Sunday, June 09, 2002


i know that ashtanga yoga is a somewhat controversial subject. those who love it, adore it; those who dislike it, loathe it. it seems to attract a lot of intense feeling either way. . .

i myself struggle just to understand it, so i really can't say i had too much feeling about it. i was pretty neutral on it. still, many of its admirers urge me to try it. they say that it is the most complete and freeing yoga system, one that brings great strength, grace and peace of mind to the regular practitioner.

i have taken two or three classes, that kind of lead you through the first part of the beginning ashtanga sequence, or "primary series." i never found a good presentation of this yoga system there, though.

but when the famous teacher christopher hildebrandt, formerly of jivamukti, offered an ashtanga workshop at yoga people, i thought i would take it. he can do all the fancy yoga tricks and is also said to have a beautiful presentation of the ashtanga philosophy. so i took this workshop this morning.

ashtanga detractors -- and they are many and vociferous -- will tell you that the system is no more than a way for young, lithe, former modern dancers to destroy their knees and develop a dubious worship of an aged guru. i have heard all these pat criticisms before, but went with an open mind.

christopher hildebrandt is himself an attractive person, with a great smile, and a soft voice. his calmness and physique certainly are noteworthy. his sanskrit appears to be excellent. there's no doubt he is in complete command of the ashtanga system and an expert teacher of the style. however, he did not at any time explain the system, discuss p. jois, or outline any method overall.

he asked the class at the beginning what we wanted from the workshop. one of the answers was "grace, gracefulness, not only in the physicality, but outside class as well." i thought this was a beautiful intention. and one, that i must sadly say, went without being met.

with all due respect, i have to say that i left his workshop today more convinced that ashtanga's detractors have a serious point. while hildebrandt did ask at the beginning if anyone had any injuries, he showed no modifications for those afflicted. when he discussed those injuries he did actually say that if you felt "just muscle pain" you should breathe through it and continue with the pose. while he asked if people had questions after every two or three asanas, he took a tone that i could only call patronizing, if not outright mocking, to those who dared ask any. and rather than truly explain, his first response, after wryly smiling at the questioner, raising his eyebrows, and offering a loud "hmmmm. . ." would be to say, "guruji [p. jois] gives us the sequence this way."

for example, before doing seated forward fold (paschimottanasana), it's common for people in several yoga systems to adjust their seats, by literally rearranging their hips on the floor so they sit a little more flat and even. hildebrandt didn't mention this; when one woman asked about doing it, he shot her a narrowed look and somewhat icily offered that in ashtanga there is no movement without breath, and that in the seqence there was no breath for that movement. further, that this wasn't part of guruji's sequence and that extraneous movements were to be avoided.

then he discussed the horrors of breathing. as hildebrandt coldly explained, according to patanjali, breathing is a hindrance. one of the goals of yoga was to breathe less, to place more movement into longer breaths. he gave the example of famous yogis who are buried alive and don't need to breathe for long periods of time. "the goal of yoga, patanjali tells us, is samadhi, in which we don't need to breathe." i have to say hildebrandt lost me for good right there. i felt so sorry for the poor woman who had dared to inquire about such a simple matter. all he had to say to her here was a gentle, "in ashtanga we generally don't feel it's necessary."

look, i'm not going to go on and on with this. maybe hildebrandt wasn't in the greatest mood. maybe i wasn't in a receptive moment. maybe hildebrandt's personal style just clashes violently with mine; i'm not going to down his yoga. but this class was unfriendly, unexplanatory, and taught ashtanga as if it were nothing but a fancy system of calisthenics. i left that class having done some scary poses without much guidance, and in a truly terrible mood. in short, i was one grumpy ashtangi!

i'm not convinced that ashtanga is without worth; i will just continue to say that i have yet to meet a teacher who can communicate its stated promise. and to be fair to hildebrandt, he gives an excellent shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) adjustment, perhaps the best i've ever had. but i doubt you'll see me in his 6 a.m. mysore classes any time soon. . .

posted by fortune | 1:37 PM | top | link to this | email this: | links to this post | | 0 comments

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