Introduction to Ashtanga at the Chicago Yoga Center

Originally published on LiveJournal, 8.7.08

(This article is part of a series of reviews I call Taste of Chicago Yoga

Today I took an ashtanga class at the Chicago Yoga Center. The studio is well-known for its director, Suddha Weixler, is located in the now-trendy Roscoe Village, and has high-priced classes, so I guess I can be excused for being rather shocked by its total drabness. The humble room is located on the 3rd floor of what must be the most dismal business office building on the north side. Concrete corridors, a tiny elevator, a non-discreet buzzer: looks like the building is owned by someone who hasn’t smiled since 1952, and who doesn’t like entertaining guests.

At least the studio itself has nice plants on the windows, and gets a terrific airflow when the doors are opened. It does the job. Otherwise, it’s pretty dilapidated and not very inspiring. It seems almost abandoned: my class had only two students, including me. There was no music playing, just the hum of a business building. But, then, some humility might be in order, and even refreshing, especially when compared to some of the overdone lavishness of Chicago’s boutique yoga studios.

Chicago Yoga Center specializes in yin yoga and ashtanga, two very complimentary styles. Yin is a Chinese word, alluding to the feminine/lunar/passive cosmic principle, opposed to yang, the male/solar/active. In yin yoga, you use gravity rather than muscle strength to hold poses... and you hold them for a very long time. If that sounds easy to you, well, your intuition is very wrong. Yin yoga will profoundly challenge your physical and mental stamina. It’s great for people who can’t practice more vigorous yoga, due to blood pressure issues or other health problems, or those who already actively practice some other sport or yoga style, and are looking for a way to gain the yoga benefits without the extra aerobics.

Now, ashtanga can’t be more different. It’s vigorous and active, a quick moving sequence of poses, with different ones for every inhale and exhale. These days, it’s a very pretentious style of yoga: it sometimes claims to be true to authentic, ancient philosophic source (that’s nonsense), sometimes claims to have achieved the perfect orthodox sequence (debatable), and its practitioners generally think they are the only ones doing yoga right (assholes).

The truth is that ashtanga’s roots, in the Indianized gymnastics of Krishnamacharya, have been definitively influential on yoga. Actually, you can say that Krishnamacharya, in the early 20th Century, practically invented the physical yoga practice we all do today, while also problematically formulating it with links to a supposed ancient “yogic philosophy.” Unfortunately for those who like to think that yoga taps into some ancient wisdom, Pantanjali’s ancient “yoga sutras,” which Krishnamacharya referenced, are short and fuzzy, and definitely don’t define any poses or sequences for physical practice. All that is Krishnamacharya’s own invention, for which he drew inspiration from various trendy trends of native thought at the time, as well as ideologies of Western physical fitness and gymnastics. (Compare, for example, to communist idealization of physical labor, and fascist idealization of perfect physique, both germinating at the same as yoga.) The bottom line is this: yoga, as we practice it, and even the philosophy “behind” it, is just about a hundred years old.

More than that, yoga is fully, purposely modern. In fact, it was forged precisely in the midst of some of the greatest modern projects ever erected: British empire, in its inclusive Whiggish mode, and global bourgeois capitalism. Krishnamacharya created an entirely new way of being — in mind, body and spirit — to deal with the distinctly oppressive challenges of this new world, while purposely (and somewhat fancifully) linking modern people, newly uprooted and dazed, to a foundational past.

If yoga were invented today, there’s a good chance it would be copyrighted and patented. Indeed, the fact that anyone can claim to be an ashtanga master, without paying any dues to the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, the direct inheritors of Krishnamacharya, is probably what started the move to use legal protections for styles like Bikram and Baron-Baptiste. Unfortunately, it’s hypocritical and too late to start this now: if Mr. Bikram Choudhury, of Beverly Hills, CA, really wants to protect the assets of his yoga from those who would selfishly profit from it for their own sake, then by his own argument he should send at least 50% of his earnings to the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, or to the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, a public charitable trust held by Krishnamacharya’s son, T. K. V. Desikachar. He doesn’t, and he sucks, and I pee on his yoga.

This leaves ashtanga, today, in a weird place. It’s really not too different from any kind of vinyasa or hatha yoga style, which all use Krishnamacharya’s poses. All ashtanga has to offer beyond those is orthodoxy: a strict sequence of poses (see example, and specific ways of doing the poses.

There’s one more aspect of ashtanga, though: some of the best yoga practitioners and teachers of the world today adhere to it. So, the name ashtanga carries with it (sometimes) this sign of quality.

This brings me, finally, to my first ashtanga class, which I took today. The bottom line is that it was identical to any vinyasa class I had taken anywhere, with perhaps some extra emphasis on the “ashtanga way” of doing some poses. Really, no big deal. The components of the entire ashtanga sequence can be broken down to mini-sequences, and these are featured in almost any yoga class: sun salutations, moon salutations, mandalas, etc. So, they were all familiar to me, except that the order was strict.

There is something nice about a strict sequence of poses: once memorized, you can practice them by yourself, without the need of teachers and DVDs. Perhaps that’s why vinyasa and hatha teachers have moved away from calling themselves strictly “ashtanga” — there’s simply more profit in offering something original, unique and unreproducible without the assistance of the teacher. Still, profit can be made from ashtanga’s strict sequence. Indeed, Chicago Yoga Center and other studios offer “Mysore” classes (named after the city where yoga was founded), where students do their own ashtanga thang while teachers move about and offer advice and corrections. Now that I’m more familiar with the sequence, I might try one of those in the future, as a way towards developing my own independent practice.