In Ashtanga, facing the difficulty of the difficult

We’re partway through our second week in Encinitas where, I kid you not, it rained on Tuesday.

That’s not about to stop me from going surfing in a bit. (In fact, I’ll probably pause midway in this post.)

What’s more likely to stop me from surfing is the fact that we’re partway through our second week here. That means nine or so practices under Tim Miller’s watchful (and thankfully at times less watchful, given the overflowing room) eye, and the accompanying ache, tiredness, weariness and exhaustion that comes with it.

We talked today after practice briefly with a blog reader (Hi to you if you’re reading this!) who is a regular at Tim’s. I think I said, long and short, that that would kill me. It might not, quite, but I’m not sure how’d I’d manage it.

When Bobbie took Tim’s Second Series training a few years back, I only stayed a week, and after the Sunday Led Primary, I told Tim I was off, which was a good thing: Any more time hear would break me, I said.

He responded that I was took stiff to break.

This time, spending two full weeks, might be the proof I was correct.

I’ve only ever had Tim doses of a week at a time: Tulum, Shasta, that Second Series week. I really am not sure how people do it, day in, day out. Perhaps the overwhelming shakti — which I realize is not just from Tim, but from his students and assistants, a whole boiling kettle of tapas that is difficult to ignore — gets blunted by time and familiarity. Surely one would figure out how to dial things back, a bit?

(Add into this that, while I’m working this week, it is only about half time, and it is in shorts and a T-shirt, with a break for surfing. So how I would have my real life … I don’t know. But I think that’s a good opportunity for me to get wet.)

(OK. I’m back. Best session of the trip.)

But perhaps not. And even if one does, there remains the practice itself — the difficulty of that. There’s the asanas, most obviously. But try keeping up with Tim in pranayama, and you’ll likely add it. And then think about the first two limbs. If those were easy, we wouldn’t be focused on Syria and U.S. immigration policy, just to name a couple of things off the very tip top of my head.

This isn’t the first time we’ve pondered the difficult, by the way. I’m tempted to think perhaps Bobbie and I share what she described in that post as the fascination of the difficult. Like attracts like, after all. But I can’t believe we’re alone, not after mornings practicing at Tim’s.

This utter difficulty is, I suppose I’m trying to say in too long-winded a way, one key aspect of Ashtanga that differentiates it from other “types” of yoga: Yin, Kundalini, whatever John Friend is up to today. (I say that only because our most recent post about him got a bump of hits on Tuesday. Did he do something?) Forcing ourselves, most days — most mornings — to face the impossible is a pretty crazy thing to do. But then you conquer a little piece of it.

That’s the esoteric side. What I’m facing today, now, is just the difficulty of the effort, of the physicality, of Ashtanga — arms that are noodles in the first down dog; hamstrings that aren’t having any of it from the very first. I’m facing it, wondering how I will face it tomorrow. And whether I’ll conquer any little thing in the process.

Posted by Steve

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

Ashtanga Higher Math

Eddie Stern posted a little video on Instagram you’ve probably seen by now, and we’ve posted about, but in case you have not, here’s Steve’s post about it, which links to Eddie. The gist is this: A fit and stately TV host on The Today Show runs down an oddball collection of yoga names in front of a really unnecessarily large board with the heading, “What kind of yogi are you?” Leaving aside for the moment the obvious problem of there being “kinds” of yogis, as well as the numerous other factual errors she makes in her other categories, the deceptive organization of the list (which seems to be in order of perceived difficulty–Ashtanga is apparently harder than Bikram although Bikram will get you more cardio), and the inclusion of “barre” as a kind of yoga that will make you some “kind” of yogi (!), all Ashtanga eyes and ears turned to this sentence:

Advanced yogis may like Ashtanga yoga, six poses that are physically demanding.

Six. My Ashtanga Facebook/Twitter/Instagram feed explodes. Hilarity ensues. “Can I pick which six?” “Like an idiot, I’ve been doing ten times that many.” “From now on my six are all savasana,” etc. Sure, she probably meant six series; however, considering the mistakes she makes when describing the other categories, and the fact that she makes this mistake more than once, it’s probably not so much as a slip as just blithe ignorance, but it got me thinking: Let’s say we wanted to correct The Today Show. Has anybody counted the poses?

This is not my first encounter with doing Ashtanga math. Back when I started practicing, an early teacher of mine claimed to have counted the exact number of breaths in First Series. This makes sense, since all the breaths are accounted for in all the series, even those that aren’t numbered by the teacher in a led class. You can, in theory, count the exact number of breaths for all the Series. Unfortunately, since I was actually physically practicing First Series when she said this and did not have a pen handy, I don’t remember what the exact number was. Since then, I’ve tried every now and then to count them, but truthfully, as an English major, numbers make me bored. I make it to navasana and wander off. Which I’ve just done in the post, so back to the question:

How many poses are there?

Depends on how you count. Do you count samatitihi? The number of poses in suryanamaskara A and B (is chatrurunga dandasana a pose?)? Urdhva mukha svanasana or adho mukha svanasana? Do you count both sides? Repetitions such as navasana and bakasana? Opening? Transitions? The backbend sequence at the end? Savasana? It reminds me of an old question of my youth:

So there’s this: Who cares?

Obviously we care. Look how ticked off we get when someone gets it wrong. Granted, she got it comically wrong. But still.

You could just count. According to the John Scott drawings in Tim Miller’s First Series teacher training manuals—and let’s say for the sake of argument only asanas count and that you know what I mean by that—there are 46 in poses First, 51 in Second. Let’s just say I gave the Today Show’s expert a call to correct her. Do I correct her with 46? But wouldn’t it be more accurate to total up all six series and give her that number? When I first started, I only practiced up to navasana, and I was in no way advanced, so wouldn’t it be more accurate to tell her that you don’t have to be advanced and there are only as many poses as you can actually do? Because, basically, it’s not really the number of poses that defines Ashtanga.

But I think about all those old videos of Guruji assiduously counting, the careful metronome of Ashtanga he regulated and his students maintain, and I think, well, that’s the most important number in Ashtanga, isn’t it? Five. Why is it five breaths? Why not four, or six, or the eight or ten it is in closing? And yes, Monte Python and the Holy Grail is running through my head, the number so important to the Holy Hand Grenade…

So now that I’ve totally geeked out on my practice, I’ve gotten it out my system and I’ve effectively passed these questions on to my fellow practitioners and can just go practice.

Posted by Bobbie

Friday asana aid: Arda Matsyendrasana

One thing I’ve discovered, speaking purely of asana now, during my yoga studies is that the “easier” postures are only easier up to a point. Getting them “right” (which I know is a topic unto itself) — drisjti, bandhas — getting maximum benefit from them is just about as hard as perfecting a really “tough” pose.

In part, that may be because so much attention goes into the harder poses — the challenge is laid out there before you. But it’s also that the subtle adjustments and the working in (as opposed to out) are just as demanding, whether you are in Karandavasana or this week’s asana aid topic, Arda Matsyendrasana. The final 1% of every pose is equally difficult.

So here’s some help in this easy pose. The first to pop up in YouTube:

Next up, the one with the most views:

And with the second most views:

Finally, another popular one:

And can someone answer this question: This seems to be the first pose where the video mentions it is “for better sex”; what’s up with that?

Posted by Steve 

Yes, we heard Kino hurt her hip

With other news during the past week taking up our bandwidth, we’ve let slide all the hubbub over Kino MacGregor’s injuring herself while adjusting a student.

The big piece on it, which I’ll assume you’ve seen, is by regular yoga writer Matthew Remski. Link is here, and a little taste (be warned; it is long, very, very long):

I’ve interviewed more than a hundred yoga practitioners about pain and injury. The acute injuries are dramatic: a hamstring tears in the moment of a harsh adjustment, or a rotator cuff rips upon the impact of leaping into an arm-balance that uses the upper arm as a brace. But there are usually pre-existing weaknesses or stresses that forecast these events, which means that sports medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons are typically conservative when it comes to pinpointing exact moments and causes.

Even harder to definitively source are the repetitive stress injuries that creep in below the radar. I’ve interviewed several women who have sustained labral tears, for example, which first present as niggling pinches in the groin and either slowly or quickly progress to shattering pain. Many of these subjects continued to practice as their pain increased, unaware that they may be deepening a tear. Some practiced with modification, some without, but most continued with a firm belief that whatever the pain was, practice would heal it.

Then there are injuries like MacGregor’s, which are yoga-related, but don’t literally occur on the mat. MacGregor was initially firm via email. “This isn’t a yoga injury that came from my practice. It came from the impact of a student falling into me while I was assisting her.”

We’ve discussed Ashtanga and injuries pretty often before. Injury is inevitable, although mostly avoidable. But Ashtanga is a pretty extreme form of asana, and as with anything extreme, there will be consequences.

Kino’s injury has gotten more than its share of attention, of course, because she’s omnipresent on social media — often via photos or videos of her doing some of the practice’s most extreme poses. There are lots of valid topics to discuss, and they’ve been pretty well gone through in the comments on the article: the value of injury; what’s “real yoga”; how much is too much asana. For me, I think the most useful is to think about how our ego and our drive to get the next pose or perfect this particular pose really runs counter to what we’re supposed to be doing in a yoga practice. At the same time, we need that drive to do the practice; it’s the great mischief of practice and life: you require your ego to get rid of yourself. You have to want to not want to not want.

That said, I’d certainly have to argue that the Instragram-ization of yoga enables our egos in not the best of ways. Having heard stories from the first Western Ashtanga students, I’m not really sure that anyone today is particularly more driven or, to use this word loosely, more crazy than David Williams or Tim Miller, etc. were “back in the day.” Those folks charged through the Series pretty quickly. They wanted more poses, just like people do today. Perhaps the main difference is just how many people one can encounter who are driving themselves ahead, and doing so so publicly. And how it is that this drive is being packaged for public consumption.

Posted by Steve

Friday asana aid: Bharadvajasana

As I continue my, it turns out, increasingly unpleasant exploration of Nadi Shodhana, it’s opening up for me, anyway, new asanas for which I need serious aid.

This week: Bharadvajasana. Let’s see where the twists and turns lie, shall we?

This is, no surprise, the first one that pops up in YouTube:

This one actually has more views, though:

OK, I’ll admit I like this one just because of the very serious credentials: “Lois Steinberg, Ph.D. Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher Advanced 2″.

And one that claims to be for beginners. (Thank you!)

Posted by Steve

Friday asana aid: Handstands and arm balances

At the end of my exploration of Second Series last Sunday with Maria Zavala, she encouraged/ordered me to do more handstands/arm balances, including handstand with your knees bent but all your weight well over your body. Sounds easier than an extended handstand right?

As with all things yoga, the truth isn’t what you expect.

So it struck me as timely when this first video with David Robson went up during the week:

And then some oldies:

And one that proves lots of people care about handstands:


About the 24-second mark of that last one is the bent leg idea I talked about up top.

Posted by Steve