When Ashtanga becomes a habit

I like to think that one of the reasons I still love teaching so much is that I expect my students to teach me as much as I teach them. That, my friends, has turned out to be very true this term.

I’ve been teaching a new writing course, focused on the Bhagavad Gita.We’ve also been reading some supplemental essays by a wide range of writers (later we’ll be reading a selection from the Yoga Sutras). One them is an essay by the existentialist writer, Albert Camus: “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Titian’s Sisyphus. Mula bandha!

In that essay, Camus famously retells the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who, as punishment for defying the gods, is forced to roll a giant boulder up a hill, eternally. To Camus, Sisyphus is the embodiment of the absurd hero. He just gets the boulder up the hill, and, in spite of all his effort, it rolls back down. At the moment when he turns, he faces a choice, a choice of mind–the only kind of choice he has left. Camus imagines that he does not despair. He must feel joy in his effort, even joy that he must begin again.

So, many of my students are writing about how routine wears down our ability to feel joy, or be present in the moment. It seems like a natural place for them to go, since they’re students, and have been repeating pretty much the same routine for all of their lives. But they’re also reading the Bhagavad Gita, and it’s in the meeting place of these two texts that I’m learning the most from them.

Krishna, you may recall, defines “yoga” a lot of different ways, but one of His definitions is “skill in action” and “complete awareness.” I’m reading essays where my students point out that once action becomes routine, there is no yoga—no awareness=no skill.

They’re also writing about Krishna’s advice that Arjuna detach himself from the fruits of his actions. Sisyphus, of course, has no choice: His actions bear no fruit. So the only thing remaining to him is to focus only on his state of mind. Some of my students have pointed out that the “fruits” are illusions, so Sisyphus is a way to think about pure action. Mind. Blown.

As if I weren’t getting hit over the head hard enough, I was walking to my office the other day, chatting with a student. He asked me about my asana yoga practice. “You practice every day?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “except Saturdays, and we get two bonus days off a month. Those are sweet.” “Wow,” he said, “You’re like Sisyphus.”

I managed to maintain my composure, but I had a very clear image of myself, once again standing at the front of my mat, with the giant boulder of the series in front of me, ready to push it up the hill one more time, habitually. Why am I practicing? Because it’s not a moon day or Saturday. That attitude, I decided, means the death for the true practice of yoga, right in that moment.

You can see where I’m going with this. The practice of Ashtanga must never become a matter of habit. Habit is not discipline—these things are mutually exclusive. Habit is mindless. Discipline leaves room for joy, because it’s a conscious decision to bring a certain kind of space or play to the action. I’m not condemned to practice. I choose to. And I must consciously choose to, every day.

Except Saturdays and moon days.

Posted by Bobbie

Teaching yoga without asana



For me, on September 28–the first day of my fall writing class–worlds will collide. Well, meet anyway. I’ll have 20 brand new university freshmen staring at me, ready to learn. They’ll be freaked out, stressed, full of uncertainty. They need help with their writing, and they’ll be looking at me to give it to them.

This term, my answer will be The Bhagavad Gita and portions of other texts (The Yoga Sutras, The Little Prince, Thoreau). I’m not saying I have an agenda, but I seem to have an agenda. They’ll be writing about yoga.

What’s funny about this is, of course, this is a writing classroom. It’s the negative image of the shala and my Ashtanga teaching: No asana involved.

It is true that I’ve tossed in a few postures during the course of the quarter before. Around midterms, students actually start complaining to me of physical pain, mostly in the back, shoulders and neck from sitting at a computer too long. We’ll do some standing shoulder openers and seated twists. If the class seems sleepy or lethargic, I may have them do switchychangyasana, and make them all move to a different desk—it gives them a new point of view.

But this doesn’t really count as teaching yoga. I’ve been re-reading The Gita, and the Yoga Sutras are fresh in my mind from my summer training. I’m faced with the fact that I’m going to have to help my students understand what the word “yoga” means in a very complicated way.

“Yoga is skill in actions,” Krishna says in The Gita, “ “Yogas citta vritti nirodahah,” writes Patanjali. This word goes untranslated into English. We think we know what it means. Or maybe it’s untranslateable. I’m thinking it may take me all term to work that out with my students.

I am, myself, more inclined to the yoga of study, to reading and quiet thinking. Learning to integrate my brain with my body has been my chief challenge in Ashtanga over the years, and it’s caused me to revise all that I thought I knew about who I am. I hope that through their writing, my students also learn a new way of thinking about themselves.

Posted by Bobbie


Friday asana aid: Parsvottanasana

Prepare yourselves for a big shocker:

We’re about to talk about an Ashtanga pose I like. Well, almost like. Don’t despise. Hate as little as any other.

OK, the shocker sort of went out the “qualification window” there. But nonetheless, Parsvottanasana is a pose that makes sense to me, one in which the benefits are fairly clear. It is one that I think is doing me some good.

That doesn’t mean I’m doing it correctly. But maybe mostly so. So here’s help for me, and maybe for you. First up, David Garrigues (and, yes, I’m going to keep it safe with some teachers I think I know well enough to trust):


From Yogaglo (I’m counting on Yogaglo here):


Chris Croft (you have to skip ahead a bit):


And finally, one I do not endorse in any way, shape or form — well, except for the music. This seems like the most dramatic yoga sequence ever! (And, actually, at its root — taking away all the curvy, bendy stuff — it isn’t entirely divorced from something you might find in Tim Miller’s improv class. I repeat, though, that’s if you take away all the stuff that is totally “not correct!”)


Posted by Steve

Friday asana aid: Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana

During Thursday’s practice, I finished up with Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, and Jörgen Christiansson appeared.

“Let’s do it again,” he said, offering up his hand for support.

“I was hoping we would,” I replied. I wasn’t.

Here’s some suggestions for the more pro-Utthita Hasta-ers out there. Some regulars appear.

First, Los Angeles-based Maria Villela:

Next, Kino MacGregor:

Ashtanga Workshop’s Chris Croft up next:

And Sheila Chutskoff:

Posted by Steve

A teacher learns from her student.

A scene from Glass's opera. Via PhilipGlass.com.

Because quite a few of my students hadn’t seen it, I showed the now-infamous video of campus police casually pepper spraying a line of peaceful protestors at the University of California, Davis to my class today. I’d seen it many times, but this time I had the unusual position of standing at the front of a classroom, watching the faces of young people as they saw their fellow UC students being violently treated for peacefully protesting the same issues that they are angry about as well.

It was…difficult. There was shock. And anger. Those who had already seen it were shaking their heads in disgust. After class, I got this unexpected question: “Why didn’t the teachers do anything?”

One of the great benefits of the practice of Ashtanga for me has been the way it’s changed my classroom teaching. I’m more compassionate, patient. I’ve learned to expect the best from every single student. The question has given my pause, though. Have I ever actually helped my students in larger ways, ways that would change the world for the better?

Then comes this timely and thoughtful essay from Ian Desai at The New York Times. In it, Desai bids a thoughtful farewell to the  Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park while at the same time pondering the close of Philip Glass’s opera based on Gandhi’s life, Satyagraha. The essay asks, basically, what would Gandhi make of both the opera of his life, and the movement in the park. It’s clear the author finds both lacking

It can be difficult, though, to overlook the incongruity of Champagne corks popping at intermissions, the see-and-be-seen atmosphere and the steep ticket prices at the Met. These trappings have little to do with Gandhi’s ideas of social justice and make opera an uneasy medium for his political vision; in fact they lend an unhappy irony to the very deftness of the rendering of that vision on the stage.

Desai also thinks that Gandhi would find the divisive nature of the protests troubling, that “We are the 100%” would be a better motto. He concludes that our actions are “most meaningful when they set the stage for constructive social action, through which we might begin to mend the world.”

When my student asked me that question, I became painfully aware of how little I’ve really done on their behalf as their tuition skyrockets and budget cuts threaten the quality of their education. This, too, is yoga, yes? What I’ve been taught by my teachers as the real purpose of the practice, in the vein of Hanuman: service.

Desai’s review is a worthy read, but be prepared to question your own practice-in-the-world.

Posted by Bobbie

In case you missed it, Maty Ezraty on being a good teacher

You all likely saw this video during the past few days, but if not, it is worth a look. It was posted back in August, but as many things with the Interweb go, it can take a while for the “viral” to go off. I think of the current 2,300 or so views, about a 1,000 were just from the past couple of days.

Oh, it’s of Maty Ezraty, one of the great senior Western teachers. In it, she answers the question: Would you rather be a good teacher or a popular one?

Yes, heavy stuff. Hold on tight:

Posted by Steve