This site is dedicated to the teaching and research of yoga pioneers Gregor Maehle and Monica Gauci. After over 30 years of yoga practice in the city we decided to take the injunction of many yoga scriptures.
One of my biggest frustrations with being associated with Ashtanga Yoga is that other yogis perceive that my asana practice and thereby the asana I teach must adhere to what is known as the ‘traditional’ form (I place tradition here in inverted comas to refer to the popular Jois tradition and not the traditional Patanjali Ashtanga Yoga, which is actually what I do practice and teach!). And many have a negative impression of this ‘tradition’. This negativity stems from Ashtanga’s reputation of being dogmatic, inflexible and hard core. Actually, that’s not a criticism of the practice itself but of the attitude of many Ashtanga Yoga teachers. I practice and teach in a way that adapts the asana practice to the individual’s needs using safe, sound biomechanics and a compassionate approach.
Gregor neatly categorises students into four groups and of course individual students may need to transition between these groups depending on their energy level, injury, age, etc.
Category one has the ideal body for Ashtanga Yoga and can always learn and practice the postures as in the orthodox sequence. Category two has to sometimes switch to therapeutic sequences or alter the series to some extent. Category three has such limitations (for example extremely tight hip joints that prevent half-lotus postures) that the sequences have to be permanently altered but can still be recognised as Ashtanga-inspired. The fourth category of students has such physical limitations that they need to practice a purpose-built therapeutic sequence that may not even be close to Ashtanga Yoga.
Important here is the ability and freedom to modify the asana practice to suit the individual rather than forcing an individual to fit the form. This applies to individual asana, sequences and entire practices. I would treat each of these categories of practitioner differently, catering to that individual’s ability with an aim to holistically nurture that person whilst they explore their possibilities and develop their potential, safely. In my Self Practice classes anyone who has a self-practice is welcome, from advanced series practitioners to those who are doing a practice that is very limited in movement. Everyone deserves to practice, whatever their capability.
However, if you reward students with the next asana, the next series and a teaching and certification system based on physical advancement in asana you can predict that they will become asana-ambitious. The inherent message in this system is that they’re not good enough until they are ‘advanced’. Advanced asana is not a reflection of the perfection, beauty, and divinity that is our true nature. And in the Ashtanga Yoga system there is also no method taught that teaches students how to realise that (more on that in future parts). This system has consequently led to the myth that one is/becomes a great yogi by performing advanced asana. And that belief has led to sometimes irreparable injury and suffering on more than only physical levels. This also constitutes spiritual abuse.
The un-yogic hierarchy of asana achievement in the Ashtanga system is what drives students to incessantly strive to go deeper and deeper into postures, which does not necessarily equate to greater benefit. It is, however, greater wear and thereby potential repair of joints, which is one of the known factors in the development of osteoarthritis. In regards to flexibility too much of a good thing often transmutes into a bad thing. For example, back bends are very therapeutic, however, the extreme of reaching back to hold your ankles requires lengthening the long ligament on the front of your spine to such a degree that you may destabilise your spine. It is not uncommon for yogis to displace the vertebrae at the peak of the curve in their low back (L3) from practicing extreme backbends or being over-zealously adjusted in the same. Previously, without questioning, I have been there and done that myself. Now I see that this is what makes yoga look like a circus.
Also, there are aspects of the practice that are not congruent with its current audience. For example, Ashtanga Vinyasa would have been designed for a population who had open hips. This means that other postures where the knees are less vulnerable may be better to commence hip opening than the half lotus postures. And Badhakonasana might be an important posture to include although it comes after many more advanced postures. In this way the teacher needs to intelligently apply asana that makes the practice accessible to the student rather than going through the motions to uphold a ‘tradition’ that is not applicable and does not serve the person in front of them. Yes, this does require that the teacher has a good level of experience and is why those some practitioners who could achieve postures with little effort often cannot teach them to those less capable.
Traditional teachers will argue that they wish to stay ‘true to the form’, however, this has often involved (presumably unintentionally) breaking the student to fit that tight, narrow box. I have experienced this personally as a student; seen students struggle and abuse themselves as a teacher; and witnessed the destruction of this imposition on numerous occasions as a therapist. The traditional adjustments given by Pattabhi Jois (and unfortunately adopted by many of his students seemingly by osmosis and certainly not by informed consideration) were often forceful and too often injurious. The last thing any teacher wishes is to harm another. It certainly is not necessary. As a teacher one must look to the needs of the student and not to upholding a purity that exists in our ideology, especially when that ideology is to the detriment of the individual before us.
It concerns me that as teachers we may be unawares encouraging a culture of physical and/or spiritual abuse by teaching students to continually strive for more: more flexibility, more strength, more postures, more sequences. We become a consumer of asana, flexibility and greater physical prowess just as we are consuming everything else on our Earth! I often ask students: ‘What are you practising?’ Ambition? Striving? Discontentment? Or exploration? Awareness? Appreciation? Contentment? Teaching is an act of service and needs to serve the student. As a teacher I attempt to read my students’ needs and to meet them where they’re at. That doesn’t mean not exploring their potential but to explore without an imposed set agenda. And I consciously dispel the ridiculous belief that they are any less a yogi for which asana they can or cannot do. We each need to treat ourselves like we treat those we love most and with full respect for this miraculous, sacred site that we inhabit.
Yoga is an introspective practice, which gives us the opportunity to practice interoception, i.e. being receptive to our internal environment, being able to listen and respond to our body and our innermost voice. This protects us physically and guides us spiritually. True asana means being embodied versus using our mind to conquer our body. That’s torture. That is abuse. Give yourself permission to practice honestly, a practice that nourishes your whole being, without self-coercion or the pressure to fit any outcome or even an out-dated version of yourself. Practice with love for yourself and your body. This is an opportunity for the tradition to be enhanced by new understanding. The essence of yoga is not in any order of postures but in an attitude of respect and love, service and humility and freedom that brings liberation from our conditioning, not one that adds to it!
You may have already come across this podcast but I’m a bit behind posting as I’m currently on a teaching tour across Europe and South America. With this latest podcast I seem to have again ruffled some feathers or shall we say, ahem…, sparked controversy. Some ultra-orthodox and hard-line Ashtanga websites apparently have taken it down after it got posted. You might here find out why.
Although I’m still a bit surprised that some yogis don’t want to engage in critical dialogue.
“Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.”
We are “destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else. We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff.”
As we have recently seen women are still discredited for taking a long time to speak out against powerful men like Brett Kavanaugh. In this article Karen Rain describes the slow and painful process to admit to herself that she had been victimized. She recounts the years it took her to build up the courage to finally own the fact that she had been sexually assaulted. I was there when this happened and when the photos were taken. I second her narration of events.
Looking back on this last sentence it feels strange that I should even have to still say this. But Karen wrote this article because there are still too many who doubt her account or re-interpret the actions of Jois as spiritual.
When I see these photos memories come alive. For me and many others back in that room, Karen was the worlds most advanced practitioner, our hero. She was the only person that made fifth series look easy and effortless. I’m asking those who still don’t believe her account why did the world’s most advanced practitioner who, looking forward to a stellar yoga career, suddenly turned her back on yoga and disappeared from the face of the earth not to be seen and heard of for 20 years?
The answer to this question is clearly visible in the photos that Karen shares. Clearly, she wants “to be a part of building a world that is safer and more welcoming for victims to recognize and report abuse when it happens, where we will be believed and protected”.
Part of building that world is that the beneficiaries of Jois need to come out, apologize and explain how they have enabled this abuse. And that call will not go away.
Our Greek friends at Modern Yogi interviewed Monica about Ashtanga as therapy and adapting the practice. Monica also talks about whether Ashtanga is for everybody, which role flexibility plays when practising and how yoga can alleviate panic attacks. Additionally, she covers the need for self-love when practising and to meditate to connect with the Divine within us. Finally she explains the importance how ones relationship with oneself prepares one for satisfying relationships with others.
When we think about acting responsibly towards the environment a lot of space is given to recycling, using energy saver light bulbs, abolishing plastic shopping bags and plastic water bottles or having shorter showers. However, if you analyse how much CO2 each of those measures save it’s actually not that much. If you would add up all of these and put on top going car-free and vegan, avoiding air travel and converting your energy to solar, the sum total would still only be a fraction of the one single measure of bringing one less child into the world.
This powerfully drives home the point that if we want to survive as a species and biosphere we need to reduce global population. Since decades the UN waffles on about us soon reaching peak-humanity (the point from which population growth becomes negative). But just recently the forecast was again upgraded from 9.5 to 11.4 billion and this is on top of a 40 year history of upgrades. Already in 1999 humanity’s demand of planetary resources exceeded Earth’s supply capacity by 20% (Wackernagel, M.; Schulz, N.B.; et al. (2002).
In 1999 our population was 6 Billion. Take 20% off (the amount that we exceeded), that’s 4.8 Billion. Wackernagel and Schulz calculation, however, does not even take into account fossil fuel depletion, which increases our carbon footprint one-hundredfold.
If we are really generous for a moment and waive the hundredfold increase (otherwise it just makes the estimate too pessimistic) and simply say let’s half the 4.8 Billion number to take into consideration past fossil fuel usage. This would bring us to a carrying capacity of Earth of 2.4 billion humans. That’s roughly the number we had at the end of WW2, which was the beginning of global capitalism and the great acceleration of trade and worldwide industrialization.
I’m not too fussed whether we set the limit of sustainable population growth there at 1945 or during the 1960’s or even as late as 1970 (3.7 Billion) when Earth Overshoot Day started. The point is we as a global community are living far beyond our planetary-resource means. Taking short showers and using reusable shopping bags and water bottles is great. It’s great for giving us a warm fuzzy feeling in the belly that we did something good. But it’s not enough. We need to do more.
Each child born comes with an enormous carbon footprint. For each additional human we have to fell more rain forest and turn it into food plantations. Each additional person takes up resources that we need to share with all other species that have a right to exist as much as we do.
But there’s more to that. They do not just have a right but we actually need them. The more diverse the biosphere is the more stable it is. More and more species evolved over time to increase the stability of the biosphere, which consists of homeostasis, maintaining the parameters that guarantee life on the planet on an even level. These parameters such as temperature, PH, and/or chemical composition of soils, atmosphere and oceans are not existing accidentally but are maintained by the biomass, i.e. the total mass of all organisms on the planet. The more diverse this biomass is the better it is at doing that job.
Currently we have started a process of mass extinction of diverse life forms. Every day we are making plants and animal species extinct. As biodiversity decreases the capacity of the biomass to maintain homeostasis (evenness of bio parameters) decreases, too.
Good news is, there are actually organisms that don’t have a problem with that. There is a domain of microbes called archaea. They are amazing. They can live at the rim of deep-sea volcanos in 900 degree hot water and metabolize the emitted sulphur. They have been found hundreds of meters under the sediment of Lake Titicaca (the world highest and deepest lake in the Andes) where they would have lived without oxygen for a billion years. Their secret is that they can adapt to the most hostile of environments and the reason they can do that is that they are not specialized at all. Because of their low level of specialization, they can survive everything we do to the biosphere. To them it will be water on a duck’s back.
To turn that around, the organisms most vulnerable to the current mass die-off of species are the most specialized. The most specialized of all of those is us, you and me, homo sapiens, as we like to call ourselves. Look at us couch-potatoes and perceive the amazing bio-support-system in place by all other species. By killing off all of the other guys (since 1960 we have lost 85% of the worlds wildernesses and killed more than two thirds of all wild mammals) we are literally pulling out the rug on which we stand. We can’t live without the biosphere.
Back to the outset and the quoted article. In order to live in harmony with all organisms we need to reduce human population so that their population can again grow. This can only happen through education and choice. About a decade ago the then Australian treasurer Peter Costello stated that for the Australian economy it would be the best if each couple had three kids. He said, “One for Mummy, one for Daddy and one for the taxation office”. In the light of the above information I’d like to turn this around. For the biosphere it is better if we have less children for example one per couple. One for Mummy, one for Daddy, minus one for Planet Earth.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not have the right and do not wish to dictate anybody their rate of procreation. Neither wished Peter Costello. But his suggestion (which is still echoed today by politicians, economists and business people around the world) is that we need to grow. More GDP, more industrial output, more consumption, more expenditure, more taxes and to guarantee that all, more population. In order to continue to thrive as a species including the surrounding biological community we need to shrink all of these factors and above all, population.
The first step towards that is information and education. We need to drill through the doctrine of continuous growth perpetuated by those who run our economies. They do maintain this doctrine because they only look towards the next electoral cycle and the need to show a budget plus, growing stock and real estate values, etc. This growth, however, while it may look good in the short term, in the longer view looks to societal collapse.