Updated: Feb 9
The Individual in Yoga, and Yoga in the Individual, Where are the gurus? What are we doing out there in our modern yoga practise?
‘Abiding in the midst of ignorance, but thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go hither and thither, like blind led by the blind’
‘Who truly knows the greatness of Raja Yoga? Knowledge, liberation, stability, and success are obtained from the teachings of a guru’
‘My father’s teaching first and foremost was based on the truth that each student must be taught according to his or her individual capacity at any given time. Each progresses in different ways, at different rhythms’
More and more I feel that i would like to cut down on teaching generic mixed level group classes in order to focus on the individual, as the yoga is originally intended. We are all so unique and come to yoga for different reasons, with different minds, bodies, history, abilities, injuries and due to this our practise and our practise goals will vary greatly. For yoga to truly work it’s transformative magic it must be adaptable, useful and personalised, and as a teacher I can be most effective and useful when I have freedom to reach and understand the person, YOU!
Yoga is about the person not the pose!
The great Sri Krishnamacharya, the founder of modern yoga once said ‘the teacher must care more about the student than himself’. Group classes are indeed special and important but without a personal practise or extra study they might not be as useful as they could be in terms of your particular needs or health, and the true spiritual path of yoga may be missed altogether. A little study, workshop or one- to one class even every now and then is so vital to make sure you know and understand what you do on your mat, how you do it, why you do it even and if it truly serves you!
Did you know that I used to be constantly tired? I would wake up so stiff I could barely walk? that my knees used to buckle? that I had terrible posture? that i had bunions?! (Sorry about that ugly last one! ) Simply speaking, through a little stretching Yoga started to take my troubles away, and hey presto, I got hooked! I fixed all of these ‘issues’ by isolating the problem and applying myself to find out all about it and what I could do about it.
But of course more problems always arise, that is the nature of the natural world, it changes. Don’t be ignorant too of the fact that practise itself can cause problems, especially something done ‘not quite right’ many times; these niggles or overworked areas often worsen and become pains. We need to become yogic investigators with the end to finding out what doesn’t work for us or what could be more beneficial and WHY, so that practise is not only enjoyable, but serves us and our unique individual requirements! This research of course cannot happen in a standard group class environment (excluding mysore style), there is neither time, space or freedom to self- enquire deeply, and our senses and mind must remain outward, tethered to the teacher and the instructions.
Have you ever wondered how Ashtangis get into such deep or seemingly impossible poses? the answer is simple- it is because we pay attention and we practise it over and over and over, not in a led class, but individually! This is why traditionally the Ashtanga counted method only instructs inhale/exhale, and pose name/ move, no extra cueing is provided because this is going to vary greatly with every single individual and the teacher will offer help to each person with a different approach.
‘For all the asanas, the details of their breathing and vinyasa methods, as well as in in their states.. Have to be learned from a Guru. Whatever my descriptions here, there will always be a difference in the actual method of a practise’
You might think it cruel or unfair that the student has to figure it out like this, but we only truly learn something by experiencing it for ourselves! I have had many long debates with fellow teachers about postures or techniques that simply had to be left ‘agreeing to disagree’ because no two people’s body or experience is the same! I am telling you this so that you are aware that complex, difficult or deep poses and transitions are never learnt in class but worked on out of sequence and with great care! YOGA IS SKILL IN ACTION!
Traditionally and importantly in the Ashtanga Vinyasa Self- Practise method it is the student who is in control, not the teacher (a good teacher actually interferes as little as possible!) This is how Hatha Yoga has always been, you go to your teacher to learn the poses/ technique and then you practise it alone. This way the student has time to actually ‘practise’ it i.e. figure it out whilst listening closely to their mind and body; there is time to adjust and make the practise appropriate and often more enjoyable and intimately ‘yours’ . Nowadays many simply go to class to learn and do not ‘practise’.
I am not saying that you must all self- practice to be a good yogi, but that if you practise frequently ( and more so if that practise is of a repetitive nature) you definitely should take time out of class to study what you do a little, to make sure the yoga works for you and not vice versa!
If you do not practise alone seek to explore through workshops, books, filming yourself, researching techniques on YouTube, watching others practise, or a one- to- one class.
You see, Yoga was never supposed to be a group activity. We all know that spiritually Yoga happens on the inside, it is like a well guarded secret, or a light in the dark, invisible and known through the heart it can only ever be experienced by the individual. We know that we all perform yoga poses differently according to our bodies or abilities, and also we know that people come to a class for a heap of different reasons, all of them valid of course! Yet more often than not all of these people find themselves in the same mixed-level class meaning that the yoga offered has to be greatly generic and often diluted to suit all. Don't get me wrong, I believe any yoga is good yoga but i am saying that if yoga is tailored to the individual, even better; the individual is responsible and sensible in adapting his/ her practise, it may just change your life!
I promise you this is not totally a sales pitch from me! Traditionally a yoga teacher or ‘guru’ was sought out to attain spiritual knowledge or to heal the body from sickness, you might compare it to seeing a therapist or a doctor; something I am sure you would agree you certainly would not do in a group! For some reason the 5000 year old practise of Yoga has become a practise of a much younger posture based yoga which is bundled under the same umbrella as fitness and sports. We go to a studio, we DO a yoga class and go home, and that's it! Most of the time we feel better, sometimes we might not, but do we really know what we just did in there or WHY?
Do we know what we do to our complex bodies? our organs? our nervous systems? Used correctly yoga might make you stronger, fitter, stretchier and calmer but it doesn't have to stop there! When honed to the individual it has been proven to cure great many ailments and sickness, including migraine, insomnia, anxiety, asthma, infertility and Pattabhi Jois even once cured a man with early stages of leprosy! ( This is how Yoga started to creep back into the spotlight after being pushed to the fringes of society, yogis were curing the incurable and also famous people) I cannot say I have done the same but i have helped people suffering with back problems, tightness in the body, asthma, MS, infertility, stress, obesity and one who needed really badly to touch his toes!
If any of you practise Ashtanga Vinyasa or have read Yoga Mala you will be aware that the deepest of poses offer the deepest healing benefits. The benefits of hatha yoga go way beyond mobility, strength, balance, calm, think of these as the benefits on the first rung of the benefit ladder! Applied correctly yoga can heal imbalances within the blood, nerves, organs and glands which affect the overall health and emotional state. Which is why it is important to know the student, to know at least if they have injuries, high or low blood pressure, over or under- active digestive or nervous systems etc… This is where the yoga can meet the individual to heal. The finishing sequence especially has immense healing properties and in Yoga Mala we are told of not only these but also the dangers in practising poses in an incorrect order. This is something that troubles me when I am asked to invent or design sequences, the practise needs to be like a crescent, warming, peaking and waning, heating and cooling and with counterpostures and intelligent use of the body to prevent harm or tension.
‘The five asanas described above must be practised systematically... To do otherwise would be harmful to an aspirant… This is the niyama (rule) which an aspirant should never forget’
I believe the breath to be the finest work of the yogis, and in the wrong hands could have adverse effects. I will not go into detail here as there is so much to talk about but just know that in changing your breathing you are in effect manipulating the command centre of your body as it has a direct effect on the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body and the nervous system which controls everything else! The breath and prana feed into the subtle/ energetic anatomy of the body which is also very significant in hatha yoga but for the purpose of this article I will not dive any deeper into this today. Recognise that we cannot choose to control or not control any other system in the body, we cannot for example say I am going to purposefully digest my food in this way or let my body do it for me, or purposefully say i am going to make my heart beat faster or slower by merely commanding it to do so; we can only take voluntary control of the breath, so think of the breath as the key not only to the mind but as the command centre to the whole body! This is why we must know how we breathe.
‘Correct pranayama will weaken all diseases. Improper practise of Yoga will strengthen all disease’
Without gurus I often wonder if we are dabbling in the dark, in the yoga scriptures we are told time and time again that yoga must be learnt from a guru! These words are warnings, disclaimers, safety measures, but hey, we are short of gurus and ancient knowledge these days and there are more students than ever before so what do we do?! We mostly take our first steps into the vast world of yoga by taking a class at a studio where we blindly accept the common modern group teachings as normal. We mostly like what we find there; we feel accepted, relaxed, energised, supported and uplifted which is wonderful, and indeed incredibly important, especially in our modern society where many are separated, alone or experiencing stress or upheaval, BUT there comes a time where the yoga flame within us is ignited, and thirsty for more knowledge we start to seek out the teachings that lie beyond the yoga class.
Without a guru to ‘apprentice’ the learning routes we are left with are self- study, a yoga teacher’s training course or workshops. There may be few teachers in relation to students now in the modern world but the teaching materials are vast, we have very many useful books, videos, online courses, classes, workshops, podcasts as well as access to those original scriptures that have been unearthed and translated.
‘Awake, arise! Strive for the Highest! And be in the Light! Sages say the path is narrow, and difficult to tread, narrow as the edge of a razor’
It is said that the path of yoga is narrow, it is a difficult path to tread alone and the light of a guru can pierce through the many clouds and storms that shroud not only the practise of physical yoga but all of the mental and emotional challenges that come to the human mind along the way. It is said that yoga can only be taught by one who has experienced it, not one who preaches it, reads about it or looks the part. I am grateful for my practise being Ashtanga Vinyasa for it means I am not alone; there is a global community that share and experience the exact same practise and process, and within it experienced living practitioners who have walked further along the path and are prepared to shared the wisdom they have amassed along the way. I think it is crucial that your chosen teacher have knowledge and deep personal experience of that which they teach.
‘Not many hear of him; and of those not many reach him. Wonderful is he who can teach about him; and wise is he who can be taught. Wonderful is he who knows him when taught. He cannot be taught by one who has not reached him; and he cannot be reached by much thinking. The way to him is through a Teacher who has seen him’
And so with fewer gurus it is clear that we have greater responsibility for ourselves in our practise. At least with a set practise there is a constant and skill in action becomes second nature, we are in control, but it is difficult to work with all of the variables within our minds and bodies if the practise is also offering many variables. We must be careful that we are not blind, ignorant or too self important to question what we do. I used to be so in love with the practise that i refused to believe it may harm me, and time and time again I see others making the same mistakes, or is that repeating the same lessons. This must be part of the process! I once told a student that the practise cracks you in the end; it breaks down your walls, upsets you, halts you, makes you want to give up… but you keep coming back, each time more humbly than the last as the self importance drains away. It’s clever like that it starts off fun, then becomes hard and then we ask why is it so hard??? Why am i tired??? Why am i sore??? We blame the practise first, many times perhaps, for years we might say oh I can’t do that, or I need to practise this many times a week or i need to practise this many poses… but in the end we learn that we simply were not practising correctly; we were practising to ideals or expectations or rules. When you have learned this humility, only then will you practise from the heart.
‘When all desires that cling to the heart are surrendered, then a mortal becomes immortal, and even in this world he is one with Brahman’
This process of course is much kinder if you have that guru to walk with you and steer you here and there, but many of us now rely on these other ways of learning and/or a home practise like myself. Many of us simply do not take the steps into the greater teachings of yoga and keep the yoga confined to the safe, albeit generic group class. All is valid but remember that it would be wise to consider that what you do to your mind and body and investigate! YOGA IS AWARENESS! The yoga happens not in doing the poses, but by observing yourself as you do your work on your mat. Also figure our why you practise! Is it mental strength, inner peace, hamstring flexibility or a good night's sleep? These are all valid reasons to practise and do not be surprised if these reasons continue to change! The scriptures tell us that done right we will even liberate ourselves from the bonds of karma and attain immortality but I just want you to have a practise that keeps you safe and improves your health!
‘The first fruits of the practise of Yoga are: health, little waste matter, and a clear complexion; lightness of the body, a pleasant scent, and a sweet voice; and an absence of greedy desires’
‘So make the sleeping kundalini move every day. The yogi is rid of diseases just by making her move’
‘Moreover, by this practise (sitali) an eminent yogi becomes physically fit, remains free from all the worldly sufferings and excels in life’
‘If one then practises the seven asanas of Sarvangasana, followed by Shirshasana, then one’s heart, intellect, and mind will evolve, preventing any harm from coming to the brain and ensuring a long life. Hence aspirants should never practise Shirshasana first. Moreover, following Shirshasana they should only sit in Padmasana and do pranayama and the like, but no further asanas. Otherwise danger is certain.'
Take care out there in the 2020 storm, enjoy your practise and know what you do!
Your faithful Ashtanga geek,
Below is a photo of me in Urdhva Padmasana purifying my anal and urinary channels and causing the anterior section of my spinal column to become firm. (YM)