The revolutionary yogi

Danny Paradise was in town last weekend and I was with him for his workshop on the Sunday. I’d forgotten how fond I am of him – always captivated by his take on the world and loving the sense of mischief, mayhem and rebellion that he brings with him…

One of the things I am always keen to hear from him is his perspective on Ashtanga yoga, being someone who spent time with Pattabhi Jois in an era where you could count the number of Westerners going to him on two hands. And possibly a foot too by the time Danny started going to Mysore. Like his contemporaries such as David Swenson and John Scott, Danny has a bank of funny stories depicting the time he spent practising under Jois. These stories are always fascinating when told by any of the teachers from that time as they were part of the dawn of a new era in modern day yoga, but what particularly peaks my interest when Danny talks is his take on the Ashtanga system, something which has led him to being somewhat derided by the more orthodox side of the Ashtanga community. Rather than worshipping a guru outside of yourself (such as Pattabhi Jois), Danny encourages people to connect with and worship the guru inside each and every one of us. This makes absolute sense to me in my understanding of spirituality – connecting to your spirit and discovering what moves and drives you (ie. A fully experiential and somatic experience) rather than following a dogma outside of yourself and experiencing what the dogma says you should.

The origins of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are somewhat patchy… in a nutshell being that Krishnamacharya gave a young Pattabhi Jois an ancient manuscript containing the several thousand year old Ashtanga system, and that Jois’ life would be to decipher the system contained within and teach it. Unfortunately, only one manuscript existed which was destroyed by ants in a museum. A more plausible theory, and one put forward by Mark Singleton’s excellent book Yoga Body, is that Krishnamacharya wanted to revive the dying tradition of Indian yoga and so incorporated exercises and gymnastic sequences used by Europeans in a bid to make it more accessible to young Indians and to build their strength, bulk and ultimately their collective self esteem which had been left somewhat crushed after seeing burly young Europeans coming to India in the 1920s. This is a massive over-simplification by the way but that is the crux of it… This particular branch of Scandinavian gymnastics developed less than a century ago included ‘poses’ such as downward dog, the warrior poses, headstand, handstand and more, was set to a five count format, talked about abdominal locks and included dynamic jumps into and out of these poses. Sound familiar?

Knowing that this could be a plausible root does nothing to my love of the practice – ultimately I am the one who creates the meaning I attain from it, and it is my own personal experience of the practice that gives me satisfaction, not some external source dictating what it should be doing. Moreover, I am interested less in the origins of the practice and more fascinated by the investment many people have of it being a practice that is thousands of years old, that it is an ‘authentic’ practice which furthers their own need to make this part of this fragile entity called identity.

Danny added something to the origin which I’d never heard and which was interesting to contemplate, regardless of the validity. That Krishnamacharya was more radical than people realized and that one of his aims in creating the Ashtanga system was to create a set of sequences that could be learnt and memorized like a dance and therefore learnt independently of a guru, thereby cutting the authoritarian tie between guru and teacher, and reinforcing and cultivating the connection of the student with his or her guru within. He is not saying that seeking out a teacher is bad and recognises the absolute value in going to teachers with wisdom and experience they can share, but that it’s not healthy to idolise them as we can lose sight of them as simply being human beings like the rest of us.

I love this idea… if true, it shows that Krishnamacharya was a true revolutionary of his time. It would also highlight the sad irony that despite his intention, people have misunderstood it and have instead become people heavily invested in whoever the current guru is. The same misunderstanding took place with Buddha – in his original teachings he instructed his disciples that there should be no idol worship, no ritual, that the practice of his teachings be purely experiential. Buddhism now, particularly the Tibetan branch, sadly seems to ignore this – Buddha statues are everywhere in Buddhist temples (incredibly beautiful though they are) and the religion is heavily ritualized. Examples abound from many of the world religions I’m sure.

Furthermore, this may be evidence that Krishnamacharya was aware of the intermediary role religion (dogma) took thousands of years ago as beliefs shifted from animistic and pagan to the religions we have today – the shift that first began to disconnect people from the relationships they had with nature and the world around them (which some people substitute the word God for) to then only having a relationship with a priest who himself (and it usually was a ‘him’) had the exclusive relationship to God. Authors have also written about the potential for transference in such relationships: that a person would unconsciously endow on another attributes that are actually projected from within themselves – in other words, giving away the power one holds within to someone outside of themselves. That’s incredibly sad.

It feels as though this disconnect has continued right up to this very day, with modern day technology creating an ever greater sense of disconnection to ourselves and the world around us. We give up all power to the ubiquitous smartphone, the internet… Google knows everything… Google is the new God.

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