What’s Third Series Done for Me Lately?

Tim teaching, Guruji looking over his shoulder.
Tim teaching, Guruji looking over his shoulder.

Years ago when I took Tim Miller’s First and Second Series teacher trainings here in Encinitas, my favorite part of the discussion of the poses was the moment when we focused on the specific benefits of each asana. In First Series, Tim would also read from Pattabhi Jois’s Yoga Mala, where Guruji carefully describes benefits, which seem to often involve the…ahem…anus. In Second, things were more anatomy-oriented, and we often focused on the subtle body as well.

Tim set up Third Series by describing its place in context with the other two. First is of course yoga chikitsa—“yoga therapy”—chiefly for the digestive track. Its focus is on the hip joints, and opening up the back of the body. Also, getting rid of excess upana. Frankly, “bad fat.” Tim called it “cleaning the plumbing.”

If First is the plumbing, he said, “Second is for the electrical system.” Nadi shodhana is of course, nadi cleansing. It frees the flow of prana in the body. Tim pointed out you get “periodic tests for lightness” in Second.

Third—sthira bhaga: “divine stability”—is for “stabilizing that awakened energy.”

So my ears perked up as we started to go through the poses. I was waiting for descriptions of each asana‘s benefit, how it fits into this divine stability. “The benefits are collective,” Tim told us. “Make some up.” So, I thought I would. Here goes.

If the benefits of Third overall are to bring all the elements of an Ashtanga asana practice together (namely, strength, balance, flexibility) into a practice of stability, and if stability comes from the mental focus required in Third, then there must be some subtle and maybe not-so-subtle distinctions among the poses of the Series.

It seems to me that the high attention that the practitioner has to pay to the sense of the body in space (it requires “highly advanced propriaperception,” Tim pointed out), then the movement from side to side, finding a variety of ways to use the body as a weighted balance, is different as Third Series goes along.

It may be that I’m focusing on this because of the way I learned Third. Which was exactly like the way I learned Second: As a series, entire; not pose-by-pose with long spaces of time in between. But it feels to me like:

We begin with the lateral body, strengthening the hips but also increasing the range of motion in them. Bandhas are a prerequisite, but we’re not just using them for their own sake now (as we might just to breathe correctly in First). You must use them to strengthen muscles in the lateral body. The leg goes behind you, one side at a time, over and over. These movements require strength, a successive opening in rarely accessed muscle groups, and also involve the neck, cervical vertebrae, lower back muscles in resistance, and the feet.

Then in the lifts your years of lotus pay off! But its quality is different. It’s a working lotus. We also develop greater range of motion and strength in the wrists, and all of the core muscles must work at the same time—that is, the back and front of the torso—to do those poses. Even the muscles of the fingers work here.

Then the shoulders (which gain great strength in the difficult to access rotator cuff muscles, by the way) and hip flexors in arm balances that draw on this lateral strength; swinging the legs in space, the quadriceps working in harmony with hamstrings, and the hands, which must grip the floor firmly and evenly.

There’s some radical twisting and folding next. While most of us are just happy to sit down finally, the extremity of these poses seem to point to a need to take an already flexible and strong practitioner into some twists and folds that will find all those spaces you haven’t yet twisted—in the back, hips, shoulders, and feet—and twist them now again.

Hamstrings feeling tight? The series then sends the practitioner into a set of poses that by themselves aren’t hard at all, but they come in the back third, so to speak, of Third, so they seems so much more difficult than they would be out of context. Hello, humility! But also opening, extending, unfolding of a lot of muscle groups that have been pretty bound up, and a whole new way to access stability muscles as we stand–utterly fatigued–on one leg.

Which of course gets you ready for that beautiful back bending sequence of Third, which somehow brings together all the strength and agility required up to this point into play: Balance, strength in the actual supporting muscles of the back of the body: You can’t just surrender to these backbends. Here is where you realize that “back bends” are misnamed. They are back extensions.

So this is the story of Third I tell myself, and I told Tim that while I sometimes can’t even execute the state of the pose in some cases, and often have to modify or approximate the pose, I still find great benefit in the attempt. As I get older, I will need all the strength and stability I can find in my body, and in my mind. The arthritis in my hands and feet benefit. My hips benefit. The torn labrum in my shoulder is an afterthought now. But to me that mind part is the most important benefit of Third. Wake up! I tell myself when I roll the mat out. The more awake we are, the better.

Posted by Bobbie

You Get By with a Little Help…from Your Teacher

Ashtanga is full of interesting paradoxes. You can’t “advance” until you’re “proficient,” but since the higher levels of proficiency in the practice are less tangible than asana, proficiency can be impossible to demonstrate. Understanding these paradoxes is why we have teachers.

It’s pretty clear, for instance, that I am not proficient in a number of asanas from First and Second Series. Probably if I were held to the same standards as a beginning student now as I might have been 13 years ago, I would’ve been stopped at marychiasana C (the continuing degeneration in my back make the bind on the left very hard, and if I “go for it,” I sometimes have to stop my practice).

Still, there is wisdom in moving through the whole series, and in our training yesterday, this was palpable in the room as we moved into the widely despised “foot-behind-the-head” sequence in Third Series.

I don’t despise it. My doctor gives that deep forward bending credit for removing the deep, severe pain I had in my back. So while they’re not easy, I’m motivated, and they have made the muscles supporting my spine very strong. There is a contingent in the room who not only doesn’t mind these poses, they like them. Still, the squeaky wheels get the grease.

As I was learning the poses from Maria Zavala, however, it became clear that she did not share my enthusiasm. Maria’s here at the training with me, and she was part of a chorus of voices who were dreading these poses.

Maria, like many others, has a lot of trouble putting her foot behind her head, but Tim Miller, in his wisdom, has let her (and me) move past the poses she’s not “proficient” at so she can gain the benefits of the later parts of the series.

But still, when you get to them as you practice, something has to be done. Here is what Tim did for Maria in the very difficult bhairavasana:

I told Maria afterwards that if you photoshopped Tim out of the shot, it would look like she was doing the pose perfectly, with ease and stability. Also, bonus smiles! He also showed her how to use a strap to put herself into the pose, so she can continue to gain a deeper understanding of the method, and maintain the integrity of the design of Third.

Posted by Bobbie

Third Series Training Begins…at the Beginning

Day Three of Tim Miller’s Third Series Teacher Training has begun, and a collection of some 40 teachers and students of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga have descended on Encinitas to learn about Stihira Bhaga—“Divine Stability.” They have come from all over the world—Germany, Switzerland, England—and all over the U.S.—Nevada, North Carolina, Louisiana—and there are some locals and some Californian, too. It’s a good group.

Some are teachers and shala owners looking to take what they learn back to their students. Some are long-time practitioners looking to learn the series in more detail. Some are students without a shala, stuck on a pose and unable to advance without more knowledge and are here to get it. While our motivations for being here may vary, Tim is in top form and being very meticulous.

Day One began at 6 a.m. with the full, six-part Ashtanga pranayama sequence with what seemed like full-sized inhales, exhales and retentions (these were actually shorter than normal, I was told).

The masterful hands of Tim Miller.

And although the more eager among us may be ready to take off into Third, these first days are a careful review of all the standing poses up to virbradrasana B. To some it may seem like he’s going slowly, but this is my fourth training with Tim, and I have my First Series training book in front of me full of the notes from three other trainings, and he’s actually going quite fast.

He also knows his audience—practitioners who are in deep in Ashtanga asana—and he’s hitting all the aspects of each pose with no dumbing down: counting, anatomy, adjusting, the emotions of the pose, its reasoning, its variations. And then we move on. Yesterday, because he was asked, he ran through the pranayama sequence faster than I’ve ever heard him do before. There are certain assumptions of knowledge, but also an understanding. He is, in other words, passing what he knows on to a new generation of teachers, which is an awesome responsibility on both sides.

For myself, I wait for the stories behind the asanas—their history, the way the changes in the practice came to be, the reasoning behind certain choices Tim has made as a teacher, and of course the stories of the rishis, gods, and heroes of his practice and teaching. Hanuman looms large.

But I’m also here to practice with Tim and my fellow students. I’ve done my rickety interpretation of Third—the series that is saving me from hip replacement surgery—in the Mysore room with some awesome people around me. And today I got my favorite adjustment.

As I came into trikonasna, Tim once again sidled up to put me in my correct place (he’s been working on my trikonasana for years). As he pulled my shoulder firmly but gently back, he stuck out his index finger and tugged at the corner of my mouth to make me smile.

It did.

Posted by Bobbie

What to Expect from a Tim Miller Yoga Teacher Training

I have a few friends who are part-time yoga teachers who did not do Ashtanga teacher trainings, and to them I say, good for you. But pretty much nothing of what I’m about to say applies to you.

And perhaps I’ll also preface by saying that my knowledge of other kinds of teacher trainings—Ashtanga trainings included—is purely anecdotal. Although I have trained with other senior Ashtanga instructors (Nancy Gilgoff, David Swenson, Dena Kingsberg, David Williams, Annie Pace), Tim Miller’s trainings have had the greatest impact on me, so that’s all I’m going to talk about here.

Ashtanga does have a certification/authorization system centered in Mysore, but the beautiful thing about Ashtanga is that the best teachers emerge from an ancient and time-honored system, the apprentice teacher. I wish all forms of teaching still used this: A potential candidate emerges from a group of long-time students that the teacher feels would be an excellent teacher as well, and the teacher begins to pass along that knowledge over time, working side-by-side with that student.

The student-teacher not only learns from the master, but also has a set of watchful eyes around that can correct mistakes. The student-teacher, in other words, has the luxury of being able to learn from screwing up. Without that kind of feedback, improving as a teacher is very difficult—teaching should never be done in private, in a vacuum. And from this growth, innovation happens. There is a cooperative, student-master conversation. That’s very different from signing up for a training, absorbing some information, then heading out the door with your certificate. Or just paying to show up to practice for a certain amount of time with the teacher.

Tim’s Encinitas-based trainings seem to try to encapsulate and concentrate the apprentice model. For two weeks, his trainees swoop down on a working shala and soak up all the information they can. This summer, I’ll be in my fourth training with Tim. But it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever teach Third Series. No, what I’m going for is the gravy that spills over from the that ostensible purpose of learning to teach: What is the deeper meaning of this series? How does it fit in to yoga in its wider sense? I’ll get my Third Series Manual when I check in, and off I’ll go.

Tim’s shala remains open to its regular classes during his trainings, and he continues to teach them. This includes Tim’s daily 6 a.m. pranayama practice, which includes the entire Ashtanga pranayama sequence. Once this concludes, the daily classes start, and the trainees either take, observe, or assist in these classes (although we’re only allowed to adjust our fellow trainees). This also includes some late afternoon/early evening classes he teaches after the training sessions, which has led me to dub Tim “the hardest working man in Ashtanga.” It seems like he never leaves.

The middle part of the training day is divided into two parts: Practice and Theory. Trainees go through each pose in order, part by part. Each asana and its possible adjustments and modifications is anatomized, scrutinized, and demystified (including the magical incantation of the counts). If you never intend to teach yoga, this aspect of Tim’s training alone is worth the price of admission. In the moving target of daily practice, so much goes unsaid. Here, it gets said. There are lots of questions, and they get answered. Trainees demonstrate, and this is most useful when the trainee can’t quite make it to the state of the pose. Tim diagnoses why, and looks for a way forward. For each pose, we practice the counting and adjustments on each other. The vibe in the room is warm and full of good humor. Lifetime friendships are made.

The “theory” part of that day involves the deeper underpinnings of Ashtanga, and this is my favorite aspect of Tim’s training. There are stories, chants, singing, philosophy and astrology. Exhausted and with minds blown, trainees disband for the evening (or attend another class) and come back in the morning to start it all over again.

Does any of this teach you how to teach? Will you be a good teacher when you walk out the door? If you weren’t already good when you walked in, probably not. But what you will have is a great bank of knowledge to use in your practice, and in the practice of teaching if you’re into that. Teaching is an art form, so neither study, time, or even experience will bestow that skill on you—certainly a teaching certificate can’t. But Tim’s trainings will help you make the most of the skill you have, whether that be in teaching or on your own mat. And they offer an opportunity to watch a master teach, and teach teaching. But beyond all that, they offer a way to integrate the greater benefits of Ashtanga into your daily life, a priceless and precious gift.

Posted by Bobbie

Would real yoga governance mean shutting down most teacher trainings?

One piece to this story about how England — like virtually everywhere else — lacks real oversight of yoga instruction and training caught my eye:

The BWY is the official governing body for England, appointed by Sports England, but this fancy title comes with no power, only recognition amongst those in the know.

If Paul had the power to go into training institutions around the county he said he would likely close 75% of them down.

That’s a pretty strong indictment, albeit from someone who’d stand to benefit from getting more power to approve or disapprove of teacher trainings.

Beyond that the story touches on mostly familiar territory.

On the opposite end of the yoga spectrum, the Washington Post has a series of pretty wonderful photos of Himalayan holy men in yoga poses. Click here.

Posted by Steve

Since Third Series is the news of the week: Here it is

I’ll go ahead and say that Tim Miller’s announcing he’ll be doing a Third Series Teacher Training next summer is the big Ashtanga news of the week.

If you’re wavering on whether to go, here’s a reminder of what you’ll be in for:

And here’s another version we posted a while back.

Yes, I will just be practicing and surfing. Know thyself.

Posted by Steve

Guess you’d call this the official Ashtanga teacher training

This summer, the Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore is holding a two-month course for already authorized or certified teachers.

Info is right here. As it notes, applications have to be in by March 1, and the course is invite only. It runs from June 29 to August 28. Cost is roughly 67,000 Indian Rupees, or about $1,050.

My first reaction is: Whoa, it’ll be hot.

My second is: I’m not seeing much chatter about this. I’d think that it would produce some talk about the value of teacher trainings, etc. etc.

I also guess I should be explicit: I’m using the “teacher training” phrase; the Institute doesn’t. But it sure seems like the easiest way to describe a two-month course of study for teachers.

My third reaction is: What will it include? Right now, there’s no outline or program. I do note this from the description: “A two-month course to improve on your existing practice and deepen your studies.” It doesn’t say anywhere that there will be a focus on teaching; rather, it sounds like it is continuing the emphasis on practice, with teaching following along after that.

You’d suspect there would be some focus on teaching, if everyone there is authorized/certified and, you’d figure, teaching in some form or another. But how scripted it all will be, we’ll have to wait and see. (And maybe if they just send a schedule to those attending, most of us won’t see.)

I also wonder if it will include other pieces often included in teacher trainings: anatomy, sutra/text study, a hands-on going through of the poses.

Also no word on how big it will be, just that there is a cap.

Posted by Steve

The “Six Course Meal” of Ashtanga Pranayama

It’s a great way to wake up.

Every morning at 6 a.m., Tim does a pranayama circle at his shala. When teacher trainings are in session, the circle extends to his trainees, and Tim teaches pranayama step by step. And by “step,” I mean baby steps. We start with the most basic pranayama forms, and as we progress the training wheels of the basic exercises (like following the breath up and down the seven chakra positions, and short retentions) fall off and we move to more sophisticated retentions.

It’s not really my place to teach pranayama in this blog (there’s a full breakdown and description here—thanks to Alicia Johnson for finding it), but I will say that every day of our training, Tim has been adding either longer retentions and/or the next form. On Wednesday, we got the full system. In more user-friendly, but very basic terms, it is:

  1. Exhale and inhale retentions (rechaka kumbhaka and puruka kumbhaka)
  2. Retentions on both the inhale and the exhale (puruka rechaka kumbhaka)
  3. Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana)
  4. Bellows breath (bhastrika)
  5. Single-side inhale retentions (surya and chandra behdana)
  6. Cooling breath (sitali).

“Are you ready for the full six course meal?” Tim said, as we gathered around in a circle, “This will take about 45 minutes. It could be the longest 45 minutes of your life. Or it could be the best.”

Tim guides you through using a series of hand signals he’s developed, so we know where we are at any given moment in the sequence. He watches the time, so we feel secure in the knowledge that someone’s keeping watch over us, and being merciful (perhaps “compassionate” would be a better word) with retention length. We’re free to experience pranayama without preoccupation with the math, in other words—but Tim’s advice is to learn to count the retentions and cycles as you go through it with him. It’s exactly like taking a led class. Only for pranayama.

At this point, we’ve been schooled in the various purposes of the pranayama exercises. Tim has also gone over the history of it, and we’ve heard many stories of Guruji’s epic inhales and monolithically long exhale retentions, stories of experienced and knowledgeable practitioners (here unnamed) walking away, unable to endure.  The teaching of pranayama requires a lot of attention and supervision, so as the years progressed and Mysore became more crowded, Guruji’s requirement for learning it became more strict. Tim takes a more democratic approach. He taught it at the Confluence, and usually teaches some form of it wherever he goes.

Tim has also discussed when to do it (the times of transition in the day: sunrise, noon, sunset; or before or after practice), and its benefits. The most obvious benefits are found in Patanjali: Controlling the fluctuations of the Mind. But there are others, involving the subtle body—Second Series shares its Sanskrit name with one of its forms, the alternate nostril breathing, nadi shodhana. It’s a facilitator for clarity, focus, attention—a form of practice.

For those of us in the circle, Tim’s Led Pranayama is both a private and a communal experience. The room is quiet, except for the sound of synchronized breath, and silence during the retentions. Some are experienced and regular participants of Tim’s daily practice. They anchor the circle. Throughout the whole set, the sound of Tim’s breath guides us: There is a clear distinction between the sound of his inhale and of his exhale. Even his inhale and exhale retentions have a distinct sound. You may get lost, but there’s always the potential to keep trying.

Some of us have been through pranayama with Tim many times. This was my first time going through all six forms at once. The feeling was indescribable. It was as if a series of windows opened in my body and mind. Whatever trepidation I felt about going through the sequence just fell away, and I was left to experience the benefits without fear. And then to take that clarity on to the mat, to practice more.

Posted by Bobbie

Second Series and the Subtle Body: Tim Miller’s Teacher Training

I’m looking through my notes from the first day of our training, trying to catch all of you loyal readers up. Now that Steve’s back at the ranch, holding down the fort, winning the bread, etc., I’ll retrace some of our steps.

Tim began by addressing the koshas. These are the “sheaths” (the meaning of the word kosha) covering the atman. That’s right: You’ve got more than one body.

These koshas have become of particular interest to me. Since Tim gave me his approval to come to his training, I’ve been practicing all of Second Series, start to finish. Maria Zavala has taken me though the practice pose by pose, patiently and generously helping me learn the sequence. She took me all the way through the first day I practiced with her, and since then—about two months now—I’ve been pain free.

I’ll repeat this for emphasis: Pain free, after eighteen years of virtually constant back pain.

Needless to say, I’ve been looking for an explanation for this sudden and unexpected absence of pain, as well as for other unusual side effects that have gone along with practicing second in its entirety–things like increased energy, a sense of lightness, and increasing physical awareness. There are other, more mysterious things. I seem to heal faster, recover faster, and my breath has improved. I’m running hotter, but don’t feel hot. That sort of freaky stuff.

The first day of our training offered some insights as to the value of a second series practice. “In first series,” Tim said, “you get into the body. In second series you blast off.”

So, to relate this to the koshas, the sheaths: The first kosha is anandamayakosha—the material body, the thing that eats. The second is pranamayakosha—as the name implies, the first layer of the subtle body, it’s the energy body.

Tim told us that our practice is, to some extent, an elaborate teaching tool to get us to the subtle body, and beyond, to atman. We are, shall we say, “challenged” when it comes to understanding ourselves this way. We over identify with the physical body. Second Series, he says, is designed to allow ourselves to experience our selves as more than this. Instead of identifying with what amounts to “thought forms” and patterns, we can learn, through Second Series, to identify with the essential self.

This resonates strongly with me, with the poet in me, with the lover of William Blake, who believed in the power of the imaginative body, in its literal existence, and the ways the imagination can make reality.

I had been hearing for most of my adult life—dating back to long before I practiced yoga, to when I read its philosophy—that asana was designed to prepare you to sit for long periods of time in meditation. This never quite made sense to me, until now. I was thinking it meant “prepare the body.” While that’s certainly true, it also means, “prepare the mind.” My sudden and unexpected liberation from chronic pain has also freed a lot of energy—subtle energy—and prepared me for the journey to come.

And left me with a deep and abiding gratitude toward my teachers, Tim and Maria, who have freed me from pain.

Posted by Bobbie

Practice. Watch. Repeat.

Tim at the shala, teaching, as always.

We just packed up Steve’s car and he’s headed back to Los Angeles. It was a great last day of his vacation, but I’m sad to see him go. Such is the life of a householder. It was a great week with him.

Today is our “day off”: which means no training. Only practice.

I began the day in Tim’s Led Second Series class, which is always fun because Tim practices right along with us, calling the names of the poses and the fifth breath, cracking a sympathetic joke every now and then. (My favorite? During bhekasana,“frog pose”: “Don’t croak!”) I was practicing between my friends Heidi Quinn and Michelle Haymoz. They radiate peace, even while I’m sweating like a roofer in mid-July.

Just as a side note, I’ve heard good news from Michelle. She will be joining me and Steve on the Namarupa sadhana yatra in December-January! That’s right: We’ll be bringing along a professional designer and photographer. I’m thinking we’re going to have the World’s Best Vacation Pictures. I’m so glad Robert Moses will be bringing her along to document our journey for Namarupa.

I stayed after class to observe Tim’s Led First Series, which is always a joy–made especially fun because I get to watch Tim adjust Steve. I never get tired of watching Tim teach. This class was intense; jammed, in fact–about as full as I’ve ever seen the shala, with two assistants working overtime as well. Tim’s boundless energy, even after practicing/teaching second series, is amazing. But what’s even more amazing is the level of effort his students give, the energy in the room. Much tapas.

Steve and I had a much deserved last day together on the beautiful beach in Encinitas, taking part in Nature’s own anti-inflammatory: the Pacific Ocean. Tomorrow, Mysore class. Then, we go deeper into our breakdown of second. But I’m most looking forward to watching Tim teach again. He does his Intro to Ashtanga at 5:30–the same class I teach. I’ll be there in the corner, taking notes.

Posted by Bobbie