice one Nobel, and I can see you are loving Matthew's book, so am I!!! :-)

    In answer to your questions
    1) I did not DARE go to a Mysore class so I learned with DVDs until i dared... from then on it was teachers telling me when to advance, but I did all of primary from day one

    2) I would not change a thing

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  4. Interesting, Claudia. I like your answer to #1 :-) ("I did not DARE go to a Mysore class so I learned with DVDs until I dared..."). Very refreshing and honest description of your experience :-)

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  5. great post Nobel - very interesting for people like me who have just taken up the ashtanga practice. i agree with the above. i did originally couple of led classes, felt i could not get what i was supposed to do so i also bought a dvd and some books and did it at home until i memorised first half of the primary. then i did a course (led classes) and after that i dared to show up for my first mysore-class. i am still at the very beginning so i am not quite sure i can judge if i wished doing it any other way. Ivana

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  6. My first encounter with Ashtanga was a four-session'beginners' program' which took us up to Navasana. Pretty intense and totally turned me off, so I had my apprehensions of being wrung out like a towel to dry at my first Mysore class in California. It was nothing like I had expected and the slow pace of learning through the Mysore-style classes was what drew - and still draws - me in. So yes, if I could go back and learn Ashtanga all over again, I would have started with Mysore classes. I love that you can go at your own pace and even if you don't know all the postures, so what? We're all here to learn!

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  7. I learned by led class. I wouldn't have had the patience to learn yoga by Mysore style. In fact, if my Ashtanga teacher weren't so good at keeping me progressing in the series before I even realized what the Ashtanga method was, I would have just kept on taking classes different teachers all over town, because Groupon (is that available in all cities?) keeps offering $30/month of unlimited yoga at various studios in my city. To try to gain deeper knowledge in yoga, I probably would have signed up for one of those 200-hour foundation teacher training courses.

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  8. Thanks for sharing, Ivana. You are certainly very motivated: getting a DVD, books, and doing home practice and led classes BEFORE going to your first Mysore class! What gave you so much motivation where so many others might have just given up? Would you like to share?

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  9. Yes, Savasanaaddict, I totally empathize with your first Ashtanga experience (especially given the part of the world it took place in :-)). If that had been my first yoga experience (there was a time when I was really stiff and out of shape), I probably would have simply decided that yoga is not for me, and just gone on to do something else (or nothing at all). This makes me really grateful to everybody who has taught me yoga all these years (not just Ashtanga yoga) for all the wonderful things they have shared with me.

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  10. Interesting, Yyogini. Hmm... I have never heard of Groupon. I'll go google it soon :-) I suppose led classes work for certain people, particularly type A people (I'm not saying you're type A) and/or people who already have some flexibility and/or strength, and who may not have the patience to work through a traditional Mysore class right from the beginning.

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  11. I learnt ashtanga first by going to a class too. Someone came to the campus where I work offering a series of yoga classes and I thought why not! And what she was teaching was ashtanga. I loved it, and when they finished, I found a shala that taught ashtanga and went there (still do). I continued in led classes for a while, too scared to go to Mysore because I was sure everyone in the Mysore class was miles ahead of me and would find my practice ridiculous!

    But when I finally got the courage up to go to a Mysore class, it was totally wonderful and I never went to a led class again! (Although the teacher does occasionally lead the class through sun salutes.) Even though it's a Mysore class, it just runs over a 2-hour slot, so most people start at the same time.

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  12. I was asked if I would like to try Ashtanga by my hatha yoga teacher. It was a full-blown Mysore class, with led classes only on Friday. I had to commit one month to it daily, waking at 5 to go to class at 6:30am. I did Sun salutes for a week. last pose given to me was Janu Sirsasana B.

    Then I stopped for a while. And landed up in this mess now. Why mess? I think I will blog about it soon.

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  13. My teacher introduced Ashtanga to us by having an Ashtanga Intro class where we taught the sequence of the Primary series. As I have been doing Hatha Yoga for sometime, I found the class interesting and soon I also attended the Led class where I learned the whole Primary series.

    When I first started going to the Mysore class, I like the class as I could do the poses at my own pace and I could see my own progress and the advances I have made in some of the poses..:)

    Karin

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  14. Great question!...I'll be interested to see how the poll comes out. I started in a led primary class...and it about killed me! I'd been doing some kind of yoga class once or twice a week for years before I started Ashtanga and there was just no comparison in intensity. I remember looking at the clock in my first experience with a led primary class and thinking "we've only been here for an hour; Im never going to make it!"...but for some reason I went back to the class. I only took this class for a few months before I moved to Miami and then found my first Mysore teacher. I do wish I learned primary in the Mysore style. I have learned intermediate that way, one pose at a time and it is such a different experience.

    Interestingly, I have a few students who have learned Ashtanga in my Mysore classes who have never been to a led class...and some who had never even done yoga before! Because they are used to practicing at their own pace, some of them are now nervous about trying a led class...fears about trying to "keep up with a count".

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  15. Thanks for sharing, susiegb. It's really interesting how many of us seem to have this perception that mysore is so much more advanced than led, when mysore is precisely designed with everybody (including complete beginners) in mind. I'm happy that you have discovered your love of yoga through encountering Ashtanga the way you did. Your story is very inspiring.

    Thanks for sharing, yoginicory. I think I understand why you feel the way you feel about the perceived mess you are in. But really, getting into a mess/rut is often a good time to move a little more slowly, and gain greater strength and a bigger perspective as a result. I will read your blog soon and comment on it.

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  16. Hello Karin,
    yes, I totally understand what you are saying about Mysore being a place where you can really see your own gradual progress and transformation. I also really enjoy the quiet camaraderie and sense of community that a Mysore room fosters.

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  17. Thanks for sharing, Christine. I can understand your students' fears of a led class and keeping up with the count. I wonder if they can overcome this fear by practicing at home with a led CD or DVD; maybe even Sharath's led? I'm convinced that if one can keep up with Sharath's pace (even if one falls behind here and there), one would be able to keep up with practically any other teacher's count :-)

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  18. thanks Nobel - i am not very disciplined person as such but there was something about ashtanga that really clicked with me. the fact that i get up in the morning to do the practice still amazes me ;-) i just came back from my 4th mysore class and i thought about your post. i think if i could advise anyone now who wants to start with ashtanga i would probably say forget led class and do the mysore from the very start. i think when people do led classes only or start with them you pick up bad habits and cut corners if you can't keep up. when you then go to mysore class you have to re-train and get the teacher to correct. mysore class allows you to enjoy the practice more as you do it in your own pace. Ivana

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  19. Yes, Ivana, I think I can see how in a led class, one can be tempted to cut corners just to keep up with the rest of the class, and not take the time necessary to work on things that need work. Another related issue is that the group energy causes people to push too hard and possibly injure themselves unknowingly.

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  20. I'm a few days late but just to join in...
    wow, how interesting that it seems everyone started with taught classes! I had kind of a funny start. I was taking classes at my local gym and wanted to do more,and just got this burning desire to go to India. So off I went to Goa to practice ashtanga, thinking that was what I was doing already (turns out it was sivananda - not sure how i made that mistake!). A few days before I left for India I googled "mysore style" and realised that I had no idea what I had let myself in for - totally in at the deep end! So my fabulous authorised teachers took the beginners in a separate session each morning, slowly teaching us sun salutations and the fundamental asanas, showing us the sequence and then asking us to go back to the beginning and do it by ourselves.Eventually over the 2 weeks people were told to join the mysore class once they were ready - I got to join it on the last day! So then I came back to London ready to join Mysore classes and learnt traditionally, pose by pose - and by coincidence my teacher gave me the last pose of primary exactly a year to the day after I first practiced with her.

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  21. I started with lunch-time led half-Primary classes and made it to a couple of "Basics" classes in the evening. Half-Primary had me dripping in sweat, with a pool around my mat, so I was afraid of full Primary. Mysore style sounded intriguing, but I travelled a good bit for work, and even when I was home, I often had to work late, meaning I often couldn't make it to evening Mysore (I am "not a morning person", so morning Mysore was a preposterous idea at the time). Since I couldn't commit to the (supposedly) required 4 days per week of Mysore, Mysore didn't seem to be an option. In one of the evening Basics classes I went to, only 1 other person turned out, and he had some experience, so the teacher showed us more of Primary beyond Navasana so we'd at least be somewhat comfortable if we wanted to show up to a full Primary class or (she hoped) to Mysore class. I think that worked. Finally, I went to a led full Primary class on Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend in 2008, and--I guess because of the holiday and it being a big travel day--only 1 other person showed up. So, we did the whole series, and the teacher made us do drop-backs. I had never tried a drop-back and didn't know it was part of the Ashtanga practice (having never been to a Mysore class). Wow--I was scared out of my mind in the first assisted drop-back, but I was totally sold. I knew I needed to do Ashtanga. I had to be away for work that following week, but as luck would have it, I'd be home for the rest of the month of December, which was to a be a slow month at work, so I knew I could commit to Mysore 4 times a week for a month. I took that week away at work to start an Ashtanga practice on my own. Having been to about a dozen led half Primary classes, I wrote down the series on a piece of paper (with the help of the Web) so I'd remember it, and I practiced a couple of times in my hotel gym. Then I came back and went to my first Mysore class. Since I was familiar with most everything up to and including Navasana and had worked with the teacher in led classes before, she let me practice without too much instruction and just observed to make sure I was doing it correctly. With the exception of accidentally skipping two poses, going right from Purvottanasana to Janu A (I went back and did those two), I got the whole thing correct, so the teacher gave me up to Supta Kurmasana on the first day, then added Garbha P. on day 2. From that point on, I learned in the "traditional" style of progressively adding poses.

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  22. Hello DDMel, your story of accidentally doing Sivananda while trying to do Ashtanga is quite interesting and funny, considering how far about the two styles are. It's also very cool that your teachers taught the beginners in a separate session each morning (kind of like a "led mysore"?) before letting everyone out into the "wild wild west" of mysore practice:-) I think this is a very good way to teach beginners.

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  23. Hello Frank, thanks for sharing your story. So you did drop-backs on your first led full primary class? Wow, I'm not sure if there is anybody else who can say they have done that :-) It also sounds like you have made a mighty lot of progress in just over two years--didn't you say you have now completed second series?

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  24. HA! Yes: highly, highly assisted drop-backs--it took 5-6 months of (inconsistent) Mysore practice to do drop-backs on my own. Yes, I have completed 2nd Series--completed it just over a year after I started it--and am now doing a good chunk of 3rd, which I started in April. However, two caveats: 1. Shortly after I started 2nd, I was able to commit to consistent practice with a certified teacher (thanks to finding a job that actually allowed for some personal time); having daily practice with such a teacher certainly helped me to progress relatively quickly. 2. I was moved past Karandavasana earlier than many people might have been--after less than 3 months and without being able to form the full lotus to do the pose properly. I won't enumerate the possible reasons for this here, but I will say that not long after being given Karandavasana, I busted my knee and couldn't come into lotus to do the pose, so I just tried to land it in half-lotus, which was enough for my teacher to move me on after developing a certain amount of control in doing it that way. However, I wasn't able to start 3rd Series until I had a more stable Pincha and where where I could land Karandavasana every day (and by that point, my knee was healed enough that I could form the lotus for Karanda). That took about 8 more months of practice of full 2nd Series.

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  25. I learned in a led class, but was fortunate enough to have a gracious teacher who showed me in several private sessions beforehand what all of the postures were and taught me how to use ujjayi breath and engage my bandas and let me borrow David Swensons Practice Manual. I practiced two days a week to start for about 8 months... this was the foundation of what would be for me a short lived regular practice of Ashtanga Yoga. I will be attending my first Mysore style class in the morning after nearly 15 years of neglecting my practice entirely.

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  26. Hello! I just recently started learning Ashtanga in the traditional Mysore style. I did, however, go to one led Ashtanga class right before I started to get a good idea of what it was going to be like. I can see a huge difference between the two. Led Ashtanga is great, but after you have practiced and know what you're doing. I'm glad I'm learning traditionally because I do believe it is best for beginners! I don't have to worry about keeping up with everyone, I simply focus on my own journey, my own breath and focus internally. My yoga studio has led classes every Sunday, which is helpful and I feel I am prepared for these. They help kick things into gear a bit more. The teachers also stop you when they feel best, as to prevent from injury. Overall, the Mysore style is best for me at this point in time. :)

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