I’m very happy that Nigel at Ashtanga Yoga Hong Kong captured this story of Tim Miller: His first yoga demo in Mysore. I’ve heard it before, but I’m not sure Tim specified he was doing Third Series. (This, obviously, is from last month’s Third Series training so it would make sense to make that clear.)
Having seen these students doing Third — not to mention Bobbie’s doing is Sunday at home — I think it fair to say that “breakneck speed” — mentioned around the 1:30 mark — seems extremely appropriate.
The big news is that on Wednesday the Third Series teacher training with Tim Miller finished up the official Third Series poses. On, I guess, to back bends and the closing over the next couple of days.
This morning, before the later of two practices (the Mysore, which comes after an Improv that Tim practices along with), I could hear some declarations of exhaustion as well as some surprise that folks didn’t feel worse. So it appears all have lived to tell the tale.
It seems most people are putting photos and short video clips on Facebook, which is horrifically unfriendly to reposting. So instead, here’s a couple new videos not from Encinitas. From Richard Freeman’s monthlong intensive, which finished up a few days ago, I think:
That’s Tim Miller, describing the group of Ashtanga practitioners who are in Encinitas for the Third Series training. More from his blog, which went up a little bit ago. (And then, yes, on to surf. Practice, as it was, is done.) All of it is here:
It’s quite a dedicated group of practitioners—highly motivated and very hard working—an ashtanga teacher’s dream, really. The Mysore classes have been huge and very sweaty. With so many people practicing third and fourth series, the studio almost has a circus like atmosphere—sometimes I catch the local students gawking at some visiting phenom displaying a combination of strength, flexibility, and agility.
And he concludes (more or less) with this thought: “My sincere hope is that something of real value is being transmitted during this course.”
We’re partway through our second week in Encinitas where, I kid you not, it rained on Tuesday.
That’s not about to stop me from going surfing in a bit. (In fact, I’ll probably pause midway in this post.)
What’s more likely to stop me from surfing is the fact that we’re partway through our second week here. That means nine or so practices under Tim Miller’s watchful (and thankfully at times less watchful, given the overflowing room) eye, and the accompanying ache, tiredness, weariness and exhaustion that comes with it.
We talked today after practice briefly with a blog reader (Hi to you if you’re reading this!) who is a regular at Tim’s. I think I said, long and short, that that would kill me. It might not, quite, but I’m not sure how’d I’d manage it.
When Bobbie took Tim’s Second Series training a few years back, I only stayed a week, and after the Sunday Led Primary, I told Tim I was off, which was a good thing: Any more time hear would break me, I said.
He responded that I was took stiff to break.
This time, spending two full weeks, might be the proof I was correct.
I’ve only ever had Tim doses of a week at a time: Tulum, Shasta, that Second Series week. I really am not sure how people do it, day in, day out. Perhaps the overwhelming shakti — which I realize is not just from Tim, but from his students and assistants, a whole boiling kettle of tapas that is difficult to ignore — gets blunted by time and familiarity. Surely one would figure out how to dial things back, a bit?
(Add into this that, while I’m working this week, it is only about half time, and it is in shorts and a T-shirt, with a break for surfing. So how I would have my real life … I don’t know. But I think that’s a good opportunity for me to get wet.)
(OK. I’m back. Best session of the trip.)
But perhaps not. And even if one does, there remains the practice itself — the difficulty of that. There’s the asanas, most obviously. But try keeping up with Tim in pranayama, and you’ll likely add it. And then think about the first two limbs. If those were easy, we wouldn’t be focused on Syria and U.S. immigration policy, just to name a couple of things off the very tip top of my head.
This isn’t the first time we’ve pondered the difficult, by the way. I’m tempted to think perhaps Bobbie and I share what she described in that post as the fascination of the difficult. Like attracts like, after all. But I can’t believe we’re alone, not after mornings practicing at Tim’s.
This utter difficulty is, I suppose I’m trying to say in too long-winded a way, one key aspect of Ashtanga that differentiates it from other “types” of yoga: Yin, Kundalini, whatever John Friend is up to today. (I say that only because our most recent post about him got a bump of hits on Tuesday. Did he do something?) Forcing ourselves, most days — most mornings — to face the impossible is a pretty crazy thing to do. But then you conquer a little piece of it.
That’s the esoteric side. What I’m facing today, now, is just the difficulty of the effort, of the physicality, of Ashtanga — arms that are noodles in the first down dog; hamstrings that aren’t having any of it from the very first. I’m facing it, wondering how I will face it tomorrow. And whether I’ll conquer any little thing in the process.
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.
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.