“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


Report from Tim Miller’s: “The Physics and Metaphysics of Asana”


South we went!

It was a packed house at Tim Miller’s on Saturday. “We’ve oversold,” Tim informed us, “We may need to pass out vouchers for the next flight.” Steve and I got there early, though, and parked ourselves in the front row.

It was Tim’s at-least annual benefit for the Sean O’Shea Foundation. This one was titled “The Physics and Metaphysics of Asana,” and he jumped right in.  Even before he got started, I informed him my shoulders were sore from the previous day’s class. “Some opening there,” he said, “Sweet pain.”

Sweet pain. That might sum up both our practices.

Tim began simply. He talked about his first, amazing encounter with Ashtanga 35 years ago, how it took him internally, to a place of expansion and peace that “felt like home.” Much of his study since, he says, has been trying to explain what happened that first practice.

His talk reviewed the Yoga Sutras: the purpose of yoga, the gunas, the koshas and our relationship with eternal truths. The purpose of yoga, he told us, is to cleanse the organs of perception so that we aren’t bothered by duality, to see through impermanence, and to use that clarity of vision to see only truth—the thing that never changes.

Obviously, this is the meta-physical bit. Why is Ashtanga, the most physical of physical practices, a unique way to access it? Its intensity produces heat, heat that not only purifies but softens.

Tim gave us a wonderfully consoling insight: We should be thankful for our resistance. It’s the resistance that produces friction, conflict. It’s the conflict that produces the heat we need to melt those outer layers, to go in and allows for surrender. Although I’ve  heard Tim say things like this many times, this insight had a big impact for me–it’s sticking with me, and I pondered it all weekend. Really, Tim gave us a direct connection between the physical reality of the practice of asana (“Why do we have to do all these damn asanas?” he asked at one point) and seeking truth, between prakriti and purusha.

That brought us to sthira sukham asanam—Patanjali’s description of what should happen in an asana—a “seat.” Stable, but happy. Tim described this as “Fifty percent making it happen and fifty percent allowing it to happen.” A wonderful ideal to aspire to, one that requires surrender.

He also described Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as a particularly effective tool to make this happen, of its use of a “physical methodology to get at something metaphysical” and its “dance of duality”: Forward bend, backbend; upward- facing, downward-facing; movement, stillness; inhaling, exhaling.

It’s also the cultivation of the breath in Ashtanga, he told us, that makes it so well suited for sadhana. It allows us to gain control, so that “you feel you have a body instead of the body having you.”

Speaking of the body. Tim then took us through a “greatest hits” of the primary series (he was mindful of the crowded room, and the high percentage of those unfamiliar with Ashtanga). He was his usual good-natured self, with some gentle jokes here and there. And he ended with a short but intense pranayama practice,  and of course some singing in gratitude to Hanuman—all connected carefully to yoga, and pragmatically to the practice itself.

Look for Steve’s report later today.

Posted by Bobbie


Where Asana and Philosophy Meet–at Tim Miller’s

South we go!

We’ve got an exciting week ahead here at The Confluence Countdown household. I’ll be heading down to Tim’s on Friday for his end-of-day Intro to Second. Then, on Saturday, Steve and I will be going to a workshop for the Sean O’Shea Foundation. The Sean O’Shea Foundation works to bring the benefits of yoga to at-risk youth. Tim has titled his workshop, “The Physics and Metaphysics of Asana”—right up our alley (more here). Here’s part of the description:

The yogic tradition speaks of five bodies, or sheaths, which are known as the Pancha Koshas. The common metaphor used for the Pancha Koshas are the Russian dolls that fit within each other. The physical body is just the outer layer, or doll. As we penetrate more deeply inward we encounter the energy body, the emotional body, the intuitive body, and finally the spiritual body.

Tim’s workshops always seem perfectly timed for our practice, and this one’s no different. It was a Sean O’Shea workshop with Tim that really got Steve hooked on the practice. This one is coming right at the point where we’re both exploring the deeper implications of asana, and nobody is better at linking asana with philosophy than Tim. Here’s a bit more:

As we begin to unravel the knots in the energy body we begin to encounter certain habit of and feeling that keep us stuck in dysfunctional patterns. We will explore how we can use asana to help us face unpleasant emotions like fear, anger, and sadness so we can break through to the layer of the intuitive, or knowing body—which is characterized by its intelligence, expansiveness, compassion, and non-attachment.

What could possibly be a more valuable workshop for an Ashtanga practitioner than learning to use the practice as a healing tool, as a way to learn how to live? I’m sure we’ll both be writing more about the workshop, so…more to come.

Posted by Bobbie

Tim Miller in Scandinavia, Sharath in motion

Two quick things I saw on Facebook — and passing them on in case you haven’t.

Tim, via astangastudio.dk — but originally courtesy of our friend Michelle Haymoz

The first is that, for the first time, Tim Miller will be heading to Scandinavia for a series of workshops. Here’s the link:

Tim Miller Programs at Astanga Yoga Studio July 2012

We are honoured and privileged to host Tim Miller for the first ever workshop in Scandinavia. This is a golden opportunity to dip into the vast knowledge, expertise and experience of one of the foremost teachers and practitioners of Astanga Yoga in the world.

We offer two programs and invite you to read the descriptions below.


Tim Miller will be offering two programs at Astanga Yoga Studio in 2012. Click on links below for the complete descriptions and pricing information.

3 days – 3 series, One-Day Intensives for the First, Second and Third Series (Primary, Intermediate and Advanced): July 10-12

Astanga Yoga Weekend Intensive:

July 13-15

What I really love about this workshop is that I saw the link to it at Tim Feldman’s Facebook page. His description? “danish ashtangis … this is ‘the bomb’ yoga workshop! don’t let it pass you by…”

It is the bomb, I can promise all the Danes that.

And then there’s this: Sharath doing a quick demo earlier this spring in Mysore. I think we all know it is pretty rare for Sharath to bust out the moves, so to speak. Here he is, showing what the bandhas can bring you:

It definitely seems to be making some rounds; since this morning, the number of views has about doubled.

Posted by Steve

“Don’t be afraid”

I wonder if you’re familiar with these lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,         
And in short, I was afraid.

And these lines from the Yoga Sutras:

II.3 Avidya asmita raga dvesa abhiniveshah klesah (“The causes of suffering are ignorance, egotism, excessive attachments, unreasonable aversions, and fear.”)

Tim Miller is our translator here, so I’ve heard him discuss these lines many times, and his commentary often hones the translation. He describes the word, “abhiniveshah” as “stubborn clinging to the known.”

Yep. That’s me.

This morning I told Jörgen in one of those confessional moments, just after you’re done practicing. At the time, though, I thought I was asking for something. “Tim thinks I need my ass kicked,” I said. “True,” said Jörgen, “but you are afraid. Take small steps. Breathe. Don’t be afraid, and everything will be o.k.”

Steve is struggling to learn to surrender. I’m trying to let go of the life preserver of Primary. Both of us are afraid to sit down quietly with our Selves, stubbornly clinging to the known.

So I was reflecting on this, J. Alfred rattling in my head as I sat down to check the morning email when “You Are a Tourist” by Death Cab for Cutie came on the radio:

I think the universe may be trying to tell me something. Thanks to my teachers for being such good mirrors.

Posted by Bobbie

The Myth of Advancing

I’ve got my lantern lit. From Blake: Los Entering the Grave

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks for me, so shout out to Steve for not making me feel bad about not posting. I’ve been revising the writing class I supervise, preparing new materials, and, of course, doing that teaching thing itself. My writing students have been coming in for conferences; they’ve been deep in mid-terms, and they’re tired.

So am I.

The seeds planted by the Confluence have started to sprout this Spring. Nancy Gilgoff has changed the way I practice. Rolfer Russ Pfeiffer (a former student of Richard Freeman and Tim Miller) has changed the way I breathe. Richard Freeman has changed the way I backbend. My asana practice has. . .evolved.

Asana. The Confluence Countdown household has found itself wrestling with the value of asana. Steve has turned to reading the Upanishads. I’ve been reading the Rig Veda, and Richard Freeman’s book, The Mirror of Yoga. where, very early on, he says this:

Typically when we look at the body we see it through those same filters and theories [of experience]. We may see it as a bag of skin filled with bones and blood, or as a continuum of suffocating, painful frustration used to validate all of the miserable opinions we have of others and ourselves. […] Through our consistent yoga practice, all of the different notions we may concoct about what the body is and who we are eventually arise as objects for our meditation.

And what is his conclusion about what the body is? “An open matrix of awareness through which theories, thoughts, and sensations come and go.” “Through the body,” he says, “we learn to understand the universe.”

Today, I’ll be going down to Tim’s to take his Intro to Second class. The truth of the matter is I often see my body as “a continuum of suffocating, painful frustration,” so the question arises, Why am I trying to “advance” when the real practice, clearly, is not in the asana?

Nancy Gilgoff said at one point in her adjustment workshop that she thought the epidemic of knee and back pain in Ashtanga was caused by people being kept in the Primary Series too long. I’ve been practicing First for over a decade now. (To be fair, I was three years into the practice before I tried a real backbend–that is to say, something more than bridge–and another year before I could actually push all the way up.) In light of what Richard is saying, and all that I’ve learned, what does it mean to “advance”?

Last summer, in Mt. Shasta, I was expressing something like these concerns to my friend Suzi, who said to me, “Well, then. That is your practice.”

So, this post is partly to remind me why I’m going down today to see Tim, to see through my body. Once again, I find myself thinking of William Blake.

To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & and a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all Ridicule and Deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.

Wish me luck.

Posted by Bobbie