Ashtanga and Adversity

At the last Confluence, a question about the challenges of Ashtanga was directed at the affable David Swenson. “I don’t do Ashtanga anymore,” he said, “It’s far too difficult.” Laughter.

The author with Tim, not too cool for school.
The author with Tim, not too cool for school.

“One of the main reasons to do this practice,” said Tim Miller, “is to teach us how to face difficulty. You learn to be calm when facing a difficult pose, so that when life throws something really tough at you, you don’t freak out.”

The past month of my practice has been tough. Every now and then, the arthritis in my joints flares up, and I am en fuego—everything hurts. Feet, hands, knees, elbows, shoulders.

Now, I’ve had arthritis since I was in my mid twenties, so it’s no mystery to me. But thanks to Ashtanga, I have long stretches of time when I’m free and clear of pain. I think, every practice, “Whew!” and have a blast.

Then things change, and I wonder, Is this it? Is this the corner, and now the new normal?

Morning practice, not happening. Even in the afternoon, when I’m warmer, less achy, movement is slow, deliberate.

Sometimes I have to play music or I won’t make it. (Hey, don’t judge—if Nancy Gilgoff can play Santana I can play Led Zeppelin.)

The real fight, though, is not against pain. It’s against self-pity, self-indulgence, self-centeredness. Stopping myself from wallowing. The poet G.M. Hopkins called this “carrion comfort”: indulging in your suffering. Maybe feeling a little pride in it. It’s a test of adversity.

So it was in the middle of this pity party that Tim’s words were brought back to me, because a friend of ours passed away after a long fight with cancer.

Suddenly I remembered what Ashtanga is. It’s nothing, really. A daily lesson in what’s important, a daily reminder that it’s not important at all. Every day, you get tested. Why are you doing this practice? And every day, you either pass or fail.

Grief over great loss. Something really tough. It stopped the massive flow of pointless pity I felt for myself, shifted my pain around out of the center of my life and moved it decidedly into the minor inconvenience category.

And from there, the pain I’m feeling now became something to be appreciated, in a way. I can still do the practice, in the face of the pain, and that makes the pain unimportant, really.

In the memorial service program for our friend, I found this poem, a reminder of where to put the emphasis:

Four things are beautiful beyond belief:

The pleasant weakness that comes after pain,

The radiant greenness that comes after rain,

The deepened faith that follows after grief,

And the re-awakening to love again.

Posted by Bobbie

Tim Miller is your inspiring yoga teacher of the month

Tim Miller is Barefoot Yoga’s Inspiring Teacher of the Month for July.

Tim Miller, via; photo by Michelle Haymoz

Apparently, they finally got my email.

This is how they describe him:

Tim Miller is the founder and director of the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, CA.  Tim has been studying and teaching Ashtanga Yoga for over 30 years.  He was the first American certified to teach Ashtanga by Pattabhi Jois – at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India.  Tim’s knowledge of this system is thorough, and he teaches it in a dynamic, yet compassionate and playful manner.  I have been fortunate to take classes from Tim on several occasions – at yoga conferences and at his home studio – then in Encinitas, CA.  Tim’s low-key approach, masterful adjustments, and deep insights make him among the best, and well worth a trip to San Diego – or wherever he is teaching – to study from this Ashtanga master.

That’s all true.

As far as I can tell, however, it doesn’t necessarily name an inspiring teacher each month, so I’m going to up the ante and say Tim’s the inspiring yoga teacher for the first seven months of 2013. If not more.

Posted by Steve

Why Ashtanga won’t ever be “popular”

Steve and I have become fans of Philadelphia teacher David Garrigues without ever taking his class. Sure, we have friends who are students of his. Also, we watch his videos, read his blog. But I’m a fan because he speaks openly about a topic that is near and dear to me: Pain.

His latest email newsletter (sign up here, if you haven’t) has this highlighted statement in it, and I’d like to throw my support behind it:

Forgive me but I don’t care about your pain, small or large, because it is infinitely tiny and nothing at all compared to the possibilities for healing that are right in front of you.  

It seems Mr. Garrigues is a little tired of pain complaints. Seems this is the Number One thing Ashtanga teachers have to learn to deal with; David quotes some Guruji scenarios I’m familiar with from Tim Miller’s teaching, where the answer is always, “You take it you practice.”

Image from David's newsletter, and no doubt on the shala wall.
Image from David’s newsletter, no doubt on the shala wall.

Tim, it should be noted has a very particular way of dealing with it. He listens, and as he listens you can tell he’s deciding if he needs to be concerned, and when he’s made his decision, he has a very particular eyebrows-lifted-uh-huh-nod that basically means “you take it you practice” and carries on with the adjustment.

I was very lucky to have this lesson early on–the “you take it you practice” lesson–from teachers who treated pain as part of the process. Otherwise, I certainly would’ve quit.

If I had landed in any other yoga class, I certainly would’ve heard, “If it hurts, then back off.” Everything hurt. I would’ve backed off, and right out of the room. So I learned from my teachers Shayna, Diana, and Tim that if I were to be freed from the constant pain of the disintegrating disks in my back, I would have to ignore it as part of the process, in order to get stronger. As Tim puts it, “Sometimes you have to use a thorn to remove a thorn.”

It wasn’t long before I stopped reacting to pain, even if it was just for the short duration of my daily practice.

That was not easy. Which brings me to another bold (literally) statement in David’s newsletter:

 If you expect success in yoga to come at a small price tag:


I didn’t quit. But there were many, many practices that I swore aloud, I’m not doing this anymore. Steve can back me up: I would come home from practice, sit on the floor, and cry.

So I guess the point of this post is to back David up with a true story of finding, as he puts it, “light, wealth, and beauty” in what once appeared to be a “dark, desolate cave.”

It is the great blessing of the practice that once the body is stronger, pain appears in the context of strength rather than weakness. This frees the mind, even in pain, to see beyond the pain—to the larger purposes of the practice, to the other seven limbs, and to gain a greater quality of life.

It  requires dedication, application, discipline, and also (and I think this is key) humor. This is a pretty rare stew of qualities, and it’s why I think Ashtanga won’t ever be a popular form of yoga, why it will always be a quirky little corner of the many forms we have today.  If it stays true to the way Guruji taught.

There is no doubt, Ashtanga will change your life. Not many people want their lives to change. Even the pain. Sometimes, we worship our pain, and it becomes an old friend. I have family and friends in that place, have seen them situate their identities as people who suffer life rather than live it, and I’m grateful to Ashtanga, to the practice, for granting me the clarity of mind to make wiser distinctions.

Posted by Bobbie

Another book to check out about Ashtanga

It seems sort of like a Silver Age for Ashtanga books. (The Golden Age being when David Swenson first produced his seminal illustrated practice manual.) Kino MacGregor has one out; Sharath’s followed. I’m probably forgetting a few.

Lurking around, too, I’d noticed, was an Italian and Spanish version of Lino Miele’s Ashtanga Yoga, The Yoga of Breath. I know the “Yoga of Breath” part because, who knows when exactly, an English version has been added. You can — as I assume you’ve figured — get to it at the link above. Here’s a description:

Approximately 360 pages with more than 200 photos, this book is the result of Lino’s more than 20 years of passionate Ashtanga yoga practice and the fruit of 10 years of profound research into the vinyasa method under the guidance of his guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. The 1st through 4th series are illustrated and explained in the vinyasa context (currently English, Italian and Spanish edition).

Now that Bobbie and I are practicing almost exclusively at home — although I don’t ever consider myself a home practitioner — perhaps these books are a bit more useful. We have Swenson’s book, of course, and several scribbled-upon notebooks from Tim Miller teacher trainings. Maybe it’s time to build up the library.

Although — and this is probably why I don’t consider myself a home practitioner — nothing beats the one-on-one contact of teacher to student.

Posted by Steve

Tim Miller reading about Hanuman, why you fidget and what’s next for Lululemon

Just happened on a great 2 1/2 minute video of Tim Miller reading about Hanuman.

It was recorded about a year ago, during Tim’s Hanuman Jayanti celebration early on a Moon Day at the Ashtanga Yoga Center.

How do I know? Because I drove down. In fact, the guy in the background in the long-sleeved red shirt, ’tis me. Enjoy:

I noticed in that video that I’m not exactly still. So this video is a bit of an aid this a.m.:

As of this writing, that video has been up about an hour. So enjoy.

And one final thing. Lululemon may be at a crossroads. Does it go the Steve Jobs route or the Tim Cook one? Forbes lays it all out for you.

Posted by Steve


I used to do Ashtanga

Hello, long lost readers. After a…I have no idea how long hiatus from helping Steve write this blog, I’m back.

There has been a perfect storm of To Do lists, legal documents, and needy young writing students in my life that directly translated into a complete lack of writing inspiration: No blog posts, no poetry, barely a coherent sentence composed in emails. Steve has been diligently holding up the posts, and his practice.

I was able to do neither.

On the up side, my practice, or lack thereof, inspired a return post.

There have been a pretty solid number of incidents of asana interrupted in my time practicing Ashtanga: sickness, surgery, closed shalas, etc. But this was the first time I felt disconnected from the practice, the first time I could have practiced, but didn’t.

Exhaustion. Too many essays to read. Waiting for return phone calls. What have you. I didn’t practice because I couldn’t focus. And I felt practice without focus was no practice at all. So whenever I would have a clear moment to practice, I would think, Yeah, I used to do Ashtanga. But that’s not happening right now. And I would pass.

Is this true? Possibly. I’m not sure now. But in the midst of it all, that’s what I believed, and that perception of the practice—as only real when the practitioner is fully present—kept me from the practice itself.

Now, I’ve returned to it. Those of you who have had long gaps in your practice can probably testify in agreement with what I’m about to say: It feels like coming home.

A glad awakening.
A glad awakening.

Some soreness, some rust; but from ekam to savasana, there was a sense of relief, and a feeling of joy on my return.

This was really a little shocking to me. I was expecting a transition period, adjustment. Some awkwardness. But no.

So it occurred to me that perhaps my grateful return was so smooth, so familiar, precisely because I chose not to practice when I couldn’t be fully present, so that when I could, the breath returned to greet me, to welcome me back.

Years ago I had a writing instructor who told me that the first rule of writing isn’t “write what you know,” but is instead, “respect the work.” You have to recognize the intention behind execution in writing, but also when you’re not doing the mental labor required to pull it off. I think I may have found a new arena for that old lesson.

Posted (happily) by Bobbie


Video: Ashtanga Yoga Center in 2007 and Ashtanga & family, plus a story on Amma

If you’ve gotten through the piece on Ashtanga and asana, then here’s a trio of videos to help get you through this Monday (a holiday here in the U.S.).

Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Yoga Center in March 2007 (must be fairly close to when it opened there). You’ll see several moments that strike me as very “Tim” — his care and humor, but also his serious adjusting and teaching:

David Robson talking about family and the Ashtanga practice:

And then Tim Miller introducing Naren Schreiner and Sangita Yoga:

Finally, the New York Times is previewing Amma’s latest North American tour. From the piece:

With the sort of effort required to navigate a New York City subway car at rush hour, I made my way through the crowd toward Amma, who was perched on a cushioned chair on a stage. One by one, people dropped to their knees and let her cradle them. In a span of roughly four minutes, she consoled a sobbing woman, chatted with an aged man and conducted a wedding. One of Amma’s many attendants, a volunteer who served as her press aide, helped me nudge, wedge and high-step my way to a coveted spot of honor at Amma’s feet.

I asked Amma how she maintained this pace. She smiled. Then she pinched my cheek and began to tickle me — the way a mother might tease a troublesome toddler — and said through an interpreter, “I am connected to the eternal energy source, so I am not like a battery that gets used up.”

It’s a lengthy piece, just so you know.

Posted by Steve