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Ashtanga Yoga -
Understanding the Method
Ashtanga Yoga according to Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, the “mother” of all dynamic yoga styles, has the reputation to be almost exclusively asana-focused and very rigorous. Its teachers are semi-gods that will stop their students from practising if they don´t like what they see. Only the best and the bravest can hope to make it at least through the first out of many series of asanas in ascending difficulty. Is this actually true? We have asked Manju Pattabhi Jois, the most experienced active practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga Yoga on the planet.Many thanks to Tom Hoppel, Budapest for his support.
Shri Manju Pattabhi Jois
Thomas: Shri Manju Pattabhi Jois, you are a yoga practitioner and teacher, born in India and now living in California with your family. You initiated your yoga studies with your father (Shri K. Pattabhi Jois) at the age of seven years, and you started assisting him in his shala in Mysore at the age of fifteen.
You have about fifty years of practising and teaching Ashtanga Yoga, holding a certification from the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore. You were already teaching for decades before your style of yoga spread to the West. And you know the western mind and approach to life very well. You are truly an authority concerning this style of yoga, someone that can bring light into darkness.
Manju, the opening chant of the Ashtanga Yoga practice expresses devotion to Patanjali and the teachings of the yoga sutras:
Om Vande gurunaam charaanara vinde / Sandarshita svaatma sukhaava bhodeh / Nih shreyase jaangalikaayamaane / Samsaara haalaahala mohashaantyai // Aabaahu purushaakaaram / Shankha chakraasi dhaarinam / Sahasra shirasam shvetam / Pranamaami patanjalim / Om.
(En.: I bow to the lotus feet of the guru awakening the happiness of ones own self revealed (…). To Patanjali (…) I salute..)
What is originally the purpose of this asana (posture) and pranayama (breath control) practice?
Manju: Asana is to maintain health and a strong body. Pranayama is to keep your respiratory system in working order. Asana and pranayama are part of the eightfold path (ashtau anga). They are not just a physical exercise. They are a means to keep people in a healthy condition for the practice of dhyana (meditation). They support people in their physical, mental and spiritual development.
Thomas: Are we Westerners perhaps misunderstanding this?
Manju: Perhaps you haven´t found a good teacher.
Thomas: Why was your father (Shri K. Pattabhi Jois) not teaching theory?
Manju: My father knew all these old teachings. He used to teach theory but now there are so many students and they are usually only interested in learning asana, not in the philosophy. It became a fashion to go to Mysore and study with my father but people don´t ask for theory. So he focused on teaching asana. If you practise asana, you will change, physically and mentally.
Thomas: Let us shed some more light on the relation of this practice with health aspects and the purpose of the yoga practice in general. I myself have been injured by a poorly trained and over-ambitious Ashtanga yoga teacher. I have seen many students with torn muscles, tendons or ligaments and I do know of students that needed medical treatment after their adjustments. What do you think of such teachers that try to adapt students to the ideal picture of the asana, if the body is ready or not?
Manju: The practice should be adapted to the yogi(ni) – not the other way round. There are many unexperienced teachers out there. It is important to help people in the postures but when you are looking for a teacher, find out about his background. You have to be very careful.
Thomas: Many people seem to believe that Ashtanga Yoga is about contortion and handstands and that the best teachers must be the ones that can put their feet onto their shoulders, like in a Chinese circus. What do you think of that?
Manju: That is not true. Breath, bandhas and focus are the actual core elements of this practice. Being a contortionist isn´t what it takes to be a great teacher. You must have the right mind.
Thomas: Many teachers here in Germany think that Ashtanga Yoga has to be very rigorous. If a student “fails” in one asana, these teachers will stop him, not letting him progress in the practice even if he can do all the asanas that follow in the series (perhaps he will never know). What do you think of that?
Manju: A teacher that is stopping you is a bad teacher. The teacher has to encourage the students, give them another posture to try. There is always a workaround. A teacher must like to give. Knowledge has no ending. This is how I have learned as a boy and what I have taught afterwards.
Manju as a Boy in Mysore in the 1950s
Thomas: How was it
taught originally by your father at his yoga school in Mysore?
Manju: It was not at all like this before. My father loved to teach. He loved to move people forward. But there are now too many students. It is hard to give attention to so many people. My father originally gave constant supervision but it all became too big. He had to introduce rules. For young teachers with only a handful of students a different approach is appropriate.
Thomas: What do you
think of teachers in the west that feel entitled to stop practitioners, that
just do not share information or do not give modifications to students?
Thomas: Do such
teachers put their ego above the progress of their students?
Manju: We should give modifications. That is what a good teacher can give to his students, modifications.
Thomas: In old pictures of yoga schools in India, the students are boys or young men. The Ashtanga asana practice does seem to be adequate for strong young persons. But if we understand the asana practice as a means to promote health, it seems that especially older or infirm people could benefit the most from it. Can this marvellous system of asana and pranayama be practised also by persons that are not strong and not 20 years old?
Manju: Yes. All people can practise. Old, sick – anyone can practise. Once you start, you will have a benefit.
Thomas: Is it legal to modify poses for persons that practise with determination but simply have a certain handicap?
Manju: Yes, always modify to help people enjoy postures. The teacher must put this into action.
Thomas: When I watched Indian students practise Ashtanga Yoga asana, they seemed to be a lot less concerned about perfection and more “relaxed”. Many Westerners think they “work harder”. Do they miss the point of the practice?
Manju: Yes. They (the Westerners) kill themselves. They push too much. This is a confused attitude.
Thomas: From what you tell us, it seems that there was a big change in the style of teaching Ashtanga Yoga since the 1970s. What happened to it in the 1980s, 1990s?
Manju: It all has to do with supervision. When my father and I came to the USA in 1975, we taught asana, pranayama and chanting to a handful of students. But today, it is hard to give so many people attention. Anyone can put down their carpet. My father gave constant supervision originally but it all became too big. He had to introduce stricter rules.
Vidwan Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, Shri Manju Pattabhi Jois
at the Ashtanga Yoga Nilaya in Mysore
Thomas: My question also referred to another aspect. Do you think that the Western students
gradually turned Ashtanga Yoga into a circus art in Mysore, with Western egos
trying to top each other, competing, trying to prove themselves and earn
respect by, e. g., incorporating postures from the Advanced Series like
handstands into the Primary Series?
Manju: Yes. Those that came in after 1985 don´t know what they are doing. Many of those that came in later are brainwashers and ego trippers that love to control others.
Thomas: What do you think of Western teachers that say that they (or their respective Western master) are the ones that teach the “real”, “authentic”, “pure” Ashtanga Yoga and put others down?
Manju: They are all wrong. Please stay away from those types of characters that put others down. They won´t succeed.
Thomas: Is there
something else that you as a genuine Indian Ashtanga Yoga master would like to
tell us western students?
Quotations, even in extracts, not permissible unless our written approval has been obtained.
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