On Being Freed in Ashtanga

I’ve written elsewhere on the politics of holding Ashtanga students at certain postures until they “master” them. In the years since I wrote that piece, I’ve been approached by a lot of students frustrated in their practice, with their teachers, with themselves, or all of the above.

There’s a whole teacher/student power dynamic out there that I don’t agree with—as a teacher myself, I try to be as transparent as possible with my students, and let them see the benefits and reasoning behind my teaching. I’m not saying that opaque teaching is a deliberate practice in Ashtanga; more often than not, I think it’s more like neglect that happens when a teacher has too many students. But whatever the cause, the result is the same for the student: The pose they’re “stopped” at gets fetishized, that pose is nearly personified as a thing to fear and hate, and the rest of the series is closed to them. The concept of the yoga mala is lost, a series of just-poses strung on the breath for a reason, as if you cannot achieve the full benefit of the practice if you cannot “do” a pose to its fullest extent. The individuality of the student’s intimate relationship with the practice is lost as well.

These conversations with my fellow Ashtanga students (and Ashtanga teachers) remind me how lucky I am to have Tim Miller as a teacher. Because Tim allowed me to practice Second Series, he freed me from chronic pain and brought mental and physical balance back to my life.

Tim Miller and Bobbie
Tim Miller and Bobbie. Photo by Michelle Haymoz.

That miracle continues. I didn’t start Ashtanga when I was young. I’m not athletic. I wasn’t even physically healthy. And past traumas in my life made me jumpy, unfocused, suspicious, and intensely private. I saw my future in the bent, broken, sick, and profoundly unhappy women in my family. It was Ashtanga that gave me a way out, allowed me to learn enough trust and find enough openness to accept myself, and to love Steve, my fellow blogger and emotional savior.

Why are you telling me this, Bobbie? you’re asking. Once again, I’d like to make a plea to the teachers out there to reconsider the student in front of them, to think about the reasons why you’re not teaching the series, whatever it is, and to set them free.

Ashtanga is an esoteric form. If you’re reading this blog, and got this far in this post, you know this. You understand just how esoteric it is every time you have to explain what you do to someone who has only a gym- or media-level understanding of yoga. Probably you don’t try. While that can make Ashtanga seem very clubby and cliquey, I feel like it has a very different effect. It makes it feel more like a form of private meditation, something that really doesn’t need to be described.

The announcement that Tim was going to be offering a Third Series Teacher Training came at the precise moment when I’d reached a sort of fat-and-happy meditative moment in the practice. His Second Series training came with all sorts of meta-physical benefits I hadn’t foreseen, a kind of mental house cleaning that I eventually saw as the real reason for Second Series, a house-cleaning that was made possible by being liberated from pain. That simply would not have happened had Tim seen my kapotasana as something I couldn’t do, as other teachers had done, instead of seeing it as something I could get benefit from as part of a larger practice.

So I was happy. I had a First and Second Series home practice. But I started to notice more of the symptoms of the joint degeneration I’d been living with for nearly two decades. My elbows and hips began to occasionally give out. Arthritis has crept into my hands and feet. I began to sense the need for something more, something stable and strengthening. And then. . .Tim Miller announces a Third Series Teacher Training. Ah well. So much for fat-and-happy.

Maria's good humor shining through. Via rateyourburn.com
Maria’s good humor shining through. Via rateyourburn.com

Back when my practice consisted—for years and years—of First and Second up to kapotasana, I approached Tim for help. I don’t have a regular teacher. I’m in pain. He welcomed me to his Second Series Teacher Training with love and good humor: “You come,” he said. And it was Maria Zavala, his student, who got me ready so I could get the most out of that two weeks in Encinitas with Tim. The entire endeavor was, basically, so Maria could pass along to me everything she’d learned about Second from Tim so I could understand what Tim was teaching—to remove the prestige and make it real, tangible. It was Maria who absorbed all the silly questions, Maria who brushed aside all the “this is impossible” moments, all the complaining: Maria, and through her, Tim. So here we are again. I’ve been accepted into Tim’s Third Series training, and Maria is once again getting me ready.

Maria has spent the last few months patiently leading me through the asana jungle that is Third (jangali kayamane), removing the mystery (again), shining light where there is darkness. Man, I can tell you I never thought I’d be looing in there, in that particular dark place, Third. But Maria’s energy and curiosity, her enthusiasm and good humor, have kept me going until I can see Third as a Series. Of poses. With very real benefits. So much of it seems so gleefully impossible. Years ago I wrote that Tim Miller’s great strength as a guru is that he shows you a way through the Impossible to the Possible. He never assumes he only knows what you can’t do; instead, he works with what you can do, and he looks for a route so you get to the heart of the pose, extract the maximum benefit. Maria has learned this from him: This is the way she was taught. This is the way she is teaching.

And this is what we discussed yesterday, as I fell into a puddle of sweat and laughter, after failing utterly to do a pose. It’s good, she says, to not to be able to do something, again. To be free to fail, so you can continue to improve. It’s a familiar feeling, familiar from the long journey from the first time you ever tried to do five surya namasaskara A followed by five surya namasara B. “Holy crap,” I remember thinking, “Are we done yet?”—No, as it turns out: You’ve just begun. And you will begin again, many times.

Posted by Bobbie

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Guest post: Practicing across from your teacher, who happens to be Tim Miller

After Bobbie and I got back from our trip down San Diego way for Tim Miller’s workshop, we saw that we’d missed — by a day — seeing our friend and frequent Ashtanga teacher, Maria Zavala. There she was (well, on Facebook), talking about being at Tim’s for his Sunday morning Second Series Led class.

There were a few gems in what she said, and so we asked — insisted really — that Maria send us something about it. She did.

Photo of Maria by Michelle Haymoz, from mariazavala.com

Before jumping in though, I’d encourage you to find our more about Maria at her website. And for our extra cool readers who live near West Hollywood, she’s now teaching Ashtanga from Monday through Friday (a mix of Mysore and Led) at the Yogaworks on North Fairfax.

Here’s what Maria sent:

***

This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to practice with my teacher. Since moving to Los Angeles almost six years ago, it has been quite a challenge to get to Encinitas to practice with Tim Miller, so those rare moments are truly treasured. Going to his Shala is like going home to where one grew up, filled with the comfort of familiar faces, welcoming smiles, and warm hugs. I am missed there as I miss Tim and the community he has built in his 30-plus years of teaching.

I clearly remember the day I asked him if I could attend his Second Series class back in 2003. I had been practicing with him for almost two years and was up to Eka Pada Sirsasana (one leg behind head pose). I had been struggling with this posture for more than a year, and it didn’t seem to be improving much. Sunday morning, all the great memories of practicing in Tim’s room came flooding back to me in his opening remark before class, “Let’s take the scenic route since most of us here today are over 40.” I quickly realized I was one of those people now. Yikes! The thing is, he has always taught Second this way. Scenic route means that “research postures” are incorporated into the practice before some of the most challenging poses in the Series — the places where most people can use any extra help they can get. Research happens before Kapotasana, the deepest backbend in the series, and before the “leg behind head series” as I like to think of those three postures smack in the middle of the practice that a lot of students can spend many years on, including myself.

Tim’s way of teaching Second is his and not traditional. He explains this in length during the Teacher Trainings so that students truly understand why he teaches this way. It’s always made sense to me. He found a way to keep a challenging practice safe and accessible for everyone. I teach it the same way, in Mysore class to the students who need it. I used the “research postures” for many years before letting them go, though on occasion, I will incorporate them when I feel they are needed. Intelligent discernment for longevity in practice.

This past Sunday I was reminded of how wonderful and special of a teacher Tim is. There’s his dry sense of humor, especially, sprinkled throughout class. Like when he asked, “Why? Do you have a doctor’s note?” to a student who wanted to skip Karandavasana (forearm balance, legs in lotus, lower to arms and back up again).

I practiced across from him, as he does the practice on this day with his students. After having spent the day before in my car driving to Encinitas, my body was feeling a bit stiff; I was thankful we were taking the “scenic route” through Second.

It’s pretty inspiring practicing with Tim, as he is a testament that one can do this intense vigorous practice our entire lives safely. He may use a prop here and there, but he can still bust out Second beautifully. I noticed that he did a quick Kapotasana (can you blame him), then adjusted students. He altogether skips Dwi Pada Sirsasana (I so wish I could also skip that posture). So he came over to adjust me in it. As he approached me, I heard the all-familiar, drawn out, “Hmmmmmmmm” as he adjusted me. It’s my least favorite and most challenging posture in the series for me, and though I’ve been practicing Second for more than 10 years, this pose doesn’t get any easier or better. I’m fine with that. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, as Tim had told me many years earlier, “ I don’t think you are anatomically correct for this pose.”  At the time he made the remark, I was initially horrified, then realized he was right.

I was  also avoiding practicing Second or skipping practice altogether because I did not like the posture I was on at the time — Eka Pada Sirsasana. His remark made me realize that avoiding practice or Second wasn’t helping. He was actually being honest, and at the same time, letting me know that “avoiding was not the answer,” another favorite phrase of his. Tim has always given me light, but effective adjustments in these postures (he has compassion), as he did on this day, thankfully. The love Tim has for the practice and for his students can be felt and seen even in the comical faces he sometimes makes when he’s looking down at you, about to adjust you in a challenging posture that you know is nowhere near what the pose should look like, or on this particular day, as he stood across from me, the furrowed, raised eyebrows and wide eyes, right before diving into Uttanasana (standing forward bend), after having done nine backbends.

It’s a special, intimate relationship one builds with an Ashtanga teacher. There is a lot to be said for spending two hours a day, six days a week with one teacher. You learn the system the old school way, just by being in the energy of your teacher. Almost by osmosis. I’m ever so grateful to have Tim as my teacher. Through his stern, yet loving discipline, he taught me so much about the practice. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today if it weren’t for him.

***

That pretty well sums up Timji and his love of the practice. (Oh, and his Ram Navami-focused blog post is here.)

Posted by Steve

Stand up, drop back: Some backbending instruction for you

A highlight for me from the Confluence was getting dropped back — all the way.

I’ve had a few teachers be brave enough to drop me back, those half-backs or whatever they might be called. You know the ones: arms crossed, back you go.

Tim Miller is the only teacher who has picked me up from a backbend. But he’s never dropped me all the way back — not that I don’t think he could.

Well, one miraculous teacher at the Confluence managed to get me back down onto my hands. Not back up, though. These teachers are smart, after all.

All that is a preamble to say: This video is beyond me. But I’m sure it’s not beyond lots of you.

It’s of Maria Zavala — who helped prep Bobbie for Tim Miller’s Second Series training last summer. It’s how to dropback in Urdvha Dhanurasana:

Maria, I think it is safe to say, is also a good friend of ours. We met for a glass of wine last Sunday, in fact. Maria’s got what is often called “terrific energy.” She’s also a serious student of both practicing and teaching Ashtanga. We think she’s awesome. She’s helped both of us a ton in our practices. She might just help you if you give this video a look.

For those going to Kino MacGregor’s workshop in Los Angeles next weekend, this is where it will be. That’s Omkar 108.

Posted by Steve

The only preparation for backbends is…

Yesterday, as Steve noted, we went to a workshop at the old Center for Yoga (now YogaWorks) run by our friend, Maria Zavala. Maria called her class, “Urdvha Dhanurasana Vinyasa Flow,” although she was careful to give credit for its first incarnation to Tim Miller.

Asked to do a class for a photo shoot–so long ago Maria couldn’t remember the exact year–Tim came up with a sequence that, according to Maria, had some fairly seasoned people huffing and puffing. It was something like this: after the first suryanamaskaras, asana, vinyasa, jump through, lie down, urdva dhanurasana for five breaths, stand up, vinyasa to the next pose, repeat.

That’s right: For every vinyasa, an urdva dhanurasana.

Wheels within wheels: a chambered nautilus.

I’ll let that sink in for a second.

Maria, of course, adapted this so it was more appropriate for a YogaWorks class, and to suit her students. Some, like myself and Steve, can’t stand up from backbend, so we rolled forward and stood up for another vinyasa. Later in the class, we used the wall to stand up. But doing so many backbends, you lose count, is an amazing thing.

Amazing on a number of levels. I’m full of admiration for Tim, who is numbered among those of us who are Stiff of Back. “Avoidance is not the answer” is something you’ll often hear him say, and clearly he applies that to himself. Maria quoted something Tim is also fond of saying: “The only preparation for backbends is…backbends.”

And for me, the timing is perfect. I’m practicing regularly at home. I’m just learning what a pain-free back can do. Backbends have always been an antagonist. I never thought doing more of them would turn out to be a good thing, or even a useful thing. So, adding even more than the usual at the end?

Maria didn’t shy away from backbends as the asana between backbends. Shalabhasana A and B? Yes. Then a backbend. Dhanurasana? Yes, with some urdva dhanurasana on top. Ushtrasanalaghuvajrasana…kapotasana? With extra backbends, please. It was awesome.

“You’ll be sore tomorrow,” she told us, “but you’ll feel amazing.”

Are we? Shockingly, no. We did giggle like school kids all the way home, for no apparent reason. We’ve done a little griping about our hips, but no biggie. I’m writing this sitting on the beach, and Steve’s paddled out to surf. We both feel great, in fact.

Maybe it was because Maria closed with some nice twists.

Posted by Bobbie