Saturday, April 30, 2011

A new beginning, and some teaching advice needed

"In all things there are the essentials and the non-essentials.
In all matters there are ends and beginnings.
One who knows the order of these things
Gains proximity to the Way."

Confucius, The Great Learning (my translation)

I would like to share with you something exciting that is happening, and to seek some advice from those of you experienced teachers out here in the cybershala.

This week, I started my own little Ashtanga community here in Moorhead, Minnesota. On Wednesday and yesterday (Friday) evening, I got together with a couple of friends and started teaching them Ashtanga. Neither of them have any prior experience with Ashtanga (one of them attended a few Sivananda classes in India for a couple of weeks), and I am teaching them in the traditional mysore style, one posture at a time. I did not have the benefit of learning Ashtanga this way myself, and would like to help others have the benefit of such an experience.  I'm really excited about this new beginning.

All we did on Wednesday and yesterday evening were 5 Surya As and 5 Surya Bs. That took more than half an hour. Because they were new to yoga, I had to do the postures with them, so that they have a visual to follow. And one of my friends (let's call him D) is quite out of shape, and we had to stop after every couple of Suryas for a couple of minutes so he could catch his breath. All in all, both of them really enjoy doing Ashtanga, and we plan on continuing to do this a couple of times a week. I will also be encouraging them more and more to practice at home by themselves as well: I held off on stressing this aspect of the yoga journey, because I didn't want to intimidate them with too much too soon :-)

D is not very flexible. When he goes into Dwi position in Surya A, for example, he has to bend his knees so much that his butt is touching his heels, and he is basically in a squatting position rather than in a standing forward bend. Here's the dilemma: I can choose to either (1) Get him to use blocks placed at the highest setting, and rest his hands on the blocks so that he can straighten his knees more and get more into his hamstrings, or (2) Get him to bend his knees to whatever degree he needs to in order to get his hands in contact with the mat, in order to facilitate the subsequent transition into chaturanga.

I chose (2), as I decided that it is probably more important to get into the flow of Surya A than worry too much about accessing the hamstrings. Moreover, I figured that with time, his hamstrings and leg muscles should open up enough for him to eventually straighten his knees more. Besides, one problem with using blocks is that since the blocks are set at the highest setting (because of his level of flexibility), they will have to be moved to the side before he can transition into chaturanga, which disrupts the flow of Surya A. He also does not have sufficient upper-body strength at the moment to do the standard chaturanga (which means he needs to bring his knees to the ground first); I feel that having blocks in this situation will only complicate the picture. Which is why I chose (2).

So what's the problem? Well, maybe there is no problem at all: Maybe I'm just not used to seeing somebody with so limited flexibility as to need to go all the way into a squat in Dwi position. Maybe (2) is the best option, given the way things are now. But I'll like to solicit the opinion of those of you who have experience teaching Ashtanga, especially those of you who have experience teaching less flexible people. What would you do? Any feedback you can offer is greatly appreciated.  


  1. Instead of squatting so deep that he lifts his heels, I'd have him bend his knees a bit and place his hands on his knees or shins, for Dve. Then for trini he looks up and for chatvari he can do the squat before stepping back.

  2. Thanks V. This is a good suggestion. I'll keep this in mind.

  3. I learned the 2nd position with my hands on my shins, straight legs. If he is very inflexible he can put his hands on his knees, or as low down as he can go, without rounding the spine. Then inhaling looking up and keeping the hands there, then exhaling into a squat with hands on floor for chaturanga.

    Perhaps it's not so "proper" but at least you don't have to use props, and this way his hamstrings will start to lengthen, and he'll understand the general actions.

  4. I don't teach Ashtanga, per se, but I do teach Ashtanga-inspired Vinyasa and I think you're making the right choice with option 2. Better to stay focused on the breath and let him bend his knees as much as he needs than bust out the blocks and make him feel handicapped (is that word still PC? I don't get out much...).

    It can be jarring working with people with such limited flexibility, but it's a great exercise in compassion and helps us to remember where we came from. Just think: "There, but for the grace of Yoga, go I."

  5. Thanks Stephanie. Yes, I see the value and importance of not rounding the spine. I'll ask him to try this.

  6. Stephanie: :-)

    Megan, I don't know if handicapped is still PC in a yoga setting. I know that it definitely is in golf :-)

    Yes, this definitely is a great exercise in compassion. I have learnt so much just from these two evenings.

  7. I must be te odd one out; I love working with beginners.

  8. Hello V: Actually, I love working with beginners too :-)

  9. Nobel, this is the coolest thing! Have a wonderful time. These students are blessed to have you be the person to plant these seeds.

    Re: dve, when you can, I suggest that it would be useful to ask a professional teacher in person. Get a full primer, with demos. Anyone you trust with lots of experience and training (not necessarily ashtanga) can spend demonstrating how to work a forward bend in different bodies. The limited flexibility can be interesting. It means this student probably can feel his or her body in great detail, and that she or he will see dramatic results. Lots of us couldn't touch our toes at first... sometimes opening the low back and hamstrings is a ton of work, but it will happen. Often, having a clear, large physical challenge at the start can be engaging and inspiring.

  10. Congrats Nobel! I'm so excited for you and your friends/students! As long as they are interested in practicing yoga (especially with an experienced practitioner like yourself), it doesn't matter how stiff or how out of shape they are. It's those who keep saying year after year that they should do yoga to improve their flexibility but never take that first step to attend a yoga class whose flexibility will never actually improve.

  11. Hi Nobel, congratulations, this is fantastic news, they are blessed to have a dedicated person instilling the "traditional" way of learning, you go!, don't think I can add much as most has been said, I also agree with B).

    Love it love it love it that we might soon be having an ashtanga shala in Moorhead... AND, may I suggest, another reason for you to come to Mysore :-) hee hee

  12. Owl, I like the idea of having a teacher with lots of training and experience do a demo. It will definitely be a great way for everyone to get another perspective on the matter, since I mostly teach from my body. I also really like your view that having a clear and large physical challenge can spur growth on so many levels.

    Yyogini, thanks. Yes, I think it's great that my friends have taken the first step on this powerful journey of self-transformation.

    Thanks, Claudia :-). Well, I don't know about an Ashtanga Shala here in Moorhead ("Ashtanga Yoga Moorhead"? "Nobel's Yoga Shala"? :-)), but I agree that this definitely gives a new bite to the Mysore Bug :-)

  13. Nobel, this is so cool. Check your email will you? Have sent you David Swenson's modifications over.

  14. I have an idea about a wonderful vinyasa teacher who is moving to your area this summer, Nobel.

    If you're interested, drop a gmail to insideowl.

  15. Thanks, Owl. Will be in touch with you soon.