March 1, 2012 was the first day of the very first Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, held in San Diego, CA. I was lucky enough to attend this event that brought authorized master teachers and assistants, as well as 400 ashtangi students, together from all over the world to practice and discuss all things related to ashtanga yoga as taught by the late Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji). For some of us it was a reunion of sorts, seeing teachers or other students that we had completed workshops or teacher trainings with in the past. You could feel the positive energy in the air as soon as you walked into the beautiful Catamaran Resort in Pacific Beach. Everyone was overjoyed to be part of this event and spend time with so many people who were all passionate about the very same thing: Ashtanga Yoga.
The master teachers Tim Miller, David Swenson, Nancy Gilgoff, Eddie Stern, and Richard Freeman are the faces that drew this crowd together on behalf of Guruji who brought this practice to so many people around the world. I never got a chance to study with Guruji, so I could not wait to hear about all of their experiences studying and sharing a life with our late teacher. Most of the above teachers have been studying ashtanga yoga for over 30 years, some spending years in Mysore, India where Guruji first spread his teachings. Tim teaches nearby at the ashtanga yoga center in Carlsbad, CA; David is from Austin, TX; Richard from Boulder, CO; Eddie, New York, NY; and Nancy, Maui, HI. They have spread across the country sharing their love for this amazing practice, and are finally reunited to share it with all of the students here.
The first night we had an opening ceremony with the Ganesha Puja performed by Eddie followed by a catered dinner. Ganesha is the Hindu God referred to as the ruler, remover and placer, of obstacles in our lives. According to Hindu tradition, one must perform a puja to Ganesha before starting anything new to remove any obstacles from our path and create a successful and joyous environment for the event. Eddie started the Puja… and WOW. I have never heard Sanskrit chanted so fast, he was amazing, and I was simply in awe of how this man from New York could chant these beautiful, traditional hindu lines with such perfection and ease. We made the necessary devotions to Ganesh and chanted all of his 108 names with “Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha” between each of them, and then walked the turmeric statue of Ganesh to the bay and returned it back to the water from which it was born. It was a great start to an even more amazing weekend.
The next 3 days were a whorlwind of practice, information, and joy. Each day we started with a 1.5-2 hour practice either Mysore style or in an intro class guided by one of the teachers. Mysore style is when you practice whatever set series you are on (there are 6: primary, etc), and teachers walk around and assist you and give you adjustments throughout your practice. After we practiced we would have a one hour break followed by a two hour workshop of your choice. I took David Swenson’s “Flying, Floating and Handstanding” and Richard Freeman’s “Backbending on the Breath” workshops which were both amazing. After this came lunch, followed by a 2 hour discussion with the full panel of master teachers on varying topics.
Since I cannot really summarize full, 2 hour workshops in this blog, its the discussions that I want to share with you here. We discussed many different topics throughout the confluence, from life with Guruji to what enlightenment really is (or isnt?). I will cover some of the key points that I thought were inspiring and interesting from the whole thing. You’ll notice that although each of these amazing teachers studied with Guruji for many years, they all have a little different outlook and opinion on different things about the practice, which is really nice to see!
The first afternoon panel was called “Stories of Guruji.” During this time, each teacher was able to share a little bit about their experience with the amazing K. Pattabhi Jois throughout the years. It was so inspiring to see how much this one man could change so many peoples lives in such a profound way. He knew very little english, never demonstrated one asana, and still was able to convey the teachings he learned from Krishnamacharya of Ashtanga Yoga to all he met. You could tell from the way each person’s face would light up when they talked about him, that he really was an amazing, loving, and wonderful being. David Swenson said that no matter how long you were in Mysore, a week, month, three months, year, etc, the day you went up to Guruji to tell him you were going to be leaving he would always look at you with the saddest look on his face and say “Why leaving so soon??” and you would just have to change your flight and stay longer to spend time with this man. His sense of humor and child-like nature helped bring a lightness to many aspects of his teaching, even with the intense adjustments and 4 hour practices. He always wanted, and expected, the best from his students, and he got it. A great example of this humor is when someone asked him about all the problems in the world and how they couldnt stop worrying about all this evil and the state of affairs and what they should do about it, Guruji said, “You…. let God take care of the world, you just worry about your anus!!” He was obviously referring to the notorious Mula Bandha which is stressed so much throughout the practice of ashtanga yoga, but just his delivery was classic and brought comedy and reality to such a serious topic.
So why do we practice this yoga? What’s so special about Ashtanga anyways? “Ashtanga yoga” literally means 8 limbed yoga, and Guruji always referred to it as Patanjali’s yoga (from the Yoga Sutras). This yoga is meant to make your life better. Why do we keep practicing yoga after 2-5000 years from when it started? Well as Eddie says, because it works. The methods taught in Ashtanga Yoga (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) teach us to experience life, our bodies, our energy, etc, to the fullest. We dont have to be locked in this human body, unable to sit comfortably, unable to move energy throughout us with ease, we can change this through our practice. As David said “Yoga makes everything else easier, and everything else makes yoga harder.” And its true. We practice yoga and its easier to move around the world in our own bodies, easier to remain calm, to breathe, to live without stress. We go to work we get stressed out, we run and tighten our hips, we go out have a few drinks and are a bit fuzzier in the morning, and this all makes yoga harder. And finding the balance is the key. Guruji’s famous one liner is “Do your practice, all is coming.” So we do, and it does.
“All is coming.” Hmm, that seems a bit vague. What is coming? How do we experience yoga and how does it change us? Some of the most obvious changes happen in our physical bodies. It is said that the ultimate goal of asana is to prepare us to sit comfortably for meditation. This is true, since most of us can’t sit comfortably on a floor for more than two minutes without our backs hurting. As you do your asana practice, your body begins to open up and things become easier. But Ashtanga Yoga is more than that. It is “an experience, not necessarily just a method of postures (Eddie).” Nancy stated it very eloquently reminding us that yoga is “a breathing system more then focusing on the physical postures. The postures simply humble us and remove our physical and mental blocks in order to move energy through the body with ease.” And that’s what we want, right? Energy to flow within us freely. You know what its like when something is blocked in your body, things just seem off, wrong, and thats not a good feeling to have. We want the ability to be free of our bodies and not let it hold us back.
One of the traditions of Ashtanga Yoga is that it is a daily practice, that you do six days a week with one day off. Well, this can be a little bit difficult for some of us. Especially in the current world, we have jobs with long hours, kids to deal with, laundry to do, whatever, and cant always practice everyday. So, how do we make this a daily practice and maintain our normal lives? There are different opinions on this one. Nancy, who is more of a firm traditionalist in how she teaches, believes that if you are doing ashtanga yoga, Guruji’s method of yoga, then you practice 6 days a week, no exceptions. She admits “the hardest part of this practice is starting everyday. When you feel that way, just put out your mat and stand on it. Play music that makes you want to dance. Remember that 3 surya namaskar a’s and 3 surya namaskar b’s + 3 closing poses is still a full practice. That might be only 15 minutes, but if thats what you can do today, thats what you do.” David has a more lenient outlook. Basically he says that shit happens. The “reality is sometimes life gets in the way. Do what you can commit to. The mat will never judge you, it is a loving place.” And that is more along the lines of how I see it. In a perfect world, we would all be practicing 2 hours a day 6 days a week. But hey, life isnt perfect. If you can get there 3 days a week, then that’s great! Do what you can. Just having yoga in your life at all is an amazing thing.
There is a common “rumor” or misconception that the traditional series of Ashtanga Yoga were created for 18 year old, adolescent boys. Quite frankly, this is not true. This method was taught by Krishnamacharya as it was taught to him, and the first people to present themselves to Krishnamacharya (Guruji’s Guru) to learn ashtanga yoga happened to be adolescent boys. Does that mean it was DEVELOPED for them? No. It was simply a coincidence. That being said, this is an extremely dynamic, and challenging method of yoga. As you get older, you may not be able to jump through, or put your leg behind your head, whatever. So how does the practice change as we get older? The general consensus is that yes, you can change the practice as you get older, and you will probably have to let go of the set series someday. As Tim says “Change your practice as the seasons change.” And that doesn’t just mean seasons of the year but that refers also to the seasons of our lives. Your probably not going to practice the same in Fall as you do in Spring. It’s just the way it is, and things change, that’s ok. “Adjust the practice to the needs of the individual on that day. Don’t beat yourself up with the practice. It is a tool, not a weapon (David).” So use that tool in ways to benefit you, not in a way that is destructive. I could take a hammer and slam you over the head with it and you would think that all hammers are bad. Or you can take a hammer and use it to build a house. All hammer’s obviously are not bad, but it depends on how you use it. Richard states that “once you find the thread of breath, this practice is totally adaptable.” Meaning, the breath is what is really important. Again the postures are not the main event here. Even if you are breathing and waving your arms over your head you are still doing ashtanga yoga. We have to change the practice and make it work in our life, otherwise its not going to last throughout our lives. Nancy said when she asked Guruji how she should practice after she turned 60, he said to only practice one hour of asana a day and focus more on chanting and meditation. Tim says that as he has gotten older his practice has also become more contemplative and meditative. He brings more attention to the practice and allows things to happen instead of trying to make them happen. You can always be improving the quality of attention you bring to your practice, no matter how much you can or cannot do.
I could go on for ages about everything talked about at the confluence. But Ill end it with this last quote from Guruji (quoted by Tim) “The body is a rented house. If you take care of it and do your practice, you get your security deposit back at the end.” So, continue to practice, take care of your body, and live in your body with ease. If anyone has any questions or comments on anything discussed here or anything in general, I will be happy to answer as much as I can from what I learned from the amazing teachers over this past weekend at the ashtanga yoga confluence. Many thanks to Tim, Eddie, Nancy, Richard, and David for their inspiration and incredible knowledge that they shared over this amazing event.