One of the best parts about running this blog has been the chance to have conversations (usually “off-line”) with readers and get to know a broader swath of the Ashtanga community. We’ve spoken with people in New Zealand, the Czech Republic, India (of course, right?) and Japan, among others. We all share Ashtanga, but that’s typically just been the start of discussions.
A few days ago, one of our readers, Diane Mulholland, contacted us to see if we’d be interested in her sending along a few thoughts from a Richard Freeman workshop she’s be attending.
Easy answer. And so here are her thoughts. Thanks to Diane for taking the time! (We’re so appreciative, we’re even leaving in her British spellings!) And special thanks for including some of Richard’s famous metaphors.
Five months ago, I’d never heard of Richard Freeman, and never taken an Ashtanga yoga class. I was searching for more meaning in my yoga and I was looking around for a course or a retreat, anything that would go a bit more in-depth than the purely asana-focused classes I’d been taking. A friend recommended I check out Yoga Campus and the Richard Freeman course was the right length, the right time of year (birthday money!) and was half-and-half asana and philosophy. Sounded perfect, so I asked around, “Anyone know what Richard Freeman’s like?” and the resounding answer was (with a little poetic licence): “OMG he’s amazing! If you get the opportunity to work with him grab it!”
Thus began my relationship with Ashtanga (I had four months to learn primary series to a point where I wouldn’t embarrass myself). Yesterday was the last of my five days with Richard; here are some of the highlights.
Each morning we did three hours of asana. Sessions were based on Primary, but with a lot of meanderings or pauses to look at a form in depth. Here’s a couple of things that really stood out for me:
“Blessed be the stiff, for they shall breathe into it.” I’m a Pilates teacher, so I’m pretty accustomed to being the most bendy person in the room. This week, I was in the bottom 10%. It would be very easy to feel like an interloper, but Richard’s attitude turned this around and made me feel like the special one. Comments like “It’s the process that’s interesting, when you get there it’s just the same” or my favourite, “When you get to the floor it’s kind of sad as you can’t go anywhere any more” made it all OK. It’s a very subtle thing, and a teacher’s attitude can really make or break the experience for a beginner.
“Slow down – what are you trying to avoid?” We spent a lot of time not just holding poses for longer, but exploring the forms that lead to a pose. This relates to Steve’s post from last week on avoiding certain postures. We spent a lot of time, for example, waiting in Upward Dog, which I discovered I really dislike, no wonder I swim through it in a split second. We also explored how a pre-form like standing with the arm lifted before folding into Utthita Trikonasana B sets you up for a better, more connected experience of the posture.
A couple more snippets
Make sure your drishti is visible to both eyes – otherwise you’re giving it the evil eye (check your Trikonasana!)
The exhale frames the pose, the inhale makes it interesting.
Hold the pose from the root, not the petals, like you would a flower (bhandas).
If you find you’re becoming anxious in Pranayama practice then you know something is happening. You need to “‘play the edge” but not push yourself over it.
Richard talks about the Gita
Each afternoon we drew our mats closer for sitting meditation followed by chanting, and study of the Gita. It’s much harder to convey what the afternoons were like, it was such a wealth of information and discussion, but I’ll share a couple of points that really struck me.
One day, out of the blue, someone asked, “What is Yoga.” And I really liked Richard’s answers. He explained – as like me you’ve no doubt heard before – that the word yoga means to “yoke” or “bind.” But as he went on I realised I never really understood what was being bound. It is the linking of the two complementary opposites. Things like inhale/exhale, I exist/I don’t exist, darkness/light, things that you can have no concept of if the other doesn’t exist – yoga provides the balance between the two. We talked a lot about prana/apana balance in our morning sessions and I feel like this is finally starting to sink in. And then the follow-up question: What is yoga, for those who really have no idea of yoga? Yoga is kindness.
The message that was reinforced for me by our study of the Gita was the warning that as soon as you start to think you know something, beware. Krsna spends whole chapters explaining things to Arjuna, and each time Arjuna says “Wow, I’ve got it!” and Krsna turns around and says, “In case you don’t have it, let me start again.” He does this all the way to the end. For me this ties into the idea of work for the sake of the work, rather than for the fruits of the work. Just keep at it, keep trying to understand, and every time you “get it” you peel another layer of consciousness and start all over again. It’s the process that’s interesting. And as Richard said, “It’s always a bad sign when you think you’re enlightened.”
Sometimes the answer is not an answer but a challenge. Never just blindly accept what your teacher says.
When you have placed everyone and everything inside your heart, line up all the centres of all those hearts like a combination lock and opening is easy.
I love how towards the end of the Gita (12:9-12) Krsna explains exactly how you go about it. And what to do if you’re rubbish at it.
Five days is a huge amount of information and this has barely scraped the surface. I’ve filled enough space though, and really everyone’s experience of this week would be different anyway – we all see things from a slightly different point of view. So I will conclude by adding my voice to those enablers from above, if you get the opportunity to work with Richard grab it!
Richard Freeman on the Gita. That’s something you don’t get every day. We’re jealous. Thanks again, Diane!
Posted by Steve