How Pattabhi Jois taught Nancy Gilgoff, as taught by Nancy

As promised, a rundown of Nancy Gilgoff’s “How I was taught” workshop from the Confluence. I want to stress that I can’t call this definitive; I took some notes, and then practiced, and some of it becomes hazy in between. Hopefully there will be some ideas and changes that are fresh and useful.

As an important reference point, here’s a link to the 1973 asana syllabus that is the touchstone for much of what’s to come, although it isn’t exactly the same. Here’s page one:

The basic organization of this workshop, which went for about two hours, was that Nancy talked for about 30 or 40 minutes up front and then we went through most of the asana sequence, “primary series,” as she learned it 40 years ago. (A few poses into Second/Intermediate by our reckoning today.) For her, that meant many fewer vinyasas, neither of the twisting standing poses and — here’s a notable point — no backbends. (Hurrah, I say! Also, no shoulder stand or headstand.)

The most important message to get out, though, is this: Nancy stressed the “compassion of the guru,” of Guruji. That compassion, combined with his well-known fierceness, came through as one defining characteristic of his. And I mean one: It seemed as though both traits were braided together in a fundamental way.

It also should be noted that Guruji essentially adjusted her in every single pose. And when I write that, I mean it to a greater extent than how we now think of that. At the beginning, Nancy recounted, she was so weak that Guruji would pick her up and throw her back in the vinyasas and toss her back through, as well. Plus, Guruji’s English was limited enough that he had to be hands-on. He effectively put her in every pose.

(Another point. Nancy said she and David Williams recently had been “comparing notes” about their initial interactions with Guruji, and while Nancy wasn’t getting vinyasas, as Guruji was picking her up, throwing her back, tossing her back forward, he was teaching David to jump back on his own. So for David the vinyasas were there. This, I think, sheds light on the individual teaching the early Western students received.)

As for breathing, Nancy learned to focus on having the inhale and exhale be the same length. You’re not trying to length the breath, she said. It should be natural. And, she said, you can breath more quickly in the difficult moments.

“It’s a much more inward practice,” she said. “It’s much more nurturing. What’s going on inside is what’s interesting.”

She made another point, which we’ve talked about before: No dinking. She said this a few times during the weekend. Quit adjusting your clothes, brushing your hair out of your face, etc. You get into the pose — and as far as you can go that day is where the pose is — and breath and move on to the next pose.

That’s the extent of what I can get from the notes I took as she talked. Here are my impressions of the practice:

  • She’s right. It is much more inward. Perhaps it’s because there are fewer opportunities to let your gaze wander.
  • Here’s a difference: In the Surya forward folds, she wanted palms on the floor/mat even if it meant bending your knees. As someone who has his fingers on his calves at “trini”, this was substantially different — especially the transition back to chaturanga.
  • Essentially, there are no vinyasas between sides of the seated poses, and — I’m about 99% sure I have this correct — there are none during the whole Janu and Marichy sequences. You move directly from a to b to c to d. That is just about 100% different. (Obviously, the point here is for you to try this.)
  • There were plenty of times when people starting into a vinyasas when there wasn’t one. We are fairly pre-programmed.
  • The other major changes: No uthkatasana or warriors and, originally, Uttitha and Arda Baddha came at the end. (Again, I think I have that correct, and this counters the 1973 syllabus.) Also:  3 Surya As and Bs (not five) and only three navasanas. She may have mentioned a Prasarita E?

I hope that makes sense. Honestly, as I think back I’m blanking on whether there were vinyasas between all of the seated poses. I think there were — just not within them (between sides). If anyone else who was there can shed more light on this (warning, Iyengar pun?), please do!

Update: Kate O’Donnell posts about her “pre-teen” Ashtanga years with Nancy, with some thoughts about how the teaching of the practice has shifted. Kate’ll be back in Boston at the end of the Month for y’all in that area.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

14 thoughts on “How Pattabhi Jois taught Nancy Gilgoff, as taught by Nancy”

  1. I’ve been reading a lot about Krishnamacharya, his book The Yoga Makaranda as well as writings and books by his sons and this method certainly reflects the way Krishnamacharya would teach asana. He would teach individually like Guruji did in the early days or small groups anyways. I read something by Manju recently, an interview and he was saying that his dad would say work on the pose you couldn’t do why go ahead. In a way I wish I could have a private session and practice custom tailored to my needs rather than just doing the routine. It seems from what you have written that Guruji was still teaching a lot closer to what and how he was taught in the early days and that the ashtanga everyone is practicing now is a more recent innovation. When I listened to David Swenson talking about how one of the group was taught one way and when he went back 5 years later things had changed. In T.K.V. Desikachar’s book The Heart of Yoga Developing A Personal Practice there is no set practice you develop it using aryuvedic principles and an understanding of asana and the counter poses (i’m no expert). I do find it interesting how it went from a very holistic practice to a one size fits all for everyone. I’m not bashing Ashtanga I love doing it but does it follow aryuvedic principles if all the different doshas are doing the same practice? How does that work? It’s also interesting how Krishnamacharya always has a pranayama component to his practice along with chanting etc. while in Ashtanga Yoga pranayama comes later. From what I understand this might be because of the Ujayi breath throughout the practice? Maybe eager Westerners helped create this current form of Ashtanga by being so focused and Guruji gave them what they could handle? Tim Miller in the panel discussion I watched on line kind of eludes to this vs. the laid back attitude of the Indian students. I guess one of the reasons I’m interested in this is because i’m not 20, 30 or 40 years old and when Guruji says he quite at 53 because of a scooter accident it makes me wonder if this type of intensity is needed and or when do you know you have to make modifications to the practice? It is a rigid practice and it will be interesting to see how if it keeps on evolving or if it stays static?

    1. Hi Brad. In regards to pranayama, the way I’ve heard David Williams and David Swenson describe it is that people had to be invited to do pranayama with Guruji. So as people advanced in their practice, they would recommend to Guruji that they be included in the pranayama sessions. David Swenson said Guruji would sit in front of the person, have them engage their bandhas, and breathe. He would then stick the first two fingers of each hand on each side of the lower belly (about two inches below the navel) and then follow the person’s breath. Some people would pass and join the sessions, others would fail. David Swenson thought Guruji was checking to make sure that uddiyana bandha was correctly engaged and all the movement of the breath occurred above the fingers. No expert here either, but I think the jist is that if you could not correctly engage uddiyana bandha then Guruji did not think you were ready for the breath retentions that went along with the pranayama sessions.

  2. Brad I so agree. I am 65 and only learned Ashtanga from Karrie my teacher in the last year. Thou having done yoga for years, this was another level. Of course there were several poses I could not do and can’t do back bends because of a bad back, but I did my best. However I found 90 min was way too much for me. Karrie came back from the conf with Nancy’s outline for an abbreviated practice and immediately gave it to me. So instead of being turned off to the practice, I am renewed knowing that I have an ‘allowed’, less intense practice to follow. One size does not fit all. Thank you Steve for posting this.

    1. I’m starting to think that yoga is fluid, intuitive and compassionate. Getting to your mat is really the yoga. The process within ourselves when we don’t want to do it and all the stuff in our lives is holding us back from the mat so we push through and get to the mat. In the very least I now do the practice from the beginning to the end of standing series plus the finishing sequence, japa, pranayama and meditation. Yoga lives in the way we do everything and how we go through our lives and being mindful of that is as important as our asana practice. The fight I have is that i’m a very goal oriented person and competitive in nature and Ashtanga feeds that, I want to be able to do that like them! This isn’t the goal though and when I think that the goal is to be goalless then changing asana to suit my needs is no big deal but it does bring up a bunch of stuff in my mind and ego stuff. Maybe that is why Krishnamacharya had sessions with students one on one to prevent any competitive issues from coming up and you would solely focus on your own practice. You can’t but help notice other people around you doing very advanced asanas and it taking our concentration away but maybe that is also part of the practice to focus and concentrate past what is going on around you. Maybe the practice is meant to be done at home, alone, so that our attention can more easily be drawn inwards? As David Swenson mentions in his book “The practice becomes your personal guide and teacher. With regulation the asanas become intimately familiar and a relationship develops which will mature and mellow over time. Yoga is a benevolent friend that is always there to greet us with a smile. Practice is a journey to our inner selves. Ashtanga has been an invaluable tool within my life and I hope that you enjoy this dynamic, magical system and find the fruits of the Ashtanga tree to be sweet, and nourishing to your body, mind and soul.” ~ David Swenson

      “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bounds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yoruself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.” ~ Patanjali

      “Take pleasure in your practice. It is good to finish a session and be looking forward to the next one, rather than making our practice so difficult that we create a loathsome duty out of it. Be relaxed. Enjoy every breath. Feel the magic of moving your body and filling the lungs with air. The rewards of yoga are personal!” ~ David Swenson

      I think what i’m trying to say is that the practice isn’t static and its better to practice every day on and off the mat than to just do yoga on the mat and fight with ourselves if we can’t do all the poses. It informs me when it was mentioned in the panel discussion that Guruji taught by never showing anyone how to do an asana! There is so much more to yoga than the body. I’m glad you were given an abbreviated form to keep your practice up I also have a few myself but i have been fighting with my ego of that isn’t doing the practice but as time goes on i’ve seen that it is the practice there aren’t any hard and fast rules and for me the goal is to be able to practice long term in some form all the way to the end.

  3. I’ve taken this class with Nancy twice and you’re right- when she was originally taught, the Janus and Marichiasanas were grouped together. Upavishta Konasana and Supta Konasana also were linked without vinyasa. Utthita Hasta and Ardha Baddha were taught after learning the rest of the primary, but then added back in at the correct place (after standing postures). This is because they’re quite challenging, as we all know, and the students needed to get strong before learning them. So in class, we practiced them at the end of primary but back in the day, after David and Nancy learned them, Guruji told them to put them in their rightful place.
    When students are sick or particularly tired, I often suggest that they practice this way.
    The lack of fidgeting and prepping is also something to note. In my own practice and with students, I find that the mind starts going when we slow down. If we keep breathing and moving without pausing extraneously or spending too much time on any one posture, the mind has no time to get in the way. I find it an incredibly challenging and reenergizing way to practice.

  4. i’m going through all my notes too and will be posting about this very soon. if i recall correctly, no vinyasas between sides but keep the ones between seated postures.

  5. i’m about to post about this as well as i go through my notes. if i recall correctly, you skip vinyasas between sides but keep ones between seated postures.

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