Yoga and Tradition
By Matthew Sweeney
Although Yoga, meditation and self inquiry are gaining popularity worldwide, these are still relatively new concepts for many people. How we define these concepts and the clarity with which we pursue them is of great interest to me. I am using the following definitions to shine a light on how adherence to a tradition can either help or hinder your practice of Yoga. It might be useful to note how you personally respond to these definitions and to recognise any conditioning you may have about them.
1. Universal consciousness, “not-two”, not separate.
2. To yoke, to unite, to bring together seeming opposites.
I like to define Yoga as being universal and only applicable in the present moment: anything that takes you out of the present moment is not Yoga. As there is no past and no future (they don’t exist) the present moment is all there is, which is universal. The majority of the activities of the mind are not Yoga – the mind tends to look to the future and debates endlessly on that, or looks to the past and indulges in that. The fluctuations of the mind cease when one is in complete surrender to the present moment.
Thus any tradition or technique, which by definition and application are typically “located” in past and future – do this practice and you will become enlightened, more spiritual, healthier, loose weight, better looking etc – can ultimately lead to a non-Yogic state. If Yoga is the present moment, and in the moment there is nothing but awareness, then that is all you need. Awareness is all you are. This is one of the basic contradictions of Yoga practice – are you being present versus trying to improve? Are you being aware or are you practicing a technique in order to then be aware? Any technique can easily be an obstacle to loving awareness.
At some point a Yogi has to abandon tradition and technique for the purpose of true presence and enlightenment.
1. The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.
2. Theological – a doctrine believed to have divine authority.
“I am not against method (technique or tradition) I just don’t believe in it.”
– Martin Buber
I think this quote puts it eloquently. It is not that you should avoid method, technique or tradition, rather utilise them as a source of enquiry and curiosity. Try any technique and observe what happens. Do not be predisposed towards the results. i.e. belief in the future.
Any method, if used properly, can assist you to reach a state of consciousness in the here and now. Every moment is a gift, and every future moment is a future unknown gift that you can await with joy and innocence. Immersion in a tradition, although valuable in terms of learning, can predispose you to “believe” in it, that it somehow makes you better. The latter belief is not based in the present, and typically based on the desire for future improvement.
1. An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
2. Trust, faith or confidence in someone or something.
1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
2. Strong belief in God or religious doctrine based on belief rather than proof.
Reconciling belief and faith can be awkward. If your faith or belief is only forward looking, let go of it. It does not serve you. If your faith is one of trust and it directs you into letting go of rigid beliefs, all the better. Just because you “believe” something to be true does not make it so. Just because you have “faith” in a particular practice does not make it the right or only thing to do.
Tradition and belief are often obstacles that we can hide behind: only if you are traditional are you spiritual; only if you believe in one particular definition of God are you going to heaven; only if you follow these rules will you become enlightened; only if you practice Ashtanga Yoga 6 days per week are you a spiritual Ashtangi. These beliefs are both false and judgmental, and indicate the limitations of the person holding them.
1. Love, loyalty or enthusiasm for a person, activity or cause.
2. Religious worship or observance.
1. Cease resistance to an opponent or enemy and submit to their authority.
2. Abandon oneself entirely to a powerful emotion or influence.
Does adherence to an external tradition help you to find qualities of inner devotion and peace? In some cases the answer to that may be yes, but in my experience less often than is usually claimed. Outwardly devoted to a tradition does not necessarily indicate true inner devotion and liberation.
Surrendering to a teacher (or their guidance) might or might not be beneficial. Simply put, does your teacher have your absolute best interest at heart? If you do not know the answer to that question, the answer is probably no. For many adherents of a system, any tradition, the principle focus is teaching the tradition and (unconsciously or not) encouraging you to swallow that particular belief system. Although this may be a temporarily acceptable goal; to learn the structures and practicalities of the system, long term it is not acceptable. The goal of Yoga is liberation, not bondage.
There is a delicate balance in the relationship between every teacher and student. One common theme for most teachers is to practice not being in control. A common theme for most students is to let go of your resistance. If a teacher only applies the top/down method, or a hierarchical boss/servant structure, then they have most likely developed very little in the way of interpersonal skills. Every student is the expert of their experience in their own body. I think it is every teacher’s job to listen to that expert. The teacher is not the expert. As a teacher you may have greater skill and experience compared to the student, but this does not mean you automatically know what is best for them. It is your job to listen. This applies to the student also – it is your job to listen to your teacher. The conversation should flow both ways rather than being mono-theistic. It is possible to listen to the Divine in each other rather than reacting with control or resistance.
The deeper qualities of devotion and surrender imply an important role that tradition and technique can lead to: surrender to the present moment; connection with your experience here and now; and devotion to your divine, higher self.
The Tradition of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
How do you define the Ashtanga tradition?
As I often like to say “Well, the current tradition is…”
An overview of the history of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga suggests that it is an evolving and changing practice. For example, Krishnamacharya varied the Ashtanga sequences and modified the postures as he thought best. He changed the sequences over time, to the point where he stopped teaching groups with the Ashtanga Krama and preferred to teach unique sequencing individually. If Ashtanga Yoga is supposed to be practiced and taught in a particular way, why did its chief designer stop teaching it?
Any puritanical adherence to the Ashtanga tradition must face this question.
It is currently traditional not to alter any of the Ashtanga sequences. Even though Guruji and Sharath did and do allow occasional variations the general rule is no one else should. The sequences are not to be changed. This includes doing any other kind of practice outside of your regular Ashtanga routine. If you practice Ashtanga, the “tradition” is that you are not supposed to do any other method, whether it be another Hatha Yoga style such as Iyengar or such things as meditation practice. So if you are doing any kind of variation, in or out of the practice, in effect you are not being traditional.
I think this stems from the “belief” that the sequences have never changed and thus they should never change in future: they are perfectly complete as they are; they are coming from God, and thus pure and unalterable. This starts to sound like the common assumptions of many religions – a rigid belief rather than a spiritual truth.
Are you stuck on tradition as a belief system, or as an inquiry into what works for you or your students? Are you following the rules blindly, or are you using the guidelines to bring greater openness and liberation? By characterising traditional belief systems in this way, I am asking you to question and examine your motivations. Do you use the tradition or does it use you? Is it faith or blind faith?
Can you acknowledge at a basic level no one is actually traditional, as it does not in fact exist. There is only the present moment. Waving the flag of tradition is not Yoga, merely another form of religious salesmanship.
Realistically everyone I know modifies or changes the tradition to suit themselves, whether it is a posture, a breath or an attitude. What you think is appropriate is different to what every other teacher and student thinks – the tradition is interpreted differently by everyone. Having said that, I do think it is beneficial to attempt to follow the basic structures, to learn the order of the postures, the Vinyasa counting, the combinations of movements and breath. I just don’t think it needs to be applied as a “one-shoe-fits-all” kind of practice.
It can be awkward to reconcile tradition and reality. Clearly the sequences have changed, so why is it so important not to change it now? For me, it is a matter of degree. I don’t advise changing the sequence or tradition without a great deal of forethought and experience.
Personally I prefer students to maintain the flow and continuity of practice and to avoid too many modifications. Thus I can consider myself traditional on this level. However, this depends on the level of ability – the more ability you have, or the more ability you develop, the more traditional and consistent you can be. The less ability you have, whether through an injury, weakness or imbalance, the more variation you will need.
Another current tradition is to stop a student at a posture they can’t do. This rule is usually first applied at around the Marcihyasana B/D point in the Primary series. Thus if you can never do Marichyasana D (binding of the hands) you will never go any further. I think it is appropriate to hold a student (possibly for a few months) at a difficult posture until it can be explored thoroughly – but longer than this is not practical. If you don’t introduce something like Baddha Konasana early on, Marcihyasana D may never improve. In any sequence there are times when subsequent postures can help greatly to achieve postures earlier on.
A Layered Approach to Tradition
As a student progresses through the Ashtanga Series I tend to get more strict and traditional. I like to help a student to do all of Primary, and eventually including the first few Intermediate back bends, as long as they can complete about 60% or more of it. If a student is having a lot of difficulty with the Primary Series it is better to do less of it rather than more, otherwise that difficulty will only increase. As Vinyasa is the core of the Ashtanga method, it is better to do a shorter practice well – with focus and flow, than a longer practice badly – without them.
If you do not have the physical capacity to do a sufficient amount of the Primary Series (yet!) then I would supplement an alternative sequence in addition to your regular “Half Primary” practice. This can sound sacrilegious to many Ashtanga teachers, but has much greater benefit than forcing a student to stay on half of Primary for the rest of their lives. From my experience many students under this kind of pressure will eventually quit Ashtanga Yoga – and rightly so, given the lack of further guidance.
When learning the Intermediate series you need to be doing around 90% of the postures efficiently to be practicing all of it. If you can’t do one or two postures fully, that is ok: I think you should continue on in the sequence after exploring the difficult posture for a few months or longer. However if there are more than one or two postures that you can’t do, you should not be doing all of this sequence: you stop there on the difficult postures until one or both improve.
In Intermediate I would hold a student for longer on a posture that is difficult than in Primary. The reason for this is simple – at an intermediate or advanced level of practice it starts becoming black or white. Either you have developed the right foundation for doing the more difficult postures or you haven’t. For example, if you have developed flexibility in back bending and strength in the jumps effectively, then you will be ready to do most if not all of the Intermediate series. If you have not developed those – in the Primary Series, or through other means, then you are not yet ready to move through the Intermediate Series.
With Advanced A and beyond, there is almost no leeway in learning the postures out of order. You must have 99% ability in all postures to keep moving forward. If you can’t do a posture, you stop on that posture until you can. This is both for practicality and safety.
Having said that, there is a point of mastery with some advanced students and practitioners, where I completely abandon this strictness. Once you have gained a certain level of ability and maturity, physically and mentally, the “do as you please” method starts to work best. You can start adapting postures and sequences on a daily or weekly basis to suit your needs. It is my experience however that many practitioners start to launch into this stage many years before they are truly ready for it. Usually a teacher is needed to help guide most students past their difficulties – particularly psychological resistance.
The universal learning process is ironic: a beginner is often needing extra help and support to learn the tradition, and in many cases variations outside of the tradition. An intermediate level practitioner (I use that term here generically rather than to indicate the Intermediate Series) is best served focusing on the tradition, becoming absorbed in it and surrendering to its processes and structures. An advanced level practitioner must go back to “beginners mind” and abandon the tradition and technique in order to open up and expand into his or her true potential.
Consistency vs Creativity
If a student really struggles with the standard Series, it is preferable to add a second new sequence, rather than too many modifications within the first. This is especially true if you don’t experience much change or joy in the practice. For example, if you have really tight hips and the Primary Series is hindering more than helping, start practicing the Moon Sequence. If Ashtanga Yoga is overly energetic and Rajasic for you, you should also start practicing the Moon Sequence. If you need more opening in the upper body and extension for the side body, start practicing the Lion Sequence. If the Intermediate Series is simply too difficult you can also practice the Lion Sequence.
Adding a new sequence does not mean you should abandon the Ashtanga practice entirely. It also does not indicate any kind of failure! In addition the odd variation within the Ashtanga Series (just one or two postures rather than ten or twenty) can also be a great way to tune in and go with your body’s needs on the day.
It is good to find a balance between consistency and creativity; one of my common catch phrases. Consistency comes first, creativity comes after. In other words, tradition equals consistency, variation equals creativity. To learn any technique or tradition you have to start at the beginning, and do your best to follow the rules. But at some point (this may be years later) if you don’t allow change, variation and a creative element to your practice, you will tend to have more bad habits than good.
Students who are drawn to only consistency or creativity will usually find it hard to follow my advice – you need to work on the other one, the area in which you are not so proficient. If you prefer a consistent practice, start making some occasional variations. If you like variations all the time, start trying to be more consistent. It is a strange kind of balance I have developed between being somewhat strict with Ashtanga, and more flexible with alternative sequences.
As a general rule I would say try to practice four times per week with more consistency and once per week with creativity. If an injury or particularly strong difficulty comes up, be more creative until the difficulty or injury eases, and then go back to being consistent again. An unwritten tradition of Ashtanga Yoga is that Thursday is “research day”. This is the day you would embrace more creativity and play with some of the postures you are working towards. For example, if you have been doing all of Primary for a while, you would start exploring the first few postures of Intermediate on that day.
I also often advise students to seek out other teachers and methods, whether for variation, alignment, meditation, pranayama, personal therapy, yoga therapy, massage etc. Each of these can be healthy supplements to a regular Asana practice.
As I have stated in the previous article, one of the big benefits of staying with a set sequence is how honest it keeps you. Face the difficulty every day and you face yourself. If the sequence becomes too difficult, some variation is needed. If it is too easy, some challenge is needed. Every sequence needs postures you can do and postures you can’t do. Too much of either of these elements is imbalanced. If you only do postures you like or are already good at, you will never find the true depth of your practice.
One of the best compliments I received from a Yoga friend was that I was a rare teacher for willingly designing sequences that had postures that were both frustrating and challenging for me to attempt. I don’t just teach sequences or practice them simply to look good. I do so for my total physical and mental well being, and do my best to apply the same principles to all my students. In the end it does not matter if that means we are more traditional or less – whatever works is the key. If that means you are being traditional, great, if not, enjoy the new freedom.
Physically Holistic and Spiritually Holistic
One of the problems with Ashtanga Yoga is that it is only really physically holistic at an advanced level. As an advanced Ashtanga practitioner gets to practice more Asana variations, through both natural ability and hard work, they gain great benefit from accessing different parts of the body. If you can accept that most students simply won’t be able to learn all of the Intermediate Series, let alone some of Advanced A, then most students will never get the complete holistic benefit of enough postures if they are only doing the Primary Series.
Of the students who practice and persist with Ashtanga Yoga, based on the current tradition, less than 10% will be able to work through all of Primary and start Intermediate. Of those, less than 10% will finish Intermediate, and of those less than 10% will finish Advanced A etc etc.
Thus after paring down from 7 billion people on the planet, there are only a few thousand people who might finish Intermediate, and a few hundred who might finish Advanced A etc. This is the law of diminishing returns. There are very few students who will ever gain the benefit of working the whole body effectively – most students will remain in the Primary Series. Most students will not go further. And these students either eventually do other Yoga on the side or they quit. What we see in the Ashtanga community are the success stories: many wonderful, dedicated students and teachers. What we don’t see are the many more students who could not or would not continue. It bears some thinking on.
I do not wish to debate here whether the Primary Series accesses enough areas of the body on its own. I have covered this in the previous article. What I am pointing out is the fact that most students hit a wall, usually in Primary or the start of Intermediate, and do not progress much further physically through the traditional Ashtanga system. Many students who come to a big physical obstacle will either get frustrated and quit or get injured and quit. The question is how often does this occur? From my estimation, the students who stop are far greater than the students who continue. If this is true, how can rigidly teaching the method be justified?
It is short sighted for a teacher who gets the benefit of practicing three or four traditional sequences, to say to the student who cannot or will not: “oh it’s all about surrender and devotion to the teacher and tradition.” This is an incredibly narrow minded and judgmental attitude. I think it stems from the false belief that a strict practice is a better practice, or somehow more spiritual. From my training in behavioural psychology I am highly concerned about such statements. You cannot know the experience of another human being, and to force someone into a practice because of your own belief system is controlling – this attitude does not have the welfare of the individual at its heart. You cannot ascertain someone’s spiritual state merely by gauging how often they do an Asana practice.
As far as I am aware, no tradition or technique, including Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, is innately spiritual. No “devotion” to practicing 6 days a week indicates any greater spiritual development than someone who does not. For a technique or a tradition is nothing more than a concept, a thing, an “it”. Every human being is spiritual. This latent potential is in all of us, whether old or young, Primary Series or Advanced practitioner, Meditator or Pranayama aspirant. A technique is not spiritual, only the person practicing it is.
An advanced Asana practice does not mean an advanced level of spirituality. Nor does an advanced practice indicate a good person. Of course it does not mean a bad person either. True spirituality is dependant on your loving awareness and as I have defined above, is not dependant on external practices. If you depend on a technique for spiritual worth, by definition, it is not universal, and therefore not spiritual. A technique is a map, it is not the terrain. You have to walk in the terrain in order to explore, so perhaps for some of the map holders, it is time to let go of it.
In my experience many traditional teachers make the map more important than the terrain. In other words they place the technique over the students practicing it. Thus it becomes a burden rather than a stepping stone. Look at any of the big religions and we see the same typical problem – only if you follow the rules are you going to heaven. Well, there is no heaven beyond that which you are creating right now.
Once again I would like to stress that I do not wish to throw the baby out with the bath water – the Ashtanga tradition has fantastic value. For example, improving physical health, focus on the breath, mindfulness, discipline and self practice which can lead to greater self awareness and devotion. I am concerned with how some of these values are being misapplied or misunderstood.
One of my personal goals is to be able to teach a variety of students, not just the elite. I like to work with students of any ability, age and inclination and have them benefit from both Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Vinyasa Krama. I think it is essential to incorporate alternative sequencing in order to be more physically holistic – to help students to access more aspects of the body than the standard Ashtanga Series offers to the majority of practitioners.
Of equal importance is putting spiritual holism into practice. Initially this means developing your pranayama, meditation and self inquiry practices – which can then lead to letting go and surrender on a deeper spiritual level. I also have no ownership or control over the spiritual experiences of my students. Thus I use the map (I teach certain practices: asana, pranayama, meditation etc) and then I keep asking the students what the terrain is like. I try to help the students set up the criteria where some of these transformative experiences become more likely.
Here and Now
Imagine the possibility of never being able to practice Ashtanga Yoga ever again. How does that feel? Whether painful or pleasant this may be something important for you to look at.
Students and teachers alike can be reluctant to change because changing to do an alternative seems inadequate – that you are not good enough for the tradition, that you can’t be a part of the cool club. It is like admitting defeat: that you are a quitter; that you failed or didn’t try hard enough. Eliminate that attitude right now!
One of the truest principles of Yoga that I know is this: there is nothing wrong with you and there never was. Any teacher or person that tells you otherwise, by action, words or implication is not keeping your highest truth close to heart. You are perfect and beautiful as you are.
It can take many years of experience as a practitioner and as a teacher to really be able to balance tradition versus variation. Don’t abandon the tradition just because of a difficulty, or because of boredom or entertainment. Don’t ignore the possibility of change if a rigid application of the tradition is not serving you or your students. It is possible to have both: consistency and creativity rather than one or the other. Include rather than exclude: Yoga is “not-two”.
Initially most of us do not have the awareness and discipline to really look at ourselves and evaluate our blind spots, whether they are physical or mental. This is why we go to a teacher, a guide or Guru. As a beginner you will have to rely on the tradition or your teachers’ interpretation of it. As a beginning teacher you will have to do the same.
However, it is your life, your body, and your unique spiritual experience. As you change and grow, keep looking at your practice and evaluating and identifying your imbalances. Demand the same from your teachers. As your loving awareness develops the right path will reveal itself. Be prepared to surrender to that.