Dancer, movement maker, lecturer and yoga loyalist Ian Dolan has collated some thoughts on his relationship with Ashtanga, yoga beyond the physical and the push/pull of digital visibility.
“Let’s begin with two apologies – which is perhaps the very best of all possible ways to start as a guest writer. Firstly, the title of this piece, as amazing a quote as it is, isn’t mine. It’s actually a bastardisation of what David Carson said about graphic design. I just inserted the word yoga at the appropriate point. Secondly, in order to talk about what I really want to talk about, I have to talk about Ashtanga yoga for aaaaaggeees.
This heady mix of plagiarism, cowardice and snivelling apologies pre-empting any actual offence, sets up the tone nicely for my chosen topic. The space that we (yoga people, bodywork people and people people) make for a collective chinwag about the slippery and elusive “beyond the physical” part of yoga. I say part, but I suppose I should say that for me, it’s a clinically exact half – 50.00%.
Some context: I‘ve had a relationship with yoga for at least half my life. Nowadays I mostly work as a lecturer and a rehearsal director, but for a long time I was a dancer and the amount of yoga I practised (spoiler: YES, mainly Ashtanga) was directly proportional to how much of my body was being put through the wringer at any given point.
Certainly, by the latter half of my career, the second or third thing I did each morning was fifty-plus minutes on a worn-down mat on a cold laminate floor. I don’t have to think too hard to find myself back there, the tidal rhythm of breath, the drip-drip-drip of sweat and the gentle creaking of the mat as I worked my way through as much of the sequences as I could before my day began.
Over the years (and because I’m from a school of dancers who gravitate towards laziness masquerading as efficiency) my practice slowly evolved, just as my understanding of the body did too. So much so, that had any traditional Ashtanga teacher seen it, they would not have been happy to call it true Ashtanga.
It’s deeply personal, often tenuous and I earned the knowledge through my own sweat and time invested
If you don’t know much about Ashtanga, the important bits are:
it’s the same sequence every time (traditionally done first thing in the morning) until you master it and then if you’re lucky you get to move onto the next one (six sequences in total, most of us are lucky to even master the primary series).
It’s a physically strenuous style and comes with expectations of patience and discipline which can be intimidating (for my money, Ashtanga’s not an inherently ‘highly physical’ or ‘tough’ discipline, but it can easily be taught that way).
The routine nature of the practice means that once you understand what is expected of the body, your consciousness happily becomes focused on balancing (pun intended) the strict breath control, postural alignment, and the pursuit of flow. The back brain is allowed space to diffuse, unpick itself and maybe even discover clarity. For me the meditation in Ashtanga IS the moving practice.
Indeed, whenever I dipped my toe into a Mysore (traditional Ashtanga) class, I had to actively remind myself of what the true sequences were, and similarly, whenever I ventured into other studios in the humid London evenings (Hello Supply Yoga in all your glory! And nowadays, if Abi will allow a shameless plug… Hello to the gently uncompromising teachers at One For All in Bournemouth!) the shift was always welcome. The discovery of another waypoint on the constantly undulating mountain range which is our understanding of the body at work.
I suppose that’s why (main point coming up) I have always been reluctant to talk about the “beyond the body” stuff with anyone. Even other Ashtangis or dancers. It’s deeply personal, often tenuous and I earned the knowledge through my own sweat and time invested.
Part of this might be introversion, or an inclination to privacy, or some other such deficiency in personality, but I’ve also heard this sentiment echoed from a myriad of classmates of all sorts of practises and personalities. Sometimes, beyond sharing a really cool experience, this stuff is hard to talk about. Beyond that, does it need to be talked about at all?
In fact, if there was anything guaranteed to make it harder to talk about, it’s the gross (and let’s be honest, it IS gross) spamming of mantras, empowerment-heavy slogans, adverts-masquerading as wellness, beachside and beach body poses online (which aside from anything else have you TRIED to yoga on sand? I go to an annual beach yoga festival, and I love it, but it’s not a way you’d want to live), and much more upsettingly the creep of all this back into the studio.
Yoga as a collective digital space, makes it hard to insert anything that doesn’t align to its market stranglehold of wellness
I’m not some sort of luddite, I know advertising and using the notification dependency we’ve all cultivated in our digital lives is one of the best ways yoga teachers can grow a business. But my position is that “the unfolding sense of the self, discovered by the self, though the self” (again another bastardised quote, this one from the Bhagavad Gita) is proffered through action, thought, and questions. Not someone lionising an intensely personal experience as objectively true, sacred and demanding the same of their (imagined) prostrate disciples. It makes me intensely sad to see so much of this.
Indeed, Yoga as a collective digital space, makes it hard to insert anything that doesn’t align to its market stranglehold of wellness and the urgent need for £140 arctic ice water bottles (not an actual thing, but if they were, you know they’d sell out overnight). It’s why places like Supply Yoga, and Nadia Gilani (the yoga dissident, worth a google or a ‘gram) are my favourite places to look when I want to hear more. I don’t know if they would say it quite like this, but the sentiment I suspect we share is that
yoga might not be the thing that saves the world, but maybe it’s the thing you can use to save yourself.”
Ian is currently sharing movement wisdom at universities both on the UK’s south coast the east midlands, he can also be found producing award winning living sculpture trails in cities around the world.