Nancy Gilgoff // Ashtanga Rules
March 18, 2013 § 6 Comments
Nancy was in town two weeks ago for a long weekend of 2nd Series asana fun. I went into it with my own ideas and expectations about what I was “allowed” or “not allowed” to do as dictated by the current set of “Ashtanga Rules” where you don’t move on to 2nd Series until you can stand up from a backbend. This made for a rather stressful afternoon on Friday, wondering if I had made a mistake by turning up and only doing what I had been “given”, i.e., the first three poses of Intermediate. I couldn’t understand why my teacher had told me that it would be ok to attend this, if I wasn’t going to do more than that, and I felt like a real renegade that afternoon when I went on to do Bhekasana and Dhanurasana.
It took me a while before realizing that I wasn’t there to do my “regular” practice. In my teacher’s words, the workshop was meant to be inspirational, a break from the usual routine of daily practice. And I was free to do whatever I was comfortable with. That’s when things started to get really interesting. And fun. We had two Mysore practices on Friday and Saturday, and a Led class on Sunday. In the Mysore classes, I practiced up to Navasana before switching over to 2nd, and went up to Supta Vajrasana the second day. For led, we went the whole hog: Full Primary and Intermediate up to Supta Vajrasana. I was beyond happy that the last day of the workshop was a moon day, and relieved that Kapotasana isn’t part of my daily practice.
If you’ve studied with Nancy before or have heard about her teaching philosophy, you’d know that she approaches the concept of “progress” in Ashtanga pretty differently from its current version. She feels that students are being kept at the Primary Series for far longer than is necessary, and she moves folks on once they satisfy a few requirements:
- Head on the floor in all Prasaritas.
- Knee to the floor in Mari B and D, binding in Supta K.
- A daily asana practice, with energy left over after the completion of the Primary series.
So by current Ashtanga standards, she would be considered a “liberal” when it comes to progressing through the series. This was a hot topic of discussion throughout the weekend, with about a quarter to a third of the participants practicing less than half (or none at all) of the Intermediate series. In addition to the ‘asana qualifications’ mentioned above, Nancy moves her students on when they’ve been practicing Primary for a while and start complaining of knee pains. I’m not sure why this would indicate a need to start 2nd, so if there are any anatomists out there please feel free to chime in.
I’ve followed with interest the recent discussions around the evolution of Ashtanga and the worrying rigidity with which it is currently practiced. As with all complex issues, I found myself wanting to comment and not comment at all because the parameters of a comment box felt too stifling. After a weekend with Nancy, many of her quotes are still fresh in my mind and I’ve included them where appropriate in the thoughts that follow.
One of Nancy’s common refrains is to teach Ashtanga as she was taught, and the difference between her approach to that of current Ashtanga teaching is a reflection of the evolution of the teaching that’s occurred between the 1970s and now. How a teacher was taught and how quickly they were moved on in the series is also a reflection of their physical abilities and constitutions as students. Nancy’s practice didn’t feature vinyasas between each side or between poses until later, whereas David Williams had the vinyasas from day one.
“When we (Nancy, David Williams and David Swenson) compared notes after class, we were surprised to discover how he (SKPJ) was teaching us in completely different ways.”
In other words, teaching them in ways that their constitutions needed and could handle. And the way they were taught is what shapes and informs their teaching now. In this light then, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more Ashtanga teachers sticking to the rule of dropbacks and standing up from a backbend before moving a student on to 2nd series. Because that’s what they probably experienced in Mysore. I don’t see anything wrong with having this as a “general rule”, because problems can arise when students progress too quickly – too much, too fast, before the body is ready for it. But problems also arise when students don’t progress quickly enough, and suffer strains and injuries as a result.
The challenge for today’s Ashtanga teachers then, is to be able to navigate the murky waters between these two polarities. To be able to read and understand the energetics of different types of bodies and constitutions and to tailor their teaching accordingly. To know when to break the rules. This may require the addition of ‘prep’ poses to the sequence, or of practicing alternative sequences on occasion. It most certainly requires a strong bond, a trust, on the part of the student, like the total surrender to one’s teacher that we keep reading about in Guruji.
“He (SKPJ) would take us apart at practice one day, and we would go back the next day and he would put us back together.”
I’ve never practiced with him, but based on what I’ve read, SKPJ sounds like the sort of teaching genius that comes by once a generation, or a few. The nuance he brought to his teaching is borne out of great skill and an immersion in his subject for decades. How many teachers today can testify to that sort of experience? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be teaching till they have had 35 years of solid practice, but I do think that cultivating this nuance is an important quality and it’s one that’s easily overlooked because it’s intangible. I suspect that it’s a skill that one comes to know rather than learn.
In the same way that teachers need to navigate between rules and the nuances of individualized teaching, so the need for students to pay more attention to their body’s needs and take responsibility for their asana practice, within the boundaries of a teacher-student relationship. In other words, I personally think it’s ok to do prep/Intermediate poses/alternative sequences if it’s needed and it’s something that’s allowed in the Mysore room you practice in. At our studio, the teachers have fostered a culture of discussion and questioning which I’ve found helpful in highlighting, more clearly than ever, the individualized nature of this practice. Got a question? ASK!
Ultimately, you should practice whatever your teacher asks of you.
“Your teacher” here meaning the teacher supervising the room that you’re practicing in. So if you don’t agree with the teacher’s philosophy, leave. It’s your practice after all.
I get the feeling that there’s a tendency to take rules all too seriously, probably because we don’t have access to the full range of knowledge that SKPJ and Krishnamacharya had or haven’t been immersed in this long enough to really know how to use this practice therapeutically, i.e., adapting this where needed. Or it could be a case of a few ‘bad hat’ teachers giving the others a bad rep. Fundamentally, I think it doesn’t really matter whether you’re doing the “real” Ashtanga or the version from the ’80s/’90s/’00s…..what’s important, as Grimmly put it so well, is to turn up on the mat everyday and breathe.