Rediscovering my Ashtanga Yoga Practice
Always a Student
After more than 20 years of practicing and teaching in the Ashtanga tradition, I recently began to struggle with the development of modern Yoga. One reason was the evolution of a "Yoga market," taken over by "Insta-babes " posing in bikinis and promoting new inventions - one more commercial than the other.
Another reason was the increasing pain in my hips and lower back, which made me doubt my practice. Was it really healthy, or was it due to my vigorous Ashtanga practice that all of the "rusty spots" in my body had teamed up, bothering me to the extent that I didn't really enjoy the asanas anymore? Hence, I was (however reluctantly) questioning the benefits of my own practice and also of teaching it to other people.
Landing in Italy, I didn't know what to expect. I had embarked on a 2-week workshop with my old teacher John Scott, with whom I had done a teacher training "back in the day" when everything was easy and I truly enjoyed Ashtanga Yoga. Now, 10 years later, John was the straw that my aching body and I were clinging to.
When John welcomed us, I first noticed that my teacher had become a bit older and thinner. It was as if he himself was "condensed" into the core Yoga-body with nothing superfluous. He had, it seemed, equally condensed and refined his teaching taking a deliberate choice to depart from whatever the "current Ashtanga world" was doing - and base his teaching on how he interpreted his teacher, Pattabhi Jois. He never doubted for a moment that the intention of his guru had been to teach a logical and wholesome sequence. John's intention, however, was for his student to unravel the relationship of the asanas to the functionality of their bodies.
The base line with John had always been functionality. Under the motto "form follows function" he had searched for the underlying principles and mechanics of the Ashtanga Yoga sequence, drawing from a long-time collaboration with anatomy teachers and body workers as well as his own research into the developmental patterns of infants. With regards to functionality, he made no compromises, and rather than fussing about the external shape of the asanas, he would teach their core mechanics. Mindfulness in the movements rather than automatic repetition of the familiar became the key.
Could it be as simple as the fact that the same basic functional patterns by which a child learns to lift its head, crawl and stand up is no different from how we develop through our practice? When you understand a movement pattern, or rather when it becomes conscious and explicit, you are re-aligned with yourself, tapping into the body's own logical understanding the way we were meant to move. Then you have infinite possibilities at hand, of shifting into different shapes and different minds. Our western bodies, however, are conditioned and hardened (due to cultural habits such as sitting in chairs and using computers), meaning we have lost much of our range of movement. Could Yoga simply be a way of re-discovering our freedom to move naturally?
"Never give up what you got from your teacher," I thought to myself. The duty of the student is to develop and interpret what he learns on a deeper and deeper level. There is no such thing as blind repetition - what actually works will develop organically through testing. This is the secret to any living tradition.
Every practice, when it enters the western hemisphere, has been interpreted according to the western mind and the western way of living. There is a fine balance of keeping the genuine core of the practice, and still interpreting, but the test has always been "does it function or not" - i.e., does it improve our lives and decrease the physical, mental and emotional conditioning we are ensnared in?
After two weeks with John, I felt as if my faith in the Ashtanga method was renewed and my commitment to teach was firm as ever: "Dare to be different " I thought, and teach the Ashtanga method the way it was meant to be! Teach it as a one-on-one practice and pay attention to the body's natural range of movement. Weeding out a few bad habits myself, my back was also a lot better and I can again see myself as an Ashtanga Yoga teacher for the decades to come!
Join Ellen for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to walk the path of ancient Yogis in Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.