Ashtanga Yoga Confluence 2014
con·flu·ence [kon-floo-uhns] noun: A flowing together of two or more streams. An act or process of merging.
Celebrating the Eight-Limbed Path
The 3rd annual Ashtanga Yoga Confluence was held May 8 – 11, 2014 at the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina. The senior western students of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois – Richard Freeman, Dena Kingsberg, Tim Miller, David Swenson, and Pattabhi Jois’ son and student, Manju Jois, – gathered with 335 students from around the world for classes, lectures, stories and events.
Opening Ceremony: Gathering & Ganesh
The Confluence began Thursday evening on a deck overlooking the bay, with a Ganesh Puja performed by Shrikantha Shastri. Known as the Remover of Obstacles, Ganesh is traditionally celebrated at the beginning of special occasions, to encourage the success of the event. The teachers and attendees chanted Ganesh’s Ashtottara Shatanamavali or 108 names and offered prasad (fruits and other sweets) to a bronze sculpture of the elephant-headed deity. A live jazz band, Glen Fischer and Friends, continued the festivities as attendees dined on asian-inspired vegan fare and chatted excitedly about the classes and discussions planned for the next few days.
Day 1: Deities & Down Dogs
Over 200 students gathered the next morning to practice the Primary Series in a prana-filled, led class with Boulder-based teacher, Richard Freeman. Richard has been practicing yoga for almost 50 years and though he principally teaches the Ashtanga Vinyasa method, his other studies, including Buddhism and the Iyengar style of yoga, inform his approach to teaching. Mysore style classes were also offered to attendees, with the unique opportunity to receive hands-on adjustments from several master teachers. An accomplished group of assistant teachers helped with adjustments as well, including Johnny Smith, Mary Taylor, Shelley Washington, Jack Wiseman, Noah Williams, Dominic Corigliano, Leigha Nicole, and Diana Christinson.
The afternoon was highlighted by a panel discussion of the evolution of Ashtanga Yoga in the west. The panel considered how the traditions and practice of Ashtanga Yoga have changed since they first practiced with Pattabhi Jois several decades ago. Tim Miller, who has been studying and teaching for over 30 years, noted that though the vinyasa practice must eventually slow down with age, the aging process is quite compatible with a yoga practice; though the quantity of physical practice may decrease, the quality of intent continues to increase. I have the great fortune to practice with Tim regularly at the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, California and I am continually humbled and inspired by the strength and endurance of his practice.
The discussion was followed by Dr. Manoj Chalam’s lecture, Form & Formless: Hindu/Buddhist Archetypes and Enlightenment. Large and intricate statues of Shiva, Ganesh and Hanuman lined the stage as Dr. Chalam uncovered the hidden symbolism behind these deities and described the benefits of working with these archetypes within a personal yoga practice.
The evening sessions were presented by Dena Kingsberg and David Swenson. Dena’s class focused on the benefits of a consistent practice, especially in relation to breathe work. Dena began practicing with Pattabhi Jois almost 30 years ago and has been teaching since she was certified by him in 1996. David first practiced as a teen with his older brother, yoga teacher Doug Swenson, and began studying with Pattabhi Jois in 1975. David presented techniques for maintaining balance in a variety of fun arm balances and inversions, while entertaining the students with his unique brand of Texas-grown humor.
Day 2: Kula & Kirtan
The Saturday session began with a Primary Series class led by Dena Kingsberg, whose elegant yet intense teaching-style makes her classes among the most anticipated for Confluence attendees who don’t otherwise have the opportunity to practice with the Australian-based teacher. Students were also treated to a second day of Mysore style classes with the rest of the the esteemed senior and assistant teachers.
In the afternoon panel discussion, the senior teachers were invited to explore how the Ashtanga method is directly derived from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Translated literally from Sanskrit as “eight limbs”, the term Ashtanga denotes that the practice incorporates all aspects of yoga, as defined by Patanjali in his ancient and sacred text: morality (Yama), self-purification and study (Niyama), physical practice (Asana), breath control (Pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara), concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana), enlightenment (Samadhi).
I had the opportunity to speak with Richard Freeman at greater length on the topic of eight-limbed yoga and how it works to develop compassion within an individual. According to Richard, by practicing all eight aspects, the student calibrates their sense of perception and is able to “clearly see other beings as the same as You.” Otherwise, he cautions, “yoga becomes a selfish pursuit”.
In between sessions, Yoga Gives Back showed a video on the work they are doing to mobilize the global yoga community to empower women and children in India to build sustainable livelihoods.
Afterward, we enjoyed the break on a grassy lawn in the beautiful San Diego sunshine, playing with some partner yoga poses. My friend Amanda Manfriedi skillfully flipped me around into a variety of inversions and back-bends atop her hands and feet, which was mentally demanding but physically exhilarating.
Later in the afternoon, students were faced with the difficult decision to attend either Richard Freeman’s class on Mulabandha (contracting the muscles between the anus and pubis to create internal support) or Tim’s lecture on using yoga as Sadhana – to cultivate “a strong and agile body, an intelligent and discerning mind and a compassionate and devoted heart”, the qualities exemplified by Hanuman. We all gathered at the end of the sessions to chant along as Tim and his backup band, the Pancha Vayus, performed a lively rendition of the Hanuman Chalisa, a forty verse lyrical celebration of Hanuman’s devotion and greatness.
The evening concluded with a stirring kirtan led by Confluence favorite, Naren.
Day 3: Chaturangas & Chanting
The final day began with a Primary Series class led by Manju Jois and Mysore style practice with the assistance of the senior and assistant teachers. While most students were practicing the Primary and Secondary Series, several advanced students practiced the Third Series, inspiring us with an assortment of challenging poses rarely seen in a typical yoga class setting.
We had the opportunity to delve deeper into chanting with Manju Jois in the afternoon session, where we learned how to use simple Vedic mantras to create vibrations that heal the body and calm the mind.
Following the chanting workshop, Richard Freeman, well-known for his intricate and deeply philosophical discourses on the finer points of yoga, explored the notion of infinity, as it relates to our internal practices and external world.
The Confluence concluded with an open panel discussion where attendees were invited to direct questions to the senior teachers. An entertaining conversation on Brahmacharya ensued, with Dena and Tim relating their experience, or lack there of, with chastity and celibacy. Both teachers are house-holders, as was their teacher, Pattabhi Jois, and their ability to balance decades of practicing and teaching with long-term personal relationships reinforces the idea that eight-limbed yoga is just as relevant and useful for modern-day yogis living in the West as it was 2,500 years ago in India.
Watch this wrap-up video created by my friend and fellow attendee, Agathe Padovani to commemorate another amazing Confluence: