... but read it first ...
I am one of those Ashtanga students who never got to meet Guruji. In the early years of beginning my practice, I was learning this yoga from cool, inspirational teachers on social media. I enjoyed the practice very much. I liked learning and sharing, practicing, working hard, and getting this strong and healthy body that would bring me a strong and healthy mind. …That is, until I got hurt - hurt by one of the teachers (accidentally). Being told, and believing, that this injury was part of a healing process, I kept practicing. I believed that this was the way yoga worked, so with the best of intentions, I continued with the practice, thinking that I was taking care of my body. In a few years, what started as a little pain in my hamstring had developed into an inflammation and wound so huge that I couldn’t even step out of my car. At that point, I started to doubt yoga. Actually, I started to doubt my own practice; I thought I must be doing something wrong.
At this time, one of my friends told me that Nancy Gilgoff would be teaching in a nearby city. I knew her name but knew very little about her, and I thought to myself, “How could this older lady teach me something about yoga if she’s not even that well-known?” (Sorry Nancy, if you’re reading this :) ). But I took a chance and went to her workshop. From “day one,” Nancy started to change my (physical) practice. This didn’t just make me angry - I was enraged. After all those years of study (favorite word in yoga) with all the other traditional (another favorite word) teachers, she wanted me to do the practice differently - and in opposition to much of what I had learned and what I considered to be healthy and natural for the body. But with all the respect I had for her AND my infinite curiosity, I did as she told me to do.
After a few days, I had noticed, without a doubt, that the condition of my hamstring (and mind) was much, MUCH better. I started to realize that what I had been doing all those years was… well… not exactly the way this practice is supposed to be done. After a few weeks, I realized that this not-very-well-known older lady was about to change my life - my body, my mind, and my soul. I knew I had found the teacher I was seeking.
At that time I was already teaching in Slovakia, my home country, where the people were hungry for yoga. In this little country, I was probably the only one teaching Ashtanga Yoga at that point. I had my students, my followers, my yoga friends with whom I was sharing all I had learned. But now, after meeting Nancy, I knew that I no longer wanted to teach the way that I had been teaching. I had a decision to make: either to come back home and say, “Okay, I was ‘wrong;’ let’s do it another way” - and risk losing some followers… or to give in to my own fear of losing students, forget what had helped me (my body as well as my mind), and never share my experience with my friends at home. …I decided to go for the change - to step beyond my fear of what others might think or say about me… something many teachers, I think, would never be able to do…
Nancy told me that I should study with Manju Jois as well. I had been to one of his workshops before, and at that time I hadn’t liked it (sorry Manju, if you’re reading this :) ). All we did was practice, pranayama, and chanting - no discussing asanas, vinyasas, handstands, floating, rotations of the joints, muscles, drishti - nothing I had expected, based on my previous experiences with the teachers I had met before.
Now I know why Manju doesn’t teach the way Westerners do…
Nancy says that from the first time she met Guruji, he never really changed the method of yoga that he was teaching. He did make some changes in the order or the structure of the series, but he never made any changes to the method, which goes far beyond the order of the postures - the method does not equal the sequence or the series. And yet, Nancy had noticed all the changes that were “happening” in the practice - that people were suddenly doing things differently. Every time she assisted Guruji during his travels in America, she would ask him, “Guruji, this is different from what you taught us…” And as she says, he used to reply, “Yes… incorrect method.” When she asked him why he wouldn’t tell the students to correct it, his reply was always, “Asking, telling…”
I think this might be one of the reasons why we have forgotten what is important in the practice. Indian/Vedic education apparently works differently from Western education. In the Indian way, teachers don’t push the teaching on the student. They want the student to be interested and ask.
One of my own observations is that people oftentimes do not listen to older teachers anymore. They are missing the curiosity, as well as the will to change things, or at least to try them a different way. They are only seeking their own truths. Another thing I have noticed is that many of our current teachings do not come from teachers - older, very experienced teachers who have no desire to change things, but from fellow yogis who are trying to understand and explain yoga through other sciences, such as our Western physiotherapy. And the pure simplicity of yoga then becomes lost… I have heard some yoga practitioners, or even doctors or therapists, saying that in older/ancient times they didn’t have the knowledge of the human body that we have today - and therefore we kind of “upgraded” this science of yoga and made it work better. But I can assure you all… not only did the Vedic teachers know much more than we do today, but they have also always seen more than just the human body. They considered energies, as well as mind, elements, etc. They knew exactly why they did things the way they did them - and why they taught them that way as well.
David Williams, from whom I have recently started to learn as well, says as a part of his story, “When I met Guruji and told him I wanted to learn from him, he said he would teach me only if I came to practice every day, did it the way he told me to, and never change it, since this teaching is five thousand years old and hasn’t been changed… So I told him, ‘Okay, I can do that’ - and since then I have done it the same way.” …Yet, the change somehow happened. Based on the knowledge I have gained up to this day, yoga is, in its essence, so easy… that it is hard for us to accept it.
Here in the West, we took the Ashtanga sequence and joined it with other forms of yoga and, most of all, with our Western, yet very limited, understanding of a human body. WE have changed the system, with our never-ending need to explain things, change them, and make them “better.” Now we have something that looks like the original sequence, but we have changed the way we do it. And it therefore has a very different impact on our bodies and our minds. We have a very serious practice for a “human body” - instead of a nourishing practice for a “human being.”
It is easy to overlook the method behind the physical sequence (the part of the practice observable with the naked eye), but the method is actually what makes it all work. We cannot mistake the series for the method.
Here in the West, we have attached our mind to the physical (a Western understanding of the physical), while we speak of non-attachment. We talk about healing, while remaining in pain - some of us even wearing our injuries like “medals on our chest,” and speaking of what we have been through as though it were an example of healing. We often speak of the healing powers of this practice, and how different our bodies have become from it, but we still have this idea of a certain shape and form we are looking for. We even try to apply the idea of a “good” or “correct” form on people who are sick, and we expect the yoga to work for them as well. We often learn from very strong and flexible, perfect-looking people who have never really had a hard time in the practice (apart from not being given another posture for some time) - and who therefore sometimes lack an understanding of what it feels like not to be able to do something, or not to be in perfect physical shape. We have mistaken the word yoga for perfection, have mistaken focus for attachment. We have become too attached to the physical. And we think that the “better” the physical form is, the “better” the mind gets…
Following Nancy and Manju around, I have learned that the physical form is supposed to be very natural (meaning natural for that individual body - which is not necessarily what might seem like a natural alignment to an outside observer), and that there is really no need to think about it. The mind should just be focused on what we are doing, not judging it in any way or trying to change it for the “better,” but rather accepting it. Only then can the state of mind called Yoga arise - a freedom without any condition, and without the judgment of good or bad.
…I’ve heard Manju say a few times that some parts of the book Yoga Mala were not translated true to the way they were written in the original text, due to the fact that there are multiple ways to interpret the language in which it was originally written. He also has said that there used to be different pictures in the book - pictures that showed the way they used to learn and teach asanas at home back in their day, that showed the way they used the asanas as a tool for healing.
I began to search everywhere I could for a copy of the original book. I had friends looking for it in other countries and in India. But no one ever found it. Manju then told me that I didn’t have to look for that old version of Yoga Mala. He said to look in any of the oldest yoga books I could find, that the method, the yoga, has always been the same, that even yoga scriptures have been describing some of the asanas the same way - simply, yet clearly. So I did look in that direction. I have collected some old yoga books, and yes, they all show the same easy, simple, and humble practice.
We all know the story about the Yoga Korunta - the lost book from which come the roots of this yoga we practice (this yoga we call, and almost like to sell with a trademark, “Ashtanga Yoga”). No one has ever seen the Yoga Korunta, and it’s almost a myth. The old edition of Yoga Mala became something like this to me - almost a myth; someone has said something about it, but no one has ever seen it…
I go to Maui, Hawaii, every year, to practice with Nancy. David Williams lives on the island as well, and last time I visited, I went to practice with him and talk to him. One day we were discussing the changes in the practice, and the possible reasons why things changed. He said he would show me some old books and texts, to explain to me how the practice was supposed to be done. He gave me a book from Krishnamacharya, and what it showed was the kind of practice that modern teachers nowadays would most likely not accept in their classes. As I could tell from reading the text, the practice was very internal. Then David passed me a book that was written in an Indian language - so, apart from the foreword, which was written in English, I could not read the text. As I was going through the pages, I realized I was looking at pictures of Ashtanga Yoga’s Primary Series. And suddenly I knew I was holding the book that Manju had been talking about - the original Yoga Mala!
I took photos of all the pictures, because I wanted to show others what this yoga used to look like - how little attention they used to put on the physical, and how unimportant was the so-called “alignment” or perfection in the asana practice. And then I made this poster - for people to see, to make them think, and then think again (hopefully before they speak, or scream).
I am daring people to step beyond their own fears and do a little research on the history of what they are doing, and where the changes have come from. There are answers out there for everything. Even though Guruji is not here to ask anymore, there are some people who are still teaching his method (not just his sequence) unchanged, and who know the history of it, as well as where this so-called “evolution” comes from. And there is much to learn from the past generations - wiser generations.
Asana is the only thing we can capture and show - and therefore for many it is nearly the only subject of discussion. But there are more important aspects of yoga than asana… There is a huge piece that is missing on this poster. And this is the part that matters the most: the method. This is the internal work of breath, bandhas, and focus… As Nancy has said, “To do yoga, you don’t have to know anything. You just have to breathe.”
I think it is about time to stand still for a minute, or even better, sit still, and re-think this practice. It is about time to stop making things harder, and rather make them easier, and more accessible - just as they always used to be. This is the way they were meant to be. There should still be a healing and joyful spirit to the body and mind in yoga. We just have to un-attach our minds from too much thinking and analyzing… and, most of all, from (false) perfection. We can’t allow the mind to tell us we are not worthy or not yet perfect. We need to learn how to simply enjoy being ourselves and feeling good.
I think we should also learn not to take time and hope away from each other in yoga practice (for instance by not sharing what we’ve learned, by not letting people progress, or by telling anyone they are not good or able enough to do this practice - due to their age, body type, injuries, or physical condition). We are here experiencing one lifetime - to gain and develop the experience of joy, happiness, and acceptance - to find peace, to find the Self. And we all - all of us - can do this in this very lifetime. It’s just a matter of right guidance. Let’s open our minds a bit more.
“To see the Big Picture of this yoga, we have to step out of the frame.” I think David Swenson said this in one of his workshops, and it just seems fitting to mention it here.
P.S. I am selling this poster only for the cost of production and shipping. I have no desire to profit from it. I have asked Manju if he is okay with me doing this project and sharing these pictures, and he said, “Yes, it’s a great idea. People need to see the practice.” So here it comes…
- Thank you to Marek Rolko, for helping me cut the pictures from my photos and put them in order. Marek has not asked me for a single euro for his work.
- Thank you to Aharona Shackman, for the language corrections and editing you do for me, as I would never be able to write in such a beautiful and correct English. :)
- Thank you to Nancy, Manju, and David, for sharing the knowledge and your personal experience. Thank you as well to all the other teachers I have met, for helping me to build my own experience.
Jaro Pávek, 15. Dec. 2017
The price of the poster is 15,-€ a piece
Packaging, handling and shipping by GLS parcel service is 5,- € within Europe and 10,- € outside Europe
Size of the poster is 841 x 1189mm (33,1 x 46,8 inches)
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