Nancy Gilgoff

Remembering Nancy Gilgoff

Reflections on Nancy Gilgoff's Teaching

“As a teacher give freely, don’t hold back.”

From her website: Nancy Gilgoff began practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1973 with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, in Mysore, India. When Nancy asked Jois how she should teach, he told her to "teach the way I taught you"— advice which she took to heart.

I met Nancy in 2012 when we hosted her for a retreat in Spain. Theresa, my wife, brought her to Purple Valley in 2006 and 2007,  thought very highly of her (both as a teacher and a person) and wanted me to meet her.

I wasn't disappointed. Indeed, we owe Keen On Yoga, with the platform's underlying message of accessibility and anti-dogma (as well as the spirit of joy in practice),  in no small part to Nancy and what she made me aware of as the roots of a practice that is often found more rigid and homogenised than the way she learnt and taught it.

During the pandemic, we also hosted Nancy for a couple of online workshops which further solidified this approach in me. At once kind as well as intense, individualised and pragmatic while remaining traditional to the original spirit of Ashtanga when the world hadn't lost its head to such a degree as it has today.

Below is (my) edited version of the notes Amanda Faye Martin accumulated over her years of practising with Nancy.

In this, through my understanding of working with Nancy myself, I have done my best to preserve what I see as her general approach and spirit.

*When you find sentences in quotation marks, they are Amanda’s notes of what Nancy said in workshops/directly to her. They may not be her exact words in this case. But. on reading the post, they struck me as so strongly imbued with Nancys' spirit; regarding the syntax and choice of words, that I decided to put these exerts in quotation marks.

General Approach

‘Today it’s too strict, with too much of a hierarchy. Back in the day, it was the freaks, musicians, and free thinkers. If they put the kinds of restrictions on us that they do with people today, we wouldn’t have taken to it.’

‘Don’t overthink things. This is not Guruji's method.’

The practice is about energy, not the perfect posture, not alignment in terms of straight lines. For one example of this from her, she suggested

"not to ‘segment’ the upward-facing dog, just let it flow."

“Our job is to override the fear when fear comes up. This is what you learn in the practice, not to go into it. Otherwise, fear grows and tension grows. “

"Get people moving and breathing and explain later. The fluidity of movement is the primary focus."

Nancy stressed that we really shouldn’t be going for sensation in the asana. Especially if you are very flexible already - you should go solely into a comfortable range of motion, not somewhere where it’s painful or intense even. The purpose of the practice isn’t to agitate. even in surya A people go to a range that is painful and causes agitation…. that's not the point.

“Regarding specifics on asanas, Guruji never gave too much thought to it - it wasn’t really about that in the beginning, it was about breathing - also when it was hands-on, it was clear - you just knew the answer physically - you didn’t need to overthink it and use so many words… “

On Primary Series Asanas

Guruji put together the Ashtanga series way later than when he first became “a yoga master” with Krishnacharya. He researched to put the series together; this was watching students, at which time, he would change things around and make amendments as he experimented with different bodies.

Nancy always remembers that he kept many notebooks full of observations. Presumably, Sharathji must have them now. In the Western mind the idea is that the asanas should be straight (and perfect) Guruji always suggested to Nancy and more relaxed and softer approach – almost softer.

Nancy often warned about overworking. Instead, the practice being about energy was subtler and gentler.

She also encouraged rounding the back in forward-folds, justifying this as when you round with sitting bones down, you have mula bandha, this is lost when performing them with a straight back.

Gurjui never said “chaturanga” because you aren’t meant to hold it. Rather he referred to it always as ‘chatvari’ regardless of where it was in the count, suggesting that you move through it.

“Guruji didn’t care which wrist to grab for the binds - he said just take a hand, breathe….”

On Jump Through

 Nancy was a strong believer in crossing the legs to jump through (as, she said, was Jois). The modern straight leg jump through she suggested relied too much on momentum so was ineffective, as well as being bad for the hips in the long term.

On Intermediate Series

Nancy always taught people as quickly as possible through a basic version of the Primary and Intermediate series as she was originally taught, warning that the energies needed balancing and there was a danger of doing too much Primary on its’ own.

This she said was especially important for older people, where too much Primary would only hurt their knees.

 If energy is a problem, do the series with fewer vinyasas, then, over time, slowly build up to adding them back in.

On Splitting

Have the person go up to navasana and then go all the way through the Intermediate

Or, with less time or energy, you can do up to navasana and then go to eka pada one day, then the next, up to navasana and then start from eka pada.

Or, one day Intermediate, the next Primary.

Make sure you only do Primary on some days (‘people wonder why they’re going crazy, all of these Ashtanga teachers only doing intermediate and advanced - of course, they are - you need some primary to settle the energy’)

Jois also told Nancy that if you’re pressed for time just do Surya Namasaras and then skip standing poses and go straight to primary.

Headstand and Shoulder stand

In the beginning, Nancy couldn’t do a headstand She had too much flexibility in her lower back. Jois told her to build up 100 breaths on the wall and then try again free-standing mentioning the posture as the ‘king of poses’. As an old man, he said he would do a headstand for an hour a day.

In shoulderstand, Jois said 25 breaths. Nancy used to do 50; feeling it is correcting something in the body. This was indicative of her feeling that you go with what you feel is moving things where they need to go – at a certain point in practice, you have to use your intuition.

Rishi Series

The “Rishi series” was graduation from the Ashtanga series. You know the postures that move the energy - and then you take 10 postures a day and hold them for a very long time. Headstand is always one of them. Not many people are aware of this intention/final aim of Jois’ teaching.

Nancy’s Ideas On Why We Do Right First In Padmasana Positions

Jois said it had to do with the way internal energy works in the body. The energy moves in one direction, and, according to him. if you do it the other way around it is a danger to the liver and spleen.

Nancy noticed that Buddha always has left on top, asking the Tibetan lamas, and they said that when you reach enlightenment the energy changes and that’s why you do it the other way around!

Nancy’s other teacher, Baba Hare Das, said that men and women are different; men can switch legs, but because of something internal in the anatomy of women, they ought not to.

However, in 4th series, there is a posture in the headstand and lotus that Nancy had trouble going to one side with, and Jois told her to switch legs in the lotus and it worked. He said this was okay in this instance, because it was a posture in motion, so there wasn’t as much danger of the energy moving in the wrong direction


‘A good adjustment will leave an imprint on the body. I still feel guruji’s hands inform my movements’

On Dealing With Emotions In The Practice

“If something is coming up emotionally, breathe faster, louder, get through it, blow it out, keep going. if you breathe slower it will cover, suppress it.”

We should allow the breathing to be natural; it will become faster or slower, but, don’t try to block its natural rhythm.

“If somebody got scared… or had a big release…Jois would have them go into pashimotanasana and lay on them until they calmed down”

On the Breathing

The way Jois taught pranayama, he wouldn’t start teaching you until you had been doing intermediate regularly, because it is very triggering for the nervous system. So, the nervous system needs to be prepared before heading into intense pranayama.

“Jois never said “ujayi breath”, he just said ‘breath with sound’."

On Modern Yoga

Guruji thought one of the worst things to happen to the practice was sticky mats (!)

One in Nancy’s memory, someone made little stick figures of the postures (and brought them into the room as ‘cheat sheets’.  Guruji said, ‘no this is meant to be taught by the teacher to students, and it’s not about the mind, the mind is trying to remember, the teacher is the cheat sheet, the teacher is there to tell you…’

On Teaching

Gurjui suggested that everyone should teach whether it’s your best friend, 1 person, or whatever. When you are sharing yoga, it deepens in you and your own practice too.