Additionally I was more interested in presenting the conversation as an informal chat between two lovers of Ashtanga Yoga and their experience of doing the workshop rather than a discussion about the content of it. There are plenty of clever and interesting people out there who are already doing that! Alan is himself a long term Ashtanga practitioner and teacher. He has blogged about Ashtanga before in two posts about Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and self-practice and teacher adjustments based on talks given at Yoga Space in Leeds and Camyoga in Cambridge.
MARIE: Well, Richard Freeman is an iconic name in the world of Ashtanga Yoga. His name pops up everywhere. I guess I wanted to meet the man for myself and make my own impression of him. His DVDs of the primary and intermediate series had me gaping with awe. Here was clearly someone who had mastered the practice in all its aspects. Would I be able to tell just by looking at him?? Would he look enlightened and if so, what does that look like?
Also -and perhaps more importantly- I found his book The Mirror of Yoga very inspiring. It had a deep impact on me. His approach to yoga in this book is very non-dogmatic. Yoga is yoga. Who cares what word we add in front to specify what yoga style we define ourselves with. The Mirror of Yoga is a poetic and beautifully written book gathering together the essence of the great yogic texts and shedding light on how these in combination with the practice that can inform our daily lives. One of my favorite passages at the moment:
"We may see it (the body) as a bag of skin filled with bones and blood or as a continuum of suffocating, painful frustration used to validate all of the miserable opinions we have of others and ourselves. Our focus might be on just one part of the body –the image of our face, or the belly, the thighs, the nervous system, the musculature- to the exclusion of all other aspects. Through a consistent yoga practice, all the different notions we may concoct about what the body is and who we are eventually arise as objects for our meditation. […] We are able to look through the deep emotions and patterns that make up our subjective awareness, and we also see through those parts of ourselves that we have objectified and have identified as the body itself. We see that the ideas of skin, bones, organs and all that we know to be the physical body are actually just the culturally agreed-upon forms that we have identified in order to comprehend the arising of the particular pattern of manifestation we call ‘humans’." p. 12
ALAN: I haven’t read The Mirror of Yoga, and my reasons for wanting to do the workshop were a little more ‘instrumental’. Richard Freeman has the reputation of being one of the masters of Ashtanga Yoga, and this seems to be confirmed by the elegance and ease of his practice in the DVDs you mention. I’ve also seen YouTube and other clips of him training with Pattabhi Jois, and he has the kind of practice that I can’t aspire to but, in an ideal incarnation, would like to have. At least two of my teachers have trained with him over the years and both spoke of him as incredibly knowledgeable. So I wanted to access some of that knowledge – in fact I applied to do his teacher training in Boulder last year. I wasn’t accepted and one of the reasons given was that I hadn’t ever studied with Richard, so my attendance at the London workshop was a further step towards maybe getting accepted onto the month-long teacher-training course in Colorado.
· What were your expectations of the workshop?
MARIE: I really hoped to be inspired for my own practice and for teaching. Sometimes all you need is to look at your practice from a different angle or hear it explained with different words to feel that it comes back to life. I was hoping to learn new approaches to postures.
I wanted to meet the man who wrote The Mirror of Yoga. A man with such a selfless and giving approach to yoga would have to be awe-inspiring and amazing. I wanted to know more about what he was talking about in the book. Why do we do yoga?? What’s it all for? Stuff like that…
ALAN: I don’t think about classes or workshops in advance once I’ve signed up. I prefer not to have expectations – at least conscious expectations. I realized once the workshop started that I had some very strong unconscious expectations that were destined to be unsatisfied, perhaps in a salutary way...
· What did you like about him/his teaching?
MARIE: He was very tall and had wonderful posture. Didn’t look a day past 60 and could have gone for a 40 yer-old from a distance. Only the minor furrows in his face and his look of wisdom gave him away. In the few demonstrations he did I felt I got a little glimpse of his past grandeur as a yoga practitioner. He still had the strength and ease in the postures. He spoke slowly and took his time. Didn’t feel he was out to impress anyone. Guess he didn’t need to. There was a gentleness about him, a softness in his voice and kind eyes. But then he also shared a few sharp opinions about the practice, Mysore, the ‘keen’ and slightly dogmatic Ashtangis and their way of going about the practice. He was clearly over the whole ‘ambitiousness’ of Ashtanga yoga and, although he taught it according to the tradition, the influence of Iyengar and ‘holding the postures for longer’ were very present.
ALAN: Was he tall? He is certainly physically remarkable and has great presence, accentuated by impressive eyebrows that do indeed bespeak fidelity to Iyengar. The strength and youthfulness of his body suggested to me that his ‘grandeur’ as a yoga practitioner is very much in the present, even if he was restraining himself in the context of the workshop, showing by example that the sessions were about going deeper rather than forward in the practice. Yes, his voice was calm, but I found him to be surprisingly opinionated and not slow to pass judgment. He was very articulate, impressively well informed and forthrightly intelligent; he had great precision in his language and a practiced facility with illustrative metaphor. He was a bit of an actor, and I was surprised at the extent to which the workshop centred on him, so that even the morning postural sessions became a little static or stop/start as he developed points or dealt with questions at unexpected length. As a result, I found the sessions a little frustrating; I felt we didn’t cover enough. However, what we did cover, we covered in great detail (impossible to take it all in, in fact) and I have integrated several aspects of his approach and many specific tips into my daily practice, especially about drishti. I agree that holding the postures for longer was useful and revealing, and seemed to confirm the therapeutic effects of taking more and slower breaths in each posture: it helped a knee injury I’m working with, for example.
MARIE: In fact you're right. He wasn't tall, it was simply his poise and gracious walk that made him appear grander. And perhaps the eyebrows added a few years to his age too!
· What aspect of what he said/did challenged your practice and your approach to yoga?
MARIE: I thought he had some beautiful imagery when he was explaining postures. For Downward Dog he kept referring to: ‘the four angels that hold on to each corner of your pelvis, the two sit bones, pubic bone and tailbone and fly in to the sky where they will meet somewhere in eternity’. Other ones were less poetic: ‘Bend forward in to Uttansana as if you were vomiting out of the top of your head.’ Nice.
I was very challenged with the 15-20 breaths in each asana. It made me realise that I don’t stay long enough in each posture. That extra minute really stretches your stamina.
ALAN: I found the amount of information he shared intimidating: I felt after one of the sessions that I could never teach postural practice again because he had mentioned so many potential long-term dangers (this posture, practiced wrong, damaged your hips; that posture, practiced wrong, damaged your neck, and so on). Of course, this sort of information is essential, and is a necessary corrective to far too much discourse in the Ashtanga tradition that asserts the benefits of Ashtanga in vague and dogmatic ways. On the other hand, I recognized a certain tone from Iyengar classes, where if you don’t do the posture ‘just so’ you’re heading straight to yoga hell with just a brief and painful stopover at A&E. For me, yoga is also play and fun; it’s a way of staying child-like as we age. Maybe I missed a sense of that in the sessions (it has to be said that Richard didn’t seem to have a high opinion of children). But the main lesson of the workshop for me was one of awareness, and this core concept informed everything he said and taught us, I think: the attention to anatomical and technical detail; the longer time spent in the postures; the insistence on precision in drishti; the injunction to take the practice inwards rather than forwards. ‘Practice with greater awareness’: this is the challenge I took from the workshop.
MARIE: The posture practice and the amount of information given for the asanas were for sure a testament to his profound embodied knowledge of the practice. I didn’t feel intimidated or overwhelmed with information though. For someone with Richard’s experience I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of yogis overdo the practice in order to ‘achieve’ and personally I think this was what he was trying to address. His restrained demonstrations were evidence of his intention to go deeper rather than forward and also an invitation for the keen Ashtangis to turn down the ambition in order to avoid injuries and strain. I agree that Ashtanga often lacks precision in its explanation of postures and I do think this can lead to damage and injury when postures are not done thoughtfully. In the Western world we often advance at something as if we were to conquer it. A bit of ‘Iyengar alignment’ thrown in the mix I find helpful both for my own practice and as a teacher. Especially if you can ignore the ‘just so’ you refer to. And perhaps some statements are to be taken with a pinch of salt!
Richard Freeman in Tittibhasana, then and now
· What did you (not) like about his afternoon sessions?
MARIE: The afternoons were… challenging. They were based on the Bhagavad Gita and its importance in the yogic tradition and its relevance to our present practice. Richard had clearly already done some thinking about the Bhagavad Gita! As I hadn’t spent enough time studying the story of Arjuna’s journey (alright I only read the introduction!), following his thought process was hard. He often veered off in directions where I felt left behind.
ALAN: Okay, here’s where I have to make an admission. I went to the first afternoon session, and skipped the other four. The period around the workshop was very busy for me: I had a large project to finish, and felt that my afternoons were better spent getting that project done. I had been prepared to do the Gita sessions despite my other commitments, but I have to admit that the first session didn’t persuade me of their unmissable usefulness. This has two aspects: the first is to do with Richard’s pedagogic approach; the second is to do with the broader question of the relationship between classical Indian philosophy and the modern postural practice.
The teaching model employed in the afternoon sessions (and to some extent in the mornings) was that of the students seated at the feet of the Guru hoping to imbibe some of his erudition. I’ve experienced this before, at the AYRI in Mysore in the Friday evening ‘conferences’ when Pattabhi Jois took questions from the students; I’ve also seen it in documentary films about spiritual/philosophical quests in India, when an audience gathers round the Guru and he invites questions. The question determines the Guru’s discourse (or suggests it, at least), and there is, inevitably, a certain random quality to the content of any given session, with the Guru’s answers varying in length and intelligibility. I think the assumption is that the student will be around long enough (weeks, months, years) to hear all s/he needs to hear and individual sessions are less important than the cumulative effect of exposure to the Guru’s wisdom; I’m less certain the model works over a limited number of sessions when a specific topic (e.g., the Gita) is to be investigated.
But perhaps my ‘resistance’ was due to something other than suspicion of the pedagogical method; maybe it was more to do with the relationship being assumed between the morning postural work and the topic of the afternoon sessions, the Bhagavad Gita. Don’t get me wrong, the Indian tradition of ethical thought is incredibly rich, and despite many internal contradictions, has much to teach us about how to live well. However, I am just not persuaded of the essential relationship of this tradition of thought to modern postural practice. Modern postural practice (which of course includes pranayama and aspects of meditation) is complete and satisfying in its own terms (so it seems to me, anyway, after fifteen or so years of practice): it doesn't require the external validation of an ancient tradition. As Mark Singleton has shown in his book Yoga Body (Oxford, 2010), modern postural practice was born, and has developed, in very specific historical circumstances, and it does not have to be yoked to the ‘eight limbs’ of Patanjali’s system or to any other aspect of the classical tradition in order to be experienced as (in)valuable. Maybe I’m swimming against the tide here: more and more postural classes begin with readings from classic or contemporary texts (e.g., the Yoga Sutras, The Mirror of Yoga or the works of Michael Stone), and some franchised systems like Jivamukti market themselves as spiritual workouts that keep the punter’s rump taut. But I can’t help feeling the growing popularity of the philosophical or spiritual aspect is partly down to a need felt by some to distinguish themselves from the common yoga horde: ‘you’ just do gymnastics (mere postures), whereas ‘I’ am a spiritual person steeped in the Sutras, even if actually we both spend much of our time trying to get our heels to the floor in Downward Dog and trying not to wobble in Uttita Hasta Padangustasana. Me, I’m just one of the common horde of would-be gymnasts I’m afraid, and so I had to skip the afternoons at the workshop.
MARIE: I’m afraid I’ll have to respond to this. I admit I feel I’m walking on eggshells here a bit, but as we know Alan, you like to dance around on eggshells so I will attempt to join you there. I made the point myself as I was teaching the other day that if you don’t practice yoga with awareness through breath, you might as well go to the gym. And I feel strongly about this. So when you say you’re one of the would-be gymnasts I think you’re exaggerating (or playing the devil's advocate). I’d be surprised if you’ve stuck with the practice for fifteen years if all you wanted was a good workout and the ability to touch your toes (or in your case interlacing your toes behind your head!). You would very quickly get bored with the Downward Dog and Uttita Hasta if your only aim was to go forward without ever going deep. What I believe we get from the yoga texts (and yes, I agree I find more inspiration in The Mirror of Yoga than the Bhagavad Gita) is the ability to see the body for what it is -‘skin filled with bones and blood’- , but also as a container for our emotions and our primary experience of the world. Working with the body is way of processing experiences and many texts like the Yoga Sutras become a ‘Wikipedia’ of those processes. What I mean is that they provide an explanation or translation of the bodily sensations we experience in our asana or meditation practice. When your practice deepens, it can be helpful to have a resource (like the Yoga Sutras or Bhagavd Gita) to link the sensations to an understanding of ourselves and our function in the world by explaining what we experience. Personally I feel I have gained more clarity and motivation to do my yoga practice and to be compassionate towards myself and others through studying these texts.
Having said that I realise I slightly contradict myself having proclaimed how I was struggling to follow his train of thought in his philosophical monologues. Does Richard Freeman see a direct correlation between the asana practice and the classical texts? If he managed to bridge the asana practice with the Bhagavad Gita in a way that made it all come together during the conferences I sadly missed it. I guess I have made my own little rationale about this question but it sure would have been nice to hear what Richard Freeman thought!!