Thursday, December 20, 2012

On being Ashtangi

Recently, somebody in the blogosphere announced on his/her blog that he/she is no longer referring to himself/herself as an Ashtangi, ostensibly because he/she has outgrown the label.

This has led me to think and reflect on the label "Ashtangi", and its relation to this bundle of bones, muscles, skin, and nerve endings that I call "me." First, I don't think I'm big on labels myself. But it is a fact of the matter that for the past couple of years, this particular bone/muscle/skin/nerve endings bundle has been putting itself daily through that sequence of postures known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, as taught by a couple of other bone/muscle/skin bundles known as Sharath Jois and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and as transmitted to this bundle by yet other bundles that are conventionally known as PJ Heffernan and Kino MacGregor (in conventional, everyday language, I call these last two bundles my "teachers").

Now, if you find the above description extremely tedious, that's kind of the point I'm making. Rather than go to the trouble of repeating this long tedious description just to be accurate about what I want to say every single time I describe my practice to people, I have decided that since the labels "Ashtangi" and "Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga" apply to what I am doing (to the best of my knowledge), I'll just happily call myself an Ashtangi. Which is basically a short-hand for that long tedious description above. In my more facetious moments, I have also called myself an Ashtanga Fundamentalist, although that is not, strictly speaking, true, since I do not do things like smear cow dung on the floor of my practice room.

I'm trying to recall the first time I self-identified as an Ashtangi. Very interestingly, this only happened about a year after I first went to PJ's shala in Milwaukee. Just before I left Milwaukee, in a moment of casual narcissism, I casually remarked to a couple of shala-mates that I had never seen myself in backbends before (no big mystery here; can you actually see yourself doing, say, a dropback or Kapotasana when you are doing said poses?). In response, one of them decided to take pictures of me in said backbends during practice (yeah, I know, big, big drishti violation...). A few weeks later, she sent me the pictures in an email with the subject heading "Ashtangi". As cheesy as this might sound, I had an "aha" moment when I saw that subject heading. A voice in my head was going, "Ah... so I am an Ashtangi!" And I decided that there are worse things I could be calling myself. So I decided to call myself an Ashtangi from that point on whenever I talk about my yoga practice.

I think the moral of the story here is this: We define ourselves in relation to how others see us. Labels, temporary though they may be, serve a useful conventional function, by helping us situate ourselves in relation to the world. By being willing to call myself an "Ashtangi", I situate myself in such a way that I identify more with the practices and, perhaps, the worldviews of a particular group of people, and less with the practices and worldviews of other groups of people. And this labeling is only necessary because we live in a world that is filled with other people some of whom we share certain things in common with, others with whom we share other things. And in response to how we see ourselves in relation to these others (which, in turn, is shaped by how these others see us in relation to them), we decide to adopt or not adopt particular labels. I mean, if I were the only person in this world practicing this particular sequences of postures (say, if I were to somehow spontaneously discover these postures for myself), would I still need to label myself an Ashtangi? Probably not. I might label myself something else (maybe call these postures "Nobel Gymnastics", and call myself a "Nobel Gymnast"...), but that's a whole other story.      

Long story short, I guess what I'm trying to say is that we choose labels for ourselves in relation to how others perceive us. And that's not a bad thing. That's just the way the world works. I may not be an "Ashtangi" forever: There may come a day when, for whatever reason, I just don't want to identify with the label "Ashtangi" and whatever is associated with it anymore. And that's also okay. Because that's also the way the world works. Labels come, labels go. That's life.     


  1. The idea of labels is interesting when applied to a practice. I remember being in art school, and how people wrestled with whether they were "really" artists; then in grad school, people wrestled with whether they were "really" writers. Now the same thing with "am I am Ashtangi"?

    My personal answer to this question: if you have a devoted daily practice of art-making/writing/practice, you are an artist/writer/yoga-school-of-your-choice-name.

    It's not about what you *are* -- it's about what you *do*.

  2. Some people identify themselves by their profession. It's common in the west for people to ask what you do and then make assumptions about class, wealth, education etc based on the answer. Ashtangi kind of levels the playing field, everyone has faced the same doubts and struggles on the mat. I have met many people now who I would not have otherwise come in to contact with, knowing them first as fellow ashtangi's and as people, not for what they do to pay for the class. As someone for whom Ashtanga has been such a positive addition to my life and not having a profession as such, I like the label Ashtangi. Though explaining it to "Muggles" is another matter!

    1. I think Ashtanga definitely levels the playing field, at least if one does not take asana accomplishment or whether one is authorized or certified or has been to Mysore as indicators of status within the community. I know, we're not supposed to, but that does not prevent it from happening...

      But I do agree with you that "Ashtangi" is not such a bad label to have, especially considering the kinds of labels that Muggles often slap on one another...

  3. I recently took a workshop w Kino MacGregor in London and I have to say that I have never encountered a more self-obsessed, narcissistic person in my entire life. Her whole "I love shopping and short shorts and dying my hair blond" is a desperate cover up for an extremely disturbed individual.

    I do believe she will reach the level of fame she is seeking and it will come in a way that reflects the self obsessed narcissism she exudes.