Wa Yo Yogi

Leanne Kitteridge's adventures in Yoga

The Mountain March 31, 2008


Have you ever had that feeling where something has changed or shifted in your life and you know you will never be the same? Good. Welcome to my week.

My mentor teacher Christina Sell was up in Vancouver this week giving a philosophy intensive to a small group of us and then teaching a large scale workshop. ( I included a few pictures from the weekend). I was so looking forward to really diving into the material and having a real kick butt yoga asana practice on the weekend but unfortunately I was sidetracked by some minor surgery. No arm balancing back bending craziness for me this week. Lucky for me, most of the philosophy week was pranayama, meditation, lectures, videos and discussions. I have to say though that my body was screaming to move. My brain was completely exhausted and I didn’t have the outlet of asana to integrate the new information. I tried to keep going back to the idea of adikara- studentship.

Adikara is a Sanskrit word which can be seen as two parts. “Adi”- oneself and “kara” to make. So studentship is the process of making oneself ready. One would think in my case that means making myself ready to become a certified teacher but I felt it was more about making myself ready just to be a better student. Adikara can also be translated as competent readiness- so literally to be a student you have to have already have gone through some process in my mind. I had to prepare to be a student in order to prepare to be a teacher.

I love how John Friend- the founder of Anusara Yoga– uses the five elements to describe what is necessary to be a good student.

Space: Open mind and heart. Ready to take in all that is offered.

Air: Changeable. A quick mind that is able to see connections and quickly grasp new ideas.

Fire: Clarity. A mind that is able to create the light of knowledge- to put light on that which was dark- unknown. I also see it as desire- the burning desire for knowledge and the will to change.

Water: Reflective. To see what is going on and being able to adapt- to flow around the obstacles.

Earth: Steadiness. Long lasting, steady dedication to your path.

These same 5 qualities of studentship are the same five qualities of a good teacher, or a good parent, or a good spouse- you get the idea. So this week I really was all five in varying degrees. Some days I needed more fire and other days I needed more earth etc. It was interesting to watch the process from that perspective rather than just “ I am so tired and my brain is so full I can’t take anymore“. And by the end of the week fire had truly shed light on what was so dark and confusing before and transformed my practice once again.

I like to think of my teacher Christina like a Sherpa. You are climbing up this big mountain together and you think it is all about you and your journey but you can only do it because the Sherpa already has. The Sherpa is part of the mountain already- the Sherpa has an understanding of not just climbing but the essence of the mountain itself. The Sherpa carries the light to show you the way. Christina takes it further though- once you walked the mountain for a while she hands you the light and says “ Now you go.” You realize the only way to get up that last part of the mountain is by your own light, your own transformational fire. At that moment the light shows you all the doubts, insecurities, and obstacles you have left on that path- and you make a choice. You chose to keep climbing or you stop and go back down. The Sherpa is not going to drag you up that mountain- and the last bit is the hardest. Even though the Sherpa is still with you,  in some ways you are on your own. You have to deal with all the stuff you saw when you took the light.

I want to get up that mountain in two more years. I looked at the path behind me and I realize how far I have truly come. The last part is short and steep and frankly treacherous, but I think I have everything I need now to make good decisions on my way up that last part. Open like the sky, quick and changeable like the wind, full of the fire of desire, adaptable like water and steady like the earth – one foot after the other I will get there. Wish me luck.



The House of Yoga and Zen March 17, 2008


Snuggled in a tomato farm on a twisting Maui road lies a yoga shala. Completely unassuming and rugged, this little building holds one of the biggest hearts in Ashtanga yoga- Nancy Gilgoff. The shala is like Nancy herself- natural, simple and real.

I am an Anusara teacher and I mostly align myself with that method but with children and husband’s needs it was just easier to study ashtanga with my husband, Chris, than it was to try to juggle two styles and two studios and two parts of the island. I had a major break with the Ashtanga system a few years ago and I am very wary of who I study with. I had met Nancy on a previous trip so I had a sense of who she was as a teacher and I felt I could trust her.

Nancy Gilgoff is thought to be the first American woman to travel to India to study Ashtanga yoga with Pattabhi Jois. Certainly she’s one of a trio- including Doug Swenson and David Williams- credited with bringing Ashtanga to America in the 1970s.  She  has dedicated herself to teaching the tradition for close to 30 years- having only stopped teaching for a few years to raise her daughter.

Day one with Nancy was brutal as her and her assistant Casie kept on us about our “Iyengar” habits. By day two, I had sorted out what she did not want me to do and like a good student I followed. My hamstring was still acting up so she asked me to bend my knee in the standing poses…except for prasaritta. She got me to really work the quads and come very forward into my feet… and my head was to be on the floor. She also asked me not to roll my thighs out for seated- she said it could aggravate sciatica and the hamstring. Rather than argue about methods or secretly do my own thing, I honoured the teacher and her experience in this method and did exactly as I was told for the whole two weeks. I figured my hamstring couldn’t be much worse and maybe it would help so I would do and observe. Maybe I would learn something.

Nancy’s focus on the ashtanga practice was not one of perfecting the postures. Unlike other teachers I studied with, I was not constantly stopped at Marichyasana D because I could not bind. To her the practice is of breath and bandhas- it is an energy practice. You move and you move fast- there is a definite rhythm that underlies the pace of the practice. You do not fiddle or fight to get into a posture- one shot- five breaths and you are out- whether or not you bind that day is of no matter. Maintain the breath, maintain the bhandas and keep moving. I noticed that Nancy would often time herself to be right in front of a student at that key moment of going into a bind and just move them there with little effort and maintaining the rhythm. After a few days of practice she knew exactly which poses you could do and which ones you were struggling with. I have to say that Nancy and her assistants Casie and Keiko were amazing- I never once felt in pain or that I was being pushed beyond my boundaries- which unfortunately has happened to me in the past. A bad adjustment in ashtanga can create a deep seated fear  in the posture for years- I know first hand. I literally cringe when a teacher walks up to me in prasaritta C. I noticed that none of them adjusted me in that posture. They obviously realized that my shoulders are just not open enough for my hands to touch the floor….

There was a lightness and a continual flow to the practice at Nancy’s that made it seem so connected. It was more physically centered than heart centered but I could see a connection to something bigger. The idea of just being happy with where you are at that day- not grasping and fighting yourself. Which- I have to say- is how I have often found my ashtanga practice.

I looked around the shala every morning to see practitioners of all ages and abilities: Big, small, short, tall- primary series, second series and third series. What was noticeably absent was egos. No judging , no competition- just people all getting together to share their practice with this incredibly open and accessible teacher. Nancy believes that EVERYONE regardless of age or size can practice ashtanga.

The last day on Maui I told Nancy why I had stopped practicing Ashtanga- I was told I was basically too fat- and that is why I could not bind in Marichyasana D. Nancy was astounded. First she asked if I hit him…which made me laugh. She said that this was becoming a problem with Ashtanga- teachers with too big egos and too little heart. I could see the disappointment on her face. I could never imagine Nancy ever telling a student something like that.

Chris and I had a discussion about Mysore when we left and we wondered why would we go there other than to say we had been there. The classes are so large in Mysore that you are never adjusted and if you are first series you are basically learning from those around you. If one wanted to truly learn and grow under the guidance of a teacher- then practicing with Nancy was a much better experience. I have to say that in many ways Nancy helped me to rekindle my past love of Ashtanga- maybe if she had been my teacher all along I would have never left the method. 

For all of you interested in a yoga vacation, I highly recommend Maui. The island itself just seems to be conducive to yoga. Early morning practice followed by salt water and sun makes for a very happy body. If you are looking for accommodation to study with Nancy  family check out our friend’s cottages- Haiku Makai. They have a great fruit orchard that you can pick from and lots of Aloha spirit.


Maui is like that… March 9, 2008

Filed under: travel yoga,yoga — shibuiyoga @ 9:51 pm
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Sorry for the long break in writing but we did not have computer access in Maui except for an Internet cafe and in a way it was extremely liberating. I realized how much of my day I glued myself to the computer. It seemed that 30 minutes twice a week was really enough to check e-mail and such. The only downside was not being able to write my blog so unfortunately these entries from our time in Maui will be less fresh and probably condensed from my normal writing. Maybe that is a good thing…

We spent every morning practicing Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga? I know many of my yogi friends are confused about why I would chose to practice Ashtanga but really I never stopped practicing it. Every Sunday I still do primary and Ashtanga was my first introduction to the practice of yoga and for that I am grateful.

After practice one morning, a practitioner beside me mentioned there was kirtan at Maui Studio with Ram Dass. I knew a little bit about Ram Dass having read about him on the internet and having encountered other teachers that had spoken of him. Basically he is an American spiritual teacher who is more infamous for his experiments with pyschedelic drugs at Harvard University than his spiritual teachings.  I stole most of the following bio from Wikipedia.

In 1967, Dr. Richard Alpert ( as he was known then) travelled to India, where he met the American spiritual seeker Bhagavan Das. As he guided him barefoot from temple to temple, Bhagavan Das began teaching Alpert basic mantras and asanas, as well as how to work with a mala. After a few months Bhagavan Das led Alpert to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, or as he is better known in the West, Maharaj-ji. Maharaj-ji soon became Alpert’s guru and gave him the name “Ram Dass”, which means “servant of God”. Under the guidance of Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass was instructed to receive teaching from Hari Baba Dass, who taught in silence using only a chalkboard.  Among other things, Hari Dass Baba trained Ram Dass in raja yoga and amhisa- non violence. It was these life-changing experiences in India that inspired Ram Dass to write the contemporary spiritual classic, Be Here Now,  in which he teaches the harmony of all people and religions.

He moved to Maui sometime in the 1990’s and has been a fixture there ever since. I wasn’t sure what to expect at kirtan- which is usually devotional chanting- but what we actually came across was a satsang- a lecture by the spiritual teacher. With his stroke he speaks very slowly and deliberately and at first it seemed slow and frustrating but then it became easier- like the slow delivery made each word more significant. Ram Dass chose that night to speak of being a servant to God- a servant like Hanuman- the devoted servant of Rama. He basically retold the Ramayana in a way that those of us modern day yogis could understand. The basic story line is that Sita, a  princess, is kidnapped by a serpent like prince of Lanka , Ravana. Rama is a virtuous prince, and Sita’s husband and he searches all of India for her- with the help of all the animals and especially Lord Hanuman. It was insightful and humorous.

One of the things that I had never heard before was that in some versions Hanuman is actually Shiva manifested- Shiva felt sorry for Rama and chose to come to help him- but in the process of becoming the monkey he forgot that he really was the powerful Shiva. This is an interesting metaphor. We are born with incredible possibility and no knowledge. When Hanuman jumped or flew to Sri Lanka to find Sita he was full of fear. It was too far and too dangerous- it was impossible. He did not know the power that was within him- if he remembered he was Shiva he could have easily done it- but he did not know that. He was a simple monkey who was deeply devoted to his master Rama. It was his devotion and love of Rama that gave him the courage to believe he could jump- and so he did. Hanuman found Sita and eventually Rama and Sita were reunited. Love and devotion- this is the story of Hanuman.

Ram Dass went on to say that this is his story. He said that his story is the story of unconditional love. He said his guru looked at him and knew small details about his life that were unknown to others. He realized then that even those things he wished to hide from his guru- things that were embarrassing and unsavory- were all exposed- and that his guru loved him anyways. Unconditional love- that is what his guru taught him. People asked him “Why do you worship a man?” and he said ” I do not worship a man- I worship a doorway to God- my guru was this doorway.” 

He said a few other profound things which I tucked away in my mind, but one thing he mentioned I missed. My husband could not recall the quote either. It bothered me for days after as I felt it was somehow significant and now I would never get the chance to ask him again. I thought I would have to put it out to other teachers and see if they maybe knew the answer- but of course it would be speculation as only Ram Dass could again tell me the exact quote.

A few days later we had dinner with the owners of the cottage who we have become friends with. They said a neighbour was coming over to join us. The lovely woman that joined us was bright and articulate and she went on to say she had left a successful career and life on the Mainland to be with her spiritual teacher. My brain leapt back to satsang and I realized she was there. We started to chat excitedly and I went on to ask if she knew the answer to my question about Ram Dass’ satsang. She said “No- but I am his personal assistant.  Write it down and I will give it to him. I will call you tomorrow with the answer.” And so she did.

I mentioned the amazing set of circumstances to Nancy Gilgoff, our Ashtanga teacher, and she said, “Maui is like that.”  We continued to have more experiences like this during the trip. Like John Friend said to us in Seattle- there is no random.

For those of you curious to know what Ram Dass said that I was so eager to remember you will have to email me! So much for condensed….