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

“Teach the way I taught you.”

In a post a while back, I put up a link to Nancy Gilgoff’s description of the sequence as it was taught to her and David Williams. During class today, Nancy produced a copy of a long typescript (man, I miss typewriters–I’m that old) Guruji gave her when they left Mysore, listing the poses and the sequences, so they could practice (David Swenson had not yet written his book). Being Ashtangis, we immediately got pedantic about it, flipping through the pages, looking for discrepencies and differences, asking questions like, “What’s prasarita E?”

Well, funny you should ask. Apparently, it involves the assuming the usual prasarita position, but with the chin on the ground. When the pose disappeared from the sequence, Nancy asked, “What happened to prasarita padottanasana E?” Guruji replied, “Some research. Bad for neck.”

“I could’ve told you that,” she thought.

Which brings up something Nancy said at The Confluence that has stuck with me: “We were the research.” The early students formed the practice. So when Nancy asked Guruji, “How shall I teach?” He told her, “Teach the way I taught you.” Because the class was small, the students were willing, and the teacher was learning, each future teacher learned a different way. The lesson here, of course, is to teach the way you were taught, and all is coming.

In any case, here it is, from Nancy. In full:

Ashtanga Yoga As It Was
(The Long and Short of It)

“The following is the way in which Guruji taught me, Nancy Gilgoff, the Primary and Intermediate series of Ashtanga Yoga during my first trip to Mysore, in 1973. David Williams and I stayed for four months that trip, and had two classes per day (excluding Saturdays and Moon days).

In the first class, I was taught to do five Surya Namaskara A, plus the three finishing postures – Yoga Mudrasana, Padmasana, and Tolasana. The second class, later that day, was five Surya Namaskara A and five Surya Namaskara B, plus the three finishing. In the next class, Guruji told me to only do three each of Surya Namaskara A and B, and to keep it that way in my practice, and then began adding on at least two postures per class, always with the three finishing at the end.

Guruji taught me the standing postures through Parsvottanasana, with no Parivritta Trikonasana or Parivritta Parsvakonasana. After Parsvottanasana he had me jump through to Dandasana.

In the seated postures, there were a minimal number of vinyasas. There were no vinyasas between sides. Moreover, there were no vinyasas between variations – so all of Janu Sirsasana A, B, and C were done together (right side, left side of A, right, left of B, right, left of C), then a vinyasa before Marichyasana. Then all of the Marichyasana variations, A, B, C, and D, were done together, without vinyasas between sides or variations; then a vinyasa before three Navasana. Baddha Konasana, Upavishta Konasana, and Supta Konasana were also grouped together without vinyasas between them. Ubhaya Padangusthasana and Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana were also done together, with no vinyasa between – we were taught to simply change the hand position after Ubhaya Padangusthasana and go right into Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana.

After Setu Bandhasana, Guruji added in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana – but to be put in the series back in the standing sequence, after Parsvottanasana. (Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana were not in the series at this point, nor were Parivritta Trikonasana or Parivritta Parsvakonasana, all of which were added in later.

Once Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana were taught and added into their place in the standing sequence, after Setu Bandhasana, Intermediate began immediately with Pashasana. In fact, David and I had no idea that there were two separate series until the end of that first four-month trip, when we were leaving, at which point Guruji gave us a sheet of paper with a list of the postures, which were listed as Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, and Advanced B. At this point he told us to practice one series a day, and only once a day. While we had been with him in Mysore, we had learned both Primary and Intermediate series in the first two months. He had us practice both series, together, in entirety, twice a day.

Intermediate Series also contained fewer vinyasas back then. There were no vinyasas between sides (in Krounchasana, Bharadvajasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana, Eka Pada Sirsasana, Parighasana, and Gomukhasana). From Shalabhasana through Parsva Dhanurasana, the asanas were done in a group, with a vinyasa only at the end. Ushtrasana through Kapotasana also were done all together, with a vinyasa only after Kapotasana. The same went for Eka Pada Sirsasana through Yoganidrasana – there were no vinyasas until the Chakrasana after Yoganidrasana.

The Intermediate series, as Guruji taught it to us during that first trip, included Vrishchikasana after Karandavasana. We were taught to hold Pincha Mayurasana for five breaths, bring the legs into lotus and lower down into Karandavasana, hold five breaths, inhale up, and then exhale right into Vrishchikasana for five breaths. The series ended with Gomukhasana. David asked for more, and so, per his request, Guruji added Supta Urdhva Pada Vajrasana as well as the seven headstands – Baddha Hasta Sirsasana A, B, C, and D were taught first, with Mukta Hasta Sirsasana A, B, and C following. Guruji said these were from Fourth Series.

Backbends from both the floor (Urdhva Dhanurasana) and standing (“drop-backs”) were taught after Intermediate Series, as was the rest of the finishing sequence (Paschimottanasana, Salamba Sarvangasana, Halasana, Karnapidasana, Urdhva Padmasana, Pindasana, Matsyasana, Uttana Padasana, and Sirsasana). Up until this point, we had just been doing Yoga Mudrasana, Padmasana, and Tolasana at the end of our practice.

Guruji taught us Pranayama after we had learned the entire Intermediate Series (at the end of our third month in Mysore, about a month after learning all of Intermediate).

I think it was when Guruji came to teach on Maui in 1980 (in Paia) that he added in so many vinyasas, while teaching led classes. When I asked him whether or not to do them in my own practice, as I had been practicing without Ð as he had taught me, he told me to add in the vinyasas to build my strength. By that trip in 1980 there was still no Parivritta Trikonasana, Parivritta Parsvakonasana, Utkatasana, or Virabhadrasana in the practice. (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. (Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana were perhaps added in at some point in the late 1980’s.)

Originally there were five series: Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, Advanced B, and the fifth was the “rishi” series.”

Posted by Bobbie