Your chance to study for a month with Richard Freeman begins … now

Yoga Workshop is now accepting applications for next summer’s month-long intensive with Richard Freeman.

That should be enough to sell you, right? Here’s the link.

Via Yoga Workshop — that’s ‘Bharadvajasana: The pose of the celestial musician’

And if that isn’t enough, here’s more:

The purpose of the course is to begin an exploration of the internal principles and forms of Ashtanga Yoga at a level that will deepen one’s practice and make teaching a natural outcome of practice. Always returning to our own personal experience, we will explore the practices and philosophies of yoga, their contexts, purposes, patterns and limitations. Examining the tradition from multiple viewpoints should give depth and sophistication to the interconnected processes of yoga. The course will flow through the many and often contradictory philosophies of yoga into therapeutics, into asana practice, on to Sanskrit and pranayama, back into meditation, on into the biomechanics of posture and movement and into the hands-on world of relating to others.

It notes that this isn’t a “certification.” But it also suggests that not all students and teachers can make the repeated treks to Mysore. There is a full schedule at the above link. Always worth noting: the cadaver lab.

The program runs from July 22 to Aug. 16 (in 2013, of course). Here’s the list of qualifications:

For acceptance into the training students need to have:

  • A solid grounding in the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga.
  • Completed Intermediate Series or an equivalent intensity of experience.
  • A minimum of five to ten years of practice.
  • An appreciation of subtlety, and a sense of humor.

Cost is $3,050. If you apply — and it is capped at 40 students — you’ll hear within about six weeks.

In other words, get on that application.

Posted by Steve


Some thoughts on holding students back in Ashtanga

I teach freshmen writing. It’s part of my job, at the end of each term, to judge the performance of each writer, and decide on a grade. For a few, every term, the grade is not good. They have “failed.” It can be a hard thing to explain to them, but I try to put it the way actually think of it: You’re just not ready to move on, I say. If I passed you out of pity, you’d have a really hard time in the next class, and maybe for the rest of your writing career. By holding you back, I’m really helping you–It’s not failure; it’s a second chance.

Very often, the decision is more complex than the matter of the grade. The student has shown diligence, and a strong ability to improve—to listen, to learn, to apply. The grade may not reflect the level of ability. It requires a lot of experience to make that call: to hold them back, or let them move forward in spite of the grade. It also requires a deep understanding of the student, so that you can judge their performance individually while at the same time respecting your own standards. But I’m not a robot. I can make that call.

You see where I’m going: I understand the reasons for holding students back. It’s been the source of my patience in Ashtanga, spending the first few years in led First Series classes, then a couple more in Mysore-style, before getting the first part of Second, all the way up to the wall that was kapotasana—a four-and-a-half-year wall (I was, in fact, counting).

Now that I’ve been doing a Second Series practice (in its entirety) for five months, I’m beginning to question the philosophy that holds students back in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

I’ve been pondering this post for a long time. There’s a hefty dose of respect we have for our teachers, and we hesitate to question their wisdom. We feel an immense sense of gratitude for what they’ve given us, and don’t want to seem ungrateful. We’ve also been taught that grasping after the next pose is a form of Western egotism that we should quash. And quash we do.

But, as I said, I’ve been thinking about this a long time. When I first signed on for Tim Miller’s Second Series training, I sought help preparing. There was a strong voice inside, telling me it was the right thing to do. And Tim had told me to come.

But my daily practice is in Los Angeles, not Encinitas. I’ve had to find and take Ashtanga where I could, householder that I am. After all my time working on kapotasana, I asked, what am I being held back for? I realize I can barely touch my toes, even with assistance. Some days, not even that. “I want you to be more stable,” I was told. Sthira. Right. I understand. But I also know I don’t have a disk at L4/5. I have no internal rotation. Just repeating the pose will not fix any of those things. It will only, ever, be so sthira. Shouldn’t I be working on sukkham?

When I finally gave up waiting for stability, I sought the advice of a teacher who would help me find contentment. Tim Miller told me to come to the training. Maria Zavala, Tim’s student, offered to teach me the series. I’ve been practicing with Maria for years. She knew me. She knew my practice. She taught me the poses. All of them.

I learned, in other words, the way those first American students in Mysore did: In a small class, under the careful scrutiny of a single teacher with experience, who knew where my limits were, and taught me to move beyond them rather than fixate on them. I just did the poses. And the benefits were immediate and enormous. My back got stronger. Range of motion increased. It was like the door to my pain closed.

So, back to my pondering. I believe that when a student is practicing in good faith, with the correct motivation and method, he or she should be granted the blessing of the range of motion the practice can give.

I also believe students are held so long at one pose partly because teachers have too many students to know the intimate details of any given student’s practice. This makes it easier to hold them back than to advance them, or vice versa: To advance them just to satisfy the student rather than take the time to teach them the small nuances of the practice. I’ve seen both extremes. Both are result of a high student/teacher ratio. I’m not saying that it’s not possible; I’ve seen Tim work a room of 40—exhausting to watch. I’m just saying the ability to do so effectively is rare.

I also believe that holding students back too long actually fetishises the pose they’re stopped at, making it a colossal battle with the ego and over-inflating the importance of that pose by taking it out of the overall context of the sequence. It dumbs down all the poses leading up to it (that creeping sense of dread, followed by that Pavlovian eagerness to see if today’s version was “good enough” to move on).

I’ll take this one step further and say that the contrast between the speed of learning First and the slowness of learning Second also grants Second Series an unnatural and even unhealthy air of elitism–that somehow your practice is above or beyond those still “stuck” in First. William Blake said that “Prisons are built with stones of Law.” By withholding Second from students too long, you endow Second artificially with the very quality you’re attempting to overcome as a yogi. And related to my previous point, it saps a lot of the crucial importance of First Series.

Even being “given” the next pose, in the language we use, encourages this obsession, defeating one of the main benefits of Ashtanga—the “yoga mala,” continuity of breath and focus. We should, of course, say instead, “My teacher taught me the next pose.” That’s just not the way we frame it. It’s given, like a gift, or a wish fulfilled. That’s not Ashtanga.

After I passed kapotasana, my entire practice changed, my awareness changed, and I grew stronger. My attitude toward my practice has come back into alignment with the way I felt at the very beginning of my study.

Since then, though, I’ve also had to deal with feelings of anger and resentment—I’ve suffered injuries in the past, I now know, because I lacked the strength and range that Second Series would have given me. The poses following kapotasana have improved the quality of kapotasana itself. And of particular note is the freedom from chronic pain, the first time in fifteen years. It’s difficult not to feel angry.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. But the evidence against the wider practice among many teachers of holding students back for years is now everywhere for me to see, as if my submission made me blind to it. There was David Swenson’s book, one of the first yoga texts I purchased, although I never dared to even look at the Second Series pages. Clearly, David Swenson believes in the therapeutic value of nadi shodana, even in a highly modified form. He also said this at the first Confluence.

Nancy Gilgoff teaches in her workshops that she believes many Ashtanga injuries are mostly caused by students being held back too long in First. You need only think of the contrast between her and David Williams to understand—she speaks of Guruji having to hold her up in poses, with his own physical strength, yet she advanced, and was healed. Tim Miller says frankly that he does not believe in holding students back, as does David Garrigues. There are many senior teachers out there who don’t subscribe to holding a dedicated practioner back for extended periods of time, including my teacher Diana Christinson, who gave me the Second Series backbends even when I was unable to do all of First. Where did draconian aspect of the practice come from?

I remember David Williams—and Nancy Gilgoff—talking about going back to Guruji and getting, basically, a pose a day. Tim, under the tutelage of Brad Ramsey, was doing Third Series in a matter of months. Granted, these were extremely eager and focused students. But you also get the feeling that is was also the level of attention they received was at work, the eagerness of the teacher to teach. It seems to me that if Guruji could get you into the pose, you moved on. It’s hard to imagine the level of effort it would require to get 40 (much less 300) students into their most difficult poses every day, and to know each students’ practice so intimately.

I hope that this little manifesto helps others rather than steps on toes. During my two weeks in Encinitas with Tim, I practiced every day next to folks who had said to me, “I’m stopped at [insert the name of your pose here], but I come here, and Tim lets me practice.” So, I guess that’s my real purpose here. To appeal to those teachers who are withholding permission to find a way to teach through the limitations, to what Tim calls “the other side of surrender.”

Posted by Bobbie

Second Series, Sequencing, and the Intelligence of Ashtanga

I’m deep in preparing for teaching my fall writing class. Although it’s hot here in Los Angeles, I’m in an autumn frame of mind. I’ve had some time to soak up all that I learned in my two weeks with Tim Miller in his Second Series Teacher Training, posted about it a few times, and I’m thinking it’s time to wrap it up.

Guruji in samastitihi, where it all began/begins.

Steve’s latest post has given me a nice spur to get me started. He spent a week with Tim while I was there, and took Tim’s “Ashtanga Improvisation” class—something that I suspect triggered some of his “should I try other forms of yoga” post. I’ll see if I can weave that into my final thoughts.

One of the things that the training brought home to me is something that Tim touched on a number of times: The intelligence of Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois’ designing. Tim was careful, as we moved through the sequence, to touch on the relationship each pose of second series has with the poses around it, and to stress where the “emphasis” of the pose is; this allows you to, so to speak, keep your eye on the ball while you practice. You know what you’re supposed to be gaining from the pose, and where it’s taking you next.

Because it’s a requirement of this training that you’ve been through Tim’s First Series Teacher Training, there’s a real sense that you’re building on prior knowledge. There was some review, but only by way of context for new information. We were reminded (chastised? good naturedly, of course) a number of times if things got too rudimentary: “This is second series, for God’s sake. You should know this.” Overall, this gave the training a feeling of deeper understanding.

The context was larger—bigger—than the first series training. “In first series, you find prana,” he said, “The emphasis is on the parasympathetic response of the nerves. Relax and release. In second, you learn move it. It’s about the sympathetic, fight-or-flight response. Third demands that you learn to control it, manage it. Third series grants you a stillness of mind. Sthira.”

Not until Third? Really? Yes. We always spoke in the sense of the overall design of Ashtanga, its largest possible scope: All eight limbs are there. “The longer I practice,” Tim said, “the more amazed I am at just how smart it all is.”

Which brings me back to Steve’s flirtation with “other yogas” and Tim’s improv class. At one point, a fellow trainee asked about sequencing. If you’re not a yoga teacher, this may strike you as a jargon word, and it is: This is simply the term for the way hatha teachers (that is, those who teach non-prescribed asana orders of yoga, which is to say  most of them) must compose their own series of poses for every class. It’s something that’s hard to appreciate unless you’ve been in a bad or boring flow class—it’s something of a fine art.

Tim responded to the question in great detail. Part of the intelligence of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system, Tim claims, is its comprehensiveness. You can’t avoid poses you don’t like or aren’t good at, and there’s a strong tendency for inexperienced teachers to choose poses they can do, and avoid those they can’t (this is built into the teaching-by-demonstrating model) thus stunting both their own growth and their students’. Tim recommended mastering through at least second and even better third series before presuming to construct a sequence. Sequencing requires understanding of a huge number of poses, and their relationship to each other. By the time you’re finished with third, he said, you have a great range of strength, flexibility, and internal awareness. And you understand attraction and avoidance in yourself. At that point, you are experienced enough to design for others.

Obviously, this is not something that’s happening in yoga in America today. And, had this ideal been followed, it’s certainly something that would have controlled the growth of yoga overall. Steve’s amazement at Tim’s ability to string together a seemingly-random set of poses on the fly is, in this sense, not all that surprising. Tim’s understanding of each pose called out by his students is deep, and allows him to select and arrange so that the improvisation tells a story, like all good improvisation. That might be a hard thing to find outside of Tim Miller’s shala.

“The entire rationale for the practice is demonstrated in the action of suryanamaskara A: Up and out, down and in, building our awareness of the subtle body, where we can experience ourselves as also made of energy, not just gross matter.” Tim said this at the start of our training. If it’s true, as we’re so often told by teachers that are wise in the practice—like the Confluence teachers—that there really is no such thing as advancing, only practice, then that is all we can do. As Tim said many times, “Give it your best shot, and let it go.”

Posted by Bobbie

The Wonder of the Sun Salute

A friend of ours has been recovering from not one, but two car accidents. He was rear-ended twice in the span of a month by inattentive drivers. He’s had x-rays and MRIs. He’s tried chiropractic, spinal cortisone shots, physical therapy, and ignoring the pain. “When I go to pick up my kids, I feel like I’m 60 years old,” he said. He’s still a young man. Nothing’s working.

So, I tried to get him to try yoga. He’s a general contractor (and a very good one—those are rarer than unicorns), so there was a certain amount of resistance. Finally, I offered to meet him at the shala, see what he could do, and talk to him about yoga. He agreed, and after about six months found the time.

I spent a couple hours sussing out what he could do, listening to what he’s been through, and we started with a single suryanamaskara A.

It may be, reader, that you were like me when you came to Ashtanga. You were in bad shape. I was in my mid-30s, and had


already spent years in pain. I had been a runner, but not much of one (I didn’t start exercising at all until my early 20s). Maybe you weren’t like me, but I’m asking you now to think about what that would be like.

Coming to the front of the mat, I stood opposite my friend and saw myself. The act of bringing the big toes and ankles together in samastitihi—that simple act itself—is painful. Just a little. I can see this on his face. So, first, we breathe.

I am looking at myself 12 years ago. I look in his eyes and ask him to listen to the sound of his breath. To relax his shoulders. To keep his eyes open and listen. The tension relaxes. A bit.

Bring in the belly and raise your hands up over your head as you inhale. Can you bring the palms together? I ask. He can; I could not. It took about  two months before I could touch my palms together. I feel a little joy for him—somehow, bringing the palms together above my head, and seeing them come together is such a beautiful thing.

Exhale, and open the arms as you fold. Without curving the spine, keeping the torso straight and strong. Like my first “fold,” he makes an upside down “L” in space, hands on his thighs–his limit. Inhale, extend as far as you can. Exhale. Placing the hands down, the slow agony of chaturanga dandasana begins.

All adaptations are in play. Come to the knees, then to the floor, then urdva mukha svanasana becomes “sphinx pose,” the exhale to adho mukha involves bent knees. Downward facing dog is an agonizing pose until you can get your heels down—perhaps you know this. I remember my early teachers calling this a “resting pose,” and how I would laugh and laugh in my head (cackle, really). I ask my friend to stay strong as he breathes five times.

Inhaling, stepping forward, his upward drishti is actually his toes, but he extends. He exhales into his “L.” He inhales and slowly raises his arms. He exhales and lowers them. We manage two of these. “What was that?” he asks. “That was a sun salute,” I say, “That’s your homework.” “I want to do more,” he says. He’s hooked.

This simple series of moves has the seeds of the whole practice in them. I was also hooked, those years ago, although it didn’t feel like “home,” as Tim Miller describes it; it felt to me like “hope.” I can do something. I can do something, myself, about my pain.

It was four years before I could get my heels down in down dog. I tell this to my friend. The journey may be long, I warn. But the one thing I can promise you is that if you do nothing, it will get worse. “I want to do more,” he says again. Every day, I say, five of these in the morning. Then we’ll talk again.

My friend has taught me something very important at a crucial moment in my practice. He’s taught me to be present in it, to take nothing for granted, and to not look beyond my drishti. Hope is what the practice gave me, and it keeps giving it to me. It’s also—if this makes sense to you—given me the clarity to see this, to recognize it, to see beyond the pain, inside it, so to speak. Or maybe beyond it.

Posted by Bobbie


No Dinking Around!

Bobbie may be feeling a little dizzy. ("Albion," by William Blake)

Readers, I have things to share. I’ve been in an outstanding Primary Series Adjustment Clinic with Nancy Gilgoff, and my notebook runneth over. I could just blow your mind by spilling it all right now, but instead I’ll just say if you ever get a chance to study with Nancy, “You do!” For now, I’ll just try to lace together a few thoughts.

In the mornings, we practice Mysore-style with Nancy (except for the moon day morning, of course). After lunch, we break down the series pose-by-pose, with stories woven among the demonstrations, along with the occasional correction. One of the things that Nancy was all over the group for yesterday was, for lack of a better word, speed.

Now, I feel like I’ve had pretty good training in this area. Early in my Ashtanga career, my teacher Shayna Liebbe often got her class all the way through the whole Primary in the hour and a half allotted to her by YogaWorks. There was no time to screw around; and even if she couldn’t make it, she’d be trying. Diana Christinsen used to walk over to me as I fussed over my foot in janu C and say bluntly, in the way Ashtanga teachers do, “No dinking around!” That sort of teaching sticks with you. You get one breath–half a breath, really–to get into the pose before your breath runs out, and you move on.

I’ve always connected this idea with a mala in my mind–of “Yoga Mala” fame: Each pose is a bead, each breath the string. Stop the movement–to wipe your face, fix your hair, unfurl your yoga towel before dandasana, whatever–and you stop the practice. Just like that, you’re not doing Ashtanga anymore.

Nancy is actually connecting dinking with injury, and with incorrect breath: The luxurious–or worse, shallow–breath. “Move fast,” she says, “And move when the mind is free. It’s the resistance of the mind that causes injury.” If you were at The Confluence, you perhaps heard Nancy tell the story of Guruji pushing her totally flat in baddha konasna in a single breath. Maybe you’ll hear her tell the story yourself one day, but in the end, the breath and the practitioner need to be one and the same. You stop to think about slowly easing yourself to the floor in that pose, taking extra breaths, and the floor will slowly fall farther from you.

So to that end I’ll perform my next community service from my workshop, and say that the other thing Nancy was on the group for was the breath. Lengthening it? Not the point. Control it and deepen it. The entire Primary can be performed in an hour with deep, audible, fast breath. “You could hear us breathing outside on the street,” she said. (Note: Not “ujayi” breath–that issue covered here: “deep breathing with sound.”) (And another note: My very first teacher, Pamela Ward, told me that the every practice had an exact number of actual breaths, and that, in theory, it should be the same number every time. Any Ashtanga geeks out there that want to tell me what the number is?)

This current desire to LENGTHEN everything is something of a thread in the workshop: Stop it, says Nancy. Just do the pose. Do it on the breath. Do it now. Whatever it is, it is.

There’s an awful lot of freedom in that, something that William Blake once called, “the dizziness of freedom,” I think–liberating, but scary.

Posted by Bobbie