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notes on nancy, part two

18th October 2004 permanent link

Apologies to my (three, that I know of) non-ashtangi yogablog readers if some of the following appears to be in sanskrit. That’s because it is. The bits I think are particularly important I will discuss and try to explain in English.

Things Nancy says Pattabhi Jois really doesn’t care about, and therefore she doesn’t either:

Preconceived ideas of “correct alignment” and what people’s practices should look like. To be discussed at length in the next part.

Fancy-looking frills, embellishments and optional extras in practice, especially handstands in primary series. Advanced ashtanga yoga involves a lot of amazing-looking arm balances and lifts – slowly floating into and out of handstands, doing all sorts of difficult and complicated stuff whilst you are up there. A friend in Mysore told me that the way one particular sequence used to be taught, your feet wouldn’t touch the ground for ten minutes or more. They’ve broken it up a bit since.

This is all fine and good for the few people who are practicing at that rarefied level. It becomes problematic when beginners see advanced demonstrations or videos and think “wow, I want to be able to do that”. One of my first teachers was exceptionally good at this stuff and liked to demonstrate it a lot in class – with the result that I spent hours and hours trying to learn to do those things when I really should have been working on far more basic things that I also couldn’t do and that did matter for a beginner. (He was a good and inspiring teacher in many ways and I learned a great deal from him. Nobody’s perfect.)

A lot of people also worry that their yoga practice is somehow inadequate if they haven’t already learned these amazing advanced tricks. Nancy says once you’ve learned urdhva kukkutasana, early on in the first advanced series, then you can easily float backwards and forwards in the vinyasas in primary series. Up to that point she’s never seen any evidence of Pattabhi Jois caring whether people can do it or not. Nor have I, for what that’s worth given that I’ve only spent a few months in Mysore. All advanced practitioners could do fancy lifts and extra handstands in the primary series if they wanted to: the advanced practitioners with the most beautiful practices I saw in Mysore chose not to – just did the most basic, plain simple practice with wonderful ease and grace.

Patanjali has a lot to say about this too. In the original yoga textbook, two thousand years or more ago, he devoted a large part of his discussion to siddhis. Siddhis are special powers, possessed by yogis and not by most other people, that come as a side effect of advanced yoga practice. Patanjali warns sternly that getting caught up in enjoying siddhis, or confusing them with the object of the exercise, is one of the most common and insidious obstacles to real yoga practice. Exceptional control of the body and the ability to perform cool-looking physical feats with it is a siddhi.

DISCLAIMER: I have never floated smoothly up to a handstand in my life, although – deluded siddhi-chaser that I am – I would like to one day.

Things that I thought were optional embellishments for advanced practitioners, but that Nancy to my surprise actually insists on:

Exiting from bhujapidasana and supta kurmasana via lift, tittibhasana and bakasana, with a pause at bakasana. I’m just about getting to the point where i can approximate this. I had always associated it with doing extra handstands etc., as discussed at length above, but no.

Between backbends, just touch the head down for one breath and straight back up again. No lying back down on the mat, having a cup of tea and a snooze in between which (exaggerating only slightly) is what I used to do. I’ve been trying to follow Nancy’s approach for the last couple of weeks(*). It isn’t as much harder as I expected.

(*) except on days when I have to do my advanced backbending practice where Guru Jack sits on my stomach.

Notes Part One, Part Three

Notes from the previous course I did with Nancy.

related entries: Yoga

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