Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tradition Guilt, and the question of tradition

Recently, the Ashtanga blogosphere has been abuzz with conversations that center around a couple of themes: (1) Does practicing Primary Series alone make for a "balanced" practice? Is keeping people at primary for too long causing imbalances in their bodies, imbalances which will eventually result in injuries? (2) What makes a traditional Ashtanga practice traditional? Or, as the Confluence Countdown so cleverly puts it, What makes a practice ‘Ashtanga enough’ to be Ashtanga? 

(1) and (2) are related, for many reasons. One possible reason is that if you are worrying about (1), you are also probably worrying about (2) as well. For instance, if you have come to the conclusion that doing Primary Series alone is not a balanced practice for you, given the present condition of your body, and are experimenting with second series postures on your own (or are even "seeing other yogas"), but are not prepared to stop calling yourself a traditional Ashtangi, then you may be concerned about whether your present practice consisting of your "self-given" postures (I know a lot of people out there don't like the words "given" and "give", but I'll stick with these, because these are the words that come to mind right now; I'm not feeling mentally nimble enough today to try to find more appropriate words. Yes, today is a "bad mind day". I hope you will excuse me...) would make the cut as a "traditional practice." So, there may be a certain kind of guilt involved here: Let me call this "Tradition Guilt."  

Actually, you may suffer from Tradition Guilt even if you have been given the postures you are practicing now by your teacher. Suppose that, even though you haven't mastered the so-called "gateway poses" in primary (binding in Mari D, binding in Supta K, being able to drop back and stand up on your own, etc.), your teacher decides to move you on to second series anyway, because he or she believes that keeping you too long in primary would exacerbate certain pre-existing imbalances in your body. But suppose, further, that other supposedly more "tradition-observing" Ashtangis get wind of you and your teacher's un-traditional activities. The Ashtanga police are called, and all hell breaks loose. If you are a blogger and have been blogging about your, ahem, un-traditional activities on your blog, your comment threads will be besieged by these well-meaning tradition-observing folks, who are concerned that you and your teacher have strayed from the path of tradition and will soon burn in the fires of Ashtanga Hell. They therefore see it as their sacred duty to offer you their counsel and try to bring you back from the brink of eternal Ashtanga damnation. If you are even a little faint of heart, you might find yourself moved by their appeals; you might then start questioning your own practice (and also your teacher's judgment), and may thus suffer from Tradition Guilt over possibly not following tradition.

Is Tradition Guilt a justified kind of guilt to suffer from? Damn, this is such an awkward way of putting the question: I really am having a bad mind day. But I hope you get what I'm trying to say here... Many people in this day and age will argue that guilt is a useless and unproductive emotion, and that no guilt is ever justified. Well... maybe, I don't know, one way or the other. But the fact of the matter is that I suspect that many people out there do suffer from this Tradition Guilt, whether they want to admit it or not.

If you are such a sufferer, there's some good news here: I hereby absolve you!

 [Image taken from here]

On what authority do I thus absolve you? You may ask. Well, none whatsoever; I'm a nobody in the Ashtanga world. But let me just give you my two cents' on this whole Tradition debate: It's pretty silly, really. Now, I'm not saying that tradition is not important in the Ashtanga practice; it is. But I think too many people are trying too hard to pin down what tradition is by appealing to the minutiae of the practice: If you do x, y, and z, and don't do a, b, and c, then you are not following tradition. If you take x number of breaths in Y-asana instead of taking y number of breaths, then you are not following tradition. If you do posture sequence B without first mastering posture sequence A, which Sacred Ashtanga text C strictly proscribes on pain of eternal hellfire, then you are not following tradition. And so and so forth. Ultimately, I feel that tradition is like water; it fits into many containers, but the minute you try to say that it is the shape of any one container, you lose its essence. 

So what is tradition? Well, I don't have a one-word answer (or even a two-word answer) to this question. But I think it has something to do with this parampara thing, this notion of being able to trace what you do in some coherent fashion to Guruji. A recent commenter on the above-mentioned post at the Confluence Countdown puts it very nicely:

'The lineage of learning must be traced back to Guruji. This doesn’t mean your teacher needs to be authorized, as that’s not always a possibility. However, somewhere along the line, you need to be able to link it back to Guruji in a straight line. Even if it means you learned to practice at home with a video or a book (yikes!). Who is instructing? Who was their teacher? And their teacher… and so on. At some point, there needs to be personal contact directly with a teacher. If not, it may be Asthanga Vinyasa, but I wouldn’t classify it as “traditional.” Looking at the definition of traditional we get: existing in or as part of a tradition, where tradition is the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation); long-established.'

One important thing we can glean from these words is this: A practice isn't "traditional" just because it has been practiced for a very long time by a group of people. In other words, just because practice sequence A has been around for a hundred years while practice sequence B has only been around for ten years doesn't mean that practice sequence A is more traditional than B. The deciding factor here is not length of time the practice sequence has existed. What is important is whether you can trace what you are practicing back to Guruji in a more or less linear fashion. If you can, then your practice is traditional. If you can't, then, well... it's not.

I'm guessing that some people (or maybe even many people) out there would be rather unsatisfied with this understanding of tradition. It might seem a bit nebulous and vague. It certainly doesn't lend itself well to the kind of finger-pointing that many so-called traditionalists like to engage in, because even if I am doing second series before I can stand up from dropping back, if I have a way of linearly tracing what I am doing back to Guruji, then I pass the tradition test. And so do you, even though your practice may be very, very different from mine. Which means there is more than one way to be traditional, because many practices which seem very different when seen "from the outside", so to speak, can ultimately all be traced back to one source. Which probably doesn't sit well with the sort of mind that likes to be able to make quick judgments about whether things are this or that (or neither). But, to use a very cliched turn of phrase, it is what it is. Why should tradition fit itself within our narrow mental constructs?

Wow, I just procrastinated away half an afternoon writing this post... Why do I do this? Am I addicted to blogging? Am I writing this blog, or is this blog somehow an organic being that is pulling things out of my mind and putting it here? Hmm... what do I know? Anyway, I better go get some "real work" done now. In the meantime, if you have anything to say, I'll love to hear from you.


  1. Hi Nobel! I meant to comment on your blog about "unauthorized teachers" teaching Ashtanga, but felt at once long-winded and weary about it. I do agree that much discussion regarding "traditional ashtanga" ends with the participants feelings either needlessly guilty or excessively smug. For nearly a year and a half, I have been mainly practicing on my own, after having had the great privilege of practicing with certified teachers Mark and Joanne Darby. Darby taught me almost two thirds of second series before I was able to stand up from a backbend. Certainly this process had its ups and downs but I think that this is rather typical of second series and for the most part I am fine now. I have an immense amount of faith in Darby and Joanne's experience and teaching. Now that I am in Halifax, there happens to be no certified or authorized teachers. In fact, the only authorized teacher in Atlantic Canada is in Newfoundland (far east and north). She spends most of her time in Mysore. Does this mean that no one in Atlantic Canada should be doing Ashtanga? I would hope that the answer is a pretty obvious no. Many of the "unauthorized" teachers here are avid students of authorized or certified teachers and they remain very committed to deepening their practice and teacher skills. Perhaps we should be careful or our use of "in the tradition of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois," since in the Ashtanga world, this seems to imply that Guruji or Sharath provided their formal blessing. While I choose to mainly practice at home these days, there are a couple of excellent and skilled teachers around here who have helped me a great deal when I have attended their classes. Overall, I am happy that there is some form of Ashtanga taught in Halifax even if some people would say that it is not "traditional." And about practicing at home and being an Ashtanga Snob: There are many reasons for practicing at home including financial troubles, work schedules, high performance anxiety, illness, transportation problems, excessive emotionality that you may wish to keep to yourself, etc. Of course being snobby is also a possibility, but usually it's more complicated than that. Although we should all questions our reasons for our practice choices, practicing alone is not a crime and in many cases, it is a true gift that cultivates dedication, tapas and autonomy. Apologies for my longwindedness. The End.

    1. Hello Erica,
      Don't apologize: I love long-winded comments, because I'm also pretty long-winded myself :-) It's just that you have brought up so many interesting things here, I don't even know where to start replying!

      Well... let me start with this: Like you, I also was given second series postures by my teacher (PJ Heffernan of Waukesha, Wisconsin) before I could stand up from dropping back. I went all the way up to Yoganidrasana, and then had to scale back to Laghu for a few weeks because of some lower back issues, but I think the front-body-strengthening effects of Laghu (plus the fact that you simply can't get up from Laghu without seriously engaging the quads and psoas) was what helped my mind/body to "get" the muscular movements that needed to happen in order to stand up from dropping back. And PJ goes to Mysore every year, and is fiercely loyal to Guruji and Sharath. If his teaching doesn't count as traditional, I don't know what does...

      I can't help feeling that the word "traditional" has increasingly being bandied around in the Ashtanga blogosphere as a sort of automatic seal of approval that one appeals to in order to legitimize one's practice, without anyone really knowing what the word even means. It's become almost like a sort of Ashtanga political football. Maybe this is no coincidence, considering that we are in election season in the United States :-)

  2. Normally, I am a huge fan of your blogging, but this was alot of rambling. Perhaps you should just "do your practice". I will continue to follow your blog.


    1. Thanks for continuing to follow my blog :-)

  3. You were not rambling and it is a Blog not a text book, not a dissertation. It is a blog which essentially is just a place to post random thoughts so if you want to ramble that is your choice anyway......

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Shanna :-) I was thinking about asking that anonymous commenter above:

      (1) If he/she would kindly offer me some guidelines as to what constitutes "not rambling";

      (2) and if he/she would pay me every time I post something that meets these guidelines.

      If he/she would agree to both (1) and (2), then I will stop "rambling" ;-)

    2. Perhaps you should write a blog about what consitutes your definition of "rambling", in my opinion the post is ramblining (one person's opinion). Generally, I find your blogs to be quite humorous and entertaining (that's why I read the blog).

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