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nancy gilgoff ashtanga yoga workshop, munich, october 2002

Notes from Nancy Gilgoff's ashtanga yoga “adjustment clinic”, held in Munich from 11th to 13th October 2002. Nancy, for those who don't know, was one of Pattabhi Jois's very first western students. She has been practicing ashtanga yoga for thirty years and teaching for over twenty. The purpose of the course was for her to try to convey some of her vast yoga experience and wisdom to students who either already teach or (like me) have an established practice and aspire to teach one day.

format of the workshop

This was a weekend version of a course Nancy normally does in five days, and as such it was very intense, with a huge amount to try to learn in a short time. Packed a lot into the weekend, five three hour sessions:

In the hands-on sessions we worked in groups of three. This worked well if it was one person playing student, one person adjusting and one person observing, giving the “teacher” a second opinion and making sure that the “student” was comfortable with that the “teacher” was doing. Less so if the other people got carried away with enthusiasm and both started climbing all over the poor “student” at the same time - which did happen a little but not too much.

Easy to spot “faults” in people's asanas - much harder to prioritise and see root causes. Nancy could see causes where we were only seeing symptoms. We'd spot a whole load of details and wonder what to do about them - “well, it looks like she might be hyperextending her front knee, and she's holding her arm really rigidly but I don't know how to get her to let go of it, and her left hip's sticking out a bit …” - Nancy seemed to instantly know which one of several things was the one to immediately work on (and you do have to decide quickly in a real class situation where the student should only be staying there for five breaths). Experience. Found this a little disheartening at first – Nancy has been teaching for over twenty years (and Pattabhi Jois for over sixty). Can't learn this stuff just by being told what to look for. Have to start somewhere though.

nancy on yoga & life

Refreshing that Nancy is very open and honest about difficulties & weaknesses that she has had, and still has, in her yoga practice, even though she has been practicing advanced ashtanga yoga for thirty years and can do fourth series. Says she doesn't demonstrate in workshops because she doesn't feel safe doing even primary series asanas when she isn't warmed up. Not at all the usual famous-teacher-leading-workshop-as-godlike-being scenario.

Also her openness to other teachers and other styles. Full of praise for other teachers and things she has learned from them – Lino Miele, David Swenson, Richard Freeman. It's clear that her primary loyalty is to Guruji and she believes in his yoga system, but she's also quite happy to talk about things she's learned from teachers of other yoga styles – Iyengar teachers, Ana Forrest.

on second series

Nancy believes students who know primary series should start intermediate quite early. Says just doing primary for years can be unhealthy: lower back is always geting stretched out by all the forward bending without enough strengthening to compensate; hips don't get opened enough to really keep the knees safe. Early part of second series – at least to ustrasana, or to leg-behind-head – is very important for knee and back safety. Opens the hips & quads, strengthens the lumbar. She and David Williams learned both primary and intermediate at the same time on their first visit to Mysore, and had completed both in four months (practicing twice a day)

Says she asked Guruji a couple of years ago if she should carry on teaching as she first learned – move students on to second series quickly; or as he is teaching now – students stay on primary series for a long time until they are very proficient at it and can stand up from urdhva dhanurasana. He said she should carry on as she originally learned. She recommends, once you can get through primary reasonably well (knee on the floor in marichy b & d is important), starting to learn some of intermediate. Either do all of primary, and intermediate to ustrasana; or if you don't have time for that, do half of primary to navasana, then first half of intermediate & second half of primary alternate days. (Don't stop doing second half of primary though, it's important)

no photos

Decided not to accept the role of “Haus-Fotograf” to the Munich yoga scene this time. Too much to pay attention to - can't take photographs and think about other things at the same time. I did take a camera on Sunday – reluctantly, because a couple of people asked me to – but didn't use it.

the students

A little over twenty in all. Mostly German residents, and probably half Müncheners, but also people from all over Germany. (There is a lot of interest in ashtanga in Germany, although hardly any active teachers). The ashtanga “global village” still discernible though - Germans a majority but also Americans, at least one Austrian, Croatian, Swedish … and one Englishman. And (this is true) one woman who had flown in from Juneau, Alaska for the weekend. (Hi Kathryn, if you should happen to read this).

This was a class for experienced practitioners – everybody could at least do primary series reasonably proficiently, quite a few were practicing intermediate and several were already teaching. There are pluses and minuses to having a group like this as subjects for an adjustment class. On the plus side:

Downside is that you don't get to see / feel what it's like to try to adjust stiff beginners who think they can hardly do anything. People's attempts to simulate stiff beginners generally weren't very convincing … although I think my bad shoulderstand must have been pretty good, because it produced a groan of embarassment from my teacher.

adjustments, alignment, asanas

I'm not going to describe specific adjustments here - there might just be people stupid enough to think that they could go and “help” their friends after reading a third-hand description of an adjustment on the web from somebody who did a weekend workshop, and then someone gets hurt. Wouldn't want to be responsible for that.

Worth describing some general principles, though:

I actually am going to described one specific adjustment. You stand behind the student when they're ready to come up from parsvotanasana, take their hips in your hands with your thumbs either side of their sacrum, and as they inhale roll the hips forward and up with your thumbs. I can't see any way anybody could possibly get hurt with this one, and it's an amazing experience for the student if it's done right – feels like you're levitating.

Also, not adjustments but just useful stuff learned about asanas:

Marichyasanas - better to keep the bent-leg foot a little away from the hip (forwards not sideways). I have always tried to cram the heel right up against the buttock - having it a little further away feels much more stable in terms of avoiding tipping to the side. Probably also less strain on the knee.

pregnancy, menstruation & motherhood

(Entirely paraphrasing here, these being subjects where I have no personal experience to reflect upon. Nancy's answers to questions people asked)

MENSTRUATION (not practicing during). Nancy says she originally, as a liberated '70s hippie chick, thought this was just brahmin chauvinistic bullshit. Quickly changed her mind. Extremely bad idea to attempt bandhas or inversions, because they are completely contrary to the body's natural downward flow. So ashtanga practice an absolute no-no. OK to do some other kind of gentle asana practice if you really want to – but also a good opportunity to practice non-attachment to daily asana practice.

PREGNANCY. Absolutely fine for women who already have an established ashtanga practice to continue all through pregnancy (obviously with much modification in the later stages, although Nancy says she had a student who practiced third series into the ninth month) Wait three months after birth before resuming ashtanga practice. Not a good idea for pregnant women who haven't done yoga before to start with ashtanga - fine to start with other forms of yoga practice.

MOTHERHOOD. Children are sent to to disrupt all your preconceptions, shatter your attachment to your yoga practice, make you rethink everything you thought you knew about your future, your present and your past. Graphic description of Nancy as single parent yoga teacher, trying to nurse baby with one hand & adjust students with the other. Apparently the students were fine with this. Must be nice to have such supportive students.

TEACHING CHILDREN YOGA. Fine for small kids to play with asanas - although no headstands before the age of 12 as the bones of the skull aren't completely fused yet. Not so good for adolescents circa 14 to 17 - the bones are growing faster than the muscles, joints are unstable, stretching can be very uncomfortable & unpleasant. Nancy has no problem with parents bringing small children into class – good opportunity for the childless students to learn to chill out and let go of their beliefs about how a yoga class “should” be. (Having gone through the finishing sequence at one of Lino's workshops with Lino's six year old son Oliver and my friend Günther's nine year old son Alex playing next to me, I completely agree). Her daughter (now 19) does yoga but normally chooses to go to another teacher.


Many thanks obviously to Nancy for teaching such an informative and enjoyable course. Also to Patrick and Gabriella for all the hard work that went into organising it; and to the other students for contributing all their valuable and inspiring experience & insights, and for being such excellent company for the weekend.

Follow-up note, 17th October: Nancy has checked this page and says it is generally a good synopsis of the course. One correction. I originally said she wouldn't teach her daughter. Nancy says this was incorrect – her daughter normally chooses to go to other teachers, but does also sometimes study with her.

text © Alan Little 2002