Recent practices have all been junk, every single one of them.
There's a lot of knottedness (physically, emotionally; it's rarely, I think, just one of those, but both together, almost always) in the right hip, psoas and glutes, and I simply cannot get through standing sequence without some painful/sad release in that area, and as I've said before, I stop practicing when that happens unless I feel truly masochistic and want more of the same in half-lotus postures and twists.
The immmediate question is, why not practice something else? Take a vinyasa day, or take a long hold in pigeon or something. I do actually plan to do Sweeney's Simha Krama tomorrow, because historically it's the only thing that has ever cracked open the right hip tension to the point of release rather than defensiveness the next day.
So I still consider my practice to be ashtanga, even though it's not Primary, not Intermediate, but simply corresponds to a set of directions given traditionally: do this, then that, hold for this long, look here and there, breathe in this way. And that's really it. I do short little practices, stopping when I consider it necessary, and that's my ashtanga for now.
My asana practice has an "excretory" quality about it; the purpose of it seems to be a type of emotional purgation of friction.
Far and away the most popular post I've ever written in here is "Actual differences between ashtanga and vinyasa" which I think I put down in 2007 or 2008. It gets MASSIVE quantities of hits and far outnumbers anything else I've written. Many people apparently use "difference between ashtanga and vinyasa" as a search term, and end up here. Cool.
I like that post in particular, because I've written on that topic a few times, and that one post is my least snarky, least egoic take on the thing. I use a vinyasa class that I enjoy, as a counterexample to ashtanga and I simply compare them.
Let's have a micro-rant about the yoga scene in state again: sometimes I hunt around studios' websites seeing what's what and where's where, and also teacher bios, particularly if they say "ashtanga," and there is still a bunch of something I have historically not liked, and it's not shocking that it's still here:
Teachers will put the word "ashtanga" in a class description or a biography and perhaps (but not always) put a senior teacher down as an inspiration, but with no discussion of length of time with said teacher or duration of practice or regularity or with what (if any) understanding of the system. What am I to take from this? It's "Teacher Q has some ashtanga experience with Senior Teacher Z." Huh? Or "Teacher Q became an ashtangi and then discovered Yoga B by teacher X and now teaches a blend of all of these styles." Wha?
The phrase "blend of all of these styles" just irks me to pieces, and I should probably get over it but I simply cannot yet do that. Ok, in some cases, like ashtanga teachers who have a lot of Iyengar background, yes, I see how that's coherent (hi Nicki Doane, Richard Freeman, et al.). But the too-common yoga teachers (and this is related to stuff posted recently by Grimmly and Nobel) who seem to be random pastiches of who-knows-how-much-or-little of who-knows-how-many-types of physical movement (and you can add ANYTHING in here: kundalini, Sivananda, dance backgrounds, gymnastics, martial arts, Anusara, the always-ambiguous "hatha yoga", name-check vinyasas by, say, the Kests or Seane Corn or Shiva Rea or Moses or KBudig or any amount of ashtanga, often without but sometimes with a name check), those people just make me completely nuts.
Now, true, if you're working with a Kest-influenced teacher, you're probably getting powerish ashtanga-ish vinyasa with all the lotuses and headstands cut out. If you're working with a Corn-influenced teacher, you're getting vinyasa yoga with an occasional hard arm balance and a loud emphasis on ethics and activism. If you're working with a Rea-influenced teacher, you're getting flow and fluid and dancey moves in a vinyasa setting. Some of this, we know. But when you're looking at a class by someone who "teaches a blend of all of these styles," who the fuck knows what you're getting. Is it going to be three ashtanga sun salutes and then an Iyengar triangle and then an Anusara grab-the-foot-of-your-neighbor standing hand to big toe, maybe with some Hooping thrown in, and then a little Budokon movement and then some ballet-inspired jumps and then a vinyasa down to side crane and then some Kundalini breath of fire and then rest? Get it?
Your yoga should not be a smorgasbord. How the hell are you supposed to truly understand what any given practice is doing to you if you do sixteen different things per class and don't even do THOSE consistently?
This rant is now no longer micro-. You expected this.
Anyway: basically I'm irked by "teaches a blend of all styles" and I'm REALLY irked by teachers whose bios say crazy things like, "She has Yoga Alliance certification at the 200 hour level." HUH? By WHOM? In WHAT? And make no mistake, there are bios out there that say that, as if Yoga Alliance itself, a licensing body, somehow guarantees that you can teach someone something.
Tangentially, I'm also irked by "we will sample a wide variety from different traditions." SIGH. Imagine for a minute that you're teaching paleontology. If you try to use "different tools" in paleontology, you'll get less effective results, because paleontology has specific tools that are used and which serve it specifically as a discipline. "Wide variety...traditions" sounds good when you're taking a survey course in ethics or philosophical questions about the self, but it is no way to approach something that has tools and requires skill; all you'll learn with that approach to tool use is that different cultures have different tools for different jobs. Big freaking deal.
To become SKILLED in the actual use of a tool, you have to go DEEP. By serving up our yoga as a set of alien cultural practices from the great long-ago, we make our practice into theory; we alienate ourselves from it. By refusing to belong and to surrender some of ourselves to specific skill acquisition in a systemic way, we refuse to understand. There can be no systemic understanding (or critique) without this depth. So don't damn tell me you're going to offer a "blend of all styles" or that you're going to "sample many meditation techniques" or "focus on a wide variety of pranayamas." FIND OUT why some pranayamas are taught and in what order, and why others aren't, or FIND OUT why some traditions hold Triangle for fifteen minutes and some for forty seconds, or FIND OUT why some traditions do inversions first and some inversions last, and so on.
I was a teacher before I was a yoga teacher.
I started teaching college-level classes as an assistant instructor in graduate school in 1996. I was 26; my oldest student in that class was 23. The small age differential made me nervous and the 20-of-them-to-1-of-me freaked me out. The next semester, I went for more confrontational material because I somehow figured that I could achieve mastery by making the confrontational into the educationally interesting. I still do that today.
I taught as a grad student all the way to 2005, before they stopped funding me, and there was slight overlap with my art school teaching career which began in summer 2004. Summers at first, then a fellowship (2007), then a visiting position (2008-9, three semesters worth), then a Lecturer position which is year-to-year but technically permanent (they've never let one go yet). I took a pedagogy course in 2000, and I almost always had carte blanche (free reign) as to course content, in large part because my department was using me as cheap labor to avoid having to hire a "real" professor who would have cost real money. I designed most of my own courses and syllabi, and I've exclusively designed my own stuff since 2000, with only two incidents of "here's a past syllabus" in those 11 years.
So I've been formally teaching for fifteen years.
I took up the yoga in summer 2004, and three years later, teacher training with the It's Yoga gang who were, in 2007, in San Francisco (now they're in Sonoma). As my skill set improved (and 2006-7 was when I got all of Primary locked down pretty well), I'd sub an occasional class for my own teacher and, in a way that's pretty common nationally, I went to TT because I had the skill set down. Very "those who can, teach."
As you know, in SF I did Mysore-style in the morning and then TT all afternoon, sometimes 3 classes a day. My adjustments are heavily influenced by the Mysore room, and barely influenced by what I learned in TT (two fingers only; suggestive adjustments; screw that).
I give Sanskrit names because ashtanga does; I stay on-sequence because ashtanga does; I try to get students to work the "core postures" before moving on, because ashtanga does; I do what ashtanga does, because it's what I practice and it's what I teach (I loosen up when I teach the Rocket, but actually my ashtanga students sometimes tell me they wish I'd count, so they could figure the breath pace better...hehe!).
My Sunday room, which is my more traditional room, is what I call a "Led/Mysore blend." New students show up, who don't necessarily know the sequence and who are sometimes a bit freaked by the "go on, do your practice" approach of Mysore-style, so I lead, I offer openly to lead. However, I have 4-6 regular students who either have cheat sheets or have the series (or series, plural) memorized and who Mysore-style it up very happily. I usually lead the It's Yoga half-Primary which is 40 poses in 60 minutes. We add on maybe Bhujapidasana or work vinyasa or work headstand or something, so it's 75-90 minutes. My regular time slot is 12:30-2:00.
Students come, as any teacher of anything will tell you, in three thousand varieties. I'm thinking of specific people in my room here: there are the stiff but determined, strong, guys, who love the stuff and will do their damn best with anything I call out. There is the insecure woman who has a much stronger practice than she thinks she does. I just have to give her directions and try to resist developing any meta-awareness on her part, because a wall of doubt separates her from any such meta-awareness. Leave it alone and let her become strong and fluid, let her reality teach her what's true.
There is the powerhouse lady with the insane practice, but who does not surrender except in moments where her guard seems unconsciously to drop; only in those moments can I slip in some advice or wisdom about a posture or breathing or anything. Other than that, she is a wall of steel, with all of the strength and weakness implied there.
So many students balance strength and doubt; if it doesn't LOOK right, it needs work. NO! Forgo that! How does it feel? You get it in the inner thigh, or the spinal flexors, or the hip flexors, or whatever, right? That's enough.
There is the lady who wants to do this a pose-at-a-time, who actively surrenders to the rules of my room, which means I have to make the rules of the room into a net (or a tightrope) for her, and I do. My adjustments, like magic, become more classical for her, my recommendations also. It is the closest to a proof that I've ever had, that the system works, that the system is like a PRESENCE in my room. I have such great, great affection for her practice, the mode of her practice. I never have to sell her on anything or be funny on purpose to keep people coming back; this is true of other people in the room as well, but it is an honor to teach this one.
There is the guy who will sink into breath and concentration, and wants this in a way that interferes with his getting it. The real discovery, the embodied reality, is still a shadow, and I feel like always encouraging, "Yes, follow your shadow; don't make your shadow follow you."
I occasionally say "bad lady" or "bad man" and I tell them what that is, and how it was used, and from whom I heard these stories. I can read faces, read energy in bodies (somewhat; that's a hard skill, one you keep gaining), can tell people when to breathe more, exhale the fear, or whatever's necessary. Once in a while a person comes in and simply doesn't like it, this isn't the practice for them, and I offer support and ways to make things easier without making it seem that they can't "do the poses." I offer "visualizing the vinyasa," which is Tim's way of putting "breathe but don't move, skip it."
People find my room to be "more advanced" than Carol's room, but that's an illusion, I think the differences are tonal. Carol is all generosity and praise, but she can work you as hard as I can. I am ironic funniness and straight directions and tangents and stories, and I like to challenge students. If I think someone can do something, I ask if they do it or have tried it and then I introduce it, particularly if it's spooky or frustrating(inversion, arm balance, vinyasa); I like to get into a challenge, break a preconception. In this respect, my room is "harder" than Carol's; her magic power is to talk people into ease, surrender, trust, and thence to the posture. I am much more, "you do; trust is stronger than fear; come up." Walk! Jump! Head down! Chaturanga! Lift! Whatever command is necessary to turn reluctance, doubt, fear, anxiety, into a more affirmative avatar. That also doesn't work with everyone; with people that are truly confused or shy, I'll explain how the pose works, modifications for it, make it a little discussion. I find that I also teach art history in exactly this way (well, without the hands-on adjustments, right?).
It's very difficult to lead-and-demonstrate while trying to also throw an eye over to the Mysore-style half of the room. But that skill also improves as I practice it. I tell them that my practices are very light these days; I talk about my kid, I talk about parenting and energy. People can forget that the yoga is part of life, you get in those little isolated rooms for seventyfive minutes and it's an escape but you also escape FROM your practice when you leave. No, integrate it, make it one thing.
I see the led students watching me putting someone in Marichyasana D or Vasisthasana or Kapotasana or taking a student by the hips up to handstand and then to dropover and stand up. I think that this is both inspiring (because my teaching mode in those circumstances is physical and verbal comamnd, especially if I'm basically pulling/pushing someone into a pose) and kind of terrifying for them, but it shows an engagement with the room, a sort of physicality that makes the room much less like television and much more like reality. Because you can (and I've seen classes like this) teach up front and just demonstrate and not touch anybody and then it's like yoga television. A Mysore-style room is a ritual space: it is senses and energy and sweat, vision and breathing and weird intimacy (and like all weird intimacy, you have to both engage and guard yourself).
Finally, I'm doing a classical Led Primary on the 26th of August (that's Friday night) at 6 pm. Sanskrit counting, chants, and we're also going to do the four chants Swenson gave in Austin and at least his "thumbers and breathers" exercise, and perhaps the first official ashtanga pranayama if the group is willing and able. You're all invited.