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