Back when I was teaching a creative writing course at Johns Hopkins, I asked my students as the term was wrapping up if they had plans to take any more writing classes. One of my students said, “The Jewish lit course. That has writing in it.” “Who’s teaching it?” I asked. “Somebody named Chaim Potok.” “Chaim Potok,” I said, “The Chaim Potok? The author of The Chosen?”
I thought about this moment at the start of Tim Miller’s “Introduction to Ashtanga” class. As part of our teacher training, we can observe other classes, ongoing while we train. I was watching Tim’s Introduction to Ashtanga. I thought about my student at Hopkins as I looked out on this class. Chaim Potok is one of the most important writers of his generation, and The Chosen is one of the most important novels in Jewish literature. My young student was, unknowingly, about to take a course taught by, basically, the guy who made the course possible.
“I see some new faces,” said Tim (there were four). “Hi, I’m Tim,” said Tim Miller. Tim Miller. Teaching brand new students Ashtanga. In Encinitas. You understand me?
I took copious notes on this class, mostly because of the smart way Tim designed it. There were a number of things that struck me as extremely interesting, and made the class a real Introduction to Ashtanga, things that will help me teach my own class.
He began with something of an apology, anticipating the sometimes scary reputation Ashtanga has, without really apologizing. “There’s a certain rigorous quality to it,” he told them, “that if you soften it too much, it wouldn’t be Ashtanga.”
Tim then went into a mini-talk on the Yoga Sutras, emphasizing tapas as a purification practice, hitting on the nature of happiness, and the nature of God. It was clear this was the real deal: “All things are possible through yoga practice.”
Very carefully, very efficiently, Tim taught them correct breath (you know the one: “Make a ‘ha’ sound…”), and also imprinted linking breath with movement, using a simple cat/cow.
And it moved, gradually, into a vinyasa practice from there: From cat/cow, to an extended child’s pose to teach shoulder and foot alignment in down dog to the knees to correct hand placement in an upward dog to kneeling back into child’s pose then back to a down dog to a lunge with the right foot forward that became stepping forward with the left that became raised arms that became coming to standing that became…
“This is virabhadrasana A, a salute to the sun.”
His students are warm by this time, and Tim begins to change that lunge into a virabhadrasana B, and they really heat up. “My teacher, Guruji, used to say even iron will bend with heat,” he tells them, as he leads them through three slow Bs.
The start of the standing sequence is equally careful, meticulous. Padangustasana and padahastasana come with some small adjustments, lots of verbal cues. He demonstrates utthita trikonasana, has his students put both hands to the floor for paviritta trikonasana, the hand on the inside of the foot or on the knee in utthita parsvakonasana. I notice a young man, one of the new students, dripping with sweat. I remember again how blown away I was in my first Ashtanga class, how hard a half primary was for me.
Nonetheless, Tim takes them through highlights of the standing sequence, the more user-friendly ones. He’s carefully gauging the room, and holds the poses from I’d say three to five shorter breaths, depending. He has them do dandasana with much awareness, teaching them the anterior pelvic tilt (there is a lot of discussion of alignment, you might notice).
Occasionally, he recognizes he’s throwing a lot at them, and will say, “Tell you what…” and do another pose, as if distracting them, or tossing them a bonus. The mood in the room is light, and fun, in spite of the heavy breathing. But Tim is careful, without making it seem so—they skip vinyasas between sides, for instance; or even between poses, but it’s seamless, protective, compassionate.
And backbending takes the form of a shalabhasana variation, with straight arms, followed by five bridges: strength, and backbending. He gives them a floor twist, then leg lifts, working to a shoulder stand that they transition out of, very quickly, to a forward fold. The room begins to quiet down as Tim takes them through the last three poses, with a breath count, teaching extension: “Count to five as you inhale, five as you exhale. Count to six as you inhale, six as you exhale. Seven as you inhale…” all the way to ten.
I’ll remind you, dear Reader, that this is Tim after he’s taught pranayama at 6 a.m., Mysore for two hours after that, and taken us through five hours of teacher training. Here he is, at 7:00 in the evening, conveying his love for the practice to brand new Ashtanga students, some brand new to yoga in general. For me, watching him teach, it’s a kind of circle—I began practicing with one of his students teaching this way. Tim seems to be able to convey the voice of Ashtanga through the teachers he trains—I’m not sure if any of these students knew it was the Tim Miller teaching them; but who knows, in this room of twenty or so, which one of them may go on to teach this very same class to a collection of nervous but determined new students?
Posted by Bobbie