Anusara Yoga Grand Gathering (Yoga Journal)John Friend
Year Released: 2009
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Note: I received a free review copy of this DVD set directly from Yoga Journal.
This 3-DVD set was filmed at the very first Anusara Yoga Grand Gathering in Estes Park, Colorado. It features Anusara Yoga founder John Friend welcoming the crowd of 800 participants in an opening gathering, leading three master classes, and being interviewed on his thoughts about Anusara Yoga and life in general. During the Welcome Gathering, Friend talks about the growth and development of Anusara Yoga. Similarly, in his interview with Denise Benitez, he discusses Anusara as a method, including the association between Anusara Yoga and John Friend the man; he also answers questions about additional issues such as bringing the sacred into class, honoring tradition, and addressing suffering and despair.
The Master Classes feature Friend on stage teaching while one of his students, Tanya Beilke, beautifully demonstrates the postures. Each Master Class is approximately two hours in length, as it includes an opening talk by Friend, the Anusara invocation chanted by the musical group Shantala, long asana sequences interspersed with additional teaching from Friend, and an ending kirtan (chant), also sung by Shantala. Although Friend refers to savasana, the sessions conclude directly after the chanting. I have listed the Main Menus for each disc and have offered some further information for each of the three master class practices below. [Note: I have added approximate times for each segment in parentheses.]
Welcome Gathering (25m)
Interview with John Friend (48m)
Master Class Day 1
*Play All (1 hour, 54 minutes)
*Opening Invocation (11m)
*Warming Up (20m)
*Backbends, Hip Openers, Twists (26m)
*Forward Bends, Supine Poses (24m)
*Ending Kirtan with Shantala (11m)
Day 1 is a bit shorter and gentler. However, Friend still gets in a wide variety of postures, from triangle, side angle, half moon, and standing splits to pigeon, bridge, and wheel. For forward bends, Friend seems to particularly like pyramid pose, as he includes this in all three practices.
Master Class Day 2
*Play All (2 hours, 22 minutes)
*Introduction and Invocation (34m)
*Warming Up (15m)
*Standing Sequence (20m)
*Backbends, Hip Openers, and Stretches (36m)
*Forward Bends (20m)
*Ending Kirtan with Shantala (10m)
Friend introduces longer sequences and a bit of partner work (warm-up stretches and balance assistance) to Day 2. He adds plank/chaturanga flows to the standing series as well and has Tanya perform a handstand demonstration at the end of the standing postures. Friend also increases the challenge with both the balance work (standing hand-to-foot, side plank, boat, crow) and the backbends (cradle, lizard, pigeon, bow, bridge, wheel). Forward bends again include pyramid but also add a nice reclined leg series as well as a head-to-knee series.
Master Class Day 3
*Play All (2 hours, 43 minutes)
*Introduction and Invocation (23m)
*Warming Up (21.5m)
*Standing Sequence (27m)
*Twists and Hand Balances (14.5m)
*Forward Bends (7.5m)
*Ending Kirtan with Shantala (21m)
Day 3 starts of similarly to Day 2: Friend begins with partner stretching, performs a similar warm-up flow, and includes balance poses such as hand-to-foot, half moon, and a half moon variation during the standing sequence. However, this session adds more challenging one-arm balance work and an extended backbend sequence. During the latter, Friend provides detailed instruction for King Pigeon pose, using not only Tanya to demonstrate but also a member of the band, Benjy, as well as another audience member.
Throughout the practices, Friend does not devote much time to discussing Anusara Yoga's Universal Principles of Alignment, particularly the loops and spirals; instead, he focuses on joy, from enjoying the breath to enjoying the presence of each other. His sense of humor is ever-present, frequently soliciting laughter from the audience. (Surprisingly, the cameras rarely scan over the large gathering of people in the room, instead remaining trained on John, Tanya, and occasionally, the band Shantala.)
This DVD set is described by Yoga Journal as being for all levels of practitioners, but I'm not sure that I'd agree; although I don't think prior experience with Anusara is necessary, I do think that those brand new to yoga might feel a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of the long class sessions--really, they are more like workshops--and the challenge level of some of the postures. (Furthermore, Friend uses mainly Sanskrit terminology to cue the poses). However, no inversions are included in any of the practices, and Friend does encourage a spirit of playfulness, making these sessions accessible to a wide range of experienced yoga students.
For those who, like myself, have never had the opportunity to see John Friend live, I can't say that this set is just as good as being there, but I can say that it is the next best thing. Although the workshop-like format may not easily lend incorporating these discs into regular home practice, the exposure to Friend in this way is a unique experience and one that I would recommend highly.
John Friend is an experience in and of himself! Here he teaches live; with few exceptions, he does not perform the poses himself, and he does not walk around the (very large) audience. He is warm and humorous, although his tendency to chat at length serves to break up the flow of the practice at times.
Iím reviewing this workout after doing each of the sessions once and watching the additional material.
General workout breakdown: See Bethís excellent breakdown. Iíll add my thoughts on the individual sessions and a few more general thoughts.
Day 1: This practice runs through a variety of poses, often repeating them several times to explore something different or go deeper. John takes a cue from the autumnal equinox and encourages introspection; at the same time, he emphasizes the importance of community in both reflecting on the experiences of the past year and in practicing that day. John is mindful in this morning session that the majority of his audience has covered a lot of distance to get there and is not used to the high elevation, so he takes care to ground and reawaken bodies sluggish from travel and to allow hearts a chance to slow down between poses. My hamstrings and hip flexors liked all of the attention here. I felt that of the three practices this had the least amount of focus on principles and alignment, but after doing the others I see Johnís spending time here laying the groundwork for exploring the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of the poses in subsequent days.
Day 2: Like Day 1, John describes this morning session as a potpourri of poses. He builds on the previous day. Again, youíll see several poses several times each. Here, however, he brings a general focus: that of playing in the band Ė in other words, bringing your whole body to every pose (Anusara teaches that every pose should be active all over, after all) and keeping in tune with your band, er, classmates. He focuses on very basic technique fundamentals, than encourages you to let loose and enjoy the pose, play in it, ďlet it sing.Ē John emphasizes how these basics pop up again and again, comparing this to the techniques and scales needed to be mastered when learning to play an instrument. While John mentions the artistic nature of yoga in all three days, this session underscores that artistry the most.
In contrast to Day 1 and also parts of Day 3, this day feels more like a workshop: there are pauses for demonstrations (some of which are more about the element of fun), so itís not as much of a continuous flow as Day 1. Thereís quite a bit of time spent on the wrists here, although John takes care to instruct proper hand placement as one of his basic techniques that he stresses all practicers should revisit, no matter how experienced. Beth mentioned some partnerwork, and with the exception of the handstand itís more about using the person next to you while in your pose (e.g. in reclined leg stretches, with the one leg to the side, assuming the person next to you will hold your foot). The class is definitely more comfortable with John and the overall experience: the laughter and applause are louder and more contagious, grunts and other noises emerge (John asks for these in places), and the chattering (a low murmur) takes a while to die down during transitions.
Day 3: This is another morning session, and it continues to build on Day 1 and Day 2, with many of the same poses revisted, although the seated forward bending postures mostly disappear here (perhaps just in the version presented here?) while backbends are emphasized more. The sessionís themes revolve around offering and love; in fact, John quotes one of his teacherís descriptions of asana as ďworshipful posturesĒ as he asks you to dedicate sequences to your beloved (perhaps your SO, but maybe a parent - for John itís his mom -, a friend, a teacher, etc.), someone whoís suffering, and an important teacher in your life. Here alignment is seen as a way to optimize the heartís opening and offering. In some ways this is the most theoretical of the three practices, as John focuses on things like the four types of relationships or the five elements and how they apply to Anusaraís universal principles. Although this is the longest practice, it didnít feel like it has significantly more time in asana, as John lectures a little more here, and thereís about the same amount of demonstrations, plus the kirtan is about twice as long. A few more challenging postures appear, but as always John talks you into attempting them, making everything seem doable (even if my body didnít always agree, I still felt that I had a prayer of a chance of getting into poses I never before dreamed I could do). I did the most spectating during this practice, between those challenges and the increased emphasis on partnerwork. The mood is more reverent and devotional here, serious and almost solemn in comparison to the playful attitude of Day 2.
In general Johnís pace is measured, never rushing. Poses are held for a good while, almost a minute, maybe a minute and a half, on average. The practices tend to focus on standing forward bends, specifically uttanasana and related poses; lunges; down dog; standing poses, particularly trikonasana, ardha chandrasana, and parsvottanasana; simple standing balance poses like standing big toe pose; hip openers, particularly pigeon; backbends, especially cobra, dhanurasana, setu bandha, and urdhva dhanurasana; some twists, either seated or lunging; simple arm balances, including bakasana; seated poses, in particular janu sirsasana but also some upavista konasana variations; and childís pose for rest. Johnís sun salutations arenít the same few poses repeated several times in a row, as he might do something different each time through, whether moving into a different lunge, doing more or fewer chaturanga Ė down dog Ė cobra sets, etc., holding the standing forward bend longer, etc.
Level: Like Beth, Iíd recommend this to people with some yoga experience under their belt, as John assumes some familiarity with basic yoga poses. Iíd agree that prior Anusara experience is not necessary - in fact, John points out that some people have never done Anusara before - but those who have that background will probably get something different out of these sessions than those who are new to this style (not that thatís a bad thing at all).
Iíve been practicing yoga for 7 years or so now, although Iíve never gotten into fully intermediate postures like headstands and simple arm balances, but thatís not an issue here since the few left in are easy enough to modify (i.e. stick with a more basic pose) or skip. Iím still working on flexibility and strength in a few areas, but I found these practice accessible and doable challenges, listening of course to my own body.
Music: none in Day 1 and Day 2, instrumental accompaniment (a string instrument, guitar, flute, and/or percussion) from the band for much of Day 3, plus the Om and Anusara chant that begin and the kirtan session that closes each practice (all in Sanskrit, except the last kirtan, which also includes English lyrics).
Set: John, Tonya, and the band Shantala are on a stage with a blue backdrop (with instruments off to one side and some objects like a dancing Shiva in the other corner) in the midst of what looks like a very large log cabin-esque hall. The stage is brightly lit, but the rest of the room is dim.
Production: clear picture and sound. As Beth mentioned, the focus is on John and Tonya on stage, with few shots of the crowd during the practices themselves (which I miss Ė I like seeing the wide varieties of ways poses are manifested by people of differing ages, shapes, and abilities; that said, this is primarily taken from the filming done to project on the screens for the hundreds of people not able to be in front of the stage, so the focus on John and Tonya makes sense).
The classes seem to be trimmed down slightly, and while the editing of the picture is smooth the resulting transitions arenít always. I appreciate that the editors cut out the few minutes people take to move up towards the stage or wander back towards their mats, but a few (more advanced? partnerwork? ) poses seem to have been edited out; for example, in Day 1 John refers to the handstand, which isnít included. There are a few moments when suddenly youíre in a completely different pose; for example, in Day 2, after the setu bandha Ė wheel series, suddenly youíre standing and stretching your hands over your head with no warning.
Equipment: a sticky mat. John encourages using the minimal amount of props needed - for example, in Day 1 he has people widen their legs in triangle until they can touch the floor, and he asks one of his helpers to take away a block from a student using it for ardha chandrasana - but if you need a blanket, block(s), and/or strap, have them nearby.
Space Requirements: enough room to perform a full sun salutation, standing balance with leg extended, handstand from standing forward bend, and similar poses without bumping into stuff. Since these are workshop practices they assume you donít have tons of space.
DVD Notes: Iíll just add that this comes in a regular-sized plastic DVD case, with discs 2 and 3 overlapping.
Comments: A very generous VFer let me borrow this. Iím very grateful to have had the opportunity to play with these. Thereís a lot for me to chew over here in terms of content, and as a dabbler in Anusara Iím finding these recordings of the first grand gathering with the schoolís founder informative, thought-provoking, and helpful. Thereís something about Johnís instruction that gently, kindly, and even lovingly encourages me to go deeper into poses and the practice of yoga itself, and I felt the sense of delight about which John talks so much, invigorating my practice, which can sometimes feel mechanical or rote or just uninspired. As you can perhaps tell from my description of the classes, Day 2 resonated the most with me because that sense of fun and play is something I tend to forget when practicing but enjoy very much when done in a supportive manner like Johnís.
Iím still undecided as to whether or not Iíd buy my own copy. I think if I found a great deal I might, but right now this isnít a must have for me with my limited budget. One major drawback is that I find it very difficult to carve out 2+ hours for yoga on any sort of regular basis, even if just to watch. Another is the fact that this, as Beth mentioned, doesnít have as much instruction of the Anusara principles with respect to alignment and form, which I miss as someone who hasnít had the pleasure of taking live Anusara classes. Iím finding the Omega series, the four workshops John previously released on DVD, more helpful in that regard, plus I like how those classes have distinct personalities in terms of their sequences of poses. That said, this Grand Gathering provides more insight into Anusara philosophy and background, so if youíre more curious as to what John is thinking you may find this series of workshops more interesting.
Now, the Anusara folks for whom this DVD is probably better intended will appreciate John not going over the same old alignment principles again and again, instead opening new windows onto the poses. For Anusara teachers and fans who both could and could not make it to this particular gathering the ability to experience and then refer to these sessions again and again will be a welcome addition to their library. For those just curious about Anusara, Iíd recommend renting or borrowing first. Johnís instruction is excellent and clear. He cues right and left for his class, so if youíre watching the model you wonít be getting mirror cuing. Although he never leaves the stage heís still very aware of the class, often directing a teacher to help someone or even personally correcting a student he can see. John stresses that the basics and techniques and all of that are important, but for him ultimately itís not all about a rigid focus on form, itís about pleasure and joy. As Beth mentions, John liberally uses Sanskrit terms, not just for poses but also concepts. He definitely focuses on the spiritual aspects of the practice. This isnít a religious service, however: as John sees it your yoga practice should be a way to brighten your spirit and to connect to something greater, including the community of those practicing around you. He dedicates Day 2ís practice to the GreatMusician, but who or what that is remains undefined. John moves comfortably and sometimes quickly between his emphasis on the non-physical aspects of yoga and sometimes metaphoric, even poetic / flowery, language and his discussion of alignment and very straightforward, even colloquial, dialogue. After all, this is the guy who feels picking up a laundry basket is an asana Ė not in a pretentious way, but rather because yoga infuses everything he does in a matter of fact kind of way (no doubt due in no small part to the fact he started practicing yoga at a young age).
So, yes, John comes off as a relatively normal guy who happens to be really into yoga; he does not present himself as a high and mighty inaccessible yoga guru (during the interview he expresses some dismay at the fact that Anusara yoga is automatically equated with him and looks forward to the day when his style, which he deliberately didnít name for himself, takes on its own life) but rather as someone youíd run into at the grocery store chatting with a student or fellow teacher about a class the other day (in the interview heís wearing jeans, a polo, and white tennis, and if you were to point him out to a friend or family member as ďthat yoga guy,Ē theyíd probably look at you skeptically). He tells personal stories (like his mom banishing him to the basement to practice his instrument) to bring a human element to the concepts he wants to emphasize. His sense of humor is ever present, including joking about some of the usual reactions to poses (sometimes in a goofy voice) as well as not taking himself too seriously.
I recently ordered this set from TotalFitnessDVDs, and am very happy with the practices. They will be a good addition to my John Friend library.
Each practice starts with a warm-up of slow Sun Salutations, then Standing Poses, Balance, Back Bends and Twist and Forward Bends. There are no inversions. The 3 sessions build on each other, and increase in length, detail of alignment instruction and challenge of poses.
Day 1. This the easiest and shortest of the 3 days. I think that because this is at Estes Park, altitude 8,000 ft., this practice is quite a bit less vigorous than his usual practices, eg. Omega DVD's. Lots of mindful pauses in Uttanasana or Down Dog, while he chats about the flow of shakti, etc.
As usual, I like his sequencing, and how he goes deeper and deeper. Not as much alignment instruction as the Omega DVDs, but there always a few new and useful tips. It's a practice I would do on a low energy day, because the pace is slower than usual, and nice long holds. And a well balanced practice, though no inversions.
The camera is mostly on John or the Tanya, the demonstrator--who has beautiful form. There are no audience shots or celebrity sightings, so you have a feeling itís a private lesson.
I skipped the Introduction and Invocation, 22 minutes. After the asana practice there is 10 minutes of Kirtan with ShantalaóBenjy and Heather Wertheimer, which I listened to during my Savasana.
Here's Day 2. Forget the gentle practice for high altitude. This is almost 2 hours, building on the 1st day, but much more vigorous and challenging. John give more alignment instruction, on setting your foundation, and "then moving playfully from there, so the pose can sing".
I really enjoyed watching the demonstrator, Tanya, because she goes beyond roboting what John says. Her actions are mindful and deliberate while going into and out of poses. Sheís very focused, but smiles and laughs easily, and radiates joy in the practice. She is very flexible and strong. Also, John does a few demo's, mostly to illustrate funny actions.
Day 3. This is the finale, where he integrates all his teachings into one big offering to the divine. The practice is just under 2 hours and I think itís my favorite of the 3. Some very challenging asana, but his sequencing, instruction and watching Tanya, give good preparation. (I watched 1st, then did it later in the day). I can't do all the poses in hand balances and back bends, but I think you still get alot out of doing the prep.
Today, the band accompanied most of the practice, improvising to support the asana, like they did in the Friend Workshop I took 5 years ago. There are pan shots of the audience, all 800 of them, assistants scurrying around, and the big screen TVs overhead, which gives the feeling of "grand gathering". And a few times times the mics are turned on, so you can hear the audience reaction and buzz.
There is an excellent demo of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana with Tanya, Benji from the band, an audience member, then he talks everyone through doing it with a partner.
During the final chapter of forward bends, he talked about our teacher--"the one who led us to where we are. You cannot give back fully, it's impossible, but what we can do is to be a shining symbol of everything they've given you. That's the best way to give back."