Sunday, January 22, 2012

The use of cheat sheets in learning primary series

Yesterday morning, I went to my friends Derek's and Brenda's studio in downtown Fargo for Saturday morning mysore. I did full primary. I observe that my left knee seems to be getting better: Over the last few days, I have discovered a way to get into half-lotus and lotus with little to no discomfort. But I need to remind myself to go slow with these things. The knee is a tricky creature.

Being somebody who practices mostly at home, I can definitely feel the difference between home and shala/studio practice. When I practice in a studio/shala, my pace almost always picks up. Yesterday, for instance, I got through full primary in about an hour and twenty minutes. Which is nothing to write home about, considering that Sharath's led is, what, an hour and five minutes? But it's still at least ten minutes shorter than my usual home primary series practice.

As I was practicing at the studio yesterday, I also noticed something interesting, despite my best efforts to maintain drishti (it seems that I am not doing very well in this department lately, both in the cybershala and in "real" life :-)): I noticed that most of the people practicing around me yesterday were still learning the primary series. Quite a few were looking at "cheat sheets" placed next to their mats. Which is cool; I think we should all use whatever method works for us when learning. But there's also a part of me that can't help feeling that it must be pretty disruptive to the flow and rhythm to be bending or squatting over to look at a piece of paper every couple of postures.

Which made me reflect on my own learning experience: How did I learn the primary series back when I first started practicing Ashtanga? I attended my first mysore class in the summer of 2007 on Maui, at Nancy Gilgoff's studio (House of Yoga and Zen). At that time, I had just completed Eddie Modestini's and Nicki Doane's three week asana intensive at their Maui studio. After the intensive ended, I spent a couple more days on Maui, and then spent a few more days in Honolulu visiting a friend. I used those last couple of days on Maui to do some yoga tourism, and decided to visit the legendary Nancy Gilgoff's studio. Nancy was away teaching a workshop in Europe, and one of her assistants was teaching the class. I didn't know the order of the primary series at that time, although I was familiar with the individual postures from my own Iyengar-inspired practice. The teacher was very kind, and simply kept standing around and telling me what the next posture was. So, in a space of a couple of days at Nancy's studio, I had gotten a pretty good idea of the order of the postures in primary, even if I did not get the exact order down.

And then I went to Honolulu. During the few days I was there, I went to mysore every morning at Purple Yoga. Again, the teacher there was very nice, and very kindly told me what the next posture was when my memory failed me. Since I didn't have very much to do in Honolulu during those few days, I would spend part of the afternoon at a nearby bookstore, where I found a book on Ashtanga yoga. I can't remember who the author of that book was now, but with the help of that book, I succeeded in memorizing the postures in the primary series, so that by the time I left Honolulu a few days later, I had the primary series down pat. I guess it also helps that I am quite good at visualizing things in my head and committing them to memory in this way.

Because of my rather unique learning experience as detailed above, I had the good fortune of never having to use cheat sheets when I first started learning Ashtanga. But what I saw yesterday got me thinking about how it must be like for many other people who are beginning their journey of Ashtanga yoga practice.

As I haven't really been to that many shalas, I really don't know what the norm is at different shalas for beginners who are learning the primary series. Is it "normal" for beginners to learn by looking at cheat sheets? I have heard stories of certain teachers who discourage the use of cheat sheets, but I'm not sure if these teachers are the norm or the exception. So maybe I'll leave you with a few questions here:

(1) If you practice at a shala (or used to), is it common for beginning students there to use cheat sheets to learn the primary series?

(2) What is your teacher/s's policy on the use of such cheat sheets?

(3) Do you have any personal opinion on the use of cheat sheets? Did you learn primary using cheat sheets?

As always, I'll love to hear what you have to say.            


  1. Hi Nobel,

    Since I'm dealing with my own knee issue at the moment I'm curious to know in what way you're getting in to half lotus or lotus and not pissing off your knee? Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated :)

    At our school it's okay to use "cheat sheets" if one feels that there's a need for that. It's not very common but sometimes I see students new to mysore style who are using the sheets and I thinks it's fine. Our school organizes lots of courses for different levels of practice and one of the courses is an introduction to mysore style practice. I think Marichyasana C is the last asana taught during that course. The rest of the series is taught by the teacher in a mysore room, when one is ready. I'm guessing most students attend that introductory course before going on to mysore style and after the course most of them probably feel that they know the series well enough not to need the sheet. I myself started mysore practice after one such course and never felt the need to use a sheet :)

    1. Hello Linda,
      "Since I'm dealing with my own knee issue at the moment I'm curious to know in what way you're getting in to half lotus or lotus and not pissing off your knee?"

      My general strategy is to work on lengthening/stretching the quads and adductors while engaging the external rotators at the same time. In order to do this, I am doing some hip-opening work outside of the practice. Specifically, before I begin my practice in the morning, I spend about 20 to 30 breaths in a modified version of Baddha Konasana: Instead of bringing my feet all the way to my groin, I bring my feet together about a forearm's length away from my groin (does this make sense)?

      After this modified Baddha Konasana, I then move into a more regular Baddha Konasana, by bringing the feet closer to the groin. I also hold this posture for about 20 to 30 breaths. I have found that doing both these versions of Baddha Konasana really help to lengthen the adductors while engaging the external rotators.

      After doing these two versions of Baddha Konasana, I then do what is commonly called Double Pigeon (aka Firelog). I hold this pose on both sides for about 20 to 30 breaths. I have found this pose to be very useful for getting into the external rotators, especially the gluteus medius.

      So before I even start the practice, I have already spent like 20 minutes to half an hour doing hip-opening postures :-) Pretty time-consuming, but I think it is worth the work. When getting into half-lotus and lotus postures, I try my best to move into the postures slowly, using the action of the hip rotators and the adductors to guide the feet into the posture rather than simply pulling the feet into the posture. I often take at least two or three extra breaths to slowly work into the posture. I also try my best not to be too attached to the idea of needing to get deep into the posture. Whatever variation of the posture I can get into is fine.

      The general idea is to progressively open the muscles around the knee (adductors, quadriceps and external rotators) and in so doing, create the conditions for the knee to heal itself. I learnt this strategy from communicating with a senior teacher who healed himself from a knee injury some years ago using a similar strategy. This strategy takes time (it took this teacher 2 to 3 years before he healed himself completely), but well, good things usually take time, right? :-) After all, when all is said and done, only your body can heal itself. We are here to try not to get in its way. :-)

      There are also lots of factors outside the practice that may piss off the knee (sleep, diet, how much walking and standing one is doing in a day, emotions, even the weather). I don't have that much control over all these things, but I try my best.

      Whew! This reply is like a blog post in itself. I hope you find all this to be helpful in some way or other :-)

    2. Oh, and thank you for sharing how new students learn primary series at your shala. Yes, I think it is really useful to have an introduction to Mysore style practice type course for new students. It serves as a nice transition from led primary to mysore.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Accidentally replied using another account than the one used above so thought I'd try to avoid to confuse you and delete the comment and re-post using the first account. Didn't realize "remains" of the first comment would stick. And now the other account won't work.. :)

      Anyway, thank you for your reply. The Baddha Konasana variations and Double Pigeon does sound like very good preparatory poses to do before the practice. I'm sure that doing those would help me too in opening up the hips. Got to try to work some of that into my daily routine :)

    5. Sorry you had to go through all this trouble just to post a reply. Actually, I didn't have any trouble "recognizing" you :-)

      Good luck with opening the hips. I guess injuries are good in this way: They help us to appreciate the process of the practice more, and to surrender to the process.

  2. Hi Nobel,

    Well you've provided a very structured template to respond to so here I go.

    At Darby's there are cheat sheets with little drawings. Some people use what I call Darby's Primary Series Flyer as they go through the postures. My sense is that these visual aids are only allowed at the beginning, when you first begin to practice. Eventually Darby will take them away.

    At one shala in Halifax there are cheat sheets, while at the other there aren't. It seems that there is less talking at the studio with cheat sheets. And it seems to be only a temporary tool. At the studio without cheat sheets, I think the idea is that then the student really has to internalize the posture and perhaps he or she has a better chance of remembering it long term.

    As for my opinion on cheat sheets, I'm actually teaching afternoon Mysore classes these days. Ha. A real trip. There aren't very many people at all so it is easy to show people the postures whenever they get confused. I think they appreciate the individualized attention. But I can see how it could become difficult to ensure that everyone is following the sequence correctly if there are say 50 people in the room. When it is a student's first time doing Mysore and/or Ashtanga, I like to show him or her Sharath's poster that shows him going through primary and intermediate. Just to give them an idea of the practice's structure and direction, and perhaps also to instill a small sense of wonder and excitement.

    Thanks for the post, again.

    Take care, Erica.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Erica. Are Darby's drawings little stick-men? I think I've seen some people practice with such drawings before. They're pretty cute :-) I also see people practicing with xeroxes of David Swenson's practice manual. I think it is true that without cheat sheets, the student has to really memorize and then internalize the sequence. But I suppose it is up to the student who is using the cheat sheet to decide for himself or herself when it is time to "let go" of the cheat sheets.

    In my teacher's shala in Milwaukee, Sharath's primary and intermediate poster is also on the wall. I think this is very motivating and inspiring for students :-)

  4. Hi there!
    ...sending you some Florida sunshine up there in the cold north as we seem to have some extra to share this week! I can't say what the norm is as far as "cheat sheets", as I just haven't been to that many studios. In my studio though, I take them away if students bring them...and so does my teacher in his studio and when he's traveling to teach Mysore. I feel like the "cheat sheets" pull the student's attention away from breath and general body awareness, which reduces the "depth" of their experience and increases their chances for injury. I restrict the number of new students that come to Mysore on any particular night so that I can cue them as needed and I stop them when they reach a point in the sequence when they really lose the thread of the poses. This tends to encourage them to make a committment to practice rather than a reliance on cheat sheets....not the stance that everyone would take, I know ;) ...but works for me

    1. Hello Christine,
      thank you for the Florida sunshine :-) It is always welcome, although the last couple of days here haven't been too cold (somewhere in the 20s). There's also a lot of dry, powdery snow, which is actually kind of nice.

      Yes, I see what you say when you say that the cheat sheets can pull people's attention away from breath and body awareness. I had the same feeling today when I saw people in the studio looking at the sheets every couple of postures. I like how you seem to be teaching Mysore the old-school way (i.e. restricting the number of students).

  5. Hi Nobel,

    I asked Swenson his opinion on the use of cheat sheets in a mysore environment, and he said essentially what you stated: whatever works. I learned the series at home with his book, but studied the sequence beforehand so I wouldn't need to disrupt the flow so much. Like you, it only took a few practices to get the series in my head. It helps to think of the asanas as existing in "families," rather than as individual postures.

    1. Hello Megan,

      Yes, I think it does really help to think of the asanas as existing in families, and of one family coming in after another has "left" :-) Thanks for sharing.

  6. When attended my very first Ashtanga workshop with Kino, the studio owner has these laminated cheat sheets! I was so happy. Although, I do remember her saying to keep it sort of out of the way as Kino was not fond of them I guess:) I really did not rely on them in that particular class, my drishti was looking at everyone else and following suit, I had a very helpful practitioner next to me:) BUT, I did use that sheet and Swenson's book to learn it full on, same with 2nd.
    When I teach, I do not offer sheets(which I have) unless the student is really having a hard time or wants to cultivate a home practice, which I encourage. I am all in favour of cheat sheets when needed:)
    Really? Sharath goes thru Primary in 65 min? Wholly CRAP! Whew! That's awesome.

    1. Thanks for sharing, JayaK. Do you teach brand-new students by demonstrating the postures (since they probably won't know the Sanskrit names of postures) or just by giving verbal instructions?

      Yes, Sharath's led primary CD is 65 minutes. Very precise vinyasa count. And I hear that is the same pace he uses in Mysore too.

  7. you know, that's right! DUH! I have that CD, but I never timed it:) If memory serves, I recall he only does 3A's and definitely 3B's:) I must revisit that, maybe this Friday:)
    As far as brand new students, like today for instance, a 50+ yr old woman an little rotund but very flexible....i had a packed class of 7:) so it was easier as i had many different levels to point out, I do however demo when necessary(come next to them and show them) but mostly I do the verbal. If it's a private student, depending on their situation, I may demo more. Ya know Nobel, I find that people rely too much on the visual, it doesn't give them the chance to go within which is the true practice. 99% of my students do not have a home practice, but they come everyday, so they get used to the way I cue(it's led not mysore, if only:)) the next asana, and like I said......practice sheets are available if need be:) just to put the bug in your ear.....I'm thinking about, thinking about going to Mysore.....maybe August/September/October...only for a month, may bring my daughter as she will be 18! whoa! did i just say that!?

    1. I'm very sure that Sharath does 3Bs. I think he still does 5 As, but I cannot be 100% certain of this, as it's been a while since I did his led CD.

      Yes, many students do seem to rely too much visual. Maybe the thing to do is to demo the first couple of times, and then just tell them what to do verbally after that. There will probably be a "weaning" period, where they will stare at you expectantly (expecting you to demo the posture) as you give the verbal cue (at least, this is what happened with my class), but once they get the idea that no demo is forthcoming, then they will do the posture themselves. But I'm sure you are already familiar with this phenomenon...

      Very interesting. I am also thinking about (I am really emphasizing the *thinking* part) going to Mysore this summer, if I can work things out (probably July/August). So maybe, just maybe, you may see me in Mysore? :-)

  8. Something to really get you head around huh?:) Let's practice that "Moon Mind" eh? Very beautiful.