Is There Such a Thing As Pure Ashtanga Yoga?

This past month I did a short interview for Amrita Magazine in London. They asked me a question that I felt was an important one, because it hit upon a lot of the problems that all groups in the world – whether political, religious, spiritual, or ancestral – have to grapple with, and that is the notion of purity. The question was, “Do you teach “pure” Ashtanga Yoga, and what do you think of all the variations and offshoots based on the original system?” My answer, which is below, didn’t address their question fully. I answered only the first part, but not the second part, because I am not familiar with the offshoots and what they are doing. I am, however, familiar with the splits that have occurred in our own community, and that is what I spoke about in my answer.

Let’s start off with the idea about “pure” Ashtanga Yoga. Though I understand your question and where you are coming from, I like to be careful about “pure” anything when it comes to spirituality, religious practices, or anything to do with religion. Thinking we are adhering to the most pure version of something is how our minds begin to take on a fundamentalist, extremist, or self-righteous mindset – usually without us being aware of it – and it leads to the most un-yogic type of behavior.

I do my best to teach what I learned from Sri K Pattabhi Jois, or at least what I remember learning. What I remember learning is the key here – because all of our memories are subject to alteration over time. Also, he taught everyone a little bit differently. There are some basic things that have held up over the years, and that I stick to: the basic order of the sequences, the technique of breathing and moving, and the gaze. But the rate at which he taught each person a posture, or the small changes in the way he taught different people postures, varied.

Over the years there have been small changes to the sequences, a change in a posture here or there, a different count to a vinyasa here or there, but essentially things have stayed the same for the past 90 years since Pattabhi Jois started learning from Krishnamacharya in South India. Pattabhi Jois’s grandson, Sharath Jois, who now is the head of the Ashtanga Yoga parampara, has also introduced some new additions, which are welcome changes. But you imagine this system of practice is like a river whose course has not changed direction over many years, but along the banks of the river, some small changes occur.

We have to be flexible enough in body and mind to roll with the changes when they come; if they work, there is no reason to not keep them. If they don’t work for you, stick with what does – but don’t criticize the changes as being less than what you learned earlier, because they may actually work quite well for a lot of people. “Old is gold” is what we say when we get old! My thinking is, if Pattabhi Jois, or Sharath, introduced something new into the sequence, perhaps there is a good reason for it. After all, they had/have a lot of experience.

So, which Ashtanga Yoga is “pure”? The version that Pattabhi Jois taught in 1937 at the Sanskrit College? How he taught in 1948 when he opened his first institute? The version the first Americans learned in 1972? What I learned in 1991 when I started with him? Or today, as Sharath teaches it? My thinking is that they are all pure, if your mind is pure.

We need to keep in mind that the sequences, though effective, are not so much special in and of themselves. The important thing is the experience that is being passed along through the vehicle of a practice. The practice is just that: a vehicle. We have to remember who is behind the wheel. If they are a good driver, then who knows, perhaps they will reach their destination safely. But if they are a reckless driver, then they might cause damage to innocent bystanders. If someone thinks they are pure, but they hurt people, or misguide people, then all the adherence to rules and regulations are useless. Someone else, with less experience, less adherence to rules, but more adherence to kindness, listening and compassion, may actually go a lot further in passing on the message of yoga.

In the Vaishnav tradition, there are three things that a spiritual practitioner is supposed to have:

1. Respect for your elders
2. Friendliness towards your colleagues
3. Equanimity of mind towards those with poor behavior

When we have those things, then notions of purity, of being better than someone else who we deem as less ‘pure’, and all the problems associated with that, fall away. It’s hard not to judge people based on their actions. However, sometimes actions are deceptive. it is better to look at the effects of their actions, and see whether or not our judgement is called for. If the effect is good, we should be happy, even if we don’t agree completely with the action, the instruction, or whether or not they changed something in a sequence, if it is helpful to another human being. Or animal. Or the planet.

When Guruji told me I could start teaching yoga, he gave me two instructions. The first was don’t advertise. The second was, “Teach how I taught you, don’t change it.” How did he teach me? By teaching me, not by teaching someone else. So, I try to teach each person as they are, not as if they were someone else. In doing that, there is no pure or not pure, there’s just a person, and yoga, and where they meet. Sometimes it works, sometimes is doesn’t, but nevertheless, I try.

Happy Halloween. Om.