Alan Little's general Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga page

Reinventing the FAQ?

The second Yahoo! Clubs ashtanga message board is a well-intentioned attempt to provide a forum for more “serious” discussion of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga than is generally to be found, these days, in the original Yahoo! Ashtanga Yoga Club. Another such attempt is my index of interesting messages from the first year or so of the original club. I'm thinking out loud here about what Trishan and I, by our separate efforts, are trying to achieve, whether we're likely to succeed, what would be the best way to go about it, and whether it really matters enough to be worth anybody putting much effort in. (Should I be writing this now, or would my time be better spent doing my practice?)

I think the original Ashtanga Yoga club has been a success. Dozens of people post messages and hundreds read them. Message traffic is growing exponentially - around 500 messages in total were posted in the first year, over 800 last month alone. People ask for advice and information, and other people make genuine attempts to provide it. Strong differences of opinion about what is “proper” ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice and teaching get expressed and vigorously debated; in my opinion public discussion of such things is healthy. And as people get to “know” each others' online personae, there's an increasing amount of purely social chat - yoga practitioners talking to each other about things that aren't necessarily directly to do with yoga. For me, and I think for some other people too, it's a way of feeling in contact with like-minded people while we're dealing with working lives in environments where very different mindsets and values prevail.

But two of us have independently made efforts to address the same question at about the same time, which to me looks like a strong sign that there is a general problem. That problem is, how to avoid “serious” informative discussion getting drowned out by the noise of social chat, and what to do about useful information that is languishing in the archives with no effective means of digging it out (thanks to yahoo's lack of a message search facility)?

Online discussion groups have faced these questions before. In the old days of the Internet, long before the Web, there was (and still is) a thing called Usenet. Usenet provided a set of online discussions or “newsgroups”. Anybody could set up a newsgroup for any subject, and then anybody could take part in the discussion.

(I refer to Usenet in the past tense because I personally don't use it any more, and the Web and to a lesser extent email lists have taken over as the most-used information services on the Internet. But it still exists and is still heavily used by a lot of people.)

Usenet had advantages over yahoo clubs. It was a decentralised, distributed system - anybody could set up a news server and carry messages from whatever newsgroups they chose, so it wasn't dependent on the whims of one company, whereas yahoo could theoretically choose to delete or deny access to message archives any time they felt like it. It was an open technical standard, so anybody who wasn't happy with the facilities their news reading software provided could do something about it. No search facility? Write one, and make it publicly available on the Internet. (It might be theoretically possible for somebody outside yahoo to write a search facility for yahoo club messages, but Yahoo! Inc. probably wouldn't like it and certainly wouldn't support it). Most news reading software supported threaded views, which displayed messages on the same subject grouped together, rather than just a chronological list.

The problem with most of Usenet was the noise level - popular groups had vast amounts of messages, with a lot of repetitive discussion of similar themes, and a lot of newcomers innocently asking the same old questions that had already been discussed many times before. It would often become difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of traffic. Does any of this sound familiar?

People tried a variety of solutions to the noise problem. Two of the most common approaches that emerged were moderated newsgroups and FAQs. Moderated groups were ones where messages were vetted by a self-appointed individual or group, who would only allow messages they deemed relevant and useful to go into the public discussion. Often a moderated newsgroup would exist in parallel to an open discussion on the same subject. FAQs or “Frequently Asked Questions” were documents that tried to compile much of the useful information available in the newsgroup archives into a single text. The up to date version of the FAQ would be regularly posted to the newsgroup and/or made available to read on a server somewhere; and newcomers were strongly encouraged to read the FAQ before posting messages that might go over ground that had been covered many times before.

These approaches obviously depended heavily on the ability and commitment of the people doing the moderating or compiling the FAQs. They could work very well. Many of the old Usenet FAQs grew to become very comprehensive, authoritative and valuable documents. But I don't think they are a model than can be usefully applied to a yoga discussion group. Why not?

Firstly because the participants in the Ashtanga Yoga club lack the authority to compile any kind of definitive document. Usenet was the MAIN medium of communication in certain technical circles in the days before the Web, particularly those that had to do with the development of the Internet itself, and the closely associated programming culture centred around the Unix operating system and C programming language. The people compiling, reviewing and contributing to FAQs on, say, C programming or Unix administration were collectively among the most experienced, capable and highly qualified practitioners of those arts, and what they thought was worth recording carried great authority.

There simply aren't people with the same degree of authority contributing to the online ashtanga yoga discussion. There are a few experienced teachers and advanced students who contribute quite regularly, but they don't include Pattabhi Jois or any of his hand-picked certified senior teachers. Most of us quite readily admit that we are only beginners or, in a few cases, intermediate students. For any of us, or any group of us, to set about drawing up any kind of document that newcomers might take notice of, would be at best a case of the one-eyed leading the blind.

So if there were qualified senior practitioners who were (a) actively involved in the online discussion and (b) willing to put in the time and effort, then would it be worth having a go at drawing up some kind of compilation of our collective wisdom? Still no, in my opinion.

The dissemination of information via Usenet was central to the Internet programming culture, and the best FAQs were the compilation and summation of its collective wisdom - its “sutras”, if you like. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, by contrast, the MAIN medium of communication is hands-on teaching passed on by a senior Guru and a lineage of senior teachers who are his long term direct students. Anything else - books, videos, online discussion (or any other form of verbal discussion) - is secondary and of very limited value. The fundamental nature of yoga is an experiential and not a verbal/theoretical practice. Yoga can only be learned from within, preferably with guidance from an experienced teacher; which makes it fundamentally different from, say, computer programming where people can and do learn effectively from written texts or from studying examples of other people's code.

So, what do I think is the answer and do I think it matters? Obviously I think it matters enough to bother spending some hours drawing up an index and writing a long discussion of the subject. But in the grand scheme of things? Not really. I think there is useful and interesting material in the ashtanga club archives, and if my attempt to record some of it is useful to anybody else, good. But heaven forbid anybody should ever imagine an online discussion group could be an important resource for yoga study. A social circle for sharing with like-minded people; moral support for those trying to learn with limited access to teachers or other practitioners; a source of odd bits of information to supplement proper study with a teacher. All that, yes. But no more.

Definitely time to stop writing and go and practice now.

Alan Little, 5th November 2000