Praising an important place: the shala

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing.


I always feel a pang when I hear a shala is closing; distance is no matter, so the closing of a Jois studio makes me sad for the students.

My very first Ashtanga class was at Yoga Path in Irvine, California–across from where I worked. I blundered into the Ashtanga class by accident; the Iyengar class was full. I had flirted with yoga off and on for a few years. Suddenly I found myself in a class unlike anything I’d been in before. I was totally lost. I couldn’t do any of it. I didn’t understand the Sanskrit. I was in love.

After that, I went to Ashtanga classes exclusively, and never looked back. A short while later, I bought a special annual membership to save money. It was the most I’d ever spent on such a thing.

The next time I went to class, I found the door locked and the lights off. A sign on the door informed me that Yoga Path was closed, had filed bankruptcy, and suggested I go to 24 Hour Fitness.

I was crushed, and panicked. I had just begun to feel some hope: A way out of constant pain. Even that this practice might offer me a higher study, a philosophy.

A quick search revealed that a YogaWorks close to home offered an “Ashtanga Prep.” So it was that I met Shayna Liebbe, who all by herself, with limited time and resources but unlimited energy, gave me my first sense of what the word “shala” means, and why it’s so important.

I thought I’d take a minute and reflect on what I miss in a shala, or school, for Ashtanga, now that Steve and I are practicing at home.

Number one, I miss the directed study. After my first class, Shayna handed me a little packet of information. It had all the poses (both in diagram and listed in Sanskrit with translations), the opening and closing prayer (and translation), the role of breath, what the bandhas are, what drishti does, and so on. I left with homework. Shayna, in other words, was a teacher–she used to make us recite the yamas during navasana and do backbends to the niyamas.

Small, focused workshops, weekend intensives, Sanskrit and diet classes—Ashtanga shalas have these. All supervised by an experienced teacher. One experienced teacher. And connected to the daily practice.

South we went!

Most of all, I miss Tim. That 100-mile trip sometimes seems more like a million. I wish I were one of those lucky folks who can roll out their rugs in Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Yoga Center every morning, those that use their practice to contribute to Tim’s ongoing research.

Research. I miss growing and learning with an enthusiastic teacher, who knows my practice, and will adjust according to the progress of my learning, or even how things seem that day—the adaptable teacher.

Of course, there’s also the community (Diana Christinsen, whose shala I called home for two years, uses a Buddhist term: sangha). There’s something really comforting about practicing next to someone you see every day, yet have barely spoken to, but still find solace in the shared experience of the practice.

So I hope the Ashtangis that found a home at Jois find a new home soon…the home that is a shala, and its teacher.

Posted by Bobbie

Eddie Stern’s Suryanamaskara A

This video is my speed, because it’s just a minute and a half long, and I’ll admit it: I have trouble staying focused on lengthier ones. At the same time, it neatly captures much of the Ashtanga fundamentals: control and pacing, focus and strength.

In other words, it packs a lot in in 90 or so seconds.

Here’s the link to where I found the video. (My headline is a little riff on its.) And Eddie’s quote from the same: “Just fifteen, twenty minutes a day can get you to a better place mentally. You don’t need an hour at the gym or equipment or even a yoga mat, just your body, breath, and a few spare minutes.”

Definitely one of the many things I appreciate about the practice is that, in the end, it is pretty simple: you and a small piece of ground.

Posted by Steve

Do your practice, every day, doesn’t apply just to Ashtanga

I know there was some consternation last week about Nancy Gilgoff’s defining an Ashtanga practitioner as someone who does the practice six days a week, every week, taking only Moon Days off.

It does sound a bit harsh, I guess, with not much room for failing to meet those proscribed definitions. (Elsewhere, I think, three days a week is the minimum “requirement” for an Ashtanga practice.)

Of course, I’d point out, Nancy also says practice doesn’t have to be in the morning (and the day off doesn’t have to be Saturday), so on some other fronts she might not meet some people’s Ashtanga yardstick.

More so, though, I think it is worth considering why there’s a focus on a continued, dedicated practice. And I turn to Krishna Das.

Here’s a link to a video of him at Yoga International (which I can’t get to embed). And here’s the accompanying text:

The one thing we have to do is some kind of practice every day. Even as little as 5 minutes of practice a day can be life changing over time. It opens our hearts and awareness from within, allowing us to let go of superficial things and rest more easily in ourselves. It’s the only way to know anything that really matters—the only way to get to shore as we find ourselves headed for the rapids. A teacher can point the way, but we have to do the practice.

Food for thought. And it sort of goes with David Garrigues’ thoughts on a teacher motivating students.

Posted by Steve

Nancy Gilgoff’s big message about the Ashtanga practice

Michelle Ryan at Florence Yoga just spent a few days (not for the first time) with Nancy Gilgoff, and she came away with a big, central message from Nancy. It goes like this:

“You have to do this practice every day, six days a week with moon days off (and menses off if you are a woman) in order for it to work.”

Michelle goes on to relate that Nancy also says you shouldn’t call yourself an Ashtanga practitioner if you don’t practice six days a week.

The caveat is what “practice” means. You’ll have to check out Michelle’s post to find out. (Although if you’ve been paying attention, here and elsewhere, you probably can guess.)

Posted by Steve

A conspiring life: Days away from the mat

Life is piling on Bobbie and me this week. Lots of little (and not so little) things all happening at once.

The result? No practice for four, maybe more days in a row.

Unused yoga mats, via

I believe I’ve written before that, a year ago, this would have been a big, big deal for me. I was still at a point where I felt like my Ashtanga Momentum (or AM, which often would lose steam due to the a.m. practices) was pretty shaky. The thought of missing a few days inevitably led to thoughts of, “Will I make it back to practice?” (AM, like prana, also is fueled by coffee.)

Today, I’d say I’m mildly annoyed that even Thursday is up-in-the-air for practicing. And Friday, at best, will be a fairly short one at home.

That’s a major improvement. I would have been freaking out a while back. (Truth be told, when I wrote it all down and see that even Friday is tentative, I’m a little sketched out.)

So, what’s changed? (Or at least changed a bit?) Well, in keeping with the beloved blogging tradition of lists, here are 6 reasons.

  1. The practice has set. Like plaster or grout, I think the practice is established and more or less permanent and here to stay. It is part of the routine, part of my daily expectation. I don’t feel like I’m dabbling anymore.
  2. I’ve learned that sometimes rest does do a body good. While I am still struggling for advancement — as measured by looser hamstrings and more open shoulders — I now know that giving the muscles some time to “take stock” of what they’ve been doing can help move me toward my “goals.”
  3. There’s a shala in my life. A year ago, there wasn’t. (Omkar is about to celebrate its year anniversary, in fact, this Saturday.) So I know the external impetus from that will be there.
  4. I’m not eating wheat. I mean, seriously, if I can not eat wheat for a month, I can recover from a few days off practice.
  5. I know there are other ways to practice yoga than just asanas. That’s been a progression this year. Maybe the harmonium comes out tonight. Or maybe, worst case, I just manage to sit quietly for a little while. My reading all fits into the slow progression toward… whatever I’m trying to progress toward.
  6. We’re doing this blog. So… I have to keep having something to write about, right?

In other words, it all will be OK. So, really, the only thing I’m actually upset about is that all these things in life conspiring against our practice also are forcing us still to get up early. What’s up with that?

Posted by Steve

Practice and study don’t always have to please you

I’ll admit it: Today’s one of those days when I’m feeling sorry for myself.

Practice was rough, especially after a bad night’s sleep. And work today is not affording my the opportunity to do what I’m desiring (lying on the beach, let’s say).

It’s just one of those days — I’m assuming we’ve all had them — when the after-effects of morning practice leave you a little dazed, a little confused.

I am taking a little solace in Richard Freeman’s last blog post, from July 13. It’s a little bit of switching the context, but for me, today, it helps. He is answering a simple question: What books on yoga should someone read who is just beginning to explore yoga philosophy? He finishes his answer with these words:

Another thought related to this: if a book disturbs you, pleases you, frustrates you, stimulates your mind—these are all important parts of the process of studying yoga philosophy. You don’t have to agree with everything that a book is saying about yoga.

Today, subbing in “your practice” for “a book” and those two sentences become a a bit of welcome solace. Practice did disturb me and frustrate me, as well as stimulate my mind. And I’m not especially agreeing with what it had to tell me.

But that’s an important part of studying yoga. And it was a timely reminder.

Posted by Steve