This piece is dedicated to Thomas Still, the very fine author who wrote “1 Percent Theory” An Attempt to Reconstruct the Forgotten Lessons of Ashtanga Yoga as Taught by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. His book is available through Ashtanga.com, Amazon and numerous second hand book sellers. I review this book on Goodreads immediately after I finish it. Day-um, imagine my surprise when I receive an email from Mr. Still himself! (I naively suppose authors are all old, dead white guys – with little interest in what consumers like my self opine.) Nothing can be further from the truth. Still sounds like a regular guy, obviously not dead – maybe not old – possibly white. . .I didn’t ask, lol.
If you are interested, you can read my original review or see my expanded version on Amazon. Without any spoilers I will say I heartily recommend this book. His work is not only a piece with interesting back-story on how Ashtanga came to be, came to the West, and what it became – it’s also a philosophical work that comes out on the same page as me: Yoga should not hurt. If you meet a “spiritual” type who tries to talk you into breaking your knees for the sake of your practice – Run!
Recently I pulled a muscle doing a “metabolic blast” workout. My experience sort of scared me. I know I’m old (in my 50s) but I consider my self fit. Who knew an 8 minute hoo-haw found on YouTube could jeopardize my ability to sub flow class this weekend? grrr. But I digress. Yoga done well, done correctly, is safe, healthy – dare I say? Healing. If yoga hurts, you’re doing something wrong. Wrong I tell ya. Something not appropriate for you, not possible for you, or not correct in your execution. Or to quote David Williams, “…through slow, steady, daily practice one can achieve greater flexibility by generating one’s own internal heat to relax into positions, rather than being forced into a position.”
I am very lucky that my first Ashtanga teacher was David Williams. (Yes, that David Williams, who taught David Swenson and all those first wave practitioners.) He’s still around, with a full teaching schedule. Look him up on Google using “David Williams” “Ashtanga” and “Yoga” because his name is not enough unique to search well. Williams appeals to me because he’s down to earth, easy to understand, encouraging, kind and unlike many other yoga aficionados – he has other interests besides yoga. As dumb as this sounds I appreciate that I can talk to him about chess. If David has a mantra it’s “yoga should not hurt.”
I would be disingenuous to not mention I had been doing Ashtanga for about 4 years before I had a teacher. My interest is piqued by a chance meeting at a Gaelic music gathering with a student of David Swenson’s. This charitable fellow, who can clearly see what I look like, asks me why I haven’t tried Ashtanga yoga. Hahahaha. What a question. I admit to “Diamond” I don’t think my hip injury will allow me the Primary series. He disagrees. Out of a sheer spirit of inquiry I decide to give myself a second go. (Wait a minute? “second” go?)
My first introduction to Ashtanga style occurs much earlier in a yoga studio. That neo-shamanistic teacher, a find-your-inner-child yogini, runs through the primary series without mentioning bandha, dristi, dynamic energy. While she confidently performs I have no tools to direct my engagement or compression or muscle tonus. She fails to mention pranayama. To call her my first teacher would be a deliberately misleading sentence. I taught myself.
I taught myself after meeting Diamond. I purchase David Swenson’s Ashtanga Yoga: the Practice Manual. Of all the books available for the primary series I recommend this one for its construction. The spiral binding allows me to leave it open while using. The hard cover is durable. The book contains over 650 photos and multiple variations for every asana in the primary and intermediate series plus three short forms. The captions to the photos have helpful cues.
By contrast “One Percent Theory” is not a how-to. In fact the opening volley is more of a how-not-to. **Not a Spoiler**. This is not a spoiler, this refers what you might read in a free sample. Mr. Still describes a yoga workshop where the attendees push themselves well past their limits. He observes a young woman barely able to hobble to class. What makes people do this? Still wonders if this is the legitimate lineage of Jois’ teachings or a bastardized version. I am not reading between the lines when I mention if it is what Jois recommended, Still wants no part of it.
Read his book and decide which side you stand on. In modern yoga there are two camps: spiritualism and healing modality. For some people yoga is a religion. Maybe not the Hindu religion, but a religion nonetheless. For some people the religion of yoga is almost a cult. For others yoga is merely exercise, a way to lose weight, a therapy – physical or psychological.
The camps, however, are not distinct. I consider myself mos def in the healing modality clan but even I reach easily reach the Sir Richard Dawkins awe-for-the-universe level of spirituality when I practice. I love losing my “i”-ness in my practice and becoming one with my biosphere. I draw the line at external dualism. But what about the spiritualists who believe in a loving God, a buddy-Jesus, a personified Brahma? They too cross lines when they experience healing through practice, although admittedly few of them come to a daily practice looking for health. For them yoga is a prayer, a meditation, a ritual, a rite – – not a therapy session.
What’s wrong with that Kumari? Nothing per se, my point, and I do have one, is about perspective. Don’t expect a religion to make sense because a religion shouldn’t have to make sense. That’s what makes it a religion and not a science, not a philosophy. I’m supposed to take religion on faith, as per the King James translation “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Meaning if faith reflects the apparent, overt, obvious, manifest to the naked eye – it’s not what we’re talking about. Faith by definition must needs reveal the convoluted, obscure, arcane, occult – mysterious, illogical, unprovable.
Take for example the beginning of the world. The faithful would say God created and leave it at that. But this not only doesn’t explain the beginning, this explanation creates a whole new mess o’questions such as “from whence God?” And we’re right back where started, a very questionable loop. A better answer to how the world began might be “I don’t know.” Or “I’ll let you know when I find out.” Or “There is no beginning and there is no end,” but I digress.
No matter which team you play for, if you love Ashtanga yoga, you ought to read this book. There’s a lot of fresh perspective. Who were the ancient original yogis and what were they practicing for? If you’ve been blindly punishing yourself for a cruel teacher this book will make you question yourself, why? If you are practicing yoga for healing modality you will appreciate learning there’s others of us out here.
I’m all for authors who demystify the practice. IMHO yoga works like this: You’re all right now. Nothing needs to be added. All you need to do is it, again, and do it. Ninety-nine percent of Ashtanga is a personal experience. A learning curve. An experience with its own surprises, openings, and feedback loop.
Now y’all play nice