I was just reading Grimmly’s blog entry in which there is a revisiting of the well-worn debate between those who fully buy into the traditional one-pose-at-a-time method of Ashtanga yoga teaching versus those who don’t. Of the latter, it seems that there are two schools: those who tried it in earnest and found it wanting and those who never even thought to try and and found that life was good without it.
I am of the former school. And I thought it might be fun (for me, at least) to revisit how my change of heart came to pass.
I started my Ashtanga practice with the goal of completing Primary Series because I believed, as I still do, that the deep forward bends and twists are therapeutic, if only for the muscles and joints of the body, and possibly for the metabolic system as well (it is impossible to deny the effects on my own digestive system of the deep twists…if things aren’t moving along, so to speak, all it takes is Mari D, we’re in business, you Ashtangis know what I’m talking about…). When I started, my body was stiff. Not my mind, folks. My body. I had run marathons but had never bothered to stretch. Even though I had done my share of handsprings as a youth and had continued throughout adulthood to now and then pull one out when I found myself on a wide, green expanse of grass, after my double mastectomy, there were no more handsprings. No more back walkovers. Not my mind, my body. Very real, very stiff.
I took “led” classes (Western style, your typical yoga classes where the instructor calls out the poses and the class follows suit), but I found that I was gaining little flexibility in the more difficult poses. Plus, very few led classes actually got past the halfway point of Primary. Even Govinda Kai’s Led Primary class at New York Yoga back in the early 2000’s was really Led Half Primary (that was when he was known as Russell Kai Yamaguchi, for those who don’t recognize the name).
I decided to give Mysore-style classes a go because I felt that the one-on-one attention in the difficult poses would provide the intensity and repetition I needed. I was afraid to try Mysore-style at first because I was resistent to the idea of being “stopped” at a pose that I had not yet perfected (which I assumed would be Marichyasana C, but I feared could be sooner, depending on how exacting a teacher might be…after all, my Marichyasana A wasn’t pretty either; even though I could link fingers, a wrist bind was a far-off dream, and I wasn’t sure what a teacher would expect of me). Anyway, I finally gave in and decided that I would accept the “being stopped” because I really really really wanted to make progress in Marichyasana C and D and Kurmasana.
I tried Eddie Stern’s shala and really enjoyed Sarah’s midmorning session. She stopped me at Marichyasana D, if I am remembering correctly. I also tried Guy Donahaye’s shala, and found myself gravitating toward Mark Robberds’s light-hearted, sunshiney style (he was the guest teacher that first summer while Guy was away). Mark let me go all the way to Supta Kurmasana, but he told me that Guy probably would cut me back to Marichyasana C or D, since I needed assistance to bind them. By then, I was fine with all of that because very single day that I went to practice, I actually got to DO those poses that had seemed impossible before, even if it was with help. And I liked it. I not only liked it, I was addicted to it and completely dependent on GOING to the shala in order to get my assists. If I didn’t go to the shala, then those poses eluded me. So, naturally, I wanted to go. Every single day.
As time wore on, and I am talking a lot of time – a year or more – I became able to do Marichyasana C and D on my own, and then Supta Kurmasana became the challenge, the addiction, the pose that made me dependent on my teacher and a visit to the shala for help. And then came drop-backs.
By the midsummer of 2007, I found myself able to do every pose of Primary Series on my own and to drop back and stand up on my own. But I became interested in more-deeply backbending, and I knew that I was going to need at least some of Second Series in order to do that. Not that I couldn’t do that on my own – except for Pasasana, we’re talking very very elementary backbending prior to Kapotasana.
Anyway, long story short, over the period of a little more than a year, except for a brief interlude with Christopher Hildebrandt, which I will get to in a moment, I found my interest in shala practice significantly diminished. I think that what had happened was that nothing had ever really changed for me: I still really wanted to practice Primary Series. I didn’t want to give up any of Primary Series because I still firmly believed in it. It made me fit. It made me feel good. And I could DO Primary Series without any help at all.
Now, there was that time with Christopher, in the summer of 2008 where I began to really long for more more more. And I attribute that to Christopher’s enthusiasm and his seeming belief that any pose is possible for any person. He gave me all of Second Series up to Eka Pada Sirsasana with the promise of more just as soon as I could keep my legs behind my head without assistance. But that is when it all started to backfire for me. I don’t think I really WANTED all those poses. I wanted to learn to backbend. And doing leg-behind-head poses wasn’t helping my backbends.
And this is when the doubt began to creep in. My teacher believed that I could do these poses, that I should do these poses. But I didn’t. Much as my ego wanted to believe my teacher, reality was telling me that this was not the proper course for me. I struggled with the reality testing all throughout this past winter. I practiced at home, trying to keep up the prescribed practice – all of Primary then Second up to Eka Pada. But it was arduously long, and I felt overtrained. I was making no progress in Kapotasana, or not nearly enough for the amount of time I had put in. I sensed that the work in Eka Pada was undoing my work in Kapotasana.
In short: I began to distrust outside teaching and to trust my inner teacher above all else.
Getting back to the original seed that started this post – the question of whether the traditional one-pose-at-a-time style is the right style for everyone – I think that the answer is that nothing is one-size-fits-all. It’s simply not black and white.
Show me a 30-year-old former dance instructor who steadily moves through Primary and Second, and I will show you two or three or 10 45-year-old former runners who are much better off doing it all piecemeal, at least after they learn Primary. I still believe that Primary should be learned in its entirety before moving on to Second Series. But I also believe that Primary might best be practiced as a gestalt, rather than one-pose-at-a-time. Or maybe not. Maybe it depends on the student. Maybe it depends on what the student WANTS. Maybe all students would be best served by having a teacher who is willing to tailor the practice to what the student wants from their practice, maybe with some limits set: no Pasasana until Mari D is self-bound, for example. No Eka Pada unless Supta Kurmasana is bound (with or without assistance). And Second Series backbends should be available to students who need them.
I don’t know. I fully admit that I don’t know. All I know is what worked for me and what didn’t. What worked for me WAS being taught one Primary Series pose at a time. But “worked” is a tricky notion. It “worked” in that it made me proficient at Primary Series, which I can breeze through in under an hour now. But it did not work as far as making me fit and healthy exactly. The weight that I put on when I was being treated for breast cancer did not come off until I was practicing ALL of Primary. And once I was practicing all of Primary, the weight SLID off. I don’t even understand how it came off so quickly. Before that, when I was practicing half of Primary and/or maybe a bit more, my weight was lower than it was before I was practicing Ashtanga diligently and daily. But I did not find my “comfortable” weight until after I was “allowed” to practice all of Primary (and by “allowed”, I mean in a shala; of course, I could have done whatever I wanted at home, and sometimes I did. But during this period, I was still of the mindset that I was doing something “criminal”, which seems laughable now, but that was my mindset at the time…I was “all in” when it came to the Ashtanga game).
Perhaps if I had been allowed to practice ALL of Primary but was told that I would not be taught any of Second Series, with the exception of the Second Series backbends up to but not including Kapotasana, until I could do all of Primary on my own, I might have taken a lot longer to learn all of Primary. On the other hand, perhaps I would have lost a lot of weight, making it easy for me to bind in Marichyasana D and Supta Kurmasana.
Of course, for ME, weight seems to be a relevant factor in my ability to bind certain poses. Actually, the more flexible I get, the more years of practice I have under my belt, the fewer poses there are that seem to be effected by weight. Right now, it seems to only be Supta Kurmasana in which I can feel a difference if I put on or take off a pound or two. Maybe someday, I will be flexible enough so that it doesn’t matter at all if my weight is up or down, with respect to Supta Kurmasana. However, for other people, no amount of skinniness is going to matter in certain poses. I have seen skinny people struggle in Marichyasana D. I have seen skinny people who are unable to bind in Supta Kurmasana without help (some are unable to bind WITH help). So, for me, the rigors of practicing all of Primary might have made a difference in my ability to DO all of Primary, whereas for others, the rigors of practice might make no difference at all.
Chalk another one up to one size does not fit all, to black and white being a bit greyer than traditionalists might wish to believe.
I certainly do not regret trusting Guy and learning the Primary Series the way he was taught – one pose at a time, proficiency required. But I wonder if it might have been just as good for me the way, say, Val or Tim Miller teaches it: all of Primary at once.
There is no answer. The only way to “test” the two opposing theories are to have the same person try it both ways, but of course that isn’t possible. Because once you’ve learned it one way, you can’t undo it and then learn it the other way. So anyone who claims that they KNOW that one way is better than the other really can’t know it at all. They can have FAITH in the way they were taught. They can have faith in their guru, or their guru’s guru. But they can’t know.
Grimmly, who inspired this post, is perhaps my favorite yogi of all right now, and I will tell you why. Grimmly is innocent. Grimmly has not ventured into the shala and then rejected it as you might say that I have. Grimmly has simply stumbled onto an amazing style of yoga, teaching it to himself with great success. It is a pleasure to see it in action. He defies every Ashtanga Traditionalist’s expectations. He throws it on the ground and Karandavasanas right over it. It is awesome.
Some saw fit to try to stomp on his buzz. Based on my experiences, I would expect that someday those buzz-stompers will either abandon the Ashtanga fold altogether – when they get to a pose for which the Ashtanga system suddenly disappoints them, suddenly no longer works. Or….
Wait. I really don’t see any other possibility for the buzz-stompers. In my heart of hearts, I believe that it can only end one way. Disappointment.
But not for Grimmly. Grimmly will keep on keeping on…at least I hope so.
This is probably one of the most rushed and disjointed posts I’ve ever vomited out. But there you go. I had to say it.