Making It Feel Good: Adventures in Astanga Yoga with David Williams (2)
In November of 2013, I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to study for two days with world-renowned Astanga yoga teacher, David Williams. Now, I hesitate to write the adjective “world-renowned” because after spending some time with him, I realised that in his humility he would not want to be characterised as such. Nevertheless, there is much “truth-in-advertising” in this line, since David is credited with being the person responsible for taking Astanga yoga out of India, into the west, having been a direct student of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, and indeed, after two days of teachings and reminiscing about his yoga life and journey, he truly can be called one of the yoga pioneers of the West.
I have never really considered Astanga to be my yoga practise for a number of reasons; I started yoga rather late, in my thirties and when I finally got around to falling in love with flow, with 17 years of yoga practise, my more- than-middle-aged-body, my birthed-three-children-body, in all its scoliotic, injury-ridden glory, was not really as up to the practise (or so I experienced every time I attended Astanga workshops or classes, coming out of it amazed, exhilarated by the power of the body, but also carrying a few new injuries from the practise that needed a few months of intensive care at the chiropractor). I don’t blame anyone for these injuries or limitations, certainly it could have been my error or perhaps the teachers but as the line in the song goes, I don’t look back in anger; as my Sensei Paul Grilley teaches us “Every yoga pose is bad for somebody. Everyone’s anatomy and history are unique, and this means that each pose affects each person differently. Usually the difference is trivial, but it can sometimes be significant and harmful. Do not become fixated on “mastering a pose.” The poses are meant to be therapeutic, not to challenge your pride. Some poses may be uncomfortable but result in a healthy response, but other poses might just be bad for you.”
With my age has come new limitations to doing certain yoga poses, but at the same time, with it has come an acceptance of my own anatomical limitations as well a wisdom to know when to go for something and when to pull back, to know what is more important to me: the momentary pride in finally achieving a more challenging pose that may push me to (or over) my physical brink, or the choice to have longevity in my daily yoga practice, to be able to stay healthy so that I can get on the mat everyday and do yoga and still be able to teach yoga to others without injuries to myself (and to my students). You could say it was pride over wisdom sometimes and in my youth, the choice of pride was very seductive. As I now face the prospect of having lived for half a century (yes I can see 50 years on my horizon this year), the ego really mellows out to be replaced with an acceptance of what is, and an ability to find joy and contentment in very small and simple things and poses. To be able to wake up every day; to be able to meditate in deep peace, quiet and stillness daily; to be able to practice yoga that flows and fills me and brings me into a place where there is no past or future and all the waves that they bring, just a place that is content, peaceful and now.
So this is a long-winded way of saying that the last thing on my mind was to attend a workshop with a famous Astanga teacher together with other “crack” astangis in attendance whilst here I was, the injured non-astangi. And I would have to hobble there with my latest knee injury that prevented me from knee flexion and weight loading of the right knee joint. Hesitant because of this, I spoke to David Williams beforehand via telephone and he was so kind as to invite me to come despite my knee injury, saying “It will be fun.” Well, he had me at FUN. Who can resist the promise of fun from a famous yoga teacher no less. On the telephone he seemed so much more relaxed than most Astanga teachers I had met in the past. So, sold from his pep talk, off I went to the workshops.
I arrived with an open mind, quite excited to have the opportunity to learn from a teacher with so much experience and wisdom. It was a very nice and small group of yogis in attendance, perhaps 20-25 people max, so we could really interact with the Master.
Much of the afternoon was spent sitting around David in a circle, whilst he recounted his story of yoga, his experiences, learning from Sri K. Pattabhi Jois himself. To say that his lecture was fascinating is to do David an injustice. His life story is so unique and filled with so many one-of-a-kind occurrences that could fill an entire book. Nevertheless, let me attempt to transcribe here a few of the things he recounted and taught. What follows is a free-form remembering of what he said, as taken from my notes, which I share with the intention of giving others a taste of David’s wonderful teachings. The ideas are not mine and I share them with much respect and deference to Master David Williams:
David started with what he called the History of Yoga. There is still much debate about the exact start date of yoga; as far back as mid third millennium BCE, seals were found in the Indus Valley, with figures in positions that strongly resemble seated yoga asana poses. The Rig Veda was the first “book of yoga”. It dealt with the enduring question, which to this day is still front, and centre in the practise of yoga - the question all yogis are trying to answer; “WHO AM I?” “Yoga is a search for self-realisation & self-knowledge” David says. The term yoga after is often mentioned in the Vedic texts of the Upanishads and then later, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali- which are a collection of writings considered to be the foundation of yoga written by the great sage who lived around 500 & 200 B.C., and of whom not much is known. Patanjali attempted to create a description of yoga practices and a system; he strove to systematise and unify the process of yoga, hence the 8 Limbs of Yoga. He lifted yoga out of the preponderance of religion of the day, and placed it into the realm of philosophy. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are introduction to the concepts of yoga, but as they were quite light on technique details, “you needed a Guru to translate them”, stated David.
“Guru: from the Sanskrit, “Gu” meaning darkness, “Ru”-light”. As a quick Wikipedia search states: “A traditional etymology of the term "guru" is based on the interplay between darkness and light. The guru is seen as the one who "dispels the darkness of ignorance." In some texts it is described that the syllables gu and ru stand for darkness and light, respectively.
“Be quiet, be still and all your answers will be revealed to you~ this is the Yoga Sutras and they were a set of rules to find out how to do this.”~ David Williams
David touched on the 8 Limbs of Yoga, the Yamas and the Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi.
Recounting his path, David related the many challenges he experienced on his yoga journey, as one of the first few westerners to travel extensively to and through India for long periods of time, searching for yoga. With long arduous trips through India in those days, oftentimes with very little money and very few modern conveniences, David shares a realisation that he had: “It’s not happening to you. It’s happening for you”, on how hardships could be your teacher and make you better - essentially hardship could be a gift of learning. He goes on to share a John Lennon quote that I found particularly striking: “God is a man-made concept by which we measure our pain.” Agree with it or not, it will definitely start you thinking.
David related what he called the 2 phases of Yoga; the first is what he called “Yoga Therapy”. It is all about getting well, getting out of pain, getting our immune system strong. How to get basic wellness. He then went on to speak about what he called called the “Cheap Thrills” of yoga and by cheap he meant, that it truly was cheap because it was free, all you had to do was step on the mat and find your daily yoga practise. He urged us to “follow the feel good” and of all the things David taught us that day, those are the words that resonated with me the most and that have stuck in my mind, my practise and my teaching.
He said that there were 2 kinds of Astanga yogis: those that practise for the adrenaline rush, and those who practised to feel good. And indeed, throughout our time with David, he always asked us as we did asana, to “make it feel good.” It was another way of saying, listen to your body, practise yoga to heal yourself, practise yoga not for your pride but to heal your body and mind, to make it feel good inside and out. And I could not agree with him more. Such teachings from him and my Sensei Paul Grilley have fundamentally changed the way I view and teach yoga. Truly yoga is not a competition, not an ego trip. It’s a personal journey, and it should heal and not harm or hurt oneself or others. First do no harm. Ahimsa.
David went on to share two quotes/ideas that really resonated with me: “The most flexible person is not better than the least flexible person.” And “The greatest yogi is the one who can convert tension and stress to Prana.”
David said that Guruji would say: “Meditation is the state you are in after all the yoga practise.” And I am certain I am not alone amongst all the yogis around the world who can empathise and agree with this statement—one of the reasons why we keep coming back again and again to the mat to find this personal magic with yoga. David said that “in Pranayama practise we begin to hold our breath. Holding the breath works on our minds. The more we breath, inhale, exhale, we get into a meditative state”. Concentration is dualistic, and Samadhi means simply that we are always happy. Then he delivered the zinger: “You are enlightened till you realise you are not happy.” Simple, potentially controversial for some, yet upon reflection, true.
With Pratyahara, we turn the senses inwards upon themselves…and we begin to know ourselves.
Practising yoga asana with David was a revelation. For the first time I practised Astanga and did not feel this pressure to achieve the poses, this limitation of not being physically able to do so, this heavy push to be physically capable of numerous amazing, beautiful yet often out of reach poses for me. Practising with him I felt the joy and magic that yoga gave me on the first day I practised it 17 years ago, and I still feel every day I step on my mat to practise by myself or share with, and teach yoga to others.
As we raised our hands together in Urdhva Vrksasana as a group in our Astanga practice, led by David Williams, he asked us to promise that we would “Practise yoga to make it feel good”, and in that moment I realised how true his words were to what a yoga practise meant to me, regardless of age, ability, anatomical variations. And in turn, I quote & credit him respectfully in my classes and suggest to my students to practise their yoga in the same way. He urges to “Exhale more in order to inhale more: throughout the practise.” David shared with us that he practised via breath, letting it lead him and that he focuses more on the exhalation. I love that, since for me, Yoga is always about the breath, the basic foundation of a yoga asana practise. And for the first time, I finished an Astanga yoga practise feeling light, calm, still and with no pressure or feeling of winning a race. Just simply being.
Thank you David Williams for sharing your life, wisdom and priceless yoga journey with me and the other yogis who came to listen to you on those days. Nothing can replace the wisdom that years of experience, and being sharpened on the stone of life, can give a human being. As we said goodbye, one of his final exhortations stayed on my mind through the ride home: “The greatest yoga is doing that which is appropriate for your body on that day.” And how good it was for my body, mind and spirit to practise with him that day, and the effect continues resonate.
*for more information on David Williams & his yoga teachings, please visit http://www.ashtangayogi.com
Note: where not attributed, all statements in quotation marks are the thoughts and words of David Williams