Sweating Ashtanga’s Small Stuff

The other day in a crowded Mysore room at Jorgen’s, Steve on my right, a new guy sidled in to my left. I am cool with that. I don’t mind stopping and making room—in fact, it’s on my Mysore cheat sheet.

What I did mind was his suryanamaskaras. I’m making my way through the standing sequence, and out come his arms in front of me as he got in touch with his inner pelican. “Sorry,” he says, as he bops me in virbhadrasana B.

“Arms straight in front of you, keep them straight, set the hands down and don’t move them,” says Nancy Gilgoff. “Better for the badhas, and it’s the way Guruji taught it. It was Richard Freeman that started taking the arms wide.”

She says that like it’s a bad thing. Nancy also tells the story of Guruji coming to Maui, and stating very clearly that parvritta parsvokonasana was a “crazy pose” and to stop doing it. But the students loved it, so it stayed.

This seeming contradiction got me thinking. The gentleman next to me dogmatically winging out his arms should’ve chosen that day to go straight ahead and respect the space of his fellow mortals. But when there’s room, is there good reason to go wide? How much should I be worried about this, and when should I be flexible about it (pun intended)?

I’ve heard from other teachers that it’s “bad for the shoulders” to go wide (Nancy included). But when Richard teaches this move, it’s the first backbend of the series. But only if you do it correctly. I’ve got a rotator cuff tear, so I know immediately if I’m doing it wrong—it hurts.

I think I’m more of a cormorant than a pelican. Via allaboutbirds.org (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

It was Russ Pfeiffer who really brought this home for me. The move needs to be initiated from the bigger muscles—the laterals—so you’re pushing the arms up from below, rather than lifting them from above. It works a totally different set of back muscles, and instigates a dropping of the shoulder blades. This is Richard’s ekam—a backbend in the top of the spine as the tailbone slides down. Russ taught me to keep these muscles engaged all the way through the suryanamaskar. Richard teaches this as well, advising maintaining a slight bend in the elbows in adho mukha svanasana.

But there are days when I need to find the bandhas fast, days when I’m tired, or even days when I’m thrumming with so much energy that I take those arms straight out, keep them straight, and connect with the ground. Or, there are days when the room’s packed; I might slap the woman next to me if I went wide. Or Steve, who would shoot me a dirty look.

What I garnered out of this little meditation is, once again, an appreciation of the keen relationship focus and awareness have with the practice. And with teaching: I teach my Ashtanga students both ways, and the reasons for the choice—small stuff, but with big lineage.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

3 thoughts on “Sweating Ashtanga’s Small Stuff”

  1. Having done some of my first yoga classes at Richard’s, I must say it feels very weird to me to not go wide. It almost feels lazy. But I guess a feeling of engagement can be generated by focusing on the bandhas…

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