Respecting Tradition @ Mysore Oakland
I began a daily ashtanga yoga practice on March 14 of 2008. I was nearing the end of my first year of graduate school, in poor mental health, lonely and very anxious. My “therapy” was 10-20 mile runs, or hours in the pool swimming laps. I had no idea how to improve my internal world, as my entire focus was on making it through school and getting a job that could pay off the loans. I was invited to a tiny shala in Monterey by a beautiful middle-aged Korean woman who, spotting me in backbends after a gym workout, asked if I was a yoga teacher. I said no, and laughed. She said “come to our shala.” Not knowing what she meant, but captivated by the invitation, I showed up to Led Primary series the next morning.
There were about 5 of us that morning. Kyonghwa was strong in herself and gentle with her words and touch. I had never worked so hard physically in my life, and yet I felt light and alive in my body and mind when it was over. I stayed practicing there for the next 4 years, visiting the shala once a week or so, often with just Kyonghwa and maybe one other student. In between I made small practice space in my house, and practiced alone.
Over those years, she remained gentle, kind, and caring, always asking about my life. Somedays we would talk for 20 minutes before practice. I found out many years later that she had been a huge advocate for me having a key to come practice early, even though I couldn’t afford to pay the monthly fees,.
I mention all of this, because this is how I “grew” up in yoga, in an authentic, kind, and nurturing environment. I went on to study and practice many places, but this seed of care, compassion, and community was the heart of the practice for me. Anything else was just another teacher’s perspective.
It’s been a long and interesting journey since that first day. In 2011, I was asked to teach, and then eventually found myself a teacher with a room of students. I always hoped, and tried, and sometimes succeeded, at being as generous and kind as my first teacher. While there were moments when I felt like I “should” go to Mysore, India, to practice “at the source,” those feelings passed as I met more and more “authorized” teachers that seemed to teach in a way that was far from the experience of practice I had in Monterey.
From trusted friends who had been Mysore, there were hints, and more, of a bureaucratic, competitive, and abusively patriarchal system there. Additionally, the more I learned about the history of ashtanga, the less consistent the dogma and mythology around the methodology became. This mythology was used to coerce or convince practitioners that their pain was this or that, or that they were “less than” for any reason, or to convince them of their superiority. In any case, it was not my idea of what I wanted to perpetuate or participate in.
All of this was confirmed as I met Dena Kingsberg and her shala in Byron Bay, where I make annual trips to practice. She is teacher who teaches the practice of all eight limbs, who maintains a small and intimate space in spite of her fame, and who lives close the earth and family. She has said to me, go for curiosity and culture, but do not go because I expect any deepening from “the source,” and in fact she suggested the opposite may occur. This is the truth I practice with every day. I know my teacher,
I trust myself, and trust myself to practice in a way to cultivate discipline and compassion, and have no need to waiver from this for anyone else expectations.
Fast forward to 2018….
This year, and less publicly for years prior, much brave work has been done by women who experienced harm at the hands of Pattabhi Jois in revealing the extent of their trauma, while fighting courageously the voices that seek to justify harmful behavior or diminish their voices.
I believe the victims of this abuse need to be listened to, to be heard in their suffering, and believed in their pain and their stories. I also believe that this listening will lead to movement forward in ashtanga communities, and a movement away from the widespread (human) issues of egotism that lead to dogmatic approaches to “spiritual” practice, ideas of spiritual superiority, and unchecked glorification of any individual or path.
The world is full of examples of teachers and leaders who cast shadows as wide as their profile stands tall. Their faces sit on walls and altars, and can give the impression that they are gods, that they have transcended the pitfalls of this human life, and that they are outside of right and wrong. Whether these teachers started out this way, it was at least in part the projections of their students that protected them from feedback and accountability that may have helped them and the many people they harmed.
I believe the power of a true teacher is to hold their own generative, positive qualities, in equal awareness to the messy, destructive parts of themselves; to become aware, again and again, of how we use our power and relative privilege as teachers, leaders and humans, to fulfill unmet personal needs, to imprison others with belief systems, and to potentially cause or reinforce harm. Any time we allow ourselves to be put on a pedestal, we help to create the possibly of blindness to our faults. These pedestals need to be torn down again and again, lest they get so high that we can’t hear the earth till we fall so far onto her.
While I believe some level of encountering a practice, “as-it-is,” is important, for some people, in some cases, to interrupt conditioned patterning, when we take the practices as outside of history or humanity, when we believe the mythology unquestioningly, we are building great hiding places for power, manipulation, and abuse. We are also hiding from the magnificent gifts of our human frailty, vulnerability, and ultimate powerlessness in the face of the peace and divine connection we seek.
I have found, since my first practice in a tiny shala with a few people over a decade ago, that the Ashtanga Vinyasa methodology as taught by my teachers, and in particular through my ongoing relationship with my primary yoga teacher, is a holistic and personal practice. I have trusted their experiences, and the choices they have made to support healthy sustainable practices that lead toward truth and steadiness. I also trust it because they have been honestly open to my feedback and to my questions, especially the challenging ones. This is the type of open and transparent trust that I hope to cultivate in my own teaching and the communities I support, and I believe the journey of transforming out yoga communities in a healthy way has just begun.
At Mysore Oakland, we will only engage with teachers who are committed to reducing suffering in the world, and who teach people first and a practice second. With so many options for study and practice of yoga in the world, and the Bay Area in particular, we want to make this particular flavor or practice community available as a contribution to the yoga world. without detracting from the ethos of other teachers, students, or studios .
We have committed to doing this by aspiring to, and realizing, the following
we will continue to offer deeply discounted rates for students who are committed to the practices and to social change by giving their time to local social profits (nonprofits). if you are interested in this, please email Adam.
we have instituted consent cards that offer choice around adjustments. We acknowledge that, while hands-on adjustments are a big part of how ashtanga vinyasa has been taught, they are always optional and not necessary for a beneficial or satisfying practice.
we will hold regular study and listening circles for students to participate beyond the asana practice and to build honest and transparent comunity.
with discretion, we bring in practices outside of the asana-focused ashtanga vinyasa tradition as taught by Pattabhi Jois
will continue look for diverse and nuanced perspectives on issues and practices of yoga
will investigate issues of inner-practice/self-realization and social engagement/collective liberation
Additionally, we will continue ensure that all of our teachers and non-teaching staff (where relevant):
have a daily practice and a teacher whom they trust to provide feedback, and whom they trust to receive feedback.
have extensive personalized training/apprenticeship as teachers that go well beyond the basic 200hr or 500hr training.
are educated and will continue to educate ourselves on trauma and how it might affect students ability to speak up, to feel what’s right for themselves, and to make healthy & generative choices in their practice.
are exploring our own biases in regards to race, gender, and class.
are trained or will be trained in open-hearted and open-minded listening, along with issues of projection,transference, and counter-transference.
seek the highest level of professionalism, care and sensitivity, when it comes to our speech and hands-on touch.
while honoring our teachers, mentors, and practices, do not consider them outside of accountability or the pitfalls of human nature.
give of our time or resources to social profit causes.