I’ve been to the first two of the five classes and, so far, it’s been fantastic. I can’t imagine a better workshop for a home ashtangi, which is what David is. There are none of those strong admonishments about ‘you have to have a qualified teacher’ here. Instead it is ‘yoga is for everyone, nine to ninety. You can do this.’ Yes!
He started out with many fabulous stories about how he found yoga when there was NONE, especially in North Carolina where he grew up. He is a great storyteller and I HIGHLY recommend going to his workshop to hear him tell them. A short taste: David went to India right out of college on a one way ticket and became “a yoga detective,” traveling everywhere and asking who the best yoga teacher was. He found Jois after seeing Manju do a demonstration. “That was it. That was what I wanted.” He went to Mysore and pushed hard, practicing twice a day, and learned first and second series, and pranayama, in four months (when his visa ran out). He came back several times, and in five years learned all six series. That’s right, he’s got the entire ashtanga syllabus including the mysterious sixth. He was the the only living person practicing it. (!) Then he moved to Maui and built a house, lived a life, did yoga… twenty years passed and in 2000 he was invited to teach a workshop in Canada—the workshop he has now refined and taught 200 times around the world—only to find the ashtanga yoga he had helped bring to the west in the seventies had transformed from what he had known it to be before he ‘dropped out,’ into what it is now.
In some ways, I don’t think he likes what he sees. He seems horrified at the level of injury that is so common among ashtangis. He is vehemently against the strong adjustments that seem to be the norm in many shalas. He says there should be no wear and tear, no burn-out, in yoga. “There is absolutely no place for injury in yoga!” His biggest message is that yoga should be something you do every day, for the rest of your life, which means you can’t risk getting hurt, not for a second. “If it hurts, you’re hurting yourself!” he says. “Get on your mat and make it feel wonderful.” “See how high you can get.” He talks a lot about finding the sweet spot, the point in every pose where the stretch feels fantastic, and staying there. Yes, you will be capable of going farther than that point, but “one millimeter past the sweet spot is pain and injury.” “The stretch is the same whether you put your hand on your knee, your ankle, your foot—that stuff doesn’t matter. Make it feel good. Your body knows what’s good for it.”
The goal of hatha yoga for David is making a body that has no pain so that you can enter the state of yoga, which is synonymous with meditation, samadhi, nirvana, zen, etc. So the point of asana is a pain free body, and the point of yoga is clarity and peace of mind—not flexibility or strength, which are just side effects of doing a daily asana practice. Asana gets you comfortable enough to meditate. Yoga is about changing your mind.
But if you get hurt, the prana (life force/energy/immunity/chi/health/well-being) you release in practice has to go toward healing that injury, instead of toward self-realization. Lying in corpse at the end, he brings in meditation right away, suggesting that the prana you’ve just cultivated—that buzzing high you get after a good practice—knows where to go to heal you. “Don’t waste this prana on thinking right now.” He suggests meditation as “the space between the last thought and the next” and offers some meditation techniques for using in corpse right after practice as a great way to start. No waiting to be able to sit in lotus for an hour before meditating. Do it now.
So what about the physical practice?
The Number One Focus in ashtanga practice (some great stories here about Jois conveying this) is the mula bandha. He says this over and over. But it is connected to the mind control and here’s how. You can’t unconsciously hold the mula bandha, so you have to concentrate to do it: lose the mind and you lose the bandha. Mula bandha leads to concentration. Concentration leads to meditation. Meditation leads to samadhi. This is the point of yoga.
The Number Two Focus in ashtanga is breath. Deep breathing while holding the mula bandha means your abdomen doesn’t move. Instead, your ribcage expands and contracts like a bellows. This motion is what you use to stretch within a pose. You get into a posture, find your sweet spot, then “move vast quantities of air in and out of your lungs” and that bellows motion stretches all the muscles that come off your spine. That’s where the stretch comes from, the breathing. Practice this way and you don’t get hurt.
Form, the forms of the postures, comes in a “weak third” in importance. “Practice this way and in ten years your form will be perfect. Don’t worry about that.”
I’ve got to say, the primary I did yesterday with him has got to be the most enjoyable, pleasurable primary I’ve ever done. Bar none.
An interesting aside, because David was one of the very first westerners to learn from Pattabhi Jois, the ashtanga he teaches is a time capsule to the 70s and how Jois taught before people were flocking to his place. For example, first and second series are taught quickly, no backbends until after second series, no lifting the legs up off the floor in up dog (!), and get this, no toe rolling. (Hallelujah!)
Another note, David is from Greensboro and is returning to the city after a long while away (he lives on Maui). He talks with that central North Carolina accent so familiar to me (he sounds like my extended family). It’s cool for me to hear yoga spoken of in the voice of my ancestral lands!
David is warm, funny, and passionate about yoga. His stories about India, about searching for yoga, about Jois, are worth the price of admission alone. Unfortunately I’ll miss today’s morning session (no childcare), but I’ll be there tonight and tomorrow morning when we do Intermediate. “Intermediate is no harder than Primary. The way I teach it, you’ll love it.” I’m excited about that! I need the backbending work. “When you’re a baby you have twenty-four vertebra. When you’re old, you have a back bone.” I’m afraid I’m half-way to having a ‘back-bone’ already.
I’ll report back after further adventures. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND going to see David if you have a chance. Don’t miss it. “I want this to be the best yoga workshop you’ll ever go to.” The feeling for me so far is one of liberation.
Day 3 and 4 post here.