Matthew Sweeney Workshop: Use Responsibly

This morning, I miss the Mysore room in Minnesota. Though, really, the Mysore room could have been physically located *anywhere* — there’s just something magical about the early morning dimness, the flickering candles, people coming in looking sleepy and rumpled, the quiet.

I enjoyed the weekend sessions, and I (kind of) enjoyed the afternoon adjustment workshop sessions, but in the end, what I really miss are the Mysore mornings.

Yoga House has a very pretty practice space — orange walls with intricate gold leaf designs near the ceiling, a beautiful Ganesha shrine, tea light sconces on the walls.

The summer air in Minnesota is heavy and humid, the birds noisy as you walk up the stairs to the shala. Inside, the smell of incense and the flickering light.

What it is about a Mysore space? People wander in and set off on their practices. The breathing gets loud at first, then people find their grooves and it settles down, gets lighter, just flows. No background music, which I prefer (though, in one session, someone asked about music when they practice at home and Matthew just shrugged and said, “Sure, if you want music, have music”).

***

Okay, I’m gonna go to my notes. I had my iPhone with me and would occasionally grab it and type in some text. Felt slightly self-conscious, wondering if people were horrified: “Check out the rude chick who’s text messaging during a workshop!”

Friday night

Chandra krama. I have the poster, and I’ve played around with it, but it was terrific to have Matthew talk us through each vinyasa. What a lovely sequence. Very lower back and hip focused. Lots of rolling around on the floor, which I love. I wish he’d make an audio of this sequence, because it’s so much easier to practice via voice commands…

Matthew has very even energy, which is astonishing, really, given his travel schedule. I am a crappy traveler and get all crazed when I go to new places, but he is sailing along with no apparent highs or lows of energy, no over- or under-enthusiasm levels. And, delightfully, no “I’m a star” vibe at all.

Discussion includes an interesting dichotomy re: 1) sequences he suggests as alternatives/therapeutic practices (e.g., chandra krama and sequences in the new book), and 2) a spiel that promotes really settling down and consistently doing the practice as it is prescribed, for *years*, before you try any alternative asana options.

He’s definitely a “you have to learn the rules before you break the rules” kind of guy. The catch with this, of course, is that people who want an excuse to skip over the rules generally feel they have in fact learned the rules. It’s a slippery argument (learn the rules before you break ’em) that comes with a built-in rationalization system all ripe for misuse, particularly if someone goes looking for right and wrong and black and white.

It is well worth noting that Matthew answered all “either/or” questions with “yes” and a laugh.

After the evening session, I drive back to the hotel in a downpour so intense that I can’t even see the road. In the bar of the hotel, televisions are broadcasting about all the tornadoes that are being spotted in the area. There are maps with tornado icons all over the place. Luckily I have no idea at all where I am on any of the maps.

***

Saturday

AM: Led primary

Normal led primary.

Post-practice discussion turned to how he assesses readiness for intermediate practice. Number one, far and away, is correct vinyasa/breath. He also watches for frustration level and indications of exhaustion.

The core poses that need to be in good shape before moving on are familiar to us all: marichyasana D, supta kurmasana, baddha konasana. For some reason I can’t quite fathom, he also sees bhujapidasana as important to master (…”master” is the wrong word here — let’s say he’s looking for substantial ease in the pose) before moving into intermediate. He also (and he said this many times) looks at ubbaya padangusthasana, urdhva mukha paschimottanasana, and setu bandhasana (with hands crossed on chest, unless there is a medical contraindication). In these end poses, he looks to see if concentration is still available to the student (i.e., not too much exhaustion) and expects smoothness of breath.

Some discussion about wrist placement (i.e., rotating the hands outward a bit to point forefinger toward front of mat, rather than middle finger). About how it should be explored by each individual to find optimal placement, and do note that placement may change from day to day, etc.

A bit on how primary builds lots of strength in upper back/shoulders. How after a number of years of practice it is common for the practitioner’s upper body strength to be tremendous, core strength strong, and leg strength poor (or, as he said in Australian, “fuck all.”)

Re: moola bandha. If you think you’re doing it, you’re not. It’s not a physical application, but a clearing away of whatever may be blocking it. Don’t stress, but practice and it’ll come.

PM: Jump throughs and backs

I didn’t take notes on the jump throughs and backs. The high level report is this: he breaks down the movements into their component parts and suggests one learn incrementally, adding on as each component is more or less mastered. I believe he may lay out his program in the new book. (Patrick, you got the book, is this true?)

All I can say for sure is that it is similar to how I learned jump backs and throughs, so I just checked what he was saying against what I do, and didn’t pay much more attention than that. (Sorry, Grimmly, I know you were looking for more detail…)

***

Sunday

Wake to an “On the perimeter of a shooting. Miss you” text from The Cop. He’s so romantic.

AM: Led intermediate through LBH

Fun. Happy for a chance to check my breath counts and vinyasas. Definitive answer re: do I go into chaturanga in the vinyasas after salabhasana/bhekasana/dhanurasana/parsva dhanurasana? No. Just into upward dog on pointed toes.

PM: Inversions

Goofed around and enjoyed. I’m a stiff-backed gal who learned inversions from the Anusarans, so they’re happy play time for me. Except for the part where I help other people do inversions. As I mention to Patrick later, this is like trusting someone you don’t know to be your belayer, which is something I never do — hence, I have lived long enough to attend this session.

***

Monday

Mysore practice [give me a moment while I slip into present tense, where all Mysore practice takes place]:

Had insomnia last night, of course. Nerves? I don’t really feel particularly nervous, but maybe so.

It is weird to practice so close to so many people, and weird to practice in humidity. I am accustomed to a desert practice where any moisture is coming from my spray bottle. I am also the only person who brought a spray bottle. (Must find an “I heart AZ” sticker for the spray bottle.)

There are about 20 people in the room. I have, greedily, mixed feelings about this, as the advertisements said Mysore would be limited to 12. I understand, though, that it’d be hard to turn people away, particularly students from the local area.

Matthew watches the room for a good while — no surya/down dog adjustments unless someone is really misaligned. Same with the standing poses. He seems, at least from my perspective (i.e., these are the poses he adjusted for me over the four days, not sure about everyone else…), to focus on the poses most commonly adjusted in primary: padottanasana C, supta kurmasana, baddha konasana.

He also tells me to align my head with my inner shin on janusirsasana A (and all the forward bends, I presume), rather than aligning it directly over the forward leg (because that puts a twist in the neck).

The heat and humidity is kinda getting to me during the beginning of the intermediate poses. (And yes, I am definitely nervous for this portion of my practice.) I think about quitting after bhekasana, after dhanurasana, after parsva dhanurasana, blah, blah. Carry on through laghu vajrasana, then go to closing.

As I am leaving, Matthew asks how far I went in intermediate.

“Laghu vajrasana.”

“Tomorrow we’ll do kapotasana.”

I roll my eyes a bit.

“Your nemesis?”

I just laugh.

Afternoon adjustment session:

Opening portion of this afternoon’s lecture: ethics. Personal ethics of the teacher. Matthew expressed strong feelings against “draping” adjustments or anything that would create too close an intimate space.

Then we adjusted the first half of primary on each other. Does that limited description suggest my discomfort with the whole thing?

***

Tuesday

Mysore:

The morning is all about containing my nerves–I get discombobulated by travel, Matthew Sweeney is due to help me in kapotasana. Seriously, my nerves are pretty jangly when I go into the room. So I really slow down and stick like mad to the breath. And in return, I get a ringside seat to watch MS assess a practice. He is quite methodical–comes by to adjust padottanasana C. Back to adjust supta kurmasana. Comes by and asks me to repeat baddha konasana so he can see. Treats me to a great adjustment for all three parts of the pose (yes, he likes to leave in the sitting upright third part of the pose). He “listens” very carefully during adjustments.

He comes over to tweak pasasana. Asks, “What is this called?” When I respond, he says “Good” and goes on his way. A few minutes later I hear him ask someone else what the name of a pose is. She doesn’t know. He says, “Stop there.”

Adjustment in bhekasana. He circles back later and asks about laghu vajrasana. Yes, I just did it. “May I see it again?”

Then kapotasana. The kapo experience is interesting, and funny. My anticipation was much more dramatic than the actual experience, of course. He’s a fan of starting the pose (at least for beginners) by arching back a bit, coming back up, going a bit deeper, etc., all the way until hands touch the floor. He tells me to walk my hands in, then to put my head on the floor. Each time I walk my hands in, he puts his over mine to stabilize them, then tells me to raise my head again, try to bring it in closer. Then walk hands in again. Etc., etc.

[My mat is slippery when I try to walk my hands in. I immediately flash on the idea of cutting some horizontal grooves into one of my old mats… Later, when I tell Patrick about this, he laughs. Secretly, though, he knows I’m not kidding.]

Matthew takes a few minutes to explain that in my practice I should do urdhva dhanurasana, then add half dropbacks and dropbacks to the wall (which Patrick explains nicely here), getting progressively lower. “This is an intermediate practice. You have to figure out the dropbacks at this point. It’ll come.”

Then, assisted dropbacks.

Nice.

Afternoon adjustment session:

Again, discussion about the careful awareness of teacher and student space. Even a comment about allowing people their privacy. Being an introvert, I find that incredibly admirable. At the end, a little speech about how adjustments are lovely because, like massage, they allow us appropriate and bounded human contact, which is essential to our happiness.

He commented on how sad it is we can’t feel free to touch each other because touch is now viewed almost exclusively within the context of sexuality and/ or violence. Ashtanga offers an opportunity that should be carefully protected and respected.

Then we adjusted the second half of primary on each other. Does the torture never end? 😉

***

Wednesday and Thursday sessions were similar to Monday and Tuesday. Lovely Mysore practice in the morning, adjustment session in the afternoon. More details won’t make this any more clear. Oh, just one tidbit: he expressed dislike of adjustments done by more than one person. Said it was “too much invasive energy.” Another MS insight that holds deep appeal for this introvert.

Next up, I’ll talk about the two exercises for kapotasana. And then I want to write a bit about MS’s classroom management skills, which are quite interesting.

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14 Responses

  1. This is fascinating. It’s also refreshing that MS did not discuss standing from the backbend as a prerequisite for intermediate.

  2. He said that some people who are yet to master dropbacks/standing up from urdhva dhanurasana will benefit from the first third of intermediate. He was particularly interested in stressing the importance of coming up from laghu vajrasana.

  3. Hi Karen,
    Yep, I did pick up the book, and it rules. I haven’t checked it out cover to cover yet, but the Lion sequence and I are going to be good friends.

    I didn’t know Matthew asked, “Your nemesis?” at your Kapo eye-roll, that’s hilariously funny. I can hear it in his Australian, and everything.

    It was good times. We need to do this again. Predictably, I liked the adjustment sessions more than you did (in fact I pulled some of the Mari A/C adjustments on a class this morning, heh!).

  4. I certainly hope you instructed people to fold their ulnas, Patrick. Because that’s what a good teacher does — challenges those students! 🙂

  5. Hi Karen! I was in the MS workshops with you (short one with the tattoos). I really really love your description of the environment in the mysore space, it takes me right back there again.
    Enjoy your practice, Kristina

  6. Hi Kristina! Yes, wasn’t it nice to practice each morning? I heard from Monica (dark hair, tall, practiced intermediate series), too. Hoping she’ll do some blogging so we can keep a bit of the energy going. I see you are blogging, too! Yay! The cybershala continues to grow. 🙂

  7. Thanks for the details report; I wish I’d been there!

  8. Thank you for the great discourse, brings me back to the Matthew Sweeney workshops in New York.

  9. Agree–Thanks for the the great mysore atmosphere & details!

  10. I just listened to an interview with Matthew on Yoga Peeps, and between that and your & Patrick’s accounts, I am wishing I had been at the workshop! Sounds wonderful.

  11. *He commented on how sad it is we can’t feel free to touch each other because touch is now viewed almost exclusively within the context of sexuality and/ or violence. Ashtanga offers an opportunity that should be carefully protected and respected.*

    I really like this.

    Re: Cop’s text. My dad works w/ trauma, as you know. When I was small, sometimes he’d have to come to school to tell me he loved me. After seeing a kid die, usually. It’s kind of creepy, but also so beautiful and presence-creating to have a family member who lives close to the edge like that. On the perimeter of a shooting–of course he especially misses you then.

  12. Yes, it is hard for me to travel, to tell you the truth, because I know our home life and routine is incredibly important to him.

  13. It’s important that Karen go and do these sorts of things and she clearly came home with a new outlook on her practice.

    As for “living close to the edge,” I guess my work continually confirms that “all life is suffering.” Conversely, my job makes me feel unusually blessed in my home life.

  14. Hey Karen,

    I was at MS on Friday night for the Chandra sequence — my first time at YogaHouse, I live in St. Paul — front row (not by choice) green pants, pigtails. I’m just an Ashtanga newbie, plus had another workshop on Saturday, so no more MS for me that week. But I do love reading about all that you can do and imagine myself getting there someday. Ha.

    Anyway, Patrick had pointed me to the Moon poster, but I felt the same way you did. It was completely different to feel the rhythm and smoothness in person.

    Glad you made it back safely to your room — I had to drive 45 minutes back home in that storm! Crazy.

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