A Led Primary Primer

One of the perks of having a home practice is also its downside: Solitude. You decide when to start, and are able move around your space—no matter how small—undisturbed. You can even play music if you want. We at The Confluence Countdown household love that about it.

But when in the course of human events you find yourself in a crowded practice room, any latent misanthropic tendencies you may have come to the fore; your drishti becomes an annoyed sidelong glance at the yahoo next to you who can’t seem to keep it on the mat.

I recognize that not everyone feels this way. I know at least one teacher who seems to thrive off it, and is determined to clump students together for the “energy”—which in my case is mostly fueled by annoyance. It occurred to me that maybe I’m not alone in my love of space, and that the “Mysore experience” isn’t as charming to us as it is to others, and some coaching might be in order. While I’ve already done a “Mysore cheat sheet,” the Led Primary raises a whole new set of etiquette questions that are hereby answered. So, to that end:

A Led Primary Primer

Know your history. If this Led class you’re in is historically crowded, that’s a great piece of intel to help make this a better experience for you. If you need a wall for headstand (for now!), you’ll need to arrive early. And if you don’t want to be moving your mat ten times as others arrive, you might as well roll out close, meet your neighbor, and beat the rush.

Stay “flexible.” I realize you may love your secret spot to the left 3.5 feet from the wall and far enough away from the window, but you’re in the middle of the room and are taking up three spaces. You’ll need to move. Practice non-attachment.

A girl can dream. In a perfect world, all Ashtanga practitioners would be aware of the need to stagger mats—one about a foot forward from the next. I have yet to be in a room where people do this without being prompted by the teacher. Still, I’m just putting it out there; but, like democracy, it’s a good idea until greed gets in the way. It’d be nice, though.

Make a plan. There you are, a mere inch of Neutral Zone on all sides. It is at this point that you need to practice the words of wisdom written over the door of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi: “Know Thyself”: Before you enter this enquiry about yourself that is Ashtanga, recognize your limitations. If you normally knock out your practice in wide open spaces, and are not sure how much room you actually take to do any given pose to your full expression, now’s the time to become aware.

Follow your leader. It may be that where you learned the Primary Series, your teacher pronounces the opening prayer faster or slower, or sings it, or does it with the class instead of call and response, etc. But in general, you are in this teacher’s house now, and you should be polite and follow the house method. It’s the courtesy of a guest to a host. This is a general rule to follow for the rest of your practice, actually.

Ten, hut! Samastitihi. Here we all are, lined up like little soldiers. The first thing you need to know, my friend, is that in some ways, you actually are a little soldier; you will not be able to take your arms out to the side for ekam. Or for dwi. Ad infinitum. Extend your arms straight out in front of you for the suryanamaskars (A and B). Don’t act like I’m not there and swing your arms out like you’re in a Bob Fosse show. And don’t lag behind or chase the count so you can go out to the side. This is not the led way. Besides, some teachers like Nancy Gilgoff teach straight out as correct. Give it a try. Maybe you’ll like it.

CHATwari! I’ve heard teachers shout this, a la Guruji, to get everyone on point. You may have noticed the phrase “stay with the count” in the previous item. This is the number one characteristic of a led class, your most important task, your main goal—you get what I’m saying. Which means that if you rush, and realize it, you hold where you are until the teacher calls the next breath or pose. You shall not move ahead, neither shall you lag behind. It is breath that is being counted, not asana per se. If you rush ahead, it means you’re not breathing correctly–bad form; a flag on the play. If you happen to be hovering above the ground before or lagging behind “chatwari,” you wait, or you move with a little more alacrity.

Go ahead, jump! Well, maybe not. Consider: My mat is approximately five inches in front of yours. My face is approximately a foot away from the feet on the mat in front of me. It doesn’t take Google Maps to tell you that if you can’t jump through or jump back without landing on my mat, perhaps today is a good day for you to practice stepping forward. Or do a partial jump to seated. And/or picking up, rolling forward, and placing your feet back. Just stay with the count, and focus. You’ll get more out of it without the guilt you’ll feel when you give someone a bloody nose. (Yes, I have actually seen this happen, and dodged many a size 11 heading for my face.)

Love thy neighbor as thyself. There are a number of poses in the Primary sequence that require self-awareness in a crowded room. No matter what, though, one rule applies: If going fully into the pose will hit, bump, impede, intrude, nudge, knock, kick, slap, or poke your neighbor, or in any way prevent your fellow pratitioner from doing a reasonable version of it, DO NOT GO FULLY INTO THE POSE. Here is a short list, with coping strategies. Problems begin in:

Prasarita padottanasana A, because you are not living in my ideal world where all are wise and all staggered their mats, you must adapt or risk having someone’s hands, or worse, face land in a very intimate place. (It’s always shocking to me when this happens–and it does.) Again, ideally, you know this, and when you step out on the inhale, you adjust your stance so you are not even with the folks on either side of you. If this didn’t happen because there’s some chaos reigning around you—and I can’t stress this enough—DO NOT GO FULLY INTO THE POSE.

Uttita hasta padangustasana. Move to the extreme front or back of your mat, depending on your neighbor. If only a few of those around you have planned for what’s to come, or that one person in your row believes it’s particularly important to pause, roll back the corner of his mat, and stand on the bare floor to one side or the other of the rug, this pose can lead to an awkward pre-asana dance as you look for a place in the sun, which can make it very difficult to practice Rule #1: Stay with the Count. Again, if swinging your leg out for B will mean swinging it out into your fellow mortal, DO NOT GO FULLY INTO THE POSE. Focus on your breath, bandhas and drishti, and don’t make this any harder than it already is.

Janusirsasana A. The appearance of this one may surprise you, but many bodily proportions are on the longshanked side, and if your exuberant jump through into this pose has placed you smack in the middle of your rug, when you bend your knee out nice and wide to that 90-degree+ angle, you will most likely jam it into my hip. The best strategy is to land more to one side of your mat, or simply scoot over so that you remain confined to the fairly reasonable amount of space that is your mat.

Navasana. I’m just saying that while it’s very impressive that you can come to an old-school handstand between each navasana, if it’s not on the count, with your breath, and you’re not coming down quietly and through with a ton of control, it seems a bit show-boaty and, frankly, scares me. I have seen the macho navasana practitioner fall out of handstand onto fellow practitioners more than once, either losing control or slipping. If you think that will never happen to you, that’s exactly what someone would think right before it happens to you.

Kurmasana. In its proper expression, the feet in kurmasana should be about mat’s width apart and the arms not much wider behind you. It its proper expression, it’s possible for everyone in the room to be fully in the pose with proper staggering. If you know that “mat’s width” is not an accurate description of your kurmasana, bend your knees more to bring your legs and arms in and practice your compact turtle. And breath, bandhas, and dristhti.

The bakasna transition. I have been kicked in the face by an eager transitioner, swinging the legs out to the side so she could use momentum rather than bandahs to get them back. Maybe better for you today to practice non-violence and just step into the transition with grace.

Garbha pindasanaHi-larious, watching this happen in a crowded room. If your rolling around takes you all over the map—if your first roll is in Miami and your third one’s in Seattle as you head up to Canada and down to Mexico—just don’t do it. Rock in a straight line. Your mat is the geography you’ve been given for self-discovery. You don’t need to come over and discover me and mine.

Baddhakonasana. See janusirsasana A. Only stagger, like in prasarita.

Don’t even get me started about upavistha konasana A, B, and supta. Some people turn to the side to do these poses. I’m with Nancy Gilgoff and frown on this behavior, simply because it takes too long. It also feels weird. Now you’re facing me. “Hello!” I always want to say. (Nancy, by the way, generally frowns on anything that takes you off of the breath count—including stopping to roll out your rug at a moment that is convenient to you–“Roll it out before you start and leave it there.”) (Dena Kingsberg is enough annoyed by this behavior that she says, “One day, stopping to roll out your rug will be a pose.”) Another alternative is to simply NOT GO FULLY INTO THE POSE. Just go as far as politeness will allow, come down with control, and get over it. And yourself.

Supta pangusthasna B. This is a pose where there is no avoiding intruding—there’s simply no way to position yourself otherwise in a packed room. Where I learned the Primary, this was a moment to practice some neighborly assisting. We’d reach out and hold each other’s heels—I’ve even done this to Tim Miller when he practices led with the class. There’d be a great sense of connection, especially when we switched sides and everyone returns the favor. But that’s not true where I am now, so I simply DO NOT GO FULLY INTO THE POSE.

Which brings us to chakrasana. My goodness, the crazy chakrasanas I’ve seen. Dangerous. The ideal expression of this transition is a single exhale, pushing up as well as back with the hands, remaining on the mat, straight-legged, into chatwari position. If you take multiple breaths, and have to throw yourself bodily five feet behind you to make it, this would be a good time to pause and consider why you’re doing this practice. It’s a transition. Not a pose. Work with some restraint and control, and if you can’t, and may instead endanger others, and you still go for it…well, those are some priorities in need of attention.

Savasana. Yes, savasana. First, if you glance up at the clock and realize you’ll have to leave two minutes into savasana, leave now. Once again, you don’t go fully into the pose if you’ll disturb your fellow mortal. Don’t leave during savasana, is what I’m saying. Practice house rules on orientation and length, and be still.

This concludes our lecture on asana etiquette. One more thing, though:

Sleeping on the job. In savasana, you are, in theory, practicing pratyahara¬—inward turning. It may be, however, that upon turning inward you find yourself so boring you fall asleep. That’s fine, because your snoring is giving me an excuse for my own inability to focus inward. Of course, I’d rather you not be snoring, but there’s only so much I can do about it now, given my own prohibition on poking my neighbor.

Bottom line: Practice the Golden Rule of moderation, and be polite and aware. I’ve been in some amazing led classes where the teacher ran a tight ship, and no matter how crowded the room, all were able to practice in peace and with awareness.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

11 thoughts on “A Led Primary Primer”

  1. I have the impression now, of Ashtanga Led classes be packed with people who who little regard or consideration for those practicing near them. Ack!

  2. So funny! Some of my yoga colleagues in my Australian shala love to have a whole heap of leg OFF the front of their mat too (like, from the knee down) from pachimottanasana onwards – and sometimes an extra mini mat or rug horizontally for their off-mat legs! I wonder if this happens anywhere else in the world?

  3. so so funny, thank you. I love your blog and just discovered that my friend Nat Snooke was on the yatra you describe so beautifully. I was in Mysore some of the same time (Dec/Jan 2012/2013) and often read your blog aloud to my beloved.

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