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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

 


Have you let your practice slip?

Ashtanga Yoga Shala Dublin - Yoga mat in the binSuzanne was mentioning the other day that she thinks students who have let their practice slip are often a little bit shy, or possibly even embarrassed about coming back to the shala to start up their practice again. They feel like, in some way, they’re guilty of neglecting their practice and that they’ve let us down in some way!

I want to state categorically today that nothing could be further from the truth.

When any former student who I haven’t seen for a while walks through the door of the shala I literally can’t stop smiling. There are many things about teaching and running a shala that bring me a lot of joy, but seeing an old student coming back to the practice is probably the thing that makes me happiest. When someone who I thought might have given up ashtanga yoga for good comes back it’s a cause for celebration. It’s not a time for judgement and questions about “where were you”. Those questions don’t even cross my mind. I’m just so happy to see the person that all those questions are irrelevant.

As I’ve said in this e-mail newsletter many, many times, we know that this is a hard practice. It’s not easy to sustain the discipline and dedication it takes to keep it up regularly for your whole life. And we know from experience with our students over the years that some people take four or five attempts to establish a consistent and regular practice before really finding a way that works for them. It’s normal.

We try as much as possible to create a nurturing and supportive environment in the shala. We feel like the community of students who come to practice is a very special group of people and we all understand (teachers and practitioners alike) that people come and go over the years.

I just want to use this platform to make a couple of points:

  • There should be absolutely no guilt about not coming to the shala for a while (or even for years). You are ALWAYS welcome.
  • If you are not there at the beginning of the Mysore-style class you can still come in.
  • Nobody in the history of yoga has done every single posture they’ve ever learned, every day of their lives. If they have then they are crazy! If you haven’t got enough time (or energy) to do your whole practice then come in anyway and do less.
  • We have had two children in the last three years, are trying to maintain a shala, support a community of practitioners, and continue our careers as musicians. We understand that not everybody can spend two hours practising yoga every day. But what we have found is that, by doing a little bit of practice every day, then our lives are all the better for it.

If you have been thinking about starting back up your yoga practice after a hiatus, at any shala, then do it now. Your teacher will be delighted to see you!


Apologies for those ten emails!

spammer-nametag

So our new website is live. I managed to get it done in a couple of days (although I did have to pull an all-nighter on Sunday evening).

I used a website template (or ‘theme’ as they call it in the world of wordpress) which came with a lot of pre-loaded content. Part of that content was ten, or so, blog posts that were meant as samples for whoever was building the website. I deleted them after I noticed they were there.

What I didn’t realise, until our student, Shauna pointed it out to me this morning was that all ten of those blog posts were sent out to everyone who subscribes to our blog. D’oh!

So I just wanted to write another post that you will all get in your inboxes to say sorry for accidentally spamming you all. Also, the posts aren’t actually spam  and they’re not viruses either, so don’t worry about it if you opened them.

That’s all.

Let us know what you think of the new website in the comments section, or if you find anything that doesn’t work (other than the google maps box, I know that doesn’t work already!)

Love to you all.

John.


The Iceman Wim Hof, a modern-day yogi

I’ve recently been hearing a lot about this guy called Wim Hof, known as “The Iceman”. You might have already heard of him, but if not you will now.

He is the holder of 26 Guinness World Records including climbing – and almost summiting – Everest in just a pair of boots and a pair of shorts, swimming under the ice above the arctic circle for longer than anyone else, and running a marathon in the Namib desert without drinking any water. He has also been injected with an endotoxin by doctors in The Netherlands under laboratory conditions and was able to control his auto-immune system to avoid any ill effects. His feats of physiological control and endurance have all been verified by the scientific community, and they are beginning to re-write the text-books based on what he has shown to be possible.

He seems like some kind of Superhuman right?  He maintains, however, that he can teach anyone how to control their physiology so that they could achieve the same thing. In fact, twelve of his students were also able to negate the effects of the injection of the endotoxin in the same clinical trial in The Netherlands, and he has brought two groups up Kilimanjaro in just boots and shorts, and in record time!

So how does he do it?

The answer is basically through pranayama.

He has, on his own, discovered a breathing technique which, when combined with a kind of cold water therapy allows the practitioner to fully control their endocrine and immune systems.

I have read a lot over the years about yogis who could withstand poison (Ram Das for example writes about giving an enormous dose of LSD to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, with no effect) or slow down their heartbeats to zero (Krishnamacharya was said to be able to do this). But none have ever really been tested by the scientific method. It seems like Wim Hof, without having ever had a teacher, has discovered how to unlock untapped reserves of human potential and has made it his mission for it to be verified by science, so that he can share it with the world.

I could go on and on about it but I want you to see and/or hear him yourself.

He appears on two recent podcasts which you can find

here

and

here

But maybe it would be best just to watch the documentary below first.

I’d be interested to know what you all think of him. Personally I think he’s a modern-day, real-life, legit yogi (even if he wouldn’t call himself that).

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaMjhwFE1Zw[/embedyt]


Building energy through ashtanga yoga

It’s nice to be back at the shala after over a week away. I had a lot of rehearsals and concerts as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival and I enjoyed the change of scene. Suzanne brought our girls down to Kilmuckridge, Co. Wexford (accompanied by her Auntie, who owns a holiday home there). They had a nice break, building sand-castles, swimming in the sea, and bouncing on the big trampoline that Suzanne’s Auntie has in the garden.

I missed my little family a lot while we were separated but the uninterrupted sleeps I was getting almost made up for it! I had a lot of energy for practice and playing in the orchestra; much more than I have become accustomed to. This week, of course, I have had to transition back into having less quality sleep and this, in turn, affects how I practise yoga.

Last night, for example, I was woken four times and when my alarm went off I felt like there was no way I could face my yoga mat. I dragged myself out of bed though (after a few internal arguments) and rolled out the mat. I always find, on mornings when my energy is low, that to step outside and get some fresh air is the best way to wake up fully. So out I went onto the little patio at the front of our apartment. Normally I step out onto the our balcony, which overlooks the sea, but this morning Molly, our 3 year old, was in the bed with me (the solution to being woken up four times!) and I didn’t want to wake again her by opening the door. By the time I had taken ten deep, conscious breaths outside I was ready to go.

Slowly, as I went through the surya namaskara my energy started to build. Every time this happens I am amazed at how much energy can be cultivated by this ashtanga yoga practice. My practice was shortened (by dint of not getting up straight away when the alarm went off) to just the standing asanas before I had to wake Anna (our 10-month old) and start our normal breakfast ritual. But even after those few asanas I felt brand new. The night’s tribulations had been all but washed away.

This is almost always my experience with this practice. On days when I feel like I couldn’t possibly practise, rolling out the mat with the intention of doing just a few surya namaskara leads easily to continuing with the rest of the practice. There are of course rare days on which my energy doesn’t build through the practice, and on those days, I now know just to sit down and do some deep breathing; the next day will bring another opportunity to practice.

So, since having two children in the last three years and also since picking up a spinal injury my approach to practice has changed considerably. I am no longer trying to ‘achieve’ anything with the asanas. I just use the practice as a way to build energy. Changing the intention with which I practise has made a big difference to the way I practise.

That is what I think the real intention behind this ashtanga system is, just building your energy.

The great yoga teachers would say that this energy can be used to further your progress towards enlightenment, but it is available to you for whatever you need; work, family, relationships, the pursuit of enlightenment, or just leading a full life.

So when you step onto your mat next don’t get tricked into thinking that success in yoga comes by achieving difficult asanas, try to cultivate a practice that will build energy for you and see how much positive change it can cause in your daily life.


What are we trying to do here?

Thanks to everyone who came to the class yesterday and participated in the filming. It seemed like having a camera in the room upped the intensity of the whole experience a notch. As if it wasn’t intense enough already!

Quintin (the producer/cameraman) asked us a few questions after the class so that he could capture our thoughts and feelings about ashtanga yoga on camera. One simple question really got me thinking.

“What are you trying to do here at the shala?”

I don’t think I’ve ever had to explain exactly what it is we do, and why; our “mission statement”, I suppose you could call it. Of course I have an underlying sense of what we are trying to create at the shala but to put it into words has never been necessary before. On reflection, this is what I think. It’s pretty simple:

Our intention is to hold a space where we can facilitate yoga practice and therefore create an environment in which people can come and have an experience of stillness.

That is all. We see ourselves as facilitators of practice rather than teachers. The practice itself is the teacher.

If we can succeed in the above mission then we will have created something very rare and truly beautiful.


We need to talk about dristhi

Well, we need to talk about both breath and dristhi actually. These are two of the three elements which make up tristhana. The third element is asana or postures, which we don’t really need to talk about at all! In fact there is already waaaaaaaay too much discussion of asanas on the internet.

Tristhana means the three places of action or attention within the ashtanga yoga practice. They go from the gross to the subtle; asana purifies the body, breath purifies the nervous system and dristhi purifies the mind. Notice that bandha isn’t included as part of tristhana, it is considered as an extension of the breath.

So we already know all about asana. That is the postures, the most obvious part of yoga. In fact, to the uninitiated, that is all that yoga seems to be about. There is of course a lot that can be said about asana but just for today I’m going to park that one here.

I find it interesting that the other two elements, breathing and gazing, are considered in many traditions to be practices all on their own. The postures alone don’t constitute any kind of yogic practice; when they are practised without the other two elements we call them exercise or gymnastics.

For thousands of years the practice of watching the breath has been in existence and it is a fully-formed practice all of its own.

Also the practice solely of dristhi in the form of trataka has been around for a very long time.

There are so many benefits to practising only these two elements of yoga without even doing the asanas.

It is, of course, the asanas that draw most of us into the practice of yoga in the first place but seeing as we are already there, on our mats, day in and day out, year in and year out, we might as well try to bring as much attention to the other two – equally if not more important – aspects of this ashtanga system. Then we can hope to really reap the benefits of practice more consistently and with greater effect.

For a more comprehensive and erudite explanation of tristhana please read the kpjayi explanation at https://kpjayi.org/the-practice/


Why daily practice is the best practice

I’ve been thinking this week about the Ashtanga tradition of practising six days a week and whether, if we’re not on that roll of getting on our mats every day, we are getting the full benefit of the practice.

It seems to me that the majority of yoga teachers who I meet don’t practise daily or necessarily encourage their students to do so. I don’t have enough knowledge of other yoga traditions to say if sporadic or irregular practice is prescribed by other schools as part of their system, but I would be very surprised if anything less than daily practice was recommended by any yoga traditions. We can, in some respects, consider ourselves lucky to have such clear guidelines in the Ashtanga tradition, which sets down six days a week as the ideal amount of formal asana practice. Of course, this is not possible for everyone, but at least it leaves little room for confusion.

So, as yoga students, what should we expect of ourselves?

Well I am of the opinion that we should practice as regularly as possible. That does not mean that every day we have to practise every asana we have ever learned, but as far as is possible, we should get on our mats (except for Saturday, because Saturday is oil-bath day!). Guruji was very clear about that. Ashtanga is meant as a daily practice.

Now, that is not to say that we should abandon our other responsibilities in the pursuit of advancing our asana practice. Yoga practice should improve one’s life, not hinder it. Most yoga students have to go to work every day (without falling asleep at their desk), look after their family, and function normally in society. Few, if any, of us have absolutely no responsibilities at all. In the lineage of Krishnamacharya (Pattabhi Jois’s teacher) yoga practice is said to be for householders (as opposed to renunciates), so it is possible to be a committed yoga practitioner and to maintain a normal life too (that’s a relief eh?).

But why should we practise every day?

Well the benefits of asana practice are first of all experienced physically. But as we go deeper and practice more regularly the more subtle aspects of the practice become apparent to us. Sharath, in the conferences we attended in Mysore, many times reiterated the point that, through the practice of yoga, “change should happen within you”. A daily commitment to practice accelerates that change and, in a very practical way, encourages the yoga student to make healthy choices in their life.

Simply knowing that you have to get on your mat every morning (or afternoon or evening) means that you have to treat your body and mind well for the rest of the day. Otherwise, as we all know only too well, the experience that we have on our mats the next morning is not a fulfilling one. If, on a daily basis we decide whether to practise or not, then we let ourselves off the hook of having to live a healthy life. Every time we have mistreated ourselves – physically, mentally or emotionally – we have the excuse to not bother with our practice the next day, because we don’t feel good and couldn’t possibly face that hour and half of contorting our bodies. So with the commitment already made that we will practice every day, regardless of whether we feel like it or not, then the choice is no longer “will I practise today or not?” but rather “what should I do (or avoid doing) today so that I will be ready, willing and able to practise in the morning?”. Heathy choices become part of your life. And when healthy choices become the norm we really begin to feel that we are in control of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

So I recommend making a commitment to regular, or even daily, practice (at home or at class) and seeing what benefits it brings to your daily life. Even if your practice ends up being only twenty minutes on any given day, try to get on your mat. Peter Sanson, one of the most inspirational and experienced teachers I have had the good fortune to meet, puts it nicely. He suggests that we start with Surya Namaskara A each day and se how it develops from there.


Rehashing!

I have decided to re-publish some of the moon-day newsletters here on our website in order to give them a permanent home. Many of you who are newer students of ours will not have been on our e-mail list when we wrote them anyway so they’ll be new to you.

Apologies in advance to any of you who have already read them. Just ignore. Or re-read them if you so wish.

Love

John


A very difficult subject

I think one of our neighbours killed himself at the weekend. He was a couple of years older than Suzanne. I can’t be sure (and I might be putting two and two together and getting five) and so, out of respect, I won’t go any further in any details.

Something like that happening so close to your home really makes you think a lot. And, regardless of whether or not I’m right about him (may he rest in peace), suicide in our country is at epidemic proportions. So I felt like I wanted to talk about it. I don’t really know why but I did.

Different people practise yoga for many different reasons and, even individually, there’s usually a broad spectrum of reasons why we “take practice”. But the two most compelling reasons that I can think of (just off the top of my head) are:

(1) the student is extremely unhealthy and/or obese and needs to regain their health in order to avoid an early demise
(2) the student suffers from acute or chronic depression and regular (or even sporadic) yoga practice can help to lighten their outlook on life

It’s the second reason I want to talk about. And I’m going to keep it short (partly because I have no clinical knowledge or expertise about the subject and partly because I want you to read to the end).

Not being a sufferer of clinical depression myself I must also add that I am not speaking from any personal experience and I must apologise in advance to any sufferers if my words trivialise or demean the condition. I just hope that the more this conversation is brought into the open then the less people will feel stigmatised about seeking help (rather than resorting to suicide). That is my sole intention here.

I have been told more than once by sufferers of depression that coming to practice regularly is a huge  part of keeping that black dog from their doors. I think it works in a few different ways.

First of all yoga practice (and other exercise) releases endorphins and these, as you probably all know, are nature’s anti-depressants.

Secondly (and I think this is the beauty of the model of daily, morning, mysore-style practice that we and others around the world are practising) the sense that there is somewhere to go every day where one can potentially get some stillness of mind in a welcoming and, hopefully, non-judgemental community (and become an integral part of that community) can be hugely beneficial. “I don’t know what I would do or where I would be without this place or this practice” is what we have been told by a few different students over the last few years of running our daily classes. I have no doubt it is the same the world over.

It is the community and the shared intention to practice which is important here. And that is what is so satisfying on a personal level for us; that our small community is growing and nurturing the individuals within it. We’re not solving the greater problem of suicide or depression by any means but it’s a little drop in the ocean and we are all a part of it.

So don’t underestimate your contribution to this growing group of yoga practitioners. Your presence there in the mornings could be a small part of keeping someone on the straight and narrow, and you might not even know that they need you.

Apologies if I have rambled on a bit; it’s hard to discuss something so serious and I just sat down and wrote this in one go. If any of this resonates with you please send it on or get in touch. Likewise, if you have any objections to it let me know that too.