I anticipated in my last post about yoga during pregnancy that I would be able to keep up some degree of an Ashtanga Yoga practice. My honest intention when I wrote it was to keep a record of how to modify the practice during my pregnancy and post it here. Well, things didn't quite work out that way! Although I have been fortunate to have a reasonably straightforward and uncomplicated pregnancy (I'm now entering week 30) keeping up the Ashtanga practice proved impossible. Most of my energy was channeled into teaching yoga and transporting myself between classes on my bicycle. When these tasks had been carried out, all I wanted to do was rest or sleep. Due to tiredness and some pain around my sacral iliac joint, getting up for early self-practice or even practicing a full Ashtanga sequence at home became too difficult. My practice in reality was reduced to a few stretches and meditation and on a good day a couple of modified Sun Salutations and some standing or seated postures.
It has been challenging to let go of this expectation and desire to feel as fit and in control as I used to be. But pregnancy has uncovered aspects of myself I didn't know about and I have certainly had a lesson in letting go and accepting this constantly changing body.
These pictures speak for themselves in order to explain how my body has changed. Over five months I have grown from being lean and athletic to being, well, something else! I'm sure that a rapid, involuntary and physical transformation like this happens almost exclusively on these occasions, when a woman is growing another human being. And I can honestly say that it makes me feel slightly grotesque. Grotesque in our contemporary understanding of the word, meaning comical, distorted and ugly, not so much. Mostly it makes me feel grotesque in what Bakhtin describes (see project brief below for explanation) as an existential experience of ambivalence and dualism; a celebration of the cycle of life. I feel removed from the sense of self that I know and at the same time fascinated by this novel experience of being a vessel for a new human being.
MA in London
So while I have not kept up my usual yoga regime and therefore not had to ponder on how to modify the Ashtanga practice, I have been thinking a lot about my changing body in a different context. What has also occupied my time and energy since September has been starting to study for an MA in dance at the LABAN conservatoire in London. Travelling down from Leeds to attend the course one day a week has also taken some energy, but more than anything it has inspired me to use the current situation creatively and think more about my grotesque body. The rest of this blog post is dedicated to the project brief I have written for the module I'm doing this term. The module is called Dance and the Moving Image. The brief is a response to the task of writing a proposal for our final project, which is to make a short dance film. My intention is not to make a film about the grotesque body but rather that I aim for the film itself to be grotesque body: ambivalent, open and subject to change. Writing the proposal has itself been an interesting journey into understanding how I feel in my current state. How the final film will come out is still an enigma...
Comments or observations are gratefully received on the brief below.
Project brief for
Dance and Moving Image module
By Marie Hallager Andersen
What I have really enjoyed about the filmmaking process so far is that I’ve allowed myself to be intuitive. I had often experienced in the past that working creatively has been a path full of obstacles because I was trying too hard! I would overthink intentions and meanings and as a consequence the outcome felt contrived. The ability to let go of control and not to try so hard I’m convinced arises from my pregnancy. I have become a vessel for another human being and am no longer in complete control of my body. Having another human growing inside me makes me a stranger to my own body and an involuntary observer of a physical transformation. Hence, my world at the moment revolves around a kind of unruly body! This has turned my vision and my attention towards change and letting go.
To write this brief and explain what will be driving my process I found it necessary to deepen my understanding of the unruly and grotesque body. For this, I have turned to Bakhtin and his book Rabelais and His World. This book deals with the ‘carnivalesque’ mainly in terms of language and laughter but overall it celebrates the cyclical character of life and death, dualism and ambivalence. What I find applies to me the most in this book is the idea of incompleteness and impermanence: for Bakhtin the essence of the carnivalesque; for me at the moment a ruling factor of life. Here’s what Bakhtin says:
In the famous Kerch terracotta collection we find figurines of senile pregnant hags. Moreover, the hags are laughing. This is a typical and very strongly expressed grotesque. It is ambivalent. It is pregnant death, a death that gives birth. There is nothing completed, nothing calm and stable in the bodies of these old hags. They combine a senile, decaying and deformed flesh with the flesh of new life, conceived but as yet unformed. Life is shown in its twofold contradictory process; it is the epitome of incompleteness. And such is precisely the grotesque concept of the body. (my bold)
The underlying theme that resonates with me in Bakhtin’s quote is that of the body being in constant change. The celebration of the changing and grotesque body is a feature of the carnivalesque. If the classical body is all about appearance the grotesque body is all about experience. Bakhtin says earlier in his introduction: ‘Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed’ (p. 10). The essence of the carnival was degradation and ‘bringing down to earth’ in order to make way for the new and fresh. The purpose was never to elevate or to complete, it was always, in a sense, ‘work in progress’.
Giving in to the state of ‘constant change’ and accepting the course of nature is of particular relevance to me at the moment and so this will be the starting point for my investigation.
Approach to project
Applying this to my final project for the Dance and the Moving Image module, the idea of change and the incomplete will be the pivotal point of my research. The grotesque body is not closed and complete but it is open to the outside world. Bakhtin says: ‘[…] the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, complete unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits’ (p. 26). That openness and susceptibility to change is what I hope to bring out of my work in the course of the next weeks.
To clarify, the object of my research will not be that of the represented grotesque body (although this is not excluded); rather the film itself will be a grotesque body. Implicit in this is the idea of emphasizing process instead of outcome. This means thinking about how concepts such as openness and ambivalence can be introduced in the form (and not – or not only –in the content) of the work.
In the context of my film this means that beginnings and endings can weave in and out of each other and that they are always open to change. Precisely like Bakhtin presents ‘ambivalence’ –something that is twofold, contradictory and ‘in becoming’. In this way the creation of the film will be the object of the final film itself.
How to achieve it
Since 2008 my main interest as a dancer has been improvisation and spontaneous movement. This means I have been more interested in the process and in learning as I go along, in relying on intuition. In my film, my starting point will therefore be to approach shooting with the idea of process to the fore. In this way I believe I can be open to the unexpected and be open to new pathways. In my experience with filming so far, I have found that when I work with material that comes from intuition and spontaneity the scenes seem to come together more easily and I engage a more creative part of myself. The pitfall here would be to shoot footage aimlessly and endlessly. I personally work best within parameters so the idea is to maintain spontaneity when filming but doing it within a framework of set tasks.
Given my approach to the project I have not got any finished outcome in mind! However, in order to be true to the concept I have presented above I intend to set myself certain tasks as a strategy to collect and edit footage. The tasks will be based on the idea that the film itself is a grotesque body: ambivalent, open and subject to change. This will come across primarily in the formal approach to filming rather than in the content. The tasks (or ‘obstructions’) will both restrict and release the ways that I shoot footage and the ways that I edit it. Simple parameters will generate a complex system: the ‘product’ will be a record of this system rather than a finished object. Complexity is another feature of the grotesque. Like ambivalence, complexity indicates something that contains more than one thing at once, e.g. the pregnant body.
To help this process along I will do some research into other artists’ work looking specifically for work that is done with the purpose of setting out obstructions or guidelines to generate material. An obvious one for me is fellow Dane Lars von Trier and his 5 Obstructions from 2003. I furthermore worked with a choreographer in Denmark, Palle Granhøj, who makes use of a technique developed for devising movement material, which he calls ‘Obstruction Technique’, which could also prove useful. And this is just to start off with.
In order to collect material for the accompanying presentation and the piece of writing I will be handing in, I will keep a record of everything that seems of importance in the artists I research, the books I read, the encounters I have etc. Additionally I want to keep a diary where I either write, record or film myself talking about the different stages of the process. This will potentially be a part of the finalized project. In the spirit of the edited film, I predict that the presentation and essay will also be based on process, so this aspect of collecting material seems important.
In practical terms I intend to:
· Set myself five tasks (‘obstructions’) for sound recording and shooting footage (that can be carried out in isolation or together) that will generate material in accordance with the concept discussed above
· Research other artists’ work with the particular aim of finding works of art with the same ethos of ‘in becoming’ and incompleteness
· Look at footage on my computer detached from the situation of shooting and see what actually works on the screen
· Familiarize myself more with editing software
· Read, and write along the way to document my reading, research and findings
· Keep a diary: recording or filming myself or writing down things I experience and encounter
· Always bring along camera and/or iPad
With the practical limitations that pregnancy entails it is easy to feel confined or inhibited when filming. The physical state of my body means that long hours of standing or walking to obtain footage is not available to me in the way it would have been before. Instead I have to find a way around it and make the restrictions a part of the process. My pregnancy itself is one of the obstructions! The experience of pregnancy is revealing things to me and it has a potency to it. I am hoping to make a film that will be a formal equivalent to the ambivalence of this grotesque body of mine!
 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, Tr. Helene Iswolsky (Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 25-26.
 My boyfriend Alan has been working on the grotesque body in Italian comedies and he talks of the grotesque body as a body ‘in becoming’, a phrase I found useful to grasp the idea of the body in transformation, always somewhere on the scale between life and death.
 Cunningham and Cage
It's ironic that about nine months ago I wrote a blog post about yoga and women deliberately avoiding to talk about menstrual cycles and pregnancy. Well, times have changed and… I'm pregnant. 19 weeks (almost halfway through) to be exact with a baby due in January. My partner Alan and I are delighted.
This change sheds new light on my relationship with my body and with my asana practice. In this blog post I want to articulate how I feel about my pregnant body in the context of my yoga practice. Here I’m not so interested in celebrating the beauty and wonder of pregnancy (wondrous and beautiful as it is!); instead, I want to reflect on how I experience being a woman of 33 years going through major physical changes while trying to keep up a yoga practice and work as a yoga teacher.
Before I got pregnant I was sure I would have no expectations about what I would be able to do during pregnancy. It appeared that my expectations only revealed themselves when they weren't met... When the first nausea and tiredness hit me around week five or six I realized I had no idea what I was actually in for. I had heard women with children talk about how tired they felt in the first trimester, but it hadn't occurred to me that I couldn't just power through it like I normally do. Since being a child gymnast and throughout my dance training I have always felt in control of my body, of how much I choose to exercise and my weight and body shape. Pregnancy changed this. The energy that goes in to growing the baby in this first stage is completely unexpected. I actually felt like I had a minor flu for about two months. And that’s not to mention the nausea and vomiting!
Naturally I had to accommodate my yoga practice to this. Boy, that was hard. Not being able to do what I wanted to – when I wanted to – felt like a massive failure on my part. What would other yoga students think of me when I gave up half way through the standing sequence? (Of course, I couldn’t tell most people I was pregnant at this point.) Would my teacher think I was lazy? Would I become overweight when not exercising and practicing as often as before? Would I forget the Ashtanga yoga sequence? Would Kapotasana now forever be beyond my reach? All these question and fears crept in within weeks of my positive pregnancy test.
Thankfully the symptoms eased off. As with many other women my energy slowly returned to a more acceptable level around my 14th week of pregnancy. For the past five weeks I have been able to practice more regularly and felt the urge to do so, rather than doing it out of duty.
However, I am slowly succumbing to the fact that my practice will not be back to how it was for a very long time – if ever! Instead of being frustrated about this and forcing myself into a regime I can't cope with, I have decided that I want to develop a practice that suits this stage of my life. I'm determined though to not give up my beloved friend – the Ashtanga Yoga practice – so the next weeks and months will be an investigation into how to modify the practice to keep it part of my life even as my life and body change. Focus has to be less on deepening postures and more on finding useful alternatives and variations that make me feel good in my body. My intention is to report back on what modifications I find useful and my thoughts on how to keep the practice viable.
Not much is available in terms of videos and hands-on instructions for modifying Ashtanga for pregnancy. I did find a few useful blog posts though. Below this video I have listed links to them for you to read for yourself.
Last week in my friend's flat in Berlin I was practicing in my room and although not a part of the standing sequence I couldn't resist reaffirming my ability to do this:
Links for articles to read:
These are links that give useful suggestions and guidelines on how to approach the Ashtanga practice during pregnancy
See also this video of Arkie Yogini practicing 35 weeks pregnant
I have been reading back on my four recent blog posts about Mathilde improvisation, life coaching, yoga teaching and Improvisation Exchange to try and get an overview of themes or approaches that overlap.
Here's a list:
The first thing I get yoga students to do in my classes is to sit with their eyes closed. This is not necessarily to listen to sound but often to 'listen' to sensation. In my opinion the first and most important aspect of yoga is learning to tune in to sensations in the body. To allow emotions and subtle physical sensations to arise. I remember doing a Vipassana meditation course a few years back where I spent ten days in mostly complete silence meditating for hours a day from early morning till evening. By the end of day nine the ability to listen inwards had become super sharp! That is the kind of listening I'm interested in and which I feel applies both to yoga and improvisation. It creates an inner awareness that in a moment of dance improvisation encourages movement to be less 'in-the-head' and more embodied. This sort of listening in an improvisation context where we're in contact with others (if not physically then by observing or being in the same space) means that the meeting between bodies is likely to be clearer and more open and therefore conducive to responding without trying to second guess someone else's next move.
Finally, listening is the core element of life coaching. Not just hearing, but active listening, where you listen not just with your ears but with your body. This is often 90% of what is required when coaching, as allowing someone to feel truly heard and giving them time to think usually means that answers appear from the coachee themselves.
Being in the moment/Awareness and attention
Much is said indirectly about 'being in the moment' in the listening paragraph above. When we notice sensations arise or we feel connected to another improviser it's impossible at the same time to daydream or plan ahead. The function of listening, you could say, is precisely to be in the moment. Awareness and attention are again an extension or different wording for listening and being in the moment. Awareness or attention to your own sensations or to someone else comes from listening.
80 most frequently used words in my life coaching post, the Improvisation Exchange post,
Mathilde improvisation workshop post and the yoga intensive post
I was initially drawn to improvisation rather than choreographed movement because I was interested in composition and making artistic choices but less interested in filtering or selecting 'good' vs. 'bad'. I wanted to be deeply immersed in the dance and still try and have an overview of the piece and make informed choices. What's fun about improvising is that anything goes, but inevitably we're (almost) all inhibited by our cultural conditioning and to some degree also self-judgment. We constantly self-censor. In fact, it's much easier to do outrageous things when someone has told us to or allowed us to, as we then let go of the responsibility for our choices. Avoiding this self-censoring means letting go of expectations of self and others and letting go of 'labeling'. By labeling I mean putting names to things. Instead of saying 'I had a really good yoga practice' or 'this improvisation lacked coherence' is it possible to just do/be (improvise movement, listen and talk in life coaching or do a yoga practice) without putting some sort of judgment or label on it?
When I did my life coach training I remember my teacher talking about being curious when listening to a coachee. Like a young child that has no prerequisite for judging, can we be curious (not nosey!) about someone's actions or statements without drawing conclusions or making assumptions about what they mean to do or say?
So avoiding self-censoring is related to not judging yourself and others and this applies equally to a yoga practice as well as an improvisation or a life coaching session.
Essential to life, breathing is part of our automatic nervous system which implies that it's independent of our conscious mind. To actively bring it to the conscious mind and observe it and listen to it is the core practice of yoga. Movement comes after.
Here's a quote by Michael Stone from his yoga philosophy book 'The Inner Tradition of Yoga':
Deepen the breath, with immediate attention, and stay with the breath for a little longer, and all sorts of movement may start. Emotion may start to surface, and held-in emotion is yet another cause of reduced flexibility. (...) As the breath moves, the mind moves; as the mind moves, the nervous system moves; and you cannot separate the movements of mind, breath, and body any more than you can take the essence "onion" out of any layer of an onion.
What Michael Stone explains is that the breath works as a bridge between our mind/emotions and the physical body and only by keeping our attention on the breath can we access those emotions. The breath is where we meet our own inner life and -personally- where I find the motivation for and access to uncontrived movement. In the place where I let myself be moved by the breath, my yoga practice and improvisation practice meet.
As much as I love teaching yoga classes and conveying my experience and knowledge of the practice to students it is the Mysore or self-practice that really captures my heart. The reason for this is to do with the shared responsibility. Yoga as self-practice means that engagement with the body and the postures comes from an internal motivation. When I teach a class, students have an expectation that they will be led and taught and that I'm 'the boss'. But in my philosophy the practice itself is the teacher and my job is mainly to ensure the students do not hurt themselves or others. In a self-practice class the relationship between me and the student changes as I no longer place myself above them. The practice - together with the students' own ability to listen and respond accordingly - becomes the teacher.
Not surprisingly this is also the principle of life coaching. The coachee already has the answers to the questions they're asking and as a coach all I do is create a space where they can search for them. My job is not to tell them what is right and wrong (it would be presumptuous of me to think I know what's right for everyone) but instead to create an atmosphere where ideas and thoughts can be explored. In this way the self-practice yoga class and the life coaching session are rooted in the same ethos: the practice itself is the teacher.
I find that hierarchy is somewhat linked to judgment. Here's what I mean:
By placing something in a hierarchy it is often labeled as good or bad or as more or less important. The food pyramid is a great example of a hierarchy that is designed to do this. We put food into categories but indirectly place it in a hierarchy. While all the fruit and veg at the bottom of the pyramid are good for us, we're made to feel that the little triangle at the top, often made up of fats, sugar and alcohol is what's bad for us (unfortunately it is also sometimes what we crave the most and the prophecy of its place at the top of the hierarchy as a 'ruler' becomes self-fulfilling!). Categorising can be handy when it comes to putting socks in the sock drawer and t-shirts on the shelf where you expect to find them again later. But when it comes to categorising ideas, people or situations we often get ourselves in to a muddle. Not many people feel they belong on one shelf only.
Being part of the Mathilde collective means working in a non-hierarchical environment. Our work ethic is based on a mutual understanding that we negotiate responsibility both practically and creatively. In order for this to work, listening and openness is required. Recently a discussion came up about placing value on what we do. (One way we value something is by comparing ourselves to other improvisers and thereby putting ourselves into a hierarchy.) The discussion was about virtuosity and what that is. Is virtuosity to be able to play an instrument really fast, to harmonise in a particular way or to do triple pirouettes? Or can virtuosity equally mean to be skillful at listening, responding and improvising freely from the imagination? The technical vocabulary we learn as we excel in our disciplines help us to label/categorise what we do in order to make sense of it, but perhaps the down-side of that is that we feel that anything that does not have a clear label means it has no value.
Letting go for me comes as a result of the ability to listen, breathe consciously and to not self-censor. It's about moving away from being 'in-the-head' into having an embodied practice. The embodied practice is where the physical body moves (as) independently (as possible) from thinking, not trying to be clever or 'work out' what's the right thing to do or to censor what we think we shouldn't say or do. The most astonishing contact improvisation duets happen when the body takes over and the improvisers act by instinct and intuition. The most impressive yoga practitioners and teachers operate under the ethos of maintaining complete equanimity of the mind by not forcing postures or breath but letting go of expectations. A successful coaching session is one where the coach lets go of responsibility of answering the coachee's questions and lets 'not knowing' prevail.
With the inner awareness created through listening and by avoiding filtering what is right and wrong we can achieve letting go.
This is the end of my series of blog posts about my three disciplines. It has been a very interesting journey for me to write this and to juxtapose the sessions I have been teaching. I would love to hear your thoughts about the post or any of the previous blog posts so feel free to comment below. Thanks!
May Bank Holiday Yoga Intensive
What: 2-day Ashtanga Yoga workshop offering four different workshops of 2.5 hour each with a different focus. On the first day we taught an Ashtanga yoga class looking mainly at the technique of the standing postures and in the afternoon an inversions class with focus on moving in to headstand with safety. The second day began with a Mysore self-practice class followed by a back bending and restorative session.
Where: Yoga Kula, Leeds When: 5+6 May 2013 10.30 am - 4.30 pm
Who: Workshop was led by myself and Alan O'leary and open to students of all levels to participate.
My approach to workshops always goes via my own practice. What occupies me at the moment? What am I working on understanding or improving for my own practice? This is, in my opinion, key to delivering a informative and inspiring workshop.Handstand on Mallorca
On the basis of that the first class I taught with Alan revolved mainly around the standing postures of the Ashtanga sequence including Sun Salutations. One aspect of these postures that I am beginning to understand is the important of (a mild version of) Uddiyana Banndha. (A full and concise explanation is not appropriate for this blog post so I will just give the overall idea of the concept and then you can read further about it here. See is also this video of Kino MacGregor explaining the difference between Uddiyana Banddha and Uddiyana Kriya).
Uddiyana Banddha teaches us to work deep from the core of the body with a firmness to the lower abdominal (protecting the lower back) while keeping softness and spaciousness in the upper abdominal cavity to encourage deep breathing and full movement of the diaphragm. Many students who don't understand this Banddha will instead grip at the abdominal muscles and hip-flexor muscles, tensing and shortening the front of the body rather than lengthening and softening.Through exercises to locate this 'Banddha sensation' and partner work we went through the key postures of the standing sequence and Downward Facing Dog. The main purpose of the class was to get the students to understand the subtle lift of the lower abdominal muscles together with a sense of letting go while in the postures.
This class was followed by an afternoon session on inversions. I often omit inversions in my regular classes as it takes time to explain how to move in to shoulderstand and headstand with awareness and safety. The main focus for the inversions session was therfore to spend time on preliminary exercises to build up strength and courage to do the postures safely. Before moving in to the more extreme inversions, balancing on hands, head or shoulders, we focused on Downward Facing Dog and half dog to work on rotation of hands/shoulders. Interestingly the principles of 'lifting up' from the previous session on Uddhiyana Banddha came back when understanding how to engage the core muscles for inversions. I then introduced a few Iyengar based techniques: we used bricks squeezed between first hands and then thighs to isolate the action of first the arms/shoulders and then legs/pelvis. Following this we practiced handstand. This position is the easiest in which to identify the before mentioned muscle groups that needs engaging to keep inverted balances steady. We worked in partners again using the wall for safety. After handstand we moved in to headstand through various preliminary postures. When learning to do inversions safely it's vital to know which steps to pause at and stay with before attempting the full posture. Finally we moved gently in to the Ashtanga shoulder stand sequence focusing mainly on keeping weight through the arms and the shoulder and not in to the neck.
Mysore self-practiceUrdhva Dhanurasana in threes
Monday morning started with a Mysore class. I love teaching Mysore because it gives me the opportunity to give personal feedback to each student. It allows them to work with their own breath and internalise the practice. Many discrepancies or bad habits that accumulates when practicing for a while can be detected and therefore rectified during this practice. Also it was a great opportunity for me to assess whether my instructions on the previous day had been clear to the students. Alan has written a blog post about Mysore self-practice. Read it here.
Back bends and restorative yoga
I have out of curiosity been practicing Matthew Sweeney's Moon Sequence lately and found it a great alternative to the Ashtanga sequences. The Moon sequence focuses less on chaturanga and upper body strength and more on back bending. It became the starting point for the back bending session. After explaining the different parts of the spine that play part when opening the back we warmed in to the session by practicing the beginning of the Moon sequence. The beginning of the second series Ashtanga sequence builds up strength and flexibility with lots of control. This was a natural follow up starting with Shalabhasana up to Laghu Vajrasana with a few modifications. Last we practiced Bow posture (Urdhva Dhanurasana) in threes where the students would help each other create length and lift through the spine. See image to the right.
For the remaining part of this session we went in to restorative postures winding down mind and body after a very stimulating back bending session. Restorative yoga, where supported relaxation gives the energy back to the body, is a very valuable tool particularly, I find, as an Ashtanga yoga practitioner. In Ashtanga Yoga we become accustomed to the upwards and powerful energy of the practice and underestimate the value of letting go and giving in. The postures are set up with lots of props: bolsters, belts and bricks to support the body to rest in various supine, prone and twisted positions. The perfect antidote for two days of physical practice.
This is the end of the third of four blog posts about working within my three disciplines: yoga, improvisation and life coaching. I decided to keep each post focused on the execution and content of the session and I will then continue with a more in-depth analysis after the final post. My aim is to highlight the common denominators between the three disciplines by putting the sessions next to each other and look at where vocabulary, intention and outcome correlate.
The fourth post will be about teaching an improvisation workshop for improvisation Exchange in Leeds in May 2013.
From the month of March through to May this year I have been very lucky to work in all three fields of my interests.
Impro at York St John Uni Coaching at NSCD Yoga workshop Yoga Kula Impro Exchange NSCD
Preparing these different workshops and seminars within a short period of time gave me an opportunity to look closely at how the three strands of interests correlate. Although I put on different hats when shifting between the different types of work I do, the source from which it arises is still me. These next blog posts will be a reflection on each of the workshops I facilitated, with the aim of highlighting their common denominators and understand where they sync.
My first post will be about teaching Mathilde improvisation workshop at York St John's University with Seth Bennett.
There are two points I want to make in this blog post. One is that, if you practice with discipline and commitment Ashtanga Yoga will give you evident results. The other point is that the strict practice can become a trap when a rigid approach to the tradition takes over. This blog post is about learning to practice in a disciplined way, but also learning to practice smart.
I had already begun to write the post when I came across an article by yoga master Matthew Sweeney, ‘The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga’. In it, Matthew explores the ideas of change within a traditional method. I was curious to add some comments and so I thought I'd use Matthew’s article as a starting point to talk about the subject and then expand with my own thoughts and experiences. But I urge you to read Matthew's full post here.
Matthew outlines the pros and cons of sticking closely to the traditional Ashtanga Yoga series. He argues that the practice and the teaching of the practice has evolved and that the idea of 'tradition' depends on who you ask. Is it to deny the 'tradition' and to refuse a sequence that 'works' if you start to modify, to adapt or even to play with postures out of sequence? He points out the uniqueness and deficiencies of the Ashtanga Yoga system. I find his closing words and concluding question intriguing:
every system needs to evolve else it will become stagnant, every system needs stability from which this change can flourish. It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it?"
He addresses the reader directly and asks us to take a stand on this. Can we as hardcore traditionalists embrace change and can we as lovers of variety and change accept the value and depth of tradition?
The pros of sticking to the traditional practice
A very good argument for sticking strictly to the sequence is that of facing postures found to be unfamiliar and difficult. The Ashtanga Yoga sequence doesn't allow you a lazy playlist of 'greatest hits'.
I experienced this with my own body. After committing to the full Ashtanga practice in Mysore classes (no skipping postures!), I found my confidence increase both on and off the mat. The truth is that some of the more extreme primary series postures meant that I had been avoiding the full practice for a long time because of injury and fear. I needed the sequence to confront me with what I found difficult; it taught me not to cop out every time I hit an obstacle.
Read on for Matthew's precise and sharp analysis on this subject. I couldn't have said it better so I will let it stand for itself:
The simple fact is that by adhering to the set sequences of Ashtanga, although more discipline is required, the results are definite. Without set sequencing, without some commitment to self practice, both the results of the body and the focus of the mind are generally limited. A key benefit of a set sequence is that it keeps you honest. You are forced to doing postures that are difficult or problematic rather than avoid them, or only doing the ones you may like or which feel good. (...) Avoiding difficult or problematic postures is a major flaw, particularly with styles of Yoga that don’t work with set sequencing. Both beginner and advanced practitioners can fall into this trap, which leads to building up your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses, and then leads to further imbalance, rather than less."
The cons of sticking to the traditional practice
Matthew's main argument in his article against sticking dogmatically to the set order of the sequence is that the majority of the postures in the primary series are about upper body strength and forward-bending postures. Many of us get stuck here due to inflexible hips or hamstrings and hence we build strength in some areas and less in others by vigorously repeating vinyasas and forward bends. As Matthew explains, this focus enhances the upward and energetic aspect of the yoga practice (referred to as masculine energy) and less on the downwards and soothing aspect (female energy). (For more on such a theme see my 'Women & Yoga' post here.)
It is not that Matthew argues that we should not teach the traditional method but rather that you have to learn to take responsibility as a teacher for tweaking the practice to accommodate each individual student who takes an interest in doing yoga and not only those who have certain aptitudes.
After the initial learning phase it is important to consider the needs of the student rather than blindly following the tradition. It is important to consider whether the standard Ashtanga is appropriate (and often it may not be) and then notice if you do not teach an alternative out of fear, rigidity or inability.
Ashtanga Yoga -A sacred cow?
It is my experience that there is an unwritten rule particularly for more senior Ashtanga teachers to be very faithful to the traditional teaching: 'If this is what Guruji (or Sharath) has said, then it must be the truth'. Therefore I was thrilled to hear Matthew Sweeney talk about the problems of how dogmatically the Ashtanga practice is often approached. Finally: a senior teacher to speak out about what I had been thinking. And no doubt he’s not the first to express this. Matthew says:
Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day. There is nothing innately spiritual, holy or sacred about them.
Haven't most Ashtanga practitioners been wondering about this at some point since starting their yoga journey? The approach taken by our teacher (and very advanced Ashtangi) Joey Miles, is probably unusual compared to that in some more traditional Ashtanga Yoga Shalas. Joey teaches a disciplined Ashtanga practice according to the inherited sequences, but he allows for the use of props and modifications (to postures and sequence) where appropriate. He’s influenced by Iyengar Yoga and will spend time with the individual student to help them understand basic alignment for a safe practice. If a student is working with an injury or is otherwise challenged he might suggest modifications or additional postures to work sensibly with this. In short, Joey seems to take the ‘tradition’ less dogmatically, and although he honours it, he has given it his own stamp.
Self-practice for Ashtanga Yoga only?
Inevitably a led or ‘counted’ Ashtanga class cannot accommodate modifications for every single student in the space of 90 minutes. Led classes, of course, have their place for establishing rhythm, pace and focus to the Ashtanga sequence, and for reminding us of the correct breathing. But what are Mysore self-practice classes for? Matthew Sweeney mentions self-practice aspect several times in his blog post and also argues that it is one of the unique features of the Ashtanga practice, where the student receives feedback and hands-on adjustments during practice. So many other Yogas don't do self-practice. So should a self-practice class only be for people who naturally find jump backs and forward bends easy? Surely no teacher or true yogi is interested in this kind of exclusion.
Why should a student not feel welcome to come and practice a modified sequence for a period of time due to aptitude, age, injury or illness? Or perhaps a more permanent adapted practice if circumstances or body type doesn't fit the Ashtanga Yoga archetype of lean and petite? It is my impression that self practice classes risk becoming exclusive to the type of students who a) already know the full primary series (other students seem to think that this is a prerequisite for doing this class) and, b) have right body type to cope with vinyasas and forward bends and who thrive on the upwards, 'male' energy Matthew refers to in his blog post.
Back to Leeds
As mentioned earlier on in the post one of Joey's strengths as a teacher is precisely to implement what Matthew Sweeney is talking about in his post: to notice the needs of the individual student and have the courage to let go of the established sequence if this benefits the student. The implications of this is that some students will be practicing modifications or adapted versions of the sequence next to someone doing a ‘strict’ Ashtanga practice. Now what are the practical implications of this? How do you make sure that the practice in the self practice environment stays safe for both students and teachers? And all this while acknowledging the usefulness of being disciplined with the practice but still making space for all types of people.
To practice smart is to practice with discipline but not with rigidity. So the emphasis of our practice is not to follow slavishly the form of the postures as they are set out in the text books but to practice with ease so doing yoga remains fun and inspiring. Modified with benefits but not discarded to avoid confronting difficulties.
Yoga is for everyone regardless of ability. I will finish with a quote by Matthew Sweeney again:
For example, how do you teach someone missing one arm(...)?
Next I’ll be returning to my series of posts about developing a yoga practice for Toke who only has one arm...
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