Weekend Reading
March 24, 2024

Celebrated yoga teacher Nancy Gilgoff passed away this week. Yoga students and teachers in the ashtanga community are mourning her passage.

I had the good fortune to practice virtually with Nancy once.

At the time, I wasn’t technically ready to do a led ashtanga intermediate series, which is what Nancy was teaching.

But my trusted teacher here in New York encouraged me to give it a try, and I figured, why not?

Modification wasn’t actually a problem. The group of students that assembled in the Zoom room that day was fairly diverse insofar as experience went. Nancy respected that diversity and invited us to skip or modify postures as needed.

What she didn’t allow was apathy about the postures that we could do.

Nancy was precise and observant. I realized quickly that low effort wouldn’t pass muster under her watch.

I’d placed my mat as far from the camera as I could. Frankly, I’d been hoping that Nancy would be able to see me, but not closely enough to notice if I happened to phone in sections of my practice.

I had no such luck. Throughout the two-hour class, Nancy adjusted me repeatedly. She seemed to have a spidey sense about the moments in which I was being—I say this with love—lazy.

At one point, while I was moving carelessly through a sequence that was still unfamiliar to me, Nancy suggested that I wrap up my practice and start working on closing postures.

She was right; I had reached a point in class where going no further would be better than faking competence. In ashtanga practice, one develops a radical willingness to try again tomorrow if the body has reached its limit for today.

Even so, it was humbling for me to be politely, yet unequivocally, told to wrap up.

The promise of an intimate student-teacher bond is what brings most people to a Mysore room. At that point, I was still struggling with the intensity of such tutelage.

I wanted to learn, but it was hard for me not to receive corrections as criticism.

One of the downsides of perfectionism is that people who are aggressively critical of themselves can sometimes be unreceptive to corrections, or even suggestions, from others.

I’ve been known to respond to feedback—at work or on my mat —with an internal voice that begs, “please, please cut me some slack; I’ve been yelling at myself in my head all day already!”

When one is unnecessarily merciless with oneself, it doesn’t leave a lot of space for critical engagement with others.

I remember the exasperation that I felt as Nancy offered me verbal adjustments. It was right after Covid, and I was out of shape. I was weary, as we all were.

I wanted Nancy to nurture me in the way that many other yoga teachers had done in the past, by encouraging me to take it easy.

Instead, she nurtured me by trusting in my strength and ability. She respected my practice, and she asked that I respect it, too.

A big part of emotional maturation, at least as I’ve experienced it, is developing a capacity to look at oneself honestly and lovingly at the same time.

My much younger self tended to dwell in one of two places. The first was a space of perfectionism, over-efforting, and overachieving. The other was a valley of self-loathing, self-criticism, and regret.

Increasingly I build the capacity to notice when I mess up or could do better, without hating myself for it.

I only crossed paths with Nancy Gilgoff once, but I remember her class as a formative moment on that path to compassionate self-awareness.

I’ll always be thankful for the faith that she had in my practice—whether I shared that faith at the time or not—and grateful that I got to move in her presence.

I hope that her journey has taken her someplace wondrous.

Happy Sunday, friends. Here are some recipes and reads.

Recipes

1. Vegan stew with dumplings would be a perfect dish to warm up with on this unusually chilly March day.

2. I want to pour the orange miso vinaigrette that I posted yesterday over these roasted root vegtables!

3. There’s some effort involved, but carciofi alla romana are sooo worth it.

4. Miso butter Brussels sprouts are one of my favorite veggie side dishes, so I imagine that I’ll love miso glazed asparagus.

5. Why have a single chocolate chip cookie, when chocolate chip sandwich cookies exist?

Reads

1. The hardest part is the launch—indeed.

2. On first inspection, this list of “adult problems that nobody prepared you for” is a bit of a downer. But I actually found it comforting and heartening to know that so many of us are struggling through the same stuff.

3. A powerful op-ed about the economics of curing tuberculosis.

4. The joy of rediscovering a childhood hobby.

5. A cool excerpt from a book that describes how robots are becoming valued surgical assistants.

I guess we’re about to enter our first full week of spring! Hope it gets off to a good start for you.

Till soon,

xo

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    3 Comments
  1. Hi, Gena! I just wrote a long message and my computer froze!

    I’m a long time reader…I love your blog on so many levels. I’ve had an eating disorder for 30 years and reading your perspective on that has been so refreshing.

    I’m a yoga instructor now and I will be taking my 18 year old daughter to meet my 19 year old daughter in NYC (Chelsea) for a few days. We live in Chicago and my daughter goes to school in Ithaca.

    Please send me any recommendations for yoga studios in that area. I’d love to experience a class. Also, if there are any restaurant recommendations that you recommend, please send them my way. Thank you, Gena. You are lovely.

  2. This post takes me back. When I was in my 20s, I practiced Taoist Tai Chi, & had recently finished learning the beginning 108 moves, when the master came to town– the person that inspired the group to start the Tai Chi center. We were encouraged to attend an all-day seminar, sort of a vast masterclass with him, and I decided to splurge (it was a nice bit of cash!) even though I hated being on camera and we were warned there would be news crews covering the story.

    Day of, I hung in there for about 3 hours, with one break, but the master never gave any attentions or corrections to anyone but the most advanced among us– meaning the instructors from the center. It was pretty frustrating, though I got quite the workout. I never felt I learned anything there except not to take seminars I wasn’t ready for.

  3. Hi, Gena…I have been reading your blog for quite some time and I love and respect all of the time and the effort that you put forth in creating such pertinent content. As a yoga instructor, I love reading about your experience and love for your practice and the community that you feel drawn to. This post is wonderful to read…especially the part of nurturing yourself by finding your strength. I will be taking my maiden trip to Chelsea, NY with my daughter to visit my other daughter who is in college. We will be leaving on Friday and returning on Monday. I know you are busy, but if you have any yoga studio recommendations and/or restaurant recommendations, I would love to check them out. Thank you again for your intentional words of wisdom on this blog. Your genuine and real demeanor is refreshing.

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