Some thoughts on holding students back in Ashtanga
I teach freshmen writing. It’s part of my job, at the end of each term, to judge the performance of each writer, and decide on a grade. For a few, every term, the grade is not good. They have “failed.” It can be a hard thing to explain to them, but I try to put it the way I actually think of it: You’re just not ready to move on, I say. If I passed you out of pity, you’d have a really hard time in the next class, and maybe for the rest of your writing career. By holding you back, I’m really helping you–It’s not failure; it’s a second chance.
Very often, the decision is more complex than the matter of the grade. The student has shown diligence, and a strong ability to improve—to listen, to learn, to apply. The grade may not reflect the level of ability. It requires a lot of experience to make that call: to hold them back, or let them move forward in spite of the grade. It also requires a deep understanding of the student, so that you can judge their performance individually while at the same time respecting your own standards. But I’m not a robot. I can make that call.
You see where I’m going: I understand the reasons for holding students back. It’s been the source of my patience in Ashtanga, spending the first few years in led First Series classes, then a couple more in Mysore-style, before getting the first part of Second, all the way up to the wall that was kapotasana—a four-and-a-half-year wall (I was, in fact, counting).
Now that I’ve been doing a Second Series practice (in its entirety) for five months, I’m beginning to question the philosophy that holds students back in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
I’ve been pondering this post for a long time. There’s a hefty dose of respect we have for our teachers, and we hesitate to question their wisdom. We feel an immense sense of gratitude for what they’ve given us, and don’t want to seem ungrateful. We’ve also been taught that grasping after the next pose is a form of Western egotism that we should quash. And quash we do.
But, as I said, I’ve been thinking about this a long time. When I first signed on for Tim Miller’s Second Series training, I sought help preparing. There was a strong voice inside, telling me it was the right thing to do. And Tim had told me to come.
But my daily practice is in Los Angeles, not Encinitas. I’ve had to find and take Ashtanga where I could, householder that I am. After all my time working on kapotasana, I asked, what am I being held back for? I realize I can barely touch my toes, even with assistance. Some days, not even that. “I want you to be more stable,” I was told. Sthira. Right. I understand. But I also know I don’t have a disk at L4/5. I have no internal rotation. Just repeating the pose will not fix any of those things. It will only, ever, be so sthira. Shouldn’t I be working on sukkham?
When I finally gave up waiting for stability, I sought the advice of a teacher who would help me find contentment. Tim Miller told me to come to the training. Maria Zavala, Tim’s student, offered to teach me the series. I’ve been practicing with Maria for years. She knew me. She knew my practice. She taught me the poses. All of them.
I learned, in other words, the way those first American students in Mysore did: In a small class, under the careful scrutiny of a single teacher with experience, who knew where my limits were, and taught me to move beyond them rather than fixate on them. I just did the poses. And the benefits were immediate and enormous. My back got stronger. Range of motion increased. It was like the door to my pain closed.
So, back to my pondering. I believe that when a student is practicing in good faith, with the correct motivation and method, he or she should be granted the blessing of the range of motion the practice can give.
I also believe students are held so long at one pose partly because teachers have too many students to know the intimate details of any given student’s practice. This makes it easier to hold them back than to advance them, or vice versa: To advance them just to satisfy the student rather than take the time to teach them the small nuances of the practice. I’ve seen both extremes. Both are result of a high student/teacher ratio. I’m not saying that it’s not possible; I’ve seen Tim work a room of 40—exhausting to watch. I’m just saying the ability to do so effectively is rare.
I also believe that holding students back too long actually fetishises the pose they’re stopped at, making it a colossal battle with the ego and over-inflating the importance of that pose by taking it out of the overall context of the sequence. It dumbs down all the poses leading up to it (that creeping sense of dread, followed by that Pavlovian eagerness to see if today’s version was “good enough” to move on).
I’ll take this one step further and say that the contrast between the speed of learning First and the slowness of learning Second also grants Second Series an unnatural and even unhealthy air of elitism–that somehow your practice is above or beyond those still “stuck” in First. William Blake said that “Prisons are built with stones of Law.” By withholding Second from students too long, you endow Second artificially with the very quality you’re attempting to overcome as a yogi. And related to my previous point, it saps a lot of the crucial importance of First Series.
Even being “given” the next pose, in the language we use, encourages this obsession, defeating one of the main benefits of Ashtanga—the “yoga mala,” continuity of breath and focus. We should, of course, say instead, “My teacher taught me the next pose.” That’s just not the way we frame it. It’s given, like a gift, or a wish fulfilled. That’s not Ashtanga.
After I passed kapotasana, my entire practice changed, my awareness changed, and I grew stronger. My attitude toward my practice has come back into alignment with the way I felt at the very beginning of my study.
Since then, though, I’ve also had to deal with feelings of anger and resentment—I’ve suffered injuries in the past, I now know, because I lacked the strength and range that Second Series would have given me. The poses following kapotasana have improved the quality of kapotasana itself. And of particular note is the freedom from chronic pain, the first time in fifteen years. It’s difficult not to feel angry.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. But the evidence against the wider practice among many teachers of holding students back for years is now everywhere for me to see, as if my submission made me blind to it. There was David Swenson’s book, one of the first yoga texts I purchased, although I never dared to even look at the Second Series pages. Clearly, David Swenson believes in the therapeutic value of nadi shodana, even in a highly modified form. He also said this at the first Confluence.
Nancy Gilgoff teaches in her workshops that she believes many Ashtanga injuries are mostly caused by students being held back too long in First. You need only think of the contrast between her and David Williams to understand—she speaks of Guruji having to hold her up in poses, with his own physical strength, yet she advanced, and was healed. Tim Miller says frankly that he does not believe in holding students back, as does David Garrigues. There are many senior teachers out there who don’t subscribe to holding a dedicated practioner back for extended periods of time, including my teacher Diana Christinson, who gave me the Second Series backbends even when I was unable to do all of First. Where did draconian aspect of the practice come from?
I remember David Williams—and Nancy Gilgoff—talking about going back to Guruji and getting, basically, a pose a day. Tim, under the tutelage of Brad Ramsey, was doing Third Series in a matter of months. Granted, these were extremely eager and focused students. But you also get the feeling that is was also the level of attention they received was at work, the eagerness of the teacher to teach. It seems to me that if Guruji could get you into the pose, you moved on. It’s hard to imagine the level of effort it would require to get 40 (much less 300) students into their most difficult poses every day, and to know each students’ practice so intimately.
I hope that this little manifesto helps others rather than steps on toes. During my two weeks in Encinitas with Tim, I practiced every day next to folks who had said to me, “I’m stopped at [insert the name of your pose here], but I come here, and Tim lets me practice.” So, I guess that’s my real purpose here. To appeal to those teachers who are withholding permission to find a way to teach through the limitations, to what Tim calls “the other side of surrender.”
Posted by Bobbie