Chuck Miller

September 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

Chuck Miller, Guruji book

I realize that I’m a little late in sharing my workshop notes from Chuck Miller’s sojourn with us in late-June. Sorry!! Life, basically, got in the way, but I also wanted to give his teachings some time to sit, and not color it with the effusiveness that usually comes from a workshop high.

He spent 10 days with us – unusually long for an Ashtanga workshop – and yet by the end I felt as if he could just as well spent 10 more. I signed up for his teacher training at the last minute and though it was hard work, it was well worth it. Five afternoons in a smaller group with a good mix of meditation, asana discussion/adjustments and listening to him talk about his experience, yoga, the teacher-student relationship, etc. He’s a spiritual man focused on finding his true Self, and his influences reflect that: apart from yoga, he has also seeked out teachers of other disciplines, recommending works by Ram Dass, Shunryu Suzuki and Ken McCleod as supplemental reading.

Generally, I got the sense that he’s a little unhappy/disillusioned with the way Ashtanga is taught today, chiefly with the emphasis on progress at the expense of the body-mind connection. As far as Ashtanga teachers go, he’s more Iyengar-centric than most, bringing a strong focus to alignment at every step of the way. His intention was to make us see our bodies as it is, in its current state with its imbalances and quirks, and to use the Ashtanga practice to work with it instead of trying to fit our bodies into an imagined goal of what the practice should be.

“Everybody wants to rush ahead, to do handstands and all the advanced postures, but not the basics. Guruji used to say, ‘Why you rush ahead? You go back!’.”

I’ve jotted down my notes and recollections below, peppered with his quotes which I hope illustrate the point he’s talking about. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions/feedback.

*****

On Asanas

10 days meant 10 led practices lasting 2.5 hours each. A little long for a led class, eh? Not with Chuck. The first day, we spent 20 minutes standing in Samasthiti and progressed as far as Utthita Parsvakonasana before time ran out. His point – which he repeated over and over – was that the name of the starting point of our Ashtanga yoga practice shared the same root as the ultimate goal of yoga practice: Samadhi.

Sama-sthiti

Sama-dhi

Sama = sameness, oneness, calmness, tranquility of the mind.

Throughout practice, we were told to “find Sama” in the breath, i.e., find the consistency and sameness in both the exhale and the inhale. We had to “find Sama” in the asana – in downward dog, in Trikonasana, in every single movement – and prioritize it over achieving mini-goals like getting the heels to the floor in downward dog, or grabbing the toes in Trikonasana. We were here to raise our consciousness and our prana, not to reinforce the egoic tendencies of striving and grasping.

“Why is it so important to get your heels to the floor? Why do you need to get your legs behind your head? Who’s looking? Who cares?”

To him, compromising the ease of the posture to try to force yourself to achieve an “ideal” state of an asana is the antithesis of yoga. Instead, he’s all about working with where the body is now.

“Forget about running after all those advanced asanas. Work on the basics, then asanas will come running after you.”

It is not an easy lesson to teach – or to learn. By the end of the workshop, as we progressed to the Marichyasanas, he was telling folks to stop just as they were getting into the pose: a twist of the torso was sufficient for some in Mari C, while others were left hovering about 6 inches above their thighs in Mari A. All in the name of Sama.

“How many poses are there? As many as you need. Some of us are a little more dense, and need a whole lot. The smarter ones among us need very few.”

On Practice

“Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent, both the good and the bad.”

On the teacher-student relationship

He was adamant that we as students recognize the responsibility that we have for ourselves, and to not hesitate to tell a teacher when we don’t want an adjustment or when an adjustment is not going particularly well. He said that students too often give away their power to their teachers without thinking or questioning the teacher’s intentions, and that we spend more time doing research on making a car purchase than on finding a good teacher when it should be the other way around.

On Vinyasa

“Each vinyasa is like a seed that we have to sow and cultivate in practice.”

He explained that “Vinyasa” is an approach, a technique, one that is not just limited to the Ashtanga practice. At its core, it means to do things gradually, step-by-step. First you stand straight, then you fold, then you twist, etc. At every step of the way, it forces us to bump into obstacles and to confront them. To really see the state of our body at that point in time. He calls these obstacles a gift, because they allow us to see ourselves for who we really are.

“Cultivate mindfulness, not unconsciousness.”

“There is nothing you cannot do if you do it slowly enough.”

“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

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§ 3 Responses to Chuck Miller

  • My experiences so far with some of the senior ashtanga teachers have left me with a similar message about the importance of “progress” and a continual return to the purpose of practice. I have found it refreshing because it can be so easy to get caught up in the next pose, or the limitations of our physical body. It can also lead to feeling discouraged if we only focus on that one aspect, because there will always be challenges and eventually our bodies will reach the pinnacle of their progression through the series’ and we will find something we are unable to master.

    • D says:

      YES! That’s what Chuck calls the “death pose” – when you encounter that in your practice, that means it’s time to retrace your steps and focus on the basics. For me, the death pose was sirsasana for a while, now it’s the dropbacks. The process of working towards these poses *is* the practice.

  • D says:

    More thoughts:

    (1) In the Marichyasanas (and all the seated postures, really), he was focused on getting us to ground our sit bones in every one of them, so as to keep our pelvis level and our spine as neutral as possible. That’s the “sama” in the posture. Now if you think about keeping both your sit bones grounded in the Marichyasanas, you’re not going to get very far. But, you’re also forced to tune in to the intricacies of a twist/contorted forward fold and its effects on your pelvis and spine. It was very humbling and lots of stuff to think about. Generally speaking, I would recommend incorporating this into your practice only when you get bored and are looking for ways to challenge yourself in the practice. It’s simply not very sustainable to keep practicing that way, every day, in my opinion.

    (2) Chuck spends a lot of time teaching in Japan and China these days, but I highly recommend taking one of his workshops if you get the chance. Be warned though: he’s not going to be your typical Ashtanga teacher, he’s going to challenge the way you perceive your practice (and Ashtanga in general), and if he’s doing led classes, you probably won’t have a chance to do your practice the way you’re used to. It’s going to make you uncomfortable, possibly hating the way he teaches, but if you attend with an open mind and less attachment to what your concept of a ‘practice’ is, he may have something to teach you.

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