The guy who would fix his hair every few asanas:

How Ashtanga Yoga practice differed between then and now

Peter Sanson on the olden times of Ashtanga Yoga practice with 'Guruji'

In the book titled "Guruji: A portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois through the eyes of his students", an excellent collection of interviews with some of the early students of Pattabhi Jois, who are now great teachers in their own right, Peter Sanson, an ashtanga Yoga teacher from New Zealand, recounts the days of practice with Pattabhi Jois in the 90's when the crowds were not as huge as it was a decade later.

Peter, who, is known for his gentle style of teaching ashtanga yoga, unlike the harsh and rigid styles adopted by some teachers, recounts how in those days the atmosphere of the room particularly amongst the Indian students, differed from a typical ashtanga yoga practice room today. Peter, in particular, (laughingly) mentions an Indian man who would get up to fix his hair every few asanas, especially when Guruji was not around. Peter, observed that the Indian students did yoga as a daily morning routine without aspiring to do more and more advanced poses. They would then go off to work. Below is an axcerpt from the interview with Peter from the book.

The discipline of Yoga

Patanjali begins the yoga sutras with the first sutra which says "Atha Yoga Anushasanam" which means "This is the continuous discipline of Yoga". Atha draws focus to the subject at hand. Shasanam means discipline or rule. Anu means again, or in this context, it means continuous or sustained. Even though yoga is a discipline, it is an internal one, brought about by the joy or delight that comes from its practice. It is not an external discipline, and certainly not one that is enforced by a harsh teacher.

Manju Jois, Pattabhi Jois' son, who is a reason why Ashtanga Yoga is popular in the west, repeatedly says that Ashtanga Yoga is practiced very harshly these days and that "it is no fun at all". He says that when he learned to practice they would just pick a pose at random and try to do it. In fact that is how it was when Pattabhi Jois taught the early western students. There was some sequencing of asanas but certainly not the tyrannical order that is enforced today. See below an excerpt from Manju Jois.

My Observation

I have practiced Ashtanga Yoga at many studios. In my opinion, the places where Ashtanga "rules" are not strictly enforced are the ones where I enjoyed practicing the most. This is not to say that fixing one's hair in the middle of a class is an appropriate thing but if there is no leeway for a student to explore in their asana practice, then it is not yoga at all. And, unfortunately, this is what some people do, not allowing others room to modify a pose and experiment with it. And it is sometimes not the teacher's fault, because that is how they are taught and asked to sign a document that they will strictly adhere to this method to get certified.

I have also found that Ashtanga Yoga studios in India taught by very experienced teachers with a scriptural bent of mind, are quite unique in that those studios had many very elderly people or people with ailments, practicing a few simple asanas, side by side with younger people who practice more advanced asanas. This is not something that you find in many ashtanga yoga studios around the world.

Great yoga healers like T. Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. iyengar and his daughter Geeta Iyengar, as well as numerous teachers around the world, consider it a great achievement when they can heal someone who cannot walk to be able to stand in Tadasana and not when they can teach an already advanced student who can sit down and put a leg behind their neck to be able to stand up and put a leg behind their neck.