Couch Potato Ashtanga

In addition to Steve’s disturbing Moon Day poem, I spotted these two videos posted on the Facebook by William Wilson as I tooled around with my extra Moon Day time. I met the wonderful William at an Adjustment Workshop Nancy did here in Los Angeles. Although just a week long, I never practice without thinking of Nancy and bringing something she taught me into play. “I can’t hear you breathing,” she announced one day, “They should be able to hear you outside!” One day, I’m going to go to Maui.

So on this Moon Day, kick back and watch Nancy’s Led Primary at the last Confluence. Thanks once again to SACTV8 for posting.

And part 2:

Posted by Bobbie

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How Pattabhi Jois taught Nancy Gilgoff, as taught by Nancy

As promised, a rundown of Nancy Gilgoff’s “How I was taught” workshop from the Confluence. I want to stress that I can’t call this definitive; I took some notes, and then practiced, and some of it becomes hazy in between. Hopefully there will be some ideas and changes that are fresh and useful.

As an important reference point, here’s a link to the 1973 asana syllabus that is the touchstone for much of what’s to come, although it isn’t exactly the same. Here’s page one:

The basic organization of this workshop, which went for about two hours, was that Nancy talked for about 30 or 40 minutes up front and then we went through most of the asana sequence, “primary series,” as she learned it 40 years ago. (A few poses into Second/Intermediate by our reckoning today.) For her, that meant many fewer vinyasas, neither of the twisting standing poses and — here’s a notable point — no backbends. (Hurrah, I say! Also, no shoulder stand or headstand.)

The most important message to get out, though, is this: Nancy stressed the “compassion of the guru,” of Guruji. That compassion, combined with his well-known fierceness, came through as one defining characteristic of his. And I mean one: It seemed as though both traits were braided together in a fundamental way.

It also should be noted that Guruji essentially adjusted her in every single pose. And when I write that, I mean it to a greater extent than how we now think of that. At the beginning, Nancy recounted, she was so weak that Guruji would pick her up and throw her back in the vinyasas and toss her back through, as well. Plus, Guruji’s English was limited enough that he had to be hands-on. He effectively put her in every pose.

(Another point. Nancy said she and David Williams recently had been “comparing notes” about their initial interactions with Guruji, and while Nancy wasn’t getting vinyasas, as Guruji was picking her up, throwing her back, tossing her back forward, he was teaching David to jump back on his own. So for David the vinyasas were there. This, I think, sheds light on the individual teaching the early Western students received.)

As for breathing, Nancy learned to focus on having the inhale and exhale be the same length. You’re not trying to length the breath, she said. It should be natural. And, she said, you can breath more quickly in the difficult moments.

“It’s a much more inward practice,” she said. “It’s much more nurturing. What’s going on inside is what’s interesting.”

She made another point, which we’ve talked about before: No dinking. She said this a few times during the weekend. Quit adjusting your clothes, brushing your hair out of your face, etc. You get into the pose — and as far as you can go that day is where the pose is — and breath and move on to the next pose.

That’s the extent of what I can get from the notes I took as she talked. Here are my impressions of the practice:

  • She’s right. It is much more inward. Perhaps it’s because there are fewer opportunities to let your gaze wander.
  • Here’s a difference: In the Surya forward folds, she wanted palms on the floor/mat even if it meant bending your knees. As someone who has his fingers on his calves at “trini”, this was substantially different — especially the transition back to chaturanga.
  • Essentially, there are no vinyasas between sides of the seated poses, and — I’m about 99% sure I have this correct — there are none during the whole Janu and Marichy sequences. You move directly from a to b to c to d. That is just about 100% different. (Obviously, the point here is for you to try this.)
  • There were plenty of times when people starting into a vinyasas when there wasn’t one. We are fairly pre-programmed.
  • The other major changes: No uthkatasana or warriors and, originally, Uttitha and Arda Baddha came at the end. (Again, I think I have that correct, and this counters the 1973 syllabus.) Also:  3 Surya As and Bs (not five) and only three navasanas. She may have mentioned a Prasarita E?

I hope that makes sense. Honestly, as I think back I’m blanking on whether there were vinyasas between all of the seated poses. I think there were — just not within them (between sides). If anyone else who was there can shed more light on this (warning, Iyengar pun?), please do!

Update: Kate O’Donnell posts about her “pre-teen” Ashtanga years with Nancy, with some thoughts about how the teaching of the practice has shifted. Kate’ll be back in Boston at the end of the Month for y’all in that area.

Posted by Steve

“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

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 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