On Being Freed in Ashtanga

I’ve written elsewhere on the politics of holding Ashtanga students at certain postures until they “master” them. In the years since I wrote that piece, I’ve been approached by a lot of students frustrated in their practice, with their teachers, with themselves, or all of the above.

There’s a whole teacher/student power dynamic out there that I don’t agree with—as a teacher myself, I try to be as transparent as possible with my students, and let them see the benefits and reasoning behind my teaching. I’m not saying that opaque teaching is a deliberate practice in Ashtanga; more often than not, I think it’s more like neglect that happens when a teacher has too many students. But whatever the cause, the result is the same for the student: The pose they’re “stopped” at gets fetishized, that pose is nearly personified as a thing to fear and hate, and the rest of the series is closed to them. The concept of the yoga mala is lost, a series of just-poses strung on the breath for a reason, as if you cannot achieve the full benefit of the practice if you cannot “do” a pose to its fullest extent. The individuality of the student’s intimate relationship with the practice is lost as well.

These conversations with my fellow Ashtanga students (and Ashtanga teachers) remind me how lucky I am to have Tim Miller as a teacher. Because Tim allowed me to practice Second Series, he freed me from chronic pain and brought mental and physical balance back to my life.

Tim Miller and Bobbie
Tim Miller and Bobbie. Photo by Michelle Haymoz.

That miracle continues. I didn’t start Ashtanga when I was young. I’m not athletic. I wasn’t even physically healthy. And past traumas in my life made me jumpy, unfocused, suspicious, and intensely private. I saw my future in the bent, broken, sick, and profoundly unhappy women in my family. It was Ashtanga that gave me a way out, allowed me to learn enough trust and find enough openness to accept myself, and to love Steve, my fellow blogger and emotional savior.

Why are you telling me this, Bobbie? you’re asking. Once again, I’d like to make a plea to the teachers out there to reconsider the student in front of them, to think about the reasons why you’re not teaching the series, whatever it is, and to set them free.

Ashtanga is an esoteric form. If you’re reading this blog, and got this far in this post, you know this. You understand just how esoteric it is every time you have to explain what you do to someone who has only a gym- or media-level understanding of yoga. Probably you don’t try. While that can make Ashtanga seem very clubby and cliquey, I feel like it has a very different effect. It makes it feel more like a form of private meditation, something that really doesn’t need to be described.

The announcement that Tim was going to be offering a Third Series Teacher Training came at the precise moment when I’d reached a sort of fat-and-happy meditative moment in the practice. His Second Series training came with all sorts of meta-physical benefits I hadn’t foreseen, a kind of mental house cleaning that I eventually saw as the real reason for Second Series, a house-cleaning that was made possible by being liberated from pain. That simply would not have happened had Tim seen my kapotasana as something I couldn’t do, as other teachers had done, instead of seeing it as something I could get benefit from as part of a larger practice.

So I was happy. I had a First and Second Series home practice. But I started to notice more of the symptoms of the joint degeneration I’d been living with for nearly two decades. My elbows and hips began to occasionally give out. Arthritis has crept into my hands and feet. I began to sense the need for something more, something stable and strengthening. And then. . .Tim Miller announces a Third Series Teacher Training. Ah well. So much for fat-and-happy.

Maria's good humor shining through. Via rateyourburn.com
Maria’s good humor shining through. Via rateyourburn.com

Back when my practice consisted—for years and years—of First and Second up to kapotasana, I approached Tim for help. I don’t have a regular teacher. I’m in pain. He welcomed me to his Second Series Teacher Training with love and good humor: “You come,” he said. And it was Maria Zavala, his student, who got me ready so I could get the most out of that two weeks in Encinitas with Tim. The entire endeavor was, basically, so Maria could pass along to me everything she’d learned about Second from Tim so I could understand what Tim was teaching—to remove the prestige and make it real, tangible. It was Maria who absorbed all the silly questions, Maria who brushed aside all the “this is impossible” moments, all the complaining: Maria, and through her, Tim. So here we are again. I’ve been accepted into Tim’s Third Series training, and Maria is once again getting me ready.

Maria has spent the last few months patiently leading me through the asana jungle that is Third (jangali kayamane), removing the mystery (again), shining light where there is darkness. Man, I can tell you I never thought I’d be looing in there, in that particular dark place, Third. But Maria’s energy and curiosity, her enthusiasm and good humor, have kept me going until I can see Third as a Series. Of poses. With very real benefits. So much of it seems so gleefully impossible. Years ago I wrote that Tim Miller’s great strength as a guru is that he shows you a way through the Impossible to the Possible. He never assumes he only knows what you can’t do; instead, he works with what you can do, and he looks for a route so you get to the heart of the pose, extract the maximum benefit. Maria has learned this from him: This is the way she was taught. This is the way she is teaching.

And this is what we discussed yesterday, as I fell into a puddle of sweat and laughter, after failing utterly to do a pose. It’s good, she says, to not to be able to do something, again. To be free to fail, so you can continue to improve. It’s a familiar feeling, familiar from the long journey from the first time you ever tried to do five surya namasaskara A followed by five surya namasara B. “Holy crap,” I remember thinking, “Are we done yet?”—No, as it turns out: You’ve just begun. And you will begin again, many times.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

5 thoughts on “On Being Freed in Ashtanga”

  1. Well, I am a total yoga newbie..but this one sentence “It’s good to not to be able to do something, again. ” spoke to me. Sometimes we create a life of predictability and ease so as to feel safe. But as you explain..there is great freedom to be found beyond those security gates as we succeed and fail our way to a deeper more meaningful life. ✨

  2. This is where it’s at. Too any times it’s about the asana, the “posture” but not about the yoga. You may be able to “do” way less as you age, but the yoga is much deeper than legs behind your head. I went to a confluence once but didi’t return because the emphasis was on doing asana. Some of the worst yogis’ could bend and “do everything” but it didn’t sink into their behavior. They were rude, arrogant, and just plain nasty. The teachers were much more knowledgeable, kind and aware because they were aging. Yoga isn’t asana and I feel as westerners we forget or don’t know that. I no longer can “do” what I did years ago, but the depth is amazing.

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