It is a privilege and an honor to teach Ashtanga in the Mysore style.
There are so many things you could do other than yoga at 6 or 7 a.m. --- chief among them sleeping, checking Facebook, or checking Facebook in bed.
Although now I suppose it's Instagram.
As a Mysore-style teacher, I pass along the techniques of Ashtanga, and then help you apply them through the sequences. The tradition of sequences as it is maintained in Mysore, India, and at studios around the world are molds into which we pour our efforts, our intentions, our breath and our gaze.
The sequences are specific and concrete boundaries and limitations. They often have a logic and consistency to them, but sometimes they are arbitrary and/or utilitarian.
Regardless of intent and logic, the structure and the tradition exist as a means of limiting and restraining our efforts. We practice specific poses in a very specific order, with every single breath-body movement regulated. It is these very, very clear boundaries that provide fertile ground for greater freedom.
To establish a clear boundary, to separate this from that --- these asanas, in this order and not another, at this time of day, not any of the other times, and in this place --- all these distinctions serve to create a perspective, a drishti.
We adopt the techniques and the sequences, and therefore we take on a drishti, or gazing point. This drishti, this gazing point, gives rise to important questions of meaning. What does this practice mean to me, to you, to others? Is it the same? Different? Does this question of meaning change with time? What do I want out of this? What does it all mean?
Hot on the heels of questions of meaning come questions of value. Drishti gives rise to both meaning and value. This practice is clearly meaningful to me --- why? How is it meaningful? How does it help me understand what is and is not worthwhile to me --- on and off the mat?
Zoom in on the Ashtanga shapes and sequences and they prove malleable, adaptable, scalable. We don't bow down and worship the shapes and their interlocking sequences (or the gifted people who perform them beautifully), rather we use them to establish our own drishti, and perhaps to bow to something profound in ourselves.
The shapes and sequences can, should, and will be adapted to the needs of those practicing them --- if you've got steel rods in your knees, degenerative discs in your back, or a necrotic hip --- it's clear to me that the asanas but not the practice should be addressed to that individual person.
From this perspective, a misalignment or ignorance of (willful or otherwise) current Ashtanga tradition is not a problem, a hassle, or an inconvenience. As Mysore students you are not problems, hassles or inconveniences. Ashtanga does not have heretics or apostates.
As a teacher in the Mysore room, it is my responsibility to initiate a dialogue to explain clearly why we choose to follow the Ashtanga tradition in this manner, and why we think it is meaningful. And I think it is important as a teacher to listen and to hear the person's response.
To simply ape Guruji (P. Jois) and shout, "Not correct," or --- worse yet --- to say, "Because that's the way they do it in Mysore," or "That's the way it's always been done," shifts yoga from practice to religion. And as comforting and tempting as that may be, we are yogis --- we should ask the hard questions of ourselves, our relationships, and indeed our own experiences of reality. We do not blindly follow.
So I continue to be grateful that each and every one of you chooses to wake up early to come and contemplate your own discomfort. It's an opportunity for you to help me understand the practice I do. It's my hope that I'm able to add some sliver of nuance and flavor to yours.
Recently we were looking at the story of Shiva as Neelakanta, "the blue-throated." The gods and demons (anti-gods) teamed up to churn the milky ocean in order to produce the elixir of immortality (amrta).
This churning produced many things, and accompanying the amrta came a deadly poison called halahala. "Halahala" is an onomatopoeiac Sanskrit word --- it is literally the sound of choking or gagging.
Shiva drank the halahala and held the poison suspended in his throat, which turned blue.
The poison can neither be digested nor spat out; Shiva cannot assimilate it as the nourishment of food, yet neither can he vomit it out or otherwise get rid of it.
A literal understanding of the symbolism is to see the poison as anything negative, for example, the qualities we don't like about ourselves.
(If you don't have any qualities you dislike about yourself, many yoga texts will provide a list for you. Guruji was fond of the ari shat vargas, the six poisons around the heart.)
Sometimes it is nice to be reminded that we are every character in the stories: gods and demons, sure, but more importantly Shiva, as well as the milky ocean, the nectar, and the poison.
We have oceanic depths, swirling in which are great shapes, deep tidal impulses, unconscious desires and aversions, some genetic disposition, some cultural imprinting, perhaps some deep-coded cultural or historic archetypes.
Our yoga practice is a daily churning of these depths, and it is from these depths that is disgorged our gifts, our nectar.
However we also churn up halahala, and like Shiva holding the poison in his throat, we cannot absorb, digest or assimilate the halahala --- it is deadly toxic.
However, we can't spit it out. This churning is a process that is both unfinished and unfinishable. The practice of yoga asks us to develop a relationship to this daily process of "purification," or churning, and increase our ability to live with our halahala.
What is interesting, too, is that what is toxic to you is undoubtedly food for someone or something else, and toxicity is also utterly dose-dependent, and not an innate or inherent quality (drink enough water and it'll kill you). What is one person's delusion is not another's (can there be more than one kind of delusion?)
Just like Shiva with the blue throat, an Ashtanga yoga practice helps us develop a more rich way to speak through and not as our own poison, perpetually lodged in our own throats.
Jason owns and directs Portland Ashtanga Yoga.