‘Clear plastic in a place called Lahaina’: Maui and the early ashtangis

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Well, here I am at LAX during a three-hour layover. We boarded a red eye from Maui around 10 p.m. last night, and we’re scheduled to land in Detroit around 5 p.m. today. What this means is that the honeymoon is undisputedly over. I’m not coping with that fact very well — reentry into my normal life is going to be incredibly difficult — but I’m trying to not dwell on it.

While a honeymoon is not exactly the ideal time to savor books, during our six days in Maui, I at least finished the first section of Guruji: Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois by Guy Donahaye and Eddie Stern. Since the book was published in 2010, I’ve been looking forward to having the time and space to delve into it. Maui was the perfect place to read the section on “The Seventies: How Ashtanga Came to the West,” since it seems that each interview in that first section involves Maui in some way, shape or form.

David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff both settled in Maui early on. Ricky Heiman hosted Guruji at his home on the island three or four times over the years. Tim Miller took over the Ashtanga shala in Encinitas, Calif., after his first teacher, Brad Ramsey, left for Maui. David Swenson recalls how he first got to Mysore, and the story — of course — involves Maui:

One day I got a call from David [Williams]. ‘David, this is David. Nancy and I are going to Msyore and we want you to take over all our classes for us while we are gone.’ And I’m thinking well, Houston, Texas, or Maui? Houston, Texas, or Maui? I was on the next plane to Maui.

And the yoga room there was basic, capital B. The floor was made from dirt, and on top of the dirt was carpet that we got from hotel rooms that were remodeled. We would just roll the carpet over the dirt floor. We built the room with eight walls like an octagon . . . .

Because of our lack of funds — we were a bunch of hippies living in tree houses and nobody really had much money — people used to just give us papayas and things for class. We stapled clear plastic on the roof as covering. This was a little silly but it was all we could afford. Clear plastic in a place called Lahaina. Lahaina in Hawaiian means ‘relentless sun,’ so this was basically a greenhouse, good for growing tomatoes. (p. 88-89)

It was there, in Maui, that David Swenson decided to make the trek to Maui.

So for our honeymoon, Scott and I stayed in a gorgeous hotel on West Maui’s Ka’anapali Beach, which is just north of the now artsy town of Lahaina. Lahaina is pretty hopping on Friday nights, and that’s when we visited town, strolling along the Front Street area. During our search for a particular ukelele shop (Scott’s quest, not mine), our walk took us past a yoga studio in a strip mall (no Ashtanga taught there — I checked). But overall, what a contrast to the ’70s scene described by David Swenson.

It’s always such a great reminder to hear the stories about how difficult it was for the first Westerners to find Ashtanga yoga — traveling overland to India, setting up yurts in seaside towns. We have it so easy now.

During our trip, I took our rental Jeep one morning for the roughly one-hour drive from our hotel to the town of Pa’ia, where, as far as I can tell, there are two places to practice Ashtanga — at the Ashtanga Yoga Maui Mysore Style and at Paia Yoga, both within a stone’s throw from each other. Nancy Gilgoff’s House of Yoga and Zen is a few miles beyond this town. (I learned back in March when I met Nancy at the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence in San Diego that she would not be on the island when I was. Next time!)

Pa’ia is where Ricky Heiman first witnessed the Ashtanga yoga system in action. As he recalls in Guruji, he met Pattabhi Jois by accident in 1979 when Pattabhi Joi happened to be at a fruit stand in Kihei, on the island’s south side. Guruji’s hosts were:

. . . doing a workshop on the other side of the island, in an area called Paia, on their first trip to Maui. I went the next day to watch them do this practice. I was actually shocked, watching sixty, seventy people sweating like I never saw before, and this little gentleman jumping all over the room helping everybody. So it looked like a party to me. As I found out later, it wasn’t a party — it was hard work.

The Ashtanga practice is still incredibly hard work, but I am grateful that getting to the mat isn’t necessarily hard work anymore, thanks to enthusiasm and tenacity of these early ashtangis.

And finally, about Maui itself: Now that I’ve been there, I absolutely see the appeal. If I ever win the lottery — ha! — I’d be happy to add to the roster of ashtangis who pack up from the mainland and settle down on the island.

(Map credit: GoHawaii.about.com)

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2 thoughts on “‘Clear plastic in a place called Lahaina’: Maui and the early ashtangis

  1. Did you practice at a studio while you were there? I found a Led Primary when I went to New Orleans last month, it was very different than what I had experienced to that point, but maybe not that unusual overall. The instructor basically just announced the asana and counted. Very few verbal cues or adjustments. I felt fortunate that I had a few dozen Primary’s under my belt, as one of the students was plainly pretty lost most of the time…

    • I did a Friday led primary at Ashtanga Yoga Maui Mysore Style, and the verbal instruction was indeed minimal. I agree that in very traditional shalas, I’ve found the verbal instruction to be more minimal than not. Breakdowns, in my experience, happen more in rooms taught by instructors who also have a background in other styles of yoga, such as vinyasa or Iyengar.

      It’s a challenge for new students, but on the other hand, it doesn’t distract regular practitioners. I’ve been in classes where the instructor has — and pardon the image — verbal diarrhea where they are going beyond basic alignment and are instead talking about whatever seems to come to mind. That can be so distracting that it works against the very point of the practice, which is to look within.

      I think super new students have to watch others — it’s inevitable; that’s what I had to do when I was learning, since I did not come up through a Mysore program — but they also to some extent need to trust that the instructor is looking out for them, and wouldn’t let them do anything unsafe.

      I think that’s also a good observation to talk about doing leveled classes. At Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Yoga Centers, guided classes are clearly delineated to help students be in a room that’s suitable for where they are.

      In any case, that’s very cool that you made it to a Nola studio last month!

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