Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Transmission, "cheating", and the Grimmly Phenomenon: More Ashtangeek Musings

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.


  1. I get the whole "cheating" quandry, however, I too practice alone with no teacher to really speak of(cos basically, where I live, I'm it) On the occasion, I do go to workshops(Kino, Manju, David Williams) all have a different perspective. Videos and blogs do help me with tips and techniques for refining my practice. IF I had a shala and a singlular teacher I would certainly stay with their recommendations, however, I feel I have the freedom to move through as I see fit and to my own ability to progress. That being said, I do miss out on Supta K adjustments, drop backs, Kapo help and other wonderful goodies that I only get in workshops or the occasional drop in whilst traveling. You have to do the best you can with your situation. Thanks Nobel!

    1. Thanks for sharing, JayaK. As you probably know, I also practice alone, and go to the occasional workshop. I hear that there is an authorized teacher in Orlando. Have you been to her shala?

      I really started Ashtanga (really, as opposed to just doing the primary series a couple of times a week) when I practiced with PJ Heffernan for a year in Milwaukee. Did you use to practice at a shala, or did you just pick up Ashtanga on your own through books and DVDs?

  2. Yes, you are correct:) Krista Shirley owns The Yoga Shala in Winter Park(Orlando) about 70 min from my house. I have studied with Krista as well, she is a wonderful teacher. It's just way too far to travel and too expensive(gas & tolls)!.
    Although I have been practicing yoga since 1997, it was mostly "Power Yoga", Bryan Kest was my teacher in L.A.. I was introduced to The Primary Series on November 19th 2008 at a weekend workshop at the now defunct Urban Ashtanga in Orlando, the teacher of the workshop was Kino....she blew my mind, I was hooked from then on. I then had to use cd's, dvd's and TONS of books, anything I could get my hands on...Yoga Mala, Lino's book, John Scott, of course, David Swenson. I have my Ashtanga arsenal! It would really be nice however to have a teacher here in town to go to once or twice a week.

    1. Your yoga story is very interesting. I've never studied with Bryan Kest, although in 2006, I attended the Art of Vinyasa yoga conference in Miami Beach, which was organized by Jonny Kest (isn't he Bryan's brother?). Jonny was (how should I put this)... quite a character. But the cybershala is no place for gossiping (then again, is any place ever a place for gossiping?)...

      Interesting that you first met Kino in 2008. I also first met her and her husband Tim in May 2008, when I went to Miami Life Center to attend Tim Miller's workshop. Isn't it interesting that we both lived in Florida at that time, both had met Kino, but never knew each other? And then we now know each other "cyber-ly"? :-)

  3. yes, I agree:) It is a small universe we live in:) I've not met Jonny(yes, Bryan's bro) but Bryan is equally as ahem.....colourful? that's a good description:) Actually David Williams was Bryan's teacher as well:) shrinking universe. Years ago, I stumbled upon some yoga VHS!(dating myself) at Best Buy, i was here in Melbourne, so I got em and started practicing with them... they were Power Yoga. Fast forward 2 yrs, I'm living with my now husband in Santa Monica california, we were walking around on a sunday and saw students coming out of a small studio, I made a mental note to try it sometime......about 2 wks later I got my tush off the couch and had no idea what time classes were or who was teaching, as luck would have it, class was starting in like 15 min, so i paid my donation, laid my mat down and soon class started....the teacher's voice was so familiar! i looked at him, still did not recognise him, he was bald, as class progressed, I realised that it was in fact the dude form my videos! Byran had long hair in the vids, I could not believe it! How about that for a small world?:) I apporached him after class and told him this story, his reply "wow, that's f**cking awesome" in tru colourful Kest style:) be well Nobel!

  4. Shits not yoga anyway... Its body obsessed asana..