One of the most amazing things about Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is its horizon-like quality. You stand on the ground of beginning, and off in the distance is a clear, beautiful line. You believe, when you begin, “If you walk you’re gonna get there—it just takes a little longer” (in the words of an old Led Zeppelin song).
This is not true.
You step forward, walking toward that horizon, and as you approach, the line recedes before you. Infinitely.
I’m not quite sure when I became aware of this as a positive aspect of the practice; for a long time, it was very frustrating, yet enticing at the same time, as Steve’s previous post indicates. At some point, the receding horizon of knowledge becomes something you pursue not in spite of its endlessness but because of it.
This is what drives the workshop way of learning the practice.
I don’t know about you, but my first teacher taught with her silence. Here is the method. Here are the asanas in sequence. You do.
So I bought books—David Swenson’s was the most useful by far, and helped me lose the sense that Ashtanga was like a really difficult game of Twister—my hands and feet would go to different places every time in a seemingly random pattern. The practice felt better. I wanted more hands-on detail.
The first workshop I ever took was from Diana Christinson at her learned shala, Pacific Ashtanga in Dana Point. I had never taken a yoga workshop before. I had never even taken a class from Diana. But my YogaWorks teacher, Shayna Liebbe, told me about a “transitions” workshop in Dana Point. So I went to get more knowledge.
Before I went to that workshop, I had an idea that a transition in the practice was that magical set of gymnastic moves Shayna was demonstrating in class. In her workshop, Diana began with the idea of a transition as the thing that happens as you breathe. Her first transition teaching was about how to move through suryanamaskara A.
I was hooked on workshops.
We need them in the practice because there is simply no time to teach the finer points while the practice is going on. Guruji’s great genius seems to have been his ability to do this with almost no talking and a beautifully poetic and terse English. Now, we do workshops. But of course, in such small classes in those early days…well, that’s like a private workshop every day.
I’m not talking about the YogaWorks model of workshop, which seem to be what you might call “happiness focused.” Even something like handstanding has to be tied to some sort of “real world” payoff, with its accompanying ad sheet. You know what I’m talking about. It’s a business model. How handstands can make you more successful at your job.
Ashtanga workshops always seem to be detail-oriented ways of learning how to teach yourself. I signed up for Diana’s shala immediately, and I am here to sing the praises of a true teaching shala, where there are workshops on backbends, pranayama, the Yoga Sutras, the standing poses, adjustments, diet, etc. We need that information. Not to mention her weekly Conference, the place where questions got answered.
And that knowledge accumulates over time, and it’s why the horizon recedes. I’ve taken many workshops with Tim Miller, and each time some crucial piece of information he’s been passing on for years finally sinks in. Then, I’m ready for the next piece of information, something that the previous bit of wisdom has now prepared me to receive.
I’ve since taken workshops from many Ashtanga master teachers. I’m not saying they’re all good. Some, actually, I didn’t complete—a bad fit at the time, or some sense of conflict with what is right for me. But most were wonderful and I learn in all of them. It’s Tim Miller, though, that I come back to, and take a workshop every chance I get. I suspect this is because Tim, too, seems to be constantly learning, which of course leads to new workshops where that knowledge gets disseminated.
Sadhana this is called—study. It should, of course, be true of everything we do, so in this Ashtanga gives us yet another model, a metaphor for how to live.
David Swenson, the wandering yogi. If you’ll be meeting David Swenson for the first time at the Confluence, then perhaps a short summary of his role as a senior Western student is in order. His DVDs, particularly the First Series DVD, are the mainstay of home practitioners and new learners. Swenson is famous for breaking down the practice with his affable, approachable style, removing a lot of the intimidation factor. This is true even though his demonstrations of poses are jaw-droppingly awesome. Somehow, he manages to radiate humility, make you feel like the impossible is possible. His practice manual has the same tone, sturdy and spiral-bound for ease of use. Forget where a drishti is? You can look it up in the manual. Can’t get your feet behind your head? Here’s what you do until you can.
But it’s the workshops that make him the Johnny Appleseed of Ashtanga. David travels the world, giving Ashtanga to all walks of life. In the workshop I took with him, he was asked about “personal space” in the practice room. For an answer, he described demonstrating at a workshop in Japan. His students were crowded together to watch, with their toes practically touching the edge of his mat (count your spacial blessings was the subtext). He brings his travels to each workshop. Google for videos of David Swenson, and you’ll see a wide range of faces in the background of videos shot all over the world.