What You Do and What You Think You Can’t Do

The change into a new state of being is the result of the fullness of nature unfolding inherent potential.

Yoga Sutras IV.2 (trans. Tim Miller)

“There will be no Fourth Series Teacher Training,” Tim announced (in a definitive voice) during the first days of his Third Series training. So, now that all the trainees have completed our Third Series training, I guess we’ve maxed out.

We try pretty hard here at The Confluence Countdown to keep a more universal tone to our posts–keep it newsy and light and out of the personal. That’s pretty hard as I emerge from the self-centered hothouse that is a yoga teacher training: Ostensibly, we were supposed to be learning to teach Third Series; really, we were learning to do Third Series in the broadest possible sense of doing. That is to say, what to do with it now that we know it.

“Guruji said Third Series was ‘just circus,'” Tim told us; “tricks” the early practitioners called the phenomenal Ashtanga backbending sequence. When he would remind us of this (as he did often), I would hear Steve’s voice in my head. He’d asked me as I was preparing, struggling and sore, “Do you have a good reason to want to learn this?” (or, occasionally, “Why are you doing this?”).

At the time, I was pretty sure I had a good reason. Third Series offers me unprecedented access to the kind of structural muscle strength my degrading joints need. But now the training is done, I find myself wanting a better answer.

The collection of training manuals.
The collection of training manuals.

I probably won’t be teaching my handful of yoga students Third Series any time soon. I won’t be busting out my repertoire of fabulous asanas on Facebook or putting them on display in my local Mysore room; I practice alone. There’s no teacher’s eye to motivate me, and Tim is a hundred miles away and can’t direct that hilarious grunt of disappointment at me when I cheat. So as I forge ahead with the prescription he gave me last week–First with Second one day a week, the rest of the time, Third Series–what’s my reason for doing this?

From the seat where I’m writing this, there is a damselfly lightly hovering around the window looking out on our garden. She’s a fine thing, hardly thicker than a needle, with nearly invisible wings that seem to be made of leaf veins. As she approaches me, she encounters the invisible obstacle of a pane of glass. She taps it gently: Once, twice. Even though she can’t see that barrier, it sends her off in an unintended direction, and she’s gone.

I feel now like a version of that damselfly, save this: The invisible barriers have disappeared, and I’ve been given a chance to fly through them. I learned that possibility is a powerful tool. Certainly, barriers are there. But if you gain a finer sense of your own strength, both mental and physical, what you think you can’t do will transform into a greater understanding of what you do, and why you do it.

On the last day, we studied both the chapter in the Yoga Sutras that contains the words that lead this post, as well as the chapter from the Ramayana where Hanuman, under a curse that he must forget his extraordinary abilities until he is reminded, leaps over the ocean to Lanka to find Sita. “In a sense,” Tim said, “we all possess extraordinary abilities.” Thank you, Tim Miller, for the reminder.

Posted by Bobbie

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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).

photo
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

On Being Freed in Ashtanga

I’ve written elsewhere on the politics of holding Ashtanga students at certain postures until they “master” them. In the years since I wrote that piece, I’ve been approached by a lot of students frustrated in their practice, with their teachers, with themselves, or all of the above.

There’s a whole teacher/student power dynamic out there that I don’t agree with—as a teacher myself, I try to be as transparent as possible with my students, and let them see the benefits and reasoning behind my teaching. I’m not saying that opaque teaching is a deliberate practice in Ashtanga; more often than not, I think it’s more like neglect that happens when a teacher has too many students. But whatever the cause, the result is the same for the student: The pose they’re “stopped” at gets fetishized, that pose is nearly personified as a thing to fear and hate, and the rest of the series is closed to them. The concept of the yoga mala is lost, a series of just-poses strung on the breath for a reason, as if you cannot achieve the full benefit of the practice if you cannot “do” a pose to its fullest extent. The individuality of the student’s intimate relationship with the practice is lost as well.

These conversations with my fellow Ashtanga students (and Ashtanga teachers) remind me how lucky I am to have Tim Miller as a teacher. Because Tim allowed me to practice Second Series, he freed me from chronic pain and brought mental and physical balance back to my life.

Tim Miller and Bobbie
Tim Miller and Bobbie. Photo by Michelle Haymoz.

That miracle continues. I didn’t start Ashtanga when I was young. I’m not athletic. I wasn’t even physically healthy. And past traumas in my life made me jumpy, unfocused, suspicious, and intensely private. I saw my future in the bent, broken, sick, and profoundly unhappy women in my family. It was Ashtanga that gave me a way out, allowed me to learn enough trust and find enough openness to accept myself, and to love Steve, my fellow blogger and emotional savior.

Why are you telling me this, Bobbie? you’re asking. Once again, I’d like to make a plea to the teachers out there to reconsider the student in front of them, to think about the reasons why you’re not teaching the series, whatever it is, and to set them free.

Ashtanga is an esoteric form. If you’re reading this blog, and got this far in this post, you know this. You understand just how esoteric it is every time you have to explain what you do to someone who has only a gym- or media-level understanding of yoga. Probably you don’t try. While that can make Ashtanga seem very clubby and cliquey, I feel like it has a very different effect. It makes it feel more like a form of private meditation, something that really doesn’t need to be described.

The announcement that Tim was going to be offering a Third Series Teacher Training came at the precise moment when I’d reached a sort of fat-and-happy meditative moment in the practice. His Second Series training came with all sorts of meta-physical benefits I hadn’t foreseen, a kind of mental house cleaning that I eventually saw as the real reason for Second Series, a house-cleaning that was made possible by being liberated from pain. That simply would not have happened had Tim seen my kapotasana as something I couldn’t do, as other teachers had done, instead of seeing it as something I could get benefit from as part of a larger practice.

So I was happy. I had a First and Second Series home practice. But I started to notice more of the symptoms of the joint degeneration I’d been living with for nearly two decades. My elbows and hips began to occasionally give out. Arthritis has crept into my hands and feet. I began to sense the need for something more, something stable and strengthening. And then. . .Tim Miller announces a Third Series Teacher Training. Ah well. So much for fat-and-happy.

Maria's good humor shining through. Via rateyourburn.com
Maria’s good humor shining through. Via rateyourburn.com

Back when my practice consisted—for years and years—of First and Second up to kapotasana, I approached Tim for help. I don’t have a regular teacher. I’m in pain. He welcomed me to his Second Series Teacher Training with love and good humor: “You come,” he said. And it was Maria Zavala, his student, who got me ready so I could get the most out of that two weeks in Encinitas with Tim. The entire endeavor was, basically, so Maria could pass along to me everything she’d learned about Second from Tim so I could understand what Tim was teaching—to remove the prestige and make it real, tangible. It was Maria who absorbed all the silly questions, Maria who brushed aside all the “this is impossible” moments, all the complaining: Maria, and through her, Tim. So here we are again. I’ve been accepted into Tim’s Third Series training, and Maria is once again getting me ready.

Maria has spent the last few months patiently leading me through the asana jungle that is Third (jangali kayamane), removing the mystery (again), shining light where there is darkness. Man, I can tell you I never thought I’d be looing in there, in that particular dark place, Third. But Maria’s energy and curiosity, her enthusiasm and good humor, have kept me going until I can see Third as a Series. Of poses. With very real benefits. So much of it seems so gleefully impossible. Years ago I wrote that Tim Miller’s great strength as a guru is that he shows you a way through the Impossible to the Possible. He never assumes he only knows what you can’t do; instead, he works with what you can do, and he looks for a route so you get to the heart of the pose, extract the maximum benefit. Maria has learned this from him: This is the way she was taught. This is the way she is teaching.

And this is what we discussed yesterday, as I fell into a puddle of sweat and laughter, after failing utterly to do a pose. It’s good, she says, to not to be able to do something, again. To be free to fail, so you can continue to improve. It’s a familiar feeling, familiar from the long journey from the first time you ever tried to do five surya namasaskara A followed by five surya namasara B. “Holy crap,” I remember thinking, “Are we done yet?”—No, as it turns out: You’ve just begun. And you will begin again, many times.

Posted by Bobbie

Giving thanks, and things to read

Here’s perhaps a new way to think about the Thanksgiving holiday: “the most Jupiterian of all holidays, always falling on a Thursday.”

That, if you’re an astute reader, you realize is from Tim Miller, who knows some about the heavens (and gurus). The holiday and the practice of Ashtanga further conflate:

Thanks Giving gives us the key to activating Jupiter’s power—we express our gratitude for what we receive both materially and spiritually and this keeps the flow of Grace showering down upon us from the heavens.  When we practice yoga, tradition dictates that we always begin by taking a moment to offer our gratitude to all of the Gurus who have come before us and to humbly ask for their assistance in our ongoing journey:

Surely you know what comes next?

You’ll have to read Tim’s post (I’ve given you two chances now) to find out what he’s grateful for this year. It just might surprise you. (I’m officially skeptical of the very thing for which he is grateful; I guess one isn’t always 100% in line with the guru.)

I also feel compelled to mention something you’ve probably already seen. Eddie Stern has created a new Facebook page — I guess he maxed out on the number of friends for his personal page — and he’s been posting a lot of terrific stuff, much of it directly related to Guruji. An example:

Guruji on the perfection of yoga: “The ancient rishis of India said the practice of yoga takes as long to master as it takes for you to empty the oceans by a dipping a stick into them and trying to take a little water out.”(NYC, 2005) Sounds to me like a perfect recipe for surrendering all efforts!

If you haven’t already liked it, you can go right here and do so. And if you want to like our Facebook page, you can do so here (while I’m on the topic). We’re also on that Twitter thing.

Anyway, Happy (early) Thanksgiving. I’m sure we’ll get something up on the holiday, but still… for those ahead of us as the world turns, we’re getting close to the holiday.

Posted by Steve

Why you should care about Vedic astrology and a new Second Series DVD

Tim Miller, you may have noticed if you’ve followed his blog postings, focuses frequently on the skies.

There’s a reason, and he explains it this week:

It’s not that I have this vast knowledge of the subject that I feel compelled to share with the world, but rather that it is something I find to be endlessly fascinating, and something I am always trying to learn more about.  When I began practicing yoga 36 years ago I started to notice an ebb and flow of energy on a daily basis—the same practice done on different days was a very different experience.  Sometimes the energy felt Sattvic (harmonious), other times Rajasic (stirred up), and other times Tamasic (dull).  This waxing and waning of energy didn’t seem to necessarily have anything to do with the amount of sleep I got, the purity of my diet, or the general state of my relationships—it seemed to have its own agenda.  In an attempt to try to understand this phenomenon I began to look into astrology.  I believe that we live in an intelligent universe where there are many dynamic, yet invisible forces acting upon us at all times.

You’ll have to click on the link above to find out all the reason. It does include some lines from Patanjali, although not the now famous “No fatties” sutra.

For those who are lucky enough to fall under the Sattvic stars, David Garrigues’ new DVD on Second Series might be right up your astrological alley. From the description:

Practice it and extend your breathing capacity, effect an energetic awakening that helps you access buddhi, the reflective, discerning, higher intelligence faculty of your mind. Become fit for dhyana, meditation, contemplative poise that yields dynamism, radiant health and Self knowledge. May we all continue to grow in Bhakti and Jnana.

PART 1:

A traditional 1hr and 30 minute counted vinyasa method live class …

Once again, you’ll have to click the link to find out what the class includes.

Posted by Steve

 

Bid for a chance to study with Richard Freeman at his 5-Day Essentials Immersion

A few weeks back we mentioned that Richard Freeman has a five-day immersion class coming up early next year.

Wouldn’t you know it, it filled up. Surprise!

But there’s still a chance.

You can bid for a spot as part of the seventh annual Shambhala Sun Foundation auction. Details right here and the opening bid is at $300. It has a value of $500 — so that’s a deal right now.

If you need it, here’s a reminder of what the Essentials course is all about:

This 5-day intensive will help to fill in some of these gaps. In the morning sessions we will ground our study with an in depth exploration of the internal patterns of breath and alignment found in the Primary Series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system. In the afternoons there will be an introduction to Sanskrit chanting, an introduction to the internal pleasures of pranayama and a comprehensive overview of the foundational philosophies which form the context for yoga practice. We will read and discuss the Kena and the Katha Upanishads, selections from the Yoga Sutras and then learn to appreciate the plurality of approaches to yoga through an introduction to the Bhagavad Gita.

 

And another reminder (we’re full of them today): Registration for next summer’s month-long training at the Yoga Workshop is Wednesday.

And because we’re talking donations, I should note that this month, Tim Miller is donating all the proceeds from his Monday night donation-only Intro to Ashtanga class at the Ashtanga Yoga Center — if you’re down San Diego way.

 

Posted by Steve

 

Jois Yoga Encinitas scales back practice hours; just what is the Ashtanga lineage

Jois Yoga Encinitas has just announced a little scale-back to its practice hours.

The morning Mysore, which was six hours, is now five. And the afternoon Mysore, which was three hours and 45 minutes, is down to three and a half hours. And off the schedule for now is Aimee Echo, who is in Mysore. Small changes, indeed.

I figure it is worth noting because this has all the hallmarks of being the root of a wild rumor that would expand into … well, why even suggest it in case someone reads it wrongly.

I do note that the studio there has Mysore practice on Saturdays (these, too, have been trimmed back). I’ll admit to being a little surprised given the traditions surrounding the practice.

Speaking of those traditions, while we were busy working on our Derek Ireland post yesterday, David Garrigues had a guest post up about the Ashtanga lineage. From the piece by Suzanne Faulkner:

Statements such as this one from a blog about mysore style ashtanga yoga, concerning the idea of being a direct part of the lineage….

” I clearly favor the traditional lineage and Sharath Jois but others have found great love for other teachers such as Richard Freeman or Tim Miller.”
the word BUT…. I would ask people studying with Sharath to use the word AND.

This statement somehow, or perhaps directly infers, with the BUT, that to study under Richard Freeman or Tim Miller is to study outside of the traditional lineage. My heart quickens, I feel threatened, undervalued. How could it be okay to have students of Richard and Tim, Nancy, David, David, Christine, David etc… be considered students that are choosing to be not in favor of the traditional lineage of Ashtanga! We are in favor of the traditional lineage of ashtanga yoga, in fact, we ARE the traditional lineage of ashtanga yoga. We are, at the very least, an aspect of the direct lineage!

I saw this one getting shared on Facebook on Wednesday. I’ll just say that this issue of lineage isn’t one we are too worked up about currently. We understand why others are. I think back to something Eddie Stern said at the first Confluence, and which I hope I don’t butcher too much in recalling. Here’s how Bobbie captured it one time:

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.

I think that reflects pretty well our attitude toward the practice’s spread. But Suzanne’s piece is well worth reading, as issues of the lineage still are with us.

Finally, the first of a promised two-parter on Navaratri / Dasara celebrations in Mysore from Tim Miller.

Posted by Steve