Category: Yoga
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:


New Year’s Resolutions

Well, here we are. New Year’s Day 2018.

When I was a child I always thought we’d have moon-boots and fish-bowl helmets by the year 2000. And yet here we are. Babies born in that year will be entering adulthood this year and there is still an extreme lack of moon-boots and fish-bowl helmets in the clothes shops.

And, by the way, where the hell is my hoverboard? Michael J. Fox really set us up for a big disappointment on that one.

Seriously though, as a yoga teacher (and co-owner of a yoga shala) I’m supposed to sit here at the beginning of a new year and write to you about how 2018 can be a new beginning; the perfect time to take up yoga, or get back to it, or to commit to doing it more regularly.

But I’m not going to do that. New Year’s resolutions don’t work. If we really want to change the way we live our lives we don’t have to wait until the first of January to do it. We can make healthy choices whenever we like.

New Year’s resolutions are problematic in a number of ways, the biggest of which is that we tend not to stick to them in the long-term. Most of us don’t have the required resolve for long-term resolutions. So not only do we end up back where we started, we’ve also thrown a healthy helping of failure on top of ourselves.

So I am proposing a new approach this year. These are my proposals for this year’s resolutions.

Do what makes you feel good. Avoid what makes you feel bad. Always.

If you love doing yoga and it adds to your enjoyment of life then do it. If not, don’t. If eating well makes you feel good, then do that. If eating rubbish in front of the telly makes you feel good, then do that.

The hard part is cultivating the discernment so that you can tell the difference between what makes you feel good from what makes you feel bad. Practising ashtanga yoga can really help with that, but more on that next time.

I’ll give you an example: I love coffee. It makes me feel fantastic too. And a second cup makes me feel even more fantastic than the first. So I should drink more coffee right? The problem is that I can’t sleep if I drink more than one coffee in a day, and even if I drink that one cup of coffee after 8 am (yes, A.M.!) I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and can’t get back to sleep. Seriously! I didn’t believe it for a long time myself until I finally gave in.

So does coffee make me feel good or bad? Unfortunately, it makes me feel bad (if I drink too much). But, because I’ve realised that it does make me feel awful (I don’t function at all well when I haven’t slept enough) it’s actually easy for me to avoid it, despite me enjoying the taste and the immediate surge of energy.

Yoga philosophy does not teach a morality or a code of ethics, despite yama and niyama being in the yoga sutras (see our last blog post for more on that). Yoga doesn’t have a “ten commandments”. What it does have are guidelines towards happiness and equanimity. So yoga philosophy says: Do what makes you happy, avoid what makes you unhappy. Because we are all, to some degree, suffering from avidya (ignorance) the hard part is to know the difference.

Yoga Sutra II.5: anityāśuci duhkhānātmasu nitya śuci sukhātmakhyātir avidya

Ignorance (avidya) is mistaking the impermanent for the permanent, the impure for the pure, the painful for the pleasant, and the Self for the non-Self


Christmas: A chance to go deeper!
II:31 Jāti deśa kāla samayānavacchinnāh sārvabhaumā mahāvratam
These great vows are universal, not limited by social standing, place, time or circumstance.

This is the thirty-first sutra of the second chapter of Patanjali’s yoga sutras. It refers to the previous sutra, which lists the five yamas (non-violence, truthfulness, not-stealing, continence, and non-greed). The yamas are the first of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga – ashta (eight) anga (limbs). The fact that Patanjali lists the yamas as the first of the eight limbs suggests they are the starting point for all the others.

Patanjali is making it clear that, for serious practitioners of yoga, these observances should not be broken by any excuse (class, place, time or circumstance).

Class: Whether we are upper, middle or working class, royalty, or part of the 1% of billionaires.

Place: Whether we are in Dublin, India, the Sahara Desert, the Arctic circle. Whether we’re at home, at work, at the yoga shala, on holidays or in our parents’ house (can you see where this is going at this time of year?).

Time: Time of day, time of year, time of the month, Christmas Day. Also, the ‘age in which we live’ does not give us an excuse to ignore the yamas.

Circumstance: A lottery win, a stressful time at work, illness, the birth of a new baby, the death of a loved one, any situation we find ourselves in or anything that happens to us; that is circumstance.

So this is very clear. If we want to become yogis and live in a state of equanimity we should try to follow the yamas all the time, regardless of time, place, and our own personal circumstances or history.

That is not easy. In fact, if we were to try and follow all five yamas even for an hour we would start to notice that it is very difficult.

Here’s a suggestion for you over the Christmas period. Pick one yama and observe your ability or inability to follow that for a week. Just to bring one’s attention towards the yamas is the first step in the process.

Pattabhi Jois used to say that, through the practice of the ashtanga yoga method, the yamas (and niyamas) would happen automatically. It depends, of course, what he meant by ‘practice’. I don’t think he just meant the postures and the breathing, bandha, and drishti. To him, practice was a much more all-encompassing term for living the life set out in the yoga sutras.

So if we are to go deeper with our practice we should give some thought to the other limbs. Maybe observing our reactions to the concept of the yamas is a good place to start?

As the old Ram Dass quote goes, “if you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family”. So what better time to start practising the yamas than Christmas?

II:30: ahimsa satyāsteya brahmacaryāparigrahā yamāh
Yama consists of non-violence, truthfulness, not-stealing, continence, and non-greed

Woe is us!

After a rare evening excursion yesterday evening, thanks to my Mother/babysitter-extraordinaire, Suzanne and I got home just before midnight. That’s like staying out until four in the morning for ashtanga yoga teachers! So we fell into bed in the expectation (well hope at least) of an uninterrupted eight hours of blissful shut-eye.

We must have momentarily forgotten that we share our two bedroom apartment with two anti-sleep activists under the guise of our two daughters, Molly (age 4) and Anna (age 2).

I’m not sure why, but every time we are woken up by one of our children (which has been every night except maybe five or six for the last four and a half years) it still feels like an upheaval. Last night was, of course, no different. Actually, it was worse than normal because our girls tag-teamed us, taking it in turns to wake up, meaning we were both awake for about a three hour stretch from 2.30am to 5.30am.

Thankfully today is a Saturday and so it’s our day off but, as I said, this sort of stuff happens basically every night in our home (usually in a less extreme version thank God!).

The thing is, we still need to practice, no matter how tired we are. In fact, the mornings after nights like that are the times when we need the practice the most. After a night of being woken over and over again the next day can easily become a fog of grumpiness and self-pity (I’m the World-Champion at those two things, by the way, ask Suzanne) and without even a small bit of yoga practice that is almost guaranteed.

I have found (and this is no great revelation to most of you of course) that if I even get to do a few sun salutations before my two girls wake up in the morning that my day will go exponentially better than if I try and squeeze out those extra few snoozes on the alarm clock and forego the yoga practice. Sometimes I fail spectacularly and don’t make it onto my mat but mostly I do, and I am so appreciative of the headspace and perspective that I get from even a short practice.

Like almost all parents we both love our two girls more than anything in the world but without the space that yoga practice gives I think we might struggle a lot more to show them the patience and compassion that they need to grow up feeling loved and cared for (despite the threats of being put outside in the cold at three in the morning if they don’t “stop shouting and go back to sleep right now”!!). On a side note, if you want to gauge the progress of your spiritual evolution get a four-year-old to wake you up every night for a week by shouting at the top of her voice and then observe your reaction.

It’s hard being a parent (again, not a revelation) but for me, yoga practice makes it easier, despite the time commitment. I have always heard Sharath saying that, when you have small children, your practice will change and that you should just do as much practice as you can. Guruji was also always encouraging his students to start a family. But there is a reason they coined the phrase “seventh series” in reference to raising children. It’s the toughest thing you’ll ever do. But, like that other hard thing that we do (ashtanga yoga), it’s also one of the most worthwhile.

So to all the parents out there – both current parents and those feeling hopeful of becoming parents – I give you my love and respect.

Fight the good fight and don’t stop practising.

Never stop practising!

No pain, No gain.
No coffee, No prana.
No chapatis, No strength.
No family, No fun.
-Sharath Jois

Why do we practise?

That is a fundamental question. It’s my belief that, if we can formulate a succinct answer to this question – something that we can sum up in one or two sentences – it can go a long way toward helping us maintain our motivation through both good and bad times.

Let’s tease this out a bit…

There are many reasons that people practise yoga so I’ll just list a few here. Some of them will resonate with you and others won’t:

  • To cultivate or maintain a healthy body
  • To cultivate or maintain a healthy mind
  • To increase the likelihood of living a long life
  • To gain a degree of self-awareness
  • To be part of a community of practitioners
  • To achieve mastery over the body
  • To achieve mastery over the mind (and decrease mental chatter)
  • To achieve certain yoga postures for their own sake or for the feeling of accomplishment it brings
  • To challenge oneself on a daily basis
  • To get that amazing feeling that you always get after practice
  • To look good and have a beautiful body
  • To gain recognition from our peers for being advanced in yoga postures
  • To feel empowered by taking responsibility for our own well-being
  • To gain a sense that we a growing and learning throughout our lives
  • To benefit those people close to us by improving our mood/attention-span/awareness/compassion etc.
  • To maintain our sense of identity as somebody who practices yoga
  • To live up to the expectations of others
  • To simply enjoy the feeling of doing the practice

Personally speaking, I am willing to acknowledge that every one of those (to a greater or lesser degree) has acted as motivation for me to practice at some stage during my journey with ashtanga yoga (except for maybe the ‘recognition from our peers’ one). There is no doubt, though, that each of these factors (and I am not pretending that this is an exhaustive list) takes on a different weight depending on the different circumstances that come along throughout our lives.

So I do think it’s worth reviewing this list and adding anything else that feels relevant to you. Then try to really figure out what it is that is currently motivating you to practice. Try to distill it down to one sentence if possible. For example, “I practise because I have noticed that on days when I do practise I feel better, I am more motivated at work, I have more energy, and I am nicer to my co-workers (or at least able to deal with their problems more easily).”

Remembering why we practise is often all we need to get us to actually do it.

And the next time you’re just about to hit the snooze button in the morning or order that take-away in the evening instead of going to practise you can remember that one sentence. Maybe it will help you to get on your mat and maybe it won’t but it’s worth a try, right?

Some days we need every trick in the book to get us to roll out that mat, but we all know that we have never, ever regretted doing it. So I say if you need extra motivation, or even to trick yourself into practising, on any particular day then do whatever it takes.


The distorting prism of pain

I’ve been suffering from something for the past three years that has had a profound effect on the enjoyment I get from practising yoga. It has caused me to question why I practise on numerous occasions and has almost led to me throwing the towel in altogether. In fact, if I wasn’t responsible for teaching at the shala I don’t know if I’d still be practising. It’s self-evident that in order to teach ashtanga yoga one has to practise it, so it is that responsibility that has kept me on track. I have all the students at the shala to thank for that.

Those of you who know me personally (and those of you who read this regularly) will probably know that, in 2014, I developed a very large herniated disc in my lower back which kept me from being able to practise or teach (or sit, walk, or lie down comfortably) for just over three months. It was a long (and expensive!) journey back to practising again that included a lot of help from a really fantastic physiotherapist who understood my love for the practice.

On a side note I have noticed over the years that many practitioners, when they get injured, are reluctant to see a doctor or physiotherapist out of the fear that they will be told to stop practising yoga. If you find the right professional then you can really work together to keep on (or return to) practising. So I always encourage people to get help from someone outside the ‘yogasphere’ rather than blindly continuing with an unhealthy pattern of injury followed by partial recovery.

Anyway, with the help of my physio, Xavier, I was slowly able to re-introduce the asanas over a number of months (albeit none of them looked or felt much like they had done before). Since then I have been practising regularly (with the exception of the odd day when the trappings of having two small children have made it impossible).

At the beginning of my return to practice I was just happy to be able to move my body through some of the asanas and to breathe deeply. Slowly though, I began to realise that the practice didn’t feel the same as it had before. And it wasn’t just having back pain that caused it.

The back pain was just the beginning.

The real problem, the thing that kept me from enjoying my practice and made me want to give up was:

 

FEAR!

 

I was so afraid of injuring my back again that I couldn’t switch off from it and just enjoy practising. I was so conscious of the memory of the pain I had experienced that I couldn’t allow my mind to go to that quiet place where the asanas just flow from one to the next. Citta Vrtti Nirodhah? Forget it!

But I kept practising. Because I know that my life is better when I practise than when I don’t. And if you’re teaching, you practice!

Then, a few weeks ago, it happened again. That pain returned. Excruciating pain. And off I trudged, back to see Xavier again.

But it was different this time. On putting me through a few tests he informed me that it wasn’t the same problem. In fact I’d be fine in a few days. Oh and by the way, that disc problem that you had is not there any more.

I realise now that I was so identified with the pain of a herniated disc and with recovering from that pain that I never noticed that, actually, it wasn’t really there any more. The fear of the pain had become more powerful than the pain itself.

So here I am, a few weeks later, in fear-recovery. My outlook has changed and I’m enjoying practising more than I have for a long time. The fear is still there of course (it’s hard to let it go) but it’s not as strong as it was. I feel like, with time, I might even be able to return to practising with the same intensity as I used to; to really let go, surrender to the practice and enjoy the experience on a daily basis.

I have always loved practising ashtanga yoga but sometimes I felt like I was playing with fire. I sometimes thought I was stupid to keep practising despite the pain I was in, but I always kept going. I feel like I’m entering a period in my journey with this practice during which my love and confidence will be fully rekindled. And I will be a better practitioner and teacher for the experiences that I’ve had.

Then again, who knows what’s in store for us, right?