A couple of weeks ago, I started a poll to find out whether most of the readers of this blog learnt Ashtanga by the traditional mysore method, or if they learnt by going to led classes. 45 people participated (thank you participants; sorry, you don't get any T-shirts or related freebies for your participation. I need to find some big yoga corporation to sponsor this blog in order to do this ;-)).
As of right now, with one more day to go before the end of the polling period, the results are as follows:
Traditional Mysore Method: 6 (13%)
Led Classes: 28 (62%)
Some mixture of the two: 11 (24%)
Unless there is a huge number of people who come onto this blog in the next 24 hours and vote in such a way as to drastically tip the scales in a different direction (Note to reader: If this is your idea of a practical joke, this might not be the best time or way to demonstrate your sense of humor ;-)), I think it is safe to say that if the readers of this humble blog are a fair sample of the rest of the world, then we can conclude that a clear majority of people who practice Ashtanga in the world today first learnt it through going to led classes. This is, of course, a very highly qualified statement: I am not so hubristic as to unquestioningly assume that the experiences of Ashtangis who blog/read blogs necessarily are representative of Ashtangis as a whole. But then again, I can't find any compelling reason to think that this is not the case either...
So assuming that most Ashtangis in the world today first learnt Ashtanga through led classes, the question would be: Why is this so? In my opinion, there are a few possible reasons:
(1) Most of the yoga classes that are out there are led classes. Of course, it is kind of artificial to call non-Ashtanga classes "led classes", since, aside from self-practice, there is no non-Ashtanga equivalent of mysore. But what I'm saying is, if the majority of yoga classes out there are classes which involve a teacher leading the class through a sequence of postures, then all other things being equal, a beginning yoga student's first yoga class experience would be much more likely to be a led class than a mysore-style class, by sheer probability. And it would be in the context of such a class that the student would first hear the word "Ashtanga", whether that comes up in the form of "Ashtanga-inspired", "Ashtangafied sequence", or "led primary."
(2) This is purely my personal theory, but I believe that in the west, most people's idea of learning involves a teacher standing at the front of a room (whether this room is a classroom or a yoga studio) and teaching certain things to the students, which the students then imitate to the best of their ability. Given this preconceived idea of what learning is about, the idea of simply showing up to a studio and doing one's own thing while the teacher just kind of hangs around and observes one's effort seems counter-intuitive ("What are we paying the teacher for? We may as well just do our own thing at home, and call the teacher if we have questions!"). Again, this is purely my personal view, but I really suspect that this has quite a lot to do with why mysore style is not more widely practiced than it is.
(3) For better or for worse, Ashtanga has a reputation for being a very physically "hard-core" form of yoga. This being the case, mysore-style attains a certain mystique, and practitioners of mysore-style are commonly regarded as the "crystalline center of the hard core" (I actually borrowed this phrase from a 2000 New Yorker article on Ashtanga yoga). This is, of course, totally untrue: Properly taught, mysore-style is probably more beginner-friendly than many other forms of yoga practice. But this doesn't prevent many people from holding on to this misconception.
If you have anything to share about the relative popularity of led classes over mysore style, I would love to hear from you.