Nancy Gilgoff

March 7, 2011 § 10 Comments

My body is aching after two consecutive days of the Primary series. The quads feel like lead; the abs seem to have coiled up in the night and both hamstrings make themselves felt with every step. Yet, despite the physical difficulties of standing up and sitting down (this is a preview of what life must be like as an 80 year old with arthritis), I wanted to practice this morning. Clearly, my body had other ideas. After two days of yoga, which included a Led Primary, it was time for rest.

Nancy Gilgoff was in town the whole of last week for one of her Primary clinics and had two additional sessions on the weekend – Led Primary and a short Q&A discussion about the practice, Pranayama and her personal experience. I loved every minute of it. We hardly do Led classes at our shala, so I was a little nervous about keeping up, but the fears were unfounded. From the first breath, the practice unfolded like magic, my breath lost in an ocean of ujjayi breaths, all of us moving in time, through the same practice, at the same pace. It was magical, and completely unlike any other Led class I’ve taken. The fact that I didn’t feel like I was about to die was a happy development, thanks to improved stamina after the last Led class at Kino’s workshop in November. I was thankful to be there, to be able to practice with someone as experienced as Nancy, someone who has been as close to the source and tradition as she has. To me, it was the closest I would get to actually practicing with Guruji, in the ‘original’, authentic and basic way, the way he’s been doing all those years before the first Western student came along. By the time we got to Baddha Padmasana, I was awash with gratitude to this chubby Indian man who I will never meet and will only know through anecdotes. I was immensely thankful to him for sharing what he knew, so freely and generously. At that moment, Guruji became more than just Sri K Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga. For a brief moment, he was my teacher.

In her words, Nancy teaches yoga “the way she has been taught”. It is this approach, I believe, in transmitting the tradition and leaving her own spin out of it, that led to this intimacy I felt with the tradition. With the proliferation of articles and videos about Ashtanga and asana technique today, it was immensely refreshing to attend a workshop where the main focus was on the quality of the breath (“your breath should be so loud that it drowns everything out in your mind”), getting a glimpse of what Guruji was like way back when, and hearing about someone’s powerful story of healing and transformation. The only Sanskrit chanted was contained in the opening chant, the only asana techniques taught unfolded in her guidance of the Led class (“let go of your toe and grab your waist” in UHP) and there was hardly any mention about the spiritual aspect of the practice. Nancy showed, in her own way, the true meaning of “Do your practice and all is coming”.

Because I’ve only attended one other teacher’s workshop before this weekend, it’s only natural to draw a comparison between Kino and Nancy.

Kino’s more like an Asana Technician, and very much reflects the modern approach to yoga teaching, merging the spiritual with the physical. Nancy on the other hand, is clearly of the “99 percent practice, 1 percent theory” school, which may be inadequate for those students looking for meaning beyond the physical aspect of the practice. Both approaches are equally valid, it’s just a matter of which you’re drawn towards. Personally, I felt a little underwhelmed after Kino’s workshop…perhaps her strong online presence had something to do with that. After spending a day with her, I left feeling as if I didn’t really need to see her in person to actually learn from her. But that’s just based on a day’s workshop, perhaps a longer retreat will leave me thinking differently.

Needless to say, I’m not advocating one teacher over the other, but sharing the approach that resonates most strongly with me. Having had the opportunity to study with these two incredible teachers is a tremendous blessing, and has taught me that the practice is very much like life itself. We all walk the same path, doing the same sequence of postures everyday, yet it’s flexible enough to accommodate our individual approaches and, with the state of Ashtanga today, to choose the best teacher(s) to guide us through it. We are so spoilt for choice that we don’t even realize it.

Perhaps it’s time to stop quibbling over the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ of the practice and just give thanks?


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§ 10 Responses to Nancy Gilgoff

  • Nobel says:

    Very nice post. Thanks for sharing your beautiful experience with Nancy Gilgoff. I’ve been to her studio on maui twice, but both times she was away teaching a workshop, so I never got to take a class with her.

    Yes, quibbling over should or should nots is quite unproductive 🙂

    I suppose Kino is also different because she came to study with Guruji much later than Nancy, and was exposed to a whole bunch of different influences from what Nancy went through. I think it is good that we have so many capable teachers around, although it is always important to also have a main teacher that knows one well and can guide one’s practice in the way that is most appropriate for one.

    • D says:

      Oof! I totally forgot to mention how their different styles also reflect the state of Ashtanga when they started to practice with Guruji. Thanks for bringing it up Nobel, it’s also a big factor in explaining the differences 🙂 I’m dreaming up plans of a yoga holiday in Maui now….hehe.

  • YYogini says:

    Thanks for reviewing the senior teachers. Would love to study with either (or both) teachers at some point!

  • Claudia says:

    Hi, appreciated reading this, I haven’t met Nancy yet, but look forward to.

  • Gio says:

    I loved your post. I am currently attending a 40hrs teaching immersion workshop with David Swenson in Hong Kong and as I read your post I almost thought you were reading my mind! In the past couple of days I have truly felt a spark of Guruji in David and the way he teaches. He is super funny, full of jokes, he laughs and makes the most complicated Asanas and transitions just seem effortless and fun! I am so grateful to have this opportunity. I am really looking forward to attending a weekend workshop with Nancy in HK, apparently she is scheduled to come in April.
    Once again thanks for sharing your experience.

    • D says:

      David Swenson and Nancy Gilgoff in one year? You’re so fortunate! Learning from experienced teachers like them just illustrates (to me) the importance of parampara and the teacher-student connection in Ashtanga practice. Would love to hear your thoughts about both their workshops!

  • […] is really shaping up to be the year of workshops, yoga-wise. After Nancy Gilgoff in February, we had David Garrigues come visit last weekend. I was in two minds about signing up for his class […]

  • […] So. The practice. A little nervous before, not sure what to expect, despite everything I’ve heard. The slow and steady count. The fog of steam in the room. The energy. Still, it’s all empty words until you’re there to experience it for yourself. I find it hard to articulate my thoughts about the whole session beyond the superficial: “it was good” “it was steady” “he made jokes in Navasana”, etc. So I won’t. All I will say is that this was the first led Primary class that I actually enjoyed, and it wasn’t because of the many black and white images of Guruji on the wall, or the ornamented altar or the incense or Sharath’s and Saraswati’s presence in the room, but an amalgamation of all of that, and then some. I did not get adjusted once, neither did I bind in Supta Kurmasana or stay up for the full count in headstand, but it doesn’t matter does it? I was just happy to be there. A good practice is not measured by the number of adjustments received or the attainment of a pose. It is about whether you’re able to get into a mental space where nothing matters but the breath and the extent to which you are able to stay there. The nervousness faded away after the first Om, replaced by an exuberant energy and gratitude for being there, for the practice, for this system called Ashtanga. Quite similar to what I experienced at Nancy’s led. […]

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