musings on transnational teaching and learning of modern yoga
“When you look for an authority to lead you to spirituality, you are bound automatically to build an organisation around that authority. By the very creation of that organisation, which, you think will help this authority to lead you to spirituality, you are held in a cage.” Jiddu Krishnamurti, 1928
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what is yoga today?
The practice and state of yoga can be defined in many ways, but in the last eighty years it could be described as a psycho-physical discipline for controlling and cleaning/clearing the mind (with dristhi, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana), the body and our actions (with asana, yamas and niyamas), the breath and nervous system (with pranayama). This enables us to attain a ‘one-pointed focus’ whilst making us physically and mentally strong, flexible, balanced, courageous, healthy, humble, respectful and kind, which can then lead to the state of yoga (the unblocking of that which causes ‘dis’ ease, so that we experience stillness, inner calm, joy, mind control, sense control, emotional control, breath control and a higher state of conscious awareness). Sound vibration (mantra) can also be used to stimulate internal awareness and resonance, which focuses the mind, breath and concentration. Yoga is a state of mind, a method of redefining the mind, so that we can transform our false self (ego), connect to something that is bigger than us and discover our True Self. It is a way of being, a philosophical and spiritual practice that removes disturbances in the mind, the body, the breath and fills us with kindness, steadiness and joy. Yoga is a practice for everyone.
why do we practise?
The mind and body are not separate entities. Mistaken intellect, negative thoughts or emotions such as anger, trauma, grief, frustration, jealousy, blame etc, create tension and psychosomatic blocks in our physical, mental and energetic bodies and compromise our immune system, as well as our mental and physical health. By detoxifying and releasing repressed, stagnant energy through the practice of yoga asanas (postures), controlled breathing and mental focus, we can enjoy optimum physical, mental and emotional health. Yoga is a tool for making life a bit easier, which promotes heightened physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, cleaner living and purer thinking. It is about feeling connected, finding inner peace and harmony and having a rhythmic flow of energy and awareness. It is a practice for making space in the mind, the body and the breath. Yoga creates inner strength, resilience, courage, focus and self-sufficiency. It develops clear communication channels and awareness, so that blockages are eliminated and truth is revealed (rather than misunderstanding, confusion, mental agitation and illusion/delusion). Yoga works on different aspects of our personality: the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual. When it is working we feel ordinary, normal, connected and happy (as it brings us back to our natural state: our True Self). When it is not happening we feel extraordinary, superior, entitled, disconnected or agitated (as the false self/ego dominate).
who was Krishnamacharya?
Born in 1888, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya learned scriptures, chanting, asana, pranayama, therapeutic uses of yoga and the Patanjalayogashastra from yogi Ramamohan Bramachari in the Himalayas, in the early 1900s. Yoga asana (connecting with the breath, physical and energetic bodies, whist concentrating), was not commonly practised in India during British Rule and was generally undertaken by ascetics who lived on the fringes of society. Considered to be the founder of modern yoga practice (and the architect behind Ashtanga vinyasa) , Krishnamacharya shared hatha yoga (asana, pranayama, dharana) with people in the cities, by dazzling audiences with displays of complicated yoga postures. At the request of the Maharaja of Mysore, he taught Indian Brahmin boys at the Maharaja’s Sanskrit College (incorporating Sanskrit chants into their practice), before running a shala at the Jaganmohan Palace.
Students of Krishnamacharya have suggested that his teaching style was strict and harsh. If he was taught in this way and this method was his only experience of teaching and learning in India, then a strict and harsh approach might have been accepted in those days. A few of my close Indian friends have shared their experiences of learning in Indian schools and said that praise was never offered, complete obedience expected, they lived in fear of the stick or humiliation and that asking questions was not permitted.
We can see from photos that Krishnamacharya stood on students and Mr Iyengar recalls a time when he was pushed downwards into hanumansana. There isn’t much evidence in Hatha yoga texts of physical assists prior to his teaching, so presumably this technique evolved with the development of modern hatha yoga. It is also possible that if communication channels were blocked, then the physical adjustments might have been used to convey instructions.
Krishnamacharya’s approach to teaching evolved with time and experience and his ideas about who could practise yoga changed too. In 1938 he received his first female Western student Indra Devi (a Swedish Russian friend of the Maharaja of Mysore). His realisation that many Brahmin men were becoming interested in business, meant that he needed to teach women, to continue sharing the practice. After partition, when the patronage of his palace shala ceased, Krishnamacharya moved to Chennai, where he focused on bespoke practices for the individual and curing ailments of men and women of all ages.
what was the role of religious practice in yoga for Krishnamacharya?
Bhakti yoga (of devotion), Karma yoga (of selfless action), Jnana yoga (of correct knowledge) and Raja yoga (of the mind and meditation) are described in the Mahabharata and other sacred Hindu texts. Devotional practices incorporating puja, rituals, chanting, worshiping and giving offerings to gods/deities, were part of Krishnamacharya’s Hindu heritage. He stressed that yoga could serve any faith or belief system. Yoga is a spiritual practice, which involves personal experience, effort and connection.
what is a guru?
Traditionally in India, certain types of knowledge were personally transmitted through oral teaching from guru to student (usually male). Often the pupil would live at the home of his guru and serve him with obedience and devotion. In the ancient Indian epics (such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana), the guru brings light to concepts which are important for spiritual progress, as well as life eg dharma, duty, devotion, faith, the art of warfare, values in life and questions about death.
Today, a guru is considered to be a teacher with expertise (and a wealth of experience) in a certain field: a trusted guide who helps the student discover the same potentialities that he/she has already realised. He/she can also be a spiritual mentor, encouraging the student to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth by leading them from the darkness into the light (so freeing the disciple from ignorance).
why worship an enlightened spiritual master?
In traditional Hindu culture, prostrating before someone older and wiser is a sign of respect. Strict obedience, not questioning their instructions, gift giving and seva might be expected. Performing puja to deities or images of deceased gurus (using incense, kumkuma, garlands, candles and offerings) is a traditional part of Hindu life.
what is paramapara?
Also known as guru-shishya, parampara is a Vedic concept which involves the succession of passing on knowledge from guru to disciple, via lineage. It develops devotion to and commitment to a subject, patience, discipline, humility, obedience and understanding of a tradition. The journey takes a long time and requires faith, trust and connection between student and guru.
are there any challenges with this approach?
If unquestioning, obsequious behaviour is expected of (or performed by) the student, there is potential for draconian or controlling conduct from the guru which may (or may not) suppress the growth of the individual. It is helpful to understand the tradition and to resolve any cultural or language barriers, so that impeccable communication channels, respect, equality, empowering the individual and developing the student’s self-sufficiency can manifest.
what is the value of the guru-student relationship?
To learn a discipline, art or craft directly from one who has mastered it, understands it and has the skills to effectively share their knowledge with a receptive student, is invaluable. It can speed up the learning process, avoid potential misunderstanding or harm, preserve the integrity of the discipline and give guidance when questions arise. If the student commits to learning from one teacher, potential confusion that can arise from having several influences might be eliminated. An egalitarian relationship is probably most effective for facilitating balanced learning, whilst still allowing the discipline to be respected.
would Western disciples ever blindly follow a guru?
There have been instances in the last few decades of unquestioning devotion and trust of Indian gurus by Westerners (Osho for example), doing precisely what the guru has suggested, even though he may know very little about the student’s cultural background and circumstances.
Kumare was a character created by an American Indian documentary filmmaker who posed as an Indian guru in America and created a devoted following of Westerners, to satirise blind-faith following (or perhaps to demonstrate of the power of belief and faith!)
In the context of yoga, some Western students (possibly unwittingly), ape their teachers and adopt cultural customs and perhaps even change their lives because of what a guru might have said in the moment. Many of us have experienced students mimicking their guru’s teaching style, phrases, accent, attire, mannerisms and shalas, possibly with the belief that what their guru says and does is right and this is how a yoga teacher should be (and that this is the most spiritual way).
is guru-shishya relevant in yoga today?
Given that the teaching of modern yoga has developed so dramatically over the last few decades and that nature of being a student has evolved too, the traditional relationship between guru and student, has modernised. The practice of contemporary yoga is no longer limited to a few people in India, of Hindu faith, who have a close relationship with their teacher. It is now transnational, for everyone, in every culture, in all walks of life. There are heaps of styles of yoga asana to suit all needs, ages, personalities and beliefs. Therefore it is probably unnecessary to mix other cultural practices into the discipline of yoga (and terms such as paramapara or guru-shishya in today’s context, might also be a question of semantics).
should a non-Indian student apply the same terminology used in India?
For effective communication of asanas, using their recognised Sanskrit names is practical and when discussing the subject of yoga, using universally accepted Sanskrit words is helpful. It may be amiss to extend this to appropriating traditional Indian cultural practices (such as adding ‘ji’ to the end of a Western yoga teacher’s name for example).
is it necessary to prostrate to a guru?
If it is part of ones culture and feels appropriate it may be acceptable. A natural recognition or thank you at the end of class, may feel suitably respectful.
should Hindu icons, deities and photos of gurus be in a yoga shala?
This really depends on the context and what’s culturally and personally appropriate. For a traditional Hindu in India it may feel natural to have these in the shala, but for a Westerner in the West, a simple clear space might be more felicitous.
can we adopt Krishnamurti’s ideas when teaching and learning yoga?
Born in 1895, Jiddu Krishnamurti was an Indian thinker, writer and teacher with a passion for inquiry and pursuit of truth. He explored the nature of human consciousness and the possibility of its transformation through inquiry and insight. He believed that if people could learn to see how they are conditioned by race, nationality, religion, tradition and beliefs, they will discover for themselves how to be fully intelligent human beings. He taught that as soon as we depend on leaders, we become weak. Having no allegiance to nationality, caste, religion, or philosophy, his sentiment was to radically change mankind by empowering the individual to be free.
Perhaps if we embrace Krishnamurti’s invitation to take responsibility for our individual being and harmonise that with the skills that we can learn from an experienced teacher, we can achieve a balanced approach to human development and to be ourselves. It should be possible to honour a discipline and practice, whilst not pretending to be something that we are not.
how can one prepare to share the practice of modern yoga today?
Yoga is a discipline that requires decades of perseverance, patience, dedication, determination, focus, effort and skill. It works wonders when done correctly, systematically, respectfully and consistently, therefore mastering and understanding the art and practice of yoga is paramount and then learning and cultivating the craft of teaching, guiding, supporting and inspiring will follow naturally (if it is in the practitioner’s path).
what was Pattabhi Jois’s requirement for sharing Ashtanga asana?
To receive Certification to teach (from late 1990s), the minimum requirement was thirty six months of study with Pattabhi Jois over at least eight years, completion of no less than the Primary, Intermediate and Advanced A Series to an acceptable level, demonstration of and understanding of yoga and having the qualities to share the method as it is. Some of us were well into the Advanced B Series before Jois deemed us ready to share the method. You have to feel what’s happening in a posture, physically, energetically and mentally before sharing it. This take years of daily practice to experience and understand. For Authorisation, Pattabhi Jois expected students to have completed (with proficiency) at least the Primary and Intermediate Series over twelve months of study with him, across four years. Students were required to return every eighteen months to continue learning and to renew their Authorisation.
how can the teaching of yoga evolve to suit current times?
It is enriching to have an understanding of the context, as well as respect and experience of the culture from where yoga evolved. I feel incredibly blessed to have learned the Ashtanga yoga method directly from Pattabhi Jois and Sharath in Mysore (and to have been exposed to many aspects of Indian culture in such a profound way) over the last twenty years. The latter has shaped my thoughts on the importance of knowing and being oneself and whilst it is good to be respectful of other cultures, it may not always be appropriate to adopt their traditions. Yoga of course is a discipline and a state of mind and it is possible to separate this from Indian cultural practices and to share the practice of yoga in a normal way, that suits ones own way of life.
The teaching and study of yoga are as important as the teaching and learning of any other subject and if one has a vocation to share their discipline or art, they first have to master it. Going to university to study educational theory, pedagogy, psychology, ethics, learning how to teach, manage a room and situations, under the guidance of properly qualified and experienced teachers (and then gaining a recognised teaching qualification such a PGCE/A) is ideal. As well this, in order to be a good teacher one should be steady, normal, smart, genuine, accessible, positive, articulate and kind. This way, the facilitator can teach and guide respectfully, whist trying to bring out the best in each individual student and encourage them to effectively overcome challenges with courage, strength, grace and balance.
communication and language
Confusion, misunderstanding and agitation can happen when communication channels are blocked. In order to impart or receive knowledge correctly, clear, unblocked and direct communication channels are essential between student and teacher. Communication, language and actions (whether verbal, physical or other), should be appropriate and lucid.
teaching and learning standards
It should go without saying that it is the teacher’s role to share the practice and discipline of yoga honestly, reliably, effectively, with integrity, using methods and language appropriate for the individual student (at their pace and applicable to their current situation), to respect boundaries and to treat students with respect and kindness. If either a teacher or student is disrespectful, aggressive, unreceptive, or crosses boundaries, either party should feel comfortable to address this in the moment (or soon afterwards). A teacher’s role is to teach with dignity and respect and a student’s role is to be open to receiving that which is being shared.
There is so much clutter and confusion around the subject of yoga and because it has been exploited on such a seismic level, it is possible that many people have forgotten/don’t realise that it is actually a discipline. For this to be cultivated in a nourishing and kind way, the teacher/student relationship really must be one of mutual respect, trust, equality and clarity, where both student and teacher feel safe, supported and joyful. If there is imbalance, or there is no connection between the student and teacher, or if communication channels are blocked, or boundaries are crossed, then the environment is not conducive to positive learning or teaching. It is possible to teach and study yoga in an authentic and traditional manner that empowers and is non-harming, positive, light and leads to spiritual connection. Creating a safe and nurturing environment is vital and the teacher’s role is obviously to facilitate the deep learning and understanding of the subject and its practice. Therefore (as well as being an experienced practitioner), the teacher should also be a gifted and effective communicator, who has patience and the skills to recognise how individuals learn and can thus adapt their methods accordingly and with grace. In order for healthy learning/teaching to flourish, both student and teacher must stay receptive and never stop learning (in my humble opinion!)
© 2019 Philippa Asher
“Discipline is not control or subjugation. Learning implies attention; that is, to be diligent. It is only the negligent mind that is never learning. It is forcing itself to accept when it is shallow, careless, indifferent. A diligent mind is actively watching, observing, never sinking into second-hand values and beliefs. A mind that is learning is a free mind, and freedom demands the responsibility of learning.” Jiddu Krishnamurti, 1962
KPJAYI - Certified
After a vocational ballet school training from age twelve and twenty five years of studying and teaching dance at universities and ballet companies all over the UK, Philippa randomly walked into an Ashtanga yoga class in London. It was a life-changing incident, that made complete sense.
From London, Philippa Asher is now one of a few Ashtanga yoga practitioners in the world (and the only British woman), to be Certified to teach the traditional Ashtanga yoga method, by Sri K Pattabhi Jois. She has learned the Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A and Advanced B Series directly from Guruji and Sharath (at the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India) and shares the Ashtanga system, internationally.