Yoga Practice

AYC ’13: Nancy Gilgoff’s How I was taught

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When Guruji taught Nancy in 1973, there were quite a few postures that were skipped or done in a different order. He also didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the bandhas because if you set up the body correctly, bandhas happen automatically. This could also have been due to the language barrier as Guruji did not know much English when Nancy and David Williams first went to Mysore.

She did note that the version she was given did not apply exactly to David. Nancy had a very weak nervous system, and Guruji literally moved her limbs to put her into a posture and then unwound her before putting her into the next. While he was winding and unwinding her, he had David do vinyasas between all postures.

Overall, some of the changes were pretty subtle to the version I learned. And many of them made the practice a little easier by requiring less external muscle.

Some general differences:

  • In downward dog and forward folds, the head is tucked a bit more so that the chin is reaching closer to the chest and the spine curves a little. This automatically engages uddiyana bandha. I noticed that immediately. It also takes some of the strain off the hamstrings, which I personally appreciate when I’m not fully warmed up yet.
  • No extra preparatory postures or gestures. No need to stretch your hamstring before a hamstring-stretching posture already built into the sequence. Nancy kind of laughed at everyone’s weird little “fidgets” and ticks. She said that Guruji wouldn’t have given you time to dawdle. Each breath has a specific movement or purpose as part of the series, and Guruji would count each breath and you do the practice.
  • Inhales and exhales are meant to be the same length, but each breath shouldn’t be controlled. Breathe with your natural pace of breath. Nancy said, “If you’re afraid [of a posture], breathe fast.”

Specific series differences:

  • Only 3 surya A and 3 surya B.
  • Lift arms straight up for sun salutations and not out – especially good for people with rotator cuff issues.
  • Shorten stance in downward dog to get heels to touch floor.
  • No twisted/reverse versions of trikonasana (triangle) and utthita parsvokanasana.
  • In prasarita padottanasana versions, head touches the ground.
  • Between prasarita padottanasana versions, no extra breaths to take arms out; just come up and go into the next version.
  • One-legged standing balances were moved toward the end of primary.
  • Skip vinyasas between different sides of seated postures.
  • In janu sirsasana A, the heel of the bent leg meets the top of the thigh of the bent leg, so the knee goes out wider than 90 degrees.
  • In janu sirsasana C, the heel should be lined up to meet uddiyana bandha when going into the fold, not pressing into the thigh; this is a direct reminder of uddiyana bandha.
  • In marichiyasana versions, the foot of the bent leg should line up with the hip joint, not wider or closer.
  • Only 3 navasanas. (Woohoo!)
  • In kurmasana, the arms go out to the sides, not back to make an X.
  • In supta padangusthasana, you turn the head at the same time as taking the foot to the side. You can see your neighbor’s foot coming toward you this way. Same with the standing version.
  • For the balanced forward folds, you go directly from holding toes to holding feet; no vinyasa between.
  • No backbend, shoulderstand or headstand until after the intermediate series. The reason for no backbend in primary is because there’s so much forward folding; why would you throw in a full back bend right at the end? Second series has a lot of back bending to warm up the spine.
  • In padmasana, always get into it right leg first.

With the original way Nancy was taught, the primary series only took about 45-55 minutes at a normal breathing pace. At the same time, the breath builds heat, so there didn’t seem to be a need to stretch it out to 90 minutes.

I think I’ll be adapting Nancy’s old school version for my home practice and pieces of it when I’m in a group setting. Her way is less daunting than the 90 minute full version I was used to.

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