June 10, 2014

Shun The Rockstar Ashtanga Teacher. ~ Genny Wilkinson-Priest


The Confluence Yoga Conference is Ashtanga’s answer to the World Economic Forum.

It is a gathering of the world’s most influential experts and leading opinion makers in the field of Ashtanga yoga—the spiritual practice that cloaks itself as a physical one.

This year’s Confluence, in San Diego, featured Richard Freeman, Manju Jois, Dena Kingsberg,  David Swenson and Tim Miller—all vastly experienced teachers, who for years have taught on the Ashtanga circuit, touring the world, publishing books and DVDs.

These, and a handful of other “rock star” Ashtanga teachers, are the ones you will most often see quoted in Yoga Journal.

They are the ones most sought after by big yoga studios to lead workshops, the ones most often featured on slick DVDs—and their star power can sometimes blind the student to the teachers languishing in their own backyard, who for years have quietly and modestly taught every day beginning at 5 AM, six days a week.

These oftentimes small shalas struggle to stay open (let alone prosper) despite being directed by a teacher who may very well sit on the Confluence panel in 10, 20 or 30 years hence.

Why? Why are these teachers being neglected? Economics.

A big yoga studio will call the “rock star” teacher every time to host a workshop, knowing their name is the one that’s going to sell out the space more than any other teacher from any other lineage.

Why fix what’s not broken when both sides prosper?

What about the Ashtanga students themselves?

Why are they so captivated by the tech-savvy teachers with Youtube channels, Instagram accounts and glossy coffee table books? It’s akin to a Summer Blockbuster—no studio is going to put a little-known actor in the lead role because they fear no one will buy a ticket.

The audience wants to see the “rock stars” in the flesh. Big names equal a big draw. (Unfortunately, the student pays a big chunk for the privilege of learning not an awful lot in a studio packed to the gills with 50 students.)

While the rock star might count Guruji as their primary influence, the unheralded teacher will more likely identify with Sharath Jois who will have put them through a more demanding learning process in Mysore than his grandfather ever did. (Guruji taught the old guard Primary and Second series in the space of just a couple of months. With Sharath, that process takes years.)

In his lifetime, Guruji refined the practice—it was not always the same. Parsvakonasana B and Trikonasana B were not part of the original standing series. Backbending—a key feature of the system today—didn’t even make it into the first publication of Guruji’s “Yoga Mala” in 1962.

The practice has grown and ripened and changed.

Space was made for new postures among the old—and so should we welcome and recognise the next generation of talented teachers.

Whosoever’s responsibility it is to make space for the currently neglected, next generation of Master Teachers, it’s not exactly difficult to identify who they are. Sharath has continued his grandfather’s work of authorising teachers, and the complete list of them can be found on the “KPJAYI” website.

There are nearly 500 KPJAYI authorised/certified teachers. Many of them return regularly to study with Sharath in Mysore, and have practices just as advanced as the rock star teachers. They too pursue Svadhyaya (self-study) on a path toward intimate knowledge of key yoga texts like The Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. Many demonstrate great humility and respect for the practice as well as their students, which isn’t always the case with a few of the rock star teachers.

The Rock Stars matured out of a much smaller crop (a score in the old shala at a time with Guruji) than what is seen now in Sharath’s shala where a thousand students might practice in any given year.

As such, the gender and cultural base of teachers has significantly widened.

You’ll find more women, and more minorities represented—a welcome change at a time when the practice of yoga has been (unfairly or not) criticized as a bastion of the white middle-class.

It is tempting to speculate and list teachers who might sit on The Confluence panel 20, 30 or even 40 years hence. But there are so many neglected, talented teachers out there, leading Mysore programs in cities as big as London, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Berlin and as small as Leeds, Tulum, Waukesha, and Adelaide.

And therein lies the rub—with a good number of rising stars in Ashtanga, we keep seeing the same ones over and over again. It just doesn’t have to be that way.

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Apprentice Editor: Bronwyn Petry / Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Amy, Flickr Creative Commons

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