Redefining Mysore-Style Practice: Part 1

This article will be published as a series of three articles.  The first past deals with the context of Mysore.  Part Deux will deal with critiques of the points brought up in Part 1.  Part Three is an effort to synthesize two different strands present in any long-term practitioner of any art or science: the dynamic between consistency and creativity, between methodical application and inquisitive exploration, between what you know and what you don’t know.  This conflict is never resolved except in the present moment.  The individual, you the practitioner, is what is essential to the resolution of the dynamic.  There are no Platonic forms of yoga postures, or always universally correct ways to practice.

And I encourage an open dialogue in the comments section on this and the remaining articles.  I only learn through discussion, argumentation, and contemplation.  I enjoy learning other people’s perspectives.

So here we go.

What exactly is Mysore-style?

If we had to tease out the elements of Mysore-style, the following seem to be the most fundamental:

  1. Practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
  2. As taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (b.1915-d.2009), and now by his grandson, R. Sharath Jois
  3. In the presence of an experienced teacher
  4. With hands-on physical adjustments
  5. Ideally six days a week, excluding moon days and one day on the weekend (Saturday or Sunday)

Let’s take each of these elements separately.

1.  Practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.  Usually shortened to Ashtanga.  Ashtanga is a specific style of yoga, characterized by a specific sequence, a particular method of moving between postures, and a recognizable breathing technique.   Because it is a specific sequence of postures, done in a particular order, it can be said that you are only doing Ashtanga when you are doing the sequence as it has been proscribed by the Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Center (hereafter, KPJAYI).  Therefore, someone doing Ashtanga Primary Series will do the set sequence, starting with Sun Salutations, then the standing postures, then the floor postures, etc.  An objective observer would be able to say that this student was doing Ashtanga, as opposed to Bikram or Jivamukti, in the same way that someone familiar with different styles could differentiate a piano concerto composed by Mozart and one composed by Beethoven.

Some specific “rules” about Ashtanga are:

  1. Always doing right side first (a few exceptions to this rule)
  2. Right leg first in padmasana (lotus posture) always
  3. Not omitting postures
  4. If you cannot do a posture, you stop there, and you do not move past the “problem” posture until you have mastered it (whatever that means)
  5. Never moving past Primary Series until you have completed the entire Primary Series, and can stand up from urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow posture) three times by yourself
  6. Never skipping a jump-back [on pain of torture, =-) ]
  7. Practicing six days a week.  Minimum
  8. Doing (or not doing?!?) mula bandha, the root “lock”
  9. Doing ujjayi pranayama all the time.  And I mean, all the time

We will come back to these points in Part Deux of the article (and yes, I will list them again for easy reference!).

2.  As taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, affectionately called Guruji by his students, was the main propagator, if not creator, of the Ashtanga Vinyasa method. Contrary to the current party line, the Ashtanga Series have changed over the years.  The Series are not 5,000 years old.  No one has ever seen the Yoga Korunta, the manuscript which Pattabhi Jois claims he and Krishnamacharya discovered in an old library and on which the entire Ashtanga Series were recorded.  It was conveniently eaten by  ants and has never been seen by anyone else, although I once found an obscure reference by Godfrey Devereux that claimed that the Yoga Korunta was being stored in a sealed vault with no access granted to Westerners.

Sounds mystical, sounds intriguing.  Could be the nice plot for a novel.  But there is not much verification of the existence of the Yoga Korunta, beyond the speculation that it may have even been an invention of Krishnamacharya.

(For more information about Sri K. Pattbhi Jois’s life, I recommend two books: Yoga Mala, with an excellent introduction by Eddie Stern; and Guruji, a collection of interviews with his most senior teachers, starting with David Williams, the first Westerner to master all four series.

3.  In the presence of an experienced teacher.  This is the element that really cannot be replaced or altered.  The teacher is the living repository of the method and the sequences.  You cannot really learn a living art from a book, even though that book was written by a living (at the time) teacher.   The method of Mysore is to teach the student one to two postures a day, until the student has memorized and integrated the series.  The idea not being that this method is straightforward, linear, and always progressive.  In fact, progress in the series is affected by many different factors, including but not limited to, previous training, presence or absence of injuries, frequency of practice, age, body intelligence, coordination, and/or time.

But Mysore-style yoga is different from other styles in that the teacher and student are actively involved in building the sequence with one another.  The student struggles to figure out how to learn the sequence, how to perform the posture in an efficient and safe manner, and how to breathe more, think less.  The teacher struggles to figure out how to teach the sequence according to the student’s learning style, how to give the student concise verbal cues and supportive hands-on adjustments, and how to balance between letting the student flow through the sequence and assisting them in the sequence.  The teacher-student relationship is really quite similar to the connection between dance partners: two living systems with different backgrounds learning from each other through movement and breathing.

So, the teacher for Mysore has to have a certain level of mastery of the Ashtanga sequences (we will go in depth on Mastery in part Three of this series and how to make Mastery sexy again in an age of frantic consumption and instant gratification).  I do agree with KPJAYI that the teacher should have familiarity and expertise with at least one sequence above the sequence he or she is teaching the student.  For instance, if the teacher is teaching a student the Primary Series, then the teacher should be practicing most, if not all, of Intermediate Series.  If the student is learning Intermediate, then the teacher should have worked through most, if not all, of Advanced A.   And so on.

This hierarchy of sequences does help to ensure proper transmission of the sequences, and it also falls in line with the old dictum, “Teach what you know.”  And to be honest, the Series get harder as you work your way up the ladder.  Primary Series is accessible in some form to almost everyone.  Intermediate Series is less accessible, and the Advanced Series is even less accessible, if you have not done the groundwork of the previous sequences.

This is not to say that you may not be able to do some of the Intermediate or Advanced postures by themselves, outside of the sequence.  It is the stringing together of the postures in the particular order that makes the sequences become progressively harder.

At base, though, you need to work with a teacher to make progress in Ashtanga, or really any art or profession, because you benefit from their hard-earned wisdom and practical knowledge.  Stop trying to reinvent the wheel with your practice (or your art).

4.  With hands-on physical adjustments.  Ashtanga is known for the teacher’s use of hands-on adjustments in particular postures.  The idea is that progress is made more quickly when you receive hands-on adjustments.  Some common postures that get adjusted include:

  • downward facing dog
  • prasarita padottanasana C
  • postures requiring balance
  • postures with binds
  • postures where one, or both, feet go behind the head

Adjustments can be useful for getting into postures in which you may experience restrictions or which may require too much effort.  Grabbing the hands in Marichyasana C and D, putting your feet behind your head in Supta Kurmasana, and learning how to do dropbacks all require some assistance from a teacher so that the student feels confident, supported and safe.  The most important part of adjusting and being adjusted is listening to the breathing and allowing your breath to guide you deeper into the posture.   Remember what I was saying about dance partners?  Even more important when it comes to adjustments.

5.  Ideally 6 days a week, excluding Moon Days and one weekend day.  Traditionally, the Mysore classes are held in the morning, between 5:30am and 9am (depending on the studio.  I clearly remember visiting Paris years ago and seeing that the program at one studio started morning Mysore at 8am.  Decadent).

A daily practice has its benefits.  You learn a little bit of the sequence each day, never more than you can remember for the next day.  By practicing every day, your practice becomes longer, more complex, and more challenging while simultaneously becoming more fluid, more familiar, and smoother.  It takes time to get acclimated to the sequence, to the breathing, to coordinating the whole thing.

In fact, it is better to do a little bit each day rather than a whole lot every once in a while.  Your body will thank you for the daily dose of movement and breathing, of stretching and strengthening.  You will be able to focus on the more subtle, intricate aspects of practicing the series.

So, to review.  The most fundamental aspects of Ashtanga Yoga as practiced in a Mysore format are:

  • Practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga set sequences
  • As taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (b.1915-d.2009), and now by his grandson, R. Sharath Jois
  • In the presence of an experienced teacher
  • With hands-on physical adjustments
  • Ideally six days a week, excluding moon days and one day on the weekend (Saturday or Sunday)

NB – This whole article is meant as an apologist’s perspective on what it means to practice “true” Ashtanga Yoga.  Part 2 will be decidedly more Roguish.

 

One thought on “Redefining Mysore-Style Practice: Part 1

  1. Greetings! I just discovered your blog and absolutely loved this post. I’m more of a polyspiritual meditator than traditional Ashtangi, but I’m fortunate to be able to attend Mysore classes 4 mornings per week with a great teacher who’s a bit of a rogue herself. Looking forward to reading parts 2 and 3 when life allows you to write them–I’m trying to figure out my own idiosyncratic ways to share meditation with others and it’s helpful to see the ways in which others innovate.

    Like

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