Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Ashtanga-bashing, and doing whatever it is that rocks your boat

Maybe it's just me, but it appears that a wave of Ashtanga-bashing has recently been on the upsurge in the blogosphere. There is that article by Norman Blair (reproduced here in its entirety on Grimmly's blog; thanks Grimmly!). I recently wrote a post about it; basically, I think that although Mr. Blair does an admirable job of trying to maintain a balanced perspective, nothing that he says in that article is really new. The issues that he brings up (incidence of injuries among Ashtangis, focusing too much on the physical to the exclusion of the spiritual, the problem of an inflated ego, to name a few) have all being discussed ad nauseum in many discussions, both on and off-line.

Well, at least Mr. Blair tries to maintain a balanced perspective in his writing. Others do not seem to even possess this basic quality of literary decency. A couple of hours ago, I read this post on Elephant Journal by Peter Sklivas. Mr Sklivas's thesis, as I understand it, is that only naturally supple athletes can practice Ashtanga, whereas Bikram and other Hot Yoga styles are equally accessible to all, whether one is naturally athletic, or has a "plum-shaped body". In trying to support his position, Mr Sklivas makes all kinds of unsubstantiated (and quite likely unsubstantiable) claims about Ashtanga. Here's one that ranks lower (in my opinion) on the oh-my-god-this-is-so-bad-I-can't believe-that-somebody-actually-dares-to-publish-this scale:

"But I swear there’s way more genetic sorting going on with Ashtangis than Bikram yogis."

Hmm... is he saying that there is some secret genetic sorting/screening lab at KPJAYI (or at some other undisclosed location) that screens people for whether they have bodies/genes that are suitable to practice Ashtanga? Sounds like the kind of stuff that makes for juicy conspiracy theories... but the practice as I know it is not a conspiracy theory.

Whatever happened to honoring other people's practices (even if they do not happen to do the same yoga style/spiritual practice as you), and viewing them in a fair and balanced light? Whatever happened to ahimsa? Or maybe one doesn't need to observe the yamas if one practices Bikram or Hot Yoga? Interesting...

In any case, the rest of Mr Sklivas's brief article is so ludicrous that I am not even going to waste space (and time) reviewing it here. (I've probably wasted enough, as it is...) And maybe this is just me again, but it seems that Elephant Journal has been publishing a larger-than-usual number of this kind of articles lately; articles that are, at best, purely stream-of-consciousness and at worst, outright combative and inflammatory. Now, I will be the first to admit that I have also written my fair share of inflammatory posts, and I'm not proud of them. To me, the blogosphere is a place to engage in rational and balanced conversation about issues that concern us as spiritual practitioners and as human beings. We may not always agree with each other (actually, we usually don't), but I think the least we can do is to make an honest effort to portray our interlocutors in a light that is balanced and fair. This being the case, I really don't see what kind of contribution articles of this kind can make to such conversation, beyond stirring up outraged responses (such as this one).

Well, that was quite a rant I just made. As with all my posts, I am going to try to end this one on a somewhat more positive note. So I guess I'll end by pointing out a few obvious and hopefully useful things about us. Here goes:

1. Life is short.

2. Within this short life, different people find different things to do to make some sense and meaning of their lives.

3. Some people do yoga. Others meditate. Others find meaning and joy in establishing close relationships with people around them. Others eat only organic food, and try to encourage others to do likewise. Yet others smoke copious amounts of weed. Yet others smoke like chimneys and drink like fish. Yet others do all of the above.

4. Whatever it is one does, i.e. whatever rocks one's boat, one thing is certain: No matter what we do and how much and how assiduously we do it, we will all eventually grow old, get sick and die (hopefully not too painfully). Nothing is going to change this.

5. This being the case, it makes a lot of sense to do whatever rocks your boat to your heart's content. It makes very little sense to put down whatever it is that rocks other people's boats; unless, of course, it rocks your boat to put down whatever it is that rocks other people's boats. In which case I have nothing to say to (and hopefully nothing to do with) you. 


  1. Ashtanga is definitely for everyone. In Fridays Mysore class I saw a lady who was anything but the definition of a typical Ashtangi , to say she was generously proportioned is putting it mildly, but she did her practice and good luck to her. I'm glad she wasn't intimidated by all the skinny, bendy, twisty folk at the Shala. Her Butt may be large but at least she got off it.

  2. Yeah, I just saw the article, did not bother comment either. Thing is, there is no arguing, some people resonate more with one style some people with another one, nobody can tell anyone that one style is only for athletes under 50... it is just plain silly... oh well, God bless him, he is exploring

  3. I wouldn't put the Blair articles and this one in the same category at all. I don't even think that Blair's qualify as "Ashtanga-bashing." Because the points he raises could in one way or another be applied very fruitfully to other methods as well. Not to mention the modeling of being willing to question what you're doing in an intelligent, conversational, in-depth way.

    If it's true that these issues are discussed all the time, that speaks well of the Ashtanga community, IMHO. Personally, I was very impressed by how I saw it being handled online - and it was new to me.

    This other article frankly struck me as childish, and not in a good way - there was really no point to it other than a sort of "my truck is bigger than yours" attitude that reminded me of two-year-olds in the sandbox. Oh well, whatever.

  4. I think Ashtanga is not for people who really hate it after trying it out a few times. It's not required by law for all yogis to practice Ashtanga, so why so much anger? I think he mistook Dan's article in cautioning Bikram nazi teachers to go easy with heating the room and allowing students to drink water as hot yoga-bashing, so he lashed out in retaliation based on Dan's biography.

    By the way, what's the remedy for relieving lower back pain in the Marichis? Is it just to lift out of the pelvis more, suck in the navel and don't get too concerned with binding your fingers?

  5. Hello Kevin, yes, I agree, Ashtanga is definitely for everyone, even if it is not always apparent. Much respect for that lady in Friday's mysore class. I see from your last few posts that you have learnt much from Kino over the weekend. How wonderful!

    Yes, Claudia, different people gravitate towards different styles, for all kinds of reasons; making generalizing comments of the sort Sklivas is making is just plain silly... yes, God bless the man...

  6. Hello Carol, yes, you are right; Blair and Slivas' articles cannot be put in the same category; even though I did find some of Blair's claims to be quite wanting in elaboration and substantiation. But Sklivas' article... well, I think you hit the nail on the head when you described it as 'a sort of "my truck is bigger than yours" attitude'.

    Hello Yyogini, hmm... now I am starting to imagine a world in which all yogis are required by law to practice Ashtanga... what would such a world look like, I wonder? :-)

    As for relieving lower back pain in the Marichyasanas, yes, lifting out of the pelvis and sucking in the navel helps, because all these are actions that happen when you consciously engage uddiyana bandha, which is very important in twists and forward bends to protect the spine. The general idea is to get the action of the twists (in Mari C and D) to happen more in the upper/middle back (thoracic spine), and less in the lower back/lumbar spine (although the lumbar spine does allow for a limited degree of healthy twisting). One way to facilitate this is to keep both sides of the pelvis in line with each other as much as possible during the twisting,

    Does this make sense so far? I'll write more when I think of more things in this area.

  7. AND....the spelling and grammar in the article was dreadful! At least he could have used spell check before he hit "publish"!!

    I read it thinking "here we go - another Bikram v's the World rant".
    If he is soooooo happy with his hot yoga practise, why does he have to look around at other styles, and compare and criticise? THEN, blog about it!! Come on. What a waste of time and effort.

    I found myself getting angry reading his article, but by the end of it I was mostly sorry for him, thinking: Dude. get over it. Seriously. Just enjoy your practise and stop comparing. Be in it. Do it with love.

  8. astanga is NOT for everyone. why?

    -it's very hard
    -you must practice 6 days a week
    -you must memorize sequencing
    -you must do the same things over & over again (like practicing an instrument, which, sadly, many people don't want to do)
    -some people are bored with it cause it's always the same
    -you must have a strong sense of discipline
    -it's not a circus atmosphere
    -there is no music
    -you don't get hugs or chocolate

  9. i couldn't even read the whole article. way too long. but everyone is entitled to their opinion.

  10. Yes, Maria, it is definitely a gigantic waste of time and energy to compare what one is doing/practices with others' practices and actions. That's what drishti is for... but then again, I think the Bikram/Hot Yoga people don't emphasize drishti much, with all those mirrors and such... I like what you say, "Just enjoy your practise and stop comparing. Be in it. Do it with love." I'll definitely keep this in mind :-)

    Yes, Bindy, you don't get hugs or chocolate; although one can (and probably should) treat oneself to some chocolate at least occasionally :-)

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  12. Bindithug,

    I'd like to agree, but a couple of points:

    "-it's very hard"

    Same with Bikram (arguably).

    "-you must practice 6 days a week"

    Not true: plenty of people practice 3 or even just 2 times a week. No one will stop you from practicing only once a week, but I don't know how much one could get out of a once-a-wwek practice (except as a taste for a few weeks or months--this is how I started Ashtanga).

    "-you must do the same things over & over again (like practicing an instrument, which, sadly, many people don't want to do)"

    Same with Bikram.

    "-some people are bored with it cause it's always the same"

    Same with Bikram.

    "-it's not a circus atmosphere"

    Actually, it does often look like a circus. :-) Did you mean it's not a free-for-all? Then true. But the same goes for Bikram.

    "-there is no music"

    Same with Bikram (I'm pretty sure, if I remember correctly).

    "-you don't get hugs or chocolate"

    Same with Bikram.

    Your comparisons might be good for pandering, free-for-all styles like Vinyasa, Power, Anusara, etc. but if the issue here is what's said about Ashtanga vs. Bikram, I fail to see how the things you mentioned actually differentiate the two styles. The main difference among those things you mentioned is that in Ashtanga you have to memorize the sequence. If you sign up for a month, that's no longer a concern. The issue is that people want to do everything all at once: all of Primary, back-bending, etc. There's a huge lack of a desire to focus on something until you get it right, and thus to even commit to a month of learning from the beginning.

    Lack of persistance--perhaps that's the personailty trait that distiguishes many Ashtangis from those who go to Bikram (not to mention other styles, which this applies to as well--except perhaps for Iyengar).

  13. OK, I had to take a while to compose my thoughts. Finally posted a comment (and 2 replies, because what I had to say was too long...) on Peter's article. Had to be said.

  14. Just read your comment, Frank. I think you represented the spirit of Ashtanga very eloquently in what you write.