Nancy Gilgoff is thought to be the first American woman to travel to India to study Ashtanga yoga with Pattabhi Jois. Certainly she’s one of a trio credited with bringing Ashtanga to America in the 1970s. And having dedicated herself to teaching the tradition for 27 years, she has brought students from all over the world to her doorstep with her love for Ashtanga.
Gilgoff maintains she never meant to be a yoga teacher–especially not in a system that purifies through movement and heat, where students take years to master the physical demands of first and second series before they are ready for Pranayama (breath control) and meditation. In fact, in going to India in her mid-20s, Gilgoff was simply following her yoga teacher and boyfriend, David Williams. She had turned to the practice in a final attempt to cure a host of physical maladies.
The earliest of Gilgoff’s injuries began when she was a child. She loved horseback riding, but it put such a constant pounding on her lower spine that she was left with chronic back problems. “By the time I was a teenager,” she says, “it had manifested in my neck, where a vertebra was jammed forward.” Along with this, childhood dental work had been performed with her mouth left open so uncomfortably, she would literally scream in pain, a torture she believes compounded the neck injury. Later, as a junior in college, she began getting severe migraines she believes were triggered by the then-new birth control pills. This experience left her with jaw pain so intense, she couldn’t open her mouth for days at a time.
“My friends may not have noticed it, because I kept up a pretty good pace,” Gilgoff says, “but I was getting weaker and weaker. I was having 10-day periods and throwing up a good deal of the time. I was sleeping 12 hours a day and was addicted to Darvon for two years because it was the only thing that relieved the headaches. I didn’t know what to do.”
Her pain was so acute, doctors suggested surgery to deaden places in her brain, in effect to numb the pain. But Gilgoff had other ideas. She had watched a close friend go through hospital treatments for cancer, and the idea of surgery appalled her. “I knew I didn’t want to end up in that situation,” she says, “so I started looking around, taking the first steps to another way of being.”
When Gilgoff left college at age 24, she’d already become a vegetarian, and it wasn’t long after she took up yoga under Williams’ tutelage that the couple traveled to India, where they ended up at Jois’s Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore. The challenge of Ashtanga would change her life.
“If I were alive today without Ashtanga, I certainly wouldn’t have much quality to my life because I was going downhill pretty quickly,” Gilgoff says. “And the medical establishment wanted to either drug me or numb it because they had no solutions. Eventually, I would have done myself in.”
Instead, Pattabhi Jois started her on the road to healing. Gilgoff remembers her first experience with the guru as full of trust on her part and compassion on his. “A bond formed between us,” she says, “when he would physically drag me through the vinyasas because I was too weak to do them on my own.” And though she was allowed to practice with the Indian men downstairs, rather than upstairs with the handful of Indian women at Mysore, Jois would not let her do the postures alone for the first month. “He treated me very differently,” Gilgoff recalls.
Jois told her that her headaches were coming from the base of her spine and that her nervous system was weak. When she practiced, Gilgoff says Jois would “put his hands on the base of my spine. He’d push very hard there, and it created a lot of heat.” An <a href="/health/ayurveda“>ayurvedic, he read her pulse and prescribed a cooling diet, which meant no onions, garlic, cheese, or papaya, and very little citrus. “I’m an air predominate,” she explains. “If I eat a lot of raw foods I overheat and get exhausted, so I have to eat rice and other cooked grains.” She also began drinking almond milk and eating 10 almonds a day.
After four months on the diet and twice-daily Ashtanga lessons six days a week, Gilgoff’s migraines had virtually disappeared. When she had arrived at Mysore, although she could sit in lotus for the final pose of Ashtanga’s rigorous first series, she hadn’t been able to lift her body off the ground for even one breath. “But when I left, I was doing one hundred breaths,” she says. “So I changed that much in that short amount of time. It was because Guruji gave so much to me. I really credit him with taking care of my headaches; he healed me of that. Of course, I had to do it, but he showed me how: He gave me the tools.”
Tools that Gilgoff feels kept her afloat through the next two decades, as she continued to struggle with back pain and general weakness. She finally overcame her problems 10 years ago through a combination of yoga, chiropractic medicine, and cranial-sacral work.
“Jois definitely changed me,” she says, “though it took a long time to remedy the original problem. When I went to a chiropractor in my 40s, he told me I should be much sicker because of the bad vertebra. But I had regulated my diet, and the postures and the heat from Ashtanga kept me going. They gave me strength.”
Rejuvenated by her time in India, Gilgoff returned to the States and began assisting Williams’s first Ashtanga classes in Encinitas, California, developing the daily discipline needed to keep Ashtanga in her life. The couple then moved to Maui, Hawaii, where they often gave lessons free in the park and subsequently created the small, burgeoning community of Ashtanga enthusiasts from which the Ashtanga lineage in America was born. “None of us ever thought it would get this big,” says Gilgoff about a practice even her own students call extreme. In fact, she suffered many lean years, sometimes living in sheds and cars in her determination to teach, always remembering Jois’s advice, that if she practiced and taught yoga, all would come to her.
Much has come to Gilgoff today, having both taught and studied with some of the biggest names in yoga, including a year with the “silent saddhu” Baba Hari Dass. “Jois taught me the asanas,” she says, “and I think he’s the best there is, but Babaji taps into a universal knowledge.” Gilgoff feels this knowledge of the sutras, meditation, and pranayama greatly enhanced her teaching.
She is passing this legacy on at her House of Yoga and Zen in Maui, a country hideaway overlooking Haleakala in an island environment she says helped her to heal. Her studio might be tucked away on a friend’s tomato farm, but it attracts staunch followers from all over the world. Here both new and longtime students find remarkable guidance.
“Because it’s so physical, Ashtanga is a practice on the razor’s edge,” explains 12-year participant Snookie Baker. “Yet Nancy is extremely open to where people are at and understands the subtleties of the body. She imparts a deep quality of awareness, and when she gets near me, my body knows what to do just from her inclination.”
Gilgoff calls it a kind of grace, that internal awareness she felt from Jois’s hand that has in turn come to her through years of practice. “It was almost like osmosis with Jois, and I feel him in my hands when I’m working with others,” she says. But where the guru would move in quickly with a student, Gilgoff’s approach is slow and gentle, with a refined sense of the individual, based not on age or gender but on energy levels. “When I put my hand on a student’s sacrum,” she explains, “I can tell how the energy is moving. If that person is shaky, it means the energy isn’t running freely through the body. “Because of her own struggle for health, Gilgoff recognizes similar problems in others quickly. “Sometimes I can even tell from a distance where someone has blocks,” she notes. “People say I can just put my hand right on the site, but it’s because it talks to me.”
Her classes begin with a sit and chanting, where Gilgoff not only assesses the energy in the room, but also students’ various energies from their postures. As salutations start, she moves around touching everyone willing to be touched in Downward Dog to both establish that important student-teacher trust and to further sense individual energies. What she’s looking for in a pose is what she calls that small window of opportunity during which she can move students without hurting them. “I’m not trying to do anything except bring awareness to an area, wake it up, and let it release what it needs to release,” she says. “The body knows best, and when we trust the body, it will give us the answers.”
Not only does Gilgoff realize the healing process takes time, she has also seen how jumping without hesitation into daily Ashtanga may mean you’re not able to do much elseincluding working fulltime, even if you’re physically fit. Then there are also those days, even years, when you simply can’t get into a posture. In Gilgoff’s case, her once agile hip stubbornly refused to allow her foot behind her head after childbirth.
“I was always improving,” she says about her own recovery, “but you have to go through layers to heal. In that way it took me a long time to get through to the initial problem, for the energy to start flowing through the body evenly, without blocks.” Having finally arrived at a place of calm, limitless energy, truly feeling better at age 52 than she did at 24, Gilgoff realizes the energy was always thereshe just wasn’t accessing it. “Everything takes time to find its new place, but we get glimpses to keep us going. Yoga is an experiential thing,” she says about this journey, “and I understand more as my own body is able to understand more. Which is why it’s absolutely imperative that if someone’s teaching, they’re doing the practice, so they can be sensitive to these changes.”
“Nurturing” is the word Gilgoff’s students use to describe her dedication. She enjoys teaching on a daily basis, seeing remarkable changes in her students happening every day, even after years of working together. Her own practice is a very private act, however. She never videotapes her practice, nor invites others to watch, saying simply, “If I want to be known for anything, it’s to be known as a teacher.”
Ever humble, Gilgoff shies away from the limelight and refuses to be put on a pedestal. Still, she does possess a unique vantage point when commenting on the West’s current Ashtanga boom. “The purpose of a strong body is to build spiritual strength,” she reminds us, “so you can move on to the deeper practices of pranayama and meditation. And you also want to build compassion for yourself and others. You have to bring the mind into harmony with the fact that you may suddenly have this beautiful, powerful body, or you’re going to end up with a large ego.”
Which is why she cautions against inexperienced teachers, who can harm students not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. So serious is she about this classic system, she only sparingly teaches what she calls Jois’s “fierce pranayamas.” They require a mastery of the first and second series and a breath control she feels she is still exploring herself.
Despite such cautions, Gilgoff finds great hope in Ashtanga’s recent popularity. A sense of family, once cultivated by that early Ashtanga group on Maui, seems to her to be alive and well in today’s larger yoga community, where many of the strongest Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Viniyoga teachers come from our society. A good shift, says Gilgoff, who describes this as a time when we don’t have the luxury of going off by ourselves to a cave to develop our practice. “We really need to be out in the world,” she says, “to help people and the earth to heal.”
Perhaps this is the next step for Gilgoff herself, in a life where yoga has constantly crooked its finger and beckoned her onward. “It’s all been a gift,” she says. “Each day is where I’m at that day, and I just do the best I can. I figure if I show up and put my mat down and raise my arms, with that first breath, I’m home free.”
Zu Vincent lives in Northern California. Her work has appeared in Fine Homebuilding, Fly Fishing, and Harper’s.