Sunday, September 4, 2011

Is it appropriate for teachers to give new postures at workshops or conferences?

This question is inspired by the most recent wave of criticisms of Okin Carmegorg. This is another reason to love blogstorms. Despite the hurt feelings, ruffled feathers, lost positions on others' blogrolls, and outstanding displays of assholism, one has to admit that blogstorms can serve at least one positive function: They can bring certain issues to the forefront of discussion, issues that may not otherwise receive so much attention in the blogosphere, for better or for worse.

This most recent blogstorm has brought to the forefront a few issues. Here are a few: The appropriateness of teaching advanced Ashtanga postures (and offering Ashtanga instruction in general) via Youtube videos, the appropriateness of wearing short shorts and tube tops while teaching and practicing, the appropriate of "shameless" self-promotion.

But one relatively new issue has arisen in this most recent blogstorm: The appropriateness of Ashtanga teachers giving new postures at workshops or conferences to practitioners whom they do not have a day-to-day teacher-student relationship with. To be sure, the issue itself is not new: I'm quite sure people have discussed this at one time or another in the blogosphere. But this recent blogstorm has brought this issue up in a way that casts it in sharp relief, not least because the blogger who stirred up the blogstorm used this issue as one of her sticking points with Okin. In her opinion, this practice is premised upon an intimate teacher-student relationship, and a teacher teaching a workshop, lacking such a relationship with the practitioner, is never in a position to assess whether the student is at the stage in his or her practice where she is ready for the posture in question. The blogger even goes so far as to suggest that Okin's motivation for giving postures at workshops is to "piss on" practitioners and take ownership of their practice. In other words, the suggestion is that the giving of postures (at least in Okin's case) may be an insidious way for her to attempt to assert control over practitioners.

Disclaimer: I have been accused in the past of blindsiding people by quoting things that they write, and using them in a way that paints them in a less-than-favorable light. Well, I don't personally consider this blindsiding, since I think it is understood and widely accepted that if one is willing to publish something in the blogosphere, one should also be ready to be held accountable for whatever one chooses to hit the "publish" button on. Moreover, I also try my best to represent what I quote in a way that accurately reflects the writer's intentions. In any case, if one thinks that I speak wrongly about him or her, one is welcome to dispute my claims by commenting. I mean, isn't that what comments are for?

But back to what I was just saying. Well, I really don't quite know what to make of this suggestion that the giving of postures may be an insidious way of asserting control over others. As somebody who has been on the receiving end of such a gesture (or, to use the blogger's own words, as somebody who had been "pissed on"), I personally do not feel that Okin's giving of postures is motivated by anything negative or insidious. As I have related in past posts (see, for example, this post), at one of her workshops, Okin offered to give me Karandavasana, but I declined at the time, citing knee issues. I felt at that time (and still feel) that her decision was motivated by her own honest assessment of where I was in the practice and my abilities. Of course, I disagreed with her assessment, and she respected that.

Which brings me to what I think is a very important point: The teacher-student relationship in the practice is a two-way street. The teacher does her best to teach from her experience, and from her assessment of where the student is at in the practice, making suggestions and/or giving or taking away postures as she deems necessary. The student, for her part, needs to understand that the teacher is making these judgments and assessments from where she is. And from where she is, she cannot be expected to have an omniscience, God's-eye-view of the student's practice. The student has to compare the teacher's assessments and recommendations with the feedback that she is getting from her own body and mind, and decide for herself whether or not to follow the teacher's suggestions. If the student does not do this, she risks becoming an uncritical automaton and worse, hurting herself.

I can't help feeling that in all this back-and-forth between the so-called traditional, "old-school" way of practicing Ashtanga, where the student is supposed to listen to and surrender to the teacher's every injunction, and the so-called "New Wave", where teachers supposedly give away asanas liberally, this one simple fact of the teacher-student relationship has been overlooked: In order for the teacher-student relationship to be truly freeing and mutually empowering, the student has to take responsibility for her own practice, and not simply abdicate this responsibility to the hands of a teacher whom she assumes "always knows what is best for me."

So perhaps, may I humbly suggest, the issue isn't so much whether or not it is right for teachers to give postures at workshops or conferences, but whether practitioners are willing to step up to the plate, so to speak, and take more responsibility for their own practice.

But all this is, of course, merely my own take on this whole issue. I'll love to hear what you have to say.       


  1. I find it interesting that people take Ashtanga yoga so seriously. Look at Grimmly who learned the system on his own, daring to try stuff without any certified teachers "giving" him the advanced poses. What should we do with him? Stick him into yoga jail?! If I go to hot yoga classes now and then, am I not allowed to be an Ashtangi any more (omg how dare you do poses from the Intermediate series out of sequence?!?!)?

    Yoga is fun. One can follow a system strictly should they choose to, but in this day and age where David Swenson teaches at the same yoga conference as John Friend and Baron Baptiste (and even Sharath, at one of the conferences in Asia recently), and people are free to sign up for classes with all yoga teachers, I think it's a little silly to say one shouldn't learn new postures at a yoga workshop/conference.

  2. Firstly, I agree with Yogini. I rarely engage with these things because I just. Don't. Care.

    Well. I care enough to read it, just not enough to discuss it, I guess.

    I do think though, that the teacher/student relationship now must, in most cases, be very different from how it used to be. If I have a question pop into my head, I often won't wait until I see my teacher, I'll google it. I value her opinion more than most, but it's often one of a few sources I can use. (OK, clearly I care enough to bother posting this!)

    Second, is it not the done thing to link to the blog you're discussing? That way we could see for ourselves and reduce the risk of them being quoted out of context. I don't know what the Blog etiquette is, so maybe it's not considered acceptable for some reason, but on the talkboard I use no link means no discussion.

  3. Yyogini, sorry for missing that y!

  4. Nobel, great post. I also do not get the fuss of being introduced to new asana at workshops or retreats.

    If one's teacher back home does not agree with the new asana, then one will just stop doing it aat her/his shala until one "is given" it again. No big deal. And many students, including myself for long periods of time, work without a permanent home teacher and go to workshops exactly for new inspiration (and new postures).

    If one only trusts to learn from one's home teacher, why go to a workshop with a different teacher in the first place?

  5. Three years ago I was given a new posture at a Lino Miele workshop (and I'm still alive!)

  6. Yes, Yyogini, Grimmly is indeed a great practitioner, and I would certainly hate to see him land in yoga jail! Hmmm... what would such a jail look like, I wonder? Would there be "yoga guards" keeping watch over you 24/7, making sure you don't do certain postures? :-)

    I suppose the worry is that if one were to get new postures from a teacher at a workshop who may not know one's practice well, this might be detrimental to the student's practice. Maybe another worry is that the teacher who is giving the new posture may also be in some way disrespectful of the student's regular teacher. I'm not sure I but either of these arguments. Provided the teacher at the workshop does a reasonably competent assessment of the student, and does not give a student a posture he or she is clearly not ready for (e.g. giving second up to kapotasana to a student who has not even completed half primary with his or her regular teacher), I don't really see a problem. Of course, this is coming from somebody who has not had the benefit of going to Mysore and studying in the pure, traditional method. So maybe take what I am saying here with a pinch (or grain) of salt :-)

  7. In my previous comment, I meant to say "I'm not sure I BUY either of these arguments."

  8. Hello Ragdoll,
    yes, the ability to google information (as well as the availability of resources on blogs and other online sources) does change the teacher-student dynamic quite a bit. Maybe I'm old-school this way, but I still feel that ultimately, nothing can take the place of face-to-face student-teacher contact. And perhaps this is where workshops and conferences are useful: For those students (like me) who do not live close to an Ashtanga shala (and who are not willing to jump ship/switch styles) going to workshops and conferences and learning as much as one can at these venues (and possibly, getting new postures) is a way to keep the flame of the practice alive.

    Yes, I agree that it is probably the standard practice in most cases to link to the blog one is discussing. But there are a couple of reasons I chose not to do this this time: (1) The issue in question (giving new postures at workshops and conferences) arose out of the comments in the blog, and there is no straightforward way of linking to that, (2) My intention is to take that issue out of its original context, and examine it as an independent issue in itself, without the possibly distorting influences of other feelings and sentiments that are not relevant to the discussion. So I thought not linking to the blog might be the better thing to do. But I really do not know if this is actually the best decision for me to make. I'll continue thinking about the best way to handle such things. Thanks for bringing this up.

  9. Hello Roselil,
    "If one only trusts to learn from one's home teacher, why go to a workshop with a different teacher in the first place?"

    My sentiments exactly! It looks like you and I are in similar practice circumstances (i.e. having to practice for long periods without the benefit of a permanent home teacher). More power to you :-)

    Arenal, I'm still alive as well :-)

  10. Hmmm...honestly, I don't see a problem with giving out poses in workshops & conferences when the student does not have a home teacher who could do so, e.g., student doesn't have a teacher/shala, doesn't have an authorized teacher, or is working at a level above that of their regular teacher (e.g., has authorized teacher but is working on 3rd Series). Similarly, I think that if a teacher gives out poses outside those parameters the student should not take them back to their home shala. You respect that teacher and do whatever they say at the workshop, but you need to respect your home teacher as well; if you don't they shouldn't be your home teacher. Otherwise, we allow for a situation where the student goes to workshops to get poses from less-strict teachers becuase they think their regular teacher isn't moving them quickly enough. I think that's rude, and it also speaks to a poor student-teacher relationship. if you don't like what your regular teacher is having you do, don't go to their class. Or talk to them about it. In any case, in your case Nobel, workshops are where you get poses, because you have what is largely a home/solo practice. And from what I can tell, there is no teacher out there who knows your practice better or could give you better guidance. For you, getting Karandavasana in this way is both appropriate and expected.

  11. Good points, Frank. Yes, I certainly agree that respect is key here. One needs to respect both the workshop teacher and do what they say (within reasonable limits, of course) within the context of the workshop, and also respect one's home teacher. Thanks for the encouragement about getting and working on Karandavsana ;-)