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Lineage, Truth and Breath

It can frustrating to confront the personal nature of truth. We discover time and again that our experience is unique and non-transferrable, that it surpasses the capacity of others to understand via the intellect or empathy. Only we can know just how something happened or what it meant for our body-mind. An experience can be as innocuous an eating ice cream on the last day of summer vacation or as intense as being held at gun-point and locked in a bathroom (two particularly lucid memories of mine). I could adorn these scenes with details capable of triggering a similar memory in my listener, but these associations would always belong to different source; the sweetness of their ice-cream or the current of their fear would never be quite the same. There are truths that lend themselves to more reliable consensus: today it’s raining, the sun is out, traffic is bad. But I never cease to be amazed by the variety of human perception regarding shared events, even of the simplest variety. All over the world, children swear that they aren’t cold, though everyone else is wearing a jacket. What is really happening in those bodies that we claim to know so well (that we claim, period)? Do we have any idea what they are actually experiencing? Of course we don’t, though we pull sweaters over their heads and threaten them with hats.

So what happens when we are the throes of a collective truth, a mass reckoning? How we do arrive at some kind of agreement without devolving into a gladiatorial fight? Right now the citizens of the United States are engaged in a desperate battle over gun control and the attempt to protect children from school shootings. ¿Is it the guns? Or is mental health the real issue? Or the conjunction of easily available assault weapons and the social isolation so prevalent in consumer culture? The debate over abortion has created similar polarization where I live in Argentina. When does life begin and who gets to decide? What’s more important, the sanctity of the fetus or the mother’s freedom to control her own body? The sweeping MeToo movement seems to have been more successful in reaching quorum about what most Westerners consider acceptable or anathema. But social and print media are a volatile court of opinion only too easily manipulated by others. Hillary Clinton has learned that lesson with excruciating visibility.

Faced with these difficult issues (gun control, abortion, sexual abuse), we tend to draw conclusions based on theories, generalizations and the third-party testimony of people we don’t know. At the simplest level, we will believe some people and not others. These intuitive decisions are usually the product of how we were raised, where we went to school, and our religious beliefs (or lack thereof), along with other core values and prejudices. In the end, something will push us in one direction or the other, and this tendency will undoubtedly be a more conditioned response than we would like to admit.

The yoga world is not immune to social crises and their accompanying dilemma of judgement. Spiritual leaders from almost every tradition (I can think of) have given us ample proof of their misconduct (financial, ethical or sexual), just as Netflix portrays in the astonishing Wild Wild Country. Last year, the momentum of the MeToo movement reached the yoga community and testimony about Pattabhi Jois’s invasive adjustments created havoc within the ashtanga vinyasa lineage. Disturbing photos and rumors had long circulated amongst practitioners, but a post by Mary Taylor set off an international commotion regarding sexual abuse within Jois’s teaching. Everyone who knows Mary personally also knows that she is a profoundly ethical person, but her version of the truth (in addition to the actual behavior of her teacher) became the locus of an outpouring of anger. Some people demonized her for trying to contextualize Jois’s behavior, while other’s alleged that she was tarnishing his memory.

A month after the famous post, I went to Boulder to participate in a course with Richard and Mary. In the days before we arrived in Colorado from all corners of the globe, Sharath Jois, the Paramaguru of his grandfather’s lineage, removed a generation of senior practitioners from KPJAYI’s hallowed list. Amongst the 40 students at the Yoga Workshop, some of us were “illegal” and many others Authorized Level 2. During the breaks between classes, we talked of little else. Where were we going? Who was in and who was out, and what did those terms even mean? When someone had the courage to ask Richard and Mary about what has happening, Mary spoke openly about what she had written and why, where she had made mistakes and how she thought we could go forward (keeping the dialogue open and honest). It was deeply moving to witness her honesty and willingness to own up to her own behavior. Here you can read Mary’s latest post on the subject.

While the snow and accusations settled in Boulder, I couldn’t help thinking of the balmy afternoon two years previous when the short film Guruji Lives Here premiered at the Yoga Workshop. Created in celebration of Jois’s centenary, teachers from all over the world filmed their studios and students as they practiced in a great variety of contexts, languages and climates. Along with other senior practitioners like Tim Miller, Dena Kingsburg narrated the footage with lyrical devotion. The video shows hundreds of practitioners committed to a methodology which many of us believe is key to our health and sanity. That evening, Richard and Mary told affectionate stories about their teacher and we all left the Yoga Workshop in a glow of admiration, comforted by our relationship to such a teacher. I have listened to many stories about Pattabhi Jois, told in person by some of his closest students: Eddie Stern, Tim Miller, Richard and Mary, David Swenson, Dena Kingsburg, Kathy Cooper, Guy Donahaye, Johnny Smith, Manu Jois and Dominic Corigliano. I have also read everything I could about the supposed “father” of ashtanga vinyasa, the man who codified this method that thousands of people all over the world practice before dawn. I don’t know who he was, but I have tried to learn more.

When I listen to these senior teachers, I am always struck by how much they loved Pattabhi Jois and how much they learned from him. It’s equally clear that he was unpredictable, caring and fearsome. They qualify his English as basic and hard to understand, noting that it was difficult to know what he meant on a more subtle level (though he was an extremely learned Sanskrit scholar). He seemed particularly gifted in recognizing what could help a student to overcome his or her personal limitations. He was a traditional Brahman whose life spanned the 20th Century and who gave in to various temptations towards the end of his life. It’s clear that he physically injured too many people, assisting them in ways that would be unacceptable in a contemporary context. As the famous sentence goes: “Now posture correct, walking some difficulty.” And we know with certainty that behind those awful pictures, there was much suffering and pain. I always assumed that I would never put into practice certain elements of his teaching (like stepping on both of a student’s knees in Baddha Konāsana, thereby tearing their adductors — an injury Krishnamacharya appreciated in BKS Iyengar when he once demonstrated Hanumanāsana publicly). It’s tragic that Pattabhi Jois crossed such intimate boundaries with female students. It’s tragic that force and abuse muscled their way into the practice room. As a student I’ve received inappropriate or excessive adjustments and assumed that they had to be endured — in the same way that so many women have white-knuckled their way through far worse experiences. But it also seems reductive to deny the positive contributions that Pattabhi Jois offered to the evolution of modern yoga. If before we venerated him blindly, now we depose him with the same absolutism.

We love to enshrine Krishnamacharya on the same pedestal we have reserved for his students (BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi) without recognizing his less charming idiosyncrasies. In addition to his brilliance, Krishnamacharya was so fierce that he often had difficulty retaining his students and people scattered on the street when they saw him coming. When his son Desikachar escaped from a yoga lesson as a boy, Krishnamacharya tied him in Padmāsana with a rope and left him “to think” for a considerable period of time. He was not some cuddly yogic grandfather, but both a tyrant and a saint. As Desikachar notes in his biographical book Health, Healing and Beyond, Krishnamacharya was fundamentally a mystery. His grandson Kausthub engaged in serious sexual abuse with his female students and when Desikachar himself fell into senile dementia, the family was not forthcoming about his illness. This darker side of our lineage doesn’t mean that we should throw away our mats and try spinning, but rather that we are descended from a line of human practitioners. We don’t have to forgive or condone anyone or anything, but we would be wise to look more closely, to accept the fact of personal fallibility and the multi-dimensional reality of any life.

Discussing El arte de Vinyasa in Buenos Aires

Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor recently came to Buenos Aires to present the Spanish translation of their book The Art of Vinyasa and to teach a workshop. For me, this experience was the culmination of significant effort, high hopes and endless emails. I never imagined it would really happen, and yet I knew it was coming. For a while now, I have studied with Richard and Mary as often as my family will tolerate, and I’ve spent the past two years translating their literary work. Over time, I have studied with many wonderful teachers and I’ve learned from each and every one, but if the infamous Ashtanga Police held me at point blank rage and asked “Who is your teacher?,” I would answer “Richard and Mary.” This is a paradoxical response, akin to their teachings, that hold the true teacher as the tradition, the practice, the capacity to be in dialogue with others, as opposed to embracing the dogma that divides us into isolated camps.

During the presentation of El arte de Vinyasa, I asked Richard and Mary about the current crisis in our lineage (and all of the other major schools who have lost their founding teacher). What is a lineage, really, and what does paraṃpara mean? How do we sustain it? Who is really qualified to lead us in these moments of conflict? The first vinyāsa of Richard’s answer was to chant the “secret” mantra that initiated ashtanguis mumble under their breath while we mortals strain to hear what they’re saying. I’ve always wanted to know more about those verses, but I’ve never had the temerity to ask. Richard explained that this is a lineage chant that begins with Nārāyaṇa, the highest manifestation of Viṣṇu, before naming other premodern figures in the Shankaracharya line, sages like Gaudapad who demonstrated a deep affinity and familiarity with Buddhism. And we know that Shankaracharya was a great unifier within what we now think of as Hinduism. He not only brought closure to the divide between puruṣa and prakṛti, but also made friends out of schools that had previously considered themselves enemies. Patañjali is well-known for his inclusive broad strokes, offering “whatever works” in service of settling the mind. He’s a theist without party affiliation, and his portrait of Īśvara can accommodate almost any God from any tradition. Within this larger perspective it’s possible to conceive of paraṃpara as more than the simple repetition of what came before (abhyāsa) and more like the active evolution of what falls away and what remains (vairāgya). Krishnamacharya was famous for his innovation and willingness to tailor different approaches to individual students, though he remained a strict traditionalist in other aspects. He modified his teaching significantly half-way through his career and introduced revolutionary change in modern yoga practice, including both women and westerners amongst his closest students. This is very different, of course, than patenting hot yoga pilates fusion and selling it online.

(Here’s the full conversation with Richard and Mary at the book presentation in Buenos Aires)

The yoga tradition (and our own experience) remind us that it’s difficult to deepen our practice without a teacher; if we jump from one method to the next we’re never going to tap into the precious ore of who we are. But what a shame to limit an age-old lineage to the latest communiqué from Mysore or the sins of Pattabhi Jois. Paraṃpara is not a stick we use to keep people in line, but an infinite and supple golden chain. What I most treasure about studying with Richard and Mary is their constant invitation to pay attention to whatever is arising and to relax into what they call “not knowing.” They encourage us to read sacred texts without relying exclusively on an interpreter and to resist hiding in the insular haven of a single saṅgha. All of this within the rigor of daily practice, daily study, daily waking up to the other beings who surround us. They make it clear that we have lifetimes of “research” to undergo and that we are still in the infancy of our inquiry. I’ll never forget listening to Richard answer a student’s question one morning in Boulder. He turned on his heel, raised his hands towards the ceiling and said, “What do I know?” More than I do, that’s for sure.

Richard and Mary’s teachings can appear deceptively simple. In a Teacher’s Intensive, they keep us in Samasthiti and ekam-dve-trini for a week; we sit in silence several times a day with nothing to hold on to but our breath. But if we can’t align our shoulders in Downward Dog, what’s the point of putting our legs behind out heads? And how much do we miss in Surya Namaskāra because we want to move on to “the interesting poses?” If we can’t listen to the person beside us with compassion, what’s the point of reciting all four pādas of the Yoga Sūtra? Or as Richard would say, “A little kindness is worth ten thousand hours of prāṇāyāma.”

It’s terrible to witness the failures of someone we have venerated, but if we didn’t deify mere mortals so swiftly, maybe this conversation would be less painful and more honest. I’ve searched for teachers all my life and I’ve idealized those that I have found. When I met Richard and Mary, I understood that this process wouldn’t be quite so easy to replicate. They actively ask not to be placed on a pedestal, which is the same action that places the student in a ditch. They don’t give out postures like prizes or reward self-mutilation on the mat. They ask teachers to honor their students. They ask us to reach across the aisle to other traditions, lineages and beings. This all requires true attentiveness, the kind that sometimes means looking closely at what hurts. Undoubtedly, I have failed to see them as “more ordinary” and “more human” (as they describe an advanced practitioner), but at least these ideas are on the table.

In my attempts to put my thoughts in order about the personal nature of truth (without descending into moral relativism), I’ve thought often about the personal nature of breath. As much as we would like to, we can’t breathe for someone else, just was we can’t “know” their experience. But we can create conditions in which they can breathe freely. We can create more space in which to be a compassionate witness, space where people feel permission to express what is left unsaid. Mysore rooms are silent places where everything hangs out; we may not know the names of the people doing tapas on a nearby mat, but we may know more about them than many of our good friends. As practitioners and teachers we understand that the breath reveals our external and internal alignment, the quality of our muscles and of our minds. We don’t have to accept or reject the breathing pattern of the practitioner next door. But we can allow it to exist. There’s almost nothing more beautiful than the silent communion of a Mysore room, in particular when people have permission to be who they are. It’s too simple to say that truth and breath are commensurate, but I do believe they are close cousins. Maybe that’s what Pattabhi Jois meant when he said to his students, “free breathing.” The truth is that we’ll never know.

In that spirit, dear ashtanguis, may we continue to talk and to breathe. In the immortal words of Lyell Lovett, “Life is so uncertain,” and the truth can be a dense nugget buried beneath the surface. Let’s look to reliable sources, people who bore witness. May we all listen to Karen Rain directly in her video and keep asking questions. And please, let’s all realize that we are this lineage, as it breathes and changes with us. It could never be the private property of a single place or family. May we all stand as honorable representatives of this great evolution, generous enough to include any practitioner with a sincere heart and a dedicated mind.

We may not know the secret mumble mantra, but we can breathe in Samasthiti, knowing that those who have stood before us have been standing as long as can be remembered. In remembering them, perhaps we can remember ourselves.