Virasana and a lesson in patience

If I haven’t mentioned this, I’m tight.

But I’m sure I’ve mentioned it.

Virasana (not me), via

During our August retreat at Mt. Shasta, Tim Miller proscribed — among other things, and as only the latest proscriptions — Virasana to loosen my quads and, I hope, help protect my knees in Lotus and similar poses. I’ve tweaked the tendons in my right knee from “recruiting” flexibility there.

As a result, I have pretty much removed Lotus and even half-Lotus from my practice. (I might sneak into it to assist with Utpluthih.) And I can tell you, it’s a bummer.

In part, it’s a bummer because Lotus was one of the few “ooh, you can do that?” poses I could do. Of course, the pain in my knee proves I couldn’t really do it, but it was a nice stroke of the ego while it lasted.

Tim essentially told me to sit in Virasana as much as possible. I’m trying. (You might not find it a bit challenge, but imagine if, instead of being comfortable, the feeling was somewhere between pain and annoying discomfort.) I’m now sneaking it into my practice before Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana and in lieu of Garba Pindasana. And I just sat in it for a while before stretching out more comfortably in my chair, laptop in my lap.

It’s not fun. And it — perhaps more than all the other obstacles my inflexibility creates — is testing my patience. It tests it while I’m sitting in Virasana. It tests it when I can’t do the poses I used to be able to do. It is, I suppose, the most “in my face” reminder of the long path that lies before me.

David Swenson, in one of this “Thoughts” at his web page, addresses a question about being tight this way:

This yoga seeks balance. It will quickly alert the practitioner to areas of strength and weakness as well as areas of flexibility and tightness. This is normal. Over time the practice will begin to create a balance between strength and flexibility. Be patient and let the practice do its work over a long period of time. If you wish to sit in Virasana to open the hips and knees, that can be effective. Just don’t hurry the process of opening the body and lengthening the muscles because hurrying can translate into injury.

Unknowingly, I clearly was hurrying the process and risking injury. (I think I stayed just this side of it, but what seems like tendonitis persists.) And now, I’m faced with the test of patience that Ashtanga offers us all, in different ways. (Why couldn’t mine have been somewhere in the Second Series?)

Posted by Steve

Calling the Ashtanga police!

Recently friend of The Confluence Countdown and fellow Ashtangi, Suzy, posted an interview David Swenson did on a local television show in Canada. In the interview, David is answering the usual questions of the “How did you first get interested in yoga?” variety: “How long have you been striking poses?” etc. Things are going swimmingly. “The beauty of yoga,” David is saying, “is that all people of all walks of life can do it.” Then he realizes this video of a demo in Italy is playing for the viewing audience:

“It’s dynamic and people like to see those sorts of tricks…oh, o.k., like that,” he says, as he does his floaty transition from kurmasana to titibasana to handstanding, “Sometimes people get freaked out by seeing that.”

I was thinking about this interview (posted on our Facebook page, so “like” us if you’d like to see it) in relation to Steve’s last post. Any Ashtangi who has watched a David Swenson demonstration knows that it’s not exactly the practice most narrowly defined. There’s a lot of showmanship involved. And tinkering, here and there, with the conventions of the sequence. Sometimes there’s more than just tinkering.

So where are the Ashtanga police? Where, as Steve wonders, is the line? Here’s my two cents.

Although I haven’t been teaching yoga for very long, I have been teaching writing for a long time. Usually, when people I don’t know find out that I teach writing, the first thing they talk to me about is grammar, something like, “Oh, I better watch what I say.” The next most popular response is a story about their horrible high school English teacher. Again, usually involving grammar.

Now, here’s the thing. Writing is not about the rules of grammar. It’s about getting your point across to your reader. If you have to break the rules of grammar to do that, you’re still writing. And you’re doing it well.

But if you’re being effective, that usually means you have a good sense of how to bend the rules, something that comes from experience. Lots of it. Lots of writing practice. Practice, practice, practice. Is this beginning to sound familiar?

So when the Senior Western Students adapt, add, or change the practice, I can see why. I understand the point of it, organically, and it doesn’t seem wrong, unless I apply a dogmatic point of view.

Can I do it? No. I don’t have the chops. David can. He smiles and seems embarrassed by his own abilities, and quickly explains to a stunned local TV personality, Ashtanga is “focused on the breath and the movement…even the most basic movements you focus on your breath…it unites an internal and external aspect of our world.” It brings calmness in even the most “dramatic situations.” Which seems to be what David is really demonstrating in those show-stoppers that make their way around YouTube: through it all, he’s calm, humble, and focused. Move along, Ashtanga police.

Posted by Bobbie


“You come!”: Newbies at the Confluence?

Last night, as I was chatting with my students after a great class, one of them asked this question:

The author with Tim, not too cool for school.

“Would it be o.k. to come to the Confluence even if you’re a new student?”

I pulled up a bench and told a little story. Back in 2005, I was a brand new, shiny Ashtanga student. I had strong feelings of loyalty to the practice, but was still very uncertain of my ability to “do” it. I was still at what I call the self-denegrating laughter stage: When my teacher would say, “Jump your feet to either side of your hands,” I would sort of snork. As if, I would think.

So when the Ashtanga world was abuzz with excited word that Guruji was coming to Los Angeles, I was all, “Gu-who-ji?” In spite of multiple offers of rides and places to stay (I lived in Orange County at the time), I didn’t go.

You can imagine how I feel about that now. When my student asked that question, I could see the same look I must’ve had on my face back in 2005. I was intimidated by students I thought were “more deserving”–you know the ones I mean, the ones that send off that air of privilege that can make Ashtanga feel like a private club. I was more scared of looking stupid than I was of actually learning. From the master!

So should you come if you’re new? YES! Especially if you’re new! My shala in Los Angeles is new, and it’s a total joy to see new people walk in the door and experience Ashtanga for the first time, to see Jörgen explaining a suryanamaskar–something that seemed an impossible task for me when I started–and to see that clean, shining look of..well, shock at the end of class. Something learned. Imagine. To be brand new, learning from Eddie Stern, David Swenson, Nancy Gilgoff, and my own guru. From Tim Miller. Yes, in my best Guruji voice, “You come!”

Posted by Bobbie

More on injuries, from someone not too injured

I’d like to add a tad more to Bobbie’s post on injuries below. She’s — unfortunately, fortunately, however you might look at it — much more familiar with practicing while injured than I am.

That said, thanks to my tight quads, I’ve built up a pretty respectable case of tendinitis in my right knee, which is rendering any significant flexion of that knee pretty painful. Out are lotuses and even Janushirasana B.

I’m working on it. And Tim Miller gave me some things to do to try to loosen up those stubborn quads.

David Swenson has this to say in response to someone asking about practicing with a bulging disc and related back problems:

I think that Ashtanga is so special because it is whatever we want it to be. We can make it difficult and dynamic or soft and easy. We can make it into an external display of prowess and physical strength or an internal journey of self-awareness. There are also myriad possibilities between those diverse perspectives. When Pattabhi Jois says “Yoga is not easy” I think this is what he is speaking of. I really do not think he is referring to getting into postures but rather to the internal struggles that manifest within us. These challenging mental and emotional battles many times are triggered from our physical challenges. When we are confronted with bodily pain it is not only that we feel the sensation and discomfort in our body but it is the resultant inability to do what we once could where the deeper pain and frustration resides.

That pretty well sums up my experience with the practice, which — physically at least — comes from a place where finding the full expression of the poses is never easy. And it provides some food for thought when reaching the edge, beyond which lies injury and dis-integrating pain.

Posted by Steve

Judging an Ashtanga teacher by the website

Over to the right, you’ll find two lists of websites. One relates directly to the Confluence — the five teachers’ sites, the Confluence home page, the Mysore site and an intro to Ashtanga — and the other is a list of some blogs and sites of note, which we’ll keep adding to as we find new interesting ones. (That’s to help with our goal of being a resource for you — we hope you can come here and get a regular fix of Ashtanga news and information.)

The five Pandavas, with Krishna

It’s worth taking a little bit of time to look at the five teachers’ sites, especially the teachers you may be less familiar with from the … I’m tempted to make a Pandava reference, but I don’t think it quite works.

Obviously, there are storehouses of information at each one. But for the moment, I am going to talk just about a quick glance, a look, if you will, at the “covers” of each.

What I find from the quick look is the following, which in some ways reinforces my impressions of them and in others tears away those preconceived notions:

  • Richard Freeman’s site suggests to me his combination of influences and his joint interest in the practice and the philosophy. There’s also a certain serenity to it (via the bamboo) that corresponds to the way I expect him to be in person.
  • Nancy Gilgoff’s seems more like it is the site of one of the first people to trek into the (then) unknown of India and find Guruji. It is less slick than Freeman’s, and it seems to emphasize her less. It also seems a bit withdrawn, or maybe just that it doesn’t quite invite you in as quickly. I take that to reflect the on-the-edge of America quality to her moving to Maui all those years ago.
  • Tim Miller’s site, of course, is one I’m most familiar with of these teachers. It seems to me to emphasize the lineage to Guruji quite a bit while also being straight-forward — after all, this is his lively and his living: his shala. When he is traveling for weekend workshops, Tim is at his shala — in the tradition of Guruji — and I think his site lays out for you how to come, how to practice, how to get on the mat at the shala. It reflects that he is there, teaching.
  • Eddie Stern’s site, from what I’ve gathered about his shala, picks up the vibe and community that’s there. There aren’t any signs pointing AYNY out; you have to know and want to come. It also stresses the teaching line of Guruji in a very plain and traditional (since that’s the reputation Stern has) way. (A deeper dive, which I’m trying not to do here, on purpose, lets you into Stern’s writings and intellectual interests; but, again, there aren’t any flashing lights leading you that way.) I’m going to be very curious to see what Stern’s “presence” is like.
  • David Swenson’s site is the one that gave me the idea to just quickly glance at each and see what the impression was. His suggests he is everywhere, moving about, spreading the word of Ashtanga yoga. It’s the most market-driven site, fitting his role. It also clearly isn’t tied to a shala, as the other four are. It certainly stands out among them — and I have to imagine that the “Ashtanga Yoga Productions” branding rubs some people the wrong way. But I think he has an important role to play in bringing Ashtanga to the masses.

Those are my quick thoughts, without bringing any real value judgments to the table. Is there one I like the most, one I like the least? Of course. But right now, I’m just interested in how they may, or may not, reflect the teacher behind them — on a purely first-glance, judge the book by the cover, impression.

Do you come away with a different sense of any of the sites or teachers? Are there places I’m off the mark? Do they seem like good reflections of each teacher?

Posted by Steve

David’s Psyched!

A confluence

David Swenson just nailed the best thing about the Confluence in his new websitecpost:

“There will be differences and similarities between how we present the system we all so love,” he writes. “This will be the beauty of the event. It is a flowing together.”
Apropos of Steve’s last entry, that will be the best part for me: Seeing these great teachers converse with each other, listening to them compare notes, finding the common ground. And there will also be a “confluence” of students–Richard’s students will be practicing next to David’s next to Eddie’s next to Nancy’s next to Tim’s. Some of us have spent a great deal of time with one teacher; some have dabbled in workshops with the others. We’ll get to see the greatness of the teaching.
During his teacher trainings, Tim was often asked about this or that detail from David’s book, or something Nancy or Richard might have said. Tim always treats these differences with respect and humor, never really disagreeing with the teachings of his “esteemed colleagues,” as he called them. Check out David’s post. You can hear the love and respect.

New to Swenson?

David Swenson

David Swenson, the wandering yogi. If you’ll be meeting David Swenson for the first time at the Confluence, then perhaps a short summary of his role as a senior Western student is in order. His DVDs, particularly the First Series DVD, are the mainstay of home practitioners and new learners. Swenson is famous for breaking down the practice with his affable, approachable style, removing a lot of the intimidation factor. This is true even though his demonstrations of poses are jaw-droppingly awesome. Somehow, he manages to radiate humility, make you feel like the impossible is possible. His practice manual has the same tone, sturdy and spiral-bound for ease of use. Forget where a drishti is? You can look it up in the manual. Can’t get your feet behind your head? Here’s what you do until you can.

But it’s the workshops that make him the Johnny Appleseed of Ashtanga. David travels the world, giving Ashtanga to all walks of life. In the workshop I took with him, he was asked about “personal space” in the practice room. For an answer, he described demonstrating at a workshop in Japan. His students were crowded together to watch, with their toes practically touching the edge of his mat (count your spacial blessings was the subtext). He brings his travels to each workshop. Google for videos of David Swenson, and you’ll see a wide range of faces in the background of videos shot all over the world.
You may not know, however, that he has a website that answers a lot of the nagging questions of practice, like Ashtanga and agedrinking (as in booze, not water, which is a different question), and my personal favorite, Where Does the Spirit Live?. You can’t get a bigger Q for your Q & A than that.