Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Ashtangeeking, the state of Ashtanga, and practicing Ashtanga while teaching something else

Last weekend, I went down to Minneapolis-St. Paul to attend a Buddhist activity. On Sunday afternoon, just before I hit the road to head back up here to my little corner of the upper midwest, I stopped in at this very nice clothing store in Minneapolis to get a little gift for my fiancee, who wasn't able to make the trip with me (to those of you socially conscious yogis out there: Don't worry, it's not Lululemon! I haven't gone that far over to the Dark Side :-) But in order to protect a few innocent people, I won't tell you what the store in question is, either.).

Anyway, while walking around the store, I ran into my friend and fellow Ashtanga blogger Ellie. Which was a real treat (of all the possible places in the universe to meet a fellow Ashtangeek...). It is one thing to geek out about Ashtanga on this blog; getting to meet and geek out about Ashtanga with a fellow Ashtangeek in real time is quite another. After the usual exchange of pleasantries ("Oh, what a surprise! What brings you here?..."), we lost no time in getting down to the business of Ashtangeeking. In the space of, like, five minutes, we covered an amazing range of topics: We talked about the exploits of prominent Ashtanga bloggers, and about that annoying yet amusing phenomenon known as Ashtanga-bashing. We also chatted a little about going--or, in my case, not having made it this year--to Mysore. We also talked about a friend who recently got authorized, and about how we are not supposed to expect to get authorized, but start expecting it anyway sometime around the third Mysore trip (for more details, see Patrick's recent post about authorization).

And then the topic of conversation turned to something not so pleasant: It seems that there is a general decline recently in the state of Ashtanga in the Twin Cities area, and possibly in Minnesota-North Dakota as well. Not that Ashtanga was ever really really big here, but recent events in the Ashtanga world in this area seem to point to a further shrinkage. For one, as I have mentioned on this blog before, a local studio in my area that used to offer Mysore classes once a week on Saturdays has suspended these classes since the summer began, and has shown no signs of restarting them. In addition, an illustrious Ashtanga studio in Minneapolis has also recently seen a reduction in classes and a move to a smaller location (I'm not naming any names here, so don't start leaving snarky anonymous comments here now...). Anyway, all in all, if we're reading these events purely at face value, it would seem that there is an overall decline/shrinkage in the state of Ashtanga in the great midwestern states of Minnesota and North Dakota. Not that you have to take my word for it; this is just my very personal observation. And what am I doing about it? Nothing, really; I just do my own practice, and then sit on my ass and write inane blog posts like this one... Sad.

But let me try to put a positive spin on this whole thing. Ellie and I agreed that ultimately, there is only one way to get an Ashtanga program off the ground: Offer Mysore classes six days a week, and in this way, attract students who want to practice every day (or, at least, make their way towards eventually practicing every day). Anything less than that (offering Mysore classes only once, twice or even thrice a week) simply won't do. To be sure, nobody can control whether or not people choose to show up for Mysore six days a week: Even in a traditional shala, there will always be "dabblers" who only come to class once or twice a week, and then go do their own thing the rest of the week. But I think that ultimately, a studio/shala that offers Mysore classes six days a week is sending a very clear message to students or potential students: This practice is very powerful, but you need to really, really commit to it to see the effects in your own life. No half-assing.

Which also means no half-assing on the part of the teacher. The teacher has to show up six days a week at the same early hour, re-arranging his or her personal practice around this, whether or not anybody shows up. This is a very big commitment. And let's face it: Teachers are people. And people have families and a whole bunch of obligations that come with being householders in this wonderful capitalistic land of America. If you teach yoga full time, and nobody comes to your classes, how do you pay the bills and fulfill your householder obligations?...

Ha! I said I was going to try to put a positive spin on this whole thing. I haven't succeeded so far, have I? But here's something: Because of everything I said above, I have great, great respect for Mysore teachers everywhere. It's a great, great calling that requires great, great sacrifices.

But all this also means that not everybody can teach Ashtanga full-time. I don't mean "can" in the sense of "being a good enough teacher", but "can" in the sense of "being able to make a living teaching pure Ashtanga". After all, if there can only be so many Mysore programs within a city, and if even those aren't necessarily doing all that well, this must mean that there must be quite a number of capable Ashtanga teachers who have to teach something else more marketable (Vinyasa, gentle yoga, hatha yoga, you name it) in order to pay their bills. I know that all this is sounding very crass and possibly unyogic (true yogis are not supposed to talk about making money and paying the bills, right? It's all supposed to, like, flow into your life if your heart is in the right place, right?), but I get the sense that what I am saying is reflective of the reality out there. Over the last couple of years, I have met Ashtangis (both in the blogosphere and in "real" life) who have a strong and committed daily Ashtanga practice, but teach some other kind of yoga. And I don't mean this in a bad or pejorative way: I mean, you got to do what you got to do, and I respect that. Besides, I don't even teach any yoga. So who am I to judge?  

But all this brings to mind a recent post by Bindi, in which she quotes Dena Kingsberg saying this about committing to one yoga style:

“like a marriage, the commitment to an ongoing practice of one style or method allows us the possibility to move beyond the surface. in repetition and devotion we provoke a gradual awakening.”

To extend the marriage metaphor further: If committing to one yoga style is like being faithful to a spouse, and practicing another style at the same time is like cheating on one's spouse, then what about practicing one style while teaching another? Is this akin to... I don't know, having sex with one person while saying that somebody else is better in bed? Well, I don't know. I'm just thinking aloud here. But seriously, I guess you see the tension here, right? Hmm... well, maybe I'll just pose this as a question to all of you Ashtangis out there who teach another style: Do you ever feel that there is tension between your personal practice and what you teach others? Do you ever feel that you are somehow "cheating" on Ashtanga by practicing it in private, and then going out there and teaching something else?              


  1. Hi Nobel! Covered lots of bases in this post. A great read. I recently started teaching "Core Strength Yoga" at the local studio. The studio was struggling financially and the owner made the decision that the Halifax community could not support a strictly Ashtanga studio. There are still Ashtanga classes that are taught by the studio directors. The non-ashtanga classes are meant to be more diverse and draw in people who ostensibly find Ashtanga too hardcore and intimidating. Examples are "Yoga for Runners," "Iyengar Inspired," "Hot Flow," as well as "Yoga for Core Strength." Originally I wasn't on the schedule at all, but then the teacher doing core strength got a job so they asked me to do it. I am continuing to sleep with Ashtanga, and I certainly believe that Ashtanga is much better in bed. But ironically enough, so far my numbers have been higher than my Ashtanga classes had been for some time... Ha. Although I do feel somewhat out of my element, I don't worry too much about it since it is only one class a week. Also, I look at it as a sort of preparation/cross-training for Ashtanga where people can work on accessing the strength and coordination they need for Ashtanga elements like jumping through and jumping back. That is my positive way of looking at it, though sometimes I think that the more we apologize for Ashtanga's hardcoreness, the less people will make the committment to practice consistently. But of course, I am not the person managing and financing a studio. And ultimately, I find myself needing to apologize frequently during my core strength class. It seems way harder than Ashtanga, or at least less palatable.

  2. Thinking a little more on this issue, I think that teaching a style you don't practice is not sustainable long-term or full-time. That is my theory that I have no means of proving or disproving. ;)

    1. Yes, Erica, somehow my gut feeling also tells me that teaching a style you don't practice is unsustainable long-term; not necessarily unsustainable in a financial or making a living sense, but more in the sense of not preaching/teaching what you practice. And one can only teach something else and try to "Ashtangafy" it for so long, before one has to make the decision to either call it Ashtanga or not. At least, that's how I see it.

      I've been enjoying reading about your core-strength-yoga-teaching adventures on your blog :-) It's interesting how you say that the more we apologize for Ashtanga's hardcoreness, the less people will make the commitment to practice consistently. Maybe when we apologize in this way, we are projecting our own samskaras on things as well? Funny; to me, things like this make Ashtanga feel like a religion, even if it's supposedly not :-)

  3. Hi Nobel!
    Thank you for writing this! Everything you said was right on the money. I used to live in Minneapolis and the studio you mentioned was the first place I discovered ashtanga many years ago. I now live in Toronto and practice with David Robson at the Ashtanga yoga Center of Toronto. This is one of the biggest Mysore programs outside of Mysore. I think the reason it's been so successful is because our teacher practices what he preaches and therefore expects the same from his students. Also, it is primarily an Ashtanga studio with 90% of the classes being Mysore style.
    I have been back to Minneapolis and would go to that studio to do Mysore and sometimes there would only be 3 students in the class. It was so disappointing. It came as no surprise that it ended up as it did.
    Anyway, I'm sad that Minnesota and North Dakota have not seen the same growth and success that we have seen here in Canada.
    Thanks for writing this!

    1. Hi Sophia!
      Good to hear from you. Interesting that that studio in Minneapolis was the first place you discovered Ashtanga many years ago. Thinking about it again, I wonder if perhaps that studio's "mission" has changed in some way. I mean, it was where it was for a number of years, and did some good for a bunch of people (including you). And now, for reasons that I have no way of knowing, its mission has changed.

      But having said this, yes, I have also been to that studio on some days, and I and maybe one other student would be the only people there (besides the teacher, of course), and I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed as well. Even though this practice is supposed to be an individual journey, there is nothing like practicing with a roomful of people at least some of the time to give you a powerful energy boost.

      But anyway, all this is getting neither here nor there. I'm really happy you are practicing with David Robson now. I've heard some many wonderful things about him, and look forward to practicing with him one day.

  4. K, I love that you brought this up Nobel:) I have been in that exact space for a number of years, until recently. Ok, first, if you can, why don't you try your hand at at least offering a Mysore class/practice, maybe at a friend's house? see how it grows? or one of the old mysore student's homes or dare I say, yours:) No judgement, just a thought, ok, on to the question at hand. When I started teaching, I was of the Bryan Kest Power Yoga faction as that is what i was practicing as well, then it morphed into ugh,Vinyasa Flow(teaching) as it was more accessible to people and addressed many different level of practitioner in the same class..ok done, no conflict there, fast forward 3 years and Ashtanga/Kino found me and David Williams and Manju found me and well, you can guess what happened:) So, yes I was in a dichotomous state! I was practicing something other than what I was teaching just to make money, cos I had to, and I did love my students don't get me wrong!. I realised that could no longer do this, I felt like a fraud, sneakily, I started making the the classes more "Ashtanga-like" and no one was the wiser, in fact people were fascinated, of course I knew they would be:) I actually had to quit my old position and do only private students for a while, then a new studio opened up and I made it known from the jump, this is how it is! Fortunately, I am also the manager now:) Had I been a single mom or on my own completely, i might not have been so cavalier about the whole thing, but it was something I could not reconcile with, I had to make the change:) I do "sub" for other teachers and I know that the students are not expecting Ashtanga so I just try to stick to the other teacher's plan as best I can, sometimes it can be fun, but i know I'll get shit for saying this, but this is how I feel, I feel like most of the "self-made" yoga's out there are a total waste of time and complete bullshit, there, I said it, I'm sorry if I offend, honestly. A few exceptions, Inyengar, Kundalini, Yin these I believe are vaild. Like Sharath says, even his young son can do handstand, not yoga:)

    1. Hello JayaK,
      I'm very happy to hear from you again :-) There is so much food for thought in what you say here, I don't even know where to start! Well, let's start with this one:

      'I do "sub" for other teachers and I know that the students are not expecting Ashtanga so I just try to stick to the other teacher's plan as best I can...'

      When I used to teach at that studio in Gainesville, FL, I would teach mainly Ashtanga classes (there were two led classes two evenings a week, where you kind of work with all levels of students and lead them up to wherever they are comfortable going up to). I think it got to the point where I kind of gained a reputation for being "hard-core"; for instance, everybody knew that I was the only teacher who could do a full jump-back without touching my toes to the ground. So whenever I subbed other teachers' classes, there would be this funny energy among some students whenever I entered the room ("Here comes Mr. Hardcore..."). So I would try to stick to the other teacher's plan, just like you do, but the students also were kind of expecting something hardcore from me, so I guess we met somewhere in the middle :-)

      I've never studied with Bryan Kest before, but I saw an asana demonstration by his brother Jonny in Miami a few years back. I don't know if this was just because he was demoing and therefore needed to do some kick-ass postures, but his entire demo was basically one long handstand! Now, thinking about what Sharath said about even his young son being able to do handstand... Okay, I'll shut up now. I think I'm venturing into slandering-other-people's-yoga territory. But yes, I think there is a lot to be said about a lot of these self-made yogas being a waste of time (and money).

      You know, now that you have brought this up, maybe I'll try asking that local studio if they'll let me restart that Saturday morning mysore class. I know I said that the only way to really do a mysore class is to offer it six days a week (talk about not practicing what one preaches...), but I really don't feel up to teaching yoga everyday right this very moment, given where everything else in my life is now. Besides, something is always better than nothing, right?