“Someday You Teach”

This week, one of the editors of The Confluence Countdown—namely me, Bobbie—has found herself in a Primary Series Adjustment Clinic run by Nancy Gilgoff. Our friend Jodi Blumstein, in yet another amazing get, is hosting at her shala.

I didn’t meet Nancy officially at The Confluence (although she dropped me back in one practice), so I’ve been looking forward to it. The group is small (only 20), and I realize, as a new teacher, I have a lot to learn. Hands on stuff is very important, you know. But it’s already been a lot more than that, and I’m just on Day One (of Five).

Readers of The Countdown know that I also teach writing, and that I mentor new writing teachers. One of the things that I encourage new teachers to do is to develop a teaching persona, a personality to use as a way to reach students, which can be tough with something as personal as writing. I encourage them to stay true to themselves, but to select qualities they found inspiring in the best teachers they had themselves. This sort of thing is really only done half-consciously, but you have to bring it to the fore to let it inspire your teaching.

So I actually teared up a little when Nancy began this morning by correcting an often-quoted line from Guruji, “Practice and all is coming.” Nancy:

What he actually said was, ‘You practice. Someday you teach, and all is coming.’ In order to connect the practice with the higher self, you need to share it.

Then, she asked us to reflect for a moment on the qualities we most valued in the teachers we’ve had, and what qualities we’ve liked the least. Before we began to talk about teaching, we thought about how we like to be taught.

The journey that has me sitting listening to Nancy Gilgoff talk about the teaching of yoga has been a long one. When I started Ashtanga, reaching my hands over my head was searingly painful. Forward folds hurt so much I used to have nightmares about them. The very idea that I would be thinking, over a decade later, about how I should teach—what kind of a teacher I’d like to be—is so remarkable to me I’m in a kind of shock. But I’m very grateful that teaching itself is familiar enough to me that I can recognized the value in observing a master work.

The value is not just in improving my own teaching, but in understanding my own practice, and through that understanding, to become a better teacher.

More to come.

Posted by Bobbie

Followed Nancy Gilgoff’s advice, and here’s what I discovered

One of the eye-opening ideas to come to both Bobbie and me at the Confluence was courtesy of Nancy Gilgoff.

Guruji’s Ashtanga yoga is a daily practice, she said. In this, the ever-so practical David Swenson offered what I thought was the lone — the lone — disagreement of the entire weekend. He basically said something is better than nothing. Commit to three days, he suggested.

But, really, this disagreement wasn’t even a full disagreement. Because Nancy didn’t say you had to do a full practice every day. But you do have to practice. (Sort of the middle ground between their points, if you planted them firmly.) Just do three sun salutes and the closing sequence, she said. (This, of course, is a bit of a trap. As we all know, once you get through those first few As, often you just keep going.)

Well, tonight, with the Confluence and a morning at Tim’s behind me (more on that, likely later today), I thought that discretion might prove the better part of valor. I came home intending to follow Nancy’s advice.

And wow.

I’ve done “short practices” before — and as I’m thinking about it, perhaps I’ll look into David’s from his book, as I haven’t really done so, although I think my usual “shorties” are based on what I’ve heard him say — and often find that they allow for more intensity. After all, you know you aren’t going to be doing everything.

This, though, was different. It wasn’t because it was incredibly intense. It was… both compact and expansive. My breathing felt far more rolling and filling — air seemed to touch all parts of my lungs. (I know, yuck, huh?) And I worked up a sweat quickly, internally. It was as if the tapas were just waiting for the excuse. And my concentration was focused.

I feel, sitting here after (probably not smartly in front of a computer) like I’ve practiced; what I accomplished was three As and three Bs and the three closing asanas. I think sometimes, in the past, my “short” practices — typically half primary or some mix of the standing and seated postures — have felt short. This one didn’t.

Now, is that because just doing the Suryanamaskaras and the finishing is somehow magical? I don’t think so. I’m sure it is partly Confluence Hangover, but also it is not just that. It was perhaps knowing that this was part of the committed, daily practice — one my body and my lifestyle can manage.

I very much appreciate David’s perspective given the realities of life, but it took me 15 minutes. What’s my excuse not to practice daily? I’m sure David would say: “None.”

Posted by Steve

Countdown time: Reintroduction to Nancy Gilgoff

We are just days away from the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, and next up in our reintroduction lineup is Nancy Gilgoff. (This is the first of two we had.) This one is a little different. We asked friend Pranidhi Varshney a few questions after she spent a week at Nancy’s House of Zen and Yoga studying with Nancy and Manju Jois.

Since we posted this in late November, I believe Pranidhi has started teaching yoga. And she’s singing kirtan and lots of other things that you can learn at her website: pranidhivarshney.com.

***

1. First off, how did Nancy’s shala compare to others you have been to?

There’s some serious shakti in the House of Yoga and Zen.  The place has been around for many years and some of our most treasured ashtangis have practiced and taught there.  There are pictures on the walls of Guruji, Manju, Nancy, and others in action, doing what we’re all so grateful for- passing this practice on.  One of the fellow trainees this time around was jokingly saying that she doesn’t think the carpets have ever been changed!  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that were true, and I’m glad for it.  There’s something raw, grounded, powerful, and spiritual about practicing where so many have practiced before.

2. How would you describe Nancy and Manju’s teaching styles? Are there other teachers you’ve studied with that you can compare them to?

Pranidhi, from her website

Well, Manju was one of my first Ashtanga teachers and I’ve been totally spoiled because of that.  The bar was set high for me from the beginning.  He’s easy-going, funny, non-dogmatic about the practice, and he has magic hands.  The energy that passes through his hands while he adjusts is a healing warmth.  And he’s strong!  I overheard Nancy saying that in the old days, Manju was often able to take her into postures that she wasn’t able to get into on her own.  Nancy also has a great touch and is a really humble, down-to-earth person.  One can tell she has a deep knowledge of the practice and she cares about passing it on correctly, but there was no sense of “my way is the right way,” which I think sometimes there is with ashtanga teachers. Actually, that was one of the best things about the whole week.  Both Nancy and Manju are from the old school.  No dogma, no militaristic rules, just practice- taught the way it was taught by Guruji back in the day.  There’s something authentic and special about that.

3. What was a highlight of the week on Maui?
All the stories!  Having both Manju and Nancy there was such a treat. David Williams also joined us for Manju’s birthday celebration and for a couple of morning mysore practices.  Talk about a confluence of energy.  We heard stories about how pranayama saved Manju’s life, how he tried to escape doing baddha konasana in his youth, how Ramesh, Manju’s brother, is responsible for everyone using a spray bottle for garbha pidasana, and many more.  It was also really cool to hear Nancy ask Manju about alignment points for different postures and listen in on them talking about how things have changed over the years.  It was a great reminder that one way is not the only way.  If these senior teachers are still open and humble enough to learn from each other, we need to make the effort to remain that way as well.  Also, for me personally, it was a delight to meet and spend time with the newest teacher-in-training, Sathu, Manju’s daughter.  She has ashtanga in her blood and she’s already quite a good adjuster, as many people in the training can attest to.

4. Do you feel like anything about your practice in particular evolved or changed? How so?

Absolutely.  Every time I practice with Manju, I feel like my heart and body are blasted open, and time takes on a different quality. Manju talked this time about flow- how teachers cannot force students into postures.  Rather, that they must enable them to tap into the flow.  The flow of the breath, the practice, the energy.  My practice flows when I’m with Manju and for that I’m forever grateful.  And practicing in Maui is a dream in and of itself.  The climate is so good for the body and spirit.  I’d recommend a trip to the House of Yoga and Zen for any ashtangi.

5. For people who might be encountering Nancy for the first time at the Confluence in March, how would you tell them to get the most from here in the relatively short time?

I’d say listen.  Nancy seems to me to have a quiet power.  I was really struck by her humility.  If there’s one thing people should pay attention to, I’d say it’d be that.  It’s so easy for us in LA, in America, in the ashtanga world in general, to feel somewhat inflated by our practice.  Nancy reminded me that we’re all just people, using the gift of yoga as a tool to make our lives better.  I’d also say be grateful.  What a privilege to be able to practice and study with someone so close to the source.  For us female ashtangis especially, Nancy’s an inspiration.

***

Everyone get that? “Listen.” And in just a few days.

Posted by Steve

A post full of love for the Confluence teachers

With our official Confluence Countdown Countdowner now at nine days, it’s fair to be getting excited about the soon-to-be-here Ashtanga Yoga Confluence.

It might be that some of you will be leaving home in just a week, if you’re taking an extra day to drive to San Diego.

It’s close, in other words.

In order to help build our enthusiasm — does it need it? — we’d direct your attention to the latest blog post by the trio at Yoga on High. You might remember that shala. It’s the one that answers the question: An Ashtangi place to be: Columbus, Ohio?

It’s a Sanskrit list of why one of the teachers, Martha Marcom, loves doing Ashtanga — over and over. We obviously approve of the Sanskrit. But of especial interest is No. Sapta:

I love and deeply admire the teachers of this system who have been practicing for decades—and I want what they have! Of the teachers I have studied with who will be at the Ashtanga Confluence in March:

I love Tim Miller’s huge grounded presence, his intimacy with the sacred texts, his connection with the movements of the heavens, and especially, his humor.
I love David Swenson’s joyfulness and kindness, his lightness of being, how he makes our practice so user-friendly and the fun and humor he finds in almost everything.
I love Richard Freeman’s immense mind and philosophical understanding, his generous sharing of the subtle aspects of the practice and his dry wit and humor.

Our teachers are filled with the good humor, dedication and wisdom that Guruji transmitted!

Though I’ve not yet studied with Eddie Stern, I love that he published Yoga Mala, and that I was fortunate to be at the Broome St. Shala with Guruji during one of the pujas that transformed his shala into a temple for Ganesha—a dedication full of beauty.
I love that Nancy Gilgoff was the dauntless pioneer who cleared the way for all of us ashtanga yoginis.

Those are wonderful descriptions of the Confluence teachers; they seem very right on as I know them or know of them. I — to be a little sappy, but that’s the risk of all those dropbacks I’m doing — love that shared this. (I also love that she linked to us!) Check it out for the full list.

Posted by Steve

Introduction to Nancy Gilgoff

As we’ve been keeping this blog, we’ve sought the input of our friends and fellow Ashtangis who have practiced with the “senior western students” who are participating. We asked our Shasta friend, Heidi Quinn, to write up something about Nancy Gilgoff. We’ve practiced beside Heidi with Timji, and hiked in the mountains with her and her family–she had a kind, loving way about her that comes through in her account of Nancy. Heidi teaches at Monterey Yoga Shala–you should take her class if you get a chance.

I met Nancy Gilgoff at the beginning of my Ashtanga yoga journey.  After hearing about her from a devoted student, Christine Hoar, I was determined to meet Nancy and flew to Vermont to attend a weekend workshop.  This Vermont workshop was a precursor to admission to Nancy’s primary series adjustment clinic scheduled for the following month.  Because I hadn’t been practicing Ashtanga for a full year, I had to seek special permission from Nancy to attend the week-long clinic.  I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.  As more experienced practitioners know, the Ashtanga practice goes beyond a series of physical poses.  Nancy wanted to ensure participants had integrated the Ashtanga practice into their bodies.  Nancy is not just looking at the physical body and alignment – she is tuned into the flow of energy in the body. This comes from how she learned the practice.

Nancy Gilgoff was the first woman certified by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  Many also know her as the former partner of David Williams, and one of the key people involved in bringing Pattabhi Jois to the United States.  She studied with him for more than 30 years.   Unlike many other well-known Ashtangis, Nancy came to the Ashtanga practice with illness and injury.  And Pattabhi Jois treated the whole of her person, building her strength and wellness from the inside out.  Nancy is greatly influenced by Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga, and this may be due, in part, to Pattabhi Jois’s teachings.  Nancy told many stories of Guruji’s instructions to change her health by changing her diet to a more cooling one (to calm Pitta dosha).  So Ayurveda infuses her teachings.

As a result, Nancy’s approach in the yoga room is marked by her perception of the subtle.  While many teachers focus on alignment, she focuses on the movement of energy.  Nancy teaches to give adjustments with clear intention and purpose, and to offer connection and support.  Pressing down on a student’s sacrum in a seated forward bend, for example, is a way to nurture the student and provide a sense of stability.  At the same time, the adjustment offers insight and feedback to the teacher.

As one of the few female voices in Ashtanga yoga, Nancy offers a unique perspective.  Her practice has spanned several decades and several female milestones.  After hearing various theories regarding the Ladies’ Holiday – Should I practice or not? –  Nancy finally offered an explanation I could support.  She explains it as a way to honor our bodies, a way to respect the body’s natural inclinations toward depletion and fatigue, and to support the downward flow – apana.  From Nancy, I learned to be kind to myself during the “maintenance yoga” phase of life – when the needs of my children expanded (rightfully so) into that precious early morning practice space and far beyond.  I learned that this too, is yoga.  Her approach to Ashtanga yoga goes “off the mat” in other ways.  She closes each practice with a mediation that creates a certain spaciousness – to fill ourselves with “loving kindness,” and take it out into the world.

This past summer, I attended Nancy’s workshop in nearby Mountain View.  Despite my best intentions, it had been many years since I last saw her.  I was curious as to how I would experience her teaching years later – and after the influence of other wonderful Ashtanga teachers along the way.  I knew she wouldn’t remember me and I didn’t expect her to.  And yet, my experience was as profound as ever. I recognize her as the source of many of the philosophies I have integrated into my teaching, and into my practice.  For this, loving kindness.

Posted by Bobbie

Nancy Gilgoff on … a lot of things

For this post, I have to direct you to the blog by Grimmly, who we’ve mentioned before — and who has commented here.

He had the good sense to e-mail Nancy Gilgoff with some questions, and she was kind enough to respond.

It occurred to me, suddenly, that our now more implied that actual focus on all things Confluence compels me to make sure you’ve seen what Gilgoff had to say.

Her comments are here and here and here. And one itsy, bitsy taste:

there are MANY different yoga methods…..with different breathing methods. each has it’s reason for being the way it is taught…..to achieve a particular state of being the methods will vary. some hold the breath, some use open mouthed, others closed mouth. same for eyes….guruji taught to keep them open….other practices keep them shut.   so how one is practiced depends on what the practice is meant to achieve. mixing them up, in my opinion, is what is causing the confusion amongst the yogis of today. so it is very good that you want to know the origins of this practice and what we are wanting to achieve through doing it.  guruji said he thought this method was the fastest to attain good health which helps us in the other aspects of practice (pranayama, meditation) and in our life. 

You should check them all out. I think they provide lots of fodder for follow-up questions at the Confluence. (Or, later, in Los Angeles if you join her there.)

Posted by Steve

Nancy Gilgoff Reports from Mysore in the 1970s

The HYZ logo. It grows!

In a straight-forward account that’s been floating around the internet, Nancy Gilgoff describesthe early form (and early evolution) of Ashtanga as Guruji was teaching it to her and David Williams. I’ve heard David Williams tell this same tale, as well as stories of revisions that came during Annie Pace’s and Tim’s time with Guruji, and I’ve come to a conclusion when it comes to the practice of Ashtanga.

Beware of dogma.

Many of our readers know this already, but it may surprise you to know that the word “parivrtta” was not in the lexicon. It may surprise you how that changed. As Nancy tells it:

During another, later trip to the States, Guruji added in Parivritta Trikonasana and Parivritta Parsvakonasana. The next time he came back to Maui to teach, he saw us doing Parivritta Parsvakonasana, asked why we were doing it, and said that this was “crazy posture” and that we should take it out. But the whole Maui crew loved it so much that he said we could leave it in.

A pose appeared in the sequence because the students loved it. Those of you who have studied with Timji feel this way about the Hanumanasana sequence that follows prasarita. You sometimes have to sneak it in, guerilla-style, outside of AYC. It’s a great read, and demonstrates, I think, elements of the excellence of Guruji’s teaching–indeed of all good teaching: the ability to evolve and learn (from the teaching itself, and from your students).

Posted by Bobbie