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So here goes:
A couple of days ago, Steve over at the Confluence Countdown pondered whether Ashtanga might be a cult. I'm rather undecided on this matter; maybe it really is one. After all, don't I often refer to myself as an Ashtanga Fundamentalist?
But I've recently also begun to wonder: Even if Ashtanga is not a cult, might it not be a religion, a church of some sort? Why do I think this? Well, recent conversations in certain quarters of the Ashtanga blogosphere have left me with such a feeling. To put it more precisely, I get the sense that some ardent Ashtangis approach the practice with the fervor and conviction approaching religious faith. For instance, a commenter on one of Yoga Gypsy's very stimulating recent posts about "breaking up" with Ashtanga commented that when she made the decision to "leave" Ashtanga, she got a lot of flack from other Ashtangis for deciding to do so.
Which leads me to wonder exactly what kind of "flack" she got. Was it just garden-variety flack, i.e. getting teased by other Ashtangis, getting the "cold shoulder", not getting any more invitations to parties hosted by Ashtangis (like we party a lot, anyway...)? Or did this "flack" consist of something more... systematic? Did they send in some senior teacher to give her a big pep talk about why Ashtanga is the best yoga style since sliced bread, and that she would be really losing out on the fast track to Self-realization if she chose to leave? Maybe, unbeknownst to all of us, there is a secret group of senior teachers that run around the world talking to "quitters" or "deserters", trying to get these lost sheep back into the Church of Ashtanga of Latter Day Yogic Saints. And maybe they have been doing this for so long, they have even developed a modus operandi, which can be divided into two stages:
Stage (1): Talk Therapy: They get some senior Ashtanga teacher who really knows his Yoga Mala/Bhagavad Gita/Yoga Sutra, and who is really good at parlaying such knowledge into everyday language, to talk the quitter's ear off. Besides being able to talk somebody's ear off, this person should also be somebody who is personable and easy to relate to. Having a nice, winning smile is a big plus:
Elder Miller in action
I don't have any figures here, but I wouldn't be surprised if Elder Miller has single-handedly prevented hundreds, perhaps even thousands of devotees from leaving the Church of Ashtanga with his absorbing lectures on yoga philosophy. But sometimes, even the best is not enough: There are times when even the most eloquent speakers can't do much to change somebody's mind. It is at these times that a picture says a thousand words... or rather, a demonstration says a thousand words. Which brings me to the next stage of the process:
Stage (2): Powerful/Impressive Demonstration of Yoga Prowess: They get some senior Ashtanga teacher who is renowned for his/her asana prowess, and who is really good at giving demonstrations, to give the would-be quitter a personal demonstration. The underlying message here is: Look, you have already come so far in your practice, and invested so much time and effort. Don't you want to at least get to third series before your earthly body turns to dust, and you go up to the Brahma heavens to meet Guruji? Here is a senior teacher who is frequently assigned this important task:
Elder MacGregor in action
As with Elder Miller, I don't have any figures, but again, I wouldn't be surprised if many devotees have been saved from the path of quitting the Church by a glimpse of the promised land of Vrischikasana.
Indeed, the combined effects of stages (1) and (2) have probably prevented countless would-be quitters from straying off this wonderful fast track to Self-realization that is the Ashtanga practice. However, as we all know, for every powerful talker and impressive asana demonstrator out there, there is probably at least one quitter who is, well, totally dead-set on quitting, and whose mind, ears and eyes are totally impervious to any kind of visual and verbal persuasion. What can we do with such hard-headed lost sheep? Well, in all honesty, probably nothing. Maybe they will find their own, albeit slower, track to Self-realization. Maybe they will be enticed by the blissed-out countenances of Anusara practitioners, and find their bliss there--a bliss that may, admittedly, be tainted by the recent fall from grace of their supreme guru, but why judge the quality of somebody's blissed-out experience by the state of one's guru? Or maybe they will find some measure of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--along with weight loss, fitness, and a very well-sculpted ass-- in the newly emergent Latin nation of Zumba? Who knows?
A recruitment poster for the newly emergent Latin nation of Zumba