Lighten Up

So I know many experience practitioners have figured out what I will talk about here. But I’m also being made aware that some are getting started with this practice, and it doesn’t hurt to spell things out.

To start let me tell you a story, from back in the day, when Guruji was teaching led intermediate, and Sharath was the gatekeeper. Really it wasn’t that long ago, contrary to how it feels.

Coming out of rest, going to say goodbye, pay respects, when the office was still at the back of the room…. Sharath was around, hovering in the background.


“Why not finishing?”

I started at the question, caught like a deer in headlights. “Um, Sharath stopping. ” Trying to give a technical explanation. Inside scrolling through, had I done wrong? Did I miss something major? Oh God, what did I do?

And then Guruji throws back his head and laughs.

Fast forward a year later, he’s again in the office, another student is there, this time it isn’t me. But word for word, almost, I overhear the same exchange, only this time an alternative target student.

It was a great joke.

One could interpret the joke in many ways, but I can tell you what I learned, in that moment and in many other moments with other teachers in this practice.

Lighten up, guys.

These postures aren’t the practice of yoga. This practice is a method, and it’s a tool to work on your mind, not just your body. But this practice isn’t only physical poses.

So back in the day Guruji taught people everything in three months. He told Nancy and David to go home and alternate days of primary and intermediate.

After a while, and as he aged, he stopped teaching the postures so quickly. By the time I arrived in 2000, it took a lot more time, and they expected you to bind before you moved on, stand up before 2nd, etc. They also had an uncanny ability to know when you had actually let go and it was time to move on.

But to throw a wrench in matters, he told old students to “Teach the way I taught you!” I believe them, because it was typical Pattabhi Jois.

Pattabhi Jois taught us postures, but it wasn’t just a physical practice. It was emotional, spiritual, and energetic. And the way he would stop us came to be an important part of the method. He let the practice work on us by moving us through at an appropriate pace. And in being the gatekeeper, as he would be, and Sharath would become, was a genius way to slow us down so we could best experience how the practice would work on the body, how it would open us up systematically, and make body light, mind strong.

I’ve heard some of the old guard of Ashtanga yoga complain about the rigidity of newer Ashtanga teachers, that you can do the postures yourself, that you should move on and do all of it right away. That it is becoming an ego driven attachment to hold folks back. Why stopping? They are asking.

They are right in a sense. The older I get the more I see it appropriate, to follow what is right with each student, and it doesn’t always follow formulaic rules. Guruji didn’t do that anyways.

But as Guruji charged them to teach as he taught, I think each generation of teachers is responsible to “teach as they were taught.” And he taught me slowly, carefully, and I was changed by the practice. I have also seen students manifest crazy ego driven attachments to get the next posture, driving for miles, changing teachers, etc. So personally, I think ego can manifest in a million different ways, and the best I can do is humbly offer up what he taught me, and how he taught me. If it helps someone, great, if it doesn’t, they can find someone else that helps them better understand the method.

Pattabhi certainly wasn’t crazy, and unless I don’t know all of the story, and yes, that’s possible too, I think he kinda wanted us to lighten up. To practice, but not necessarily to try too hard to pin it all down. And I say this, knowing full well, that for a genuine dedicated Ashtangi in their first five years of practice, this may be physically and otherwise impossible. It certainly wasn’t always possible for me.

I believe in this method. There will always be disagreement among teachers, about whether to stop someone here or there. That’s part of why they recommend having one teacher, to simplify the process. Real life isn’t always so simple, sometimes we travel, sometimes we outgrow our teacher. And visiting teachers can inspire us to a better understanding sometimes too, or deliver the practice in a way we better understand. But I have found over the years, the parampara works on us, especially if we can step back a little bit and allow the process to unfold. It may not be linear, or exact, but if you keep practicing, lightly, with dedication and without interruption, you will get what you need. Not just the posture, but perhaps, just perhaps, something even better.



3 thoughts on “Lighten Up

  1. Deb

    Ah, love this. I am on my way to confluence in a few weeks and so happy to have the direct experience from Mysore and to be able to connect with the teachers who learned it and teaching it the way they learned it when I head to San Diego. I’ve been exposed to more postures without proper readiness and have paid for that. I am rebuilding and feel better about my practice these days that when I was doing it all. It’s so not about the poses otherwise so many would be left out I liked when a someone said to me, oh yeah Ashtanga. That’s that breathing method. I was like YES, YES. It’s a breathing system!

  2. Claire

    I’m currently reading Light on Life, a book I’ve had for some time, but was never able to pick up & read. I have only been practicing 16 months & dedicated 12 months. This book has changed my practice dramatically from one of focus to achieve every pose to its core, to a softer peaceful practice. The assertive energy I used to experience during practice I believed was from others and now realise was from within me. This too has evolved now into a gentle soothing energy. My point is, much like your observations, I could not of understood this on day one or in my first year and I know that I will go through many stages of growing & evolving as my practice continues. It’s a very exciting journey to be apart of. Thank you for sharing.

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