What’s Going On At Mysore Is Not Sustainable

Traditions under the spotlight

I am many things: new mama, artist, tea drinker and yogi. Though I’ve tried a few styles, when I finally found Ashtanga, I thought, “AHA!” this is it! That was back in 2006. I started practicing with intent in 2009 when I moved to Cape Town.

Pattabhi Jois and Mysore

During those first years of practice, I began to hear about Pattabhi Jois, and soon learned about his lineage and the history. When his death occurred in early 2009, I felt like I had missed out on meeting my guru. Like a comet that flies through the air, appreciated by thousands, it felt like I came outdoors two seconds too late.

I found my own guru in Paul Dallaghan when I traveled to Thailand in 2011. I was drawn to his approach and his center, and I was also happy to see that he was authorised by Pattabhi Jois. I did my Teacher Training with him in 2012 and I’ve been back almost every year, save the year my son was born.

It has become something of a pilgrimage to travel to Mysore and study with Sharath, the grandson of Pattabhi Jois.  Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Sharath teaches at the main shala and there’s an additional shala where Saraswathi, Pattabhi’s daughter, teaches.

Change In Regime

On July 12th, a new rule was added to the acceptance criteria for practicing at the shala in Mysore. Now, you must have studied for a minimum of two months with an authorised teacher. A whole host of comments and bloggers have reacted to the change, and much of it has been negative.

No elbow room
Image Credit: Evan Lovely on Flickr.

There are lots of reasons why this change is detrimental for some practitioners. For those who live in China, there is only one authorised teacher. If you happen to live in the gigantic continent that is Africa, there are only two authorised teachers, one in Egypt and one in Zambia. And if you’re in Central America, then you’ll have to high-tail it to Costa Rica because that’s where the authorised teacher is.

Sure, authorised teachers travel, and they may even come to your shala for a week or even a month. But how does being taught by two or three different teachers, all with their different energy and philosophy and approach to āsana affect you as the practitioner? Not to mention if you’re a mother with small children, or have a work trip that means you’re unavailable during the time the authorised teacher is in town. What then?

For those who have been diligently practicing at home for years and years, this will seem like a hurdle they won’t be able to pass. A home practice is a unique and quite intense form of practice, requiring a great deal of fortitude and dedication. When was the last time you practiced at home consistently without giving in to the distractions all around you?

The Politics Of Authorisation

I happen to have a teacher who I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to, and fortunately for me, was authorised by Pattabhi… but not anymore. I’ve seen his certificate in his shala, and I’ve heard it from his mouth directly, but I also know that my guru is no longer on the formal list in Mysore. Why might this be? If you ask Paul, it’s because he’s now running his own teacher training program, something that’s not sanctioned by Mysore.

Have you heard of David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, David Swenson or Danny Paradise? They’ve all studied extensively with Pattabhi as well. While I know directly from David Swenson that Pattabhi authorised him to teach, I would gander to say that the others, given that they were dedicated students of Pattabhi’s for years, were also authorised. Yet they’re no longer on the list either. Genny Wilkinson-Priest wrote a good article on authorization and had this to say:

Critics say the authorization stamp doesn’t have enough weight behind it. There is no anatomy course requirement at KPJAYRI, no teaching of detailed alignment or modifications and no formalized philosophy class. An aspiring teacher must learn these things by themselves. (To be fair, most do.) As one senior teacher told her:  “The hoops you have to jump through in Mysore are not obvious, and Westerners don’t like that.”  Nor do Westerners like the fact that you can’t buy authorization the way you can buy a Teacher Training in the West.

The Path to Yogi-ness

Smug Yogi
Image Credit: Liv Unni Sødem on Flickr.

My guru, Paul, continues to teach and his not being on the list doesn’t seem to have affected him too greatly. Nancy Gilgoff is happy teaching away in glorious Hawaii and heaven knows that David Swenson is doing just fine leading workshops around the world. Teachers who were once authorised by Pattabhi will continue to teach and they’ll teach the next generation of teachers. That was the direct message they received from Pattabhi. As Guruji used to say, “Ashtanga Yoga is for all people: old people, young people, fat people, skinny people — only not lazy people.”

Some bloggers have been quick to point out that Mysore is not a pre-requisite for the path to “true yogi-ness,” which is true. Just because you can’t make it to Mecca doesn’t mean you’re not a good Muslim, and if you can’t make it to Mysore it doesn’t mean you’re not a good yogi. There are plenty of other teachers in the world, and plenty of ways to learn the practice. If you were offended by the smell of elitism in this new rule, then you can take a different perspective and acknowledge that Mysore isn’t for you and you don’t need it. End of story.

But, what if they need you?

How Long Can This Last?

One piece in all of this uproar that’s struck me, is a thought about longevity. This model is simply not sustainable. Although some say this rule has always informally been in place, making it formal strikes me as a desperate attempt to hold onto control. At Mysore, people queue to get the next available mat space and there’s a good deal of elbowing taking place and ultimately not enough room. As a weeding-out rule, these actions are very effective, but how long will it last?

The reality is, change is inevitable. Even as Sharath tries to cull the numbers, there will come a point when there are too many practitioners. What then? You must have practiced for five years? You must have done a workshop with Sharath? You must have green eyes and share a story in Sanskrit?

New directions
Image Credit: Sonny Abesamis on Flickr.

Becoming authorised to teach at Mysore doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher. Taking one teacher training course a year with several notable teachers doesn’t mean that you’ll be a great teacher. In fact, nothing actually guarantees that you’ll be a good teacher. The path to becoming a ‘good’ teacher is not an equation, and it’s not determined by where or with whom you’ve trained.

When people hold too tightly to anything, it’s likely to break, and that’s exactly what I see happening at Mysore.

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