AYC 2016 Notes
The Ashtanga Yoga Confluence of 2016 was a blast of love. From supercharged led and mysore practices to insightful workshops to engaging panels, the weekend strengthened my faith in the practice and rejuvenated my bonds with our community. In the spirit of sharing, here are some of my notes-
The essence of the weekend was exemplified, for me, in a simple gesture performed by David before the start of the last panel. As everyone was getting situated, David poured water from a jug into each of the panelist’s glasses, humbly and without being asked to. This small act embodied the love and mutual respect that imbues the teaching of this method.
Manju’s led class on Friday was full of humor and a sense of excitement. Though the class was listed as led primary, after navasana, he called out- pashasana! After a moment of shock, everyone carried on with intermediate series through tittibhasana. Knowing Manju, I had a feeling someone like this was going to happen. Manju believes that everyone should be practicing intermediate and that students should not be ‘held back’ because of lack of mastery of previous postures. It was pure joy to be in a room full of students practicing intermediate, some of whom had never done so before! Manju carried us all with his lightheartedness :)
The first panel of the weekend was ripe with insights. A definition of pratyahara was given that I had not heard before. Rather than considering it a withdrawal of the senses, Eddie defined it as ‘seeing God everywhere’ and Richard defined it as ‘no separation between the self and other.’ The sense organs compel us to follow our likes and dislikes, and the practice of pratyahara encourages us to use our sense organs to focus (in ashtanga yoga, via tristhana) instead of accepting likes and dislikes as truth.
There was also talk of maintaining balance within the practice, and accepting darkness and discomfort rather than rejecting or suppressing them. As one the panelists said, ‘It’s not always butterflies and rainbows.’ David gave new meaning to Guruji’s oft-quoted edict, ‘Do your practice. All is coming.’ For him, it’s come to mean ‘Do your practice BECAUSE all is coming!’ Richard told an origin story involving Shiva, who swallows poison (halahala) and lets it sit in the throat- neither swallowing it or spitting it out– known as mindfulness in today’s culture.
In Dena’s workshop, we isolated and deepened the breath, learned how to bring samasthitih integrity to each vinyasa, and got to hear many pearls of wisdom along the way. The stand out points for me were the encouragement to lean, rather than push, in the direction we wish to go, and that having a visceral understanding of where the breath can reach allows for literal ‘breathing room’ when we are in compromised positions- on and off the mat, I would think ;)
The women’s panel on Saturday was one of the highlights of the weekend for everyone who was there. Looking at all the radiant women on stage, I was struck by the age-defying and love-inducing power of the practice! Each woman shared her story of finding ashtanga yoga, of which Jocelyn’s was particularly thrilling! As she told us of the many experiments in yoga that eventually led her to find Guruji, the whole room was erupting with delight!
As we shifted to q&a, Kathy spoke of following her dharma of maintaining strong focus on her personal practice while watching many of her peers grow into teachers. When she felt ready after the age of 60, teaching opportunities began to present themselves and she’s now been teaching regularly for several years. She also echoed something Dena had mentioned in her workshop- to allow and open, rather than force.
Dena shared the three energies each teacher must embody- sun for discipline, moon for nurturing, and fire for transformation. She also shared how motherhood gave her a compassion that was previously not present. Regarding a question about how to modify for pregnancy, she encouraged us to ‘have some trust in the magic that’s you.’ In response to a question about how to fit the practice into the demands of motherhood, Mary talked about the incredible experience of morphing from one body into two and suddenly no longer being the center of one’s universe. Motherhood gives us an experience of unconditional love like never before. Dena reminded us that if the mama is happy, everyone’s happy and that we can either be exhausted and sleep-deprived with yoga or exhausted and sleep-deprived without yoga.
Diana shared a story of Guruji calling out her neighbor in a led class for constantly being ahead of the count. In the middle of class, he stopped, walked over to her neighbor, looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘WHY HURRY?’ This serves as a reminder to all of us to cherish each moment rather than hurrying onto the next. Shelley blew us all away with her story of Guruji knowing before anyone (including her doctors!) that she was ready to go up into a headstand after years of not doing so because of glaucoma. Leigha gave love to all the kapha girls in the room and shared a memory of watching a young girl practice beside her in Mysore. Because she was not able to do much of the practice on her own, Guruji literally moved her arms up and down for her, carried her forward and back, etc. There was so much joy in that interaction that Leia’s heart was totally filled. In response to a question about self-judgment and ego during practice, Shelley left us with one of the most inspiring messages of the weekend. She encouraged us to experience practice as mother. Each day when we get on our mat, our practice should say ‘Welcome home. I love you.’ No judgment, only safety, love, and a warm embrace.
Eddie’s talk on the nervous system was truly remarkable and one of the most transformative moments of the weekend for me. I will let Eddie write a book (hopefully!) with all the technical info but I will share that the talk left me in awe of the practice, and the myriad effects it has on the body and nervous system. The vagus nerve was the star of the show here. Known as the wanderer because of its reach throughout the body, it passes through the throat (breathing with sound, chanting!) and extends out from the cervical and sacral areas of the spine (areas we lengthen in primary series!). One of the oldest branches of the parasympathetic nervous system, it is bidirectional, meaning communication between the brain and body flows both ways. It’s responsible for physical and emotional health, heart rate variability, and social connection, among other things. Deep breathing, vinyasa, asana, chanting, and meditation (specifically loving kindness) all tone our nervous system. The research around all this is exciting and just hearing Eddie talk about it for a couple of hours reminded me that this practice works in so many ways we don’t yet understand.
On Sunday, Manju led a chanting and q&a session with Eddie by his side. He told us that chanting balances the four elements- earth, air, fire, and water– and we recited many shanti mantras, call and response style. He reminded us that chanting is like pranayama, in that we are working toward being able to recite these mantras in one breath. During q&a, he reiterated that we should be focused on the quality, not quantity of asana practice, and that we should make time to take care of ourselves. In his words, ‘you come first.’ He also told us the incredible story of having angina while he was at the London airport and saving his own life by practicing pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) and staying calm. Eddie also chanted the purusha sukta for us, which was a treat to hear :)
The last panel of the weekend was super juicy. We hit many of the controversial topics that surround ashtanga yoga- pain, religion, and authorization. Regarding pain, Richard spoke of allowing prana to envelop the pain without getting attached to the story of it. Eddie reminded us that often the path of fixing pain is not painless, meaning the road to healing also involves pain. David shared that he has never been injured from yoga and that we should not be glorifying pain. In his words, ‘We are not Pattabhi Jois.’ All the senior teachers agreed here and Eddie brought up the point that we need to have an honest conversation regarding pain inflicted by poor teachers. Dena gave us a good barometer via which to measure our own comfort (or lack thereof)- If a student is afraid of the teacher and he or she is contracting in preparation for receiving an adjustment, that is the wrong teacher for that student.
Regarding ashtanga yoga’s spiritual nature, all the teachers were in agreement. David said that yoga is not a religion; it is a tool for life. Tim said that yoga gives us the technology to access a taste of the divine. Dena shared that the ‘God’ referred to in the yoga sutras, also known as Isvara, is beyond conflict. Richard reminded us that the yoga sutras describe a mystical practice, akin to mystical practices from traditions around the world, and that yoga is freedom from religion. Eddie gave us the historical perspective that yoga is pre-religious. It was literally developed before the word ‘religion’ came into use. In vedic times there were 6 darshanas, or philosophies, and yoga was one of them. The Hindu tradition encompasses all these darshanas so, in that sense, yoga and the Hindu tradition are linked but not in the narrow way many people nowadays believe.
One of the most touching moments of the weekend came during the conversation about authorization. Many students were referencing Sharath as the lineage holder of this practice and David stopped us all, reminding us that on the panel was Guruji’s son, Manju. The room erupted into applause and everyone rose to give Manju a standing ovation. As I stood up, a tear ran down my face as I was just so happy to see Manju getting the credit he deserves. Manju then told us how moved he is by all these teachers putting their heart and soul into sharing his father’s teachings with the world. He said that to teach, all we need is a blessing- not a piece of paper. He also reiterated that yoga is about looking within and knowing oneself, not getting a certificate. When asked about parampara, he said that traditionally parampara is about maintaining the patriarchal lineage but that his father treated all his students as his children, so all the teachers on the panel (and by extension, all of us) are part of the parampara.
Before the panel ended, Dena, Manju, and Eddie shared their stories of finding their life partners and Guruji’s taste for romance and family. These stories brought a joyful energy into our hearts as we closed with Dena leading us in a call and response chant and Manju reciting the mangala mantra.
To share three days with such devoted students and teachers, and to tap into the energy flow, was a true blessing. These notes are by no means all-inclusive. There were so many gems that I didn’t include, but I hope this recap allows those of us who were there to reconnect with the teachings and inspires others to join us next time. A huge hug of gratitude to Deb, Jenny, and all the assistants and unsung heroes who facilitated this gathering.
With a full heart and hands joined in service,