Joy: Its just so frustrating to me that there are so many haters of Ashtanga out there. Its so lame. And so many people blame the practice. I think that sucks. It doesn’t bother you?
David: No. It honestly doesn’t bother me much and I’ll tell you why. For one, like I say, every system of knowledge is also a system of ignorance. Many people either don’t want to think or don’t realize that there is ignorance in their system— so they give themselves over 100% to it, they go overboard in trying to do it the way they think its supposed to be done. But they somehow don’t factor in the ignorance of the system. If you factor in that there is a built in ignorance to any system, it can make a crucial difference in how you go about interpreting the system. That’s one thing.
And also it’s so easy to miss the value of Ashtanga, which to me comes down to a love of Hatha Yoga. And if you look at what is at the core of Hatha Yoga…you’ve got the important categories of 1) Asana 2) Pranayama 3) Mudras (Bandhas) 4) Samadhi (working with your mind). Ashtanga is an excellent representative of hatha yoga, and in order to get the value out of ashtanga you really do have to see it that way—AS A SYSTEM OF HATHA YOGA. And then follow through to use the Ashtanga system to extract the great hatha yoga techniques out of it.
Joy: Why do you think so many people quit?
David: The basic hatha yoga techniques are not easy to learn. On one hand that is the strength of Ashtanga, by yoking yourself to the system you gain entrance into the secrets of asana’s, breathing, bandhas and such. But to learn those techniques is rigorous and there really isn’t a way around that rigor. I think that treading any spiritual path must necessarily include a strong element of rigor to it, there is no easy, breezy road—a person will have to sacrifice and risk and go beyond their perceived limits, and there is some element of danger and uncertainty—they must go beyond their physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual boundaries.
Joy: Can you give me an example of what you mean?
David: For instance its amazing how much breathing power and dance like rhythmic movement are necessary just to simply open yourself up to being expressive with your physical body. To become open to hatha yoga is a very athletic process that requires that you put a significant amount of vital energy into play within your body. This requires that you apply significant amounts of intelligent mental focus, will and physical force to creating the meditative positions. Ashtanga provides you with the means to bring those forces to life, and it is unavoidable that within the use of that much rhythm and athleticism there’s some danger involved-
Joy: But isn’t the opposite true?
David: Yes. There is more physical, psychological, and spiritual danger in refraining from risking, sacrificing and laying your soul on the line in some decisive way. But definitely especially as you go through the process of being a beginner applying yourself in earnest to ashtanga can be hazardous. It is common to get lost in a superficial application of techniques, such as to get caught in thinking that the practice is about doing more and more advanced asana’s rather than going further into the subtlety and power of the core hatha yoga techniques, like breath control and internal locks that lead you into meditation and a discovery of consciousness.
Joy: I also think that in the AGE of the QUICK PRIVILEGED people think; at least I thought this, that the knowledge should come fast and easy.
David: Right and the opposite is true…it’s a life long practice. Your whole life you will be studying the techniques and they are formidable. For example, Pattabhis Jois called the process of breathing that you want to come to “free breathing.” But it’s amazing how much intensity it takes to perform the simple act of breathing freely. And remember free breathing means choice. It means you have a choice about how you breathe—like how much force to use or subtlety or depth. You are versatile when it comes to breathing in this very moment; you are able to take a significant measure of control over your breath in the moment. To win that choice is challenging to say the least—this is where the danger and the risk come into the equation—if you do the same thing you’ve done every day, day in and day out, you won’t find it—the breath won’t come alive within you. And that’s just one technique of Hatha Yoga! And the same thing applies to asanas, bandhas, meditation, stilling of the mind.
And to us who are yoked to ashtanga for life—we’ve experienced the bliss and potency that results from using Ashtanga to go into those techniques further and further—- you cannot help but love it.
Joy: So why are people not in love?
David: I think students get sidetracked in the ignorance of the system and think that there’s a rigidity that is NOT there. And ultimately strict rigidity doesn’t serve you maintaining the practice.
Joy: And so they quit and then they start hating on the Ashtangis. If you could say one thing to folks who had a practice and then stopped and are now angry at the practice what would you say?
David: GO POSITIVELY FORWARD INTO YOUR INTERPRETATION OF YOGA—WHATEVER YOUR INTERPRETATION IS. And the time that is spent finding fault and tearing other people and their interpretation down is wasted time– and you really do not have time for that…go, discover—by entering ever deeper into your practice. And don’t concern yourself with what somebody else is or is not discovering –don’t concern yourself with what you can’t relate to. If you can’t relate to the way someone or some group of people is interpreting your system or another system then turn the other direction and keep going forward in the direction that makes sense to you.
Joy: So how can you decide whether you should be practicing and teaching Ashtanga?
David: There does comes a point where you have to look and decide if you really are doing Ashtanga—how far out there is your interpretation?
Joy: But that’s the problem…what is Ashtanga? And now there are so many different interpretations that people are getting all riled up with each other.
Joy: I guess this is a stupid conversation.
David: hahaha. No it’s an interesting conversation. I think…. I really do think…in a certain way…. I mean…I guess….its a hard one to explain…Look Pattabhis Jois has passed away and so there are a lot of different interpretations of Ashtanga. And now there are senior students who have considerable wisdom who even differ in their interpretation from Sharath…these are people who spent a lot of time with Pattabhis Jois. There are what do you say 30-50 teachers– more than 30-50 teachers who spent a lot of time with Pattabhis Jois?
Joy: I’d say that’s a good estimate.
David: And so each one of those persons has a different interpretation of Ashtanga. And I’m not talking about Sharath here. That’s completely different because everyone should go at least once to study in Mysore with Sharath or Saraswathi. I’m talking about Senior teachers of Pattabhi Jois. So back to what I was saying…
There are all of those students of those senior teachers who have become teachers. And now those students of the senior teachers are teachers and each one of them has their own interpretation of Ashtanga. —This is a natural process that will take place even if everyone loves the system and tries to interpret it as closely to Pattabhis Jois as they can. Many of these newer teachers never had the good fortune to study directly with Pattabhis Jois. And here’s the tricky part –without the powerful glue that Guruji supplied many of these newer teachers become dissatisfied in some way— And so they are branching off and having a different interpretation—and this process seems to be happening sooner and sooner. It is one thing to study Ashtanga for 20 years and have the process of coming to your own original voice develop and evolve over the course of several years. It is another thing to study for 5 or 6 years and be a young teacher and then to branch off. The farther removed the student is from Pattabhis Jois the harder it is to have cohesion. And thus it is in your best interests to form a strong bond with either Sharath, Saraswathi or one of the senior teachers so that you can absorb the spirit of the system and ripen into a teacher that can effectively contribute to a sharing of the lineage that both honors what came before and honors the expression of your own voice. But remember in the end its still the same basic core practice –it is fairly straight forward what the system is. And yes there’s flexibility so that you can maintain the practice but you have to be attached to the basic system that has been given and want to explore it.
Joy: I always find it interesting when I read conference notes, or a Tim Miller blog, or Freeman, or Kino article, or David Robson, or Harmony, Magnolia, Laruga on IG…that the core teachings really are the same. There are differences but the core spiritual practice and prayer to God is always what is of the highest value and what we are actually supposed to be doing on our mat.
David: Its true. I have a funny saying. You could say it’s a worst-case scenario or maybe it’s a best-case scenario…. Yoga is a party of one. And it means Yoga is discovered alone in solitude but it also speaks to something very important which is I see yoga a certain way, my practice leads me into a certain experience of yoga each day, and what I discover is of vital importance to me. And I love it when others are inspired by my teachings. I’m very grateful that I have many people to share the path with. But the interior way that I discover each day on my mat is important enough to me that if no one else wanted to play with me—then for me it would be a PARTY OF ONE. –Do you see what I am saying?………….Go into your own body and discover the Ashtanga system for yourself—in your own way. and if what you discover is much, much different than the recipe of the system…leave the system………explore another system or create your own system.
Joy: I think that calls for a hallelujah.
David: To me the ashtanga family is like a fragile eco system and thus your own internal relationships and the external relationships with others in the family have to be tended to very carefully in order maintain a balance. And so even though I may disagree with certain aspects of how various players of the ashtanga game go about it, I do my best to be accepting, tolerant and forgiving. I let people find their own way within the system. I do this partly by appreciating people from a distance. I have learned that it is generally not in anyone’s best interest to rupture a relationship because we don’t agree with certain aspects of the way we each go about it. I personally would rather be part of the family than not—and in being part of that family I want expressions and interpretations of the system to be wide and inclusive while remaining rooted in the lineage. I also know that many people within the family have difficulty accepting me because of some of my methods of conveying the system. But my methods have come directly out of my own practice and also out of responding with care to the needs of students. Mostly I don’t concern myself with anyone who is negative towards me. I speak my truth and am thankful when I find people who are sympathetic, I am thankful for the friends that I find along the way. I do my best to travel further and further along my chosen road and let the others be.
Joy: I hope no one comments on this. Haha.
David: Oh no what have we done?!
Joy: Is that it?
David: One last thought. Ashtanga is an ascetic practice, ascetic means performing tapas tapas means voluntarily undergoing hardship, challenge, pain, —this is not for everyone in fact many people will turn away from this path…they will find this path harmful they will not relate to it or understand it…………but that will not change the fact that many people do find healing, learning, growth on the path of tapas, these devoted lovers of hatha yoga will continue on the path because it is healing for them——— it won’t matter that there are people who are critical of and opposed to them. Let each find his own way unhindered……….
Joy: Now we should go to bed.
David: Yeah. 6am comes early.