April 29, 2013 § 7 Comments
The coming month will be an experiment. We have a teacher visiting the studio for the month and, instead of signing up, I chose to do a home practice for the duration of his visit. There are a couple of reasons for this, but above all, I’m really craving for some practice “downtime”. No teachers, no workshops, no new tips or asanas, just me and the breath and the mat. I don’t have a very good track record of solo practices (I think I can count the number of times I’ve done it on one hand), but I knew I made the right decision last week when I finished my last group practice at the studio and found myself looking forward to some solo practice time. Looking forward to it. Now that’s something new. Maybe the prospect of practicing on the Lifeboard has something to do with it (new toy!), or maybe I’m just entering a different phase in my practice. Today’s session was all about figuring out the right temperature for the practice room. I heated it a little too much I think, got a headache by the time I started the seated postures and it got progressively worse. So, short practice today, with backbending, some experiments in Urdhva Dandasana and of course, a looooong savasana with the bedroom door open.
Looking forward to what tomorrow brings.
April 23, 2013 § 4 Comments
My Mysore story began with the Sharath and Saraswati tour a year ago, so it’s nice to come back and reflect on how things have changed. Back then there was a lot of buzz, from within and without. A big group of us from the home studio made the trip south to practice with S+S for the first time. The Vanity Fair article on Sonia Jones and the Jois Yoga enterprise was still a hot topic of conversation, and the Jois yoga studio was replete in its high-end retail glory. There were photographers and videographers, as well as the “who’s who” of Ashtanga practicing alongside the rest of us. I was terribly anxious about practicing led for five consecutive days, seeing as how a six-day practice week was still the exception rather than the rule at that time. And then to do the first class and be completely swept away, absorbed, into the collective experience of the breath, which sealed the deal on my decision to head to Mysore. It was a heady, endorphin-filled time that kept me going for many weeks afterwards.
This year, things are much more low-key. First of all, they’ve cleared the shop floor and turned it into a huge waiting/changing area between classes. The “shop” is now about a fifth of its original size hidden behind screens. A lone photographer stopped by for just one class (per session – there are two sessions each day). And there’s just a smidge more space around each mat, compared to a year ago. Waking up at 5 to walk the half-block to the shala is sweetly reminiscent of those dark Mysore mornings, and seeing familiar faces from my recent trip is both surreal and sweet. The practice itself is sweeter than ever, and, dare I say it, easier compared to a year ago. There is more steadiness, fewer fluctuations, stronger and louder breaths. There is surrender to the count and all of its Sharath embellishments.
I have to confess that I wasn’t all that excited about making this trip – the 3rd in a span of a month – given the demands of real life on my time and energy. I just wanted to be home for more than just a few days at a time, I wanted my life to go back to being “normal”. Well, the first ekam on Friday took care of all doubts. Whatever detractors may say, there’s no denying the fact that Sharath’s able to pull together a critical mass of people and orchestrate an experience that’s quite unlike any other. A led class with him is more than just about perfecting each asana or lasting his count for Uthpluthi. It is a return to the basics, a stripping away of the faffing and mental chatter that sucks away at our energy and places us firmly on the mat to do just one thing: breathe. It is an experience that is both sublime and quotidian, filled with joy and love from both teachers and students. While I won’t be able to make it to Mysore every year, I can’t say the same for Encinitas. Looking forward to the 2014 edition of this tour.
April 19, 2013 § 2 Comments
My life in the past few months as it relates to Ashtanga/Mysore goes something like this:
First month – Sick, cold and pining pining pining for India. A lot of sentences begin with “In Mysore….”, and there’s talk of going back “next year”. I must have sounded like a broken record. I book a trip to Sharath’s tour in Encinitas (happening right now) as soon as the tickets are available. Read blogs from yogis in Mysore almost religiously. My heart and body are not in the same place.
Second month – Still pining, but the intensity of the nostalgia gets channelled into new habits. Chanting, pranayama, meditation, asana – trying to cram it all into my morning before 9am and realizing that I’m adding on too much at once. Obviously. Heart still longs for India, but body and mind have found the groove of being back home. Wine and meat start to make the occasional appearance. Working out new dining and sleeping habits with the husband. Adjustments and transitions.
Third month – Nostalgia is practically gone. Mysore feels like a distant memory. Starting to take a critical look at the romance of making the trip and asking myself if I really want to go back as soon as I had previously planned, and whether it would make sense in the context of my responsibilities. New habits are now part of my daily routine thanks to my local yoga community. Life here kicks into full gear and suddenly I’m not thinking about Mysore all the time, or even everyday.
Fourth month – Life is simply beautiful. Feeling immensely grateful for where I am physically, emotionally, spiritually. Thankful for the communities I am a part of, the opportunities I have and the decisions I get to make. For the first time in probably 33 years I actually feel content with my life as it currently stands, with its joys and challenges. I seem to have let go of the expectation that happiness is to be found by “moving somewhere else”. Realizing that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing the work I have to do, and enjoying it all. Realizing also that an annual trip to Mysore is not my path. I’ve come to see that the trip was like an injection of highly potent spiritual compost, to be applied sparingly. The yoga is working and it’s working well. I can’t wait to see what else life has in store.
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.
January 31, 2013 § 1 Comment
I don’t have much to write about these days, even though there’s a lot going on in the intellectual and emotional spheres. Not everything is fit to print…in fact, the bulk of the stuff that comes up is sometimes better left alone.
Part of my recent experiences involves dealing with a ferocious cold that’s forced me to rethink the way I practice, and to dial things down many notches. After getting the flu, followed by a week of regular practice and then this cold for two weeks, I’m just about ready for life to get back to normal. But what is normal anyway? Is normalcy defined by the absence of having to blow your nose after every other posture? By being able to practice everyday? Maybe nose-blowing is the new normal. Why not make it a practice of mindfulness in itself?
Somewhere along the line, I realized that the asana practice has started to move beyond the physical level towards the level of emotions. Sigh. That sentence makes this insight appear a lot more trite than it actually is. I mean, DUH, of course this practice eventually works its way into your psyche, beyond the superficial awareness of your own body. If you let it, of course. But what I was really trying to get at is that I’m starting to see this happen, to see the effects of the practice at the psychosomatic level. It comes out most clearly in my (very fledgling) sitting/pranayama practice. When done after an asana practice, the quality of the sit is vastly different from non-asana practice days. This dynamic has given the asana practice a new dimension, a new purpose, and the relationship between the two practices is forming a very nice complementarity that’s slowly filtering its way into other parts of my life.
See what I mean about how some things are just not fit to print? Sorry if this post has turned into an abstract mumbo-jumbo of everything and yet nothing at all. Going deeper means less thinking, more experiencing, and usually those experiences have no words, just feelings. It’s so hard to describe so I’m not going to dig myself into an even deeper hole here by trying too hard. If I had to summarize my ramble so far, it would be this: the path of Ashtanga as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras isn’t all that different from the Ashtanga system laid out by Guruji. The forms are different, as are the approaches, but the physical practice is indeed designed to prepare you for Patanjali’s asana, which is definitely something worth delving into after you’ve been doing the asana practice for a bit. It would be a pity to miss out on that, and, personally, to keep one’s Ashtanga practice solely at the level of asana would just be plain boring. I was hooked onto Ashtanga because it felt as if I had stumbled into an endless and fascinating rabbit hole of spirituality, history, yoga, the body, the mind, etc. I think I’ve just entered another level in this rabbit hole and am loving every bit of it.