4.11.2011

"Guruji Changed It."

Is that a mischievous spark of amusement behind those shades, Guruji?
Got on the mat early yesterday with a long day of teaching ahead of me.  As excited as I am about being able to do my practice in the morning after years of working nights and sleeping days, I had a hard time finding motivation as I moved through the Surya Namaskara.  My spine creaked and my mind searched with persistence for sufficient reasons not to practice.  Fortunately, it found none.

I settled into the practice midway through the standing sequence and by Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, I was feeling pretty good.  The level of resistance I face when bringing my forehead to my shin is generally a decent indicator of how the rest of the practice will unfold.  I folded easily and balanced steadily on both sides, a good sign which rang true.  I had a great practice.

When I first began practicing Primary, I practiced along with Swenson's Practice Manual, which illustrates Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana as a series of four separate postures, the first of which is a relatively upright variation in which the leg is held straight out it front without folding the entirely over the leg.  In the third posture of the 4-part sequence, per the Manual, the foot is taken with both hands and the leg is pulled up to the face while the body remains perfectly upright.  This is how I learned the series at home until I made it to a Mysore class.

During my first Mysore class, the teacher gently informed me that I was practicing Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana incorrectly.  She then made me go back and do both sides again, with her assistance.  This experience thoroughly confused me.  I had thought the Primary series was the same everywhere, always and forever unchanged.  How could it be that Swenson's instructions had steered me wrong?  When I got home, I compared Swenson's book to Maehle's instruction of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasa in Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy, my other Primary reference.  Maehle's version confirmed my teacher's, so I adopted this new variation and carried on, my confidence in the tradition of Ashtanga slightly shaken.

And all was well and good until one day in another teacher's Mysore room, I was stopped after Marichyasana A.  I had been under the impression that, should one have the ability, there is an alternative vinyasa to the usual jump back here in which the knee stays behind the shoulder.  The practitioner lifts up to Eka Pada Bakasana and then drops to Chaturanga in one exhale.  I had thought this was the ideal vinyasa for Marichi A and C.  However, this teacher informed me that "the only time we practice Eka Pada Bakasana in Primary is after Virabhadrasana II."  Huh.  I could have sworn I read that the Eka Pada Bakasana exit was prescribed after these two poses.  Upon further examination, Maehle's book mentions this vinyasa as an option, but Swenson's does not.  So I continue to do it in my home practice but not when I practice with a teacher.

I must have it all straightened out by now, I thought when, yet again, I was stopped by one of my teachers and told that the sequence had been changed.  No longer do we inhale up, pause, then exhale down from Supta Konasana.  "Guruji changed it."

What?  What do you mean he changed it?  Of course, I didn't say these things to my teacher, but I may have cocked an eyebrow.  How did he change it?  Is there some administrative panel that approves these decisions, or did Guruji just mix it up now and then for fun?  And will Sharath do the same?  Will I, one day after years and years of practice, be approached by a teacher recently returned from India (or Encinitas) who will stop me to inform me it's been changed?  It's a disconcerting thought.

Can any of you senior Ashtangis shed some light on this evolution of the practice?  Why and how does the series get changed?

6 comments:

  1. I am no senior ashtangi, but I have hosted tons of discussions in posts about the many MANY changes that have taken place during the years. I was also taught that part where you bring the leg up to the face by some teachers, but it is definitelly not a go now... you are quite right

    Other changes include only 10 counts for the first forward bend in the sitting postures, now, recently only FIVE rolls in garba pindasana, five breathing counts as oppose to what we hear used to be 8 back in the back in the day... as in a loooong time ago, and other changes, many more

    I hear that mostly this is because the population of students in Mysore grew really fast and strong and accomodations had to be made. I am pretty sure things will keep on changing... as they say change is the only constant... I know a cliche but oh so true

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  2. Thanks for the input, Claudia. This is all really interesting, especially the way in which the changes are disseminated through the ranks of Ashtangis worldwide. There's no official Ashtanga newsletter, as far as I know, so I guess it's all by word-of-mouth (or word-of-blog, as the case may be).

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  3. The extis from Virabhadrasana B and Marichyasana A are still controversial. I know that a certified teacher is teaching the Eka Pada Bakasana A exit out of Marichyasana A, because she instructed it in a workshop of hers just about 6 months ago. Others do not advocate this. For Virabhadrasana B, I was originally taught that I could try to lift into Eka Pada Bakasana A--essentially, that it was optional. Then, recently, a visiting level-2 authorized teacher (who did the training with Sharath last year) insisted that the official exit was indeed Eka Pada Bakasana A on the "inhale up". Another level-2 authorized teacher from last year's training came for a week after the previous teacher left. I lifted into EPB A for inhale, and I get "What was that? This is incorrect method." No arm balance, he said; both legs held in the air. Oy.

    With these poses, it seems that it's no so much that things have changed, per se, but that no one can agree on what (or whether) there's an official version. I don't know that it matters, though. My MO has been to just do something, and if I get corrected, I change what I'm doing. I don't expect people to stop disagreeing, so I just expect that I might have to change how I'm doing things at any time (non-attachment...). Have to be flexible, though (no pun intended...).

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  4. Ha! Thanks, Frank. Lots of good info. You're definitely right about non-attachment being a prerequisite for happily sticking with the series through all its madness. I've been practicing with four different teachers over the past several weeks. On the one hand, it's great to have things explained in different ways to clarify an idea, but on the other hand, I am on the receiving end of lots of contradictory instruction. It can be disorienting.

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  5. Well... there's a specific vinyasa (breath+count) sequence per asana which seems pretty static. From what I've observed one is pretty free to do whatever they like so long as the integrity of the vinyasa is preserved. So.... if you can lift up into handstand in Navasana on a single inhale (and with straight arms) no one seems to worry. I've seen both a certified teacher and a newcomer to Mysore doing this at the KPJAYI in 2007. On the other hand if you struggle in practise and put a lot of effort into these 'flourishes' Sharath will probably walk up and say 'No Circus!'.
    I used to do the fancy exits but realised after a while that by keeping entries and exits simple and clean, I gained a more even rhythm and flow to my breathing, so no more Circus for me!
    Doug

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  6. Hi Doug - Great insights! I think you might be right that the style of vinyasa is pretty open as long as it doesn't belabor the breath count. That makes a lot of sense.

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