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Saturday is oil-bath day!

Pattabhi Jois always recommended that students of Ashtanga Yoga take an oil-bath on their rest day (usually Saturday). Castor-oil, when applied to the head and body, removes the excess heat from the body. This heat builds up over the week of daily practice and, according to the Ayurvedic tradition, excess heat can cause disease in the body.

The name ‘oil-bath’ can be a little misleading to westerners as it’s not a bath as we would think of it. Rather, the oil is applied to the head and body and later removed in the shower. It is more akin to an Indian-style bucket-bath, but we don’t need to go there in this post.

Kimberley (Kiki) Flynn has written an excellent article on how to do the oil-bath and has even made a couple of videos which I’ve included below, so I won’t go into the details here (she has explained it perfectly already). I should just mention that I have found it impossible to get soap-nut powder and ‘green powder’ in this part of the world, but that pure neem soap works almost as well for removing the oil (almost!).  Please do follow her guidelines on the length of time you leave the oil on for, as this is very important.

If you don’t want to use castor oil then Pattabhi Jois also recommended almond oil, which is a lighter oil and is easier to remove (normal soap is ok for this), but I think the castor-oil, if you can get it, is the best. The process can be a little bit messy but the benefits are really great. Sesame-oil is also recommended by many ayurvedic doctors but that is lighter than almond-oil and is more for daily-use rather than what we are talking about here (removal of excess heat built up over the week). If you do use almond-oil or sesame-oil make sure it’s not the toasted kind.

Castor oil is available at most health food shops as is the neem soap (get the max strength stuff).

Happy oil-bath-day!


A beautiful verse from 2,500 years ago

As the year draws to a close I thought I’d share one of the most beautiful verses from Indian scripture which I have read. This verse comes from the Isa Upanishad, which is part of the Yajur Veda (the Vedas are the oldest of all Indian scripture).

All is perfect, so perfectly perfect!

Whatever being lives, moves

And breathes on Earth

At every level from atom

To galaxy is absolutely perfect in its place

Precise and choreographed,

Because “That” flows from the Glory of the Infinite

The Lord

The Self

Consciousness,

The Source,

Awareness, Peace, and Love,

And is therefore perfect.

When you have surrendered your ego

To “That”

You will find true happiness.

Never ever envy the place of

Any other man or woman

(Translation by Alan Jacobs)


Yoga and the Isle of Man TT races

I watched quite a compelling film yesterday evening; “TT: Closer to the Edge”. You can watch the trailer here but I can just explain the gist of it to you.

It’s a documentary film which follows some of the competitors in the Isle of Man TT races. The TT races are a series of five motorbike races which take place every year around the winding and narrow roads of the Isle of Man at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. A lot of the riders are injured every year and there have been a lot of deaths over the history of the races.

So why do they do it? Well, obviously, it’s thrilling to take your life in your hands. And of course it takes a certain type of personality to decide to dedicate their lives to the sport. But as I was watching, it dawned on me that the attraction these people have to the sport is not just for thrills. No doubt they are ‘adrenaline junkies’ but it goes much deeper than that.

There is certainly, to my mind, an equivalent here to the practice of yoga. On some level the riders are approaching Patanjali’s definition of Yoga.

Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind

(Sūtra I:2)

Let me put it another way, thanks to a translation by TKV Desikachar; “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards an object and sustain focus in that direction without any distractions”.

Whether or not the riders would use that type of terminology is irrelevant. There is a level at which all thought is absent.

In the film “Senna” (about one of the greatest formula 1 racing drivers of all time)  Ayrton Senna relates an experience he had in the Monaco Grand Prix  in 1988, in which  he had built up an enormous lead over his closest rival, “That day I suddenly realised that I was no longer driving it… conscious, and I was in a different dimension. The circuit for me was a tunnel, which I was just going, going, going and I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding”.

Many sports require such an effort (whether it’s true sheer physical exertion or total concentration) that these experiences can spontaneously come about. The cyclist Sean Kelly comes to my mind, in particular his famous 1985 time trial in the nissan classic. And also snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan’s record-breaking maximum break in just over 5 minutes at the 1997 world championships.

My experience as a musician has given me glimpses of this level of absorption too. One can sometimes completely forget one’s-self and be momentarily caught-up in the in the act of creating something. Many artists, including painters, musicians, authors, playwrights and dancers are compelled to continue with the pursuit of their art in the hope that they can tap into this level of total concentration. It is the process of creating the art, rather than beholding the finished product, that drives the greatest artists.

So what is this state of consciousness?

It could be described as the seventh limb of yoga. Dhyana. That is ‘the state of consciousness in which concentration (dharana) is continuous’. The reason some of us are compelled to seek out these experiences over and over is that they are fleeting. If we could abide in total absorption that would be the blissful state of Samadhi. Through the creation of art or through focussing our minds via sport we are only ever going to get one step below the pinnacle of human consciousness.

The ultimate goal of Yoga practice is a continuous state of Samadhi. If we don’t know what we’re looking for that then how can we achieve it? The riders of the TT races may think that they are thrill seekers but I believe that, actually, they are truth seekers. They are, perhaps unwittingly, tapping into something of the truth about the nature of consciousness and temporarily stopping all conscious thought. They are willing, it seems, to put their lives on the line to do it.


Ashtanga Yoga: The no-frills approach

Sometimes I wonder what people think when I tell them that I practise Yoga. I think very few of them would have a clear picture in their heads of exactly what it is that I do while they are all still sleeping.

It is my guess that the predominant mental picture that people have, is that I do a few stretches and maybe some deep breathing, sniffing incense, sitting serenely, buddha-like, on my yoga mat and chanting Oooooooooommmmmmmmmmm.

The truth is that, actually, that is a small part of yoga practice but it paints a much-too-comfortable picture.

Ashtanga Yoga is hard work.

It’s not all lavender-scented eye-pillows and getting-in-touch-with-your-emotions.

It is not for pampering yourself. The purpose of Yoga is not relaxation. Some days I feel extremely relaxed after practice, some days I don’t.

People tell me that they’d like to try Yoga but they prefer things that are more physical, or that make them fit, or that make them sweat. Let me just say, for the record, that I have run, cycled, rowed, lifted weights and done thousands of sit-ups in my time. Nothing I have done has been more physical than Ashtanga Yoga. Nothing I have done has produced a more profuse sweat than Ashtanga Yoga has. And nothing I have done has matched the physical benefits I have received from this practice.

This yoga method is a method of hard work and discipline, which is designed to result in the purification of body and mind, through the practice of physical postures and breath control. Purification of body and breath in this way leads to the purification of the mind. The ultimate goal of yoga is to escape from the constant mental chatter, which is going on in all of our minds.

Ashtanga Yoga differs from new-agey spirituality because it is based on something that is very real (we could even say mundane); the body. There is nothing wishy-washy about this practice. You either do or don’t do (to paraphrase Yoda). It is not escapism. You are forced to face yourself every day and observe your own reactions. In this way you get to know yourself a little more all the time. When it becomes clear what your habitual thought-processes are then you can begin to see through them towards the true Self (note the capital ‘S’). This, ultimately, is called self-realisation or enlightenment.

Ashtanga Yoga has great physical benefits but that is not the ‘point’ of the practice. Pattabhi Jois said, “This yoga is not for exercise. Yoga is showing where to look for the soul – that is all”.

So the reason for the title of this blog is that I see that yoga is being marketed as the ultimate in relaxation and serenity, and yes that can sometimes be a pleasant by-product of the practice. But do not be completely fooled. In the Ashtanga practice we are encouraged to take the ‘no-frills’ approach.

You will not be told to ‘feel like you are floating like a cloud’ or to ‘feel like their is a rainbow coming out of your chest’ in a traditional Ashtanga class. But what you will receive is an extremely powerful method, which it is then up to you to practice. As Sharath is so fond of saying; “Anyone can practise”. Eddie Stern adds, “Not everyone wants to practise”.

I can only encourage you to get onto your mat every day and see what happens. If you feel like there’s a rainbow coming out of our chest then let me know. I know a good doctor!

John

No frills in Guruji’s old shala in Mysore


What does ‘Ashtanga’ mean

The word Ashtanga in the Sanskrit language means eight limbs (astau means eight and anga means limb).

These eight limbs are

  • Yama
  • Niyama
  • Asana
  • Pranayama
  • Pratyahara
  • Dharana
  • Dhyana
  • Samadhi

Ok, I know, they’re in Sanskrit too so that’s no help. Well, I’ll try to explain what each of these words mean without getting too technical.

Yama

There are five yama (or yamas, if we follow the incorrect custom of pluralising them using the English language ‘s’).

  • Ahimsa
  • Satya
  • Asteya
  • Brahmacharya
  • Aparigraha

Yes, Sanskrit again!

Translated into English they mean,

  • Non-violence
  • Truthfulness
  • Not stealing
  • Temperance
  • Not coveting

I won’t go into any further explanations of yama here but as you can see they form a basic guide to living harmoniously with the world outside our-selves.

Niyama

 Niyama is also five-fold

  • Saucha
  • Santosha
  • Tapas
  • Swadhyaya
  • Ishwarapranidhana

 That is,

  • Cleanliness/Purity
  • Contentment
  • Self-discipline
  • Study (self study and study of yogic texts)
  • Devotion to a power greater than our-selves

Again, a detailed commentary is not what I’m going for here, so it will suffice to point out that niyama form a basic guide to living harmoniously within our-selves

Asana

Asana is what most people think of when they think of Yoga. Asana  is the physical practice of yoga postures. Guruji (Pattabhi Jois) recommended that we start our yoga practice with this, the third limb, because the first two limbs are very difficult. If we try to take even one of the yama or niyama and practise it in its purest form we will see how right he was. Mahatma Gandhi is an shining example of somebody who practised absolute non-violence (ahimsa) and he changed the course of history.

It is more realistic and practical for most of us to start with asana.

First we must make our bodies healthy. Otherwise, how can we think of purifying our minds and gaining enlightenment? If illness is in the body we are pre-occupied with that and there is no space for spiritual practice. When asana becomes firmly grounded then yama and niyama happen automatically.

Pranayama

The practice of breath control taught in many yoga traditions is pranayama. In his Yoga Sutras (the cornerstone of yoga practice and philosophy) Patanjali states

Tasmin sati svasa prasvasayor gati vicchedah pranayamah

 That being acquired, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama.

(Sutra II:49)

The word ‘that’ refers to steadiness in the practice of asana.  So we should take it that pranayama is not to be practised until we have firmly established our asana practice. Guruji did not teach pranayama until the student had completed the second series of the ashtanga vinyasa method.

With reference to pranayama Patanjali also states

Tatah ksiyate prakasavaranam

As its result, the veil over the inner Light is destroyed

(Sutra II:52)

Dharanasu ca yogyata manasah

And the mind becomes fit for concentration

(Sutra II:53)

Pratyahara

 Pratyahara is the bridge between the previous four, external, limbs and the following three, internal, limbs. It can be translated as the withdrawal of the senses. In other words our senses turn inwards and our minds are no longer distracted by the outside world. All of our focus is internal.

Tatah parama vasyatendriyanam

Then follows complete mastery over the senses

(Sutra II:55)

Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi

The last three limbs are inseparable and follow on from each other. Dharana is usually translated as ‘concentration’ and technically it is the state of consciousness in which the mind is aware of only one object or idea. Dhyana is translated as ‘meditation’ and it is the state of consciousness in which concentration (dharana) is continuous. Samadhi is the state of consciousness in which the mind and the object of meditation are as one. The student in the state of samadhi ‘forgets themselves’. This is sometimes translated as ‘bliss’ and is the highest form of Yoga practice.

Above is a very brief explanation of the eight limbs. There are thousands of books written on the subject of Yoga from both a philosophical and a practical point of view and it is a vast subject. However, theoretical knowledge is useless unless we have practical knowledge. Guruji was famous for saying that yoga is “99% practice and 1% theory”. We can practise asana and, following that, pranayama. According to Guruji, if we do this, then “all is coming”. He was telling us that all of the other limbs will spontaneously happen (provided we are conscious of yama and niyama) and we will experience that state of yoga called samadhi.

John

 To hear Guruji speak a little about this you can watch this video


Our shiny new website

So I decided to build this website myself and, well it was both easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. Having never done anything like this before I was daunted at having to “design a website”. I mean, where do you start? Well my fear was soon turned into curiosity as I realized, actually, this is pretty straightforward (thank you wordpress.com). If there’s anything I don’t know how to do I can just type it into Google and, as if by magic, I find that the answer is there. Somebody somewhere has already asked the question. So… easy peasy.

Well, no.

The actual designing was the easy bit (although error strewn and time-consuming) and I learned loads of new words (like “search engine optimization” – should it be mysorestyle.ie or mysorestyleyoga.ie or ashtangayogamysorestyle.ie or yogamysore.ie or……I’m sure we’ve chosen the wrong one).

I realized that, actually, I have to try to describe the vast area of Ashtanga Yoga, Mysore Style, pay justice to Guruji, Sharath and all the other practitioners who have gone before us while trying to be as informative as possible and give any visitors to the site all the information, and encouragement, they need to come to a class (because once they come, they always love it). And of course writing about yourself is always difficult.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, this is our new website and we hope you like it. Having a website makes us feel very grown-up. If it means one person discovers the power of Ashtanga Yoga then it will not have been a waste of time.

John