Workshop dispatch: Primary series (Yoga Chikitsa)

Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice.

Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice.

This is the next in a “Workshop dispatch” series based on the workshops I took with Tim Miller at Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio from Friday, April 13, 2012 through Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Tim has taught annually in Columbus for 14 years. This year, he held his traditional weekend (Friday through Sunday) program, but debuted a new intensive program (Monday through Wednesday). Each day of the three-day intensive focused on a different series of the practice. In the mornings, we chatted a little bit and then did a practice that could run up to 2.5 hours (to allow time to do several research, or prep, poses, during the second and third series). In the afternoon, we could ask questions, go over problem spots and generally discuss the practice. (Full workshop description here.) What follows are notes and thoughts from Day 1 of the intensive, which examined the primary series.  

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“You guys are the guinea pigs,” Tim Miller told us on Day 1 of the One-Day Yoga Intensives portion of his annual Yoga on High program. Pretty cool place to be for the roughly 40 of us in the room. Some of us had traveled from out of state, others were Yoga on High teachers, and several in the room were enrolled in Yoga on High’s  teacher training program. (As a side note, I think it’s very cool that Ashtanga students enrolled in YOHI’s teacher training are required to take Tim Miller’s workshops.)

Gunas

Over the course of the three-day intensive, Tim talked about the qualities of each of the series as they relate to the gunas and the pancha kosas (five sheaths). In The Heart of YogaT.K.V. Desikachar describes gunas simply as “qualities of the mind; qualities of the universe). In a nutshell, there are three gunas:

  • Sattva, which possesses the quality of harmony
  • Rajas, which possesses the quality of activity
  • Tamas, which possesses the quality of inertia.

Tim was careful to note during the workshops that while we often think of the quality of being sattvic as being the most desirable of the gunas, we need all three for balance. “It’s easy to say tamas is bad, sattvic is good and rajas is mixed,” Tim said. “But you need all three. We are always trying to find balance between these qualities.”

Since we’re on the topic, here is what B.K.S. Iyengar says about the gunas in Light on Life:

As I said, the guna is made up for three complementary forces. They are: tamas (mass or inertia), rajas (vibrancy or dynamism), and sattva (luminosity or the quality of light).

Let us look at a practice example. In asana, we are trying to broach the mass of our gross body, to break up the molecules and divide them into atoms that will allow our vision to penetrate within. Our body resists us. It is muleish. It will not budge. Why? Because in body tamas predominates. It has to. Body needs mass, bones need density, and sinew and muscle need solidity and firmness….

With regard to asana practice, this means that initially we need to exert ourselve more as resistance is greater. Of the two aspects of asana, exertion of our body and penetration of our mind, the latter is eventually more important. Penetration of our mind is the goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat.

But once there is movement and then momentum, penetration can start. When effort becomes effortless, asana is at its highest level. Inevitably this is a slow process, and if we break off our practice, inertia reasserts itself. What we are really doing is infusing dense matter with vibrant energy. That is why good practice brings a feeling of lightness and vitality. Though the mass of our body is heavy, we are meant to tread lightly on this earth. (pp. 45-46)

The overarching quality of the primary series, relative to the other series, would be tamasic. Second series: rajastic. Third series, sattvic.

Pancha koshas

In general, the sheaths go from the grossest (most physical) to more subtle manifestations.

  • Annamaya kosa: Physical body
  • Pranamaya kosa: Energy body. This is the body of chakras.
  • Manomaya kosa: Body of mental (and emotional) impressions. You find samskaras (habits, conditioning) here.
  • Vijnanamaya kosa: The body of the buddhi (intellect).
  • Anandamaya kosa: Blissful body. The place of the soul. The place of unconditioned awareness. (Iyengar refers to this sheath as the divine body.)

It was very helpful for me that Tim discussed the sheaths as one of those nesting Russian dolls.

Primary series

Whew. That’s a lot of necessary lead in. Let’s get to the primary series itself. Primary series — Yoga Chitiksa (“Yoga Therapy,”) works most on the outer doll. The physical sheath. Tim noted that if we work on one doll, it does affect the other dolls.

The first series has a slew of health benefits, as anyone who has practiced the series consistently understands. It is designed to:

  • Restore the body
  • Detox us
  • Restore natural range of motion to our joints
  • Restore sensitivity to our sense organs

The practice also helps to reduce excess adipose tissue (yep, that’s body fat).

Think of all the forward folds and twists in the first series (if you’re new to the series, you can see the poses here). Primary works quite a bit on:

  • The gastrointestinal system
  • Digestion
  • Assimilation
  • Elimination

If the concept of the pancha kosas – the five sheaths — is new to you, I recommend reading Light on Life. And, of course, try to find time to study with Tim Miller. I’m sure he’ll be doing more of these one-day intensives now that he’s had the chance to test it out on our group.

Tim said this about the Ashtanga method as we were discussing the primary series: “It’s very scientific. It’s very sophisticated. And best of all, it works.” Seeing these notes again remind me that Steve of The Confluence Countdown recently posted an interview with Eddie Stern about a new yoga study that includes what is essentially a distillation of part of the primary series. Interesting stuff.

My relationship with the practice

On a personal level, the primary series has been an incredibly positive influence for me — for years the metronomic quality of the practice was about the only calm consistency in my life that I could point to — but the process has been as slow as molasses. Some people fly through primary. Not me.

I spent years and years without an Ashtanga teacher, and cobbled together a practice based on a couple of weekend workshops with David Swenson and some practice cards. I was lucky enough to be in a led class taught by Pattabhi Jois when he paid a visit to Montreal during one of his North American tours, but I still didn’t understand the series well enough by that time to even get into the marichyasana twists without assistance.

During those lonely years without a teacher, I had enough internal drive to know this was good for me, but not enough tapas to practice daily and fully wring out the benefits of the practice. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had met Tim Miller or Angela Jamison all those years ago. Despite knowing that the past is what it is and there’s no point dwelling on it, I admit to still having twinges of regret now and then — less so for what my practice could be now that I am on the cusp of turning 36 (though I would be lying if I didn’t say that is part of it), and more so for what better choices I could have made in my life had I had a consistent daily practice in my 20s.

The silver lining for all this is that I have a deep well of patience for teaching primary series, and I invest as much as I can to trying to help students who seem to need someone to put them in closer touch with their practice. As I told one of my students once, every single one of your challenges with the practice becomes a gift you have for your students. And my god, have I had an abundance of challenges — from my unforgiving work schedules to the far-from-any-shala locations I have lived to the less-than-ideal body proportions that makes poses like supta kurmasana and pasasana a steep uphill journey.

Ah, pasasana — the gateway pose to second series. We’ll get to that in the next blog post.

(Photo: My friend Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice. Jen teaches Ashtanga and vinyasa yoga and Pilates in Washington, D.C. If you’re in D.C., check her out — she’s excellent.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Workshop dispatch: ‘Bullet Train to Samadhi’

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I’ve packed up my little red Corolla to be ready to leave Columbus, Ohio this evening. Today is the final of six days’ worth of workshops with Tim Miller held at Yoga on High, and people are chilling and reading or chatting and drinking coffee (or, in my case, double-fisting coffee and Vitamin water while blogging) as we wait for the morning’s session to start.

This is my third year attending Tim’s annual April visit to Yoga on High (here is YOHI’s blog, btw), and it’s been the most fulfilling. The first year I came here, I was still working to smooth out the rough edges of my personal and work life. Last year around this time, a lot had been worked out, and while my life wasn’t exactly fully grounded and comfortable, it was getting there. I was a much lighter person than I had been 12 months earlier. One of my friends at Yoga on High even commented that she had sensed a big change in me from 2010 to 2011. Changing jobs was a big thing; getting my personal life in order was too.

This year, I feel so grateful for where things are. I have a fulfilling job that pays the bills (working in the strategic communications field) and a fulfilling job that doesn’t (teaching yoga). I am a month away from getting married to someone who has shown unwavering support of me and has been far sweeter to me than I probably deserve. And this time next month, I will hopefully be a first-time homeowner — which means, among other things, that I will have a dedicated yoga and meditation space.

Like clockwork, Tim wrote a blog post yesterday for this Tuesdays with Timji blog. He discussed how much he enjoys his friends and traditions here in Columbus, and he touched on the final three days of the workshop designed for yoga teachers:

Today was day five of a six day teaching gig which began with a weekend workshop for all comers and has continued with a three day intensive specifically designed for teachers. Iʼm trying a new format this year, focusing on the primary series the first day, the second series today and the third series tomorrow. Itʼs a rather ambitious format, kind of like a bullet train to samadhi. My idea was to relate each series to ne of the koshas, so Monday was the anamaya kosha, today was the pranamaya kosha, and tomorrow will be the manomaya kosha.

“Bullet train to samadhi.” I love that line.

I’ve only written one post since I arrived in Columbus (my schedule has felt as packed with social gatherings as it has been with yoga sessions, which has made the trip that much more fun), but I hope to kick out at least four more after returning home. What I will say for now is that while I can’t credit Tim for the positive trajectory of my life since I first met him in 2010 — he doesn’t control my karma — I do know that learning from him and being in the presence of someone with so much knowledge, experience, sincere passion, equanimity and radiance has been incredibly beneficial not just to my yoga practice or to my yoga teaching, but to every aspect of my life.

I had dinner last night with three wonderful women, and at one point, we talked about the teachers who inspire us most. It’s cool how a table can light up when the topic turns to good yoga teachers.

So if you want a bullet train to samadhi, do your practice as consistently as the circumstances in your life allow (six days a week is best, of course, but do what you can), and seek out the gifted and sincere teachers who inspire you most. Travel, because some of your best money will be spent on yoga trainings. Your car that’s barreling toward Columbus — or wherever — might just be a bullet train in disguise.

Workshop description:

==Ashtanga Yoga Weekend Intensive==
When you practice ashtanga yoga, you are a part of a lineage. Tim Miller is a key figure in carrying this tradition forward having studied so intensively with Sri Pattabhi Jois over so long a time.  We are honored to host Tim each year—join us to spend a weekend working (playfully!) with a yoga master. Weekend intensives can help shift your practice to a deeper level and offer you insight into how the primary series works in individual poses and as a whole circle of poses. You will also learn more about your lineage and how the physical work leads you to the state of yoga. A light practice on Friday night will establish a relationship between yoga philosophy as presented in the Yoga Sutras and the practical methodology of the Ashtanga Yoga system. Saturday’s practice will focus on the Primary Series as physical manifestation of this relationship. Saturday afternoon will explore the morning practice in more depth—to look at troublesome asanas and address specific problems, concerns, and questions. Sunday’s class will be playful, spontaneous, and improvisational, and explore the whole notion of intelligent sequencing in moving towards a particular destination. Sunday will also include an introduction to pranayama.

Dates: Friday, April 13, 7:30p to 9:30p, Saturday, April 14, 11:00a to 6:00p
& Sunday, April 15, 9:00a to 4:00p.
Cost: $250.00

==Tim Miller One-Day Intensives==
K. Pattabhi Jois, better known as Guruji, devoted 70 years of his life to researching and teaching the methodology that we know as Ashtanga Yoga.  Based on the foundational teachings he was given by his Guru, the great T. Krishnamacharya, Guruji spent many years putting together the asana sequences that have come to be called Yoga Chikitsa (Primary Series), Nadi Shodhana (Intermediate Series), and Sthira Bhaga (Advanced Series).  All of these sequences went through changes over the years and have only been practiced in their current form for the past 30 years.   It was largely through Guruji’s interaction with his western students that these sequences were refined into their present form.  The western students have been both the primary guinea pigs and the main beneficiaries of this refining of the system.

Tim Miller had the rare opportunity to work closely with Guruji for over 30 years and has practiced and taught these sequences faithfully since 1978.  He brings a wealth of experience, understanding, expertise and devotion to the transmission of Guruji’s methodology as well as a thorough knowledge of the philosophical foundations of the practice—the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

In this intensive, Tim will guide an exploration of Guruji’s first three asana sequences, devoting one day to each.  Monday’s practice will be Yoga Chikitsa, Tuesday’s will be Nadi Shodhana, and Wednesday’s will be Sthira Bhaga.  Tim will offer an in-depth explanation of the purpose of these sequences as well as adaptations and preparations for some of the more challenging asanas.  The three days will include selected yoga sutras, an introduction to the traditional Ashtanga pranayama sequence, stories from Indian mythology and a small taste of kirtan.

Dates: Monday, April 16 through Wednesday April 18, 9:00a-5:00p daily

One-Day Intensives First Series: April 16, Second Series: April 17 and Third Series: April 18

Intensives: $150  or $395 for all three days

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Workshop dispatch: Baby warrior escapes scrutiny while short-legged chicken spotlighted

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Through the stories that Pattabhi Jois’ students tell of his teachings, it’s clear that humor was a key part of his beloved teaching style. I think what was true of Guruji is also true of Tim Miller.

For me personally, this is most evident in the way Tim corrects my poses.

For instance, last year, I realized how far from my edge I was in virabhadrasana A when Tim came up to me and said, “What is this baby warrior?” Yep, I have an unenviably short stance in warrior A — and even then, I spend most of the five breaths wishing I were out of the pose.

I’m writing this from Columbus, Ohio — it’s my third time taking Tim Miller’s annual workshop at Yoga on High here — and today was a double header on the getting called out front. Although I am pretty sure my baby warrior has only managed to make it to toddler stage, I didn’t get called out on that pose.

But in utkatasana (chair), a pose I am always adjusted in when I take vinyasa classes, Tim called out from a few mats away: “Bends your knees, Rose!”

BUSTED.

I shook my head, laughed a little bit, and, knowing that I couldn’t get away with it any longer, sank a few inches down. Although I’ve made my peace with chair pose, I still don’t like it, and I still hang out at high elevations even though I know you need to drill down to truly get the internal fire going. Yes, part of it’s physical. Yes, part of it’s emotional.

What I’ve noticed is that Tim’s adjustments of me during led practices often focus on deficiencies in my tapas-inducing poses — not sinking low enough in utkatasana or virabhadrasana A. It’s the stuff of internal heat and granthis (knots).

But his adjustments also speak to lifestyle issues. Once, during one of his “Asana Doctor” workshops, I asked for help with marichyasana D. We struggled with it for a while, and then Tim looked at me and said, “Well . . . maybe a kilo or two?” (Translated: Shedding some pounds will assist in binding this pose.”)

I laughed out loud because it was so funny how he put it. I know it’s hard to discern when you’re simply reading it in this post rather than being in the room, but trust me — he totally diffused the comment with humor.

And he was right — that period was what I hope will turn out to be the low point of my sustaining terrible eating habits (endless and repetitive selections of processed foods that went against what my body needed). My struggles with mari D said a lot about my body structure and the areas of density in my back and shoulders, but it also said a lot about my diet — and diet is integral to the Ashtanga method.

Anyway, I noted earlier that today was a double header. In garbha pindasana, since I didn’t have a spray bottle with me — I don’t take those to led classes — I could only get part of my arms through my legs. Let’s say about four inches past my wrists. (When I have a spray bottle to lubricate, I can get my arms through and get my hands to my head. I know that the practice is designed so that by this time in the practice, your sweat will be your lubrication. I don’t seem to sweat enough in the salient spaces to rely on sweat alone, though. Sweat pours — pours! — down my face. Backs of my knees, and that general region? Dry as a desert.)

I did my nine rolls and got to kukutasana (rooster pose), but since I barely had any clearance, my knees were nearly down to the mat. Tim came by and stopped in front of me.

He said something like, “Oh . . . why chicken with such short legs?”

I was not the only one laughing at that one.

It might sound harsh out of context, but humor is a fantastic teaching tool because it can diffuse a situation and signal to a student that the comment — as critical as it might sound — is being made without any judgement.

I believe in laughing at least once during each of my home practices — whether it’s because I fall out of a pose in a totally ridiculous way or because I mangle a pose so horribly I wonder what could have possibly led to that. Sometimes I laugh because it’s comical how much effort it took get out of bed that morning.

Now I have two more reasons to laugh in primary series, and two more spots in the practice to focus on. So hopefully by this time next year, my baby warrior would have made it to at least the tween years, and my water-free chicken legs will have seen a growth spurt.

(Photo credit: Via urbanmkr’s flicker photo stream)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.