by Cara Jepson
"I'm not here to talk you through the first series," David Swenson told us. "If you wanted to do that, you could have had Suddha plug in the tv and pop in my first series video. Afterward you could have mailed your questions to me in Texas." His joke set the tone for David's N.U. Yoga Center-sponsored ashtanga workshop in January. The weekend-long intensive was a cheerful potpourri of nuts-and-bolts instruction, energetic encouragement, partner exercises, lively conversation and, yes, plenty of yoga humor. David began practicing yoga with his brother when he was 13. He was introduced to ashtanga in 1973 by David Williams, and first studied with K. Pattabhi Jois when he came to the US in 1975. David has been to the Ashtanga Research Center in Mysore countless times, and had plenty of Pattabhi-isms to share. When asked about the merits of the increasingly difficult ashtanga series, he said (in guruji's accent), "First series, very important. Second series somewhat important. Third series-only for demonstration. The workshop began with a Q and A in which we discussed the foundations of the ashtanga system, including ujjayi pranayama. "The breath acts as an indicator or barometer of your practice," David explained, and demonstrated marichyasana A. First he scrunched up his face and snorted loudly, straining his chin toward his shin; then he relaxed into the pose and breathed inaudibly. "The lights are on but no one's home," he said after the second example. "They're day-shopping. This happens a lot with people who are very flexible. "The three bandhas, or locks, are also integral to the practice of ashtanga yoga.
He compared them to energy valves. Uddiyana bandha is a contraction three inches below the navel. Jalandhara bandha is achieved by tucking the chin into the notch in the collarbone. "Where's the mula bandha?" he asked, and then answered his own question. "As a Brazilian woman at one of my workshops said, 'It's in front of the anus and behind the vegetables". "But it's more subtle than gross muscles," he added after the laughter died down. "And unfortunately you can't see mula bandha unless you practice at one of those nude yoga clubs." "Locks are like 'Star Trek.' They start to de-materialize at the end of the inhale, and re-materialize at the exhale. They should be there throughout the practice, but the reality is that they come and they go." As his first teacher, David Williams, told him, "Real yoga is what you can't see. It's invisible." "Otherwise you would have to tell people with physical limitations that they can't do yoga," David said. "Yoga is about union. You can't exclude people. "You don't have to do this to do yoga," he said, and placed a foot behind his head. "If you're not flexible, don't worry-there will always be someone with more flexibility, more strength, better hair. He explained the "physics of flight," or how to "float" through vinyasa. The key is to remember the locks, use the gaze and propel the hips and sit-bones upward. "Your legs will follow," he assured us. Then we broke into groups to practice. He showed us variations for each pose in the primary series, including vinyasa. "If you skip vinyasa, concentrate on breath. If you miss one, it's not like there isn't another one coming. There's a Vinnie around every corner, waiting for you." Then he began to sing and march across the stage. "Vinyasa is the way to go! / Jump on back and feel the flow / Upward dog and downward too / Take your feet and jump on through." He showed us adjustments for many of the poses, and revealed a number of secrets, such as how to come up from upavistha konasana (grab the big toes, lean forward and push the legs down before lifting the head and pulling up the feet). One of the more unusual exercises was "Seven Suns," or seven versions of surya namaskara A. We did it quickly (to free the mind), slowly (to cultivate consciousness), with eyes closed (to develop an internal awareness) and with our breath in sync with the other students (to deepen the breathing). We also scrutinized another student's salutation (to bring a more critical eye to our own practice) and talked our partner through the process (for depth of understanding) . Finally, we combined them to discover the "essence" of the sequence. At one point, David was asked whether the fast-paced, trial-and-error nature of ashtanga is compatible with the alignment-based Iyengar system. There are more similarities than differences, he said. The Iyengar style is like a photograph, while ashtanga is many images being pulled through a movie projector. "In ashtanga you see the whole thing. In Iyengar you see the detail in each photo. "Ashtanga is more about energy than creating the perfect shape. The level of alignment I like to see is enough that injury is not likely to occur." He advised against yoga cross-training. "If you combine both, you could lose the best aspects of each. But you should not be frightened of other systems of yoga. I'm not a traveling ashtanga evangelist. This just happens to be the system I have fallen in love with. "It may be monotonous, because it's a sequence, but it has a purpose. It addresses everyone's weaknesses and strengths." Another question, about his long-awaited practice manual, revealed that it should be available in the spring. David is also working on a second book, which will cover ashtanga, the Mysore experience and the different series. He said he plans to include pictures of "a variety of different bodies" in each pose, and will soon be seeking photo submissions. "Yoga is not just me doing the asanas. I want to show the full range of body type, age, strength, flexibility and color. Ashtanga is for everyone, but the poses don't look the same on every body. "Real yoga lives in everyday interactions, like being nice. It's the unity we can create around us. If it were just about gymnastics, then Olympic medalists would be swamis and gurus. "
David Swenson is an organizer of the upcoming Second Southwest Yoga Conference in Austin, TX. He can be reached at Ashtanga Yoga Productions; 3350 Hwy. 6, #194; Sugar Land, TX 77478; (281) 980-4241. His web site is at ashtangayoganet.com
Cara Jepsen is a free-lance journalist and yoga instructor at N.U. Yoga Center.