When the announcement went out that this Ashtanga Yoga Confluence would be the last, I knew – I could not miss this rare gift.* Nor should you. And so I’ve put these notes together, the special gems I took away, for you to enjoy. And later, we will share with you highlights from the second panel discussion through an episode of the Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast. You can look for this in the beginning of summer. But in the meantime, I hope you will enjoy the following bits of wisdom and insight from this year’s brilliant teachers: Dena Kingsberg, Richard Freeman, Mary Taylor, Manju Jois, David Swenson, and Tim Feldmann.
Giants in our Midst
It was Tim Feldmann who first referred his fellow Confluence teachers as Giants. One got the feeling that even (Little?) Tim felt a bit awed to be sitting amongst these revered individuals.
And yet, you can’t find one of them on Instagram. They’re not much for Facebook or any of the other media outlets out there, either. In fact, they seem to prefer more old-school ways of teaching – in person and in much smaller groups over the fanfare of online yoga celebredom we have today. Each steeped with many years of study and experience, they often still looked more interested in what each other had to say than anxious to speak, themselves. And when it did come their turn to speak, was it just me or did each appear ever so slightly awkward handling the microphone, as if they’d had such little practice?
In fact, sitting in the audience, it occurred to me how relatively indistinguishable each one was from the general public. No one peeking in would’ve seen the Giants Tim described through his IG account. No doubt, they certainly don’t see themselves that way.
Yet, when they spoke, there it was. Gigantic love and wisdom coupled with giant-sized doses of bravery and humility.
And why we DO look up to them. Because they inspire bigger things within us all.
What they did not do, however, was make my job of bringing you these highlights any easier. It was ALL so good. First, to be in such gifted and caring hands each morning, then to sit and listen to them speak for hours every afternoon. Oh, and then the workshops. No way my blog (or any) will ever do it justice. I’ve been trying for two weeks to put this together in a way that’s comprehensive and complete. And with every attempt, I fail.
Still, all I have is my experience – this is the filter in which I report to you. And I know full well that this is only what I was able to perceive and digest at this point and time in my life. I am sure I will look back upon my notes next year with new eyes and new ideas. Because what you’re also reading is my process and my journey. So I’ll ask you to keep that in mind and save space for my filter as you move through, while also saving space for your own, as well.
With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin, shall we?
Do Your Practice and All is Coming.
Jessica Walden (not to be confused with Patricia Walden, which apparently, some did) was the moderator for all the panel discussions. We did a podcast once – maybe you remember it? After listening to her present questions and keep the dialogue flowing, I’m pretty sure she could/should very well have her OWN podcast!
The first question was each teacher’s interpretation of the oft-repeated quote, Practice and all is coming.
Dena Kingsberg began with the bad news … all apparently really does mean, all. As in the good, the bad, and the ugly. Richard Freeman concurs, reminding us that the halāhala of our morning chant is the toxic sludge that came when a bunch of gods and demons got together to churn the ocean to make nectar. They did get nectar, but first came the sludge – the poisonous illusion of mistaking the material as real. “The nectar and the sludge,” Richard said. “It’s here and you’re tasting it.”
Though I found some solace in something else Dena said:
“Sometimes we might want to interpret ‘all is coming’ being a deep internal clarity and wisdom. But it says, ‘all is coming’ – not all has arrived yet. So until such time as this absolute wisdom, knowledge, and clarity arrives, it’s ok if we don’t know.”
But also …
Truth changes with information.
Someone asked if the teachers had ever experienced doubt and if so, how did they handle. As pervasive and complicated an emotion as doubt is, the answer is really quite simple. In fact, Manju Jois says doubt is not a problem at all if you keep in mind one thing:
The yoga has no expectations. It happens spontaneously, right? People say, ‘I’ve been practicing this yoga for 20 years, seems like I’m getting nowhere. And I say, ‘Where you trying to get? You’re already there, don’t you realize?’
David Swenson agrees:
There’s no expectation so there’s nothing to doubt. It’s just a practice. If I don’t do it, life is harder. If I do it, it’s easier. So I do it. But I don’t have an expectation for it. I practice because it makes me feel good.
Of course, Richard Freeman takes a slight turn with his definition and therefore admits he does indeed, doubt. Like he sometimes “doubts whether grabbing his big toe is a worthwhile goal … ”
I swear, sometimes when Richard would say something and I would have no idea if he was joking and whether to laugh. Other times, the humor, usually in irony, would only hit me later. But here, there was no joke. For he goes on and explains that doubt is part of the process of vicara – or keeping the mind sharp and open:
Doubting is good in the sense of inquiring or really looking with such curiosity and keenness that you realize, temporary, partial conclusions are interesting but it’s not the whole thing.
One young man stood to ask how one combines the alignment intelligence from Iyengar yoga with the Ashtanga yoga method. I was grateful when, after spending an entire month with Dena being hyper-vigilant of my foot position in a backbend, she spoke up: “I’d like to think I have some idea about alignment.” And believe me, she does.
David made light (no pun intended) of the differences in terms of learning to ride a bike. You can have month-long and year-long studies into bicycle mechanics, foot-to-pedal placement, velocity and physics (I’m improvising his words here) … “or we come here and we get bicycles, big fat tires, get you a helmet, some pads and we take you out to that beautiful grass, put you on and give you a little push.”
Though it was Richard he eventually redirected his question to because apparently, Richard’s been teaching ‘Ashtangar’ for years:
But then again, my definition of either system is probably very different from anyone else’s definition. I just love the Ashtanga vinyasa method because of its very clear continuous focus on the middle path – which is sushumna nadi. Breath by breath, movement by movement, step – or by step, I mean vinyasa by vinyasa. But I don’t see a conflict. But because we are human beings, we tend to reduce the system to something it isn’t, really. We say that’s what the system is – it’s A B C D, it’s this, this, this. And because we’re idolaters by nature, we make idols and we completely miss the point. So then you get fundamentalists in every camp. And it’ll never make sense for one fundamentalist to agree with another fundamentalist.
I’d love to tell you the student was as heartened with that answer as I was. But he wasn’t. He brought it up again on Day 3, though this time in a much more antagonistic way. I was a bit frustrated by his attempt to create drama where there wasn’t any. But instead of becoming frustrated as I was, the teachers on the panel became thoughtful and inquisitive. They learned more about the student and the experience he was drawing his anger from. They listened. They were patient and kind. And in those moments, I learned more from watching their reactions (or non-reactions) than in listening to their words.
Are more advanced series, complicated and sometimes ridiculous asana, really necessary? A fair question. Dena offers her two cents in her typical straightforward, no-bullshit-kind-of-way (which I kind of like):
You need to go as far as you need to go. From my experience, you want to continue until such time as you fall over – either literally or metaphorically too. Until you hit something that shows you yourself. Something other than, ‘Look what I can do.’ So now, I can’t do. Now, how do I feel?
Tim Feldmann chimes in, including his experience with injury – something we talked about in great length, in our podcast last year.
Diet and Alcohol
What to eat? Booze or no? Manju weighs in first saying he doesn’t suggest anyone do anything right away and especially in the west where most of us have grown up eating meat. And if you try to quit everything immediately, this will cause problems. He says the longer you practice, the more sensitive you become to everything (something I can attest to – ice cream, I’m talking to you!) and thus slowly you’ll end up changing your diet. Or not.
Somehow, beer yoga and even goat yoga make their way into the conversation (blame David Swenson). Not sure about the goats but David’s reaction to yoga in a brewery is “Wow. Ok. So this is going to be like the new yoga drinking game? You surround your mat with shot glasses and do a sun salutation?” (We all laugh).
Mind you, David’s never had a drink in his life. No drugs either. So he spent the 70’s being designated driver to all his friends. He mused, “People thought I was a narcotics agent because I’d go to parties and just watch people.” (We laugh harder). Seriously though, David says:
This whole thing of what you should eat and what you should drink – honestly? It’s not the duty of the teacher to tell you that stuff. I think Manju made that clear. It’s really a personal journey. You practice, you become more sensitive of what you put in your body and you make the choices – it’s ok. Some people can function putting things in their body that others can’t and it’s an experiment, you know? Try it out.
Lists and Lineage
Lets just say, with all the scuttlebutt out there about this one, the subject was inevitable. Something we simply had to talk about. I mean, the timing alone! Like, just one month before the Confluence, suddenly all the certified teachers (including the ones sitting before us) went missing from the KPJAYI list. Tim, the sole authorized teacher, found himself at one point, the only one officially listed (on the internet). Then, a few weeks go by and Dena’s name reappears while others are put on some new honorary list. Except now, it’s not under KPJAYI but through Sharath’s NEW website and list.
Seriously, it’s just a whole freaking bizarre chain of actions. And I’m still not clear on who, why, or wtf. But this I can tell you – for the first time in my Ashtanga career, I’m grateful not to have a horse in this race. But this is a clear point where you see, not everything about these teachers is Giant. As in, certainly not their egos.
Manju tells us to, Stop worrying about the list and get on with your life.
David exclaims with wide eyes, There’s a list? (He’s never been on it)
It’s Dena who admits a piece of truth we all suspect: Yes of course your heart breaks a bit. And like all things in life, it makes us question. But she says, we must keep it all in perspective:
A teacher requires three things: A teacher requires firstly, a teacher. Secondly, a practice. And thirdly, to care about people.
And so –
Your teacher is your teacher, whether it’s in print or not in print. Your student is your student if you have a relationship together.
Everyone agrees, ‘the list’ is not important and does not make a teacher. So what is important? Family. Lineage. And so then, a necessary distinction is then made between ‘the list’ and a lineage as the two are not at all the same. Lineage is not a bloodline. As David says, Lineage is organic. There is integrity, a beauty, an energy, and a relationship. And this is why all of them sitting there who have dedicated themselves to this system are also each a bit different.
Richard picks it up from there explaining that it takes more than one to make a line. In fact, you need at least two to get started.
And from there, off Richard went (as Mary shook her head) into a curious story of a monk in a dark alley that, strangely enough, I have no doubt was true. Though speaking of dark alleys, there’s one we still need to walk down ourselves …
Allegations of Abuse
I could feel myself squirm a bit when the subject of adjustments and Pattabhi Jois was brought up on Day 1. Though why? Because I had already tied a neat little bow presented around my thoughts and now just wished it would all go away? This really made me take a look at myself. Was I uncomfortable for them – or for me?
Yet as with everything else that weekend, not one of these teachers shied away from any real challenges – the halāhala. All means all. Because to get to the nectar, as they reminded us in the start, we must first taste the sludge.
Jessica read the question:
There were a few questions regarding how each of the teachers are dealing with the allegations of inappropriate adjustments from Pattabhi Jois – and whether or not there have been open discussions on the topic with your students. Also have there been any contact with victims? And finally, how can we as a community give people that have had these experiences justice and presence as a community? How can we lend support? She reminds us (or maybe just me), It’s a sensitive subject but it’s good. Because it’s better to talk about these things than not.
Mary Taylor begins the dialogue. Of course, not just during that panel discussion – but it’s one she started months ago when she wrote a blog, trying to makes sense of what went on. Especially as, Mary explains, these assists were done in yoga classes, where lots of people were, and where various strong and physical assists are done all the time. But you see, there was this undercurrent out there that no one wanted to talk about it and that there was a cover up – which Mary assures us, has never been true. Definitely confusing and difficult, especially for those who knew Pattabhi Jois, worked with him for long periods of time, and loved him. Love him still. Still, something Mary wanted made very clear:
If someone feels abused, it is not that they felt abused. They are abused. And that is a very important thing to recognize.
Since Mary’s blog, she has been in continuous contact with one of the victims. When I think of how brave both these two women are to have opened themselves up and shared themselves with each other over such an emotionally charged experience – I feel like there’s hope for me too. For us all. And it starts, as Mary says, by listening:
And so in a way, this whole thing that blew up is a tremendous opportunity for that form of growth within the system of yoga. For us to be a system that really is one that is authentic.