Correct Method?

By on Aug 26, 2015 in The Unruly Ascetic

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For anyone who hasn’t checked out Ashtanga Dispatch this week, here’s a repeat for you…

Hey, you know what people like to argue about?  The different ways Ashtanga teachers progress students through asana. The world is full of opinions and blanket judgements on what is “correct method.” I figured I’d throw my rooster into the fight.

I have read (and been told) that some old-guard teachers will allow their students to determine for themselves how far they should practice.  If students want new postures, they can do new postures. This is an extremely mature and generous technique. It takes for granted that students have enough sense to know when they should scale back the work they’re asking their body and mind to do (or at least that the practice will communicate it to them and they will be tuned in enough to listen).

As a student with very little sense (and having met many like me), I am dubious of this technique.

I love the idea that student’s can be personally responsible for making appropriate choices for themselves. There is certainly something to be said for our ability to make better choices when actually given the freedom to do so. The trouble is that much of the time we can not safely (or productively) judge when enough is enough. We often don’t know the intended lesson of a posture or section of the practice while we are enmeshed in the work of it.  We may genuinely feel that we are doing all the necessary work and can proceed forward when this is not the best course of action.

In response to this potential, the new school of teaching follows that students defer to the Teacher to be the judge and jury and dictate what practice they should do. The western mind is trained toward ambition and validation and it can cloud our judgement in the practice, regardless of how sincere or humble our intentions are. I assume the theory is that we will be more productive and safer if we are given clear guidelines for what work to prioritize.

This was the method I was originally taught under (not knowing that an alternative was available), and I liked it, in a masochistic sort of way. I grew up in the typical 1980s American atmosphere that taught kids that they were each unique and important, that we could be anything and everything and we are entitled to work hard toward anything that interested us.  This squared itself nicely with the average American Yoga class where I was told I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t like and that everything I did was magical and perfect just because I tried.

Ashtanga Yoga doesn’t really jive with that philosophy. In the realm of asana we focus not on gratifying our personal sense of importance, but rather on steadying our unyielding self interest to focus it on where we actually are and what work is necessary for improvement. The work of asana is geared toward personal responsibility and honesty.

I suspect that the western-ego-mind is so strongly driven toward accumulation and validation that we are often unable to determine what work has or has not been established before taking on new tasks.  We have a drive to move forward for the sake of moving forward, turning away from or refusing to acknowledge work that we have not done, or can not (yet) do. Rather than face our shortcomings head on we would rather move on to something different and pad our resume, as it were, with whole series ‘completed’ despite some pretty gaping holes somewhere along the line.

I understand that this is a brutal, if not downright negative perspective (but I gave up making friends via my writing a couple of years ago).  I have observed that this is a pretty standard phase that practitioners go through in the first ten or so years of practice.  I am certain that it is not the intention of most practitioners to relate to the practice in this way, it is simply human nature (or at best societal conditioning) to want to focus on what we’re good at. I know this is true for at least some people because it has been true for me.

I am a shining example of a student with bad judgement.  I would have made very different choices for myself than Sharath made for me.  I ran the gamut of emotions concerning my 3 year wait at Dwi Pada. Being stopped (again and again) hurt my feelings and made me feel like a failure.  I have seen students behave as if offended or discriminated against when stopped (fairly and reasonably) at a posture they struggled with. Sometimes we are missing the point of a posture, we don’t know what we don’t know, and begin to lean toward an entitlement to more or different work. It was through being stopped that I realized the only way to learn was to be honest with myself about how much I didn’t know. It took years for me to admit to myself what I didn’t know. I was definitely trying to stretch farther, but it wasn’t until I honestly faced the gaping holes of knowledge and ability in my practice that things began to change.  When I was able to be truly honest with myself about what I could or couldn’t do I began to realize that I have potential to do ANYTHING.  Nothing is magic and nothing is off limits.  If we observe where we are, free of value judgements or attachment, then we can move forward and upward.

I needed my teachers to decide when it was time to really face this work.  I fought the decision and moped and cried and struggled and eventually realized that all the emotional, mental turmoil wasn’t going to change anything.  The only possible solution was to be patient and persistent and to start where I was.

It is pretty easy to criticize this old-guard teaching method of let-them-eat-cake.  If we are inherently ego driven beings, then our ego will drive us to make bad choices. I have seen it in students who have worked with some of these very majestic and impressive teachers: they practice whole sections or series beyond postures they struggle with and don’t understand why it isn’t coming together.  The obvious answer is not that they are somehow unique and special, it is simply that they got distracted by other (arguably more interesting or validating but potentially counterproductive) work.

But I’m not here to say the way I was taught is better, because it’s not.  After 6 years of deferring to the authority of a severe Teacher I found myself incapable of trusting my own judgement.  Everything I learned, from my own work and my own body, required the approval and validation of my teachers before I could trust it. This dependence on my teachers is probably (I suspect) about as dangerous as blindly forging ahead and refusing to face the work my body doesn’t understand.

Additionally, I am also finding, via feedback from students and teachers alike, that there is a bit of an epidemic of dictatorial Ashtanga Teachers.  Students who take on the role of instructor and are overzealous in asserting their power over their student’s practices.  There seems to be an army of western teachers doing their best Sharath impressions repeating “you stop!’ and “you do!” and ‘you come!’ and expecting that to be enough to guide their students.

Here’s my opinion (I’m assuming if you got this far, you’re interested): It doesn’t matter if your teacher stops you or if you stop yourself.  It doesn’t matter if your teacher lets you do more than mine would, or if you take on more postures than your teacher advises.  Postures are stupid.  Who cares how far you can stretch or how high you can lift? Not me.

What matters is why you are getting on your mat and what you are looking for.  The teacher’s role is not to give or take away postures, the teacher’s role is to hold the space for you to do the work of the practice.  

I imagine that those old-guard teachers have daily students who they have fostered a relationship with based on honest, vulnerable communication.  They can allow their students the freedom to take on poses because they know they can trust them to do intelligent work while seeking guidance when needed.

As a new-school teacher I set boundaries for my students, but I am constantly questioning them on their goals, their experiences, what they learn on their mats.  I want, more than anything, for them to be more interested in the process of learning than in the accumulation of postures.

If someone is collecting poses I will stop giving them, even if the body is working fine.  If someone is interested and humble in their work I may let them play with things that haven’t physically ‘earned’ yet.  Some people don’t like me for requiring this work.  They come to make shapes and I tend not to congratulate that, so they don’t practice with me.  No problem.  It is more important to find a teacher who inspires you toward honesty and deep personal investigation. The right teacher will attract the right students. There’s no catch-all, ‘correct’ method.

What it boils down to is communication.  The method a teacher uses for guiding a student through asanas should be based on cultivating a vulnerability and honesty that will be grounding and humbling in every aspect of life, for the teacher and the student. That’s what I find to be the most rewarding thing about teaching this practice.

Ashtanga gets a bad rap for being too physical and too strict and too negative, but those of us who have dedicated ourselves to it know that the physical difficulty, the discipline, the ‘no’ of the practice is what brings out the best in us.  We are not permitted to look away from our faults and our weaknesses, nor are we expected to accept them.  The practice requires us to look at ourselves and acknowledge where we are without value judgements or attachment, while patiently and persistently doing the work to become better, kinder, stronger people.

The practice requires us to be honest with ourselves about where we are, while asking us where we want to be.  Our teachers help us to take steps down the path of growth, whether they let us run pellmell until we fall or carefully hold our hands. If you have a teacher who guides you toward the freedom that comes from honest work, relish in that and be happy.

It will be enough.