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The Good Old Days of Ashtanga Yoga


In my beginning years of practicing Ashtanga, none of my teachers ever made me feel like there was a rush to get anywhere. This was pre social media. Honestly, the internet was still a baby when I started practicing. Sharath says that he liked the days of yoga before the internet. I have to agree. The students were different. The teachers were different.

People came to Ashtanga out of an interest in learning yoga, whatever that was.  They didn’t come to work out. They didn’t come because they saw someone doing cool tricks on social media.  I came to yoga because I liked the idea that it was a mind/body thing. That was the buzz word when I started, “mind/body”. I loved the idea that this yoga thing would help my body and I would be more chill as well. When I say “help my body”, I never thought of it as a cardio workout. I thought it would tone me up and make me stronger. I thought that yoga would combine crazy granola spirituality with feats of strength and flexibility. Which it does. I had no particular poses in mind. As long as my body was challenged, I felt it was doing its job.  I was not practicing because I wanted to be a teacher. I was practicing because I wanted to learn yoga.

The people who practiced yoga then were a bit on the fringes. They were seeking something different than what their parents told them they should have. They were not looking for a break from the white picket fence life. They were not interested in the white picket fence life at all. They wanted something else. They were hoping that yoga would point them towards that something else. This infused the energy of the room with the aroma of possibility.   I felt invincible. When I took my first class and saw people doing things I had never dreamed of, I thought, “I want to do that”. Now, people tell me that they feel intimidated when they come into their first Ashtanga class.

Now yoga is a vacation or a workout.  People want a break and then they go back to how they live. Which lends itself to a different energy because, usually when we think we are escaping, we really have not. We just bring the energy with us. Where we are, there it is. Yoga studios are expected to create a place to escape instead of a place for people to look at what they are trying to escape from.  People need their escape to also double as a workout. They are busy.  The energy has shifted to more of a “get her done and go home” or “make me feel good and then go home” type of situation.  I used to love hanging out with my yoga fam. The studio felt like home. All that letting go and releasing. I wanted to stay in the energy of that for as long as I could.

The comparison game was different. It was still happening but at least it was more realistic. We compared ourselves against the people in the room with us and they were fairly normal. Meaning, there were a few gifted people, but we knew they were outliers. Most of the people in the room, had the typical “I sit in chairs all day. My mamma sat in chairs all day. My grandma sat in chairs all day” body. That, “it is going to take 3 years to bind in Mari B” type of body. So our comparisons were much kinder. The average person in the room spent about 2-5 years in Primary series. It was expected. If you got out of Primary series before 2 years, you were an anomaly.

Now we have social media. Which is incredibly skewed. People are only posting their best and only the “best” are posting.  It does not represent the average population. Yet, we are comparing ourselves against these people.  Now, we are having whole campaigns to get yoga to reach “average” people.  People who are curvy are being applauded for their courage. I don’t even remember this being a thing.  The yoga studio makeup has changed to one of affluence and homogeneity.  The sequences are also homogenized. Anything “too out there” or that might make people feel “uncomfortable” has been cut out. Don’t use Sanskrit or chant to Ganesh, people may feel weird.  Putting Ganesha on a T-shirt as a caricature is cute though, not weird. Cute yoga is good.

The workshops are even different now. Everything is arm balancing and handstands. The average workshop I attended, back in the day, included pranayama, kriyas like nauli and story telling. The most popular physical workshop was on “picking it up and taking it back.” Other than that, the physical part of the workshop was a guided class and maybe a session breaking down Primary or Second series.

The yoga “super stars” were different. Now people look for handstands and catching the ankles in backbends. Then the super star moves were putting your leg behind your head and picking it up and taking it back.  If you could pick up without your feet touching, you were a god. No one did handstands. They are not in the series. A few outliers would demo with them, and it looked cool, but no one cared about them. We certainly were not interested in a workshop on them.  To be a superstar, you had to have been practicing for a minimum of 10 years. Anything less and you were just considered physically gifted. Your gifts were not necessarily associated with knowledge.  People were more interested in studying with the Tim Millers and David Swensons of the world who had amazing knowledge than the cute girl, who had only been practicing for 3 years, but could pick it up and take it back.

My teachers, never demoed. To this day, there are no videos of my early teachers doing anything. Practices were sacred and private. The few times, I was blessed to be in a workshop with my teachers, and see them practicing, it was like getting a glimpse of Santa Claus. You chose your teacher based on knowledge, their reputation and their length of time in the game. Teachers also got paid based on how long they had been teaching. You knew someone had been teaching for a long time because their classes were packed.  You did not choose your teacher based on convenience, youth or cuteness.

Now, It is different. I recently had someone say they didn’t care for Sharath because the knowledge in his videos didn’t impress them.  Really? His videos is what you are judging him on?  The years he spent practicing with Pattabhi Jois and being groomed by his grandfather to teach don’t matter?  Just his videos.  Just because he is not dressed in expensive yoga clothes, with lighting, a professional videographer and a script, he is not worth listening to.  English is not even his first language!!

Wow. I don’t know if people are even aware of how staged, unstaged videos and pictures actually are!!! LOL There is no coincidence that your videos look grainy and other people’s do not.  There is no coincidence that others say the right things all the time and you do not. There is no coincidence that someone hits the pose “the first try” which really wasn’t the first try but a series of many takes, and you do not. There is no coincidence that people look perfect in their pictures and you do not. It is all STAGED. I digress. The point was, teachers are being judged based on showmanship more than their knowledge and integrity.

The old inconvenient dude was the one everyone was trying to get to LOL. Both Iyenger and Pattabhi Jois were still alive.  If someone had been to Mysore, they were like Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings. They were that one person who had gotten out of the shire and had an adventure LOL. If you were authorized, you were, Gandalf, the wizard who visited the shire.  This was before the days of affluence in the Yoga community. Getting to India was outside of most people’s purview. The only people in the Shala, who had been to India, were the teachers.

Ashtanga is starting to be seen as the yoga for physically gifted people or those who are “out there”. Which is sad because people are quitting before the internal work even gets started.  Many Ashtanga teachers don’t even understand how to work with the “I have been sitting in chairs stressed out all my life” body. They get excited about the outliers.  They cater to the outliers. The average body is now seen as the outlier.  Now, the body that goes through Primary in a year is seen as normal. The body that takes 5 years, well, rarely exists because they have either quit or the teacher just moved them on to keep them from quitting.

I feel blessed to not be physically gifted. Taking 5 years to get through primary series taught me incredible patience, discipline, tenacity and perseverance.  I also was safe. All my major injuries happened when I started acquiring poses quicker. Every single one of them.  Though I started my Ashtanga experience with a full led primary, my teachers did not emphasize the poses I had no business exploring. They had a “do what you can” attitude. When I started Mysore style, I did all the poses but my teachers only emphasized the ones that I actually should be concerned about, the rest they let me fumble through.

It didn’t take me 5 years to get all the poses.  I had the poses. It took me 5 years to have them in my body to a point where I would be safe to explore further.  Slow allowed my body to be ready. Today is different. If you can do the pose for about a month, you are getting the next one.  Like, you can go to a workshop, where the teacher has known you for 30 minutes( yet for some reason their knowledge trumps your teacher who has known you for 3 years), they give you a new pose on Friday night, you look okay on Saturday, so they give you 3 more before they leave on Sunday without even knowing if they will ever see you again or be able to help you with them.

Not being gifted gave me the ability to relate to the “I been sitting in a chair all my life” body which I feel is really needed these days. The outliers have a strong voice on social media and in popular culture. I love being able to represent the ones who don’t. I love giving people hope that putting in time does give results. I love letting people know that, just because they can’t cross their ankles in Supta Kurmasana after 2 years, that there is nothing wrong with them. Even if your teacher is looking at you sideways, there is nothing wrong with you.  As Pattabhi Jois said, “do your practice, all is coming.”





Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail [email protected]