Mala report: Nancy Gilgoff-style Sun Salutes are hard

So… how’d your yoga mala go today? (Feel free to comment below.)


While we normally eschew “practice reports” — how what I felt or experienced relates to you is beyond me, unless I really think something more “universal” transpired — I think a few things did occur this morning that might be worth your time.

So let’s get to it:

  • I mentioned in my build-up to the mala post that when Bobbie and I last did our one, on New Year’s Day in India, I experienced the greatest sense of prana — flowing and moving through the body — ever. Although not quite a repeat, this morning’s practice felt extremely energetic. The body tingles, the sweat pours (I was on my 17th Sun Salute when it started, to give you a sense of the cold room I was in), the muscles at times rebel and at others are willing partners. I assume a good deal of this has to do with the extreme vinyasa nature of the practice: lots of breath, lots of movement, and thus lots of movement. My less rational side can see where being able to harness that energy in a controlled way could lead to “feats” like melting snow, staying awake, etc.
  • In some ways, the mala practice is like Ashtanga on steroids. What I mean is that one of the distinguishing characteristics of Ashtanga is the set routine; knowing what’s coming is one reason, I’ve found, that I can focus more inwardly than in other styles of yoga. I wouldn’t call it zoning out; I’d call it zoning in. (A nod, I suppose, to Tim Miller’s “Working In” workshops.) Just repeating Sun Salutes heightens this; I also find that you immediately realize when your mind is wandering (outward). How? You forget what number you’re on. Which stinks.
  • I’ve done malas now both solo, like today, with Bobbie (quite a few times), in a group that just powered on through it and then in what’s perhaps its most “traditional” form: Setting clear intentions, up to and including something being said before each Sun Salute. (Diana Christinson did one this way in honor of Guruji after he passed.) Each has its own particular strengths and, I suppose, weaknesses, although I can’t say I really think about them. The “full version” really can be a moving experience.
  • But you’re really waiting for me to justify the headline. OK, here goes. I broke — I think in the traditional manner — my mala into four sets of 27 Sun Salutes (the first five included the five breath down dog that begins the Ashtanga practice). The second set I did in the style/form that Nancy taught in her “How I was taught” workshop. Most critically, that means hands on the floor during the forward fold, even if that means bending your knees to do so. Given my lack of flexibility, that means bending my knees. And as a result, two things: 1. my quads got the extra workout of, essentially, mini-Utkatasanas; 2. because I wasn’t extending out as much as if I were bringing my hands to my calves (as I do), I had a lot less open space to breath. And so those 27 Sun Salutes were hard. I’m interested to see if there’s physical after-effects tomorrow. (So far, I’m not too sore.) At the same time, there was a notable sense of being “grounded,” one of those words I hear all the time in yoga circles and don’t really “get.” I get it more now. (And, no, this isn’t my most “universalized” moment of yoga reflection.)

A more succinct way of saying all that is: I’m a big advocate of this four-times-or-so-a-year practice. If you haven’t ever done one, give it a try come the Summer Solstice.

Posted by Steve

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

Sweating Ashtanga’s Small Stuff

The other day in a crowded Mysore room at Jorgen’s, Steve on my right, a new guy sidled in to my left. I am cool with that. I don’t mind stopping and making room—in fact, it’s on my Mysore cheat sheet.

What I did mind was his suryanamaskaras. I’m making my way through the standing sequence, and out come his arms in front of me as he got in touch with his inner pelican. “Sorry,” he says, as he bops me in virbhadrasana B.

“Arms straight in front of you, keep them straight, set the hands down and don’t move them,” says Nancy Gilgoff. “Better for the badhas, and it’s the way Guruji taught it. It was Richard Freeman that started taking the arms wide.”

She says that like it’s a bad thing. Nancy also tells the story of Guruji coming to Maui, and stating very clearly that parvritta parsvokonasana was a “crazy pose” and to stop doing it. But the students loved it, so it stayed.

This seeming contradiction got me thinking. The gentleman next to me dogmatically winging out his arms should’ve chosen that day to go straight ahead and respect the space of his fellow mortals. But when there’s room, is there good reason to go wide? How much should I be worried about this, and when should I be flexible about it (pun intended)?

I’ve heard from other teachers that it’s “bad for the shoulders” to go wide (Nancy included). But when Richard teaches this move, it’s the first backbend of the series. But only if you do it correctly. I’ve got a rotator cuff tear, so I know immediately if I’m doing it wrong—it hurts.

I think I’m more of a cormorant than a pelican. Via (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

It was Russ Pfeiffer who really brought this home for me. The move needs to be initiated from the bigger muscles—the laterals—so you’re pushing the arms up from below, rather than lifting them from above. It works a totally different set of back muscles, and instigates a dropping of the shoulder blades. This is Richard’s ekam—a backbend in the top of the spine as the tailbone slides down. Russ taught me to keep these muscles engaged all the way through the suryanamaskar. Richard teaches this as well, advising maintaining a slight bend in the elbows in adho mukha svanasana.

But there are days when I need to find the bandhas fast, days when I’m tired, or even days when I’m thrumming with so much energy that I take those arms straight out, keep them straight, and connect with the ground. Or, there are days when the room’s packed; I might slap the woman next to me if I went wide. Or Steve, who would shoot me a dirty look.

What I garnered out of this little meditation is, once again, an appreciation of the keen relationship focus and awareness have with the practice. And with teaching: I teach my Ashtanga students both ways, and the reasons for the choice—small stuff, but with big lineage.

Posted by Bobbie

Another write-up of a Nancy Gilgoff workshop to check out

Last week we highlighted a blog post about a week’s worth of Nancy Gilgoff workshops. Another has popped up, right here. A few highlights:

One of the things that stood out in the class was the emphasis on breathing and how yoga is therapy in its ability to heal. She quoted Sri K Pattabhi Jois as saying that yoga can heal anything except bad practice


To go back to Nancy, she gave us so many wonderful and insightful tips:

  • The hardest thing is getting to the front of the mat. Put your mat out in yoru special practice space where you can see it as a motivation to start.
  • Put your mat out and start with everything you need for your practice. Don’t take off clothing layers – you need to retain the heat your build in your practice. Don’t fidget tidy hair etc. Start the practice as you are and end it as you are.
  • Do the practice- don’t worry about whether you are doing it correctly from an external point of view. Feel the asanas and surrender to them always working from the inside out.
  • Breathe through the practice – use the breath to fill the spaces you create during your practice.
  • Balance your practice with pranayama and meditation – they have profound calming and healing effects on the body.

As we noted a week ago, Nancy is sort of the most “virtually elusive” of the Confluence teachers. That’s a stupid way of saying there is less online about her. So to get two great posts within a week is a nice little gift.

Posted by Steve

A must-read rundown of an adjustment clinic with Nancy Gilgoff

Of the now six Confluence teachers, Nancy Gilgoff remains the one least online. Dena Kingsberg may give her a run for her offline money, but Nancy just doesn’t pop up nearly as often as David Swenson, Richard Freeman and the rest.

So that makes this blog post we just came across — from Prague, no less — pretty valuable. It goes into real detail about taking one of Nancy’s adjustment clinics.


The blog is “Traditional Ashtanga Yoga in Prague,” a title we can get behind. Here’s the link, and a little taste to get you to go check out the whole thing:

Nancy is loving. She does not seem upset about incorrect method. She is smiling and being patient. She was very busy with adjustment. She does not correct students by voice as she does not want to interrupt student`s practice, mind, she want them to focus on their own practice. By the time, I was quite happy, that I did not practice, as it was different experience for me and believe me, I have learnt a lot from only observing. My body was like in fire, still did not feel well and I know that I needed rest. But you know me and you know how I love Ashtanga, I can be easy lost in my practice. It is great experience, to listen to my body. I already have nice discipline, I call it my morning rituals, and in this stage, you need to know, when your body needs rest.


Some words about Pranayama. Nancy does not teach pranayama in regular basics, she said you when you learn all second series, you start learning pranayama from her. It is important to learn as it quieted the ego. You must learn
pranayama from experienced teacher, only. Nancy has told us couple of stories of her also.
Pattabhi Jois used to say: “Asana is the fastest way to become healthy.” When you become older, you do less and less asana and you start doing more meditation. In asana practice, movement follows the breath, not opposite. Our breath control the mind. Nancy said: “be careful what teacher you choose, because you can only end up like them. If you don’t like something … hmm … you will get it. If your teacher is greedy … Laugh …

There is a lot of detail, which is terrific. It all seems very familiar from the Confluence and then what I heard from Bobbie from her own adjustment clinic with Nancy back in March.

This type of write-up gets me all enthusiastic for the Confluence, which is still so far off. Patience?

Posted by Steve

Where are the Confluence teachers headed?

At the end of a relatively quiet Memorial Day weekend, I’m taking a look ahead to see where the Confluence teachers — Dena Kingsberg included now — are headed for workshops in the coming weeks and months. This is through the end of August.

Maybe one is near you? Much of the info via (but I’ve done the work so you don’t have to!):

David Swenson

Brugge, Belgium — May 26 to June 1

Copenhagen — June 2 to 10

Sag Harbor, NY — July 6 to 8

San Diego, CA — July 12 to 16

Victoria, Canada — July 20 to 29

Dena Kingsberg

Byron Bay, Australia — May 13 to June 8 (on now!)

San Vicente National Park, Portugal — June 23 to 29

Hamburg, Germany — July 1 to 6

London — July 8 to 13

Berlin — July 28 to August 2

Stockholm, Sweden — August 4 to 10

Eddie Stern

Salento, Italy — June 23 to 30

Nancy Gilgoff

Antwerp, Belgium — May 27 to 30

Barcelona — June 2 and 3

Lisbon, Portugal — June 7 to 11

Vienna, Austria — June 16 to 20

Cambridge, England — June 23 and 24

London — June 26 to 28

Wiltshire, England — June 29 to July 1

Shobac, Nova Scotia — July 7 to 13

Halifax, Nova Scotia — July 14 and 15

Bristol, Vermont — July 19 to 23

Richard Freeman

Phonenicia, New York — July 2 to 8

London — August 31 to September 2

He continues in Europe in September.

Tim Miller

Spokane, Washington — June 1 to 3

Carlsbad, California — June 16 to 29

Copenhagen, Denmark — July 10 to 12 and July 13 to 15

Mt. Shasta, California — July 28 to August 4 and August 4 to 11

Carlsbad, California — August 18 to 31

Posted by Steve

The Myth of Advancing

I’ve got my lantern lit. From Blake: Los Entering the Grave

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks for me, so shout out to Steve for not making me feel bad about not posting. I’ve been revising the writing class I supervise, preparing new materials, and, of course, doing that teaching thing itself. My writing students have been coming in for conferences; they’ve been deep in mid-terms, and they’re tired.

So am I.

The seeds planted by the Confluence have started to sprout this Spring. Nancy Gilgoff has changed the way I practice. Rolfer Russ Pfeiffer (a former student of Richard Freeman and Tim Miller) has changed the way I breathe. Richard Freeman has changed the way I backbend. My asana practice has. . .evolved.

Asana. The Confluence Countdown household has found itself wrestling with the value of asana. Steve has turned to reading the Upanishads. I’ve been reading the Rig Veda, and Richard Freeman’s book, The Mirror of Yoga. where, very early on, he says this:

Typically when we look at the body we see it through those same filters and theories [of experience]. We may see it as a bag of skin filled with bones and blood, or as a continuum of suffocating, painful frustration used to validate all of the miserable opinions we have of others and ourselves. […] Through our consistent yoga practice, all of the different notions we may concoct about what the body is and who we are eventually arise as objects for our meditation.

And what is his conclusion about what the body is? “An open matrix of awareness through which theories, thoughts, and sensations come and go.” “Through the body,” he says, “we learn to understand the universe.”

Today, I’ll be going down to Tim’s to take his Intro to Second class. The truth of the matter is I often see my body as “a continuum of suffocating, painful frustration,” so the question arises, Why am I trying to “advance” when the real practice, clearly, is not in the asana?

Nancy Gilgoff said at one point in her adjustment workshop that she thought the epidemic of knee and back pain in Ashtanga was caused by people being kept in the Primary Series too long. I’ve been practicing First for over a decade now. (To be fair, I was three years into the practice before I tried a real backbend–that is to say, something more than bridge–and another year before I could actually push all the way up.) In light of what Richard is saying, and all that I’ve learned, what does it mean to “advance”?

Last summer, in Mt. Shasta, I was expressing something like these concerns to my friend Suzi, who said to me, “Well, then. That is your practice.”

So, this post is partly to remind me why I’m going down today to see Tim, to see through my body. Once again, I find myself thinking of William Blake.

To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & and a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all Ridicule and Deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.

Wish me luck.

Posted by Bobbie