Sunday, 6 December 2009

Finally, a post about David Swenson's workshops...Flying floating & handstanding.

Last week I took 4 workshops with the fabulous David Swenson and was dying to blog about it while it was all fresh in my mind, but life had other ideas for me last week and I haven't had a moment until now. Or more accurately, I have had moments but chose instead to spend them procrastinating instead of getting on with least now it's been a week the post is likely to be a bit less epic (who was I kidding?!)!

Day 1, workshop 1: Flying, Floating + Handstanding: A Fun-filled exploration of Vinyasa and Arm-balances

One of the greatest challenges of the Ashtanga flow is the vinyasa. In this class David will break the vinyasa down into its components. He likes to refer to this as: “The Physics of Flight”. The class will also explore the elements of handstands and arm-balances. This will all be done through the avenue of partner work. There is always plenty of laughter and fun as well as a depth of information in this class. All levels may attend even if you have never done a handstand before. Alternatives are always given.

First thought - handstands, what the hell was I thinking?? Given my well-documented problems with headstands this seemed a little like trying to climb everest having once tried a climbing wall. I was also pretty put off by the idea of partner-work, but the fear of this was eliminated as I was at the workshop with Sam who I met on twitter (@dottyTeaKettle) - we had egged eachother on to book it via twitter and then met for real at the yoga show in October. Thank you Sam, for helping to make the workshop more fun, less terrifying and for being a great partner :)
Second thought - David Swenson, OH MY GOD. I was quite overwhelmed with the idea of this incredible yogi (whose book is my practice bible) being my teacher for the next two days, but having seen some things on youtube of his conferences (as well as his awesome practice of course) meant that I knew vaguely what to expect. As anyone who has ever had the chance to study with Mr Swenson will tell you, he is really very funny. I'm sure us ashtangis are probably an easy crowd, but halfway through this first class I'd laughed enough that I could have been at a comedy show. Of course this also put everyone at their ease, which with the subject matter of the workshop was a good idea.
He kicks off the class asking if anybody has any questions - interesting to do this at the beginning. So we had some discussion about finding time to practice, and he talked about his short forms (which he was careful to say he does not call ashtanga) and joked that the question seemed like a plant as he then told us he has not one but two new DVDs coming out - one with 6 different 20 minutes short forms, and a new primary series which he was just editing in Paris last week. Of course the series hasn't changed but I think he just wanted to update the DVD with a newer version. He also talked about a lady in a workshop once who told him she had found a good answer to the question of finding time and motivation to practice: she had given herself permission to consider it her yoga practice if she took her mat down from the shelf, unrolled it, stood in tadasana and took one breath, rolled her mat back up, and put it back on the shelf. Of course, she never only took one breath, but in allowing herself to do this she got on her mat more often.
David then spoke about how he had never once regretted a practice, but had regretted not practicing (I've heard him talk about this before) but he went on to joke about how our brain knows this but thinks "Maybe today will be the day you do regret practicing," and how we have to continually trick our brains to allow us to get on the mat. He talked about setting realistic goals, and how setting unrealistic goals will just leave you frustrated. Of course I know all of this, and try to integrate it, but sometimes I can't help but get frustrated with myself when I don't get out of bed and onto my mat.
Then somebody asked how do we overcome the fear of doing handstands - quick answer: don't sign up for a handstand workshop. Cue nervous laughter. From the start of the class it became clear that we were split between the gung-ho yogis dying to get up on their hands and the rather more reluctant & fearful ones wondering what they had let themselves in for. He talked then about fear, using an example of his wife being afraid to learn to drive - having lived in NYC she'd had no need, but once they moved to Texas people get in their car to pick up the mail from the end of their drive (I quote). Nobody could understand why she didn't just learn to drive, they all said "there's nothing to be scared of, everybody does it.." but you can't just tell somebody to not be scared. Whether we share the exact same fear of something with others is irrelevant, the fear is very real to us. When his wife found a driving instructor who asked "What is your fear?" her answer was that when she was 15 her father had crashed his car into a tree and died. So the instructor said "I am going to teach you to not crash into a tree." Of course with handstands we're not scared of standing on our hands, we are actually scared of not standing on our hands (so, falling).
He went on to define a handstand. Of course we're all thinking of the moneyshot, the upsidedown posture which he beautifully demonstrated, but he was at pains to point out that a handstand is any time when your weight is on your hands - so it is first encountered when jumping back/forwards in the sun salutations. You could sense some of the Type A personalities chomping at the bit as we went through the stages of jumping through, practicing tranferring weight between our feet and hands, working with a partner for a "turbo assist" (aka grab ass-ana!) but I know I was grateful that the very scary stuff wasn't that prominent for the bulk of the class.
We got some great tips about jumping through, about crossing the legs at mid calf, flexing the feet and making yourself as narrow as possible to enable you to jump through. Also think about the ramps that skateboarders use and picture the arc - in other words aim to swing a lot higher and further beyond where you really need to be to get that momentum. For jumping back he talked about using opposition of forces (more on this later - it was the topic of workshop two), leaning forward to swing back, and he also talked about pushing down to enable you to lift up (makes perfect sense in handtstands but also in other balances).Another point he heavily emphasised was with any balances putting your awareness into the point of contact with the floor. This is something I rarely do as I am wobbling away in UHP or attempting a headstand, all of my concentration is on the wobbling and none on the stability of my standing leg. But of all of the information on jumping back the most important point was this:
There are no rewards for jumping back! You will not get a communique from Mysore the day you do it, your kids will not tidy their rooms, you will not become a better or nicer person just because you can jump-back!
His point of course was that people attach self worth to these things, and as he put it: "It's only yoga!" Whether you can jump-through or not will not affect your progression as a yogi, and just because somebody else can jump-through doesn't necessarily mean they have their bandha engaged, they might just be doing it - he gave us a very funny demo of what he calls the Archer - a particular body-type who jumps through with straight legs using a combination of flexibility, strength and a sense of adventure - fundamentally they just fling themselves at it and hope for the best. My favourite part by far was when he had us all in downdog recite "I am a good person!" before we attempted it - and lo & behold my resulting jumpthrough was the best one I did! I don't think that was his point really but who cares, it worked!
I'm sure you're wondering if I'll ever get on to the handstands...well, the point is, the bulk of the two and a half hour workshop was spent on these elements (the floating and vinyasa elements) with the full-on handstanding probably only taking half an hour at the end (maybe less). Of course the fear was still there through the rest of the class, but it became clear that David Swenson has a very clever way of teaching scary stuff. It goes like this. Be wondefully funny and warm to put everyone at their ease. Tell yoga jokes. Break everything down into tiny pieces and build it up slowly so that before they know it, people are doing the thing that scares them most.
Stage 1: Each pair partnered with another twosome and he demo-ed the handstand, using three helpers, one student. Helper #1 acts as the wall (with their back to the student) and helpers #2 and #3 stand either side. Student goes into downdog, helpers lift up the student's legs from the pelvis, the wall grabs the student's ankles and gives them a lift upwards. Helpers 2 & 3 keep hold of the student at either side, one hand in front of the leg and one behind. When you're ready, wall lets go of the ankles and helpers take the legs down. (actually it might be that the helpers let go either side but stayed near, with the wall still holding the student's legs - or that might have been stage 2 & what I've written as part 2 was really part 3...anyway you get the idea).
Stage 2: Start off as above, then when the legs are up, the wall turns to face the student, makes a fist and puts it between the student's thighs, pushing up under their arm with the other hand so that there is a strong upwards force in the wall's arm. Helpers let go of the legs. Student is doing bloody terrifying handstand without realising it.
Stage 3: As stage 1, then the wall bends their legs, takes the whole body weight of the student, straightens legs and sways from side to side ("like a lizard on a rock" - this was the flying part and would supposedly feel really nice).
Stage 1 was terrifying in propsect but actually completely fine in practice.When we had the demo I nearly asked a question about what to do if our arms weren't strong enough, but when you are being assisted like this it doesn't matter. It was pretty amazing to realise that we could do this, even coming from a place of total fear as I was. I wasn't quite ready to try stage 2 (although my wall did turn and do the fist I still had the helpers holding either side too) but stage 3 was where it went a bit wrong. Because I'm tall I couldn't just let my arms swing, and I had a hard time trusting that I was safe swinging about like this. Worse though was when I was the swinger (so to speak!!) - the person I was lifting was fairly heavy in frame compared to me and while we were doing it she was screaming that my shoulder was really pointy, so David came over to see what was going on, and was saying "straighten your legs!!" to me, while I was saying "sorry sorry sorry.." freaking out while she screamed on about my pointy shoulder. It was all a bit traumatic (the man from the book told me off!) though of course I am dramatising....
So in essence that was workshop one, and if you're still reading then you have the stamina of an ashtangi. More installments to come, whether you like it or not!!


  1. Um sounds a bit like my hit and hope jump through, though "Kiki" told me once that in Mysore the jumping back and forth is just a means of getting there and its western teachers who are turning it into a floaty art form.

    Bhujapidasana will soon be yours.

  2. Thought I'd commented on this already. Wanted to thank you for this long, detailed post. Always wanted to go to Swenson's flying workshop, back when I was obsessed with the jump back. Tried booking it one year but it was full. So many many thanks for this Mel.

  3. Grim I don't think I know how to do anything other than long detailed posts! I did actually think of you when I took the workshop then remembered that you are of course a jumpback/handstand supremo so why would you need it?! One of the other funny things he said was that when he tells people it doesn't actually matter if you can jump back or not they say "You're just saying that because you can do it". Then again, if he gave the same advice but he couldn't do it himself, they'd say "You're only saying that because you can't do it" - so it's no win! that sort of sums up this practice for me, your teacher will on the one hand be pointing out things you could work on, or are doing 'wrong' and when you ask what to do about it they often tell you just to let go of it. Mind you when Susan was covering at YP last Sunday she came and asked me if I could jump back and forth as I had been skipping the jumpbacks, so it doesn't go un-noticed...! (wanted to say I was jumping forward though Susan and was rather pleased with the floatiness!!)

  4. Nothing is ever missed at YP, Cary and Susan seem to see everything! Though Susan hasn't perfected "The Look" yet that Cary has :-)

  5. Looking forward to the 'long detailed' India posts then. When are you going, had to read about it on Susan's blog, what's the Plan? how long for?????
    Nice bit on the Kino podcast about the jump though that I link to on my post today (the first one) Quite funny. Oh and the 3rd one I think is her talking about her first trip to India. really worth listening to. very down to earth about Ashtanga and her own practice.

  6. Thanks for the Kino tip! Kevin has been recommending these two so I really must check them out - need to replace my ipod first though, I managed to break 2 in the space of 10 days and am currently without! I've been so busy I've got really behind on all my blog-reading, I'm looking forward to a giant catch-up once I head to my parents' for Christmas.
    I'm going back to Purple Valley in Goa on 1st January, can't quite belive it's so soon that I leave! I'll be there for 2 weeks studying with Noah Williams. I'm in two minds about posting while I'm in India, one of my favourite things last time I was there was the absence of technology, but we'll see. I think I'd probably get a lot out of writing down my experiences so that I can refer to it later, so I might start off blogging and see how I go! :)

  7. We want to read all about India as it happens, writing it down as you go will mean remembering more of the little things, you will remember the big things like cracking Bhujapidasana!

  8. Be very interested to hear about Noah Williams, don't hear so much about him these days. You could take notes of course and then blog about it when you get back.

  9. interesting you say that Grimm, was Noah Williams once talked about a lot morw? I only know of him via Jeff & Harmony (the teachers I met in Goa in March) who highly recommended him. I mentioned to Cary that I was going to practice with him when she had just told me how excited she was to be going to study with the most advanced ashtangi after Sharath (Mark Yeo) and she said he is the second most advanced...I can't remember who commented "I didn't know there was a list" - I love yoga humour!! I wonder where you'd come G?!