When I was young, I wanted to be a martial artist. In fact, I wanted to be Bruce Lee. I was mesmerized by his grace and his power. I recognized that the way in which he moved his body demonstrated something unique, something powerful about his mind. So, when I was 13 years old, I purchased two books: The Tao of Jeet Kune Do and a primer on martial arts stretching, and I dutifully went about teaching myself how to stretch and become more limber. Although there are family photos, kept under lock and key at top-secret level, showing me, wearing either black jeans or faded pajamas, attempting high kicks, roundhouses and various punches, formal martial arts lessons never materialized, but I continued to stretch, lift weights and start a training regime similar to what I had read about Bruce Lee’s physical training.
Fast forward to my sophomore year at university. I majored in theatre, so I was taking a lot of movement classes. I was also taking Honors classes and philosophy courses, and I was reading books on Eastern philosophy, particularly yoga, Zen and Taoism. A dance teacher introduced me to my first yoga class, a 12-posture sequence taught in Sivananda Yoga, so I started practicing that daily. I also started to practice various forms of QiGong at an athletic center. And a fellow actor friend persuaded me to audit gymnastic courses with him. Believe it or not, my first two years of practicing yoga, I did not use a yoga mat, but I practiced on hardwood floors. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to practice Viparita Salabhasana with no mat. The invincibility of youth.
And then I met Ashtanga in 2001. You could say it was love at first sight. The classes were held at a local dance studio, and the only time a formal Mysore practice was held was on Sundays. The teacher, Dean Holt, did operate a self-practice group for the weekdays, but it seemed that he was more practicing with other students and assisting every now and then, than actually leading Mysore.
So my first class started with Dean teaching me Surya Namaskar A and B. He had me perform them about 10 times each, and then sit down and breathe for about 20 breaths. I then took rest. He invited me to stay and watch the group practice for however long I liked, and he reminded me that I should practice what he taught me and come back the next Sunday, which I did. I continued in this way for about a year, finally picked up a yoga mat after my first ashtanga class, and learned the Primary Series in about nine months, one posture at a time. I was helped along the way by John Campbell, who taught a week of Mysore classes and helped me get past Supta Kurmasana. I remember practicing along with him and Dean one Sunday, and John was practicing what I later found out was Advanced A. I was hooked further.I moved to Washington DC in 2003. I started taking Mysore classes at the now-defunct Ashtanga Yoga Center (AYC) in Tenleytown, studying with David Ingalls and Keith Moore. David cleaned up some parts of my Primary Series practice and then started teaching me Intermediate Series. I remember that period vividly because I happened to be taking classes in Chemistry and Biology at American University, and I lived about a block from the studio, so I would wake up at 5:20am, roll out of bed, walk up the street to the studio and practice, and then ride the bus to school, happy and exhausted, often almost falling asleep during the chemistry lectures. David followed the tradition of adding Intermediate postures to a full Primary Series practice until I got to Karandavasana (halfway point through the series) so my practice was a good 2-and-a-half hours long. But it taught me determination, stamina, and commitment. I was happy when the day finally came when I got split and could practice Intermediate only.
For the next six years, I continued practicing at AYC, learning all of Intermediate and then the first few postures of Advanced A. I moved to Chicago in 2009 to pursue a doctorate in Physical Therapy, having chosen Northwestern University over Boston University. As most people hooked on Ashtanga will tell you, when you decide to move somewhere new, you search for an Ashtanga studio. Chicago had one; Boston did not. My choice was made for me.
I entered my self-practice phase at this point. Days at Northwestern were grueling. Classes started at 8am, ended at 5pm and then there was homework, which meant that if I wanted to sustain my practice, I would have to get up at 4am. And I was single. Armed with a pot of coffee, I woke up, practiced the series and then went to school. I started teaching myself Advanced A from Matthew Sweeney’s book, Ashtanga Yoga As It Is. I continued this regimen until I took a year off from school for personal reasons, which turned into a complete departure from school for business reasons when I moved back to DC and started teaching Ashtanga classes once again at various studios, including the Buddha B Yoga Center, which I co-own. I continue to practice by myself, and I have only gone back once or twice to a Mysore program, sometimes just for the group energy, other times just for the variety. Also, because I practice the other sequences from Matthew’s Vinyasa Krama, self-practice makes the most sense for me.
In 2012, I had the good fortune to study for a week with Matthew Sweeney in Durham, North Carolina, on what has turned out to be his latest trip to the United States. He led Mysore/Self-practice classes in the morning and then theory and technique sessions in the afternoon. He also taught us Chandra Krama (Moon Sequence), a vinyasa yoga sequence he designed to supplement a regular Ashtanga practice. I asked him if I could learn to teach Moon Sequence and he agreed, telling me to sign up for his 1-month intensive in Bali in 2013. I continued to practice the Ashtanga Series weekly, reserving one day a week to practice Moon Sequence.
In 2013, my trip to Bali bore the fruit of learning the latter portion of Advanced A and getting the authorization to teach Moon Sequence. Since then, I have self-practiced Simha Krama (Lion Sequence), a vinyasa sequence he designed as an alternative to Intermediate Series, and I have studied with Matthew again this year for a month, learning Baddha Krama (Bound Sequence) and continuing to learn the variations he taught of Moon (Including New Moon and Full Moon variations) and Lion.
I confess: I have never been to Mysore, India. (Before you judge…) Although I have tried three times, something always came up: surgery the first time, then an extra semester at university to finish DPT prerequisites, and finally, Guruji passed in 2009. Once Guruji passed, my interest in going to Mysore diminished. I have always felt that visiting Mysore might expose me to a deep historical experience, and it has often crossed my mind that going to Mysore is a bit like going to Mecca for a Muslim: every Ashtangi should go there at least once in his life. I would go to Mysore, but the thing is I am not interested in getting authorized or certified by the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI, how I long for the good old days when it was simply the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute). I am perfectly content with continuing my teacher-student relationship with Matthew, with self-practice and with visiting senior Ashtanga teachers, like Richard Freeman, on a semi-annual basis.Hence, the name of my program: Ashtanga Rogue. I follow the traditional sequences of Ashtanga Yoga but I also teach the Vinyasa Krama sequences, specifically Moon Sequence, when appropriate. All students start the Primary Series with me. I teach students in a traditional format, meaning one posture at a time, one day at a time, one breath at a time. I will keep a student at a posture he or she cannot get past, but I don’t hold them there for six or seven years. I find it silly and too rigid to end a student’s career in Ashtanga at Marichyasana D. Therefore, I teach homework sections, when appropriate, to address problem areas, and sometimes I will have the student try out a few postures beyond the postures they are stuck at. Just for fun.
I balance the demand for guidance with the imperative for self-reliance. I don’t think it helps students to always be dependent on teachers for guidance, nor do I think it helps teachers to always feel that they are the authority and the student must submit to the demands of the “tradition.” The relationship between teacher and student is a dynamic one, and both learn from each other. What is vital is that students lean how to make the practice their own, just as the teacher has done himself. After all, at some point, you are going to have to practice by yourself, and if you do not feel confident enough to practice by yourself, then you will end up most likely not practicing at all.
Sometimes, I think that yoga practitioners could learn a lot from the mental culture of martial arts. In particular, I find a lot of inspiration for my approach to yoga in Bruce Lee’s thoughts on tradition and the individual:
To reach the masses, some sort of big organization (whether) domestic and foreign branch affiliation, is not necessary. To reach the growing number of students, some sort of pre-conformed set must be established as standards for the branch to follow. As a result all members will be conditioned according to the prescribed system. Many will probably end up as a prisoner of a systematized drill. Styles tend to not only separate men – because they have their own doctrines and then the doctrine became the gospel truth that you cannot change. But if you do not have a style, if you just say: Well, here I am as a human being, how can I express myself totally and completely? Now, that way you won’t create a style, because style is a crystallization. That way, it’s a process of continuing growth….A teacher must never impose this student to fit his favorite pattern; a good teacher functions as a pointer, exposing his student’s vulnerability (and) causing him to explore both internally and finally integrating himself with his being. Martial art should not be passed out indiscriminately.
Preach it, Bruce.