In January this year, all of the teachers at Ashtanga Yoga Asheville took some time to be students and do some svadhyaya (study). Christine and Jared attended a Yoga and Science conference and Jonathan spent some time practicing with Manju Jois (son of Pattabhi Jois). Read on for a summary of what we learned.
Yoga and Science Conference
Eddie Stern, long-time Ashtanga practitioner and coordinator of Ashtanga Yoga New York, hosted a second conference on the topic of ‘Yoga and Science’ in January this year. Jared and I attended the conference and this year and it was fantastic!
Nine scientists presented the results of their research on various aspects of yoga. Researchers discussed research on asana practice as well as pranayama and meditation practice. Topics ranged from benefits of yoga on the nervous system and the cardio system to the potential for yoga to reduce stress and increase the experience of compassion. An over-arching theme to many of the presentations given by the scientists was the importance of the breath in practice and the highly positive effect that slow, even breathing has on the nervous system. If you’re interested in learning more about the individual scientists and their presentations, you can find more details here: http://yogaandscience.org/2019-conference/
I also had a special opportunity to contribute to the conference presentations! I’m one of four members of a science team headed by my teacher, David Keil, which is conducting research into what practitioners are actually experiencing in their yoga practice. I presented a poster summarizing the relationships between the way in which students do an Ashtanga practice and the benefits that they experience. It was exciting! It was not surprising that our results showed that those who practice consistently (5-6 days per week) experience more benefits than those who practice less often.
Aside from the fact that the Yoga and Science conference was simply full of fascinating discoveries about yoga, it was very encouraging to me to see yoga embraced within the science community. If we are to continue to see yoga practices evolve into the most effective tools they can be, and if we want to see these tools embraced by the mainstream medical and health professions, then science must be part of the picture.
Here are Jonathan’s notes from the Manju Jois workshop:
Manju Jois: Teaching Primary(1st) and Intermediate(2nd) Series Some of you may know that I went to my once beautiful hometown of Palm City to participate in two Yoga workshops. The workshops were two five day trainings on how to teach and assist. First five days are focused on the Primary Series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and second on Second Series. Makes sense so far. One Yoga Planet in Fort Pierce hosted the workshop and becomes the main studio for Manju’s workshops in the future.
The drive every day to the studio was a relaxing tour along the shore of the intracoastal waterway. No traffic and bird friends to sore with on the way up and down. It’s about a half hour drive to the studio and I didn’t know I would enjoy it so much. Better said, the way I thought I had to drive to get there I wasn’t looking forward to. I thought traffic and traffic lights or the highway. So wrong I was. Thankfully my mother enlightened me about another option. Only a short trip up US 1 then onto the back roads that bring me to Indian River Dr. A slow speed limit but no lights and no traffic. And the view like I mentioned. I miss the water. I miss the saltwater. Growing up here I told myself and others that I hated it but now looking back growing up here was a grand time. Special time. With a pleasant drive, temperatures in the 60’s, and tunes turned up loud the workshop begins and ends.
Everyday arriving in the little, I’m sure “historical,” downtown. A sparse main drag like an abandoned mining town. The free parking is in the multi-level cement garage just on the other sides of railroad tracks down from the studio. An easy walk to the studio and the workshop. Tall ceiling, large colorful not my taste paintings cover the walls, warm, and a super friendly greeter. Students wait on their mats while others arrive and pick out their spot before I can remember what I’m supposed to do when I come to a studio. Sign my life away on the waiver. Sign in on the workshop attendance sheet. Spin in circles. Put my shit in a cubby. Spin in circles. Wonder if I should ask for a toilet or look around for one. I spot the sign. Shorts replace pants and I join the rest of the eager beavers on the mats. I take a second gander at the wall art. My eye lids shut and I sit quiet. The beginning of each day.
Opening mantra. Call and response. “Om.” Let’s workshop. Wait. Why are people Surya Namaskaring? Everyone is. Are we practicing first? Mysore before the workshop? I guess I’ll just practice till I’m told different. Maybe I should have read the workshop email better. I bring myself through first series. A wondrous experience. I was not expecting to practice this morning and planned on trying to get up early the next several days to practice before heading to the workshop. Don’t have to do that. We’ll be practicing first thing before the workshop every day. Starting the day with practice is a joy when it starts at 9. It releases me of burdens that I want to hold onto, so I suffer. Don’t ask me why I want that. The day seems clearer after practice, freer. Warm, close, and not to wet. The temperature is near perfection. I could probably wear the shorts I practiced in tomorrow. For practicing in Florida that’s an amazing feat. In fact…I’m not going to practice in them but for workshopping they’re fine. That was not always the case with each new day.
The workshop focused on hands-on assists for most of the asanas in 1st and second series. From the standing sequence to a cow’s face. Padangusthasana till gomukhasana B. “What about Surya Namaskar?,” you ask. That’s yours. That’s your “prayer.” Time to bring one’s self to practice. No assistance necessary. Of course, the teacher still teaches the movement, breath, and focus of the Sun Salutation but this time is for the practitioner to come to practice. Set their intention. Worship the Sun. No need to bother them with your hands and feet. Let them find a center for the days practice. Let them be. Hands can help when padangusthasana starts. The hand becomes a focus. Manju brings the warmth of the palm into the assist. Manju brings the three great goddesses that reside in the hand to the assist. Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Govinda directing the direction of the spine with a massage up the strong muscles of the back.
First finding evenness and stability with a pull that might be a little strong for someone blind to ashtanga. The strength used differs between each student. Everyone is going to be different. The stiff get a lot out of a little and the long term practitioners change throughout their life time of practice. A bit of awareness must be had when going into a physical assist. This is helping people not doing all I can to put them into a position I think “correct.” It is moving them to a position suitable and helpful for them. Secure the student in their asana. Move their spine in the direction the asana asks. And keep the student clear of threat. There’s more. Hands push hips one way. Legs help the student’s balance. Simple movements remind the student to give up on holding shoulders so tight. An arm around the ribs helps twist. Hold. Be a steady point. A reliable pillar. In the end the student needs to feel secure. Needs to feel assisted not assaulted. It needs intention not tentative limp fingers that show no direction.
Simple, if the student’s discomfort grows inside them that they need to escape the asana an assist can help. The assist can make it worse. “Pain is not gain. Pain is pain,” Manju said. The assists he showed on his helper are the end points of each assist. There’s a whole spectrum of points until then. Between being there for the student and placing your body weight unto them. The teacher needs to know how far a student can be assisted. Which is why hands-on assist can work in ashtanga. During a Mysore class the teacher and student build a relationship. They learn about each other so no harmed comes. Each learning. Each bringing their messages to the yoga world. Which is our world. The workshop was great. I love Florida. I don’t like that it is slowly being covered by concrete.
Ashtanga is not just asana and Manju does many things that make people like him but that’s okay. He tries to not hurt anyone and tries to make it so we don’t either. Yoga is a lifelong process. Multiple lives long process. We’re in it together. We are just yoga messengers spreading what we have learned, heard, to others. We try with all that we can to keep it safe, fun, and doable.