‘The most advanced group of students I’ve ever had gathered together at one time’

That’s Tim Miller, describing the group of Ashtanga practitioners who are in Encinitas for the Third Series training. More from his blog, which went up a little bit ago. (And then, yes, on to surf. Practice, as it was, is done.) All of it is here:

It’s quite a dedicated group of practitioners—highly motivated and very hard working—an ashtanga teacher’s dream, really.  The Mysore classes have been huge and very sweaty.  With so many people practicing third and fourth series, the studio almost has a circus like atmosphere—sometimes I catch the local students gawking at some visiting phenom displaying a combination of strength, flexibility, and agility.

And he concludes (more or less) with this thought: “My sincere hope is that something of real value is being transmitted during this course.”

That’s true of every practice, right?

Posted by Steve


What’s Third Series Done for Me Lately?

Tim teaching, Guruji looking over his shoulder.
Tim teaching, Guruji looking over his shoulder.

Years ago when I took Tim Miller’s First and Second Series teacher trainings here in Encinitas, my favorite part of the discussion of the poses was the moment when we focused on the specific benefits of each asana. In First Series, Tim would also read from Pattabhi Jois’s Yoga Mala, where Guruji carefully describes benefits, which seem to often involve the…ahem…anus. In Second, things were more anatomy-oriented, and we often focused on the subtle body as well.

Tim set up Third Series by describing its place in context with the other two. First is of course yoga chikitsa—“yoga therapy”—chiefly for the digestive track. Its focus is on the hip joints, and opening up the back of the body. Also, getting rid of excess upana. Frankly, “bad fat.” Tim called it “cleaning the plumbing.”

If First is the plumbing, he said, “Second is for the electrical system.” Nadi shodhana is of course, nadi cleansing. It frees the flow of prana in the body. Tim pointed out you get “periodic tests for lightness” in Second.

Third—sthira bhaga: “divine stability”—is for “stabilizing that awakened energy.”

So my ears perked up as we started to go through the poses. I was waiting for descriptions of each asana‘s benefit, how it fits into this divine stability. “The benefits are collective,” Tim told us. “Make some up.” So, I thought I would. Here goes.

If the benefits of Third overall are to bring all the elements of an Ashtanga asana practice together (namely, strength, balance, flexibility) into a practice of stability, and if stability comes from the mental focus required in Third, then there must be some subtle and maybe not-so-subtle distinctions among the poses of the Series.

It seems to me that the high attention that the practitioner has to pay to the sense of the body in space (it requires “highly advanced propriaperception,” Tim pointed out), then the movement from side to side, finding a variety of ways to use the body as a weighted balance, is different as Third Series goes along.

It may be that I’m focusing on this because of the way I learned Third. Which was exactly like the way I learned Second: As a series, entire; not pose-by-pose with long spaces of time in between. But it feels to me like:

We begin with the lateral body, strengthening the hips but also increasing the range of motion in them. Bandhas are a prerequisite, but we’re not just using them for their own sake now (as we might just to breathe correctly in First). You must use them to strengthen muscles in the lateral body. The leg goes behind you, one side at a time, over and over. These movements require strength, a successive opening in rarely accessed muscle groups, and also involve the neck, cervical vertebrae, lower back muscles in resistance, and the feet.

Then in the lifts your years of lotus pay off! But its quality is different. It’s a working lotus. We also develop greater range of motion and strength in the wrists, and all of the core muscles must work at the same time—that is, the back and front of the torso—to do those poses. Even the muscles of the fingers work here.

Then the shoulders (which gain great strength in the difficult to access rotator cuff muscles, by the way) and hip flexors in arm balances that draw on this lateral strength; swinging the legs in space, the quadriceps working in harmony with hamstrings, and the hands, which must grip the floor firmly and evenly.

There’s some radical twisting and folding next. While most of us are just happy to sit down finally, the extremity of these poses seem to point to a need to take an already flexible and strong practitioner into some twists and folds that will find all those spaces you haven’t yet twisted—in the back, hips, shoulders, and feet—and twist them now again.

Hamstrings feeling tight? The series then sends the practitioner into a set of poses that by themselves aren’t hard at all, but they come in the back third, so to speak, of Third, so they seems so much more difficult than they would be out of context. Hello, humility! But also opening, extending, unfolding of a lot of muscle groups that have been pretty bound up, and a whole new way to access stability muscles as we stand–utterly fatigued–on one leg.

Which of course gets you ready for that beautiful back bending sequence of Third, which somehow brings together all the strength and agility required up to this point into play: Balance, strength in the actual supporting muscles of the back of the body: You can’t just surrender to these backbends. Here is where you realize that “back bends” are misnamed. They are back extensions.

So this is the story of Third I tell myself, and I told Tim that while I sometimes can’t even execute the state of the pose in some cases, and often have to modify or approximate the pose, I still find great benefit in the attempt. As I get older, I will need all the strength and stability I can find in my body, and in my mind. The arthritis in my hands and feet benefit. My hips benefit. The torn labrum in my shoulder is an afterthought now. But to me that mind part is the most important benefit of Third. Wake up! I tell myself when I roll the mat out. The more awake we are, the better.

Posted by Bobbie

You Get By with a Little Help…from Your Teacher

Ashtanga is full of interesting paradoxes. You can’t “advance” until you’re “proficient,” but since the higher levels of proficiency in the practice are less tangible than asana, proficiency can be impossible to demonstrate. Understanding these paradoxes is why we have teachers.

It’s pretty clear, for instance, that I am not proficient in a number of asanas from First and Second Series. Probably if I were held to the same standards as a beginning student now as I might have been 13 years ago, I would’ve been stopped at marychiasana C (the continuing degeneration in my back make the bind on the left very hard, and if I “go for it,” I sometimes have to stop my practice).

Still, there is wisdom in moving through the whole series, and in our training yesterday, this was palpable in the room as we moved into the widely despised “foot-behind-the-head” sequence in Third Series.

I don’t despise it. My doctor gives that deep forward bending credit for removing the deep, severe pain I had in my back. So while they’re not easy, I’m motivated, and they have made the muscles supporting my spine very strong. There is a contingent in the room who not only doesn’t mind these poses, they like them. Still, the squeaky wheels get the grease.

As I was learning the poses from Maria Zavala, however, it became clear that she did not share my enthusiasm. Maria’s here at the training with me, and she was part of a chorus of voices who were dreading these poses.

Maria, like many others, has a lot of trouble putting her foot behind her head, but Tim Miller, in his wisdom, has let her (and me) move past the poses she’s not “proficient” at so she can gain the benefits of the later parts of the series.

But still, when you get to them as you practice, something has to be done. Here is what Tim did for Maria in the very difficult bhairavasana:

I told Maria afterwards that if you photoshopped Tim out of the shot, it would look like she was doing the pose perfectly, with ease and stability. Also, bonus smiles! He also showed her how to use a strap to put herself into the pose, so she can continue to gain a deeper understanding of the method, and maintain the integrity of the design of Third.

Posted by Bobbie

The teacher wails on you until you get the point

I’ve posted plenty about taking classes from Tim Miller. And Bobbie pointed out yesterday that they follow roughly the same formula: A description of how much Tim wailed on me.

The same happened Wednesday night, in his evening Led Primary class. But from there the story takes a turn.

First, though, the usual suspects: Tim adjusted the hell out of me. I can’t even give you a count; I know I more or less woke up in Tiryam Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana, wondering how we’d gotten there. I know there was Tim and an assistant (I don’t know which one, but Chungsue and Lauren were the two working the room [side side note: Thanks again!]) on me in down dog. And again in backbend. And, according to Bobbie, two other times.

I want to pause for a quick second. I think we’ve referred to Tim as the hardest working man in yoga before. I suppose that might rile some folks up for think their teacher deserves that title. Well, as Evidence A: Tim was doing all this work — and it was hard work, because I’m no cakewalk to move and adjust — 12 hours after arriving at his shala. By the time he brought us back to life from savasana, he’d been there 13 hours. Even on days when he isn’t training 40 people about Third Series, his day on Wednesday starts with 6 a.m. pranayama and ends with that 5:30 to 7 p.m. Led Primary.

That’s hard-working.

Here’s the turn to the story. I realized (with no little help from Bobbie) that Tim isn’t just trying to wrench me into the closest approximation of the poses as possible. Well, he’s doing that. But he’s also attempting to show me both where it is possible for me to get myself and where I should be trying to get myself — in order to move deeper into the pose, into the yoga. My head should be closer to my knee here — and it is possible. The twist ought to be deeper, and it can be.

He’s trying to show me what’s possible and what the poses offer, if I keep going.

Call me a slow learner.

But I was able — to some extent — to put that learning to practice this morning during Mysore practice. Tim was busy with a lot of the Third Series people, who provide him other problems to address as they learn those poses, I imagine. (No offense intended!) And I probably waved him off at the start (which always is stupid, but… jump up a paragraph: That comes with being a slow learner). But being left mostly alone allowed me to seek out where he’d gotten me in those poses just 14 hours or so earlier.

I think I have a little sense of what he is trying to do, so undaunted by my intransigence not to let him. And that’s some sort of start.

Posted by Steve

An Asana by Any Other Name

There’s now no doubt about it: We are on the wild frontier. As we left the familiar standing poses behind in our Third Series Teacher Training, it became immediately clear that for those of us who had been learning Third out there, information is thin, and opinions are all over the place.

In this little on line log about our Ashtanga yoga experience, we often seek to convey information that our readers might find useful. While I’m not a big fan of transcribing information about Tim Miller’s trainings directly to you (it’s best you get those sorts of things from the guru directly), I do make a few exceptions, and this is one of them.

The first two asanas of Third.

Now, as I was learning Third, just like when I was learning First and Second, I used a cheat sheet. My cheat sheet was, as is sometimes said in a Guruji accent, incorrect. Luckily, I was working with Maria Zavala, who promptly corrected me. But many in the room were not so lucky, and now have to rewire their brains.

The first two poses of Third are, and in this order, viswamitrasana and vasisthasana.

You may have learned them the other way around. I’m not even posting images or links because frankly the internet mostly has it wrong as well. The source of the issue? B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, which transposes the names of these asanas. You can look it up.

Tim told us that when Guruji—our own Sri K. Pattabhi Jois—was asked about this, he said, and I quote, “This man is not knowing Sanskrit.” Given Guruji’s status as a Sanskrit professor, his Ashtanga students are inclined to believe his asana names are correct.

But this pales in comparison to the next controversy. When taking viswamitrasana, correct is taking outer edge of the foot. Not flat.

When we broke up to practice the pose and assist each other, the room erupted. Most had learned to flatten the foot. Some had learned to lift the hips high, even backbend into it as you look up. This, in Tim’s words, “ruins the geometry of the pose,” which he compared to trikonasana and with legs like samokonasana. Strong vertical and perpendicular lines.

So the question on the break became, “Are you a side foot person or a flat foot person?” Which camp are you in?

Me, I was relieved. I have tight ankles and actually find it very difficult to flatten my feet. Finally, a correct way of doing an asana that works in may favor, and actually makes the pose easier (please note that I said easy-er).

And that was just the first pose.

Posted by Bobbie

Third Series Training Begins…at the Beginning

Day Three of Tim Miller’s Third Series Teacher Training has begun, and a collection of some 40 teachers and students of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga have descended on Encinitas to learn about Stihira Bhaga—“Divine Stability.” They have come from all over the world—Germany, Switzerland, England—and all over the U.S.—Nevada, North Carolina, Louisiana—and there are some locals and some Californian, too. It’s a good group.

Some are teachers and shala owners looking to take what they learn back to their students. Some are long-time practitioners looking to learn the series in more detail. Some are students without a shala, stuck on a pose and unable to advance without more knowledge and are here to get it. While our motivations for being here may vary, Tim is in top form and being very meticulous.

Day One began at 6 a.m. with the full, six-part Ashtanga pranayama sequence with what seemed like full-sized inhales, exhales and retentions (these were actually shorter than normal, I was told).

The masterful hands of Tim Miller.

And although the more eager among us may be ready to take off into Third, these first days are a careful review of all the standing poses up to virbradrasana B. To some it may seem like he’s going slowly, but this is my fourth training with Tim, and I have my First Series training book in front of me full of the notes from three other trainings, and he’s actually going quite fast.

He also knows his audience—practitioners who are in deep in Ashtanga asana—and he’s hitting all the aspects of each pose with no dumbing down: counting, anatomy, adjusting, the emotions of the pose, its reasoning, its variations. And then we move on. Yesterday, because he was asked, he ran through the pranayama sequence faster than I’ve ever heard him do before. There are certain assumptions of knowledge, but also an understanding. He is, in other words, passing what he knows on to a new generation of teachers, which is an awesome responsibility on both sides.

For myself, I wait for the stories behind the asanas—their history, the way the changes in the practice came to be, the reasoning behind certain choices Tim has made as a teacher, and of course the stories of the rishis, gods, and heroes of his practice and teaching. Hanuman looms large.

But I’m also here to practice with Tim and my fellow students. I’ve done my rickety interpretation of Third—the series that is saving me from hip replacement surgery—in the Mysore room with some awesome people around me. And today I got my favorite adjustment.

As I came into trikonasna, Tim once again sidled up to put me in my correct place (he’s been working on my trikonasana for years). As he pulled my shoulder firmly but gently back, he stuck out his index finger and tugged at the corner of my mouth to make me smile.

It did.

Posted by Bobbie

Give a guru a try

The water is 74 degrees (F) here.

That’s my, our, excuse for the lack of posts thus far.

Perhaps, really, the fact that I’m here, with Bobbie, is the culprit. Rather than return to our lodging and transcribing parts of the Tim Miller’s Third Series Teacher Training, she downloads it to me. So I can tell you this: On Monday, they started with Surya A. It’s fundamental, right? Rather than jumping right into “Third Series,” it sounds like Tim is leading them through how one would practice it. And that starts with Sun Salutes. (We also are making it a habit of getting her into the water to cool everything down; harder when the water is so balmy.)

I also can say that I forget the power of the teacher’s presence. I still don’t really think of myself as a “home practitioner,” that strange subset of the Ashtanga crowd. But I am. It’s probably going on four years, in fact — perhaps half of my Ashtanga “life span.”

And for many reasons, this past year has been one that we’ve been unable to make it down for a “recharge” with Tim — even a Sunday Led Primary does the trick. It’s a reminder of where you might be slacking, what you might be starting to do wrong and how long you really can hold those poses.

It’s more than that, too. It’s the teacher shakti, the will or force that compels you to twist just a little more, to find that deeper place in the pose, to do Vrksasana because the guru says so. (Today after pranayama — again, hard! — was a Primary class that Tim practices along with you. So he calls out the pose names and when you’re to breath five.)

I was wrecked going in. Holly’s Intro to Second followed by Monday morning Mysore (Ashtanga confession: I actually did the first three poses of Second and got away with it; it helped there were approximately 800 people in the room) and the two pranayamas and a bad first night’s sleep conspired to make me feel stretched thin. Oh, and the couple hours of surfing on Monday.

By the time we were to Trikonasana, I realized my shoulders were exhausted, along with my quads. Later, I’d realize my forearms also were tired. (Today was more beautiful than Monday, the waves cleaner with less wind, and so despite my best intentions, I was in the water another couple of hours. Woe is me tomorrow.)

But I soldiered on. And I wouldn’t have at home.

As I bobbed in the water, checking the shifting breaks, I realized once again the absolute value of having a teacher and a place to practice, even if it is just sometimes — even rarely. I know there are lots of home practitioners out there, of various stripes and connections to shalas here and there, and to none at all. And I know there’s anguish about practicing at a shala, or not, or whether to try, or how best to maintain a home practice.

I’m biased here, given I’ll argue I somehow lucked into the best yoga teacher there is. But I really really urge everyone to give a guru a try. There is, without a doubt, something magical and wonderful about a solitary, focused, contemplative home practice. But it’s even more so with the invisible hand of the guru guiding you.

Posted by Steve