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Healthy habits

There’s a lot going on this month. Luke Jordan is coming next week (which takes a lot of organising), we have a new shala in the pipeline, and I’ve got a big (for me) concert coming up in Cork in a couple of weeks.

I don’t tend to suffer from stress too much but I’m feeling it a little this last month or so. I’m starting to see and feel the effects of increased levels of stress in my life and it makes me feel compassion for those who live with stressful situations on an ongoing basis. I know that includes some of you who read this email.

It’s patently true to say that stress is a killer. It has actually become a cliché to say that these days. And I find that worrying. Stress has become the norm for many of us; at work, at home, with family, relationships, commuting, finding a home, you name it.

As a society, we’re starting to sleep less, move less, connect with each other less and our food choices are becoming less and less healthy as the decades go on. It paints a bleak picture of our future and that of our children.

There are, though, some beacons of light amongst us who can help us to combat this downward trend, and I think it’s helpful to share some of the things I do in order to help me lead a more uplifting life.

I eat mostly plant-based, whole, organic food. This is where we buy most of our veggies. For those of you who say you don’t have time to go and find organic food. Just get onto these guys. And sign up for their weekly emails. I find them inspirational.

I absolutely 100% need to get outdoors every day. And so do you. You know it. So do it. Go out and move around. You can borrow my kids if you need an excuse!

I listen to The Rich Roll Podcast almost every week. This guy, for me, is the ultimate lighthouse in the stormy sea. There are so many amazing people out there; teachers, mentors, or people who lead and inspire us by example. How many of them are available for us to listen to for two or more hours every week in our earbuds though? And all for free? Get listening to The Rich Roll Podcast asap!

If I’m lying in bed, unsuccessfully willing myself to get up and get on my mat I sometimes get the phone out and go onto The Happy Pear Instagram account. Seeing those guys swimming in the Irish Sea at sunrise every morning never fails to give me the jolt of positivity that I need to throw the covers off and put the coffee machine on! Be careful though, not to start clicking on all the other accounts or other apps that you’re addicted to on that iPhone!

All of these things are really great but, most importantly, I practice yoga every day that I can. Every day that I practise I am thankful for it. I have found that my life improves in direct proportion to the amount of time I spend on my mat that day, week, month or year.

Stress really is a killer.

And yoga really is magic.

P.S. You can’t really borrow my children. They’d freak out.


A busy life

The Dalai Lama is reported as saying the following:

“I meditate for one hour first thing in the morning, except for days when I’m really busy. On those days I meditate for two hours”.

We all make excuses for neglecting our practice, and the “too busy” excuse is probably the most common.

But it’s during those intense periods of busyness, hyperactivity and stress that we most need to practise.

We all know this already. I’m not coming up with a new idea here. But it’s not easy to fit in yoga practice when life is already full.

I’ve had a pretty busy time of it for the last while; looking for a new shala, taking care of two small children, lots of music practice and concerts, and teaching of course. But I haven’t sacrificed my daily, morning yoga practice and I’ve added a short sitting meditation practice every evening to help calm the mind. I’m not quite at the Dalia Lama level yet but, I’m hoping a few more weeks will do it!

The reason I love the above quote is that it speaks a truth about our usual mindset. The fact that we’re expecting him to say he doesn’t practice meditation when he’s busy shows how our mind lets us make excuses for ourselves.

So maybe we can’t create the space to increase our practice time when we have a very busy day but maybe we can just keep going, keep doing the thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow and helps us to deal with, and maybe even deflect, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Don’t stop practising.

Never stop practising!


The cycle of long-term practice

Just as I was about to roll out my yoga mat yesterday morning my 5-year-old daughter Molly walked into the room. She woke up two hours earlier than usual and, despite my encouragement, didn’t want to go back to sleep. She was upset because a small, stick-on ‘jewel’ that she had gone to bed with on the back of her hand, had fallen off and she couldn’t find it in the bed. This is grounds for becoming inconsolable at the age of five!

I calmed her down and promised (actually I DOUBLE-PROMISED!) that I would find it as soon as her little sister woke up in the lower bunk.

Then I had a decision to make. Do I start my yoga practice and make her wait until I’m finished, maybe give her some colouring to do? Or do I be with her and spend some quality time with just the two of us?

I chose the quality time and we snuggled up under a blanket on the couch and I read “Daisy And The Trouble With Piggy Banks” to her for a full hour. Molly likes chamomile tea so we had some of that and then it was almost time to wake Anna (the almost-three-year-old) and get the day started properly with breakfast, hair-brushing, teeth-brushing etc. etc. etc…

So I skipped a day of practice.

Despite the fact that the choice I made is the patently selfless and compassionate one, I still have the small gnawing feeling that I’m a sort of ashtanga yoga delinquent for missing a day of practice.

The institution being represented by the man who is visiting Dublin this weekend might have something to do with the installation of those guilty feelings into my consciousness but let’s not get into that here!

I feel like, over the years, as ashtanga yoga practitioners we can be prone to swaying gently but surely between periods of over-exertion and periods of under-exertion. We might spend a couple of years practising really hard, pushing our bodies and minds to their limits on a daily basis. That can be a lot of fun, especially when we’re young and full of vibrancy, but it can also sometimes lead us towards injury and burn-out. Then we might spend another couple of years becoming a bit less energetic in our daily practice. We might do fewer asanas, or do them in a much gentler way and we might miss a day of practice here and there.

It seems to me to be a cyclical thing, akin to the cycles of inhalation and exhalation that we perform through our yoga practice and, indeed, our entire lives. Inhale is effort, exertion, energy, drawing in vitality. Exhale is relaxation, softening, surrender. The cycles of prana and apana happen not just on a minute by minute basis but also over the course of years and even lifetimes.

The idea that someday we will find the perfect balance is, I believe, a myth and I’m starting to think of balance as being something to be achieved over longer periods of time. Nothing is in stasis, everything is in flux and this too shall pass. A period of intensity will be balanced by a period of restfulness.

So I feel, for sure, that I’m in an apana period in my asana practice and, as much as I would like to engage in a long, strong, energetic practice every morning, I must accept and embrace the reality of my daily life.

And anyway, the blanket snuggles with Molly were great 🙂

Keep practising. Don’t stop. But just do what you can.


A different role

There is a certain amount of tension between being a yoga student and running a yoga shala. As a student, it’s my aim (like every other aspiring yogi) to become fully present, aware, mindful of what is happening from moment to moment, accepting things as they come, equanimous in all situations.

This week I have been knee deep in growth forecasts, income projections, membership numbers at the shala and cost/benefit analysis. This is so far away from what I thought I was signing up for when (after Sharath said to me, “You go home and start teaching”) I gave up a couple of part-time music teaching jobs and started to teach Mysore-style with Suzanne.

That being said, I have actually been enjoying my foray into the world of Microsoft Excel. I’ve always been someone who likes learning new things and the whole thing is new enough so as not to be boring… yet!

The reason I’ve been spending so much time with spreadsheets and the calculator app open on my laptop is that we are faced with our latest conundrum about the future of the shala. We’ve been wondering, for a while, if we need a bigger space (as I’m sure many of you students/sardines would be happy to hear). So we’ve been trying to figure out if we can afford a bigger space and, if we can, how much can we afford.

With that in mind, we contacted our current landlord this week to ask what the cost of our next lease would be so that we could compare that to other possible places. Our current lease expires in November and we were fully expecting another fairly significant increase (long-time readers of the moon day news will remember the last lease-saga and the large increase in rent that time).

But it turns out that he has decided not to renew our lease at all, or the leases of any of the three other companies who share our building. He has decided to get rid of us all and to lease the entire four-story building as a single unit.  This is all perfectly acceptable and legal, despite the fact that the some of the companies may have built up some sort of reputation in the location they’ve been in for years. Ladies and gentleman, we really are living in a capitalist utopia.

Luckily for us, our heads had already been turned by thoughts of a bigger shala, so the news wasn’t as shocking as it would otherwise have been. So we are looking around. The cost of premises nearby is quite shocking (hence the excel spreadsheets and growth forecasts) but we are working on it.

So, all this is really just to let you know that our days in 128 Baggot Street are numbered. It was great while it lasted. We might move before November or we might see out our lease in its entirety. Either way, we’ll keep you all informed. And we’ll do our absolute best to provide a great space in the same area; as close as possible to where we are now.

Now, back to that whole being-a-yoga-student thing…


Sometimes it’s hard to be a yoga student

It’s a difficult time to be a yoga student.

Granted, the availability of yoga classes is probably greater than at any point in history so, in that sense, we’ve got it easy, compared to the pioneers who went before us. But we have a big problem that they didn’t have.

We know what all the asanas are supposed to look like.

In the old days, the student had no reference to books, magazines, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or even other yoga students. They were taught an asana by their teacher; given as much or as little instruction as was appropriate for them, and they did the asana the way that their own particular body allowed them to.

These days we have the ability to google any new asana that we’re learning and we will be treated to photos and videos of a plethora of strong, flexible, slim, beautiful people doing the pose perfectly. Then we go back to our mat and try to imitate what we saw on the internet.

And what’s the result?

Broken knees.
Broken backs.
Broken shoulders.
Broken hips.
And a broken spirit.

It’s a jungle out there!

We have to always remember that we don’t have the same genetic material as anybody else. Our bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles are not the same shape or size and are not in the same proportions as anybody else. And the version of any given asana that we do will never, ever be identical to the version that somebody else does.

That’s not the point!

So I encourage you all to find the space inside each yoga posture where you can experience balance; the balance of sthira (steadiness) and sukha (happiness or comfort). Too often we’re seeking one or the other without trying to balance them. We’re either pushing too hard to achieve steadiness, or we’re taking the easy way out to achieve comfort. I must say that, for most ashtanga yoga students, it’s the former!!

Learn to relax in the asanas. It’s so much more enjoyable. Don’t force and fight against the body to try and achieve what you saw somebody doing on the internet or in a book.

When we learn to relax we open up so many more opportunities for new experiences in the yoga practice. It can become a meditation practice where we can observe the effects of each asana on ourselves.  How does the first vinyasa of Surya Namaskara A really feel? Why is that the first movement we make in the practice and what is its effect on us? Are we bringing too much strain and tension to that first vinyasa or are we flopping around without any steadiness at all?

When we start to observe the practice in that way, we can start to get inside the asana.

Get to know the asanas in your own body, with your own experience and forget about what somebody says in their book or on their Instagram account. None of that has got anything to do with you.

Enjoy your practice.


Practising with Peter Sanson in Barcelona

If you’re an attentive reader of our blog you’ll know we spent a few days in Barcelona this week practising with one of our favourite teachers, Peter Sanson.

We’ve practised with him a good few times before, both in Dublin and Portugal and we never grow tired of the experience. Peter has a very simple approach to ashtanga yoga and has a very important message for his students, which he repeats again and again. He has a superb ability to distill the practice down into its essential nature and has a very powerful way of transmitting this to us all.

I’ll attempt to share with you a little of what he spoke about in his talk on Saturday afternoon.

  • Ashtanga yoga is a very simple practice. Most teachers these days over-complicate the whole thing in an effort to make themselves look good. They teach too many asanas too quickly to their students so that the students think they’re great teachers.
  • If you want to see what yoga is NOT about then go onto youtube (or other social media sites) to see all of these yoga teachers performing and talking about yoga asanas. This is the exact opposite of what yoga is about.
  • The yoga asanas are all to do with internal action and moving the energy through the body. What the postures look like from the outside is irrelevant.
  • There is absolutely no performance aspect to yoga practice.
  • Peter is not in the slightest bit interested in what asanas you can do. He is only interested in finding where you are blocked; where the energy is not flowing, and working with that.
  • Every student is totally unique and has a unique set of physical, mental, and emotional circumstances, and a different history through their lives. We should not try to emulate any other students or teachers, only try to work with our own set of circumstances to try to understand where we are coming up against blockages.
  • Everybody is always thinking about the next posture. The most common question that Peter is asked is, “What’s next?”. His reply is, “How about bringing your full attention to the posture that you’re doing right now!”

The passion that Peter has while explaining his approach always leaves us feeling inspired. To try and transmit these ideas to you without you sitting in front of him is hard and maybe even pointless but I thought I’d try anyway.

For Suzanne and I the experience was somewhat bittersweet insofar as we always have a fantastic time practising with Peter. But it always comes to an end too soon and we return home to practise alone again. We are enthused and inspired in our practice and teaching after having contact with such a great teacher but practising without a teacher for such a long time is hard.

It’s our sincere hope that we can help Peter to come back to Dublin next year and we’ll be travelling to see him somewhere else in Europe too. I encourage anyone who has the chance to go and experience his teaching if possible.

See you all at the shala x

 


Gratitude

It often occurs to me how lucky Suzanne and I were to have been able to travel to Mysore when we did; to go and learn from one of the best teachers in the world so early into our ashtanga yoga journey. I had only been practising for a year and a half when I first travelled to Mysore.
 
Ashtanga yoga has become so much bigger in the intervening years that it’s now very difficult to get accepted to practice at the shala with Sharath. When we first went all you had to do was write a letter to Guruji (a letter, remember those?) to say we were coming. Then, you’d turn up on the day you said, and you’d be accepted as a student at the shala.
 
Our intention was to practise with Guruji that year, but he was taken ill about three months before we went (Suzanne was there the previous year and had practised with him for a month or so) so that meant Sharath did all the teaching while we were there, with the exception of a few led classes that Guruji counted himself. Looking back I can’t help feeling how lucky we were to be there. Even to meet Guruji before he passed away was such a blessing.
 
Next Tuesday we are travelling to Barcelona to practise for a few days under the guidance of Peter Sanson, who was Guruji’s student for almost 30 years and still continues to travel to Mysore every year to practise with Sharath or Saraswati. It’s another great blessing to be able to learn from a teacher who has so many decades of practice and teaching under his belt.
 
As the number of students practising ashtanga yoga grows and grows over the years we might find that we don’t have as much access to some of these amazing teachers. Guruji is already gone, Sharath is so busy with so many students that it is hard to even get a place in his class; and who knows how many more years he will be able to keep up such a rigorous schedule. So don’t wait until you’re ‘ready’ to go to a really great teacher. Always take any opportunity that presents itself to practise under the guidance of a master.


Our changing relationship with ashtanga yoga

Our relationship with yoga, in common with our relationship with everything else in our lives, is constantly changing. Personally, I have gone through many different phases since I discovered the practice.

For me, ashtanga yoga started off as something to challenge myself with. I loved the physicality of it all and, every day that I practised, I felt fantastic, bordering on euphoric. Every day there were new challenges and, every few weeks, my body could do something that it was unable to do before. Tiny, incremental changes and improvements were happening both in my body and mind (not always in a totally linear way, but in a generally upward trajectory). I now think of that as the honeymoon period.

Over the years that honeymoon period changed to something else. Sadhana. The practice took on something of a devotional aspect. Not devotional in the religious sense (I’m a sworn atheist) but more in the sense of a daily ritual; a way of paying respect to my body and mind in a way that was very real and very tangible. I was devoted to continuing to practise daily, to visit Mysore as often as possible, and eventually, to pass on what I had learned to anyone who was interested. I felt, and still feel, a strong devotion to my teachers and the lineage of which I am a part, and I feel a duty to continue their work, albeit on a much smaller scale. But I didn’t feel that same sense of being on an upward spiral in terms of what asanas I could do. And the euphoria, while still there sometimes, had become a less frequent occurrence.

Then I started to teach. And sadhana slowly became seva. I feel that now, I’m in the service of my teachers and, to a greater extent, our students. I practise because it makes me feel good. But it doesn’t make me feel as good as it used to! I practise because it’s important that I practise. If I am, along with Suzanne, to lead a community of practitioners then it’s hugely important that I practise what I teach. Some mornings that’s the thing that gets me out of bed and onto my yoga mat.

And now I am also a Father to two small girls, and practice has become something that is still very important, but not the most important thing in my life. I often have to snatch a short practice at home before our girls wake up. Some days, like this morning, they wake up halfway through the first Surya Namaskara. Some nights they wake us up three or four times and I manage to drag myself out of bed for a short ten-minute practice before it’s time to wake them up. Some days I practice fully and some days I don’t manage it at all.

For years I heard people say “I’m just a better husband/wife/parent/colleague/etc. when I practice than when I don’t”. I had never really experienced that personally, but I now realise that it was because I always practised. I almost never missed a day. Now I know exactly what they were talking about. I’m a Grumpy Dad when I don’t practise in the morning. “Good God”, I say to myself, “the girls are a total nightmare today”. On reflection I realise that it’s usually me.

So, in a sense, I now practice just as much for the benefit of my family as I do for myself.

Really the practice, for me, has changed so much over the years, and that’s besides anything to do with progression (and regression) in the asanas.

The beautiful thing about this ashtanga yoga practice is that, although my relationship has changed many times (and I’m sure yours has too if you’ve been practising long enough) it still keeps me coming back. It does tend to provide whatever is needed during whatever stage of life we are at. There are endless benefits and so much to learn through the repetition of these same series of asanas over a lifetime.

And what it looks like from the outside, is totally irrelevant.


The trick of ashtanga yoga

In moments of clarity, I sometimes realise that Ashtanga Yoga, at its core, is a trick that we play on ourselves.

The whole scenario; the progressive series, the self-practice style, the power dynamic that can develop between teacher and students, the ‘publicness’ of our struggles every day on our mats; it all feeds into the feeling that there is something at the end of it all that we are supposed to achieve. What are we trying to achieve? A particular posture, a feeling, a clear mind, a healthy body, an emotion, approval, enlightenment?

The longer I practice and the older I get, the more I realise that the whole thing is an elaborate hoax. There is nothing to achieve, nothing to prove, nobody to impress and nowhere to progress to.

All we are doing is moving, breathing and directing our focus on a particular thing. That’s all we have to do. The benefits of the practice lie in the doing of the practice. The practice itself is a joyful experience (or at least it should be). If it’s not then we won’t be able to sustain it for the decades needed to really see where it leads us.

There is no pot of gold at the end of the ashtanga yoga rainbow, no medal at the end. The very fact that we are lucky enough to have discovered this yoga practice is reward enough for me.

So we should enjoy our practice. It is not meant to create more suffering in our lives.

I think it bears repeating: There is nothing to achieve, nothing to prove, nobody to impress. In fact, there is nothing to do at all, just move, breathe and enjoy.

 

Alan Watts, speaking about education, careers and life in general, puts it better than I ever could:


How regular yoga practice can change your life

I remember a couple of things about my first introduction to Ashtanga yoga. For a few years before that, in my early twenties, I had become rather conscious of my health. I’d lost a couple of stone in weight, I was exercising regularly and I became more aware of what I was eating. Previously, I had been a junk-food junkie, and while I wasn’t lazy (I worked hard at college) the most amount of exercise I got was walking from the halls of residence to the takeaway pizza place!

The new, healthier, streamlined version of me decided to give yoga a go. I signed up for an introductory ashtanga yoga class and, while I loved the feeling it gave me, I found it pretty hard. I liked the fact that it was hard though, so that was a positive. I was fully on board from that very first class.

One thing made me feel a bit dubious though. The teacher said to all of us who were there, without any hint that he was exaggerating, that Ashtanga yoga would change our lives. “Ok”, I thought, “that’s a big claim to make”. I’m a natural skeptic in most situations so I suppose that was always going to be my reaction.

But as it turns out he was right, for me at least. Ashtanga yoga really did change the way I live my life.

What I have found over the years is that Ashtanga yoga is a very practical system. As a skeptic, I think that is one of the things about it that appeals to me most. I like how tangible the practice is. I like that it makes you feel your body in a visceral way. I like that it forces you to become aware of what is happening right here and now.

One of the practical ways that Ashtanga yoga changes peoples’ lives is in its effect on the choices that we end up making in order to accommodate our practice.

Let’s say you have decided to go to a Mysore-style class at 6.30am on Monday morning. You are almost guaranteed not to go to the pub on Sunday evening. You also might decide that it’s better not to stay up until midnight, binge-watching Game of Thrones whilst working your way through a six-pack of cheese and onion (or “Shallot and Gouda” if you’re into the posh crisps).

Well let’s say it’s unlikely at least, but not guaranteed. You might decide to engage in those activities and go to yoga class anyway. But you will realise very quickly that you do not feel good during the class. That’s going to be pretty obvious. So next time you will be a little more likely to avoid the booze, junk-food and late nights in advance of your morning yoga practice. Again, not guaranteed, but more likely second time around. If you keep trying to do both the boozing, junk food and sleep deprivation and the yoga practice you will eventually give up one of the other.

These obviously unhealthy behaviours result in a bad practice experience of course but, as our practice becomes more established we will also start to realise that there are more subtle negative behaviours, attitudes, environments, and situations that can have a deleterious effect on our experience of yoga practice on a daily basis.

The fact that the practice feels entirely different every day (despite the series of asanas staying the same) gives us a clue as to the effect of all the other varying influences on our lives. Diet, sleep, work, relationships, and a myriad of other factors can all affect us in gross and subtle ways, both positively and negatively.

The fact that we have one constant thing in our lives – regular Ashtanga yoga practice – shines a light on the fact that it is we who are constantly changing, not the practice. And so, if we practice for a long time, without interruption, we may start to weed out the negative aspects of our lives; or at least to start to identify what has a positive effect and what has a negative effect on our bodies and minds.

We literally feel it in our bodies. The thing is, sometimes the yoga postures, breathing, bandhas, drishti feel so good that we know that it is possible to feel like that. Then, on days when it doesn’t feel so good, we start to question why. Often it’s obvious (I ate this, I drank that, I stayed up too late) and sometimes it’s more subtle, but, if we dig a little deeper, we will usually find a reason. Then it’s up to us to try to eliminate that which is causing us to suffer on our mats (and, by extension, in our daily lives).

At the end of the day, most of us practice yoga because of the way it makes us feel. And we all want to feel good while we’re actually practising. It is this desire which can, in a very practical way, lead us to start making much healthier choices in our lives.

So we let the unchanging nature of our practice act as a sort of barometer of how we are living our lives. And, as promised in my first ever yoga class, our lives will inevitably change.