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Learning Ashtanga From the Internet: A Cautionary Tale

I love this recent post, At the (upward dog) Feet of Sharath by Matt Ryan, that talks about people copying Sharath’s updog.

 

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The person (who gave me this info) has got this from their teacher who spoke to Sharath directly about the foot thing. Here’s the conversation which (allegedly) took place between this person’s teacher and Sharath..

Teacher: Sharath why is it you lift onto your toes in upward dog and not the top of the feet – is this a new method?

Sharath: No this is not a new method. I do this because I suffered from polio as a child which resulted in me being unable to flex my ankles properly, so I’m unable to roll over the toes onto the top of the feet.

Teacher: Oh I didn’t know that. Are you aware that there are some students who are copying your method? What should I say to them?

Sharath: They are stupid.

Matt makes it clear that he is not sure if this conversation ever happened and I definitely have no clue. However, it brings up an important point. Be careful of copying stuff on the internet. I recently had a discussion,with a few Ashtangis, who made it clear that the hand standing, floating extravaganza eleganza featured on many an authorized/certified Ashtanga teacher’s social media account, is not how they practice normally. It is for demonstration purposes. They do it to get people interested in Ashtanga. They do it for fun. They do it because they can.  The difference between their social media practice and their real practice is like the difference between RuPaul the drag queen and RuPaul the man. One is extremely theatrical and entertaining while the other is amazingly cool but somewhat ordinary.

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Social media and the internet, which makes some people feel like they don’t need a teacher, actually makes it extraordinarily clear  why people do need one. Maybe now more than ever. Back in the day, when an Ashtanga student didn’t know something, they searched for a teacher to answer their question. They practiced what they were told until they were ready for more and than went back to that teacher or searched for another one. This was much better and safer. The student worked with someone, in person, who could address their specific needs. Many people are now searching through Facebook, Instagram, You Tube, and now, Periscope, for information.

If you have a teacher that you can cross check your Internet research with, use of the internet can be safe and enriching. For instance, I recently saw a few videos of a second series pose, Tittibhasana C, where the feet were different from what I had been taught. I asked a certified Ashtanga teacher, that I trust and who goes to Mysore to work with Sharath a minimum of once a year,  about the video and the mystery of the feet was quickly solved. Notice I said that I asked them. I didn’t look through their videos, websites or social media accounts and assume that, because I did or did not see it being done,  it was correct or not. Assuming that because you see a popular yogi do something, that it must be right, is a grievous error. In the world of social media and the internet, context is important. When was that video recorded and for what purpose? Was it a demonstration? Was it them having fun? Did they say that it was correct method? Did they say that was how they were taught? Were they combining techniques from different series? Did they change it up for a specific purpose?

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Just a few minutes scrolling through Instagram and Pintrest makes it very clear that people need a teacher.Pictures where people are doing poses with incorrect technique, that are  dangerous and down right wrong are getting liked, hearted, repinned  and “atta boyed” right and left. If I had a dollar for every time someone  on Instagram, Pintrest and Twitter, put #ashtanga on a picture that was not even Ashtanga, I would be rich.

Social Media and the Internet also makes it even more important that we study the Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is full of verses that point to the importance of contemplation,seeking out truth and clear seeing. Not only does the Sutras gives us the tools to identify truth, it also gives us a framework for yoga. If what we are seeing or reading on the internet is in conflict with the Sutras, what you are seeing should be questioned. Don’t believe what you see, ask questions. Find a teacher who can help.

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 shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

2 Comments

  • alexandra krivicich

    In truth, before social media, many people did not have access to ashtanga teachers or were at the mercy of the one who was in their area. Before social media, people were lucky to know there was such a practice let alone lucky enough to have someone they could practice with. Short of heading to Mysore themselves (if they knew about that or were not intimidated by what they had heard) or had money and freedom from householder activities that allowed them to go) people were stuck looking at books for instruction (ugh) or maybe they found a VHS or DVD somewhere. Way before social media I remember how “hot” ashtanga yoga was and how inaccessible some of the teachers were here. Before social media the practice as it was relayed in this city had not matured by the many more body types, ages, body and personality types teachers have since been faced with and forced to respond to. There was elitism, misinformation and a kind of negativity circulated about the practice. Many teachers and students here struggled with the surrender to the lineage of teachers and many broke away and built their own ego-driven (my view) brand. Or, they broke away because of the misinformation they held on to about the “limitations” of ashtanga practice – often how “bad” and “dangerous” it was for people – especially the older types (and look who’s getting into ashtanga now – many older types!) There are so many people who started an ashtanga practice (as true an ashtanga practice as they could find then) who are no longer practicing now. Yes, life gets in the way and people change, but it’s also a legacy of the pre-social media ashtanga teaching – at least in my city. As I said it was often at the mercy of being relayed through one or a few teachers borrowing the popular form to try out. Much ashtanga bashing resulted. There was also a lot of misinformation, gossip and negative opinions being circulated through students themselves – especially after the humungous group classes that Pattabhi Jois taught while on tour.

    I think of all those people who live far away from ashtanga yoga teachers and shalas. I grew up in a place like that. The place I grew up (100,000 population) is still a 5 hour car ride from the nearest certified ashtanga yoga teacher. If people need social media sources and digital learning tools before they can access a certified ashtanga teacher in the flesh, what would you suggest? Are there teachers who will gladly answer their questions through email and social media? What advice would you give to these people so they can access the best of social media and the digital age without getting baffled bullshit?

    • Shanna Small

      Awesome observations. I to did not live near an authorized teacher. I still don’t. I had to travel. Now, every now and than, one will come to town and I will go to the workshop. My advice to people is to travel. Once you travel to a teacher and work with them, they will answer your questions via e-mail because they know you and your body.

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