Questioning the Mysore style

My mantra for the last few years has been: “Coffee, yoga, hustle.”  When I took up teaching Mysore classes (first from 2015 to 2016, then a two-month break while my yoga studio business collapsed, before taking it back up from 2016 to 2017), it became, “Coffee, teach, yoga, hustle.”  I had been practicing Ashtanga for 15 years, and I wanted a more personalized setting in which to share with my students the Series, techniques, and insights I’ve had about yoga.  It seemed that I had to take the plunge and start teaching Mysore, 5 to 6 days a week (moon days off!), early mornings from 5:45am to 7:45am, and start living that “Mysore teacher lifestyle.”

You know?  The lifestyle where you wake up every morning around 4:30am, jump start the system with the strongest coffee you can find (7-Eleven coffee is not sufficient!), and then head to the studio to “hold the space” and teach for 2 hours before doing your own practice.  (Note: the younger crowd of authorized and certified teachers make it a badge of honor that they practice before they teach, waking up super early and practicing at 4am, a time of day that routinely gets described as ‘ungodly.’  I don’t have kids, but if I did, I wouldn’t want to have to go to bed before they do.)  Then…well, what exactly do you do after that schedule?  9 to 5 jobs are out of the question.  So…it has to be more teaching!

What did I realize after 9 months of teaching in two different programs?  I was feeling exhausted, irritable.  I got into the habit of 12 to 14 hour work days.  My creativity dropped dead.  My relationships suffered.  I had the general feeling of being trapped in a very demanding, brutal schedule, being underpaid and overworked.

I loved my students who were showing up every (or every other) morning.  I admired their dedication and their sincerity.  They were eager to learn the Series, to refine their practice, to explore alternative vinyasa sequence from Vinyasa Krama.  I was eager to see their practice grow.  This was more emotionally satisfying than the financial concerns.

But at the end of the day, even yoga teachers have bills to pay.

I got burned out.  I had to stop teaching Mysore style.

Now, for those of you who don’t know what Mysore style is, permit me a moment to explain.   Mysore-style yoga is the way in which Ashtanga Yoga has been traditionally taught, and I would hazard to say that it is considered the most authentic way to learn Ashtanga yoga.  Students practice set sequences, at their own pace, in a group setting.  The teacher supervises the class, offering practice advice and physical adjustments where needed.  Class is held usually in the mornings, although some studios are offering late morning, afternoon, and evening Mysore classes.  Classes are held Monday through Saturdays (although it used to be Sundays through Fridays) with Sundays off.

How is it to teach Mysore?  My experience has been the following:

  • a lot of observation of people’s practices
  • some verbal cuing or instruction
  • moderate levels of physical adjustments
  • some falling asleep while watching =-)

It takes a certain rhythm between observing, teaching, and adjusting.  Everyone has their own unique way of balancing it.  I tend to be more observer than adjuster.  Some teachers I know or have taken class with are more adjuster than observer.

The Mysore method is practical.  Students learn set sequences, so it is like teaching people how to play familiar pieces of music.  Everyone knows the tune, now we just need to look at the sheet music.  Students learn the Ashtanga Primary Series first, then progress to Intermediate Series once they can satisfy the following two conditions:

  1. Perform all of Primary Series, with competence in most, if not all, of the postures
  2. Stand up from Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow) 3 times by themselves

This post is not going to be the place where I go into the progression method of Mysore-style class.

If I had to practice yoga in only one way, it would be in the Mysore format.  I love the feeling of practicing first thing in the morning.  Mornings truly are sacred for me.  I know that I will not be called into a meeting, have to answer emails, or any other tasks to handle.  I can focus on my practice, get level-headed and calm for the day, and then head off to tackle the day’s tasks.

If I had to teach yoga in only one way, it would be in the Mysore format, for a brief period of time.

Here are some of the problems with the Mysore-style format, as it is currently designed:

  1. Early morning hours: some people just don’t want to practice that early in the morning.  I do, and many of my students want to as well, but it is a hard sell to the rest of the yoga community when you say that the only time to learn Ashtanga is in the early morning.  Also, the most financial rewarding classes are in the evenings, so…see point 3.  But first please read point 2 =-)
  2. Six days a week: for the teacher, this is the most brutal aspect of the format.  Teaching Ashtanga in the Mysore format requires a certain knowledge and commitment to the tradition and to its method.  It cannot be taught in a weekend teacher training, or a year-long training.  It takes years of being a student in this method before you can learn how to teach it.  So, as the Mysore teacher, you are a scarce resource, which can be valuable (scarcity creates value) but it also means that you cannot get a sub when you have the flu and the studio needs for you to teach the class.  Additionally, teachers are prohibited by the KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Center in Mysore from holding teacher training programs to create more Mysore teachers, so Mysore teachers are often forced to be creative and designate “assistants” who can fill in when the teacher needs them.
  3. Burning the candle at both ends: Mysore teachers cannot really live off Mysore classes alone.  They have to teach other classes, in the afternoon or evenings, to make ends meet.  You end up burning the candle at both ends.  You become the itinerant teacher, dashing from studio to studio, teaching two or three (or more!) classes a day.  At the end of the week, you look forward to Friday evening when you can fall asleep on the couch with a book and sleep in the next day.
  4. Codependence: It is ironic that it is called “self-practice” yet a teacher has to be present all of the time.  Students can become dependent on the teacher for adjustments into certain postures (e.g. binds, feet behind the head, dropbacks).  These adjustments can be physically taxing for the teacher, if he or she has 10 or 15 students in any given class.  Teachers can become dependent on their students to support their ego and feed what I often have seen as dictatorial tendencies (more on the dark side of Ashtanga in a later post).
  5. Tunnel vision on how to practice: Because it is a set sequence, Ashtanga demands that you adhere to the sequence in order to observe the effects and, half-jokingly, to avoid the ire of the teacher.  Because it is a set sequence, Ashtanga is easy to memorize, easy to observe deviations, and easy to discuss with the student on areas of improvement of difficulty.  Because it is a set sequence, though, Ashtanga can foster tunnel vision for the teachers and students alike.  “You have to practice it this way, or it’s not Ashtanga!” “Why are you not doing jump backs between sides?” “Why are you doing it that way?  Who taught you that?” “I cannot practice because my (random body part) is injured and I cannot do a full practice.”  All things I have heard in the Mysore room, over the years, sometime said to me even.  Discipline is important in learning the sequence and the method, but I’ve never felt comfortable with the simultaneous shaming and interrogating that can occur in a yoga class, especially the Mysore classes.  (As I am writing this post, I am seeing about 5 other articles I am going to have to write).

So what to do?  Is there a way to make Mysore-style yoga more sustainable for the teacher, more accessible to the public, more profitable for the teacher and the studio?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

 

 

 

Firefly and Crow Poses

The following two poses, Titthibhasana (Firefly) and Bakasana (Crane/crow pose), are the dynamic duo you have to flow through when you are transitioning out of Supta Kurmasana (sleeping turtle), the Gordian knot of Primary Series.

Exhale, from Supta kurmasana, move your hands underneath your shoulders.  Inhale, press into your hands, lift your hips and feet away from the floor.  Keep your ankles crossed behind your neck. Once you are balancing on your hands, still inhaling, straighten out your legs, dropping your hips and lifting your feet. Look forward.  Hold for the duration of the inhalation (or longer if you want to build strength for Intermediate).


Exhale, pull your heels back to your bum.  Press your arms straight, drop your tailbone, suck your heels up to your bum, and press through your index knuckles.  Squeeze your knees into your arms.  Look forward.  Now you are in bakasana.  Hold for the duration of the exhalation (or longer if you want!  The first westerners to practice Ashtanga would hold this pose for up to 59 breaths!).  Then, inhale, followed by an exhalation, jump back into chaturanga.


Both poses are excellent at developing arm strength, endurance, and focus.  Make sure to straighten your arms as fully as possible.  Work on smoothing out the transition from one pose to the next.  If you practice Crow with bent arms, you will only get strong in that particular joint angle.

And don’t forget to soften your face and breathe!

Let me know if you have any questions.

Vinyasa Krama, by Matthew Sweeney

Vinyasa Krama Playful, Versatile, Creative

Mindful, Focused, Consistent

with Matthew Sweeney

1. Vinyasa Krama is Yoga tailored for individuals – sequences that are scaled and modified for students with any physical condition. Students learn sequencing as a model for exploration rather than a goal to be reached. This enables all Vinyasa Krama teachers to help a huge variety of students with different rates of learning. One claim we make on VK teaching is that we are able to teach more students than most if not all other Vinyasa or Ashtanga teachers – as neither age nor ability is a barrier. Potentially any sequence or tradition can be used under the VK umbrella.

2. Self Practice
– rather than focusing on Led classes where the teacher will often teach what he or she is best at, we focus on self practice so the emphasis is on student maturity and learning / experiencing at your own pace. Self practice is the key to all other aspects of Yoga – Pranayama, meditation, and self inquiry. A key point we make is the importance of not relying on only one technique, sequence or tradition – the technique or tradition is the map, not the territory. A Self Practice teacher guides and encourages; he or she has to be objective and able to provide time, space and feedback. Self Practice class sizes are also generally limited in order to give individual attention.

3. Pranayama
– Vinyasa Krama breathing techniques are comprehensive, taught over a period of time, in a step by step manner, via self practice. Students learn based on commitment and ability, and are assessed as to whether each technique is appropriate. As most Pranayama classes are taught in a group format, this comes with some significant problems. That is, a lack of individual guidance, plus the tendency to teach more advanced techniques (Kumbhaka for example) before a student knows how to breathe properly and without effort.

4. Self Inquiry and Relational Development
– we explore self awareness in the context of our relationships to others. This key aspect of integrating Yoga, Self and relationships is usually overlooked or even abused by many teachers, Yoga or otherwise. A teacher / student relationship must be ethical first, and technical second. It is personal and therefore requires a clear mind and open heart.

 5. Meditation and Advaita Vedanta – we also focus on the big picture, continually returning to the spaciousness of the natural, effortless, non-dual self. The techniques are simply pointing at the same universal truth every time – I am that.

For more on Matthew Sweeney, his books and DVDs, and his courses, visit http://www.yogatemple.com