I received a question asking for specific examples of students with whom Rachelle and I had diverged from the practice guidelines of the ashtanga method. It was the kind of question I preferred answering in person via Skype. However, the reason I was asked the question bears some comments.
The question was asked in relation to some articles that have appeared online in which some Ashtanga teachers questioned the wisdom of these guidelines. These authors/instructors implied that the method has become too rigid and is no longer flexible enough to address the individual needs of students. The authors also suggested that holding students at particular asanas as per the practice guidelines could be an impediment to their growth and evolution.
Moreover, there is the belief that the rigidity in question is only an expedient based on the numbers of people who want to practice at KPJAYI. In this line of thinking, guidelines like standing up from backbends as a pre-requisite to starting intermediate series, for example, is a “new” Mysore rule created when the numbers of students became overwhelming at KPJAYI. I don’t agree with this view of things at all.
Firstly, my wife and I made our first trip to Mysore at the end of 2000. We had the opportunity to practice at the Laxmipuram shala which held only 12 students practicing at one time. During that time, I didn’t see anything different in terms of how Guruji and Sharath taught students than what I saw on my next trip after the move to Gokulam nor on any of our subsequent study-visits. So, over the course of thirteen years and nine trips to India, I haven’t seen much change.
In addition, when asked directly whether in conference or during our teachers’ course with him, Sharath has said repeatedly that the reason students need to stand up and drop back in backbends before intermediate is to ensure they are strong and flexible enough to take on the more difficult intermediate series asanas.
It also seems ludicrous for the authors/instructors to suggest that Guruji didn’t and Sharath doesn’t have the best interests of their students at heart.
There have always been guidelines and there have also always been exceptions for specific students. Problems arise from trying to sort the exceptions into understandable and predictable patterns. Problems also arise from our ego’s desire to be one of the exceptions rather than having to sweat it out, marooned at an asana. However, if you trust your teacher, keep your head down in class and mind your own business. What anyone else in class is doing should be of no concern to you and should have no impact on your practice. Just practice and get on with your day.
During the years that I studied with Guruji and now with Sharath, if I saw something that seemed exceptional, I would assume that they had their reasons and try to leave it at that. In numerical terms, maybe 1 in 1000 students is taught a little differently. It’s always seemed presumptuous to think I was that 1.
As a result of years practicing and years teaching, I believe that the general guidelines work and should be followed. And my experience is a drop of water in the ocean of Guruji’s and Sharath’s combined experience practicing and teaching. The guidelines are a result of their teaching day after day and seeing students of different ages, stages, body types and commitment come to class and not the result of these authors’ contentions.
thanks Rachelle for editorial support