The Importance Of The Lineage

March 20, 2012 § 7 Comments

Or, the importance of being culturally sensitive.

I realized today that not everybody who does Ashtanga cares about its lineage, tradition, parampara or whatever you want to call it. All well and good. After all, this system of practice is very personal, yet sufficiently broad enough to allow you to do whatever you want with it. Kind of like life itself I think.

While we all have different degrees of affection towards the guy(s) who started it all and the family and teachers who keep it running today, I think it’s safe to say that, regardless of whether you’re the type of practitioner who would kiss your guru’s feet or shy away from it (like me), there’s a basic level of respect that we all have for the “Ashtanga system” and its transmission through generations of teachers. I’m aware that the last sentence makes Ashtanga seem alot older than what it really is, but that’s part of a discussion about authenticity, which is another topic. I’m talking about having an attitude of openness towards what has been taught to our teachers and what is being taught to us, which requires some degree of accepting what seems foreign (for the Western mind) for what it is, girded by a respect for the fact that it originates from a culture vastly different from the West. Therefore you can imagine how pissed off I am to hear someone make sweeping pronouncements about “the high degree of corruption” in Indian culture based on their subjective interpretation of an article. Particularly when they’re sitting next to someone of said culture, sipping their cup of chai, after a couple of hours exercising according to a framework developed from the very culture that they’re criticizing. Hypocrite much?

All of this raises interesting questions about my own attitude towards the Ashtanga tradition, about which I haven’t really given much thought. Perhaps it’s my strict Catholic background, but after about 16 years of involvement in Church activities, I’m all too wary about any effusive affection toward an authority figure, spiritual or otherwise. This doesn’t mean that I don’t respect the framework within which they operate – no, I still follow the system (Mass – when I used to go, and now, the yoga practice) – but I approach it with a level of detachment, of not getting all swept up in the ideology and idolization of the authority figure. In the context of Ashtanga, I view the (relatively young) “tradition” as a massive whole, made up of every teacher and student who practices it, with Guruji at the heart of it. I respect that, and I keep doing this practice everyday because I have seen that it makes sense for me to do so. I’ve experienced its benefits. So whether or not this “system” and its “lineage” is 50 or 500 years old, I really don’t care, I’ll keep doing it and believing in it as long as it resonates in my life.

I realize that this post is a part-rant, part-ramble that hasn’t really answered the thesis that the title hints at. Let me attempt to do so: I think practicing Ashtanga (or even yoga, in general) within a concept of a “lineage” is a helpful tool in keeping us close to the source of the practice, of reminding us what is it that we’re practicing for, why we do it a particular way, what it’s designed to do, etc. However, it has its limits, and while we need to be true to the spirit of the system designed for us, it’s important to be aware that yoga – Ashtanga – systems are dynamic and change over time.

There, I tried. Look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.


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§ 7 Responses to The Importance Of The Lineage

  • mariavlong says:

    I’d like to throw into the mix, the reason or reasons a western student begins a yoga practice, and how those reasons change with the amount of time that passes when you cobble up a consistent practice. Affection, respect and celebrating certain traditional aspects of the practice come with time. I will go ahead and make the marriage/partnership comparison: you thought you where in love when you got married. If it is working and it has been a few years, you smile at how “inmature” that love was compared to the depth of what you feel now. That does not mean that you or your partner are perfection incarnate, but the relationship works, you respect it, and you celebrate it with certain traditions…..

    • D says:

      The marriage/partnership comparison is a beautiful one, and you are spot on about how our reasons for commitment (to any endeavor, not just yoga) change with time. Change is our nature (ref: David Swenson on Santosha at AYC) but we always seem to forget that.

  • interesting. i have never seen anyone ever kiss guruji’s feet. we just stand in the line, kneel down & touch them. it’s just a show of respect. i have felt extremely fortunate to have been able to get that close to him. it’s a kind of “surrender” just like surrendering to the practice that is astanga. and i totally agree-india is a whole nuther culture, for sure. but they are as messed up as we are. just in a different way.

    • D says:

      I referenced the feet-kissing because it came up in an earlier conversation with this person where he clearly disapproved of the practice. I agree, it’s just a show of respect, and I’d venture that it’s more common across devotees of all beliefs than we realize.

      Re: India, yes, it’s not perfect…isn’t that like every other culture on this planet though? What really irked me was his pseudo-intellectualism, which, coming from a WASP, had hints of colonialism too. Ok, now I’m probably reading too much into this…

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about the VF piece.

  • vanity fair….oh no….i’m sharing the article in our ashtanga group on fb.

  • Yyogini says:

    I thought the Vanity Fair article was fair and well-researched. When the first western students sought out yoga teachers in India, it was before yoga was “cool”. Many were poor, but they learned yoga not expecting to turn it into a fancy career. Now that yoga has become a mega-giant industry, you will get some authentic students, but I would say it’s true many students practice Ashtanga because they want to look good or their ego wants to get to 3rd series, or they want to become yoga teachers because it is a viable career option. The lineage will definitely morph and evolve into something else. I’m glad I learned it sooner rather than later. Knowing the skeptic that I am, I probably wouldn’t be interested in this style if I read the article before trying it out. In that sense this article is doing a disservice to Ashtanga I guess, but I can’t say the article is biased. It’s just being honest.

    • D says:

      Yes, I found it honest too. Which is often the hardest types of facts to swallow – the truth is uncomfortable, not pretty and often, pretty much mundane.

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