Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Confluence 2012, post 1: When a great tree falls

We arrived back in Gainesville last night after 10 hours of hopping around the country. The Ashtanga Yoga Confluence was an incredible experience. I thought that maybe I would take notes and write nightly summaries of the events, but felt that maybe it would take away from my experience. I was happy to sit back and soak it in. Thus, I did not write down the discussions verbatum and anything I summarize here is just paraphrasing. Each of the five senior teachers (Nancy Gilgoff, Richard Freeman, Tim Miller, Eddie Stern, David Swenson) would've been worth traveling for in their own right, but the combination of them was just so special. They listened intently to one another, laughed until tears, nodded, and rode on each other's insights and stories. And each of them is so articulate and funny in their own way, I could've listened to the panel discussions for weeks. David Swenson is a walking joke reel and Eddie Stern is lightening-fast with those quips. Yes, the Confluence was greater than the sum of its parts.

The first panel discussion began with a mixture of personal stories about Guruji. Each of the senior teachers developed a personal relationship with him, a human being with good days and bad days and who expressed his emotions genuinely. Richard Freeman described this as a "childlike innocence". He enjoyed going to Disneyland when in California (Tim has a photo of Guruji and Micky Mouse entitled "my two gurus"). Freeman was present for Guruji's first experience with snow. Common threads emerged: Pattabhi Jois was a man that loved teaching- it was his life's work and Amma would catch him counting in his sleep. He would've continued teaching even if he never saw monetary rewards from it (said by David Swenson- all senior teachers nodded in agreement). He was a man that radiated joy and contentment. He maintained his sense of curiosity and would not hesitate to travel- but he wanted his family with him and missed Amma too much when they were apart.

On the future of Ashtanga Yoga:

David Swenson invited the room to imagine Guruji as a very large and powerful tree in the forest. This tree had a magnetic pull on all of the inhabitants of the forest, and for years, people would find peace and comfort under the shade of its great branches. It became a gathering place- a hub of activity and source of strength. One day, the great tree was no longer there, creating an enormous void. What happens now that the landscape is no longer the same? Where do people gather? While it is normal for the forest inhabitants to feel sadness at this enormous void, Swenson asked us to think about what happens when such a space opens up. The opening created by the canopy of the great tree allows sunlight to stream into the forest. Young seedlings, the new generation of teachers and practitioners, receive this warmth and light and may flourish. He emphasizes later that the seedlings will only flourish and become healthy if the ground is fertile. 

Eddie Stern added that Guruji's whole "style" was very informal and unorganized, and that this method of teaching is still transmitted through the present-day Ashtanga community. In the old days, Guruji would invite students into his home, preferring to teach small batches of students at a time. This fostered a closeness between teacher and student and a sense of family and community. Ashtanga continues to spread in this manner- small town by small town, small shala by small shala- and that there is a certain purity in it. Though Stern states that he is not criticizing any of the other 'schools' of yoga, he wonders if what keeps Ashtanga out of trouble, in the corruption sense, is in its grassroots nature - its inherent lack of organization. Perhaps others can chime in on possible interpretations of this conversation, but I got a "keep it simple, keep it pure" message from it.  

One thing that seemed obvious from the Confluence was that the Ashtanga Community is alive and well.

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