While I have yet to voice an explicit opinion on either of these issues, I continue to teach ashtanga yoga despite never having been to Mysore and offer yoga therapy sessions for clients in need of a practice that does not adhere to the ashtanga method. All the while, I deny that ashtanga and yoga therapy are incompatible, or even essentially different practices. I recognize the potential incongruities of this assertion and, in light of the increasingly authoritative institutionalization of yoga practices nationally and internationally, I sense the need to navigate a clear(er) delineation of the role of yoga therapy in relation to ashtanga yoga, and the legitimacy I may or may not justifiably claim in teaching both.
As yet, I have not been to Mysore, and any inkling I might have to go to Mysore would be best described as a willingness, not as a desire. Though I am exceptionally grateful for this practice, I am admittedly averse to the idea of practicing in crowds of people who have elbowed their way into the building. The competitive social dynamic, the forceful adjustments, and the misogynistic harassment of female visitors in Mysore—not to mention the prohibitive cost and arguably elitist standards of admission—all further detract from the appeal. While I respect and admire the personal and financial investment some teachers put toward earning authorization, I have yet to see it as the best choice for myself.
Over the years, I have come to consider the egalitarian nature of ashtanga as one of the most appealing characteristics of the method: anyone who can learn the sequence (all or part) can do it anywhere, anytime, in a way that supports their physical, intellectual, and/or spiritual development. The impetus is placed upon the student to learn, and the teachings are inherent in the practice. Despite ashtanga's reputation as a "difficult practice," yoga doesn't get much more accessible than that. Furthermore, mastery comes through practice alone. While I have received important wisdom from teachers with whom I have studied over the years, most of what I have learned about ashtanga, I have learned by interfacing with the practice itself. In those countless hours alone on my mat, I have learned to breathe and persist through doubt and fear, to trust my intuition, and to listen to my body. These are the same skills that make me an effective teacher and that I work to pass on to my students.
One of my highest goals as a teacher is that my students will internalize my instruction, learn listen to their inner teacher, and ultimately become independent practitioners. If my students do not need me increasingly less over time, then I am not doing my job. Teachers of the ashtanga method are not gatekeepers to the ashtanga practice or dispensers of its wisdom; we are conduits, critical observers, cheerleaders, voices of reason, hint whisperers, and space holders. Mostly, we remind students to breathe until they do not need that reminder anymore. Sensitivity, experience, and aptitude are essential to this undertaking; authorization, while valuable, is not.
And what of yoga therapy vs. yoga generally? I cannot claim to think that they are different, or, perhaps more accurately, to think the ways they differ are important. Right practice is "therapy," in the sense that it regulates prana, promotes balance, and reveals ones true nature. My ashtanga practice, done appropriately, keeps me healthy and balanced; my ashtanga practice, done inappropriately, sends me spiraling into anger, aggression, and dis-ease caused by vata-pitta aggravation. The important piece here is that the form of "appropriate practice" is entirely dependent upon ones current state, and so each day that I step onto my mat, I must begin with two questions: What is my reality in this moment (vikriti)? And how can I respond to it in a way that cultivates clarity, purity, goodness, and balance (sattva) in such a way that my true nature (prakriti) is restored?
In truth, if I wish to live a balanced life, to fulfill my highest potential, I must always be asking these questions. Yoga therapy, then, as a distinct discipline, is merely the study of these questions and the specific application of appropriate yoga techniques in response to these questions. This is why the common structure of led group yoga classes is not therapeutic and is sometimes injurious, particularly for newcomers who do not know enough about the tools of yoga in order to make appropriate choices.
So where do ashtanga and yoga therapy overlap, and where do they diverge? In the sea of individuals and the myriad of situations, ashtanga yoga can often be an appropriate response—it cannot always be an appropriate response. This is what brought me to the study of yoga therapy, and is the reason that I offer "yoga therapy" as a service both independent from and integrated with Ashtanga. I teach my ashtanga students to practice therapeutically, and I teach my therapy clients to use the tools of ashtanga (breath, bandha, drishti, and repetition). Over the past two years, the two disciplines have informed each other in such a way that they have synthesized quite nicely into a unique and powerful offering that I have seen promote unprecedented sweetness and compassion in my students and their practice.
In light of the insight I have gained over the years, I have launched a new website that I hope reflects the ways in which my teaching philosophy has evolved and the ways in which my approach to both practices might differ from other ashtanga teachers and yoga therapists. In the spirit of ashtanga yoga as therapy, and yoga therapy as informed by ashtanga, I have called my new web space Yoga Chikitsa Austin. If you wish to learn more about my perspective and what I have to offer, please visit the new site and contact me with your questions or comments.