Wa Yo Yogi

Leanne Kitteridge's adventures in Yoga

Book Review: Yoga Body- The Origins of the Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton May 23, 2011

Yoga Body was first introduced to me last summer by one of my philosophy teachers,  Carlos Pomeda. He suggested Mark Singleton had some interesting things to say on the development of the physical yoga practice ( asana) as we see it today. For many us we seem to think that yoga has been around forever (what was it on the Lululemon bag- 7000 years??)  but really asana, as we know it, is a modern invention. So modern in fact, as Mark brings up in his book- it really is a hybrid of European gymnastics, body building, and military calisthenics interpreted through the lens of an Indian people who were trying to assert their own cultural significance during an occupation by another country.

The beginning of the book is very dry- I believe the author wrote this as his PHD thesis and it is very scholarly in format and sets up his, slightly controversial, argument in the beginning chapters. If you can slog through this foundation he sets up then the last half of the book is well worth it. For those of you without that fortitude, you can start at Chapter 3 and still not lose too much of the background.

The book is divided into chapters that take us from the roots of  colonialism in India and the cultural bias to the often bizarre practices of the yogins, through India’s growing wonderment and participation with the  international physical culture movement. The growth of the body building movement and harmonial gymnastics weaves it’s way from Europe and North America to become influential in the asana development. ( Just a note here that Bikram’s teacher came out of this particular body building lineage in India).  The section on the proliferation of the physical movement through the medium of photographs further brings to light how books, like Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar,  literally became , in my words, our yoga bibles. The final chapter focuses mainly on T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Asana revival- very familiar to many that practice yoga in North America and Europe today.

I offer up that for many yogi’s this book may just be downright disturbing. Towards the end of the book he follows the Krishnamacharya lineage and rather than focusing on all of the descendants of that lineage ( Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, Iyengar, Desikachar etc) he turns his attention more to Pattabhi Jois and the power yoga and Vinyasa yoga cultures that came out of that particular practice. I have heard, and participated in,  many discussions of the Vinyasa method vs the long holds of the Iyengar method.  Mark Singleton brings up a very interesting hypothesis about the speed of Ashtanga yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois. He discusses that the practice in the shala was much slower and postures held much longer than the Ashtanga method that was developed by Pattabhi Jois.  He also goes as far as to postulate that the yoga demonstrations held all over south India under the auspices of the Maharaja ( Krishnamacharya’s sponsor) showcasing the talent of the shala, of which Pattabhi was a key member, were the reason there is a discrepancy between what students recall being taught in the shala versus what became known as Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga.

“The need for a coordinated, high-speed showcase might also explain why, in Jois’s system, postures are usually held only for five ( but up to a maximum of eight) audible “ujjayi” breaths: this would not only allow the models to perfectly synchronize their entry and exit from the pose but would also provide enough time for Krishnamacharya to explain the significance of a posture without taxing the attention of the audience.” ( Singleton, Yoga Body p.195)

While I found this an intriguing argument, I feel that we as the reader are left out of balance slightly because there is no real discussion of the other students that came out of that lineage and who also had significant impact on how we practice yoga today such as B.K.S Iyengar and T.K.V.Desikachar. Why is Iyengar’s yoga  different than Ashtanga? Is Iyengar’s yoga more true to the actual method in the shala at that time? These questions are left unanswered and I feel unsatisfied that equal time and insight were not given to these other students of Krishnamacharya.

The photographs in the book are a marvelous way for the author to back up his arguments- you can see direct correspondence between the European practices at the time and what we now know as yoga postures. I have to admit part of me was a little disappointed to have the mythology ripped away so to speak, but if “yoga” to you means more than the postures on the mat there is a long history to back up the practices of meditation, pranayama and mantra.

Mark’s closing reflections gives us back in some ways, the real power of the posture practice: that physicality can become spiritualized and that spirituality can come into the physical practice. His remarks bring me back to my own yoga practice, which is Anusara yoga, and that Anusara practice always begins with Attitude. If your attitude is that this is a spiritual practice for you than the postural practice will become that- no matter it’s origins.

Though cumbersome to read at times and slightly incomplete and not as fleshed out as I would like it to be as a true historical retracing , I recommend Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body to any serious student of yoga.

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How to Breathe on Maui June 3, 2009

Local fishing at Baby beach....

Local fishing at Baby beach....

Yes- I am alive. I have been extremely busy lately and I have been putting my blog last on my to do list. I was supposed to be practicing this morning but I have a weird virus of some type that has left me weak and achy and so rather than sit on the couch I decided to sit at my computer. Lucky you.

Part of my crazy schedule was flying back to back crazy so I could manage a week off work and secretly take my two kids to Maui. They thought their father had left to vacation without them- which he did on my insistence- to Haiku , Maui.  Haiku is located on the north side of the island on the road to Hana and it is a slice of heaven to our family. My husband practices Ashtanga with Nancy Gilgoff when he is there and I usually hang at the Studio Maui if I am practicing Anusara. Yes- we only take yoga vacations….

Because of my flying, we couldn’t take a two week holiday all together so I sent my husband without us. He thought he was going to be alone for two weeks but I spilled the beans to him- and swore him to secrecy- that I was going to surprise the kids and take them to join him during week number two. He was extremely pleased as he misses the kids when they even go for a sleepover! I secretly packed bags for weeks and surreptitiously snatched various vacation items from my unsuspecting children’s rooms. On D-Day ( departure day) I told them we had to drive their Grandma to the airport- which was true- and then we were going out for lunch after I stopped at my airport office. As I parked in the employee lot and got out I asked them if they still wanted to go for lunch. To which they responded with resounding choruses of “YES!!!” I said ” Well we can go for lunch,” I then dramatically pulled a blanket off the suitcases in the back of the truck, “ Or we could go to Maui?”.

I think my son literally stopped breathing. My daughter lit up like a little sun and they both starred at the suitcases. “Mom!!! We are going on the plane? I think I am going to explode!” Words of joy out of a nine year old boy. My daughter couldn’t believe I had everything- she kept asking me if I had her bathing suits. She is five and is going through a stage where she changes every five minutes and gives us a fashion show- her latest one being her swimsuits. In order to keep the secret I had to go out and buy two new ones for the suitcase!

Over to the airport we went and I was so glad as I checked in that my husband carried a cell phone and that I did not keep the trip a surprise from him. Apparently you can’t take your kids on a plane out of the country if you are one parent…you need a letter from the other parent giving permission! Yipes! I made a call my husband who happened to be not far from a fax machine and voila- 30 minutes later we were at the boarding gate. After a lovely flight to Maui- my kids were so good on the plane- we arrived to a very happy husband and father.

I was dissapointed to find out that I would not be doing much yoga with a teacher as Skeeter Tichnor was out of town teaching an immersion, but I made the most of self practice which consisted of many handstands in the playground with my kids. I don’t know if I will ever be able to kick up without a wall or a spot but I have to say I feel much more comfortable on my hands than I used to . There is a familiarity to handstand now that has come over the last few years and I can hold away from the wall now for a while. It really is such a playful and joyous thing to do! Chris managed a daily practice with Nancy which was great. There is lots of yoga on Maui no matter what your style and no matter where you are on the island: the other islands have lots to offer as well.

Practicing on Maui always seems so effortless to me. There is something in the air there that is just conducive to practice. I feel like I can breathe more deeply there. I remember when I was in Maui for an Anusara Immersion with John Friend, he talked about how you could feel the island breathe: the island itself was alive with pulsation. One of the local teachers commented saying ,  “Polynesians call non-Hawaiians  “Haole” -which actually means one who can’t breathe.”   Yup- us white folk really don’t know how to breathe. We rarely breathe deep into our bellys and are breath is short and fast. When the breath slows, we slow, and therefore we get to enjoy the present moment that much more. That’s how I feel on the North side of Maui.

Haiku Heaven- Max and Tracey's

Haiku Heaven- Max and Tracey's

I wanted to tell you about some of our favorite places on the North side if you ever give Maui a visit. First of all is Max and Tracy’s place. Our little studio cottage that is home on Maui is one of two studios you can rent year round. The property is beautiful with 180 degree view of the water. There is an abundance of fruit trees on the property and they always have a basket of what’s in season waiting for you when you arrive. Lychee was just about in season when we left but my son managed to find a few ripe ones to try. The avacados, apple bananas, mangos and oranges are some of my families favorites. You might have to compete with Buttercup, the golden lab, for ripe bananas. My kids call her a banana retriver and she is our rent a dog on Maui. If you really want to get a feel for what it’s like to be a local check it out: ludwig@maui.net.

We do most of our shopping in Paia town which is down the road a few miles. Mana Foods is a local legend and all your organic, health, specialty foods can be found there. I recommend buying the cotton shopping bag which doubles as a great beach bag/purse. Most of the saleable fruit from the property we stay at goes to Manna so they really help support the local farmers. Support them during your stay.DSCN2073

We always pick up a few shorts and T’s and sandals when we are in Maui and our favorite place by far to buy these things is the Hana Highway Surf . They carry all your basic beach needs and they have really great t-shirts with their logos on them. My husband and son love their hoodies.  Jud and Kelly Lau, the husband and wife that own it are really welcoming and Uncle Squidy- the owners uncle and local surf legend- has wave reports for Maui at (808) 871-NALU ( 6258).His absolutely hilarious advertisment on local radio is what sent us searching for them many years ago.

We tend to make our own dinner but there is nothing better than breakfast after primary series in the morning so check out Colleen’s in the Haiku Cannery Market near the Studio Maui. The french toast and fresh squeezed OJ is to die for…

Colleen's in Haiku french toast

Colleen's in Haiku french toast

Swimming and beaches on the North side are limited. The far west side of Baldwin Beach is located close to the residential area of Spreklesville and contains a small lagoon- perfect for family swimming without the shore breaking waves. The locals call it baby beach.  Of course famous Ho’okipa Beach is located on the North side just past Paia near the equally famous- and expensive- Mama’s Fish House. Hanging out at Ho’okipa during a good wind is a real North shore experience- some of the best windsurfers, kite surfers, and just plain old surfers are there all day for free entertainment. It really is amazing to see the talent and althleticism out in the water.

My son investigating the reef at Baby Beach

My son investigating the reef at Baby Beach

 If the weather is wet on the North side- which it often is- we suggest driving down into Makena area and checking out the beach  in front of the Maui Prince Hotel. It is a public beach with washrooms and a shower and the waves are great for boogie boarding. We do not recommend swimming at Big Beach in Makena with children. The wave break is very high and very close to shore and in water no higher than your knees you could be picked up and dashed into the sand. People with broken bones are taken off the beach daily. The locals call Big Beach “ Killer Beach” for a reason.

Having a yoga vacation on Maui dosen’t have to cost you a lot and it really is a fabulous place to practice.

I am looking forward to going back to Maui in September to study with John Friend andRam Dass. Let’s hope I get accepted and if I do I promise to blog during the training!!

 

The House of Yoga and Zen March 17, 2008

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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.