David Swenson once said that as Ashtanga spreads in the West the best teaching will take place not in glamorous studios or at crowded weekend workshops but instead in basements, garages, and attics, in settings where the practice is passed on informally from friend to friend, parent to child, etc. (He said this at a crowded weekend workshop in Louisville, KY in November 1999.)
My first teacher was Deirdre Smith Gilmer. Back in the summer of 1998, I took a summer job teaching mathematics at the Governors School of North Carolina — sort of an extended summer camp for bright high school students on the campus of tiny Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Deirdre was on the modern dance faculty. Most of us non-local teachers lived together on campus in a small dormitory, and we spent a lot of time together. Our extended evening conversations had a considerable influence on the course of my life.
At the time Deirdre was practicing Ashtanga quite intensely and with near-religious fervor– her own teacher was Eddie Stern in New York City — at the inconceivable hour of 6am every morning in the little dance studio just down the hill from our dormitory. Everyone in the dorm was invited to join her; a few of us managed to pull ourselves out of bed and give it a whirl.
It wasn’t a “class” setting: we simply practiced together as Deirdre talked us through the vinyasas: “inhale palms together over your head, exhale fold forward.” No preliminary discourse on breath and bandhas: you would pick up some of that as you went along. It was like having an interview with the Practice — “Is this something I would volunteer to do again?.” At the same time, the Practice interviewed you.
Deirdre took us quite far into the Primary Series — through Marichyasana D — and then assigned us an abbreviated closing.
What do I remember? Discomfort? Discombobulation? Yes, but not so much. I remember more the incredulity, for example at the mere suggestion to jump forward in between one’s arms, and — more absurdly — lift up and jump back thought them. And (peek over at Deirdre) hold on, does one actually float into a posture?
Even more I remember the sense of annoyance — not at Deirdre, but at the minutiae: half a breath here, five breaths there, then mysteriously eight breaths in a closing posture. How was one to keep track of it all? And why “five”? And why such specific insistence on the placement of gaze?
But when it was all over and I sat quietly for a while in padmasana, I was struck most by the Silence: it was as if the customary inner chatter, evaluation and self-judgement had drained out of me, or — more likely — had been wrung out of me. I had dabbled off-and-on with meditation for years, enough to be frustrated by the mind’s chatter but not enough to lay down my frustration. It seemed that somehow this difficult, exacting, annoying practice might afford me a way in.
Deirdre herself had been practicing only four years. I believe she was assisting Eddie a bit at his Shala, and of course course she brought her experience as a dancer and teacher of dance to her yoga teaching as well: already she was a powerful and impressive teacher, even in the informal setting of shared practice. I can only imagine how she has developed over the years: her students must be lucky indeed.
And I too count myself fortunate, to have been introduced to the practice by such a person, in such a low-key way, and for free. And it’s a matter of equally good fortune to have been able, from time to time, to return the favor by introducing someone else to Ashtanga on the same basis.