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Live Be Yoga Archive

Preserving the Essence of Ashtanga Yoga: Separating the Guru from the Practice

Kino MacGregor opens up about her teacher, the "father of Ashtanga," Pattabhi Jois and why it’s necessary to update the guru/student relationship.

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While in Miami, Live Be Yoga ambassadors, Lauren Cohen and Brandon Spratt, sit down with international yoga teacher, author, entrepreneur and inspirational speaker, Kino MacGregor to discuss the teacher/student relationship, the tradition of Ashtanga yoga and how to preserve its true essence.

It’s been years since I took an Ashtanga Yoga class, and even then, I can’t say it was traditional. I had certainly never done the full primary series or memorized the order of the poses enough to practice mysore style. That’s why it was particularly refreshing and humbling to practice Ashtanga at Miami Life Center, home of world-renowned Ashtanga teacher, Kino Macgregor.

I teach and practice primarily Vinyasa Yoga, which is what, on the tour, we’ve been mostly exposed to. However, as modern yoga continues to evolve, it feels important to honor the roots of the practice – to recognize the importance of tradition and lineage. The foundation of Vinyasa Yoga as we know it today stems from the Ashtanga system and what we have come to know and understand about yoga (any style) comes from years of teachings graciously passed down from generation to generation. I could feel this sweet reminder as I stumbled through the primary series – where I was instantly transported back in time to my first yoga class, over a decade ago – humbled by my sore muscles and grateful to once again, find myself in the seat of the beginner, feeling the purity of practice.

Watch video interview with Kino MacGregor. 

Ashtanga Yoga and #MeToo

In light of the recent reports of sexual assault by Ashtanga leader, Pattabhi Jois, we sat down with MacGregor to discuss the future of Ashtanga Yoga and how to “tease out” the essence of the practice – to see beyond the “guru” and mastery of poses to make the practice more accessible to more people.

“Honoring lineage is a way for modern-day practitioners to acknowledge their humility,” said MacGregor. After 20 years of practicing Ashtanga Yoga six days a week and making annual trips to study in India, MacGregor has dedicated her life to this practice – first as a student and now as a teacher. “We live in an age of self-invention where we like to teach ourselves, while at the same time we also feel rootless and in search of identity,” she said. “Honoring and respecting lineage is a way to pay debt and gratitude to the thousands of generations of yogis within India that have preserved this tradition, regardless of the physical form of the poses or any one individual teacher.”

She brings up an important question, we as modern yogis must consider:

How can we distill the essence of the practice without overidentifying with the teacher that shares it? What are the risks of worshipping the “guru” more than worshipping the practice itself?

This is something MacGregor and many others have needed to learn the hard way – especially against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and the more recent confirmation of sexual assault by her late teacher and the father of Ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois. “It took time for me to come to terms with the severity of what happened. I spent a good deal of time trying to make an excuse for my teacher and his actions, but there simply is no excuse,” said MacGregor. “My hope is that we can see what’s happening in Ashtanga yoga today, look clearly at some of the pitfalls of the past and set ourselves (and future generations) up for success: to preserve the purity, wisdom and love that the practice can communicate.”

See also Kino MacGregor’s 5-Pose Sequence for Energy.

The Role of the Guru

For MacGregor, the essence of Ashtanga yoga remains untouched by the acts of Pattabhi Jois. However, this does not excuse his behavior and the harm he caused so many brave souls that came forward to share their story. “The culture of worshipping a guru to the point of divinity is outdated and needs to go. You do everything this person says even if it doesn’t make sense to you because you’ve put them on this high level standard of divinity, but Pattabhi’s acts of betrayal and hypocrisy have made the whole yoga lineage look like a farce. This culture is not Ashtanga yoga or the beautiful practice we can offer students,” said MacGregor.

One of the key takeaways I had from my time with Kino was exactly what I felt as a result of my practice that day: the very essence she describes, regardless of form – the discipline and earnestness required, the focus and concentration cultivated and the stillness felt from deep within. As yoga continues to evolve and take on many forms, how can we continue to honor these roots as the very core of the practice? This is always what I come back to in my own personal practice – to feel a sense of pure presence that cannot be defined and to cultivate ease as a result of diligent, dedicated effort.

Today, more than ever before, Kino is exploring ways to “update the system” while preserving its essence. Through her own journey in recognizing her teacher’s wrongdoings, she has found more flexibility and grace in how she is navigating her own practice and sharing it with others. “I now feel lighter, freer and less bound by the rules and dogmas of the past. Instead of wondering what Pattabhi Jois would think, I’m now more focused on how the practice can help us all experience more peace in our lives, more love in our hearts and more health in our bodies – and I’m committed to practicing and sharing that everyday.” This, is how MacGregor defines the essence of practice.

Live Be Yoga ambassadors Lauren Cohen and Brandon Spratt are on a road trip across the country to sit down with master teachers, host free local classes, and so much more—all to illuminate the conversations pulsing through the yoga community today. Follow the tour and get the latest stories @livebeyoga on Instagram and Facebook.