Thursday, November 4, 2010

When Discipline Sets You Free, The Beauty of a Dogmatic Practice: David Robson on Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga

(David Robson, right. with pilgrims at Sravanabelagola)
"The beauty of the practice is that, inside of the structure of it, there is still room for interpretation." (David Robson, Co-Owner and Director of Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto)

(David Robson, photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
T o be honest, it makes little sense to hear David Robson, co-owner and director of the Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto, talk about struggling with focus. He wakes up at 3am each morning in order to do a few hours of asana practice before he heads out for his teaching day which begins at 6am. But then, it's often the people who have a measure of focus that know how disconcerting it is to work without it.

After completing a degree in Comparative Religion, David Robson made his first trip to Mysore in 2002, where he initiated studies with his teacher Sharath Rangaswamy. Since then he has returned annually to deepen and enrich his practice and teaching. In 2008 David was Authorized to teach Ashtanga by the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute of Mysore, India.

I first saw David Robson speak at Yoga Festival Toronto, in a workshop he provocatively titled, Dogma and Discipline. In our hour-and-a-half workshop, David put about thirty practitioners through their paces, slowly and deliberately teaching a sun salutation, followed by standing poses from Ashtanga's first series. Words like regulation, prescription, numerical breathing, dharana, and drsti filled the air; sibilant, measured and consistent as the clock's tick on the back wall of the studio. Each pose was meticulously explained, adjustments were made, we were instructed to find stillness in each pose, and to submit to the discipline that each posture promises.  Furthermore, each student was clear by the end of the class that there were to be no extraneous gestures; no cycling of feet in downward dog, no flicking back of hair strands, and no readustments of spandex, in the repetition of this traditional sequence.

But, as is obvious in our interview, you would be making a mistake if you assumed David Robson was a dogmatic personality, or a rigid teacher that measures out generic prescriptions from the topsoil of his yogic life. Instead, David's approach is the result of years of mining his own search for realization. As David says, "the body is your laboratory"; and, he's taken a look at the substrata of his own makeup, and its fairshare of competing and contradictory inclinations.

In our interview, we have the privilege of observing David's map of complex choices, as he searched for something, "a spiritual high", he couldn't quite name. From his first self-taught encounter with yoga from a nameless book of poses, to playing in an improv post-rock band with Peaches, to travelling the world seeking out his version of Maslow-inspired "peak experiences",  and teaching Bikram Yoga, Robson's early experiences with yoga are energetic and restless. Not until he met Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and his grandson, Sharath Rangaswamy, did Robson feel he had found a powerful diagram for transformation: Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga.

(David Robson at Yoga Festival Toronto, 2010)
 "I was pretty irreverent in my approach to yoga initially. But, you know in some ways, the seriousness with which you approach it, seems to be proportionate with the change that it can effect".  
             (David Robson, Co-owner and Director of the Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto)


Dogma and Discipine, Interview with David Robson of Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto:

 Priya Thomas: Hi, is that David?

David Robson: Hi Priya, how are you?

Priya: good thanks, thank you for doing this...So when did you start practicing yoga?

David Robson: I started doing asana classes about twelve years ago. I started with Sivananda style. A friend of mine knew I liked yoga; I had been doing it out of books and things like that..but very infrequently. And so she brought me to a class. And I had no idea actually that were yoga classes.

Priya: Really??

David: Yeah (laughing)

Priya: So where did you find books from?

David:  You know I can't even remember the books that I had. I had books with different pranayamas, and things like that; and simple asanas. But I didn't know that people were in rooms doing it together! I thought it was just something you always did alone.

Priya: oh wow.

David: Yeah I had no idea. I guess I was just out of it! (laughing). So anyway, this friend brought me to a Sivananda class in Toronto; the one at Spadina and Harbord. And I was amazed that all these people were in a room together doing it! And there was a teacher walking around; and it was so relaxing. I immediately fell in love. And at the time, I had just come back from a long trip away, and I had just started studying religion and U of T. So the week after that, I went back twice; and then before I knew it, almost right away, I was going every day.

Priya: Ok and what kind of religion were you studying? Were you studying Comparative Religion or was it Theology?

David: It was Comparative Religion, with an emphasis on the psychology of religion. 

Priya: So can I ask why you gravitated to studying religion in the first place and how old you were at the time?

David: I was about 26 or 27. And before that I had been doing all sorts of things; I had been playing music, and travelling a lot, and chasing my idea of God, or whatever peak experiences, or direct experience, through all these different ways. And none of them had really been sustainable; none of my experiences had ever really been able to last. I wasn't very organized in the way I was living you know.

Priya: Sorry to interrupt you here, but when you say "peak experiences", are you referring to Abraham Maslow's idea of peak experiences?

David: Yeah. 

Priya: Ok sure. So go on...

David: So travelling is a good way to have those experiences; and that's why I'd been doing little experiments with yoga....trying to get "up", you know? But it was getting harder and harder to maintain it. The "ups" were also matched by "plunges" (laughs) as well. So, I'd been looking for more structure. And I was literally on top of a mountain in South America, when I decided I'd go study religion! (laughing)

Priya: Wow...

David: I thought maybe I needed more structure. I want to learn about this stuff, but the way that I'm trying to learn about it...well, I felt like was floundering on my own. So then I immediately came back to Canada, and enrolled at University of Toronto, and started studying.

(David Robson in Mysore, India)
Priya: What kind of music were you involved in?

David: I played music in different bands; it was kind of improv-based, alternative stuff in Toronto. I used to play with, you know, Peaches? (laughs)

Priya: Yeah, I do know Peaches!

David: Yeah, yeah.

Priya: Well that's interesting...

David: (laughing)

Priya: Alright, so you were looking for structure, and you found Sivananda, so from there, how did you come into contact with Ashtanga yoga?

David: So I was doing Sivananda for a while - I did it for a year, every day. Maybe it was even longer. And I started seeing my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and she wanted to do yoga too, but she didn't want to go where I was going. And so she started doing Bikram yoga. And I lived near there, so I wanted to try Bikram Yoga. And I really liked it because it was the opposite of Sivananda..

Priya: Right..

David: Bikram was different in that there were bright lights in the studio; and there was a mirror which I thought was funny...but I started doing that instead, and I ended up teaching really quickly.  And then while I was doing that, I started experimenting with other classes, as well as reading about yoga more. And so I started doing Ashtanga, initially out of the David Swensen book, The Ashtanga Yoga Manual. And I just liked the flow of it, and the challenge of it. Initially it was the asana and the fact that it seemed to be tied into something, (I didn't know what back then), but there seemed at least to be some humility and tradition...

Priya: And you were searching for that?

David: Well, I didn't realize that..I mean I was pretty irreverent in my approach to yoga initially. But you know in some ways, the seriousness with which you approach it, seems to be proportionate with the change that it can effect. So it seemed like the serious practices were, for me, ashtanga practices.

So, I was practicing at that Bikram studio in the morning; and then I was doing drop-in classes during the day; and then I went to see Guruji in Montreal in 2002. And, Sharath, his grandson, was there with him...

Priya: Do you want to expand on who your Guruji was?

(Sri K. Pattabhi Jois)
David: Guruji is Sri K Pattabhi Jois. He was the man that made "Ashtanga" yoga huge; and he just recently passed away. He lived to be 94, I think and he lived in Mysore, India. And he started in the 1970's I think, he left India and went to the States...went to California, and that really initiated the growth of Ashtanga in America...and then from that, it spread everywhere. And so, every year, he would go on these little tours, and that's where I saw him. And I met Sharath too, at that time, his grandson, who is my teacher.
And almost immediately after that, I went to India to study with Sharath.

Priya: And is that because you felt a connection there; or because you were just compelled to go?

David: Both. I felt the connection; and it was exactly what I had been searching for. When I pictured yoga, when I was reading all those books, and I imagined the way it was transmitted, Mysore style made sense to me. When I found that one-on-one teaching in Ashtanga, that seemed to be how it should be to me. It made sense to me that, in these kinds of traditions, when you go see anyone to learn something, they tell you specifically what you need to do. Whether that's in the martial arts, or

Priya: That's interesting.
(Sharath Rangaswamy - left, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois - right)

David: And so it seemed like it was an authentic sort of teaching. I could actually learn something. I felt it...I really felt that.

Priya: Now this is not on my list of questions but I'm just curious...Would you have described yourself as a person that was very easily stimulated? Were you hyper? Is that why you were looking for something to calm you down a bit? I'm trying to get a sense of the personality that was searching...

David: Well, I think it was the opposite. (laughing) I mean, I was scattered. I wouldn't say hyper. Maybe I was malleable or mutable. That's a nicer way of describing it. Know what I mean?

Priya: I think so...

David: I mean, easily influenced. And that was really just depending on what was around me; not necessarily on what was healthy or unhealthy...but I was just mutable to what was in my immediate vicinity.

Priya: So you went to India. What was the process of receiving Mysore style training like?

David: When I got to Mysore, I went to see Sharath and immediately started practicing. And it was really simple. It's just showing up very early in the morning, and going through the sequence of poses that he's given. And, just doing that, again and again and again, day by day, by day. At that point, because there weren't that many people there, I had a lot of contact with him. It was very easy to have conversations with him, and get other teaching informally. But mainly, it was just the transmission of the tradition through the practice, through doing the asana practice. I studied with Sharath for 4 months that first time; and I stayed in total of 6 months.

Discipline of freedom is the tool that we use to break into new places. So it obviously sounds counter-intuitive, but you have to be incredibly focused and careful to get into this wide-open, new place... (David Robson)

Priya: Was that your first time going to India?

David: Yeah it was.

Priya: So was that a completely new experience?

David: Yeah it was. But I'd been travelling a lot before I had gone. But it was still mindblowing. I started in the South actually... in Kerala.

Priya:  And were you doing Ashtanga in Kerala? Did you mean you were travelling in Kerala or studying yoga in Kerala?

David: Both. I was travelling and I was practicing. I went there to study with Lino Miele; he's an ashtanga teacher from Italy, and he teaches in Kovalam, Kerala. So I went to Kovalam first and studied with him for six weeks, and then went up to Mysore. When I got back to Canada after those months, I started teaching Bikram again. At that time, I was also teaching a little bit of Ashtanga, but not traditionally. At that time, there wasn't really a forum for teaching Ashtanga traditionally. And I hadn't been blessed to teach, or authorized to teach....So I didn't feel like I was supposed to transmit the tradition. But then the Bikram didn't really work out because I wasn't really practicing it; so I ended up not doing that for very long. And then I dedicated myself to teaching a sort of variant of Ashtanga, that was like a vinyasa class.
And then, for the next four years, I kept going back to India and studying with Sharath for shorter periods of time; like a month at a time. And then I would come back to Canada and keep teaching that sort of version of Ashtanga that was looser like a vinyasa. The fifth time I went, I started to understand finally, (laughing) that this Ashtanga style was actually very particular.

Priya: That's interesting...

(The Shala at KPJAYI, Mysore, India. )
David: You know I understood that, but I didn't really understand that, do you know what I mean? At that point, I finally got that all its powers were coming from those particulars. The power of it was in the fact that it was so SET.  And that adhering to the specificity of it was really important. As soon as I understood that, I thought "OH!" (laughing). I mean, I'm really slow right? It took me that long (laughing)...five years to figure that out!
But then, as soon as I figured that out, everything changed.
My practice changed, I knew I had to do it "exactly like this", and I knew I had to do it every day, and I finally started to use all the rules Sharath had been giving me all this time. And, I also realized, if I'm going to teach it, I'm going to have to teach it exactly as prescribed.

Priya: And did that change you personally as well? Do you know why you changed at that point; was it just the right time?

David: Yeah I think it was the right time; and I think it crystallized. I wouldn't say it was a culmination because I'm still learning and changing now; but I'd certainly say it was a key point, a key moment in transformation. Because it was a key point in understanding the process, and also a key moment in my ability to teach. Like suddenly I understood that it didn't make sense to teach something that I wasn't doing; and that it only made sense to teach what I knew worked.
And that my experience had been that this works. So, until that point, I had been teaching loose, vinyasa, a blend of a whole lot of things together, without any real grounding; and there wasn't really a point. Which is fine, you know...But when I finally discovered what the point of the technique was, then it only made sense to pass that on.

Priya: And did that coincide with an improvement in your physical asana practice? Did you notice any other observable changes?

David: You know, I did notice actually, - and I don't know if it was any big improvement or anything - but I noticed that I stopped doing what I was good at. Because in doing a set sequence, it meant that I had to do the things I wasn't good at as well.

Priya:  So would you say that you had fewer preferences?

David: Yeah that's right; not allowed. And, the things I had been told maybe weren't available to me because of body-type constraints many years before, well those things started to change and become available to me physically.

Priya: Well, that's very interesting.

David: Yeah, yeah. For me that was really interesting because it kind of sealed the deal. I thought "Wow, this actually works." Yoga for me, before that, was just about getting better at what you were good at, in an asana sense... You got healthier in a way that you were already healthy. But for me, this seemed to allow me to face up to the things that I wasn't good at; or, the ways in which I wasn't balanced, and then it also brought me closer to balancing. Some of those things changed.
So, that happened in the asana work; but it also happened in the other areas of my practice. You know, just in terms of steadiness. You know, I understood that if it's up to me when I want to practice, and I'm only going to practice when I feel good, then that's not going to be all the time. Whereas, if I'm practicing regardless, then that ends up being a much more balanced situation. And in some ways, you mine the best stuff when you don't really feel like practicing. The most interesting things to watch happen then...

Priya: I guess since we're talking about preferences, and not having so many of them, it's probably a good time to launch into the discussion about dogma and discipline. You titled your workshop at Yoga Festival Toronto, "Dogma and Discipline", and then you acknowledged the words would scare people off! So, I'm curious about what your relationship with those words was before you approached Ashtanga, and then how it would have changed after Ashtanga.

David: That's interesting...Well, one thing that always comes up, my father before he married my mother, was a priest. (laughs). But I wasn't raised Catholic.

Priya: So he was a Catholic priest.

David: Yeah, he was a Catholic priest. And he left the priesthood, and then he met my mom. But even though I wasn't raised Catholic, the fact is that the word dogma, in the Catholic sense, just means rules, really. But there's another connotation that dogma can be belief without evidence. So those are two distinct interpretations, or definitions of the word. So I think I was using the word in both senses, because there are so many rules to any tradition. That's what a tradition is. And so much of it can seem like dogma, because it doesn't immediately connect to anything. It seems as if you do things for tradition's sake. But then there's something to that, I think, still...
There's power in that because you decide that you're going to honour it, regardless of whether or not you completely understand it initially. And then, maybe over time, understanding comes. So that's been my experience.

Priya: And then you overlap with faith then, I would think..

David: Yup. that's right, sraddha, or the faith that you need to bring to any spiritual practice; but in yoga, that's what carries you through. You keep practicing even when you doubt. I mean, if you didn't doubt, that would be odd.

Priya: What's the result of dogma, right now, in terms of how it's impacted your practice?

David: Well, I'm really happy with my practice. I mean, I'm really happy with the tradition as I've been taught it. And it carries me in a big way. To me, anything that comes up, any question, any doubt, even any injury is part of my process. I practice and I watch everything unfold again. But mostly when I think of dogma, the place it shows up most is in teaching now. In the last few years, I feel we've really built up traditional ashtanga in Toronto, and so I've had this conversation just so many times, convincing people of what the value of "dogma" or rules is in a practice. Because, initially, it can be difficult to understand why if you don't feel like practicing you still need to practice. As in, if this is hard, why would I do it? And by hard, I don't mean challenging, I mean the kind of tired where "I'm really tired because I only got three hours of sleep, why would I get up to do this?"
Or "I've got other commitments that are taking me away from this; why would I make this a priority?"

Priya: Do you think it's human nature to reject discipline if it's interfering with simpler choices? And this leads into my next question, which has to do with something Shyam Ranganathan, translator of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras mentioned in his talk at the festival. That is that changing your life means making decisions that are a radical break from what you have known. Otherwise, you can't move into a new place. Given this, if someone wants to transform through yoga, it's arguable that the only way you could do that is if you do adopt a practice that is a departure. Would you agree with that?

David:  Right, and then adhere to it even when you think you really can't; or when everything around you might tell you not to bother. So I think a lot of the time people think freedom is letting go. But with yoga, the freedom you learn is something different; I think it's a discipline. Discipline of freedom is the tool that we use to break into new places. So it obviously sounds counter-intuitive, but you have to be incredibly focused and careful to get into this wide-open, new place, that can be liberating.

Priya: Now are there ways in which you try and help students who don't understand the necessity for discipline? As a teacher, you must encounter that a lot right as resistance to discipline and, since the style you teach is so specific, are there ways that you can introduce this so that it's less daunting?

(David Robson assisting Anna Chao into Bound Wheel Pose. Photo by
Rebecca Markey)

David: That's the beauty of the Mysore style I think, is that you can deal with each person individually. So for different people, it's going to be a different combination that unlocks them. Some people you can cajole, others are hungry for the discipline. Ultimately, I can do whatever I can to make it accessible, but it's never going to be easy. In fact, it's the opposite. So all I try to do is create a really authentic, one-to-one relationship with each student, and pass on whatever's working for me.
And, there's also the power of having many people in a room doing it together. It would be much harder for me to convince people if it was just one person in an empty room. But people can see that it's working for others.

Priya: Right, you have strength in numbers... So, what does being faithful to the specific tradition or lineage you studied in bring to your life personally? Do you think the transformation you had would have happened in a different lineage?

David: Well, I don't think the efficacy of ashtanga takes away from the efficacy of the other traditions. It's a path that works; but it's certainly not the only path. I know what ashtanga has done for me; but I don't know that another path wouldn't have done the same. But, for me, it's originating in the body, and being so body-oriented, that gave me a good place to focus. It also drew me in because the body is tangible, it's real, and for me - as i said - i was kind of profane about it. Looking back on it now, I wanted these "peak experiences", without understanding what that meant.
But ultimately, I think it's made me be able to take on responsibility, and to be an honorable person, as in, to live up to my dharma. To try to figure out what my dharma is, figure out what my duties are, and then honour them and live them as best as I can...I mean, maybe everybody is doing that anyway; but I wasn't doing that before..

Priya: I don't know whether people are tied-in to the idea of dharma, in the day-to-day living of it all...

David: I think some people definitely are, outside of yoga, aware of that...although they are maybe not consciously thinking of it as "dharma". But that's what ashtanga did for me. It gave me a structure to work inside of. And inside of our discipline even, like things like family and relationships and honesty, those are all things that are really encouraged and endorsed. You can't do this practice properly unless you commit to honest relationships. And we're supposed to get married, and have babies and immerse ourselves in family and serving others. And even though these were all things I was doing before, I wasn't doing them well because I wasn't doing them consciously.

Priya: Well you just had a baby. Are you hoping your child will follow your lead and do yoga? And if they choose not to lead the same lifestyle, what then? Do you have ideas?

David: Well I have two children. I have a daughter who is twenty, and she lives with me, and works at our studio. And she practices every day so I'm really lucky!

Priya: that's one down. (laughing)

David: Yeah - (laughing) Cos it could go any way! So if I'll get two out of two?? I don't know...
I'm also a vegan, so also what happens when the baby wants a hamburger?

Priya: yeah exactly! (laughing)

David: Well, I'm into discipline. So as long as I can, I'll try and convince the kids to do it the way I do it, but in a nice know what I mean!

Priya: I'll be sure to check in on you in twenty years! (laughing). So, I wanted to ask you about props. There are no use of props in your style of yoga, and while we were doing your workshop, you also mentioned that any extraneous movements ie. wiping your nose, or forehead or resetting your hands are all against the traditional prescription of stillness.

David: And that was the same in the dance tradition you were studying right?

Priya: Yes. It was exacting.

David: That brings so much attention though doesn't it? It harnesses so much focus.

Priya: I think it does. I think it did help me to do that. I realize it more so now than I did then, maybe because I started dance at such a young age.

David: So it was hard-wired into you probably.

Priya: Well, it's sitting there somewhere. I was going to ask you also about something else you said in that workshop, which is that when you're in an asana, your mind is not meant to think about the sensations in your body. I was going to ask you how easy that would be for someone who was doing Ashtanga for the first time.

David: Oh the first time is going to be very, very difficult.

Priya: What do you think are the advantages of that prescription of not thinking about sensations?

David: Well, we have to be more accurate when we talk about that. When we say things like "don't think about sensations", it still allows for body awareness when doing asana. As in, there's going to be sensations that are being produced by the asana. And, in a way, you want that. You're going into the poses in order to elicit those sensations. But what we don't want to get caught up in, are the reactions to the sensations.

Priya: Ok I see.

David: So we watch that process, and try to identify with the witness instead of the process.

Priya: And then, the result of that...

David: Well first you strengthen your identification with the watcher. Second, you learn how to build a space that you can hold for other events happening, and delay your reaction to them. And that delay in reacting can obviously be pretty useful (laughs).

Priya: the old school firewall...

David: Yeah, there you go.

Priya: With Mysore style, you get to give different prescriptions for different people. How do you determine someone's needs?

David: Well that's definitely the beauty of the practice, because inside of the structure of it, there is still room for interpretation. My only strength in passing this on is being as faithful as I can to the tradition. You know, I don't have much to add to it (laughing) in terms of my own experience, so I just try to pass on as best as I've understood, being taught. But every different body, or personality type, is going to need slightly different directions or cues, or encouragement or advice...So because it's a one-on-one teaching, you can deliver it specific to the person. Some people are going to need cues more about containment, some people are going to need more encouragement about focus, and some people are the opposite, they'll need to keep being reminded to soften.

Priya: And so your prescriptions are really about how perceptive or how in-touch you can be with your own students is that right?

(Ashtanga Yoga Toronto, photo: Lisa Kannakko)
David: Yeah, I'm trying to get them all to do the same thing; but everyone is starting in different places. So if a person's to the west of centre, and another is to the north, the person to the north would be told to head south and the person to the west would be told to head east. I'm still trying to get everyone to walk towards the centre, you know what I mean?

Priya: Sure that makes sense. I'm just wondering about delivering things specific to someone's psychic disposition...that must play a role as well.

David: Yeah. I don't know if I can elucidate on that. It definitely happens; I just feel it's as hard to describe as when we have conversations with people we might change the way we communicate according to whom we speaking to...It's that same process that happens when teaching.

Priya: So what parts of discipline are you still personally challenged by? For instance, in your own practice?

David: It's hard to come up against the limits of my ability to devote myself to this. Ashtanga is a householder practice. You're supposed to do it in the morning and carry on with your life, and use what your practice gives you to contribute to the happiness of the people around you, and in order to live your life well. But the more and more you practice, it's easy to want to just keep going, to just go really know, to devote more and more time to it (laughing). You know, I'm always trying to drag my family off to India every year to study more. And every morning I get up at 3 in the morning and I practice, and then I go and I teach at 6am. So I'm always squeezing in my practice. You know I get up to do it, and I have that time, but it's always a fixed amount of time. And my practice is my employment, but it's also my service. So teaching is what I really love to do, but it does take away from me practicing. They are different things...and I think that's the point.
I don't think I'm supposed to just give up everything and just practice, because that would almost be a type of narcissism.

(David Robson)

Priya: Yes, I can see what you're saying.

David: So it has to be applied to something and balanced out against life as a whole. So right now, my discipline is about applying yoga to my life, and not letting yoga take over my life (laughing). I mean, for us, yoga should be like typewriting right? You get good at typewriting to write a book. You don't get good at typewriting to typewrite. (laughing) But I get really obsessed with "typewriting" sometimes!

Priya: (laughing) Yeah you know that's not so unusual for anyone who has any kind of practice. The danger of getting obsessed with the medium.

David: Exactly. I don't know if that's a discipline issue or not...Also, I like beer a lot! (laughing)

Priya: (laughing)

David: But you know I can only take moon days off; and there's only one every two weeks and so...Well I'm also so tired that by the time the moon day comes along, I can only drink one beer before I fall asleep. But I really like beer. I guess that's a discipline issue as well.

Priya: Well there's almost no point in me asking the next question; but I'll ask anyway. Do you think it's possible to have a dogmatic practice and not be a dogmatic person?

David: Yeah. I think that all those people that truly have practices that aren't dogmatic must have gone through dogma to get there. Like those really free practices can evolve out of a dogmatic practice. You know, it's like jazz right, you have to learn how to play first; you don't just sit down and play have to have mastered an instrument first. I think everybody uses some kind of tool to get where they're going. As in, some kind of dogma. You know, at some point, we have to commit to something.

Priya: You described the body as a laboratory when you hosted the workshop I attended. At this stage in your practice, after having been committed to the style you've been studying for so many years, is there anything in your practice you would like to change? Do you have goals with regard to your practice?

David: My goals change all the time now. They shift; but I'm just watching an observer would. You know, you advance in the series of asana in Ashtanga as you develop more abilities, but that's only to keep you tied in. And you keep kind of hitting up against this place that you can't go any further. In some ways, it keeps you humble. And, it keeps you immersed. You're always working on things; and you're always, in some ways, beaten by it. So every day, I'm kind of beaten a little bit.

Priya: (laughing) Well, that's an interesting relationship to want! But it's compelling. You know what I mean? I'm interested in why you describe it that way, and why other people wouldn't want to describe it that way necessarily.

David: Well, there's something really truthful about that description for me. In a physical sense, like if I can handstand, so what? Right, if I could touch my feet on my head, well so what right? What's next? And then you just keep going, but so what? There's nothing inside any of it, it doesn't lead anywhere. It's just what we use as our point of focus.

I have goals in the sense of watching the body, and what's stored there and what comes up during practice. In terms of trying to open myself. But really, my whole challenge is focus.  That's the hardest part for me. Even for five breaths at a time, that's hard. Let alone, an hour and a half. Or an hour and forty-five minutes. 

Priya: Well you keep getting up and doing it... 

David: Well, I gotta keep trying. 

(David Robson, Botanical Gardens Bangalore, India)


(Ashtanga Yoga Toronto, Photo: Rebecca Markey)
W hen he met Sharath Jois, David Robson knew he could anchor down; and that ashtanga would provide him with the necessary structure to focus his restless energies. Ashtanga was made to deliver a discipline, and a set of rules that practice can develop in each and every body; given that each body is willing to submit completely to its structure. Robson understands that this kind of regimentation usually carries connotations of authoritarianism, inflexibility, constraint and "dogma", in its most pejorative definition.

And that's exactly why Robson's clever heist of the ideas of dogma and discipline at his Ashtanga workshop were fitting; as he carefully ressucitated those words once again, revealing prejudices and preferences to fresh eyes and new consideration. He said as much, barely containing his laughter,
  "You know, titling a workshop dogma and discipline is bound to drive people away", 

before heading full tilt into a discussion of the importance and necessity of discipline in the yogi's practice. And though Robson is likely too humble to admit it, people were hardly driven away by the discipline; he was speaking to a full room.


 To attend classes and workshops with David Robson visit The Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto.

• An 100 hour Ashtanga immersion begins on the 6th of November and runs for 3 weekends, and continues for 4 weekends in January 2011.


  1. Thank you Priya, that was an enlightening conversation. As a new student of Davids, and a student of other disciplines in the past, I feel very encouraged by David's beer jokes, dogma dissection, and attention to detail.
    It is a huge challenge as a beginner, and knowing I am in the hands of someone that walks the talk makes me feel safe in that container. By the sound of things even if I shared a beer with him to talk about all that stuff he would be asleep pretty soon thereafter, so thanks for spending the time with him!

  2. Fantastic interview and such a clear and unique take on the wisdom of the ashtanga practice. Thanks.

  3. Hi there, thank you so much for the kind comments. i had an amazing interview with David; and was just keeping my fingers crossed, hoping to do justice to his practice. nice to know it reached you! pt

  4. Hi, I love the interview and I would be happy to use it for a non-commercial website on Ashtanga yoga we are running in Poland. How can we get in touch?
    Thanks, Anna

  5. hey anna, there's a contact link on the right hand side of the page for emails. ok thanks for reading! priya

  6. I so love this interview! Find David's take on the freedom of discipline most inspiring.So much so I will definitely travel to Florida to take his workshop when he goes in August. Thanks for asking great questions which provided such a wealth of information Priya.

  7. Fantastic interview. Very resonant. Thanks. (And ditto to Zonya regarding the questions.)