Knowing the rules of yoga well to break them correctly
The internet is abound with inspiring videos on yoga such as these created by Alessandro Sigismondi on the Ashtanga Yoga practice. These videos and similar articles describe how the practice has remarkably changes people's lives for the good and has helped many overcome negative patterns including addiction, ill health and negative mind states. One cannot but feel a sense of awe on seeing these videos. Yet, at the same time, for every one of these inspiring article and video, there are many that talk about how stifling, and both physically and emotionally scarring, yoga practice can be, especially the traditional ones such as the Ashtanga Yoga that I practice.
To understand the dichotomy between these two points of view, one needs to examine some of the guidelines for doing yoga, the student's relation to the teacher (Guru) and other lifestyle changes that that are recommended when one undertakes an intense yoga practice such as Ashtanga Yoga. With these understood, it will be clear as to why and when a "rule" makes sense and under what circumstances it should be mended. The rest of the article will use Ashtanga yoga as the example but the conclusions reached are applicable to other traditional yoga schemes as well.
1) Sanctity of the sequence
As described in section 4 (Sequence and its consequence) of this article, the sequence itself is not sacrosanct. While there is some logic behind how the sequence of poses are arranged, with sun salutations typically at the beginning, counter poses for several poses,and relaxation poses like head and shoulder stand at the end, there never was a strict adherence to a sequence of asanas in the history of yoga. Why else is there such a strict adherence of the shoulder stand always following the head stand and for twice the duration in the Iyengar yoga system while the head stand follows the shoulder stand in the Ashtanga system. The main advantage of following a sequence is that it gets you into a routine of flow without having to think which Asana one should do next. However, since our bodies are different, a sequence of asanas to suit everyone is not meaningful. Therefore, one should tune in to one’s needs and modify the sequence with the help of teachers, if possible, skipping asanas, doing modified poses where needed and incorporating poses that bring one therapeutic benefit or simply joy. Otherwise an asana practice over time can become stale and will not lead to the mental benefits that it is originally meant to achieve.
Yet, in the world of traditional yoga, like Ashtanga, some teachers are very strict about adhering to the rules and a student is not allowed to progress to the next pose till he or she has mastered the current pose. This is often a point of frustration for many students who complain that the rigidity has got to do more with right of passage and less with injury or perfection because the teachers often went through a lot of difficulty in a remote foreign land to learn the asanas from a strict traditional guru that they expect the student to do some hard work before progressing through the series. These students find their practice becoming so stale and boring that they either move to a different teacher or yoga system or quit their practice altogether. The teachers however insist that without the body opening up and the use of techniques like the bandhas, mastered, the student puts himself at risk of injury in rapidly progressing. This article describes this contentious point in detail in the section on rule #3.
2) Focus on the Dhristi, Bandha, the Ujjayi breath and abstaining from drinking water during class
First time students to traditional yoga classes like the Ashtanga class are often shocked when they are told not to drink water during class , to squeeze their anus and to breathe like Darth Vader. While the notion of not drinking water in a class whose temperature can exceed 90F can sound like the anathema to everything one is told by science in order to avoid dehydration, it, however, has a deeply significant intent. This is because asanas are a gateway to stabilize the mind by harnessing the prana which in turns needs the Agni (fire) in our system to be strong as described in this article on how to achieve depth in Asanas. Drinking water douses this fire which requires a lot of effort to arouse through the Ujjayi breath and the moola bandha (root lock).
Similarly, diet plays a very important part in achieving siddhi (perfection) in asanas as described in this article. That is the reason why there are a lot of recommendations in the yoga circles to eat no later than 5pm and eating light food as far as possible to easily activate this fire and the bandhas (locks). Inspite of all these, one should remember the first rule of yoga, which is Ahimsa (non-harming) especially on oneself and hence one ought to progress gradually with a sense of ease. Ahimsa and Tapas (the fire of Austerity) are discussed in this article.
3) "Guru worship" : Relationship between the teacher and student
Perhaps the most controversial element of Yoga and the one that is most often talked about is the relationship between the student and the teacher. This, unfortunately, has taken on some unsavory forms. Teachers having lofty titles, either given to them by overly zealous students or self-anointed by themselves from a sense of ego, is not uncommon. Demand to follow their instructions verbatim and not questioning is yet another pet peeve topic, because, according to those teachers, after all, the sequences and poses are time tested over several millenia and therefore correct and applicable to all . This has resulted in teachers using harsh and sometimes abusive language on their students. The most serious in this line of behavior are the myriad accusations of sexual abuse committed by well known yoga teachers on their students.
To understand why some teachers have behaved so and why some still do, one has to look at the history and precedents. There is a common Indian saying that the most important people in ones life are "Matha, Pitha, Guru and Dhaivam", which means it is the Mother, followed by the father followed by one's Guru and only then God itself who are important. Traditional Indian Culture therefore laid a lot of importance to one's Guru. With a high importance placed by others on the Guru, the Guru sometimes develops a sense of ego. In fact legendary yoga teachers like T. Krishnamacharya have treated their students like B.K.S. Iyengar so harshly that they in turn often displayed a similar behavior to their students. The article titled "Ashtanga is Not the Problem, How it’s Taught is" by the great yoga teacher Dr. Monica Gauci goes into the details of some of these problems.
The great teacher Shankara who lived in the 8th century CE revered by many as one of the greatest teachers who walked on earth
A good yoga teacher should instill a sense of comfort and ease in a student. The Buddha outlines these eight qualities the student should feel when studying with the teacher suitable to his/her temperament. Students should also not idolize their teachers for even a great yoga teacher, is , after all a human being.
This article discusses some of the contentious rules surrounding yoga, explains their origins and describes how to use one's judgement to mend them as needed.