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

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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

“More Research”: Tim Miller and the evolution of Ashtanga

Research is going on here. More benefit!

It’s early Saturday morning, and a day of rest for me and my fellow teacher trainees (perhaps for you as well). There’ll be an afternoon training session, though, starting with more on the Yoga Sutras and ardha matsyendrasana.

There are so many wonderful things going on, it’s hard to sort out where to start, but my mind keeps coming back to one aspect of Tim’s teaching that I think is important to stress. I’ll give you a concrete example to illustrate.

As I’ve said, we’re going through Second Series pose by pose. A student volunteers to demonstrate what’s “correct,” and while s/he’s doing so, Tim walks around points out the pertinent aspects of the pose—where the emphasis should be (he’ll ask, “What’s the point of this pose?”), alignment, effort, drishti, etc. Then, students who are more shall we say challenged in the pose volunteer, and Tim will demonstrate modifications and various adjustments for us. The volunteer gets help with difficulties, and the viewers learn solutions. (I’m a frequent volunteer for this part—you know how I love to be of use.)

But this is no mechanical set of instructions. It’s true there are some old standbys; at the same time, the room is full of Ashtanga teachers who have learned their own solutions. We ask questions, and make suggestions. Then, we pair up and try them on each other.

Cases in point: dhanurasana and parsva dhanurasana. For dhanurasana, a student suggests trying the pose with a bolster under the sternum, lifting the chest, allowing more ease in connecting the loop and giving lift to the legs. As we break out into pairs, I glance up at the front of the room, and I see Tim trying this modification. This is a frequent occurrence. He’ll walk around while we’re adjusting each other, and then he’ll try the things we’re suggesting and give feedback.

In the illustration in our manual for parsva dhanurasana, the head is straight. Many of us ask about the drishti—most of us have learned to look over the shoulder and up. “I don’t like that,” Tim says—but he never leaves it at that. He always says why: “It twists the neck at an odd angle. I prefer to keep the extension going in the neck. The pose is an extension, not a twist.”

There’s more: In our manual, the knees are apart in this pose. Tim’s demonstrator has her knees together, which heshows us as “correct”: gravity takes them down. He adds, however: “Knees apart, o.k.” A few of us, including myself, have a little freak out. I’ve been told always, knees together. “No, apart’s o.k.” We break out, and I see Tim walking around watching, answering questions, trying the pose out. When we come back as a group, he says this:

“I revise my previous statement.”

The knees, he says, should be slightly apart; it allows for more extension, more quadriceps opening, allows more opening of the chest and even the possibility of getting into the psoas.

Which brings me to the point I’d like to emphasize about Tim’s training. Back in my training with Nancy Gilgoff, she made the point that in the early days of Mysore with Gruruji, she felt that work on the series was ongoing. “We were the research,” she said, meaning the early students.

In that post, I mourned the fact that Guruji called his shala “The Ashtanga Research Institute,” and that word “research” had fallen out of the title, which I find…problematic.

Tim is emphasizing the need for research all throughout our training. “We’re not robots,” he says. We’re thinking, feeling practioners in a constantly changing world. He believes strongly in the continued improvement of the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and he is teaching a generation of new students to follow this path. Not only is he teaching us what is “correct,” but he is teaching us how to correctly research.

More to come.

Posted by Bobbie

Second Series and the Body/Mind Connection: Notes from Tim’s Training

 

yoga sutras
The Yoga Sutras, in the original.

While I’m waiting for Steve to get back from a morning surf session, I thought I’d do a quick post from the trenches of Tim Miller’s Second Series Teacher Training.

First of all, it’s an amazing group, and a privilege to be practicing with them. This is my third training with Tim, so some are old friends. Some are friends from his Mt. Shasta retreats. A few I met at the Confluence. There’s some magic in the air. Tim said it best: “When a group of dedicated practioners get together to study, anything can happen.”

Right now, I’m still settling in, still warming up. In an earlier post, I said we’d all soften slowly. Things seem to be happening a little more rapidly than I was expecting. The “epic” (Tim’s word) Hanuman Chalisa on Tuesday was both moving and energizing. In short, I cracked open.

Tim began by delving into the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is something he always does. But he’s layering in new sutras, ones I can’t remember him covering before, and I’m seeing a pattern, a stress on recognizing the asana as a tool to connect us to the more subtle aspects of the body and the mind: “Are you doing the asana, or is the asana doing you?”

I’m trying to slowly understand the potential of what Tim is offering me, offering us. It may come down to three sutras for me: 1.31-1.33.  You can look them up yourself, but Tim told us these sutras are indicating a powerful mind/body connection. That suffering—both mental and physical—are in direct proportion to mental distraction. That we can cultivate happiness through the practice, through focusing on “one element.”

Tim: “When the mind is disturbed, the body is disturbed. When the psyche is disturbed, the soma is disturbed. And it works the other way around.” Ergo, “The body can change the psychological state. The breath is a powerful tool for this.”

A great gift. And when surrender happens, and mental stability is there, we have the potential to take part in the thing we’ve surrendered to—we can “actively participate in it,” we can become it (1.48).

I know. Mind blowing. So while we’re breaking down each asana, learning counts, adjustments, correct form, we’re also learning how to change ourselves, our students, and the world. Today, we start with parsvottanasana.

I think I’ll leave it at that. More to come!

Posted by Bobbie

 

Tim Miller’s Second Series Teacher Training: A Peek at What’s Ahead

On Friday, I head down to Encinitas for Tim Miller’s Second Series teacher training. Maria Zavala (also a student of Tim’s) as been working me over. Maria’s teaching has been a revelation–at once transformational and practical. By the end of practice yesterday, I was so jacked I’d forgotten my own name, totally yoga stoned. Thanks to her, I may maintain some dignity during the training. And, I got officially excited.

This will be my third training with Tim, so I have a fairly solid idea of what to expect. I thought you might like a little window into the way he runs his trainings, in case you’ve never been (you go!).

I think of Tim as the hardest working man in Ashtanga. If you read his Tuesdays With Timji post, you know he drove back from Shasta on Saturday, a long and tiring trip. Early Sunday morning, I promise you he was there for pranayama practice, and he was teaching. All during his trainings, Tim teaches his regular classes, and trainees practice in them along with Tim’s regular students. We’ll learn pranayama techniques early in the morning, then decide which classes to take, which to observe, which to assist. Most trainees go to his Mysore classes, but my guess is we’ll all be in his Sunday led Second. (Steve will be joining me for the first week, practicing with Tim, so expect more insights from him.)

So, you practice—in some cases, as in the led Second, with Tim Miller himself. Then, in the afternoon, we bust out our handy practice manual and start to break down the series, pose at a time. Volunteers demonstrate both proficiency and…difficulty, while Tim shows us the various adjustments and modifications. I’ll be volunteering to demonstrate the poses I have the most trouble with—in this way I’ll learn to deal with my blocked places, as well as how to help others.

During these demonstrations, we learn everything from anatomy to philosophy. The information is peppered with stories and jokes—and while everyone gets progressively more tired as the fortnight progresses, there’s always a warm energy in the air. We’ll spend time studying yoga philosophy, and we’ll end the day with song and story.

Some will stay for Tim’s later classes. That’s right: After teaching in the morning, then training us, Tim will teach his First Series or Intro to Second at 5:30. Those trainees who aren’t practicing then will stay and observe, or practice adjusting (on each other only!). You see why I call him the hardest working man in Ashtanga?

Tim adjusts talented photographer Michelle Haymoz.

We start to soften slowly, and by the end, nobody wants to leave and we’re all a teary, gooey mess. After my time with Maria, I feel like I’ve already started the softening process. I am understanding for the first time why it’s called “nadi shodhana”—nerve cleansing. I’m having trouble sleeping. I feel extremely alert. I would say I’m unusually “emotional,” for lack of a better word; but it feels more like I’m recognizing emotions, as an observer. Maybe you could describe it as “increased awareness.” There’s some transformation going on, and I can’t wait for our discussions of yoga philosophy to help me understand it, and discussions with my fellow students who have more experience than I do—I’m new all over again.

But I’m most excited about listening to Tim’s wisdom about this practice. He has a gentle authority, an eye for detail, and a way of sorting the important from the trivial. Steve has described Tim as possessing “fierce love.” That’s exactly what I need right now.

I can’t promise regular updates, but I’ll do my best.  See you on the other side.

Posted by Bobbie

Keep Ashtanga Weird!

Agni. Fire=transformation.

My first Ashtanga teacher training with Tim Miller was his intensive, one-week Tulum, Mexico version, in 2008. I was practicing with Diana Christinson then; when I told her I was thinking about going, but had some serious doubts about my readiness, she was nothing but enthusiastic. “Don’t worry,” she said, “By the time you go, you’ll be ready.”

I should say here that in hindsight, I’m not quite sure what made me say I was thinking about it. I had actually never met Tim, in spite of living within an hour’s drive of the shala—I’d only heard about him. The list of checkbox poses that you might think would indicate readiness was long and unchecked. I had an uncertain grasp on the sequencing itself. I couldn’t bind on my own in…almost everything. I couldn’t do anything like a backbend. I was terrified of headstand. I’d just  discovered the nagging pain I’d been having in my shoulder for years was a torn labrum and I needed surgery. The list goes on. What was I thinking?

So I had mentioned this (what now seems like a surpassingly stupid) idea to Diana (in passing, after practice) about eight months away from the training. The mere hint that I might go seemed to give Diana a laser-beam like focus on all aspects of my practice. She got on me for drishtis, for breath, for “dinking.” She made sure I got to a bind of some sort. She worked on my alignment. She gave me Second Series adaptations to help me in backbending. Before long, I actually started to think it might be OK if I went to see Tim at his shala (an account of that here). So I did. And through that experience, went to Tulum, which turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Now, I find myself in the exact same position I was in back when I’d started my first training. I’m studying the poses like a kid in a sandbox, throwing myself all over the place. My teacher Maria Zavala is on me like Diana was, minding my breath, making fun of me so I check my awareness. Making me repeat a pose until she sees some understanding going on. Every practice, she jams the information in, both physical (with her adjustments and research poses) and mental (with her advice and experience). I’m in awe of her, of what’s happening. But: Do I feel ready for my Second Series teacher training with Tim in two weeks? No way. Am I freaked out? Yes. And I’m so excited I can barely stand it.

All of this intensity comes with some wisdom I didn’t have in 2008: I’m aware that the existence of the trainings themselves is controversial. I was still fairly new to Ashtanga when I went to Tulum. I had no idea that the mere fact that there were things called “teacher trainings” outside of Mysore, India was a contentious issue. I had no intention of being an Ashtanga teacher, so it’s likely I wouldn’t have cared. I just had a deep thirst to know more, and I sensed there was a lot more to know, and that I wanted Tim to teach it to me. He’s still doing that.

So as I’m memorizing drishtis and transitions and sequences, I’m thinking I’ve learned a few things since I started. I’ve got some perspective on it as a life-long student and an ex-academic, and I’d like to go on record with the plea in my headline:

Keep Ashtanga weird.

Eddie Stern said something like this at the Confluence—that it was a remarkable thing that with no formal bureaucracy, no system of distribution or middle management or committees, or even, really a “central authority” that called itself such, the teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois spread with such consistency, and always accompanied with such passion for teaching more.

Sure there are controversies, starting with what a senior teacher calls his/her trainings (or even more basic, the use of the term “First and Second Series” over “Primary and Intermediate”—I’m never sure what to call it, really, beyond nadi shodana). That, I believe, is what makes it a living practice, like a living language. Stop adding to it, stop adapting, and it freezes up, becomes dogma, and dies.

There are all sorts of ideas of “correct” among the teachers I’ve practiced with—I’ve been a wandering yogini, and had to maneuver my way to where I am now. There have been times when that’s been frustrating, but as I prepare myself to get tossed back into the fire that will be two weeks with Tim Miller, I’m taking stock, and I’ve decided that not only is that OK, it’s a sign of life, and I embrace it.

Posted by Bobbie