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.”

-Nancy Gilgoff

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.”

-Nancy Gilgoff

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.

-Nancy Gilgoff

“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.


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§ 6 Responses to Nancy Gilgoff // Ashtanga Rules

  • Nobel says:

    Nice post, D 🙂

    Thus far, I haven’t felt the need or the desire to comment or blog on the whole evolution of Ashtanga/worrying about rigidity thing because I am very much in agreement with what V has been saying in her comments on Small Blue Pearls’s recent blog posts, and don’t feel the need to chime in just to echo my agreement with what has already been said. Moreover, I really don’t think things are rigid at all; there are good reasons why the Ashtanga series has a fixed structure. If one wants to do prep poses outside of the practice (to open the hips, lengthen the front body, etc.), one is free to do so, so long as one doesn’t confuse the prep poses for the practice itself.

    Honestly, I really don’t get why people have so much anxiety over this whole thing. i mean, even if you decide that this whole Ashtanga thing is not for you and decide to walk away from it and do Bikram or Anusara instead (or even invent your own yoga), who’s going to stop you? It’s not like you’re going to get struck by lightning or whatever…

    Anyway… As for what you wrote:

    “Nancy moves her students on when they’ve been practicing Primary for a while and start complaining of knee pains… if there are any anatomists out there please feel free to chime in.”

    I’m no anatomist, but from my own experience, I do know that if done correctly, the second series backbends encourage inner rotation of the thighs, which is a useful counter-movement to the external rotation of the hips and thighs that much of primary series (with all the emphasis on all those padmasana variations) emphasizes. Too much external rotation without inner rotation leads to imbalance in the hip and thigh muscles (and possibly, to knee pain and injury). Therefore, the second series backbends provide much-needed balance in this regard.

    But as I said, I’m not an anatomist. I’m just chiming in 🙂

    • D says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience Nobel, it makes a lot of sense. I see it in myself, with the external muscles of the legs much more developed than the inner thigh, which actually aggravate the turning out of the feet in backbends.

      Agree about the other stuff 🙂 This topic has made the rounds before, and I usually choose to keep my mouth shut about it. The confluence of Nancy’s workshop and blogosphere discussions was too tempting to resist this time.

  • grimmly says:

    I think a lot of the rigidity fell away with the Guruji book, seemed there was bit of a shift with it’s publication. I mean everyone read it, it was in praise of Ashtanga, of Pattabhi Jois himself and yet clear as day it showed how everyone had learned the practice in slightly different ways and all were good. Bit churlish to tell someone afterwards that you shouldn’t begin 2nd until after you can stand up and argue that it had always been thus or came from the Korunta. In an email from Eddie Stern this week he told me that Pattabhi Jois had supposedly gone up to Krishnamacharya with a different variation, sequence of the postures and K. had basically said, sure why not.

    Nice thing about Vinyasa krama was the realisation that there are no prep postures just different postures that can be employed as prep postures or extensions. 84,000 asana remember ; ), you can bet that pretty much anything you come up with is an asana in and of itself. This struck me as important. When you look at the steps in Swensons book, those variations and think “oh how I wish I could get the real asana”, well you are practicing a real asana. Is Ustrasana a prep posture for Kapo or an asana itself, well both of course.

    Eddie mentioned to me that Jois had said Krishnamacharya taught them a ‘Mountain of asana’. Actually if you look at Yoga Makaranda you can see the Vinyasa Kramas laid out, the variations, the options and those are what Jois had resource too when he was able to give variations to his students, to Manju etc. All Ashtanga teachers should probably study vinyasa Krama so they can be better teachers even if 99% of the time they teach the standard sequence. They should probably study K’s breath and focus options too.

    Great to have that set sequence, whichever form you learn, the current Mysore one would be preferable as it saves you or anyone else confusion if you want to pop into another shala but I don’t think it matters. Just good to have a set form on which you can hang and explore your practice. I keep coming back to ashtanga because it’s useful, it’s the sequence I first learned, that Apollonian form that I can get all Dionysian on.

    Wonderful post on Sharath on the Realising Mysore blog this morning, how good he his at what he does, how well he runs that room. Anyone who has practiced as long as he has and watched and adjusted so many bodies in the practice has a viewpoint worthy of respect, I read with interest what comes out of his conferences, especially recently. But of course there are others too who have been doing this a long time, great voices that have explored and taught practice in their own way, from their own perspective. I could list ten, twenty who I consider more relevant to my own practice with whom I would like to visit. I hope the next generation of teachers develop the same richness rather than a purely dogmatic approach, I worry a little about that sometimes.

    Actually I’m not that worried, people will discover their own practice.

    • D says:

      The Standup-from-backbend rule as currently practiced in Mysore only *seems* dogmatic because the exceptions are not talked about as much as the rule. And I’m referring to the exceptions that Sharath makes in his room in Mysore, not all the other rooms in the world. We could go on forever about why he has this rule in place and it still wouldn’t change a thing. Fact is, different Ashtanga teachers run their rooms more or less differently depending on the group they have….if you (rhetorical ‘you’) don’t like it, find another room, or, practice at home and make the trip(s) to study with the teacher you like. It’s all pretty simple really.

  • grimmly says:

    re ‘Standup-from-backbend’ in my comment, I was referring to any insistence that there was only one correct way of practice following the the publication of Guruji made in blog comments say or criticism in general, wasn’t referring to Mysore. re the like it lump it approach, doesn’t strike me as enlightened pedagogy, Ok perhaps if your in NYC or LA where Ashtanga shala’s are like starbucks, on every corner, (kidding) but for most everywhere else the options are less, should you HAVE to practice elsewhere or alone, although personally I’m all for home practice as you know.

    • D says:

      Ah ok, thanks for clarifying, re: dogmatism about Ashtanga Rules. So much has been said about it, seems to make the rounds every few months or so….like I said in reply to Nobel, the time spent with Nancy and hearing her stories provided too many relevant gems for the ongoing debate, it was too good not to write about it.

      As for the like it lump it approach, yes I realize that not everyone has the benefit of having a range of good teachers to choose from where they live, but really, when it comes down to having to practice with a teacher that you don’t fully trust or agree with vs practicing somewhere else (including home), wouldn’t the latter be a better option? I have a friend who chooses not to practice at her local studio (after a few sessions) and instead has a home practice and spends her money travelling to Mysore and visiting a senior teacher every year. Of course, making that choice is utterly personal and really depends on how much you really want this practice…..I have the utmost respect for home yogis – I mean, I love Ashtanga and part of it is having a community of people to do this with everyday. Home yogis are plugging along alone in the dead of winter and the heat of summer driven entirely by a single-minded dedication to the practice – that takes courage.

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