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About two months ago I had the great fortune to attend an Iyengar yoga intensive with the brilliant teacher Manouso Manos. It was my sixth or seventh intensive with him, and each seems better than the last. His instruction is so clear, and rings with such precision, that if one is truly paying attention it seems possible to actually feel beyond the general whole of the body, or even one of its parts, and peer right down into a minutely dissected essence. The base of the big toe of the left foot, for instance. If Manouso selects that part of the body for instruction, after about an hour or so it appears enlightenment might arise from one’s dedicated focus on a metatarsal. I always leave his intensives starved for more. More instruction, more practice, more insight.

During this particular weekend, Manouso made a comment that has bothered and haunted me, and goes to the heart of much controversy that exists within the Western yoga world (industry?). He mentioned an article he had read online in which the author, a devotee of Iyengar yoga, asserted that the reason Iyengar yoga will never be as popular as the vinyasa and power styles of practice are that the practitioners of the latter “do not want to take responsibility for their own practice.” They are, in other words, not as mature or self-reliant.

As he said this, a woman sitting next to me vigorously nodded her head and, in what can only be described a self-congratulatory manner, mumbled, “That’s right. That’s right.”

Is it right? My first thought was of the many many thousands of dedicated Ashtanga vinyasa practitioners, people who rise before 6AM and practice in the style of Mysore: totally self motivated and independent, learning first the arduous Primary Series, and then, usually after several years, the challenging Intermediate Series, and then perhaps, perhaps on to the Advanced Series. ap(Annie Pace)
The guide in Mysore style is not a teacher at the front of a classroom, giving instruction on alignment or offering soothing, vaguely New Age assurances about how powerful and blessed we all are. Although there are many revered instructors who have been taught by Pattabhi Jois himself, the teacher in the Ashtanga system really comes down to oneself, and one’s own discipline.

Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar had the same teacher, Krishnamacharya. Because of this I have always considered Iyengar yoga and Ashtanga vinyasa to be twins to one another, and the two systems (really one?) invite a similar sort of student: independent, curious, and needing or wanting to further – or create – his or her wellbeing. It’s a subject about which I’ve thought a lot, especially given how different the two forms of practice appear.

However, what of the “other” types of practice, of which there are too many to name, though they all fall under the rubric of “power,” or vinyasa or yin. Or the types that have been branded and trademarked and named after (or by) famous teachers? I admit to a strong bias against most of these practices; it’s my sense they foster and support the enhancement of ego, and offer easy answers to questions that often, at least in my limited experience, have no answers at all.

But that’s my bias. And because of my bias, can I then say that the followers of these practices don’t take responsibility for themselves or their spiritual lives? How judgmental and irresponsible that seems. Because we find ourselves living from one perspective or belief system, how is it we can dismiss those that differ from what we perceive as our “truth?”

In what way is this different from any other form of fundamentalism? There seems to be no difference, as far as I can tell.

And that is why a simple, short comment made by one of my favorite teachers has stuck with me, bothered me, for so many days. As this same teacher once so beautifully said, “We’re all just trying to get through the day.”
October 13, 2014