How Are We Teaching The Ashtanga Practice?

July 19, 2022
How Are We Teaching The Ashtanga Practice?

In our last post in this series, we alluded to the unique ways that we learn the Ashtanga practice from the practitioner’s point of view. In this article, we look at the tools we use when teaching Ashtanga. Teachers have to find creative ways to help students with many different body types explore the Ashtanga practice. They also have to balance the benefits of a structure (the Ashtanga “series”) with the changes needed to support individual students in their practice. Let’s take a look at how students report that their teachers navigate that balance.

Teaching tools

Criticism is sometimes lobbed at Ashtanga (often from non-Ashtangis). I’ve heard people suggest Ashtanga is too rigid with adherence to sequences, never uses props, is too slow in adding new poses or sequences, and never uses preparation postures or modifications. Is any of this true? Mostly no. Nearly all survey respondents had a teacher who taught them modifications (86%). Many teachers incorporated preparation postures into their students’ practices (69%). And more than half of respondents had a teacher who used props like blocks when teaching (56%). Ashtanga teachers were, however, reluctant to make changes to the sequences. Few respondents said their teachers omitted postures (19%), omitted transitions (25%), or changed the sequence (9%).

Tools For Teaching Ashtanga

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When are teachers adding new poses or series?

So what about the pace of adding new poses to a student’s practice? Is it true that students feel teachers are too rigid with when they add new postures? Mostly no again. In fact, most students (72%) felt like their teacher added new postures at a medium pace. More than half of respondents (65%) said their teacher taught them new poses after they’d practiced previous poses for a while. Only 39% of respondents said their teacher waited to add new poses until they could do full expression of the previous poses. More than half of students (66%) started working on second series postures after practicing the Ashtanga primary series for 2-5 years. A similar percent (67%) of those practicing some or all of third series started working with third series postures after practicing Ashtanga for 4-10 years.

Pace Of Learning New Poses

Who is teaching the Ashtanga practice?

Generally, respondents learned the Ashtanga practice from a teacher. Fifty-nine percent of participants reported that their teacher was either authorized or certified by someone from the Jois family in Mysore. But many respondents (22%) practiced with a teacher who was not authorized or certified by the shala. Others were not sure if their teacher was authorized or certified (19%).

Most teachers had significant years of Ashtanga practice experience from which to teach. This was true whether or not teachers made the requisite trips to Mysore for authorization. Seventy-four percent of respondents said their teacher had been practicing for more than 10 years. Thirty-nine percent of students said their teachers had practiced for more than 20 years. In addition to learning the practice directly from a teacher, respondents also reported learning the practice from books (31%) and online videos (37%).

Where You've Learned The Practice

Based on what we learned, it seems that Ashtanga teachers recognize the benefit of teaching from a structure. When we have a structure like that of the Ashtanga sequences, it challenges us to work outside our comfort zone as practitioners. By generally working with a sequence, rather than just doing whatever postures we feel like, it challenges us to explore not just postures that come easily, but also those which take us time and consistent practice to understand. And this offers us a space to explore all the subtle experiences that arise when we are challenged, doing some of the “real” work of Yoga. However, our survey results also say a lot about how experienced teachers interpret the “rules” of the structure. The majority of teachers used many of the available tools to adapt the structure to individual students.

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There is certainly an “ideal” that we aim toward in teaching Ashtanga. However, teachers generally showed flexibility in how they adapted practice for students’ individual situations. How most instructors are teaching Ashtanga is nothing like the stereotype of rigidity sometimes applied to them. Ashtanga teachers seem to be doing their best to strike a balance between structure and adaptability.