There are so many insightful points that Kiri Miller brings up in her paper on virtual transmission and visceral practice, that I find myself still having lots of things to say, despite having written an entire post about the cybershala yesterday. So I guess I'll just keep saying what I have to say, until the well runs dry, so to speak... actually, knock on wood! May the well of blogging wisdom at Yoga in the Dragon's Den never run dry... Om.
One interesting issue that Miller brings up in her paper is the issue of possibly "cheating" on one's teacher in Ashtanga. I am putting "cheating" in quotation marks, because I want to leave it an open question as to whether one can actually cheat on one's teacher. Miller writes:
"Watching these videos also gave me the uncomfortable feeling that I might be cheating on my teacher. Ashtanga students are not supposed to start experimenting with advanced asana of their own accord. On the other hand, the structured nature of ashtanga makes it particularly well suited to independent practice, amateur-to-amateur pedagogy, and online discourse among a dispersed community of practitioners."
Indeed, the issue of possibly "cheating" on one's teacher opens the door to the possibility of another, broader kind of "cheating": "Cheating" on the tradition as a whole by learning and doing the practice wholly outside the traditional context of a face-to-face teacher-student relationship. As with the first kind of "cheating" (cheating on one's teacher), I am also leaving it an open question here as to whether one can actually "cheat" on the tradition. Anyway, Kiri cites Grimmly as a possible example of this form of "cheating":
"Grimmly is an ashtanga student without a teacher—an impossible contradiction to many practitioners, but one that is getting more possible all the time... As Grimmly developed his home practice, some of his choices posed challenges to ashtanga orthodoxy. For instance, when Grimmly blogged about his decision to begin learning the second series of asana, one commenter told him that he should not be learning any intermediate asana before he could stand up from a backbend: “Then and only then you start to add intermediate to your existing primary. Your teacher would give you each new asana as he saw your progress. . . . Traditionally in India, yoga has been learned from teacher to student, not from a book or video. It’s really not right to decide to give yourself postures.”
Before I go on, I should say this for the record: I am not accusing anybody of anything. First, I think that Grimmly is a great yogi. I really feel that his personal story of how he started out as an overweight 43 year old man who basically taught himself yoga, and changed his entire life and worldview, is an inspiration to all. I certainly would never accuse him of being a cheater in any way. Nor am I accusing Miller of accusing Grimmly of being a cheater.
Now that we have that out of the way, I would nevertheless like to pose a couple of questions here:
(1) Is it possible to "cheat" on one's teacher in Ashtanga? If it is possible, what exactly is so bad or wrong about such "cheating"?
(2) Is it possible to "cheat" on the tradition as a whole? If it is possible, what exactly is so bad or wrong about such "cheating"?
Let's think about (1). It seems to me that the notion of "cheating" on one's Ashtanga teacher involves, at its core, a certain sense that one has shown disrespect for one's teacher by learning or experimenting with postures the teacher has not officially "given" one. There also seems to be some blurriness with this notion of "cheating". For one, it does seem that "cheating" on a less senior teacher by"getting" postures from a more senior teacher is more kosher than the other way around. A prime example of this would be something like this: Suppose I were to be given a certain number of postures (say, second up to kapotasana) by a particular teacher. And then I go to Mysore, and I am given more postures by Sharath (say, second up to dwipada sirsasana: I'm not saying this is going to happen, I'm just giving an example...). And then I go back to my "home" shala, and practice second up to dwipada, using the fact that Sharath has given me the postures as justification to do so. In this case, even if I were "cheating" on my original teacher, it wouldn't be as "bad" as if I had "gotten" the postures from a teacher that is less senior than my original teacher, right?
I apologize if all this is very convoluted and wordy. I try not to write like this most of the time. But anyway, back to my example. Maybe you'll think that my example is not a good one. After all, Sharath is... Sharath. He represents the Source of the lineage right now. How can getting postures from him constitute "cheating" on anybody? Well, maybe not... But if we consider Guruji as being (so far) the one and only guru of the Ashtanga lineage, then Sharath is just a senior teacher. So if we substitute "Sharath" in my example above with "Tim Miller" or "Kino MacGregor" or with whatever your favorite senior teacher is, the question I am asking is still pertinent. The question then, is: If you get new postures at a workshop/intensive/whatever from Kino/Tim Miller/insert-your-favorite-senior-teacher-here, and then go back to your home shala and practice these postures in the presence of your original teacher, this "cheating" wouldn't be as bad as if you had "gotten" the postures from a teacher that is less senior than your original teacher, right?
Why isn't this "cheating" as bad? There are several possible answers. It may be because the senior teacher is commonly seen to be somebody who is more experienced as a teacher than your less senior original teacher. Whereas if you were to "get" postures from Youtube that you had not been given by any teacher, and practice them on your own, that would be a different story. Because Youtube is not a teacher. And what is wrong with learning postures from Youtube rather than from a teacher? Well, there is the question of safety: If you practice a new posture by yourself, your chances of getting hurt are probably higher, all other things being equal.
But maybe it's not just a question of safety. After all, who can guarantee that any teacher, no matter how senior, will be able to ensure that you perform a posture in complete safety? Perhaps the real issue is that if you "get" postures from Youtube rather than from a teacher, then the transmission of the posture is not done in accordance with tradition (which supposedly holds that yoga should be taught face-to-face, from a teacher to a student).
Which brings us to (2). And this is where the "Grimmly phenomenon" comes in. Grimmly, as we know, has drawn considerable flak from traditionalist Ashtangis for having learnt at least the first two series of Ashtanga all by himself, from books and videos. The charge of these traditionalists, as I understand it, is that Grimmly has gone against tradition by learning Ashtanga and giving himself postures from books and videos rather than by going to a "proper" shala and receiving instruction the "proper", "traditional" way. Ah, Grimmly, why you so improper?! Do you not fear the might of the Ashtanga police? :-)
But seriously, supposing that Grimmly has indeed flouted tradition or "cheated" on it (is it possible, by the way, to cheat on something that you may not even have a relationship with in the first place? Something to think about, no?)... Supposing that he has, what would be so wrong with it? Could there not be possible scenarios in which such "cheating" is okay, maybe even the right thing to do? Think about this fantastic scenario: Suppose all Ashtangis in the world today were to suddenly drop dead from some mysterious illness tomorrow (and that includes me, unfortunately. Actually, come to think of it, it would probably also include you; you must be an Ashtangeek to actually have the patience to read this super-long convoluted post...). Also suppose that, by some unfortunate coincidence, a big earthquake were to happen in Mysore tomorrow, and the KPJAYI were to be buried under tons of rubble, so that all knowledge of Ashtanga were to be lost to all humanity.
Now imagine that, a thousand years from now, a group of archeologists were to go to what is now Mysore, and unearth the remains of what was once KPJAYI. These archeologists will then discover pictures of Guruji and Sharath (they will probably also discover a coconut stand that was demolished just before the earthquake, but that's another story...). Along with these pictures, they will also discover copies of Yoga Mala, and come to realize that a wonderful thing called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga existed a thousand years ago, before all humanity lost knowledge of it and became a whole bunch of sedentary overweight couch potatoes...
Anyway, suppose one of these archeologists decides that something so wonderful as this Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga should never be lost to humanity again. So this archeologist decides to teach himself Ashtanga from Yoga Mala. Now, would this archeologist now be "cheating" on the tradition, since he is teaching himself Ashtanga through a book, and not through a live teacher? I'm guessing the answer is no, but maybe I'll leave this up to you to decide.
Whew! This has been a super-long, very convoluted post. If you made it this far, I really, really thank you for putting up with my all-over-the-place writing style. Well, if you have any thoughts on (1) or (2), I'll love to hear from you, as always.