Monday, 11 July 2011

Nancy Gilgoff Workshop - Wiltshire

This weekend I attended a 3 day workshop with Nancy Gilgoff, at the beautifully appointed Slater's Barn  in Wiltshire (go if you ever have the chance). I'd heard a lot about Nancy from S and others so I was really looking forward to it, although I must admit to being a little apprehensive as I knew we'd be focussing quite a lot on 2nd series, which I hadn't really practiced before.

I needn't have worried - it was an amazing weekend with a very wise, kind and inspirational teacher and I enjoyed it immensely. Last week I wrote another blog post called 'Questions' in which I aired some doubts and concerns I'd been having with regards to Ashtanga yoga practice - Nancy managed to dispel all of these over the course of this weekend.

One of the major differences in Nancy's approach to teaching Ashtanga is that she believes in letting people go right through the primary series (and, after a while, on to the 2nd series), even if they aren't able to do every single posture 100% 'correctly' - she believes that the focus should be on the breath and the movement through the series, not necessarily on achieving 'perfection' in each asana. To me this makes a lot of sense - it removes the attachment people have to achieving a particular asana (and risking injury by pushing themselves too hard in the process) before they're allowed to continue; instead it allows them to focus on the practice as a whole. It also means they're able to experience and benefit from the asanas that come later on in the series which will ultimately help them to one day nail Marichyasana D or whatever posture it is that they're struggling with. And overall it just feels like a gentler and kinder approach.

This is of course a marked departure from how most teachers approach Ashtanga, and Nancy made it very clear that she didn't think that her approach was 'better' than that of these teachers...she said it was just the way that she'd been taught, it's been working for her for 40 years and it was how she was told to teach by Patthabi Jois (she asked him just before he died if she should carry on teaching in this way and he told her yes). I for one hope she keeps on teaching like this for many more years to come...

One of the things that Nancy does have in common with most other teachers is her belief that Ashtanga yoga should be a daily practice (barring Moon days and a rest day each week). However, for Nancy this doesn't mean that you need to be thrashing around sweatily on your mat for 2 hours. 5 Surya Namaskara A's, plus the three seated Lotus poses at the end of the finishing sequence can constitute a practice...even just standing on your mat and breathing deeply for 10 breaths can be a practice (David Swenson said this too). It's about bringing awareness to your breath and your body, not pushing yourself to physical extremes. Again this was something that really resonated with me - I can definitely be guilty of pushing myself a little too hard in practice at times, in order to keep 'progressing' and I'm going to try to take a step back from this approach a bit and be kinder to my body. It's perhaps easier said than done - but much better to ease back and be able to enjoy this wonderful practice every day, than risk hurting ourselves badly and not being able to practice at all.


Tuesday, 5 July 2011


I've spent a lot of time recently contemplating my Ashtanga practice - and more specifically whether or not it does in fact promote 'yogic' values, or perhaps quite the opposite.

Last Friday I attended a day of talks and meditation on 'the joy of yoga' with Swami Nityamuktananda and Swami Veda Bharati. It was an inspiring and humbling experience to be in the presence of such wise and profoundly spiritual people and the biggest take away for me was that asana practice really does represent only a very limited aspect of yoga. In theory this information wasn't new to me, as I'm sure it won't be for most people reading this blog, but the way in which both Swami Nityamuktananda and Swami Veda Bharati really brought this understanding home had a profound and slightly unsettling effect which to an extent has made me question why it is that I spend an hour and a half a day pushing myself so hard in asana practice.

I also started my yoga teacher training over the weekend and again, this has caused me to reflect on the nature of my practice. Unsurprisingly, one of the main messages of the training was 'safety' - ensuring that you are extremely mindful of helping students avoid injury by paying attention to correct posture and allowing them to work within their limits. Ahimsa (non violence) is one of the yamas that comprise one of the 8 limbs of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and me an ashtangi who hasn't caused violence to him or herself through an overly zealous approach to their practice (knees being a common casualty!). Certain teachers too, in trying to crush students into various postures, have been responsible for causing serious injuries - is that what yoga is really all about?

It's a fairly common event for my fellow ashtangis and I to discuss a litany of injuries picked up during practice in the changing room of the yoga studio - of course this is usually accompanied by the standard platitudes of 'learning from injury' (which I do in fact believe is very important) and resolutions to practice more mindfully in future (again good - if you stick to your intentions). On my Twitter feed too, it seems that not a week goes by without one of the ashtangis talking about an injury that they've sustained - and I even read that Sharath Jois is currently only practicing 1st series due to injury...although I should say that I have no knowledge whether or not this is actually true.

Yoga asana is a physical practice and so of course injuries are likely to occur, but it does seem to me at least that they seem to affect ashtangis far more than the average yoga practitioner and I think that this is due to 2 things. Firstly the impulse to practice a rigorous series of postures on a more or less daily basis which possibly drives the body to exhaustion; secondly, that the traditional Mysore approach prohibits practitioners from progressing in the series until they have mastered all asana postures up to that point.

Non attachment - to both objects and the outcome of our actions - is another key tenet of yoga, and yet I wonder whether both the regularity and traditional series based approach to Ashtanga may actually lead to further least for the average Western mind?

Fellow ashtangis will know what I'm talking about - if you want to see them freak out, you just have to tell them that they're going to have to miss practice tomorrow. Most ashtangis (me included, I'll admit) are almost fanatical about their daily practice and will go to extreme lengths to ensure that they don't miss a session on the mat - even when they're injured or when their exhausted body is telling them that they should really rest instead. This doesn't smack of 'non attachment'...

And the focus on always trying to achieve the next posture (for me right now - and for the last few months - it's Marichyasana D) can also lead to a great deal of attachment to the results of our actions (it also leads to people pushing their bodies too far, too soon). You just have to witness the excitement of an ashtangi who's finally accomplished a particular asana and been given new postures to add to the series. Of course that's part of the challenge - to react to success and failure with the same steadiness of mind - but again I wonder if Ashtanga can sometimes work against the very values that it's trying to promote, at least within an already overly 'goal oriented' culture.

Asana practice is a beautiful and essential part of my life - I love it and I feel very fortunate to have found it. It helps our bodies to stay strong and supple, to stimulate the flow of energy, to improve our breathing and to concentrate and calm the mind. It improves our health and equanimity, helps us deal with the challenges that life puts in our way and allows us to move towards a greater awareness of ourselves and others. Without it our lives would certainly be less fulfilling - but do we really need to push ourselves to extremes to realise these benefits? I hope not...


P.S. I'd hate for anyone to think that I'm speaking on behalf of anyone else with some of the comments and generalisations I've made above - that's certainly not my intention. This post is really just a stream of consciousness that attempts to outline some of my observations, thoughts and reflections on my own approach to practice, which may need adjusting. I'm not sure if there are any actual answers to the points I've raised, but I'd love to hear the thoughts and feedback of my fellow yogis.