Sunday, July 24, 2011

We've moved! Come check us out

Hey all.

And, yes, I mean all. All hundreds.

We were pretty surprised by that, too.

There's been great response to this blog. A few dozen regulars, it seems, and somewhere near the 100 mark who've dropped by at least once. From all over the world.

So we realized that maybe we could and should be doing a little more. We felt a bit limited here, so we've moved everything (except, sadly, the Confluence Countdown) to a new site:

The Confluence Countdown. At Yes, that's redundant.

We will keep our eyes on news and information related to the Confluence and the five student-teachers who are leading it. Plus, we'll update you on other topics and issues we think are related to the Confluence and Ashtanga yoga.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The wireless Ashtangi -- Nancy Gilgoff

Unlike the other quartet of teacher/students at the Confluence, Nancy Gilgoff doesn't seem to have a regular blog or anything of the like.

A wireless yogini, indeed, in this day of constant Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and, yes, blogs like this.

I'll admit I know less about her than I do the other four -- perhaps as a result of her not being quite so present online. Yes, her site exists, but the "about" page is pretty short. Perhaps on purpose?

That leads, then, to other searches. I know, from a one-day session with David Williams, that he introduced her to Guruji and that she had a serious of ailments. But I was shocked to find out what they were.

This old Yoga Journal piece lays it out in pretty stark detail. (Note to Yoga Journal: It might be good to date these articles; I have zero idea when it is from.)

Here are some key moments:
The earliest of Gilgoff's injuries began when she was a child. She loved horseback riding, but it put such a constant pounding on her lower spine that she was left with chronic back problems. "By the time I was a teenager," she says, "it had manifested in my neck, where a vertebra was jammed forward." Along with this, childhood dental work had been performed with her mouth left open so uncomfortably, she would literally scream in pain, a torture she believes compounded the neck injury. Later, as a junior in college, she began getting severe migraines she believes were triggered by the then-new birth control pills. This experience left her with jaw pain so intense, she couldn't open her mouth for days at a time.


Her pain was so acute, doctors suggested surgery to deaden places in her brain, in effect to numb the pain. But Gilgoff had other ideas. She had watched a close friend go through hospital treatments for cancer, and the idea of surgery appalled her. "I knew I didn't want to end up in that situation," she says, "so I started looking around, taking the first steps to another way of being."

When Gilgoff left college at age 24, she'd already become a vegetarian, and it wasn't long after she took up yoga under Williams' tutelage that the couple traveled to India, where they ended up at Jois's Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore. The challenge of Ashtanga would change her life.
I'll be very intrigued to see how that beginning manifests itself in her teaching and what she has to say about the practice; and it makes me a bit disappointed that I didn't sign up for her Led class.

Her story also reminds me of something else, something that seems strangely common to Ashtangis: A lot of them have had some injury at some point, whether before finding the practice or some time during it. Shoulder and knee injuries are common; I've heard stories about recovering from car accidents; there are those who were athletes who got hurt and then found Ashtanga.

Is it, I wonder, because at its heart it really is a healing practice -- or is there something about it that attracts folks whose dharma passes through injury?

(Photo from Gilgoff's web site and Picasa feed.)

Note: We've moved to

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Music, yoga and Ashtanga

I know I'm pushing the proper boundaries of Ashtanga here, but after thinking earlier about MC Yogi's presence at the Confluence, having this story pop upon on my radar seemed somehow fated.

It's from the Times of India: "When music and yoga combine to heal."

In a traditional Mysore room, of course, there's no music -- maybe just some background chants or mantras. (That's how it is at our shala in LA.) But typically those rules get stretched if a shala also offers flow-type classes, and I'm sure we've all taken at least our share of those, at least at some yoga -- as opposed to Ashtanga -- studio.

I know there's a whole debate or discussion about how yoga teachers pick their class "play lists." And I really don't want to go there.

Because this article doesn't go there. It goes here:

The spiritual nuances of Indian classical music traditions, developed over centuries, are particularly suited for music therapy, he said, but added that a lot of research and developmental work needed to be done.

Interestingly, while the modern world may be just waking up to the therapy, ancient Indian scriptures have a well-documented technique called 'nada yoga' -- or the science of utilising sound vibrations and yogic asanas (postures) to achieve 'salvation'.

According to Sharma, nada yoga has enormous power to heal. It is believed that Indian classical music has very positive effects on human health and behaviour.

"Recent studies on the subject showed that music along with yoga can heal disorders like hypertension, arthritis, problems related to upper or lower parts of the body, mental stress and tension," she said.

In other words, with all due deference to MC Yogi, we aren't talking hip hop here. Nor Tool. Nor Bob Marley, Michael Franti or Jack Johnson.

We aren't even talking Krishna Das or Jai Uttal. Or any of the sources that drive bhakti yoga (and Bhakti Fest).

I don't think I've ever had an asana class that incorporated this kind of music; maybe there was an odd Ravi Shankar song mixed in, but certainly nothing drawing along a "nada yoga" tradition.

It sounds interesting, at least. But I doubt whether it ever could fit into an Ashtanga practice, which is so focused on dristis and pratyahara and, thus, not hearing or noticing the outside world. (I usually stop noticing the background mantras that are playing at the shala, for instance, at least on the more successful days.)

Given the Confluence's emphasis on "Ashtanga in America," perhaps it is a topic that will come up during one of the days' talks. After all, yoga and music now are pretty wedded together in most studios. And not having music is one of the most noticeable difference between Ashtanga and the flow class down the street. I'm sure it is an issue these five teachers have faces and thought about -- I believe I've even heard David Swenson say it was OK, as part of a home practice, for instance. I think his point was it gets you to practice, that's better than not practicing.

Anyone secretly play music when you practice at home? Does it affect your practice in any noticeable ways? And have you ever put on classical Indian music before that first Surya Namaskara?

Note: We've moved to

David's Psyched!

David Swenson just nailed the best thing about the Confluence in his new website post:
"There will be differences and similarities between how we present the system we all so love," he writes. "This will be the beauty of the event. It is a flowing together."
Apropos of Steve's last entry, that will be the best part for me: Seeing these great teachers converse with each other, listening to them compare notes, finding the common ground. And there will also be a "confluence" of students--Richard's students will be practicing next to David's next to Eddie's next to Nancy's next to Tim's. Some of us have spent a great deal of time with one teacher; some have dabbled in workshops with the others. We'll get to see the greatness of the teaching.

During his teacher trainings, Tim was often asked about this or that detail from David's book, or something Nancy or Richard might have said. Tim always treats these differences with respect and humor, never really disagreeing with the teachings of his "esteemed colleagues," as he called them. Check out David's post. You can hear the love and respect.

Note: We've moved to

What's the most exciting thing about the Confluence?

The Confluence website touts a key attraction: The five teachers gathering have 175 years of combined teaching experience among them.

Yeah, that's a lot. And it doesn't even count the authorized teachers who will be assisting in classes and who knows how else.

I'm fairly certain that the essential confluence of these experienced Ashtanga teachers is the main draw for those of us who have signed up already. (Spots, I've heard, are going fast. Probably best not to dally too much.)

But there is more to it than just them. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few other draws:

* MC Yogi's Saturday night music. Think we can count on hearing "Ganesh is Fresh"?
* Potential gathering with old and far-flung yoga friends.
* If you're coming from outside of Southern California, a break from lingering winter.
* The chance to surround yourself with hundreds (I'm guessing) of other Ashtangis.
* The opportunity to discover a new product, line of clothing, food stuff from the promised vendors and sponsors. (I'll admit, I always love wandering through the vendor booths, even if I rarely buy anything.)
* And, as we've posted about already, the asana classes, the talks, the opening puja ceremony.

There's a half dozen things. But I'm curious what you -- yeah, you, the one reading this right now -- are most excited about; why did you sign up for the Confluence already, why are you toying with the idea of signing up?

And, just maybe, what else do you hope they add to the weekend?

(Photo from MC Yogi's website.)

Note: We've moved to

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eddie Stern on the goal of spiritual practice

I joked once to Tim Miller that my most flexible muscle is my brain. I'm sure it must have come after he directed another shake of the head toward me and followed it with a "still stiff" in the Indian accent he puts on when he's about to hurt your feelings, but wants to do so gently.

When you see me at the Confluence, you'll know what I, and he, mean.

But my joke isn't entirely facetious. I'm pretty sure my brain is my most flexible muscle; sadly, Ashtanga only is 1% theory, but it is a 1% I try to give at least 4% of my time to as part of my practice.

And it is why I'm as excited by the afternoon talks at the Confluence as I am the morning practice sessions.

Initially, I'll admit to being most excited about hearing Richard Freeman. I read his latest book, "The Mirror of Yoga," earlier this year, and I found much in it to absorb and contemplate. (Ala Bobbie's review of "The Ramayana," I'll do something more complete on it at some point.) I have a suspicion I might really take to his perspective on the practice and on yoga in America.

But since the Confluence announcement, I've also being paying more attention to Eddie Stern, who may represent the great unknown for me when it comes to the five teachers.

What did I know about him? Well, the usual "rumors": he's super strict and super traditional, in that New York way. And before any New Yorkers/East Coasters jump on me, you know you think we're all laid back and too free with things out here in California. I also know he's embraced Hindu practices. But, really, that's about it. (In the past few weeks, I've gotten more information from a local source, who I'll keep anonymous. But it sounds like Eddie is a great teacher, which is no surprise.)

His blog at the Ashtanga Yoga New York site is great, and it is certainly making me more interested in hearing what he has to say about the 1% theory of Ashtanga. His latest, built around a puja for Guruji's birthday, includes these wonderful words:

The goal of spiritual practice is to awaken inner happiness, happiness that is not caused by the fleeting, changing objects of the world, but is the uncaused happiness of the Self. Purnima refers to the full moon, when the moon is complete and reflects the full light of the sun. In the Hindu tradition the moon is the mind, and the sun is the heart – so when our mind completely reflects the inner happiness of the heart, it is said to be full. The yoga master Krishan Verma spoke this past Friday on this idea, remarking that the Guru is said to be the one to awaken this fullness, hence the special name Guru Purnima – what is fullness, he asked? Happiness. Where does this happiness come from? Devotion to the Guru. The Guru can be a person, but in essence is a principle, called Guru Tattva. The principle of the Guru is the light of knowledge – a light like the sun – which is shining in the heart of each and everyone of us. We can access that principle, and have our own experience of it. But while it is true that the Guru is within us, the need for an outer guide should never be discounted, one who can point us in the right direction – and especially in the cases where this principle shines forth brilliantly, and the vessel has become the embodiment of the principle.

Now, I'll readily admit to being one of those not-so-rare Westerners who are reluctant to "surrender" to a Guru or, really, any authority figure. My embrace of Hanuman is mostly about tapping into his devotion to another.

And I'll also admit to having hesitation to what I'll broadly, and reductively, call "the new age spirituality" of yoga. I don't mean to turn anyone off by that phrase, and don't mean it pejoratively; it is more a reflection on me than yoga or Ashtanga or anyone practicing it. It places me in that grand continuum of American males, I think, who have some sort of ingrained skepticism or even hostility to anything "hippy dippy." On one end is, I don't know, Rick Santorum, maybe? On the other is probably Ram Dass.

As my practice has deepened, I've definitely moved toward Ram Dass. I'm trying to access what Tim Miller has referred to as my "gooey inside." It's not an easy task. But it is part of the practice, and it seems like it is an inescapable one after a certain point. There comes that moment when Ashtanga is either going to stay a really good workout or become something more.

That's something we've all experienced, right? It is something I'm still trying to put into words. (One of the goals of this blog.)

I'm looking forward to the Confluence, in large part, to help push me further down that path toward "something more." And I'm very interested to hear Eddie, and Richard, and find out if anything they say gives me a firm shove.

(Photo from

Note: We've moved to

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An even better Tuesday explanation

As promised in our first post, we'll highlight the writings and goings-on of the five teachers who will lead the Confluence.

Tim Miller posted his weekly "Tuesdays with Timji" piece a short time ago, and this week's is a good primer on what Tuesday is all about and what the Ashtanga practice means, too:
Regarding Tuesdays, Guruji used to say, “Tuesday is a bad day.” When I asked him why he replied, “Some fighting.” In Vedic astrology, Tuesday is associated with the planet Mars. Of the planets, Mars is known as the “lesser malefic”—Saturn being the “greater malefic.” In Roman mythology Mars is the God of War--one of its primary associations has been with conflict, and accidents as well. Guruji would never shave on Tuesday because of this association of Mars with accidents, particularly accidents involving the head, since Mars rules the sign Aries, which is linked to the head. In Mysore, Guruji never gave anyone a new pose on a Tuesday, because of this potential for accidents.
I tend to think of Tim as as much Vedic astrologer as Yogi, if one can unwind those two. Check out his thoughts if you haven't already or don't normally.

He gives a little shout-out to Hanuman, too.

Note: We've moved to