The evolution of a tradition


While the practice of ashtanga yoga is firmly rooted in India, cultures across the globe have taken it to their hearts and continue to embrace its teachings. ‘Traditional ashtanga’ is a term often used by teachers and students so, as the practice spreads, what does it really mean to stay true to that tradition? With ashtanga gaining more devotees, are we entering a new phase in its evolution? Chris Patmore spoke to dedicated teachers and students Jeff and Harmony Lichty, Kia Naddermier and Mark Robberds to get their views.

The term ‘traditional ashtanga’ is used in different ways and can have different meanings. What’s your take on it?

Mark Robberds: One definition of ’tradition’ is something that is handed down from teacher to student, from generation to generation. I think this represents what ashtanga is in the traditional sense – it has been handed down through the generations, from Krishnamacharya to Pattabhi Jois to Sharath and now to us.

Harmony Lichty: It’s a hard term, ’traditional ashtanga yoga’. You could say it’s traditional if it is the way Sharath is teaching in Mysore right now. But others say the practice has evolved from how Guruji was teaching in the 80s, and more so the 70s. It’s really hard to say ‘this is traditional ashtanga yoga’. I like that David Swenson points out how much of the asana practice has stayed the same – this is huge! Perhaps there have been little changes here and there but in general it has largely stayed the same practice for decades. So I don’t know if we can really put it in a box with a stamp that says ‘this is traditional ashtanga yoga’.

So for asana, we’d do well to take our cue from Mysore. How about if we look further back and at a broader context..? 

Jeff Lichty: I think it is Patanjali yoga. This is the way I look at it – ashtanga yoga is Patanjali yoga. What we do daily on the mat is a specific asana practice that’s been given to us by Krishnamacharya, Guruji and now Sharath, and has largely stayed the same. But it’s still inserted into the bigger picture of ashtanga yoga, which includes the yamas and niyamas. To me this is really the most important part for us to be working on, those first four or five limbs. And with this asana, you can’t get a more thorough system. If you pursue it well, it’s going to open up a whole bunch of things. To me it’s Patanjali yoga. That’s what I’m interested in studying and that’s why I’m here in Mysore – it gives us this chance to practice.

MR: If we are talking about ashtanga yoga in the broader sense, we are talking about yoga according to Patanjali. So then it is something that goes back thousands of years.  I still believe that what we are doing here today is connected to that. If we keep thinking of ashtanga yoga in terms of the asana then it just becomes this strand, which is very limited. We have to think about it in terms of the whole lifestyle. When we come to Mysore and we see the way that Sharath is living his life, the way that he is, we learn a lot more about what the practice of ashtanga yoga really is – that it’s not just on the mat.

Kia Naddermier: I think we must be careful using the word ‘traditional’ as it’s often confused with fundamentalism. It’s important to remember that the ancient yogis were freedom thinkers – looking to free themselves from all boundaries. Yoga is first and foremost an experiential science, which has been developed over thousands of years and is built on just that – the yogi’s own experience. Yoga is not static – it’s organic and constantly evolving. Our own experience on the mat is part of the evolution of yoga. That doesn´t mean that we should disrespect the lineage or need to invent new yoga poses or styles to fit our liking. What it does mean is that within the practice we need to move with incredible gentleness and openness towards ourselves and our own experience in the practice – never forcing something upon us because of ‘tradition’, which would ultimately be to ignore the very fundament of all yoga practices being ahimsa – or non-harming.

There are also some interesting discussions around ashtanga as an ancient tradition and as a modern practice…

MR: These books have come out saying that ashtanga yoga is only something created by Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois in the twentieth century. When Guruji or Sharath have spoken about it, it’s a 5,000-year old tradition. We’re not just talking about what we are doing on the mat. It’s how that is connected to this lineage, this tradition. We can also look at the whole yogic tradition, not just in terms of Patanjali but also the Upanishads and the Baghavad Gita. Sharath indicates a lot when he talks about the Baghavad Gita and union of the jivatman, the individual self, with the paramatman, the universal self. Sharath usually defines yoga in two ways – the union of the jivatman with the paramatman, and Patanjali’s definition, yogas chitta vritti nirodhah – the ceasing of the fluctuations of the mind.

On one hand, there are students becoming more knowledgeable about higher levels of ashtanga yoga. On the other hand, yoga is becoming more popular in gyms where it is often presented as a form of exercise. Can these two approaches co-exist or are they forever going to be in conflict with each other? 

MR: I think they can co-exist. Cream rises to the top, right? As more people practice ashtanga, whether as an exercise form or something else, there will be those among that who will gravitate towards the deeper aspects of yoga. And good teachers will always be there to share that.

HL: I think it’s like a big funnel. They have to co-exist. So many people come to the practice for the physical benefits, or the stress relief, and as they start to experience their breath and their body something very subtle starts to change in them. Some will go a little deeper and see it as having a spiritual purpose. A lot of people will keep doing their practice as a workout once a week and keep it at that. Maybe they just want to stay limber. That’s where they are at and they are happy staying there – maybe they don’t really want to go deeper into a daily practice.

JL: Who of us can invalidate someone else’s experience? Eventually they all get here. That’s the interesting thing. They all get here. The really sincere seekers of yoga truth end up at really important places to study and practice. I’m not saying Mysore is the only place. I think there are other places. There is this very superficial level in some presentations of yoga. The word yoga has become very popular and the meaning has not kept up with the popularity. Probably if some people knew the real meaning they wouldn’t be interested in the yoga. So who’s to say which is better?

KN: I agree with Jeff, who can be the judge of someone else´s journey? What resonates with me may or may not at all resonate with someone else. One must always stay away from rigidity and a mind-set of ‘us and them’ in yoga. In the end the truth is One, although the methods are probably as many as there are souls on this planet.

HL: It’s a scary thing. If someone says to a student ‘come do this, it’s going to change you and transform your life – you’re going to become totally different’, the student might be resistant. Then some people start to taste that and they keep going further and further with it.

MR: There is something about this yoga that you can’t really put a finger on. I got an email from a 70-year old woman who I taught in 2007 expressing so much gratitude. It was a very touching email. It struck me that we don’t always know the way we’re affecting people and the change we can create – just by teaching what seems like asana on a physical level. How can you put that into words?

Does the progression from physical asana to broader aspects of yoga have to come from the student or the teacher? How much is from the teacher trying to guide the student in that direction? 

KN: I think that a student will choose a teacher who transmits whatever it is that particular individual is looking for. So naturally a person looking only for the health-benefits of yoga may not end up with the same teacher or method as someone ready to go beyond those aspects. As a teacher I try to be as open as possible with the little information I have, knowing that I wouldn´t have been given it in the first place if it wasn´t to share it with others.

MR: It’s not necessarily from the student. Sometimes a student will come to a workshop or a retreat and the teacher will share some deeper aspects and the student might not have realised they can get that.

HL: I think a lot of it has to be initiated from the student. I feel there has to be that desire and thirst, which comes from within the student, for deeper knowledge or experiences. When that’s there, the right teacher will show up to help them go further.

As amazing as a teacher might be, they can’t force somebody to yearn for that deeper experience. It has to be something that comes up naturally. Maybe they seek out the teacher or maybe the teacher has been there all along. There could be many scenarios. There’s no time limit – everyone is going at a different rate.

Mysore in India is the home and origin of the ashtanga tradition. It’s where Pattabhi Jois taught the practice and where his grandson Sharath continues to teach it today. This being the case, just how important is it for ashtanga students across the world to visit Mysore? 

JL: I think if you’re really deeply interested in what this practice is about, you go and connect with it at the source. It’s brilliant and things shift here for people. I think it’s really important – not necessary for everyone though. It’s something that people have to want. If they feel the calling, they should come.

HL: If they have an interest and they ask about it, they need to go. It’s amazing – I’ve seen students who come for their first time to Mysore and then they have a different understanding of the practice.

MR: It’s great if they can and if they can’t, it’s ok. David Swenson has said that Mysore is a state of mind, not just a place. I like that. I think you can access it through teachers that have been. To go for a month is a long time for some people.

KN: Again this is something that is completely individual. Pattabhi Jois said that ashtanga yoga is for everyone. I think that claiming one must visit Mysore to progress on the yogic path would be to make this yoga incredibly exclusive. There are so many people who are very sincere yoga practitioners but might not have the possibility nor the means to go to Mysore for the minimum one month.

We have to remember that this yoga was originally developed for householders – with families, full-time jobs and other responsibilities that might be just as honourable as someone else´s calling to go to Mysore. The roots of this particular method of yoga are definitely here and for some people it is a gift to experience – but it is not something we can take for granted as given to every sincere practitioner of ashtanga.

So for those who do visit Mysore, what’s the attraction and what do they get from it?  

MR: Practicing in India and practicing at the source – there’s something powerful about that. Being in the room with Sharath and with so many other dedicated practitioners – I find the energy is very calm and still but there’s this intensity.

It terms of developing anything in your life, whether it’s a talent in music or art, or it’s with yoga, you surround yourself with other people who have that same passion.

You can be with a teacher who is able to give you feedback and who will test you so you can develop. And you can be in an environment where you have discussions with other students, like we’re doing now, talking about the practice. We go all day thinking about what we’re going to eat, what time we’ll go to sleep – so all our focus is channelled into the practice.

JL:  It’s about the totality of yoga and this method of transmission. I’ve seen at the pool when they have kids’ swimming lessons, the Indian men would be tossing these kids in the water and yelling ‘move your arms’. And then you’ve got this context – this is how Guruji was taught! They just yell at you and you flail and you just do it. Sometimes we mystify this into some big puzzle. Just get in the pool and get swimming and you’re going to figure it out.

A final thought…

MR: For me, the spirit of the practice and the spirit of the teaching is more important than the method. I’ve seen when some people just focus on the method they get very dogmatic, which can be very exclusive and judgemental of everyone else. It’s like Sharath says in conference – why are we doing this? It’s about self-transformation. If you’re really teaching from the heart, that becomes your motivation to teach the method, rather than trying to be a fundamentalist.

If ashtangis can’t get along, what hope is there for the rest of the world?

This article was written for Le Yoga Shop, which supports Operation Shanti in Mysore India.  View the original article.