Me and my Ashtanga girl friends love Day Christensen. Day is a level 2 authorized teacher with KPJAYI. No video or picture you have ever seen of her or her practice does her any justice. Day is a beautiful woman with an equally beautiful practice. After seeing her practice, we all wondered, “what have we been doing all of these years?” Many of my girls have been practicing Yoga for just as long as she has but Day’s strength and fluidity outpaces ours by a long shot. Being around Day made us want to be stronger. She woke me up from the comfort zone that I had been snoozing in for about a year now.
For 3 days, Day drilled us on shoulder depression, retraction and protraction. She gave us simple and succinct instruction that could be applied by any student. She convinced us that a light and floaty practice was accessible to us all. It didn’t matter if the student was a young flexible girl or a card carrying AARP member, Day worked with each and every one of us and found ways for us to be stronger. She proved that all Ashtangis, no matter how long the practice, could indeed be taught new tricks.
Day’s Guided practice was traditional and fair. No crazy long counts. During Mysore practice, she had the magical ability to be around right when you needed her but gave enough space to stay in the flow.
The best thing about Day was how easy it was to connect with her. Unlike many yoga groups that have a homogeneous feel, our group included soccer moms, ex drug addicts, ex cult members, old, young, Black, Latina, tantric initiates, Trump supporters and revolutionaries. Day’s blend of urban cool and discipline combined with her easy smile, endeared her to everyone.
I was really excited to do this interview with her. Hopefully, you will love her as much as we do.
APP: What brought you to Ashtanga?
Day: I went from having a very physically active life to entering art school and working as a muralist. Over time, the lack of movement, the continuous use of toxic chemicals, and perhaps being in such a head-y academic environment got me more and more disconnected from my body. You can say I fell into a bit of a depression. To add to that, when I finally graduated, I had a bit of an identity crisis. I think that identity part is pretty common, but I didn’t think I could willingly choose a lifestyle that was making me feel so unhealthy. My last two years of college, I already had an interest in health, energetics, and physics. Yoga seemed to be the method that contained all of those elements; it wasn’t just working out at a gym, it was bigger than that.
I had started reading about yoga, and more and more, the philosophy spoke to me. I found I was craving movement, strength, an overall feeling of physical competence. I recognized the physical aspect was a door to emotional and mental health, and if you’re willing to believe in it, spiritual health. Reading wasn’t enough. More is needed than intellectual understanding; I knew I needed the practice, the experiential knowledge of yoga to work and operate in my life. I promised myself that when I graduated, I would seriously undertake a true Yoga practice. I believed the practice would work for me, and so I made a commitment to it before I took my first class.
APP: You focus on scapular stability as opposed to stacking the joints for lifts and floats. Why?
Day: When we stand on our feet we already have hip stability. The hip joints are huge in comparison to the shoulder joints, so in order to create stability in the shoulder we have to employ the surrounding muscles. Learning how to engage the latissimus dorsi, for example, can ensure joint stability, while having versatility with either bent-arm or straight-arm strength. Simply learning to stack your joints only teaches straight arm stability and encourages more flexibility than strength. It becomes more of a balancing act. The more flexible you are, of course, the easier it is to place your hips above your shoulders and simply lift your legs.
However, the first vinyasas that you learn are in the Primary Series, jumping back and through, are done low to the ground. If you don’t understand scapular stability, protraction, serratus and pectoral engagement, jump backs will be impossible or forever be very tough, choppy movements. Therefore in Yoga, simply by the way the series are laid out and how we have been taught, it is encouraged that we build our strength from the ground up, learning bent arm strength in jump backs and building our way to straight arm handstands, which doesn’t happen until a student has completed second series and begins work on tic tocs during the backbending sequence.
APP: You teach chatarunga with an open chest as opposed to a flat back. Why?
Day: I talk so much about scapular position in my workshops because, again, in having that discussion, a certain level of muscular awareness is required to ultimately create shoulder stability and upper body strength. Many people approach Chaturanga as a “strength posture” and use muscles, the pectoral muscles, that are more readily engaged to perform the movement. If Chaturanga is done that way, there is a specific effort to stay hovering above the ground, but Chaturanga, if you watch Sharath practice or have seen pictures of Sharath or Guruji in chatvari position, they are very close, if not touching the ground.
As my practice and understanding has developed over time, I can see that the shoulder blades have to be retracted in order to complete that movement. Chatvari is actually more like “falling” or flattening yourself to the ground with an open chest. And I have felt in my own practice, that anytime there is an effort to lift or stay up or hover as in an arm balance, the scapula must be protracted. I started to see the movement headed into chatvari requires this protraction but once you actually land the scapula must retract making the posture look and feel more like a bent arm Upward Dog. In fact, doing this retraction is often easier to do than what many have been taught or think we have to do, and it keeps the position safer for beginners learning to jump back for the first time. If a newer or weaker students tries to jump back and lands in a lifted protracted chatvari position, often times a lack of strength or understanding will put an anterior tilt to the scapula sending the shoulders hunching forward and can cause a good amount of wear and tear on the front of the shoulder where the biceps attach. So both safety and function have brought me to open chest, i.e. Scapular retraction, chatvari position.
APP: Your level of strength rivals that of many male practitioners. How did you develop this? What should female practitioners focus on to ensure that they have equal parts strength and flexibility?
Day: The best way for any Yoga practitioner to get stronger is to move slowly. But most people want to hurry. Let’s face it, the practice is long, there’s a lot to get through. But the slower I move through the vinyasas the more I can feel the muscles work in a way that has proven to make me not only stronger but more flexible. I find too that the slower I move the more efficient I become so I don’t lose time.
APP: I am not going to lie, since I left your workshop, I have found myself obsessing about my shoulder stability…with good results. However, as I do this, I find that I am focusing less on my internal state. The focus of my practice, for the past few years, has been, more on the spiritual path of yoga. However, I want strength and grace as well. I am finding it hard to focus on both. How can a student balance the meditative aspect of the practice with working on skills in asana?
Day: First things first. We are meant to use the physical, the asana, practice to eventually get to deeper levels of Self-Study and ultimately Self-Realization. When we step into a Mysore room or any yoga class for the first time, you have to learn the postures, the sequence, where to place your foot, how to hold your hands, when to step forward, etc. you learn the postures at a very gross level. Meditation is not possible when you are so busy learning. When all that becomes clear you can start to move more internally. But just as there are both gross and subtle levels of the physical practice. There are gross and subtle levels to your internal knowledge and there will be times when you have to back step and do some physical work so that your practice becomes more streamlined and fluid. When the fluidity is there, it is possible to go back to a more internal or meditative practice. But there is always learning and relearning. And you,as a student, will always go back to learn more. That’s the point… at least part of the point.
APP: During the workshop, you did not talk at all about Bandhas. Was that a fluke? If not, why did you omit it?
Day: Honestly I don’t love talking about Bandhas. As a student, I can recall struggling with certain movements and seeing students around me struggling and when asking the teacher why or more importantly HOW?! The standard answer always seemed to be BANDHAS. As a student, perhaps nothing could be more of a frustrating explanation than that. Bandha has become this elusive concept, that you either have or you don’t. And if you have it, you are part of this elite club. And if you don’t, you’re fresh out of luck. But the truth is that using the word bandhas, for me, is a bit of a cop out. An advanced practitioner can find deeper Bandhas, like Uddiyana and Mula Bandha, but it will take time to develop when a more gross level of strength and control is developed. Even Sharath said in conference last year, Bandhas will just happen over time; it is not necessary to attempt to “find” them. The concept of Bandhas are so often pointed to in teaching yoga asana without explanation that they have become this thing that sits like a concept the way someone would talk about the soul or Chakras. There’s no doubt they exist but pointing to a location where they sit in the body has become something of a mystery. The truth is that even if you have your anus contracted, which is what Guruji has explained is Mula bandha, you won’t be able to lift in Utplutih without scapular depression. Bandhas are great but they’re not the whole picture.
APP: You also did not talk about philosophy? Was that a fluke? If not why?
Day: Whatever brings people to this practice, whether it’s philosophical or spiritual or because their girlfriend dragged them or because they want to drop 10 lbs, it doesn’t matter. The important part is that they have found themselves with a yoga practice. Philosophy doesn’t speak to everyone. However, when I am teaching these workshops, we all have a physical practice. It feels more sincere to me to discuss what the body is doing than what the mind is doing. All of that is personal. I spent years in art school. Maybe I’ve become turned off to the abstract and the subjective. My aim is to be universal, objective, and concrete.
APP: There has been much debate lately about whether or not authorization guarantees a decent teacher. As an authorized teacher, what are your thoughts on the benefits of an authorized teacher to an Ashtanga student?
Day: Authorization guarantees that the person who has been given this blessing has, at the very least, spent a good amount of time with our teacher, Sharath, in Mysore, India. Are some people better teachers than others? Sure. Authorization doesn’t automatically make someone a skillful communicator, or articulate, or compassionate. But if we all have Sharath as our guide and as our example, and if we can aim at embodying the compassion he demonstrates as a teacher, and we are true to the lineage, then what more can you ask? No system is perfect. But it’s what we’ve got. All we can do is hope to transmit the message we have been exposed to in Mysore. As an Authorized teacher, it’s most basic role asks that Ashtanga lineage will be passed down without any form of hybridization or corruption, but in its best attempt at purity.
For more from Day Christensen, Vist Day1Yoga.com
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail email@example.com.