Thursday, March 15, 2012

Interesting Factoid: Ashtanga was not designed for teenage boys

Wow, it's actually been a week since I last posted anything on this blog. What happened? Well, nothing. I just thought I'd take a couple of days off from blogging last weekend. Those couple of days became a little longer, and before you know it, it's been a week! Which is probably just as well: I probably couldn't find anything worth blogging about, anyway...

But now that I'm back, I think I'll flex my blogging muscles by sinking my teeth into this most persistent of Ashtanga myths: Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys. I really don't know what to say about this, except to simply deny it outright: No, it's not. Here's an immediate piece of evidence to the contrary: I'm 36, and am practicing.

But then again, I may not be the best piece of evidence. After all, I'm only, like, one-third to half-way through second series (how far along in second is Ardha Matsyendrasana, anyway?), and I've had to work through my fair share of injuries and other obstacles even to get this far. So fine, don't use me as evidence. Well, let's try another tact: As Steve mentions in his latest blog post, the great Eddie Stern recently proclaimed that this myth is simply not true: Both Krishnamacharya and Guruji taught people of both sexes at all stages of life. As Guruji famously proclaimed, ""Old man, stiff man, weak man, sick man, all can take practice. Only lazy man cannot practice." We should also understand that by "man", Guruji also includes "woman" here. Which means that the only people who cannot practice are lazy men and women :-)

Actually, here's another independent source which busts this myth. During my interview with Kino in Richmond, VA last April (see this post), she related the following story. Back in the day when they were still practicing at the old shala in Mysore, an old man showed up one morning at the shala with what appeared to be his wife (it later turned out that the man was in his nineties, and the woman was his daughter, who was in her seventies). Anyway, the old man had come to the shala to see Guruji because he had heard that Guruji was a great yoga teacher. The man had been diagnosed with a heart condition, and the doctors at the hospital wanted to perform surgery on him. The man decided that he did not want to undergo surgery, and he came to see Guruji in the hope that Guruji would be able to teach him yoga to help with his condition. Guruji agreed, and immediately set about teaching him.

Notice that Guruji did not say to the man, "Sorry, my friend, I can't teach you: This yoga is only for teenage boys." Why didn't he say this? Well, because Ashtanga is not only for teenage boys!

That said, it is probably true that if you did not start Ashtanga as a teenage boy, your chances of getting beyond, say, third series are probably not very high. But I'm okay with that: One only needs to do primary series to get the therapeutic benefits (yoga chikitsa) of the practice, and I'm happy and grateful to be where I am.

I'm also aware that some supposedly distinguished yoga scholars like Mark Singleton and Norman Sjoman support the view that Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys. Well, I don't know... (have these distinguished gentlemen tried doing the practice themselves, I wonder?) But really, would you rather believe Guruji and his words and actions, or the words of some supposed scholars who think they can tell you stuff just because they have read some books and spoken with some people? Besides, these days, it seems that almost anybody who cares to sit down and write something and cite a few sources here and there can call themselves a yoga (or whatever) scholar. And besides, if Sjoman and Singleton really think that Ashtanga is only for teenage boys... well, nobody's telling them they have to practice Ashtanga, right? They can always go practice Anusara, no? :-)

18 comments:

  1. FYI, Mark is a very accomplished Ashtanga practicioner. And he is not a "supposed" scholar. He IS a scholar with a PhD from Cambridge University. Is that scholarly enough for you? Finally, can you quote the part of his book where he says that "Ashtanga is only for teenage boys"?

    I take offence because he is a very good friend of mine.

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    1. I'm sorry you are offended :-)

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    2. Yeah, that sounds really sincere.

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  2. '...and would have provided a serviceable teaching format for large groups of boys. While this last reflection is partly supposition, it does offer a plausible explanation of the relative lack of attention to individual constitution in the Joiss system (at least in comparison to the teachings of T.K.V Desikachar, and other Krishnamacharya disciples such as A.G. Mohan and Srivatsa Ramaswami)...' p189 The Yoga Body. Mark Singleton.

    but I agree bit disrespectful, he makes a good argument whether we agree with all of it or not and the question surely is whether it was ORIGINALLY design for young boys and whether that matters and if so how much. There are many examples in the Guruji book of the system being adapted, it is adaptable. However, taken as a fixed system designed at a particular time for a particular age group in a particular place it's worthy of serious discussion.

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    1. Thanks for the quote, Anonymous. This is very interesting. Not having read the book recently (and not having it on hand), I can't really add too much to this.

      But whether or not the system was originally designed for young boys, and whether or not Singleton's "partly suppository" claim is true, it is definitely true that most Ashtanga practitioners today are not teenage boys (one doesn't have to be any kind of a scholar to be able to say this, I hope ;-)). And as far as I can see, practitioners today seem to be benefiting from practicing this system that may originally have been designed for teenage boys.

      Ha! I said I can't really add too much to this, but ended saying all this anyway. Oh well. Maybe none of this really matters, after all. Just do the practice, and all is coming (or not...).

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  3. He admits it is partly supposition. I just don't think there is any need to mock someone's credentials (which are actually pretty good) just because you disagree with them.

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    1. I have no quarrel with anybody's credentials: It's all great and wonderful that one is an accomplished Ashtanga practitioner and has a PhD from Cambridge. Is that scholarly enough for me? Hmm... to be really honest, I don't know what is "scholarly enough" these days. I mean, if being "scholarly enough" means that one gets to make partly suppository claims in books and come across sounding scholarly while doing so... well, that's great, I suppose. Whatever rocks your boat, no? :-)

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  4. Little harsh Noble but then you've been away from blogging for a week. When I heard Eddie talking about that at the confluence I was reminded of Indra Devi, taught around the same time as Pattabhi Jois and the rest of the boys ( see the picture at the front of the Makaranda of K standing on him in kapo)but very differently it seems. Just a thought.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Grimmly. Yes, perhaps I am a little out of touch with my blogging self... (Moral of the story: Blog more regularly?)

      In any case, I have also read somewhere that K taught Indra Devi differently, but I don't have enough details to know just how differently.

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  5. Hey Nobel, I'm procrastinating from my own practice at the moment :). But as a follower of and fan of your blog, I wanted to say to you (and perhaps obliquely to V), that Mark Singleton's book Yoga Body is, in my humble opinion, an excellent book and well worth reading. It's really interesting to discover here that he is also an ashtanga practitioner.
    And since I'm not, and never have been, a teenage boy, and am also lumbering my way through 2nd series with this tiny hope of getting to third before I turn 50, it's clear that this practice is not only for teenage boys. Who did say that anyway? Probably all those people who write for the Times.

    I found the idea that this style of yoga was influenced by gymnastics and women's harmonial dance (if I remember correctly) to be fascinating. In fact, it makes the history of this practice more interesting to me. I know there's a lot of controversy about the things he says,... and I don't want to get into it here or I won't make it to my mat before it's time to get the kids off to school. But I'm not particularly attached to the idea that this precise sequence of poses is 2000 years old. Would it be so terrible to find that Pattabhi Jois took what he learned from Krishnamacharya and created something new and wonderful?

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    1. I read Singleton's book some time ago as well. Very interesting.

      As with most myths, it is very hard to pinpoint just who exactly started it. Of course, it probably also doesn't help that scholars, with their veneer of academic authority, also contribute to the myth intentionally or unintentionally.

      I'm also not attached to the idea that this precise sequence of postures is 2000 years old. If I were to find out tomorrow that it was in fact a bunch of hippies who invented it in the 60s, and/or that a bunch of aliens secretly taught it to a group of Brahmins, I'll still do the practice anyway(Alien Yoga? More power!). Actually, come to think of it, this might explain all those references to serpents with a thousand white heads... I mean, when was the last time you saw something like this on earth? :-)

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    2. Hmm... I wonder if you've thought about writing your own science fiction novel? I love the alien yoga idea... reminds me of a Robert Heinlein plot or... there was one sci fi writer who wrote about enlightenment, who was that? Was it Terri something?

      Oh dear, trying to pull information out of this brain from a few years ago... possibly a few decades ago, is a scary prospect.

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    3. Well, the premise/main plot idea that comes to mind right now would be some kind of alternate history novel: Imagine an alternate universe in which Patanjali was in fact an alien (actually, who's to say he couldn't in fact have been one? After all, it's not like any of us actually know for sure that the guy actually existed or have met him face to face...). He came to earth a few thousand years ago, and taught this bunch of disgruntled and disenfranchised brahmins yoga. In return, the brahmins revere him as the founder of yoga as we know it. Little did they know, however, that Patanjali was in fact on a mission to take over the earth, and that yoga was in fact a set of mind-control techniques designed to make humans all peaceful and submissive, so that when the alien mothership arrives in the future, they will be able to easily conquer the human race, who by that time would be totally blissed out from doing all this yoga, and would not be able to fight the aliens...

      Ha! What a story! Unfortunately, I don't seem to have the patience to write this. Besides, who would want to read a novel like this?

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  6. Yeah, Mercurial Yoga! I'm glad you surfaced Nobel, I was wondering if you had found a suitable cave.

    Change of subject: have you seen?

    http://iambruceleemovie.com/

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    1. Yes, I did not succeed in finding a suitable cave near where I live, so I'm still blogging at the moment :-)

      Interesting. Will check out the link very soon.

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  7. Jois stopped practicing at sixty because his body wore out, Iyengar still practice at 93. Jois was instructor for the young wrestlers at the Mysore palace so he created a physically demanding routine, he was even inspired by the British soldiers fixed calisthenics routines, thats how the "series" was created.

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  8. "Old man, stiff man, weak man, sick man, they can all take practice but only a lazy man can't take practice."

    So why did Jois stop at sixty ? Lazy ? I don´t think so, but the diabetes makes you tired and acrobatics is not advisable when taking heavy doses of insuline.

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  9. In the November 2010 issue of Yoga Journal, Mark Singleton unveils the stunning and unsettling truth about yoga. The second day when I found out that Santa didn’t exist. I felt so cheated. All I could think at that moment was: “My teachers lied to me! K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, and T.K.V. Desikachar lied to the world!“

    What Singleton discovered was at once remarkable yet disturbing. While perusing the Cambridge University Library, he came across a book with picture after picture of men and women in the oh-so-familiar yoga asanas, from Warrior Pose, to Downward Dog, to Headstand, Handstand, and more. But this was not a yoga book, but rather a book describing an early 20th century Danish system of exercise called Primitive Gymnastics.

    According to Singleton, the early 20th century marked a period during which there was a large struggle for independence everywhere in the world. Their logic was that, with stronger bodies they would improve the chances of defeating others in a variety of violent struggles. And so, the Europeans used these gymnastics to strengthen their bodies.

    The Indian yoga gurus, once deeming any physical exercises or gymnastic-like postures as something the lower caste people do for a living, now saw the benefits of these exercises, and in turn melded the gymnastic moves into their yoga practices.

    It was about this time, in the 1930s that the famous Krishnamacharya, teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and T.K.V. Desikachar, developed a dynamic asana practice, that combined hatha yoga, wrestling exercises, and modern Western gymnastic movement into what we know of today as the vinyasa yoga system.

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