No complete beginners…

By on Jan 18, 2015 in The Unruly Ascetic

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I was recently involved in a retreat that advertised ‘All levels of Mysore welcome. No complete beginners to Ashtanga.’ The obvious discussion ensued…

What makes someone a “complete beginner” to Ashtanga?  

There are a lot of ways to pose and answer the ‘beginner’ question.  How does one determine their level of advancement in the practice?  Is it by postures earned?  By trips to Mysore?  By the number of classes attended?  Is it based on how stressed or calm we are when we walk into a Mysore room?

Yes and No; all of these and none of them.

I enjoy observing the ever present questioning of where we are in the practice. Regardless of what pose we are focused on or what series we do, the beginner’s mind is the most useful to learn with.  The practice is so beautiful and powerful because it will continually teach us to be open to new change and growth, new experiences and awareness.

But I digress; this is not meant to be about the beauty of the practice and the inherent ‘beginner’ in any dedicated student. This is going to be a somewhat pragmatic discussion of beginnerism as it applies to enrollment in classes or programs.

How do we know if we are beginners or not?  Especially when we’re out there in the Yoga culture of Youtube and Instagram and Lululemon.  Hell, I am not really sure anyone can be blamed for not knowing what Ashtanga is these days, let alone whether or not they’ve done it and therein lies the problem.  This method is misrepresented, and not the least by those who are most dedicated to it.

Ashtanga Yoga means nothing specific in itself.  Many other schools of yoga resent our commandeering of the name, knowing that it more specifically means the eight limbed path laid out by Patanjali, and most certainly not limited to a very specific series of movements and focus. All posture based yoga can arguably be called Ashtanga Yoga. This tends not to be that big of a problem because schools who call their practice ashtanga who are not in the Jois lineage usually broadcast pretty loudly that the name belongs to everyone. That needs to be acknowledged and set aside because I could go on calling it Jois Method Ashtanga Yoga but no one is really into that idea, as the now named Somina Foundation has proved.

So set aside the option to use the label Ashtanga (correctly) for any asana based practice. The name Ashtanga meaning jump-through-jump-back-take-no-prisoners-yoga is also very popular and there isn’t any sort of corporate enterprise interested in making sure that the label isn’t being used on a class that misrepresents what Jois Method Ashtanga Yoga is all about.

As authorised/certified teachers and studio supporters we try to do this police work ourselves and I think we can all agree we do a thoroughly shit job of it.

In the end gyms and vinyasa studios and YMCA’s offer “ashtanga yoga” classes that dumb down the intended practice by making it easier for the mind and body.  This bastardization of the series really used to eat me up.  As a beginner who suffered through these miserable movements I resented the students across town who patted themselves on the back for doing ‘ashtanga’ without ever really properly suffering.  Leaving out gateway postures like Marichasana D or Supta Kurmasana felt like missing the point. We’re supposed to have to confront the fact that we can’t do everything!  We are supposed to fail and have the fortitude to try again! How else is the practice going to do anything aside from feed a narcissistic desire to be told that we’re perfect just as we are?! Let’s just call it vinyasa so I can stop having a panic attack and go back to being able to say we’re both right.

I recently realized that I have an even bigger issue with the misrepresentation of Ashtanga than leaving postures out of the series.  It is so obvious that I took it for granted as a inevitable evil, something that will exist and be perpetuated by the well (and not so well) intended as long as this practice lasts (meaning: forever). It lies at the very root of the misunderstanding over what makes a student of ashtanga out of a complete beginner: guided classes.

So here’s my answer in all of its unpopular glory:  until you begin the practice in a mysore style setting (under the guidance of a teacher) you are a complete beginnerThere is no such thing as experienced in ashtanga but beginner to mysore.  

I think it is possible to overcome the beginner nature of the mind and body through self practice without the guidance of a teacher, though this is very challenging and somewhat unadvisable. I will also happily and readily admit that someone can go from complete beginner to a reasonably competent practitioner quite quickly. Sometimes led classes can train the body to adapt to the work of mysore style easily, but a guided class often masks or avoids the real work of the practice.

Ashatanga Yoga is not only the jumping and stretching.  It is not a vague familiarity with the course of movements that make up the series, an ability to follow directions. Ashtanga yoga is about the personal drive and motivation to train your mind to know how to drag (lift) your body through the practice without someone else telling you to do it.  This mental, often emotional work is the single hardest thing about the practice. Until you have learned how to do that, no matter how flexible you are or how high you can lift, you are a complete beginner.

Memorizing the sequence and a minimum of the details of the asanas is extremely challenging for most new students and a legitimate part of the learning process. From the teaching perspective, if a student is not able to begin their practice and carry on to the appropriate stopping point without instruction then they are a beginner. There is no shame in that. We all had to start (and stop) somewhere. It takes a nearly excessive amount of attention and commitment from the teacher to aid a beginner on the path of Ashtanga (as any seasoned practitioner who has had their teacher’s time swallowed up by an impatient new student can attest to). This is the pragmatic reality of the mental process of the practice that guided class students often neglect to acknowledge.  Without realizing what is not being asked of them, guided class students don’t know what they don’t know. The mental and emotional responsibility of a self led practice is harder work than any count a teacher can set. Challenging oneself to show up day after day and repeat and repeat, knowing what has to be faced can be harder than any posture. This is the real work of the practice and where we truly learn.

I am aware that this is a potentially unpopular attitude.  Many people “do ashtanga” regularly without participating in mysore style practices. People dislike being told that they wont be able to understand something without applying a seemingly excessive effort. I love this practice and I have been influenced by people whose dedication and personal transformations have been utterly awe inspiring. I will accept my place in the Ashtanga snob hall of fame for saying that the work of the practice can not be usefully accessed if only approached in your average weekly guided class.

Stretching and pressing and lifting are useful tools, but not really important.  The real learning comes from what we face within our own hearts and minds when no one is guiding us through it.  It is in those moments of personal struggle and perseverance that the practice changes and teaches us.  Until that work is faced head on, alone, in the thunderous space of your own mind, you are a complete beginner.