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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

 


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/