Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and ‘Mysore’ Self-Practice (Part 2)

Alan writes:

In the second part of the talk given in Insabina last year and at the Yoga Space Leeds in February (first part here) I described the characteristics of so-called Mysore practice, and the rationale behind it and behind the firm and physical style of adjusting often experienced as part of such a practice. I’ll summarize what I said here.

What is ‘Mysore practice’?

Mysore practice refers to the ‘self-practice’ approach to Ashtanga yoga in which the practitioner goes through the sequence at her or his own pace with minimal intervention from the teacher while the other students themselves go through their own practice at their own pace. Here’s a clip of a morning Mysore class in the Yoga Space, with Joey teaching handstand to a student at the front and everyone else getting on with it around the room.

Mysore practice at the Yoga Space Leeds

The term Mysore itself derives from the city in Karnataka, South India, from which Ashtanga derives, and where the late K. Pattabhi Jois (the developer and codifier of the Ashtanga system) maintained his yoga shala (school) known as the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (AYRI), since inherited by his grandson Sharath. In the next post I will post a clip of the morning chant and practice at the AYRI, but here’s a map of Mysore and the locations of the old and new shalas – the big new Twenty-First Century one located in an affluent suburb of the town.

Learning Ashtanga the Mysore way

To repeat then, learning Ashtanga the ‘Mysore’ or ‘self-practice’ means studying with a teacher but, instead of following a class with everyone doing the same thing, the student will practice at her or his own pace, according to his or her own breath. The teacher will add a new posture when adequate ability is demonstrated in the previous posture. A beginner might find himself doing a short practice of, say, the two sun salutations and a few standing postures followed by some cross-legged sitting and rest; next to him might be an advanced yogini adding third series postures, under the instruction of the teacher, to her second series practice. But the intensity and internal quality of the practice could be comparable in both cases, and the practice equally challenging and rewarding for each.

My own experience is that progress is faster when you study Ashtanga the Mysore way. Mysore encourages you to take responsibility for your own practice and to become very aware of your breath and body. You internalize the practice by committing it to somatic memory, and you build a sense of the practice coming from you, from within, rather than being imposed from without.

Led classes, however, do have their place. They stop you getting lazy by reminding you of the correct form, vinyasa and breathing, and they challenge (and check) your stamina and strength by forcing you to follow the pace. In the AYRI they run a primary led class on Fridays, and since summer 2003 they run a second series led class on Sundays for those sufficiently advanced (the rest do a led primary). They introduced the latter because they felt that some students were failing to learn the correct form and breathing; with so many people in the big new shala, it was felt that a led class was the most efficient way to correct a lot of students at once. (I know that some students familiar with the intimate atmosphere of the old shala were annoyed at the influx of numbers and the lack of personal attention it implied.)

There’s much more to say, but a few other points should definitely be mentioned. Firstly, it’s worth knowing that it’s not considered auspicious to teach a new posture to a student on a Tuesday. Secondly, the traditional idea is to practice every day except Saturday; if you do so, you will certainly appreciate the days off for New Moon and Full Moon days (as discussed in a previous post). Finally, bear in mind that there’s a certain etiquette to be followed in order to practice any series but primary in a shala where you’re not known. You should certainly ask the teacher first, but many shalas will insist that you only do primary on the first day there in any case. An experienced teacher will recognize from your primary practice whether you are capable of, and used to, going beyond it.

Adjustments

A characteristic feature of the Ashtanga/Mysore approach to the study of asana is the physicality and (often) strength of the ‘adjustments’ performed by the teacher.

What is an adjustment? Well, it is a correction or aid to posture that can take at least the following forms: verbal instruction (“turn your back foot in a little”); correction through touch (the teacher physically moves the student’s back foot in a little); physical help in performing a challenging posture (e.g., the teacher acts as ‘post’ to help with balance in Uttitha Hasta Padangustasana, which is part of what Joey is doing in the pictures above); and the application of force to increase flexibility (this can be gentle or powerful – or, perhaps ideally, both; Joey is also doing this above).

Watch Norman Allen, in the clip below, one of Pattabhi Jois’ earliest Western students, employ all of these techniques to help a student in Marichyasana C, from the film Enlighten Up! (dir. Kate Churchill, 2008). What I really enjoy about this clip is the sense of tough love you get from Norman in the down and dirty encounter of teacher and student.

Norman Allen adjusting

No two students are alike of course, and nor are any two teachers. This means that there is no such thing as an ideal adjustment that will not itself be adapted according to the relationship of size and disposition between teacher and student. This is clear in the examples below, where three students with three very different teachers (Brian Cooper, Joey and Nichi) experience three varieties of adjustment to downward dog.

Different teachers have different styles and even different philosophies of adjusting.

Some teachers believe that no discomfort should be felt by the student; I guess the problem with this is that degrees of ‘comfort’ will always be experienced dissimilarly by individuals, and the same touch might be perceived as soft or strong depending on the person receiving it.

Others teach and test the ability to work outside the comfort zone by employing powerful manipulations. Matt Ryan unapologetically took this approach during his recent residency at the Yoga Space Leeds, briskly showing many of us what we hadn’t realised our bodies could do (that's Matt in the first image at the top). The theory behind the praxis of his forceful and skilful adjustments would be that expressed in Brian Cooper’s The Art of Adjusting (1st edn 2006). Brian answers his own question ‘why do we adjust’ as follows:

The student’s ‘map’ of her body will be modified and enlarged, resulting in increased awareness of her ability. Ask any student who has been twisted way beyond their norm in Marichyasana C. In one simple adjustment they have learnt what their body is capable of. All the fears and self-imposed limitations drop away in an instant (after all how are we to know what is possible if we have never experienced it?). More eloquent than a thousand words, this is the art of adjusting. (page 10)

A useful distinction to bear in mind is one proposed by Gregor Maehle in relation to asana practice as a whole. The contrast between ‘creative discomfort’ and ‘unnecessary pain’ is also one to think about in relation to the experience of giving adjustments and of being adjusted:

In asana it is important to recognize the difference between pain and discomfort. When you stretch a muscle or hold a demanding strength posture, there is necessarily a certain amount of discomfort involved. This discomfort comes from stretching the muscle or making it stronger, both of which are among the goals of the practice. In relation to asana, therefore, we may say, ‘No discomfort, no gain’. If the discomfort crosses the line into pain, on the other hand, injuries can happen. This is particularly true if the pain is felt in a joint, ligament, or tendon. If you feel pain, you need to back off or adjust the posture and work more precisely so that you can return to the zone of ‘creative discomfort’. (Ashtanga Yoga: The Intermediate Series, 2009, p. 60)

But how can I tell if what I am feeling is creative discomfort or unnecessary pain?

Good question! As suggested above, the perception of discomfort or pain is personal and subjective. It is affected by one’s age, one's own personal history of illness and injury, and one’s life experience (of giving birth, for example). Anyone who’s ever had a knee injury will be acutely sensitive to being manipulated in Marichyasana D. Too sensitive sometimes? Maybe not: we’ve all heard the horror stories of the clumsy adjustment that keeps you off the mat for months afterwards. But an experienced teacher can often sense what your body is ready for before you can. Conversely, your own experience in the practice will teach you how to relax into the unfamiliar and the intense, and teach you that they are nothing to fear; your experience will help you to develop an awareness of your own capacities and of that crucial difference between pain and creative discomfort.

The best way to develop such an awareness? Mysore practice! The internal quality of self-practice encourages self-awareness… You get to know yourself, and in a sense to become your own best teacher.

Confident surrender

Being adjusted can be an intimate experience, and can be quite a shock to the student new to the practice, who may have only previously been touched in such a way by a doctor or a lover. The student has to feel that the intimacy of this touch is not intrusive, and has to trust the teacher’s ability and integrity.

A teacher earns your trust though her or his competence and employment of ahimsa (non-violence). But it is important to realize that the student has a responsibility in receiving an adjustment. It is vital to work with the teacher when she or he is performing an adjustment on you. This means, above all, maintaining the breath, and using it to lead you calmly into the zone of creative discomfort. The process might be described as a kind of confident surrender. A lack of trust or cooperation between teacher and student, which often manifests itself as resistance on the part of the latter, can lead to injury – for teacher as well as student.

Trust through the experience of creative discomfort is displayed in this nice clip of Jason working with an adjustment by Joey in Supta Kurmasana, not always a fun posture to be manipulated in. (Note the surprise coda to the pose which demonstrates the understanding between the two.)

Joey with Jason in supta-k

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In the last part of the talk I discussed the origins of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and the controversial question of its antiquity, as well as its relationship with certain other forms of modern yoga. I will summarize this material in my next post.

Alan

a.oleary@leeds.ac.uk