What is the role of led ashtanga classes?

bookbindeknife

Is trying to learn the ashtanga method through led classes a bit like trying to use a paring knife to cube a butternut squash? Pictured here: Persian bookbinder’s paring tool and knife.

I returned to teaching my led primary series class yesterday — it was quite sweet to be back after my hiatus while in India — and it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time. I would have done it after one of the led classes in Mysore, but alas, it never happened.

Here’s the question: What is the role of led, or guided, ashtanga classes? I touched on this a year ago this month when the Mysore SF blog posted this:

Led classes have become very popular and so has its ill reputation (Ashtanga as dangerous, aggressive, knee breaking). I believe it is because many have learned from led classes and were doing the postures they were in no way ready for. Learning in this way is more like learning backwards. All that you learn you may need to unlearn once you enter a Mysore room.

At least in yoga studios in the U.S. that embrace eclectic styles of yoga, the role of led classes seems to be to both learn and practice the method. Part of a class description might go something like this:

Don’t know the entire sequence? Come to class and be guided through each pose with instructions that will include modifications to allow students at all levels to safely practice. 

What you often end up seeing in led classes at studios will be a class with some students who are new to the practice and struggling to get a handle on it and keep up, while others are primary series veterans and flowing like water through the practice. The verbal instructions of the teacher must accommodate the full spectrum, and teachers are left to teach both the state of the poses and the transitions into and out of them.

At a traditional Mysore-style ashtanga yoga shala, it’s rhythmic, and about surrender: To step on your mat and flow through the practice on the vinyasa count presented by your teacher.

Love to take extra breaths getting into the marichyasanas in your daily practice? You get five breaths here. Tend to take shorter breaths in the navasana section? You’ll stay for these five full breaths.

It should be noted, for those who have never experienced it, that in led classes at traditional shalas, you stop at the same pose you stop at in your Mysore practice.

The metronome of the count, combined with tristana, can make for a deep experience of pratyhara. OvO, writing from India, recently put it this way: “Mysore Fridays are a dream within the dream. The will is worn out, as is the body, so you just let the vinyasa carry you through.” It’s hard to even approach letting vinyasas carry you through if you don’t quite have a handle on the poses and yet are trying to get through them at a good clip.

***

The difference between Mysore-style and guided classes was, to me, quite stark while studying at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute last month. The Mysore practice days were electric — being on my mat, surrounded by practitioners from all over the world each doing their practice and having their unique experience. In that special quiet — where the sounds you heard were street noise, the collective breathing, and Sharath or an assistant periodically calling “One more” as space opens up — the conditions were ripe for you to truly be in your practice and maybe even have an epiphany or two.

Led classes? Not so electric — but the value was apparent.

They happened twice a week: Everyone took led primary on Fridays, and on Sundays, there were two led classes for primary series and one led class for intermediate series.

At one of the Sunday conferences, someone asked about bandhas. Sharath started his answer by saying that sometimes people ask him why he holds ut plutihi in led for so long — it is legendary that the space between his count of “one” and “two” seems like eons to Gokulam newbies like me — and he said, “Mula bandha, the best thing is to do ut plutihi.” He added, “Ut plutihi and navasana, very important to bring strength to the waist and help mula and uddiyana bandha get strong.”

It works, too. My teacher often holds navasana in led classes for what seems like three times my count — and going through those counts for all those classes taught me more about the relationship with the bandhas and the low belly and the pose than I would have ever learned if I had kept to my own navasana rhythm. And going through (read: enduring) ut plutihi under Sharath’s counts in January taught me about how far I have to go. 😉

***

So to me, on one level, led class offers quality control and a different approach to letting the practice instruct you.

In India, I saw the value in other ways too.

Everyone’s experience was different, but my experience of led was that the conditions of these classes were more ripe for putting a mirror up to your triggers rather than for getting deep into the poses.

It’s notoriously crowded for led class, and if you didn’t arrive over an hour early to wait, you would definitely have to hustle and sprint to find a space. Even if you did arrive over an hour early to wait, you would still have to hustle and sprint to find a space. (It’s like waiting for doors to open for a Radiohead or Arcade Fire show: No matter how congenial everyone might be, there will be jostling.) This bothered some and didn’t bother others. So while some people were triggered by getting into the room, others were trigged once in: Where you found a space, for instance (maybe there were no spots left in the main room, and you had to practice in the changing room or the foyer; or maybe you got a space, but it was where the rugs overlapped, and you didn’t like that; or maybe you got a space by one of the windows and it was drafty; and so on.)

There are no adjustments in led classes, and some days, because of the crowds, not even time to take rest after practice; Sharath would tell us to go home and take rest. And if you’ve never experienced the minimalism of a traditional led class, know that the verbal instructions really are just counts — no verbal instructions about how to get into the poses or anything like that.

***

In talking to practitioners about how led classes are used versus how they should be used, I’ve likened led classes to a paring knife. Led classes — a slightly misleading term, if you think about it in the Mysore context — were designed with a particular use in mind, but here in the U.S. at least, it seems to be more widely used for something entirely different. We’re trying to use a paring knife to cube a butternut squash. That is hard. Can it be done? That’s how I initially learned it, but as the Mysore SF blog reflected, I do think I had to relearn/unlearn key aspects of the practice when I entered a traditional Mysore room. (What, you ask? Breath was one area. Intuitive to someone who practices Mysore and maybe counterintuitive to someone who doesn’t, when an instructor is telling you when to breathe, the more subtle lessons don’t necessarily sink it.)

So when I see blog posts hand-wringing about whether ashtanga is various iterations of hard or even dangerous, I wonder whether we would have half as many of these online reflections if everyone learned the method through the Mysore system. Yes, ashtanga, no matter how you cut it, is hard. But trying to learn it through a led class environment can turn an already challenging practice into what feels like a sprint, and that can not only cause head trips for practitioners, but potentially set the stage for injuries as well.

***

I will say one quick thing about teaching guided ashtanga classes, which I have done in some form since 2009.

These days, I teach a led primary series class once a week at Hilltop Yoga in Lansing, Mich. What keeps me teaching this class is that I love my students. I love their resolve, their focus, and dedication to refining this practice. Are they learning? Absolutely. I’ve seen so much progress — especially in students I have had consistently for a long time.

But because I only see them once a week (and often not every week, if they don’t come like clockwork), and because it’s a led class, I don’t feel that I can go as far with them or as quickly with them as I could if I saw them in a Mysore environment, where I would be able to get in tune with their unique breath pattern and take more time in adjustments.

For led students I don’t see much at all — and therefore students whose practices and bodies I can’t possibly know as well — I sometimes have to trade potential for progress with security of safety. It’s a trade I wouldn’t trade, because what is most important to me, above all, is that they are physically and emotionally safe in that space. I won’t do deep adjustments if I don’t see a student often enough to know their practice and their body well. And if I’m not their main teacher, I won’t try to change their practice routine, even if I think some tweaks might help them get better in touch with the benefits of certain poses.

So for what it’s worth, what do I see as my role as an instructor? I use my interactions with students in the context of led classes to try to accomplish the following:

  • Maintain a clean and consistent rhythm both for new and advanced students during the class itself. For new students I try to do this compassionately, so that they don’t feel like they’re in a race and so that they don’t feel overwhelmed. For seasoned practitioners, I try to do this to keep them to a rhythm that they might not stay with in their other practices during the week.
  • Inquire about the state of their practice, so that in class, I can adjust as helpfully as possible, and perhaps afterward I can share relevant resources for other aspects of their practice — for instance, if they are working through an injury.
  • Ignite a curiosity about practicing on one’s own.

I frequently mention the benefits of a home or travel practice to my led students. I know that one led class a week can be the start of something life-changing — even if it’s a knife used for a different purpose, it’s still got that cutting edge. But it can only take them so far if it doesn’t lead to more practice, so I try to open that door to practice environments that can take them farther, whether it’s private sessions, home practice or practice while traveling.

So, I’ve just used quite a few words to talk about something that probably doesn’t need to be hashed out to this extent if we were on the mat practicing together. What do you think about led classes?

(Photo credit: Persian Bookbinder’s Paring Tool and Knife via the takomabibelot Flickr photostream) 

 

>>Did you miss the Mysore dispatches?

Mercury retrograde — or a bumpy post-India reintegration?

Lord, help me get through this month. I am trying to reintegrate post-India — DURING MERCURY RETROGRADE. Thank goodness for ashtanga yoga and meditation — or everyone around me would surely politely ask me to start looking for a flight back to India. 😉

My month in Mysore, by the numbers

Total miles flown to get to India: 8,839. And yet somehow, I always felt at home over the course of the month I was in Mysore.

Etched

On engraved rings and Mysore marking you.

Lingua franca
The language of practice. And of sugar. And of awkward good-byes.

In due time
In the midst of the spicy masala mash of sounds that is India, I’ve been listening to Jack Kornfield’s soothing, raita-like voice read from his A Path with Heart, and I love this part: “Love in the past is simply memory, and love in the future is fantasy.”

Profiles of ashtangis telecommuting from Mysore
Need to work while enrolled at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in India? These ashtanga yoga practitioners have done it, and they want you to know it can be done. See what tips they share for how to make it work while working from Mysore.

So you helped get an ashtangi to Mysore? Thank you, truly.
So, ashtangi with the “Mysore, Karnataka” Facebook location tag — who helped get you here? Perhaps you can send them a note of thanks if you haven’t done so in a while.

Temple tour to Belur, Halebid, Shravanabelagola
I didn’t come to Mysore, Karnataka to be a tourist. But it was wonderful to be one on this moon day, doing a 208-mile round-trip drive and hitting three ancient temple sites.

Happy Sankranti
Sankranti is one of the few Hindu harvest festivals celebrated in India that’s tied to the solar calendar. And it’s a new year of sorts! What an incredible month. I was in Mysore for the New Year’s Day holiday that I adore so much. Now we have Sankranti, with is promise of auspicious beginnings. And I didn’t realize until after I arrived that the day I fly home will be the Chinese New Year.

Thank you, interwebs and wifi
When I was playing my trip to Mysore, I kind of thought that the ideal way to experience this trip would be to unplug. Man, was I wrong about that one.

Castor oil baths and not (particularly) getting things done
Rest day + castor oil! I think when you’re studying yoga in India, my day so far would have been considered productive. At home, this should have all been done by noon.

And then there were four — led classes, that is
From healing to teaching, from deepening to escaping, everyone here obviously has a unique and personal story about whey they’re here right now. But is there something drawing us, collectively, at the dawn of 2014?

First breakfast, second shower, next electric practice
‘One more, 9 o’clock, small.’

How does Sharath know? And btw, where did my feet walk off to?
Since my first day at KPJAYI, I’ve found myself constantly wondering, “How does Sharath know?”

Pink kurta
One week into my month-long stay here, it seems obvious to me that a big part of coming here is not about the practice at all — it’s about seeing where our areas of density are in our life. It’s easy to spot when a tight shoulder is the obstacle to steady comfort in a pose. For some of us, it’s harder to spot our areas of density in our daily lives.

So familiar and yet . . . so familiar
In Mysore, it helps that even when I don’t know someone, I maybe know someone.

Rain down on me
No small part of what I hope to do in India is find a way to honor life and sit with loss. Back when I planned this trip, the most salient loss was my miscarriage from this summer. Having two friends take their own life in the past 30 days has amplified the grief.

Plugging my 120V self into this 220V space
When Sharath led my hands to my ankles in assisted dropbacks, I could feel my little 120V self had hit full charge.

#gratitude #possibilities
In my reflections today, I decided to try, in the spirit of noting arisings and passings in all things, to see if I can start each new day this year with the type of intention that I start New Year’s Day with each and every year. Toward that end, I’m quite grateful to get to start each day with the ashtanga yoga practice — that makes such a difference in being able to enter the rough and tumble with some equanimity.

Emptying the cup
‘It’s like water in a cup. If a cup is filled with dirty, stale water, it’s useless. Only when the old water is thrown out can the cup become useful. You must empty your minds of opinions — and then you will learn.’

#235, 8th Cross, an eternity and a blink of eye from my first ashtanga practice
This post is for all the home practitioners out there. Mysore is 10.5 hours off from home (9.5 hours without daylight savings). But that’s not the time that really matters, because the time that really matters is shala time, which is set 15 minutes ahead of local time.

Checked baggage for DTW –> CDG –> BLR
What I figuratively and literally packed, or didn’t, for my first journey to India.

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7 thoughts on “What is the role of led ashtanga classes?

  1. Pingback: Guided Ashtanga Classes in Mysore VS. Westernized Guided Classes - Ashtanga Picture Project - Ashtanga Picture Project

  2. Pingback: Two Conversations | Serene Flavorful

  3. I’ve been practicing for only a short while, and am grateful for my Mysore class. I’ve always wondered: if you attend a led class and practice only as far as the pose you’ve been given, what do you do with the rest of the time? Are you watching the rest of the class continue on? Do you take rest? What are your thoughts?

    • That’s wonderful that you have a Mysore class you hold gratitude for. From what I have observed, how it works depends on the teacher. So if you’re in that position, you would need to discuss it over with the teacher prior to your first class.

      At the shala where I practice, students wait and then jump back in when backbending starts.

      In Mysore at KPJAYI, students in the led primary classes I was in would wait.

      On the other hand, I observed led second series a few times, and for that class, it was different – students would stop at their last pose and then leave after they had done their finishings. So by the time the end of intermediate led came around, the room had only a fraction of the number of practitioners that it had started out with. :-)

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