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Seeking and avoiding sensation

I had a discussion with Luke Jordan last week after his visit about his overall approach to the practice and, more specifically, to teaching. Luke said that his main focus when teaching is towards keeping the students fully present, connected and engaged with the practice from one moment to the next. One way that he does this is by getting the students to focus on the sensations that they are feeling in the body. Pretty simple but very effective.

That set me thinking about our individual relationships to sensation in the body during yoga practice.

Like almost everything in life there is a balance to be found between seeking out sensation in the asanas and avoiding sensation altogether. We can end up in trouble if we favour either.

My experience of seeking out, and going further into, bodily sensations in the asanas is that there is potential for injury and for creating unhealthy patterns of movement, especially in the joints (notice I only say potential here). The idea that we should be feeling discomfort in the asanas is not quite right. Conversely, it is almost impossible to feel totally comfortable all the time, especially when we are learning a new asana (as Sharath always says, “You get a new asana, you get a new pain”!).

If, however, we avoid uncomfortable sensations in the body there is potential for us to get stuck into old physiological patterns that are not really useful or healthy. Most of us, when we are doing asanas, try to do them in a way that is most comfortable for our particular body (naturally). But the policy of sensation-avoidance can result in us never really experiencing the full benefits of each asana. That is, when we practise the same asana for many years without bringing our full awareness to where the restrictions are in the body, we can limit the transformative potential of each asana.

So, there’s a trade off here between seeking and avoiding ‘feelings’ in the body.

Where does that leave us? Confused, probably. It’s not an easy conundrum to solve.

I would suggest that becoming aware of our own patterns is the first step. Become aware of whether you are seeking out or avoiding sensation in the body in each asana that you practice. You’ll usually find that this varies from asana to asana because we all have different areas of physical tension and physical freedom. If you can become fully aware of these habits then they will automatically stop. There’s no need for you to actively try to go deeper into comfort or discomfort, it will happen once you shine the light of awareness on your tendencies.

I talk a lot about the more subtle aspects of yoga practice but we must not forget that we are using the physical asanas as the tool to gain the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of the practice. That means that, if we can bring the full power of our attention to what we are feeling and experiencing in the asanas in each moment, then the inner benefits of the practice will come to us automatically.

I’ll leave you with more words of wisdom from Luke:

“We spend so much of our lives up in our heads. We need to become aware of what is happening in the body”.

And don’t forget to breathe.

Patanjali Yoga Sutras II:46

Sthira sukham asanam

Asana should be steady/stable/firm and comfortable

 

 


Ashtanga Yoga Nationwide

We’re right in the middle of an intense week with Luke Jordan at the shala. One of my favourite things about a travelling teacher like Luke Jordan coming to Dublin is the way in which the whole community of practitioners comes together in one place at one time.

There are so many people practising ashtanga yoga in Ireland these days and not everyone is so lucky to be living near a teacher and a community of other practitioners. Having a great teacher come and visit is a great incentive for those students to travel and be part of the buzz of a large group of practitioners for a few days. Then there’s also the students from different shalas/teachers all coming together and getting to know each other a little bit.

I know I talk about this a lot but we are all so reliant on each other as practitioners. It is rare to be able to practise ashtanga yoga intensely and consistently on your own. Some people can do it, but most of us really struggle to keep up that passion and drive on a daily basis. That’s why we need teachers to maintain shalas (or regular classes at least) so that we can draw energy and inspiration for our practice, not just from the teacher but also from the other students.

We are social animals. So much so that – as many studies have shown – the more and the stronger our social connections are the longer our lives will be. We literally die younger if we are not part of a thriving community. And the bad news is that our communities in general are becoming more fragmented as each generation passes. That’s why being part of a group of individuals with similar goals and values is such a powerful thing. So, enjoy being part of this great community of practitioners in Ireland. It’s irrelevant who your teacher is or which shala you go to, or even if you practise alone all the time; when we get an opportunity to come together it’s always a positive thing.

The effect of being part of this ashtanga community is that it supports our personal practice and makes it easier to maintain. Then the benefits can spread into the wider community.

There were almost 50 students who came to the shala to practice the other day (between Luke’s class in the morning and my evening class that day). That’s 50 people who will interact with a lot more people during the course of their own day. The effect of 50 happy, healthy people leaving the shala and going out into the world can only be a good thing.

I’m not one to evangelise about the benefits of yoga practice to everyone I meet (this blog being the obvious exception) but I think that, as students of yoga, we can be a beacon to others who could benefit from this in their own lives. We are all examples of the positive effects of yoga practice on our lives and, in a wide sense, we can raise the level of health, happiness and consciousness of everyone we come into contact with.

So, enjoy being part of the ashtanga community, both in your own shala and in a wider sense, and for those of you who practise alone, know that the community is always there to support you when you need it.

Thanks also to Luke for his visit, and for bringing us all together for this short time.


Cultivating Joy

I can’t take any credit for formulating the concept I’m writing about this week, but it’s something that I want to share with you all anyway.

It’s a very simple idea and it is this:

Joy is the default setting of our minds and if we can get rid of mental chatter we will experience abundant joy.

When we enter a state in which our minds are both relaxed and alert a profound sense of joy spontaneously arises. This has been experienced and has been spoken and/or written about for centuries by many great teachers.

This state of mind can be practised and cultivated so that it becomes easy to experience joy without any external stimulus. We often feel like our happiness and joyfulness depends on external circumstances. We feel happy or sad when we are appreciated/unappreciated by our boss in work, when we experience pleasure/pain, or when our football team wins/loses.

This realisation that joy is available to us independently of anything outside ourselves is an antidote to greed. So often we are chasing money, pleasure, power, love in order to bring us joy and happiness but if we realise that joy really does come from within (and in a very concrete, practical and ‘practisable’ way) then contentment will also arise spontaneously.

So how to practise this?

There are so many ways to cultivate a relaxed and alert mind and the mindfulness movement is making great strides towards bringing these practices into the zeitgeist. But even during our ashtanga yoga practice we can aim to still the mind. The tools are all there inside the ashtanga system; breath, bandha, drishti and asanas. If we can let go of the striving to achieve this posture or that posture we can really start to experience this state where are minds are clear. It just takes a little bit more focus on the more subtle aspects of the ashtanga practice. Then joy, happiness and contentment will come.

Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.

Inspiration for this blog post comes from the Finding Mastery podcast


Satisfaction comes from within

Happiness and satisfaction don’t come from material goods or external attainments.

Everybody knows that.

It’s so well known by us all in fact that it has become a cliche. When we hear this advice we don’t even pay it any attention any more. “Yeah, of course, I know that”.

The thing is that, most of the time, we live our lives and make important decisions as if we’re completely unaware of this fundamental truth of human life.

“If I had a big house I’d be happy.”

“If I had a cool car I’d be happy.”

“If I could just afford those Manolo Blahnik’s I’d be happy”

We know that this stuff is all nonsense. We would never even say any of this stuff out loud (or even think it consciously). Because it’s foolish. Everyone knows that happiness comes from within…

So instead, we say

“I wish I had a slightly bigger house, life would be a bit easier”, (cut to daydream of living in a beautiful house with a happy face)

“Those new 6 series BMWs are nice. I could definitely see myself in one of those”, (cut to daydream of driving around with a happy face in a BMW)

“Man, I would look sooooo hot in those Manolo Blahnik’s, and everyone would know how cool – and rich – I was if I had them”, (cut to… you get the idea)

In all of these imaginary scenarios that play out in our minds we end up happy. We are completely fooling ourselves if we think that we’re not falling into the trap of seeking happiness in ‘things’. We’re just not stupid enough to say the words “if I had (insert desirable item here) then I’d be happy”.

BUT WE STILL THINK IT!

I mean, what the hell is wrong with us?!

Every spiritual tradition in history tells us that true happiness comes from within but yet we cannot fully grasp how to really make ourselves believe it.

The Yoga Sutras say that the six poisons of the mind are desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy, and sloth.

Next time you’re feeling dissatisfaction, frustration, or depression try to become aware of which of these poisons are at work (often it’s a combination of two or more). Becoming aware of your own mind is the first step towards solving the problem.

Once you have identified the cause then the solution is usually pretty simple. If anger is causing you pain, you try to let it go. If sloth is causing you pain then move your body. If you become aware that delusion is your problem then you’ve probably just solved that problem (because how can you delude yourself while you know that you’re deluding yourself?).

I am of course hugely over-simplifying the process of becoming aware. But it is important for our long-term emotional health and fulfilment that we begin the journey towards awareness.

For those of us with an interest in yoga practice, reading the yoga sutras can be a huge help in identifying common mental patterns that humans are prone to. We can then begin to deconstruct the, sometimes unhealthy, narrative in our minds.

And don’t stop practising. Never stop practising.

 


Fanning the spark

I’m a regular listener  to the Rich Roll podcast. It’s a very popular podcast and I’m sure some of you will have heard of it. For those of you who haven’t, Rich Roll is an endurance triathlete who has a background in competing at ultra-ironman distance triathlons. “Ultraman” is a three-day race consisting of (day 1): a 10km swim followed by a 145km bike ride, (day 2): a 276km bike ride, and (day 3): an 84km double marathon! And I thought primary series was hard…

I think his podcast is great; long-form interviews with some of the world’s most interesting and inspirational figures in sport, health, diet, politics, business and more.

I was listening to a panel discussion the other day between Rich Roll and Marco Borges in which they were talking about veganism (Rich Roll also happens to be a vegan and an advocate for following a plant-based diet). It’s a point that I have heard Rich make on a good few occasions on the podcast and I wanted to share it with you and how it relates to ashtanga yoga.

The point is that, within the vegan movement, there are many people who take a very hard line on what other people should and shouldn’t be doing. For example if a celebrity says they are going to follow a vegan diet for 30 days they get abuse online for only doing it for 30 days. If someone starts to follow a plant-based diet but doesn’t immediately throw out all of their leather shoes they get called a disgrace. The list goes on.

The point the two speakers were making is that, rather than pointing fingers and judging each other, what the vegan movement needs to do in order to grow is to ‘fan the spark’ of anyone who comes to it with any sort of interest.

I feel like this is very closely related to ashtanga yoga. I have seen so many teachers and students of this method judging other people based on the various criteria of what they personally consider to be ‘correct method’ (how often they practice, how they practise, even how far along in the series they are… seriously!).

I would like to propose to the wider ashtanga yoga teaching community that we need to make more effort to ‘fan the spark’ of practitioners who are coming to ashtanga yoga and Mysore-style regardless of their background, who their last teacher was, what they practised before (anti-Bikram snobs I’m looking at you), and even their level of apparent commitment.

Not everyone is going to walk into a Mysore-style class, love it, and then commit to practising every day for the rest of their lives. We need to meet people where they are at and not judge them for trying and failing to establish their practice in a way that we deem valuable. The beauty of ashtanga yoga is that it is a useful tool for many of the afflictions that humans are susceptible to. It is useful to practise regularly and it is less useful to practise sporadically but, even sporadic practice, if done in the right way, has huge benefits on many levels.

If we fan the spark, rather than pouring cold water on it, the potential for practitioners to develop a practice over a number of years is hugely increased. Then we might see the practice spreading even wider and, who knows, even becoming a mainstream thing. If that happens we all know that the world will be a happier, healthier place.


The value of learning a practice

A couple of times over the past few weeks I had the new experience of being confronted by first-time students over the value of Mysore-style method of practising. Both of these new students had already done a lot of ashtanga yoga classes before (I didn’t ask where) but they had never done a Mysore-style class.

So, as I almost always do, I spent a lot of time carefully explaining exactly what our approach is and then I proceeded to teach the sun salutations and the beginning of the primary series (any of you out there who teach Mysore-style will know that you have to give a lot of attention to new students, both so that they learn the practice correctly and also so that you can get to know them and their bodies). It is always our intention to send new students away with something that they can practice at home, even if it’s just Surya Namaskara A. Most students appreciate this, and see the value in learning the practice for themselves.

But occasionally you can see that this way of teaching doesn’t sit well with certain students. In my experience it’s usually the ones who have already attended a lot of led classes and are new to Mysore-style who end up having problems with it.

Here is the main problem: When you go regularly to a led ashtanga class for a long time you end up getting through quite a lot, or even all, of the primary series. But, unless you’re exceptionally switched-on and have a really good memory, you don’t actually memorise any of the sequences of poses (let alone the correct vinyasa for each one). Then, when you come to a Mysore-style class we get you to memorise the beginning of the series (we could, of course, bring you through the entire primary series but that’s not really the idea behind Mysore-style) and you are limited in how far you get by how good your memory is, not by how much stamina you have or by how flexible or strong you are. This can be frustrating.

The experience in your first few Mysore-style classes can be “I can do waaaay more than what I’m being taught here”, and  “I thought yoga was supposed to be about switching off my mind; they’re making me really think a lot here”. Then, after the class, these two particular students who I mentioned at the beginning both said that they didn’t feel that great feeling that they usually get after doing their ‘regular’ class. Well, of course not, they only practised the sun salutations and the first few poses of the series.

It’s a tricky thing sometimes, trying to sell people on the benefits of this way of practising when they don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way they were doing it before. But here are my thoughts on why you need to persevere and get over that initial resistance:

Please don’t get me wrong here, there are some great teachers out there who, for one reason or another, are only teaching led ashtanga classes but the majority of ashtanga led classes are, in my opinion ‘exercise’ classes as opposed to ‘yoga’ classes. The ashtanga yoga primary series is a fantastic exercise routine and so there is, of course, huge benefit to practising it in any setting. However, if we are ever to go deeper with the practice so that it affects not only our bodies but our minds, emotions, and way of life we are eventually going to need to go much deeper than is possible in the typical led class. When we learn the series ourselves and remove the external stimulus of having to be talked through the whole series, we are narrowing our focus considerably. Then ekāgratā (single-pointed focus) has more potential to arise.

Once you learn the ashtanga yoga method for yourself it is yours forever. It is a practice which you can do for decades, slowly refining and going deeper into its many aspects. And you’ll still get all the physical benefits that you were getting before in the led classes.

If you practice for a long time, without interruption the potential is there for you to experience quiet and stillness on a profound level and even to get a glimpse of your real self, the self that is untouched by modern existence. This is spelled out for us very clearly by Patanjali in the first 16 verses of the first chapter of the yoga sutras.

  • 1:2 Yoga is the stilling of the mind.
  • 1:3 When the mind is still the seer sees his/her true self.
  • 1:4 At all other times the seer identifies themselves with their thoughts.
  • 1:14 The mind can be stilled through practice and detachment.
  • 1:16 Practice is firmly established when done for a long time without interruption and with a positive attitude.

I’m not saying that none of this is possible in a led class but I am saying it is much more possible to experience what Patanjali is describing when we take ownership of and responsibility for our own practice.

Some people, of course, will disagree.

If you are thinking of transitioning from led classes to Mysore-style remember:

  • The object of yoga practice is to quiet the mind. At the very beginning of your experience with Mysore-style you will find that your mind is busier than it was in the led classes, because you are having to think and remember all the vinyasas. After a short while of practising in this way you will find, however, that it is possible to go much deeper into the experience of stillness as there are much less external stimuli.
  • You will generally do less than what your body is able for in the first few classes. This is so that you can remember everything that you need to. We could teach you the whole series but, if we did that, you wouldn’t remember any of it. Be patient.
  • You might not feel that post-yoga-glow that you experienced in the led classes right away. After only a few classes you’ll be back up to the same number of poses that you did before but, this time, you’ll know it yourself and will be able to recreate that feeling anytime and anywhere by practising alone wherever you are.
  • Yoga is a personal practice. It becomes personal when you take ownership of it.

 


A great question

Those of you who come to the shala regularly will know Joanne. She’s there a lot, and she’s very chatty!

Anyway I love the way Joanne thinks about the practice, and about life in general, and she asked this great question just before we went on our retreat last weekend:

“Whilst struggling with marichasana A Suzanne said to me, “this is preparation for putting your leg behind your head”. Since then I’ve been asking myself, why on earth does one need to be able to put their leg behind their head?”

Before you read on, I’d like you just to have a think about that. It’s easy to get so caught up in this ashtanga yoga practice that we stop questioning it at all. You might think to yourself, “well it’s so that you can do supta kurmasana when you get to it” or “it opens up your hips”.

But that doesn’t answer the question really. It just creates another question: “why do you want to open up your hips?” for example.

We could ask a similar question about every yoga posture really, and the range of answers from most people would be the same: So that you can do the next posture , or so that you can lengthen the hamstrings/open the hips/build more strength etc.

But doing the next posture isn’t really the point of yoga practice. Neither is lengthening the hamstrings or making your back more flexible. Not really anyway. Not really really.

Patanjali is very clear right at the beginning of the yoga sutras. In the second sutra he says:

“Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ”

Yoga is the stilling of the mind

So, in that context why would we want to get our leg behind our head?

Because it takes such a monumental effort of concentration (it’s not something one does absent-mindedly is it!) that we have the potential, in that moment, to come closer to stilling our minds than ever before.

The same applies to every other posture. And that is why, as one posture starts to become easy we are given the next challenge along the road. The postures are simply tools that we can use to still our minds. When this becomes our focus it all starts to make more sense.

So go forth and be still!

Thanks Joanne.


How much should I practise?

The recommendation of daily practice in the ashtanga yoga tradition can be difficult to follow.

I have been very lucky over the years to share a house/marriage/life with another very dedicated practitioner. It has been easy to be a good influence on each other with regard to practising every day (it’s probably just as easy to be a bad influence on each other too, but we’ve been lucky so far that it hasn’t really happened). I have to give a huge amount of credit to Suzanne for keeping me on the path of daily practice over the years. Who knows where I would be without her.

I did give up ashtanga yoga though, completely and utterly, in 2009. I was really struggling with a chronic knee injury that never seemed to get any better and I decided that that was it, I’d had enough of this ashtanga yoga stuff. It was just making it worse, and I was sick of getting up so early to practise, and I wasn’t “getting anywhere” with it, and I was just fed up. “That’s it, I’ve had it with this ashtanga yoga”, I said. I told everyone I was giving it up.

I lasted three days before I was back on my mat.

I suppose I had taken for granted what I was getting out of this practice on a daily basis. It was only when I stopped practising for a few days that I realised how much I enjoyed it.

Since 2013, when our first daughter was born, my practice has changed a bit due to more severe time restraints and also many sleepless nights (we had another daughter in 2015) but I still manage to get on my mat almost every day and do what I can.

I was forced to take three months off practising in 2014 when I suffered from a rather large herniated disc in my lower back (L5-S1 for those of you who like the technical details) but I was itching to get back to practice that whole time. When I was finally able to start practising again – starting with just one or two sun salutations and building from there – it was such a joy. Like my experience in 2009, I suppose you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone.

But what I really want to talk about today is the daily requirement of practising.

I know just as well as anyone how hard it is to get on your yoga mat, especially when you have a family/job/injury/illness or anything else. That is why I have really come around to the realisation that the idea of the “Daily Minimum” is a very good thing.

I have heard of David Williams talking about the daily minimum in relation to practice, and as far as I know (although I’m open to being corrected on this) it came directly from Guruji.

The daily minimum is defined by David Williams as being three surya namaskara A, three Surya Namaskara B and the last three finishing poses (yoga mudra, padmasana and utpluthih).

That’s all.

It takes less than ten minutes.

I have found that, even on days where it seems like I couldn’t possibly practise, that the daily minimum is possible. I have often found (and this is the beauty of committing to doing at least the daily minimum every day) that after doing a few sun salutations I will often – but not always – find the energy to do more than I had planned.

I would very much recommend that you try to commit to the daily minimum each day.

  • Don’t be disappointed if, on deciding to do the daily minimum that you don’t actually end up doing any more than that. Be happy that the daily minimum is enough that day.
  • Try to cultivate an awareness of whether you are building energy or using up energy through the practice. If you can become adept at becoming aware on a physical level of this (your mind will often give you conflicting advice and excuses – be it to stop or to keep going) that is the key to deciding how much or how little practice to do each day. To really become good at this takes a long time.
  • If it is not possible to practice on any given day at your regular practice time then don’t make the excuse that you can’t practise that day. You can find time for the daily minimum at some stage. You can.

I think for those of you who are toying with the idea of committing yourself to daily practice (and it is that time of year after all right?) then this could be a very useful psychological tool to use to get you on your mat every day. The rest will just flow from there.

If you have any questions, or we can support you in any way let us know in the comments below.


What does being ‘good at yoga’ even mean?

The winner of the prize for “most meaningless phrase used by yoga students” is:

“Good At Yoga”

I have heard people use this phrase so many times over the years. It’s always in reference to someone who finds the yoga asanas easy to do. In other words the person who uses the phrase “good at yoga” believes that it is important to be strong, flexible and (usually) lean. They see yoga as being equivalent to football, gymnastics or playing a musical instrument, and in order to be proficient in yoga one has to display talent and ability in achieving the asanas.

To be clear, I do believe that it’s important to cultivate flexibility, strength and to live a healthy lifestyle (that usually results in a lean body) but (as I have realised through my own yoga practice and through having a few hundred yoga students walk in our door over the last few years) many of us will never find the asanas to be easy.

The level of ease that we experience in the ashtanga yoga practice is dependant on many factors. Genetics, age, previous injuries and illnesses, and diet are all very big factors in determining whether we’ll find the asanas easy or difficult (or even impossible).

I’ll try to illustrate what I’m trying to get at by way of two hypothetical examples:

Patrick is a 63 year old man who has a history of lower back pain. He ate a diet of rich and refined foods for many years, causing him to gain a lot of excess weight, and he has had reconstructive surgery on both knees after a car accident. He has been practising ashtanga yoga for 2 years and has found that it has given him a new lease of life; greater energy, more mobility, better concentration, and a general feeling of being a bit more in control of his life.

Because of his physical limitations, age, and previous history Patrick is very limited in which asanas he can currently do. Some days, if he feels his energy is low, he does even less than he has been taught, but he does practise every day.

When Patrick is practising yoga he is very conscious of focusing on his breath, he maintains uddiyana and mula bandha as much as possible and his drishti never wavers. If you see him practising you can tell immediately that he is a very focused practitioner. 

Jenny is a 32 year old woman who has a background in dance. She has also been practising for two years. She was able to do all of the poses of the primary series within about two weeks of starting and now practises about half of the intermediate series too. She can drop back into a backbend and catch her ankles easily. She is flexible, strong and lean.

When Jenny is practising it is hard to tell whether or not she is breathing. She often looks around the room to see what the other students are doing and whenever someone walks into the shala she looks up to see who it is.

Which of these students is “good at yoga”?

In the context of the (quite obvious) thrust of this blog post it is easy to recognise that Patrick is really practising yoga in a more productive way, despite being dealt a set of cards which restrict him in lots of ways. However, if most of us were to witness these two practitioners side-by-side doing their practice then we might suggest that Jenny is “better at yoga”.

I have heard so many people over the years suggest that they would like to start to do yoga but they’re just so inflexible that they’d be “awful at it”. “I can’t even touch my toes”, they say, as if that fact alone somehow instantly disqualifies them from beginning a yoga practice. This would be the equivalent of saying “I can’t take piano lessons because I really can’t play the piano at all”. It’s nonsensical.

Yoga practice is purely a means to gaining health, calming the mental chatter of the mind, and ultimately (if we’re really on the right track) gaining some knowledge of ourselves. The asanas, breath, bandhas and drishti are tools to achieve that.

Let us please retire the phrase “good at yoga”.

“Yoga is a spiritual practice. The rest is just a circus”-Pattabhi Jois