London in the mid-nineties. I’m in my early twenties, fresh out of photography school and have been sent off to the big city to report on the budding ‘alternative scene’ there – all vegetarian restaurants, eco-fashion and of course yoga. My then boyfriend has just returned from an extensive trip to Mysore to study with Pattabhi Jois. Said boyfriend directs me and Lisa Strömberg, my journalist colleague and friend, towards the Ashtanga teacher John Scott, who was teaching at City Yoga, a small yoga studio in east London.
Neither of us has any idea what is Ashtanga Yoga or who is the teacher we are going to meet for that matter.
But something magical happens during that shoot. Through the lens of my camera, I have my very first introduction to the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. I witness something that is beyond words and perhaps even beyond what my camera is able to capture. What I see through my lens is not John performing postures, but pure energy and breath manifesting as form through the instrument of his body. The steadiness and grace, the energy and yet complete stillness of the practice moves me deeply. When the shoot is over and I reluctantly put my Pentax down, John invites me to join his class that same evening.
The rest of the day is busy with shoots and interviews all over London so when Lisa and I finally make our way back to the yoga studio both of us are stressed, tired and late. Embarrassed over our late arrival, we sneak in but find ourselves warmly welcomed. As I take my first fumbling baby-steps on my mat, I experience my body immediately energized and mind stilled by the the Ujjai breath filling my body and the whole room. My very first Ashtanga Yoga class – it changed me and my whole life. For me Ashtanga Yoga was a direct experience, awakening in me some kind of deep recognition. Directly after that first class, I took up a daily yoga practice.
The photos from this first encounter became significant for both me and John. They also turned out to be the beginning of a book, ’Om Yoga’, published in 2000. It was the first yoga book of its kind and in many ways contributed to a new way of discussing and visualizing yoga in books and media. In ’Om Yoga’, which contains interviews and photos of many of the most influential yoga teachers in the west, John and his partner Lucy talk about how parenting small children while maintaining a yoga practice should be considered the 7th series!
Paris, September 2013. Life has taken many turns since that evening at City Yoga. John is in Paris for the first time to give a workshop at my yoga shala, and we decide it is the right moment to close the circle by doing another shoot, some twenty years after our first session. And the same magic happens again, between John, me and my camera. Eyes and object have matured; things are softer, gentler and perhaps a little less idealistic… As I crawl around John, taking photographs, I hope that the passage of time will manifest as gracefully in the photos as it has in his practice.
After the four-day workshop ends, John and I finally sit down to talk about the relationship between teacher and student, about the development that takes place and how it reflects in a person as well as in society.
John: ”From where I am right now as a teacher, what I have discovered is that we evolve within our societies. Newborn babies arrive totally dependent on their parents. Good parenting guides our children towards independence out of which, we hope, the child will develop dependability. You can look at it as a child growing up or as a student´s development towards becoming a teacher. The teacher too was once a student, totally dependent on their teacher. I can acknowledge that I was totally dependent on my teacher, but my teacher encouraged me to become independent. If you don’t achieve that independence you cannot become dependable, someone that can be counted upon.”
He continues: ”So in that middle category the teacher needs to give you the resources to become independent. In this system of yoga it is so simple: learn the count! Learn the count and the names of the postures. Learn the mala of the postures, as Guruji called it. You become independent of the teacher, and are then on your own journey through which you gain the experience to become dependable.
When you look at society there are still so many people who haven´t managed to become independent. People are consumed by the conditioned existence of society and end up being held there by the system. The system wants to be dysfunctional. That is how we keep the division between the haves and the have-nots, and how we keep people in the place of dependency. Yoga is meant to bring balance between the haves and the have-nots because in the end, the haves are still suffering.”
”The teacher or Guru should be a signpost pointing in a direction beyond themselves. A Guru who tells you ’It´s here, this is it, I´ve got all the answers’ may attract many devotees – but can end up getting smothered by them. The fat man is sitting on top, the sign is gone and the direction lost!”
Kia: My friend Danny (Paradise) said to me once that a good teacher does not seek to create as many students as possible but as many masters as possible. What do you consider is the role of the Guru or Teacher?
John: ”For me the Guru thing is crazy. The teacher or Guru should be a signpost pointing in a direction beyond themselves. A Guru who tells you ’It´s here, this is it, I´ve got all the answers’ may attract many devotees – but can end up getting smothered by them. The fat man is sitting on top, the sign is gone and the direction lost! My job as a teacher is pointing.
He continues: ”Evolution continues beyond an individual teacher – it doesn’t stop with you, you really want your students to surpass you. Innovation is what feeds the tradition, allowing it to grow. You can´t replace Krishnamacharya but his work was extended and improved by the innovations of Iyengar, Deshikachar and Pattabhi Jois. They respected and maintained the traditions but at the same time developed them through their own insights and experience.
I felt Guruji was one of those teachers who didn´t hold his students back, he wanted us to surpass him. I’m the same, I give my all to the students. And they are lucky to be receiving it at an early stage in their own yoga journey. If I could have been my own student back then it would be great… haha!”
We continue to talk about the challenges that may arise from being a yoga practitioner and teacher, while raising a family and maintaining your responsibilities towards them and society…
John: ”I was lucky that I was 36 before becoming a husband and a dad. By that time I’d had nine years of practising with Guruji. Nine years of being a Bramacharya*. In the Indian system this continues up to 24 years of age. From age 24 to 48, Grihastha is the ’householder’ phase. In this phase you have done your practice so you are able to let it go and just do maintenance. So in the Indian system, by the time you are 24 and are moving into the phase of being a parent, you are no longer learning the practice, simply maintaining it. Those nine years of practice with Guruji were like putting money in the bank. I had built up the strength and stamina needed to teach this system.
The challenge in the west is that many people arrive in the practice already a ’householder’. If you are in that phase but still doing all that study and practising, it is, in a way, selfish. You are putting yourself before the rest of the family. That is the difficulty we have as westerners. I was so lucky I got those years of study without it affecting anybody else. So when I got to the phase of being a ’householder’, I was able to drop it all and slowly bring back a maintenance level of practice. By then I had 2 children and a wife who were dependent on me, so I had to travel more and teach more. It was tiring and I couldn´t practise when doing international workshops. I would get a few practices in between but it´s not until now that I´ve got the time and the space to become selfish again. Today with you, is actually the first time I´ve practised 3rd series in eight years!”
”Innovation is what feeds the tradition, allowing it to grow. You can’t replace Krishnamacharya but his work was extended and improved by the innovations of Iyengar, Deshikachar and Pattabhi Jois. They respected and maintained the traditions but at the same time developed them through their own insights and experience.”
We both smile at the experience, the two of us practising in my living room to an old film John brought with him of Guruji counting some senior practitioners through the advanced series in Mysore. Not a single chance for an extra breath – leaving no choice but to transcend any self-doubt and completely surrender to his count!
John: ”Jung calls the Bramacharya state the Athlete. I was an Athlete and I wanted to win! First series, second series, third series… I went through them like an Athlete. This is a western mentality. The next stage Jung calls the Warrior. I got to the top and I had to defend my position by becoming a very good and respected teacher. And it was a fight to keep that position among the Swensons, Millers and Freemans! We were all warriors defending our respective positions! Now we are states-persons David, Chuck, Richard and I, we are all going around being states-persons. We are teaching teachers. We hold the knowledge of Guruji´s work, and there will be a point when we let it go, allow it to drop away. This is the natural order of things.”
John talks about how we need to consider each student´s aim with their practice. Not everyone practises in order to be a teacher: ”Guruji did all of the asanas for those who were going to be teachers. However, for some students – those who are working, who have family and other commitments – only the primary series, or half the primary series may be appropriate. I’m not going to force them to teach – their practice is about their health and sanity.
Sting for example – his yoga is singing. The yoga practice is what keeps him energized and productive. Madonna has a mind that achieves things – she is focused. She needs to have something behind her to keep that mindset…
If the student´s Dharma is not to be a teacher then there is no need to pressure them to do Marichasana C like this or Marichasana D like that, and in this particular order, unless it is appropriate for that individual. What the teacher gives to the one who is going to be a teacher is different to the person who is doing it for their own health and development – the latter may even benefit from a personalised sequence. But if they are going to teach, they need to learn the series, to be able to pass it on.
We need to take away the judgement of peer-group Ashtanga pressure – that it must be done in a certain way. Guruji didn´t do it like that. He would let that go and do some-thing else for that person. We should really be able to take someone who has another important role in society and help him to look at his health. He is not going to be a teacher so we are not going to put him down that path. And this is where it is not one size fits all. It’s one size fits all of the teachers. A good teacher looks at the individual.”
We decide it´s time for us to wrap up and let John get down to Gare du Nord for his train. Before he leaves, he downloads onto my phone the film of Guruji´s counted classes. Making sure that I will l hold and, in my turn, pass on the knowledge of Guruji´s work that he has passed on to me over all those years.
I like the idea of carrying a little of Guruji´s work in my pocket.
*Under the Ashram system, the human life was divided into four periods. The goal of each period was the ideal fulfillment of each of the four consecutive stages.
Bramacharya, until 24 The male child would live with his family till he was 5 years old. He would then be sent to the house of the Guru (teacher) and typically would live with a Guru, acquiring knowledge of science, philosophy, scriptures and logic, practising self-discipline and evangelicalism, learning to live a life of Dharma (righteousness).
Grihastha, 24-48 The ideal householder life is spent in enjoying family life, carrying out one’s duties to family and society, and gainful labor. The man in this Ashram has to shoulder responsibilities of the other three Ashrams.
Vanaprastha, 48-72 (retired life) After the completion of one’s house–holder duties, one gradually withdraws from the world, freely shares wisdom with others, and prepares for the complete renunciation of the final stage.
Sannyasa, 72- (renounced life) One completely withdraws from the world and starts dedicating to spiritual pursuits, the seeking of Moksha (freedom from the cycle of rebirth), and practising meditation to that end.
Words and photography by Kia Naddermier‚ photographer and founder of Mysore Yoga Paris, Ashtanga Yoga Shala. Also co-founder and creative director of Le Yoga Journal Paris and Le Yoga Shop Paris. Take a look behind the scenes during Kia´s photo shoot with John here. See John and Kia practice together here.
More info about John Scott here.