Aug '08 Workshop

Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty at Vara Healing Arts
By Dan Shuman


“Don’t be afraid to work on the basics,” said Chuck Miller as he adjusted me in Parsvakonasana. I was, in his words, distorting the spine to look at the hand of the extended arm. “Dristi is a point of focus for the mind – in the end it doesn’t really matter where you look. There isn’t some psychokinetic energy created between the eye and the hand.”

And so it went for four wonderful days with Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty at Vara Healing Arts in Albany, California. Chuck and Maty are senior teachers of Ashtanga who have practiced in the area of three decades, and they bring a burning enthusiasm to share the insights they have made. As a relatively new practitioner, I was amazed that most of the roughly 30+ group was composed mainly of seasoned and accomplished students, many of whom were teachers themselves.

There were four morning Mysore-style classes. As I was staying with friends in San Francisco, this meant waking around 5 am to make the drive out of the city. While typically there is a range – for instance, the teacher is there over 2 hours and you can show up some time within that framework – I didn’t want to miss anything. It was worth showing up on time to catch Chuck’s opening words before the mantra.

“Sama – like the words it sounds like in English. Same, evenness. Stitihi – like the words it sounds like – stillness.” Finding the samastitihi of each asana was a constant during the workshop. As the vibrations of the opening mantra dissipated into the room, Chuck urged us to let he or Maty know about any difficulties or injuries we might be experiencing.

About halfway through the first surya namaskar I got to meet the legendary Maty Ezraty. Don’t let her diminutive frame fool you. It didn’t take long to realize I was in the presence of one of the most fiery and intense teachers of – well, anything – that I’d ever experienced. Systematically and with precision she dissected my downward dog. She suggested many changes and intermittently reinforced them throughout practice.

On the second day, Maty went in depth with me on Ardha Badha Padmottanasana. Having dealt with a certain degree of medial knee pain throughout the year [see last month's article "On yer knees"], she was adamant that I take modifications. “I had to work too hard on you in Parsvakonasana today,” which was an indication, among other things, that my hips weren’t quite up for the task of padmasana in its full expression yet.

Maty’s prerequisites for the full pose, which ultimately has one standing on one leg, binding half lotus with the other and bending forward, were threefold for me. She had me begin in Tree Pose or Vrksanana – focusing on using the buttocks muscles to open the hip (“NOT THE KNEE!!). The next step was to stand holding one shin with the arms underneath and the foot flexed. The third step was a standing half-lotus with the hands cradling the foot underneath. Maty explained that the distinction was very important as we wanted to encourage a subtle downward rotation of the shinbone.

A very strict teacher, she was still encouraging. “I have no doubt that you will have a beautiful half-lotus. But the hips need to catch up.” Maty explained that if the knee has to lift to allow you to bind in the full pose, you aren’t ready yet.

“But what do I do about the seated version of the pose? Or Marychiasana B?” I said.

“Ask me when you get there.”

She made good on her word and spent lots of time getting me into Ardha Badda Padma Pachimottanasana. My tendency to round the lumbar spine in Dandasana was critical to address, and she observed that my hips were distorting to accommodate the half-lotus to some extent. I was told to, again hold the shinbone from below, then take a gentle half-lotus with a block under the knee of the bent leg. Eventually the knee would naturally make its way to the floor.

After assisting me in "Mari B" with another related variation, Maty said she had hip homework for me after practice. But that wasn’t before I was lead through an Iyengar-inspired Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) on blankets with a belt around the arms, and headstand at the wall with a block towards the shoulders

During the Mysore classes it was difficult not to listen to the feedback Chuck and Maty were giving other students. Very specific orders were laid out for using props in many of the second series postures – which a good many (if not the majority of students) were working on to some degree. Throughout, Chuck shared his aesthetic and philosophical viewpoints on practicing Ashtanga and what it meant to him.

“This practice is not physical exercise. It’s about training the mind.”

I also noticed that Chuck and Maty spent a lot of time on fundamentals – even with very advanced students. When I mentioned to Chuck that I played and taught music, he said, “Then you already know how to practice.” Refining the most basic aspects of musicianship is what I keep returning to, and fundamentals are what really give the practice of yoga integrity and strength.

To complement the morning practices, Chuck and Maty also lead 3 evening workshops. The first focused on inversions. Maty used mechanisms of Downard Dog to emphasize the action of the shoulders during inversions, and then we spent a good deal of time approaching handstands, forearm stands and headstands at the wall. The second evening was focused on backbending – which Chuck said was a rather inappropriate name for what was really happening. A better way to think of it is front-stretching. The room was boiling with perspiration as practitioners of all levels worked there way through apparently simple modified postures that required incredibly demanding muscular effort. Three hours later, I wondered how I would survive the next mornings class – but somehow I actually felt really great. The sort of inner work on the asanas that we were learning was largely protective – Chuck related it to a bandha.

The final workshop was focused on forward bends and twists. Chuck and Maty lead us through a sort of modified version of the standing sequence from Primary Series (which lasted roughly 2 hours). Holding common poses and breaking them down in this way was both difficult and fascinating. We then explored the forward bends on the floor – employing endless detail to poses like Janu Sirsasana. Admittedly, by the time Chuck lead us through Pranayama, I was completely exhausted.

In the end, during savasana, Chuck urged us to not only own our injuries, but to release them. The underlying theme of both Chuck and Maty’s teaching seems to be to practice ahimsa with vigilance within our own practice so that it might be realized in every aspect of our lives.

That’s something to work on till next year...



Dan Shuman is a freelance musician based in Brooklyn, NY.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Dristi is a point of focus for the mind – in the end it doesn’t really matter where you look. There isn’t some psychokinetic energy created between the eye and the hand."

Actually, there is an energy created by looking in a specific direction with the eyes, and it is directed through the brain, although I think the word Chuck was looking for is not really psychokinetic - from psychokinesis - to move an object with the use of the mind alone.

The eyes and the nose are the two places that form a direct link to the brain by virtue of a direct link of brain cells that connect them. This link grows in the early stages of an embryo's development, after the spinal cord has neared completion, and they are the only places that the brain cells link directly to. It is interesting that the yogis somehow came across the use of gazing at the tip of the nose in order to encourage a quieting of the mind.

From the eyes to the tip of the fingers, and to each point of the nine dristhis, there is a connection that does indeed open energetic pathways. The nadi system locates different glands and nerves that are stimulated by gazing and grasping different body parts. For example, the big toe, which is grasped in padangushtasana etc., is one of the seats of the pineal gland, known by the yogis as the third eye. Behind the navel is the kandasthana, the seat of all the 72,000. It is also the area referred to as the 'second brain'. Gazing here, and doing such asanas as Mayurasana, bring energy to the area.

The thumb has important symbolic meaning too, as the Supreme Self is side to dwell in the cave of the heart as the size of ones thumb - this is spoken of in the Purusha Sukta and Narayana Sukta, and quoted often by Guruji. When doing rituals, the different deities are placed upon ones body, and upon each finger, in a preparatory sequence called 'nyasa' (add a vi- before it and what do you get?).

The placement of the deities is not random, neither are the different purifications, neither are the nadis. It actually does make a difference where you look, for the eyes will bring us away from our practice, or embodied deeper into it, and by all measures, Guruji and the ancients are looking for us to move inward with our vision.

living mysore said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for commenting. That was very interesting!
Why "anonymous"?


Elise

Anonymous said...

oh, why not?

living mysore said...

Because you have a lot of interesting information, but I think that as a student I like to know as much reference info as possible. Who is this person giving me information? Where is the information coming from? What is the primary source? etc. S'pose it's my nerdy side speaking :)

Elise

[s] said...

What Anonymous says is wise and informative.

Nonetheless, "in the end" ---at least in pratyahara as expressed by Guruji--Wherever you look, there is only God. So Chuck is not incorrect either.

Admittedly I'm more often in the realm that Anon is talkin' 'bout. When I look at my toe, I never remember God; nor had it occurred to me that bigtoe is my long forgotten, all seeing eyeball.

But now I understand why when I suck my thumb, I become completely "self" conscious. Thanks, Anon! Juicy, sinewy thoughtfulness for mind to chew on.... Yum.

Go figger. The beings one meets in visionary realms (like the interwebs), they seldom leave reliable contact information.

%^)

Dan said...

"The eyes and the nose are the two places that form a direct link to the brain by virtue of a direct link of brain cells that connect them. This link grows in the early stages of an embryo's development, after the spinal cord has neared completion, and they are the only places that the brain cells link directly to. It is interesting that the yogis somehow came across the use of gazing at the tip of the nose in order to encourage a quieting of the mind. "

Nice one, anonymous. What if you have to 'distort your spine' in order to gaze towards the palm in Parsvakonasana? I'm asking you, not 'Guruji and the ancients' - which, by the way, has a very interesting ring to it. What ancients do you mean exactly? The ones that practiced sequences of asana that there is no documented evidence existed prior to the 20th century?
Does Krischnamacharya factor into that lineage, Yogic-Anon? Here's a reference for you to explore/contest: p.96 in T.V. Desikachar's "Heart of Yoga": Krischnamacharya is pictured in Parsvakonasana gazing at the ARMPIT, not the HAND. This is precisely the way Chuck told me to do it.
There is a reasonable amount of historical documentation on Krischnamacharya's teaching, and that of his exponents. It's clear to anyone how much he refined his approach and tailored it to the individual.
I'm impressed by your knowledge of ayurvedic principles. What about gross anatomic ones? Or are they secondary? How many people have you injured with that approach?