Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tradition or Not

Okay so the formatting on this post has a life of its own today and I cannot get a handle on it. Sorry. Anyway, Mandy asked me at the end of my last post about whether or not I thought that Anusara Yoga could accurately be called a tradition. Here are her thoughts:

I've got something for you to ponder Anusara yoga a tradition? I called it a tradition in class recently and one of my very thoughtful students suggested that Anusara was to young in his mind to be considered a tradition. Here are my thoughts I shared with him...It certainly is a part the big umbrella tradition of yoga and we do things that are very traditional....chant, meditate and contemplate on the universal, asana, etc. But in some ways Anusara Yoga is untraditional......UPA's, Immersions and Teacher Trainings, bringing yoga to the masses, enjoyment of life (both traditional and non). I would love to hear your thoughts on this seems like it might be a good blog post.

I think the real question really boils down to how long does something have to be happening for it to be called a tradition. As Mandy pointed out we are most certainly part of the large tradition of yoga. In fact, we are part of theKrishnamacharya lineage of yoga, as is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Viniyoga. Our teacher, John Friend, was a student of BKS Iyengar (Although certainly he studied with other teachers and had other influences I think it is fair to say that our roots are pretty strongly planted in the soil of the Iyengar Yoga Tradition. He is 90- something we get to call that a tradition?) who was a student of Krishnamacharya. Don't get me wrong here, I am not saying we are the same but just acknowledging the roots of the alignment were fertilized by all those years John studied, practiced and taught in that system.

The other thing is that our philosophical roots are planted in the Siddha Yoga Tradition and while we are not Siddha Yoga Hatha Yoga by any means, our teacher was influenced and guided by this great spiritual tradition and its teachings, practices and perspectives. Of course, there are other influences that inform the broad, life-affirming vision that is Anusara Yoga philosophy but this is a big one. Pull on that thread, after all and you get to Kashmir Shaivism, you learn John met Douglas Brooks whose genius, knowledge and experience is steeped in the Shri Vidya tradition of Southern India and found its modern expression in his work with Rajanaka Tantra and so on. Siddha Yoga has been a wellspring of inspiration, guidance and support to us in Anusara Yoga.

My opinion is that the underpinnings of the Universal Principles of Alignment are not new or specific to us. Ask any alignment-oriented yoga teacher out there and they will tell you that similar principles inform the postures and that the poses are linked through these similar principles. So my opinion and experience is that we do not own/are not responsible for that idea, although the language of the UPA's and the system we use to approach the truth of the asana being connected in such a way is part of our genius as a method (Thanks, John!)and does define us. Yoga teachers have been linking postures through principles for a long time beofre we came around but the way we do it is definitely us.

Yoga coming to the masses happened way before Anusara Yoga so that is not part of "our tradition" either in my mind. In fact, I think BKS was one of the first people to really do that. He broke away from the "traditional" approach of one on one instruction and developed an effective means of transmitting the asana practice to large groups. He probably did more to popularize yoga than we have done as a method, although I am not stating that as a fact, just as an opinion. Obviously, other things have contributed to the rise of yoga's popularity.(like Madonna and Sting doing it!) And people have been doing intensives, trainings and workshops long before us.

Enjoyment of life and the participation in life as opposed to the renunciation of life belongs to the tradition of tantra and so that guiding ideal of ours is grounded and rooted in a traditional soil as well.

So here is what I always think is interesting. Whenever a tradition "got started" it was radical. For instance, BKS Iyengar was a radical practitioner and teacher of asana in his early days but now that method seems to hold down the conservative side of the discussion. When the tantric sects were popping up, they were a decidedly radical path, not a traditional one. To say something is "traditional tantra" is kind of funny because they were always about a radical approach. When John got started on his own, Anusara was more radical and was more questioned. Now we are seen as more knowledgeable, authoritative and valid. And that is just in 10 years!

One thing I think we have done that is "ours" is to elevate asana as something other than a means to end but to place it as its own spiritual practice and expression of divinity. In Anusara Yoga, for instance, we do not do asana "just to get to meditation." We see asana as a full expression of a philosophy and not a lower upaya, or means. And we do not do yoga to sublimate the emotions only or to subdue the personality. We use the mechanism of asana as an expression means. So that is more than a bit different.

The dictionary defines tradition as something that is passed down through generations. And so that is one of the interesting things about what is going on in Anusara Yoga right now is that its tradition is new, evolving and in the process of being codified. Part of what we did recently in The Woodlands was begin to outline very clearly a curriculum that defines us and our means of transmission more clearly so that we are not John Friend Yoga but a system that can stand the test of time.

I think it is fair to say we are a tradition- we have "our ways" and we are transmitting them from generation to generation of students and teachers. Like it is a really cool (and sobering) thing when a teacher that I trained now has teachers that they are training. But I think it is good to be clear we are a young tradition. What that means is that we are growing, changing and evolving and learning. And like anything there are pros and cons. Can you be old and new at the same time? In a way, we are. We have harvested many fantastic things from what came before and yet we are something decidedly new as well. We are 12 years old, not 112.

One thing Douglas always used to say is that just because something is new does not mean it is good, nor does it mean it is bad. And just because something is old, that does not give it credibility nor does it mean that it should be discarded. Think about slavery, civil rights and so forth, for instance.

Years ago I took the Anusara Yoga Certification Exam and the last questions had to do with what was my vision for Anusara Yoga. I wrote that I thought we were an exciting method of yoga because of our youth. We had little dogma, our ways were not rigid, our hierarchy was not limiting and we were still responsive, enthusiastic and creative. Also, I wrote, as a new method, we did not have the length of time, the seniority, longevity and wisdom of a long lifetime of study and practice to guide us. My vision, I wrote, was to be around long enough to be that source of wisdom to others as we evolved. I still hold that vision and find myself awed at the people who are part of that same vision and who hold the same kind of commitment to Anusara Yoga.

So whatever you call us- method, tradition, system, lineage, etc.- we certainly are something. That is for sure. Okay, there is more to say on all of this and I welcome any comments and contributions to the story. Again this is kind of a stream of consciousness musing, and is not meant to be definitive or politically correct!


mandy eubanks said...

Wow! Thanks Christina. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. It's such an interesting and evolving topic. I would just like to add that I also am not under the illusion that Anusara Yoga came up with bringing yoga to the masses, teaching alignment, and following the teaching of yoga which embrace the enjoyment of life. When looking at the scope of yoga the aforementioned, in my understanding, are some of the younger "products" of the modern yoga practice. These atributes that are embraced by Anusara Yoga are shared with other methods. So that is what makes it so interesting. To say this is what Anusara yoga is......and it happens to be many things that are a part of many methods and traiditions. However since it's only 10 years old then it's hard for some to consider it a tradition. So the question to me is. Does Anusara yoga stand alone as a tradition now? in the future? Or is it a part of a existing tradition? or is it both?

Your post of course acknowledged these questions. But i will continue to ask and watch and wait and see.

mandy eubanks said...

i meant 12 years of age. I'm stuck in the summer of 07:)

Christina Sell said...

Right. I think your original comment made me think that we are actually talking about "what it means to be a tradition" and "what it means to be traditional." Those are kind the two streams of discussion that were at play as I wrote this morning but that I did not articulate clearly. So perhaps more on that soon!

Barefootlotuss said...

viva la spirit of Anusara yoga as we embark on a wonderful new year.

Olga Rasmussen said...

Incredibly thought provoking Christina. Well thought out and articulated! New Year's blessings to you!

Anonymous said...

I really like the UPAs not because they are newly discovered alignment principles, but because as a methodology they are so effective.

A funny memory of John I have was at the 2008 TT in Boston when someone asked what the Iyengars would think about focal points. All he said was something to the effect of "if you want to see Mr Iyengar's eye brows twitch with agitation, say something about focal points to him".

Perhaps the notion of focal points is one thing that is more unique to Anusara than others? Obviously it is present in other energetic martial art systems and things like that, but in yoga, does any system talk about focal points or something like that? Maybe it bandhas in astanga? What do you think, C?

John said that comment in the most respectful way of BKS of course, but it was funny. And it was circumscribed by the deepest gratitude for the Iyengar system, which he made explicit a number of times in that training and other times I have been with him.

Another thing I remember is reading the article John gave at the birth of Anusara about how one reason (among a few) he chose to leave the Iyengar method was because he gradually starting teaching alignment in ways not in integrity with the methodology he was supposed to maintain as an Iyengar teacher. As I remember it, he said that he started teaching alignment in more broad and sweeping instructions, which seems to make sense based upon my limited observations of the differences between the Iyengar and Anusara methodologies.

We do emphasis alot the interrelations of the different parts. Like with Inner Spiral starting in the foot and moving up into the kidneys... that could be a ton of discrete actions (and it is in many really), but it is encompassed in such a tidy, broad concept.

Not that other systems don't teach the interrelations or that a practitioner of another method would not discover such interrelations if they are not explicitly taught. But by talking about things like Inner Spiral as one big phenomenon, the parts of that phenomenon have such a clear context, which helps me progress in my understanding of the subtle parts of the broader concept much more effectively. That is pretty cool.

Christina Sell said...

I totally I said, that we do it is not new- how we do it is decidedly "us" and in my mind part of John's genius.

One time I asked him if the UPA's were something that was revealed to him or if they were something he figured out. He said "both." He continued saying, "well, I would say they were revealed but you must understand that I was pointed in the right direction for a long time..."

And I do think focal points as we use them are definitely something really unique. (And different than the bandhas, although not entirely unrelated, in my opinion) And then again, BKS has this very interesting (although admittedly more obscure) teaching about centrifugal and centripetal force that when you get into it starts to sound a lot like drawing in and extending out.... (And there is certainly active rooting and active extension in that system, but I digress.)

The thing is, the body works how it works and so I think the more we look into the work of biomechanical genius' from all traditions we are going to see way more similarities than differences. Maybe not on the surface of their work but in the details and in a more sophisticated understanding of what they were up to.

I actually think the biggest thing that makes us different as an asana method is philosophical, not UPA-based. Think non dual, rather than dualistic. Think "bringing effort to Grace" as opposed to self-effort. Group sadhana vs. individual. Participation and celebration rather than renunciation. Expression rather than sublimation. Delight v. suffering. Embodiment as a gift not a punishment. Even the concept of Lila and divine play came into the philosophical discussion much later than Patanjali, for instance.

But again, those ideas inform our way and our "tradition" stands on the shoulders of those somewhat originally more revolutionary ideas.

See, it is a big discussion.

Also, as we get more established as a method, the conversation around John is less about what makes us different and more about what we are. 12 years ago the mood was a lot more about how we are different. It is not so much like that anymore in my experience. I certainly find myself teaching a lot less like that than I used to. We are who we are now more and more as we are not in response or in contrast to something else.