I received an email from a friend who was on the 2012 Ashtanga Mela at Kripalu. The teachers were David Williams, David Swenson and Danny Paradise. Below are some notes from some of the discussion and Q&A. There were more but some things discussed we felt uncomfortable posting on the internet in a blog post, context, as I mentioned above context is everything.
I've numbered the notes to make it easier if anyone feels inclined to comment.
My personal favourite line from the notes comes from Danny...
'-Danny said the mark of a good teacher is when his/her studio is empty, because all of the students have transitioned to their own home practice. yay home practice!!!'
1. SKPJ did not really have anyone to teach or anyone who was excited about yoga, so when Williams showed up on his doorstep, and other "broke hippies" who were strong, young, healthy, and like "Labradors", he was excited to have students to teach, so he taught. Very very quickly as you know (practising twice a day, adding a few poses a day until they had Primary and Intermediate in 4 months).
2. Williams lived with SKPJ for 3 months and went back several times to study with him, therefore he was the least dogmatic about the man as he must have known him very well.
3. Danny says his was the first generation who did not go to Mysore to study with SKPJ. He said Williams and Gilgoff were his teachers. He said yoga takes your body through profound structural changes and he experienced this himself.
4. SKPJ said primary is very important, intermediate is somewhat important and advanced is only for demonstration :)
5. With regards to the pace of the practice, SKPJ said to move "briskly" b/w postures.
6. Swenson and Williams, separately, took SKPJ to the Indian circus! Swenson told a good story about this involving tigers (or lack of) and an irate ice cream-wallah (vendor).
Progressing through the Series
7. All 3 teachers are discouraged with how rigidly Ashtanga is taught today. This was liberating, to hear how they expect ashtanga yoga to be taught (and practised) in a flexible and giving way. SKPJ taught them as fast as they could learn. They especially don't like the "giving" of postures or "holding back" of postures -- for example and especially, you can't go forward if you can't bind in Mari D or do dropbacks. Williams was very outspoken about this. Swenson was always the moderate voice but he also agreed generally with this.
8. With regards to the typical holdback points (not binding in Marichi D and dropbacks) Williams says people now try to lunge up from dropbacks so they can move forward, and this leads to injuries. Also, very few people can bind in Marichi D.
9. They said SKPJ first started holding students back when the shala started to get crowded - they could not have every student in there for 3 hours and other students waiting. This is when it first got more rigid with the holding back and giving of postures. SKPJ was basically modifying his teaching approach as he got more and more students.
10.Swenson said that if you can do Primary, you should be able to do Intermediate at least up to and including Ustrasana, though he thinks Bakasana is a good counterpose, the trick there is Kapotasana (but it can be done with modifications). According to Swenson Kapotasana is a natural stopping point in Intermediate unless you can get both palms to the floor, and "success" in Supta Kurmasana (ie. moving forward in the practice) is feet crossed and hands crossed behind the back, but feet are not necessarily behind the head.
11. Williams says everyone can do primary and 3/4 of intermediate (with modifications) and that they were allowed to do as much as they had the stamina for.
12. Danny said the mark of a good teacher is when his/her studio is empty, because all of the students have transitioned to their own home practice. Yay home practice!!!
I13. If you don't like a teacher, don't be disrespectful, do what they say and then just go to someone else.
14. SKPJ would say there is no "Jois" yoga or other yoga, it is all yoga. Iyengar said the same thing. SKPJ did not initially call it "Ashtanga", it was just yoga.
15. David Swenson is an amazing teacher. The man speaks fluent Sanskrit and Hindi! He was speaking lines from the Gita with no trouble. He is funny and also knows all 8 limbs in great detail, you can tell he has studied a lot. He says yoga and asanas are "infinite" because you have never "completed" a posture.
16. In my opinion, Beryl Bender Birch was not trying to change Ashtanga yoga at all. Her book begins with an introduction to meeting SKPJ and how she was taught. I believe she just gave it a different name to make it more accessible to students. Williams and Swenson were teaching fellow hippies in Maui and Encinitas, but she was trying to teach the "masses" in (New York?), the middle class.
Age and Practice
17. With regards to learning poses and age, they say you "receive" asanas (ie. learn them, whether on your own or what have you) as you progress, but that you don't get to keep them, as you get older, you have to "give them back". This was a nice observation not to get too attached to trying to simply accumulate asanas.
18. SKPJ stopped practising when he was 53 years old, and none of the family was practising (though for SKPJ, this was apparently a result of a bicycle wreck). Williams used this to tell us that we need to be ready to moderate and soften the practice as we get older if we expect to be able to keep practising injury-free.
19. Swenson said that even though SKPJ no longer practised, he would fill a room with his energy, and could teach people all of these asanas without ever demonstrating them. He also did his morning prayers and sitting every day.
20. Danny did mainly advanced series through his 30's, then he had some injuries, so he focuses now on primary series, some of the intermediate series and daily pranayama.
21. Williams kept his knees down for upward dog, and was not super strict on his alignment. He does at least the minimum everyday (3 As, 3 Bs and 3 finishing) in addition to swimming and pranayama. He used to walk on his hands for 108 steps!! He says yoga is and should be simple because they are literally "caveman exercises".
22. Swenson practises daily, and does not worry (anymore) about what time of day he practices (ie. not necessarily early morning).
23.Beryl Bender Birch showed up and practised. She had slowed down somewhat but she had a beautiful practice and went through the Intermediate series in our Mysore-style session.
24. You already know about Williams' modified practice through Maya's blog ( Day 1&2 HERE, day 3 and 4 HERE ) and others. 3As, 3Bs, standing poses (he does balance poses with one hand on a wall or his back to the wall), seated poses (no vinyasas between sides), and he omits Setu Bandhasana and Chakrasana and the Finishing poses (to avoid possible neck injuries): from Urdhva Danurasana, he goes straight to the 3 finishing poses.
Ashtanga Yoga and Alignment
25. All of them respect Iyengar greatly and his teachings, but they think mixing the two ("Ashtangar") is not ideal as they are very different approaches. This was in relation to "too much emphasis on alignment" in yoga generally (not just Iyengar), they said the most important thing is to have your moola bandha and deep breathing the entire time, and the rest kind of takes care of itself.
26. All 3 said don't give your students so much alignment info, except basics to prevent injury. Try to seek opposing forces to create motion and find the lines of energy in a pose. Let people be sloppy, but not dangerous.
27. Swenson says let props be the last possible option.
Ashtanga Yoga and Pranayama
28. SKPJ did not teach pranayama to students until they had finished 2nd series and could sit in lotus pose. He stopped teaching it for a while (not sure when, probably when the shala started to get really busy) but then he started teaching pranayama again at 90 years of age.
29. Danny on pranayama: you don't want to strain and hold your breath in pranayama because it is bad for your heart, you should do it in a relaxed manner.
30. Williams does Pranayama most days, in the afternoon, a sequence taught to them by SKPJ. We did it everyday though with shorter holds and less repetitions. It was sort of complex but there was a handout.
|Quick note, we did not hold in pranayama for so long in the workshop, Williams shortened it for us.|
40. Williams said pranayama lets you control your energy. He also said SKPJ is the only person he knows who says your left leg is always on top in lotus, others, including Krishnamacharya, say to switch legs for symmetry and balanced hips.
41. Swenson thinks it was bad/unfortunate when pranayama disappeared from the Ashtanga practice/teachings.
42. Williams' pranayama handout is what SKPJ taught them to do every afternoon (practice in morning, I think).
43. In the final pose, which used to be called Tolasana (not sure who changed the name/when it was changed?), you are supposed to do Bastrika breath: bellows breathing of the lungs/chest, with moola bandha-stomach still. You are not supposed to go fast, but just do 100 powerful breaths at regular speed. Or you do the standard deep breathing, 10 breaths, but very very slow.
44. Breathing does not need to be so noisy, it is just deep breathing. As the practitioner gets more advanced, the breathing will be more quiet. This was a general theme of not putting in so much (unnecessary) effort in the poses, but to "find the natural lines of energy" in a pose (Swenson) and to do only what is necessary but not more in any pose. This then includes how one breathes.
45. Williams said Krishnamacharya appeared "stiff as a board" but had a most powerful practice because of his breath and his bandhas.
46. Swenson said if the practice is too releasing/stimulating (ie. intermediate) then eat foods from the earth, like root vegetables, walk barefoot, etc.
47. Drishtii: where to look is a "guideline", you just need to focus on a point to enhance your lines of energy. You keep your eyes open but all attention is inward-focussed. Williams often closes his eyes these days.
48. Williams never heard the Ashtanga invocation until SKPJ's 2nd trip to America. SKPJ explained the chant as meaning "The rishis are coming".