Category: Yoga
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?


Let the buyer beware (and the seller)

Suzanne had a minor car accident a few weeks ago. She ‘rear-ended’ a rental van on her way home from the shala. Totally her fault and she was fine. Nobody was hurt (the same could not be said of Suzanne’s pride unfortunately) but because our little Ford Puma was so old and it’s hard to find parts for it (Ford stopped making those cars in 2003) it’s not worth spending the money to fix it up. Poor little car. It was great fun to drive. RIP.

So we needed to buy a new car.

We entered the unknown world of www.donedeal.ie and found an old mini cooper with low enough mileage that we went to have a look at yesterday. The sellers were a very nice retired couple who admitted straight away that they were quite nervous about the whole situation. They’d only ever dealt with dealers when buying or selling cars before. Friends of theirs had warned them “don’t be inviting strangers out to your house”, “there’s loads of scam artists out there, be careful”, all of that sort of thing. Understandable right?

We, of course, were also on the lookout for potential dodgy dealings and so each side  met each other with some small amount of trepidation.

To cut a longer story short (which is something I’m not great at to be honest) the car was running very well. It had been taken care of by the lady who owned it, in fact it was pretty obvious that she had a real love for the car. Also our mechanic checked it out and gave it the all clear, except for a couple of small things that needed to be done on it. The lady’s husband came all the way from Donabate to Dun Laoghaire to show it to our mechanic (a round trip of two hours).

So, taking into account the small repairs needed on it, we offered them a bit less than what they had advertised it for. This was such a sweet lady that when we made our offer she accepted it and then knocked another €100 off the price because she liked us!

The whole thing was a very easy experience for us and, it seems, for them too. So why the initial fear and worry?

It set me thinking about how we relate, on a personal level, to the rest of society in our modern world. We are so inundated with stories of violence, crime and greed that, for most of us, our default setting is one of fear and mistrust of others.

In the age of Rupert Murdoch, Sky News, Fox News and Donald Trump is it any wonder we have fear of what’s going on out in the big bad world. Immigrants are out to get our jobs. Criminals are going to steal our identities online. Hackers are going to empty our bank accounts. A couple from Dun Laoghaire are going to come and look at a car I have for sale and then steal the car and kidnap my husband! It sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud but there is a deep underlying fear bubbling away somewhere inside most of us and, if we are not careful, it can really affect how we relate to the world.

And it’s not just global news that creates this fear. We have our own home-grown fear mongering too, with radio phone-in shows and the like.

A good friend of mine once said this to me and it’s something that I always try to remember when I can:

“If you see something on the news then that is something you definitely don’t have to worry about. By definition ‘news’ is something that doesn’t happen very often”.

If there were sixty murders happening every day in Dublin they wouldn’t all be reported on the six o’clock news. News reports by definition are reports of rare incidents.

Here is a headline you will never see:

Yoga Teacher Buys Second-Hand Car
Seller knocks extra €100 off asking price out of good-will

But it happened and it’s just as real as the gang wars and terrorism. But we don’t hear about it. So we think the world is a dangerous place.

Of course we can find ourselves in bad situations and we must take precautions to make sure we try to avoid that. But the fact is that if we are to indulge ourselves with the stories of horror perpetrated by most of our traditional media we will find ourselves trusting our neighbours less and becoming more and more insular. When a politician comes along who has the power to ramp up that fear inside of us then we can end up in a lot of trouble as a society.

So they are my thoughts this week. Not really anything to do with yoga but I thought I’d share them with you anyway.


Ashtanga Yoga’s Bad Rep

I see it as part of my role as a teacher of ashtanga yoga to change the reputation it has gained of being ‘the hard yoga’.

We get so many students that arrive into the shala (who have done lots of yoga before) who say they are a bit nervous about trying out Mysore-style ashtanga yoga. A lot of the time they have done ashtanga yoga before but only led classes. That’s when I know that I am going to have to work hard to change their opinion of the practice.

Starting with led classes is the absolute hardest possible way to start with ashtanga yoga. A new student goes along to the class and goes through all, or at least half, of the primary series on the first day! It would be like joining a boxing club and being expected to fight for 12 rounds on day one. The main impression new students will get from that is that ashtanga yoga is really hard.

Then, when they first hear about Mysore-style (or ‘self-practice’), they think “Ok, that’s already hard, and now I have to memorise the sequence too!?” You can see why that would be a little intimidating for a new student.

I want to put this on the record once and for all…

Ashtanga yoga was NEVER intended to be taught that way.

It takes most people years to learn the whole of the primary series. And many never even get all the way to the end of that. That’s absolutely fine.

The idea of the traditional Mysore-style method is that each student can start (and continue) at their own pace with the practice. The postures are taught one by one, at a sensible pace, so that the student can build up strength, flexibility, stamina and concentration over a long period of time. In that way, not only is it so much easier for a student to build up towards doing the primary series but it actually feels good along the way, and it’s a lot safer for the body.

Almost all of us have the desire to learn more and more postures but it doesn’t take very long in this practice to get out of our depth. Sometimes it’s fun to try a few of the later postures, beyond what we have learned. If, though, we were to suddenly decide that we were gong to do that every day we would end up sore, injured and worn out pretty quickly.

Ashtanga yoga, learnt and practised in the way it was intended, is a beautiful practice that can give us so many incredible benefits.

It saddens me to see that people are intimidated by the practice because of the way it has been taught to them in the past.

How many more students would come to ashtanga yoga and gain its benefits if they didn’t have misconceptions about what it really is?

Spread the word!


The initial experience of yoga

One of my favourite things about sharing this Mysore-style ashtanga yoga with new students is how the experience of the stillness of yoga is available right from the beginning.

I’ve heard variations of this expression so many times:  “I’ve never done yoga but I know I’d be terrible at it”. Inherent in this statement  is, of course, a very big misunderstanding of what yoga is (I’ve written about this a bit before). Of course, some people find the practice a bit easier than others and that is no different to anything else in life. The important part though, the internal part, is what I’m really interested in. It’s irrelevant whether or not a student can touch their toes on day one.

It’s the struggle to touch one’s toes (or balance in Trikonasana or Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana let’s say) that is the thing that makes this practice really worthwhile. And that happens for almost everyone right from the very beginning of their journey.

The beautiful thing about ashtanga yoga is that all of us in the Mysore-style room are operating at our limits, from beginners to ‘advanced’ practitioners. And so we are all having roughly the same experience (I say ‘roughly’ because we know from our own practice that even we ourselves are not having exactly the same experience of the practice from one day to the next).

That’s what I love about this practice. You don’t have to do it for ten years before you understand the point (although it can take that long and even longer for a lot of us!!). Right from the first vinyasa of the first Surya Namaskara the experience of yoga is available to all of us, regardless of our background.


The time I gave up yoga

Sometimes being a practitioner of ashtanga yoga is blissful. Bright, warm, sunrises on the way to practice; that feeling of freedom and space in your body and mind; the shared experience and understanding you have with your fellow practitioners.

But sometimes it’s really tough.

There’s the dark, cold winter mornings (or if you’re not a morning practitioner there’s the when-do-I-eat-during-the-day problem), the stiffness, striving to achieve an asana you’re stuck on while also practising detachment from the process. The whole process can really wring you out sometimes.

And then you get injured.

And the whole thing feels like it could just grind to a halt.

In the dark days of 2009 in post celtic-tiger Ireland, Suzanne and I were living in a cold, damp, mouldy old house and I hadn’t done a gig for 6 months. We were broke and I could see my breath in the kitchen when I was making breakfast in the mornings. I was nursing torn cartilage in both knees which had been a big problem for about two years by that stage. Even though I was practising every day I really wasn’t enjoying it and I felt like my knees weren’t ever going to get any better.

So I gave up yoga.

I made the decision that I would just do some other excercise (I chose cycling) and I would just do that every morning at my usual practice time. And then I would learn a meditation practice. So, it would just be the same thing right? Healthy (or even healthier?) body and healthy mind.

I was so happy to be free from the pain and drudgery that my daily practice had become. And I really enjoyed my cycle along the coast that first morning.

But I lasted three days.

After three days I missed practising so much. I missed the daily ritual of rolling out the mat. I missed the feeling of that breath in my body. I missed moving and creating that space in my body. But mostly I missed the headspace that I had become so used to over the previous 3 or 4 years of daily practice.

I had become so accustomed to the daily benefits of ‘taking practice’ that I had started to take it all for granted. “Sure what do I need yoga for anyway, all it does is hurt my knees”. I had forgotten that so much of what was good in my life had come about because of my comittment to this practice.

And so there I was, three days later, “ekam inhale, dwe exhale”, feeling in a weird way that I had failed in my commitment to turn my back on this sometimes demanding practice, but also delighted to have made the decision that my life was better with ashtanga yoga in it.

We all go through our ups and downs, both in life and in practice, and for me I had to fully stop in order to truly appreciate what I had. As Otis Redding said “You don’t miss your water, till your well runs dry”.

I haven’t looked back since.

 


Seeking and avoiding sensation

I had a discussion with Luke Jordan last week after his visit about his overall approach to the practice and, more specifically, to teaching. Luke said that his main focus when teaching is towards keeping the students fully present, connected and engaged with the practice from one moment to the next. One way that he does this is by getting the students to focus on the sensations that they are feeling in the body. Pretty simple but very effective.

That set me thinking about our individual relationships to sensation in the body during yoga practice.

Like almost everything in life there is a balance to be found between seeking out sensation in the asanas and avoiding sensation altogether. We can end up in trouble if we favour either.

My experience of seeking out, and going further into, bodily sensations in the asanas is that there is potential for injury and for creating unhealthy patterns of movement, especially in the joints (notice I only say potential here). The idea that we should be feeling discomfort in the asanas is not quite right. Conversely, it is almost impossible to feel totally comfortable all the time, especially when we are learning a new asana (as Sharath always says, “You get a new asana, you get a new pain”!).

If, however, we avoid uncomfortable sensations in the body there is potential for us to get stuck into old physiological patterns that are not really useful or healthy. Most of us, when we are doing asanas, try to do them in a way that is most comfortable for our particular body (naturally). But the policy of sensation-avoidance can result in us never really experiencing the full benefits of each asana. That is, when we practise the same asana for many years without bringing our full awareness to where the restrictions are in the body, we can limit the transformative potential of each asana.

So, there’s a trade off here between seeking and avoiding ‘feelings’ in the body.

Where does that leave us? Confused, probably. It’s not an easy conundrum to solve.

I would suggest that becoming aware of our own patterns is the first step. Become aware of whether you are seeking out or avoiding sensation in the body in each asana that you practice. You’ll usually find that this varies from asana to asana because we all have different areas of physical tension and physical freedom. If you can become fully aware of these habits then they will automatically stop. There’s no need for you to actively try to go deeper into comfort or discomfort, it will happen once you shine the light of awareness on your tendencies.

I talk a lot about the more subtle aspects of yoga practice but we must not forget that we are using the physical asanas as the tool to gain the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of the practice. That means that, if we can bring the full power of our attention to what we are feeling and experiencing in the asanas in each moment, then the inner benefits of the practice will come to us automatically.

I’ll leave you with more words of wisdom from Luke:

“We spend so much of our lives up in our heads. We need to become aware of what is happening in the body”.

And don’t forget to breathe.

Patanjali Yoga Sutras II:46

Sthira sukham asanam

Asana should be steady/stable/firm and comfortable

 

 


Ashtanga Yoga Nationwide

We’re right in the middle of an intense week with Luke Jordan at the shala. One of my favourite things about a travelling teacher like Luke Jordan coming to Dublin is the way in which the whole community of practitioners comes together in one place at one time.

There are so many people practising ashtanga yoga in Ireland these days and not everyone is so lucky to be living near a teacher and a community of other practitioners. Having a great teacher come and visit is a great incentive for those students to travel and be part of the buzz of a large group of practitioners for a few days. Then there’s also the students from different shalas/teachers all coming together and getting to know each other a little bit.

I know I talk about this a lot but we are all so reliant on each other as practitioners. It is rare to be able to practise ashtanga yoga intensely and consistently on your own. Some people can do it, but most of us really struggle to keep up that passion and drive on a daily basis. That’s why we need teachers to maintain shalas (or regular classes at least) so that we can draw energy and inspiration for our practice, not just from the teacher but also from the other students.

We are social animals. So much so that – as many studies have shown – the more and the stronger our social connections are the longer our lives will be. We literally die younger if we are not part of a thriving community. And the bad news is that our communities in general are becoming more fragmented as each generation passes. That’s why being part of a group of individuals with similar goals and values is such a powerful thing. So, enjoy being part of this great community of practitioners in Ireland. It’s irrelevant who your teacher is or which shala you go to, or even if you practise alone all the time; when we get an opportunity to come together it’s always a positive thing.

The effect of being part of this ashtanga community is that it supports our personal practice and makes it easier to maintain. Then the benefits can spread into the wider community.

There were almost 50 students who came to the shala to practice the other day (between Luke’s class in the morning and my evening class that day). That’s 50 people who will interact with a lot more people during the course of their own day. The effect of 50 happy, healthy people leaving the shala and going out into the world can only be a good thing.

I’m not one to evangelise about the benefits of yoga practice to everyone I meet (this blog being the obvious exception) but I think that, as students of yoga, we can be a beacon to others who could benefit from this in their own lives. We are all examples of the positive effects of yoga practice on our lives and, in a wide sense, we can raise the level of health, happiness and consciousness of everyone we come into contact with.

So, enjoy being part of the ashtanga community, both in your own shala and in a wider sense, and for those of you who practise alone, know that the community is always there to support you when you need it.

Thanks also to Luke for his visit, and for bringing us all together for this short time.


Cultivating Joy

I can’t take any credit for formulating the concept I’m writing about this week, but it’s something that I want to share with you all anyway.

It’s a very simple idea and it is this:

Joy is the default setting of our minds and if we can get rid of mental chatter we will experience abundant joy.

When we enter a state in which our minds are both relaxed and alert a profound sense of joy spontaneously arises. This has been experienced and has been spoken and/or written about for centuries by many great teachers.

This state of mind can be practised and cultivated so that it becomes easy to experience joy without any external stimulus. We often feel like our happiness and joyfulness depends on external circumstances. We feel happy or sad when we are appreciated/unappreciated by our boss in work, when we experience pleasure/pain, or when our football team wins/loses.

This realisation that joy is available to us independently of anything outside ourselves is an antidote to greed. So often we are chasing money, pleasure, power, love in order to bring us joy and happiness but if we realise that joy really does come from within (and in a very concrete, practical and ‘practisable’ way) then contentment will also arise spontaneously.

So how to practise this?

There are so many ways to cultivate a relaxed and alert mind and the mindfulness movement is making great strides towards bringing these practices into the zeitgeist. But even during our ashtanga yoga practice we can aim to still the mind. The tools are all there inside the ashtanga system; breath, bandha, drishti and asanas. If we can let go of the striving to achieve this posture or that posture we can really start to experience this state where are minds are clear. It just takes a little bit more focus on the more subtle aspects of the ashtanga practice. Then joy, happiness and contentment will come.

Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.

Inspiration for this blog post comes from the Finding Mastery podcast


Satisfaction comes from within

Happiness and satisfaction don’t come from material goods or external attainments.

Everybody knows that.

It’s so well known by us all in fact that it has become a cliche. When we hear this advice we don’t even pay it any attention any more. “Yeah, of course, I know that”.

The thing is that, most of the time, we live our lives and make important decisions as if we’re completely unaware of this fundamental truth of human life.

“If I had a big house I’d be happy.”

“If I had a cool car I’d be happy.”

“If I could just afford those Manolo Blahnik’s I’d be happy”

We know that this stuff is all nonsense. We would never even say any of this stuff out loud (or even think it consciously). Because it’s foolish. Everyone knows that happiness comes from within…

So instead, we say

“I wish I had a slightly bigger house, life would be a bit easier”, (cut to daydream of living in a beautiful house with a happy face)

“Those new 6 series BMWs are nice. I could definitely see myself in one of those”, (cut to daydream of driving around with a happy face in a BMW)

“Man, I would look sooooo hot in those Manolo Blahnik’s, and everyone would know how cool – and rich – I was if I had them”, (cut to… you get the idea)

In all of these imaginary scenarios that play out in our minds we end up happy. We are completely fooling ourselves if we think that we’re not falling into the trap of seeking happiness in ‘things’. We’re just not stupid enough to say the words “if I had (insert desirable item here) then I’d be happy”.

BUT WE STILL THINK IT!

I mean, what the hell is wrong with us?!

Every spiritual tradition in history tells us that true happiness comes from within but yet we cannot fully grasp how to really make ourselves believe it.

The Yoga Sutras say that the six poisons of the mind are desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy, and sloth.

Next time you’re feeling dissatisfaction, frustration, or depression try to become aware of which of these poisons are at work (often it’s a combination of two or more). Becoming aware of your own mind is the first step towards solving the problem.

Once you have identified the cause then the solution is usually pretty simple. If anger is causing you pain, you try to let it go. If sloth is causing you pain then move your body. If you become aware that delusion is your problem then you’ve probably just solved that problem (because how can you delude yourself while you know that you’re deluding yourself?).

I am of course hugely over-simplifying the process of becoming aware. But it is important for our long-term emotional health and fulfilment that we begin the journey towards awareness.

For those of us with an interest in yoga practice, reading the yoga sutras can be a huge help in identifying common mental patterns that humans are prone to. We can then begin to deconstruct the, sometimes unhealthy, narrative in our minds.

And don’t stop practising. Never stop practising.