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: 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.

Ashtanga Yoga Confluence: Guided primary series with Nancy Gilgoff

It’s hard to believe the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence was only last weekend. If I didn’t have a full-time job, if I didn’t teach yoga four times a week, and if I wasn’t trying to plan a wedding, I probably would have written twice as many blog posts during and after the Confluence. :-) But I’m thankful for the time and inspiration I have had for the posts I have managed to do — a big thank you to everyone for reading, commenting and sharing, both here and on Facebook.

I have a couple more posts to go, however, before I say I’ve filed all that I want to file from the gathering.

On the last day of the Confluence, I took the guided primary series with Nancy Gilgoff. I loved the balance of taking the led primary from Richard Freeman on the first day of classes and then seeing Nancy’s approach on the last day. They couldn’t have been more different in their approach to beginners.

You could tell from Richard’s class that he has a background in Iyengar and philosophy. His approach, which I really appreciated, was to set the scene, so speak. Offer up intensely vivid imagery (such as golden dragon tails and cobra hoodies). Get deep into poses. But at the very end of classes, he said, “So . . . don’t try to remember any of this.” He told the room full of students that if we continue to practice, all of this stuff will find us. If we don’t, it will run away from us. Richard seems to simply want to plant the seeds of these ideas into our body and our consciousness.

Nancy began class by saying that when she first met Guruji, he had to put her into poses. He had to help her jump back, because she wasn’t strong enough. She is a big believer in introducing Ashtanga yoga to beginners by having them just do it. Breath? Bandhas? “The beginner can’t hear it anyway,” she told us. Nancy continued by saying that bringing up too much with beginners runs the risk of causing their minds to activate. “The less thinking, the better,” she said.

I loved what she had to say about the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga breath:

The more I practice, the more I realize the simplicity of it. This is about the breath.

(Interestingly, in a similar vein, Richard Freeman had said in his class that you could think of Ashtanga as “pranayama for restless people.”)

Nancy knew that nearly every single person in that room already had an Ashtanga practice, so she noted historical facts about the poses as we got into them. I loved it — it was like taking a guided historical tour of how the primary series sequence has changed over time.

A few notes:

  • In bhujapidasana, she teaches head on the floor the way Tim Miller does. Chin to the floor is more advanced, she said, and you shouldn’t do it if you can’t do head to the floor.
  • In kurmasana, it used to be arms straight out to the sides. Nancy wondered whether taking the arms at more of an angle was the result of less and less room to work with.
  • When it came time for urdvha dhanurasana, Nancy said that Pattabhi Jois didn’t have them do backbends there. “Think about that,” she said. She did let students who wanted the urdvha dhanurasanas to take them.
  • Nancy also put us in the pose that Tim Miller has his students do, where you lie down right after backbends. (Tim calls it tadaka mudra.) Nancy noted that it is not savasana. “Stiff body,” she said.
  • I loved how she introduced  ut plutihi: She said to bring in all the tension you can. All of it, so that you can fully let go in savasana. For this reason, Nancy believes in going straight to savasana from ut plutihi, rather than taking a vinyasa first. But she let students take the vinyasa if they wanted to.

After the class, we had a few minutes of discussion. Someone asked Nancy about alignment. “There is no formal alignment whatsoever,” she said.

In Ashtanga, Nancy noted, it’s about energetic channels: “It’s a completely different approach.”

I loved what she said next, because the idea that there’s no alignment whatsoever seemed to be a difficult one for our group as a whole to handle:

The western mind thinks in terms of external form.

 

As with each of the Confluence teachers, Nancy’s instruction left me with so much great fodder to think about — not just now, but for years to come.

(Illustration credit: Chakras, from “The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga,” by Swami Vishnudevananda, 1959, via Spratmackrel’s Flickr photostream and Creative Commons.)

In this series:

© 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.

 

Is Ashtanga’s third series the new second series?

I feel as if I’ve been seeing more references to third series lately. Specifically:

  • Earlier today, Kino MacGregor started promoting her new third series DVD through tweets and a guest blog post.
  • It was recently announced that Tim Miller is changing up the focus of his three-day intensive during his annual April visit to Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio. The first day of the April 2012 intensive will focus on primary series (Yoga Chikitsa), the second on second series (Nadi Shodhana), and the third on third series (Sthira Bhaga).
  • Hilltop Yoga here in Lansing, Mich., has just put on its schedule a new Sunday class “where students practice primary, second or third series Ashtanga at their own pace.”

I’ve seen Sthira Bhaga translated as “divine stability,” “divine steadinessandstrength and grace.” (I’m partial to the “divine stability” translation myself.) And I have practiced next to third series practitioners. It is awe-inspiring — perhaps less because of the poses themselves (oh, those leg-behind-the-head variations!) but, as the Sanskrit name of the series indicates, the fact that someone could flow with such a sense of calm through such seemingly daunting poses.

Before I link to photos of the series, I want to put this in context for students new to Ashtanga or for those who don’t practice yoga (long-time Ashtanga practitioners know this through experience already) — looking at the photos alone is taking the practice totally out of context. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a compassionate practice for the body — traditionally, you only begin to practice a pose after you have an established practice in the one before it. So it’s not for gymnasts and contortionists. When you see photos of someone in a crazy-looking pose, what you’re looking at is the current incarnation of years of commitment to the practice.

With that lead-in, here are some photos of third series.

After dinner one night during his Mt. Shasta second series retreat last year, Tim Miller was talking to a few students and the question of third series came up. I remember hearing Tim describe the series this way — in terms of the gunas. (If you’re not familiar with the concept of gunas, the simplest definition of gunas I’ve seen comes from T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga: “qualities of the mind; qualities of the universe.”) Primary series is like tamas (heaviness, inertia), second like rajas (activity, change), and third like sattva (clarity, lightness). I’m looking forward to hearing more in April in Columbus.

Here is what MacGregor says about her DVD:

I created my new DVD of the Third Series of Ashtanga Yoga in response to the increasing number of Advanced students practicing Ashtanga Yoga today. I also wanted to share what is for me my most personal journey, my most intimate struggle and now my most consistent daily practice.

She’s not the first to offer an instructional DVD on third series. David Swenson, to the best of my knowledge, was the first to do so, back when we all stilled watched VHS tapes. You can now get Swenson instructional program on a DVD.

It seems to me that Ashtanga students used to talk about second series the way they’re talking about third series now — something a little intimidating, a little exhilarating, and a little out of reach. With more and more students practicing second series these days, it makes sense that third is next. MacGregor writes:

The practice of the Ashtanga Yoga Third Series is not something to be taken lightly or to play around with.

It is a devotional practice that burns through some of the deepest blockages that exist in the human mind and body. It is a practice that contains the essence of Ashtanga Yoga and one not to be taken for granted.

This is what she believes is the first prerequisite for third series:

First you must have a committed six day a week practice of the full Intermediate Series and have been practicing for around five years. That practice should be done smoothly and effortlessly so that when you finish you have more energy to give. The key gateway postures of Second Series should ideally be well-established.

Here’s my question, though. Will Ashtanga practitioners start jumping the gun now that a popular teacher has released a DVD? I’m pretty sure the cybershala can’t provide the wisdom, guidance, feedback and inspiration needed to fully appreciate, understand and experience the third series (or primary or second, for that matter).

I wrote about my qualms when students leapfrog over primary and head straight to second a while back, and I wonder if something similar could start happening with third series. There’s a big difference between doing the Ashtanga sequence and adhering to the Ashtanga method.  

(Photo credit: New <3 necklace via Bekathwia’s Flickr’s photostream.)

© 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.

 

Tim Miller workshop in Columbus, Ohio will give glimpses into primary, second and third series

Photo of a scene from Short North, the Columbus neighborhood in which Yoga on High is located.

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Tim Miller. It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Yoga on High. And it’s no secret I’m a big fan of Columbus, Ohio, which is really pretty cool. Every April, when Tim pays his annual visit to Yoga on High, I get to enjoy all three together. This year, there’s a bonus — I get all three plus a rare glimpse of the first three series of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga as narrated by Tim, who is one of the best guides to this system I have ever met.

Typically, Tim would hold a weekend intensive — which covered philosophy, pranayama and, of course, the physical practice — followed by three days of an intensive. For the past few years, Tim essentially brought sections of his two-week teacher training to Yoga on High. Last year when I attended, we spent the intensive wrapping up the series by an intensive on finishing poses.

Tim’s changing it up this year. Check out what the three-day intensive will bring:

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.

The weekend session will be as enlightening and grounding as always:

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.

Registration is open. Need I say more?

By the way, if you don’t already follow/like/read:

 

 

(Photo credit: Both from the Short North Arts District website.)

© 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.