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Tumbling, twisting and twirling

Our daughter, Molly, had her sixth birthday yesterday. I know, time flies.

We spent the morning at the food market in The People’s Park near our apartment with some of our closest friends who Molly loves, eating nice things including Teddy’s ice-cream with a flake and sprinkles. Aren’t birthdays great?

The afternoon was spent trying on her new clothes, playing with her new Spirograph® from Auntie Sharon, doing handstands and cartwheels on the grass, jumping on her cousins’ trampoline, more presents, then watching a few cartoons, dinner, bath, and bed. An objectively good day for a six-year-old.

Just before she went to bed we had a little cuddle and I asked her if she’d had a good birthday. She said “It was ok. I hurt my two fingers” (she does yoga in school and she’s been practising Bakasana since last week, she fell out of it and bent her two fingers back a bit), “Andrew stood on my foot, I scraped the back of my leg against the steps outside and I fell on my head when I was trying to go from handstand into bridge” (urdhva dhanurasana or a backbend to you and I).

Before you feel too sad about the terrible hurt that was inflicted upon her on her birthday let me just tell you that this is a totally normal day for her. She’s always either cartwheeling or hand-standing or doing back-bends. In fact, she’s almost never the right way up! And because of her love of tumbling, twirling and twisting she usually ends up hurting herself in one way or another.

It doesn’t stop her though. A quick cry, a hug and a kiss from myself or Suzanne and, before you know it, she’s upside down again.

I wouldn’t say she’s an unusually fearless child; she’s afraid of dogs, not too confident climbing trees, shy around people she doesn’t know. But she’s so determined to master different things (handstands, backbends etc.) that she doesn’t let little accidents stop her along the way.

I’m sure a lot, if not most, kids are like this but, somewhere along our life-journey we start to allow ourselves to be stymied by little setbacks in our lives. When does it change? Which of us really knows? But many of us are so much more cautious as adults than we were as children.

Ashtanga yoga can help us to reconnect to the child we once were. It can help us to regain the fearlessness and the determination we had as children to master something physical. But, even for us ashtanga yoga practitioners, we can fall foul of injuries, falling out of postures, hurting ourselves while practising. We mustn’t fear. We mustn’t let it diminish our determination or, most importantly, stop us from enjoying our practice and our lives.

We have to learn to approach yoga practice and life like a six-year-old. Maybe we should start sending her into the shala, instead of me and Suzanne, to really teach us all how to live a fuller life!


Inoculate yourself against the politics of division

I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the developments (or lack of) around Brexit these last few weeks. The mind boggles with the backward-thinking that has been on display in certain quarters. The pigheadedness, obstinance, and pure self-interest that has been demonstrated by a number of politicians has been staggering. Yes, we have been conditioned to expect less and less from our elected representatives over the years but this is taking it to a new level.

Nationalism has reared its ugly head again in the last decade or so throughout much of Europe and the politics of division has proven to be very popular. In the United States, some of Donald Trump’s policies are paving the way for all-out fascism (disguised as ‘patriotism’).

In an age when it feels like we should be breaking down borders and embracing our fellow earthlings, there are those who wish to isolate themselves from all other cultures, traditions, ethnicities. The very fact that on a global scale, through technological innovation, we are becoming socially, economically and culturally closer to each other is understandably uncomfortable for people who are frightened of whatever lies outside their own limited world-view.

When people feel disempowered in their lives they become frightened of everything.

So they want to leave the EU, close the borders, build a wall, imprison asylum seekers and lock up their children. Do anything to discourage the ‘invasion’ from beyond, of people who are ‘not us’.

When we should be encouraging the global community to co-operate towards achieving our combined physical, intellectual, emotional, economic, cultural, environmental and spiritual well-being we are, instead, running in the other direction.

I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to practise yoga since my mid-twenties. In the above context, I see practising yoga as a sort of inoculation against these extreme ideas of nationalism, xenophobia, and of the concept of ‘native vs foreign’.

When we practice yoga – through whatever alchemy there is within the breathing, postures, and drishti, combined with some rudimentary study of yoga philosophy – we slowly come to realise that each of us shares a collective consciousness with all of our fellow men and women, and indeed all sentient life. We come to know, in a visceral sense, that we are all one on planet earth. Whatever pain and suffering we inflict on ‘others’ is inflicted in turn upon us.

Something happens to us underneath the surface when we practise yoga with earnestness. We start to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. We become immune to hate and, if we want to, we can start to become a beacon for acceptance, tolerance, and love in the world. Fear in all senses can be overcome through self-empowerment.

We must keep practising and keep on spreading this knowledge or we might find ourselves building bigger and bigger walls until we are the only ones left inside the prison.


After the honeymoon

I have very fond memories of my first few years of ashtanga yoga practice; being exposed to new ideas and philosophies, enjoying the challenge of learning new postures, bringing awareness to new parts of the body that had, unbeknownst to me, been lying dormant for years, and enjoying progressing through the primary series (albeit at a much slower pace than most people).

I had a feeling of empowerment unlike anything I had experienced before and I was hooked almost from the very beginning.

Because I teach ashtanga yoga now, I regularly get to share in my students’ experience of the same process. It’s a real privilege.

Ashtanga yoga is such a powerful method for body and mind, and it can facilitate great insights into how we are living our lives on a daily basis. In our daily practice, we hold up a mirror to our physical, mental, and emotional state and can examine what we find.

At the beginning of our practice journey, this can lead to many revelations which can have the potential to profoundly change our relationship to the world around us. This can even happen very quickly. However, it’s not uncommon to find that, just when a student realises they have the power to change their life circumstances for the better that they give up practising; unwilling, unable, or simply not-yet-ready to deal with the changes in consciousness – and in personal circumstances – that may arise.

The simple tristhana method of moving the body, with conscious breathing, while concentrating our gaze can have some unexpected real-life effects.

This is what I often call the honeymoon period of practice. It can last a good number of years or even a lifetime but, for a lot of us, there will come a time when we feel like we are not experiencing the same benefits from the practice that we once were.

And then what happens?

There is a binary choice: Keep practising or stop practising.

Lots of people stop practising when they feel like they’ve reached a plateau, or they get injured, or they just don’t feel the same enjoyment as they once did.

Those that keep practising can go through a period of frustration and doubt. This, though, is to be expected as part of the journey. When we realise that Patanjali wrote about exactly this in the Yoga Sutras, 2,500 years ago, we come to see that frustration and doubt are all part of the process.

The nine obstacles to success in yoga as set out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras are:

  1. Disease or sickness
  2. Lack of enthusiasm, stagnation
  3. Doubt
  4. Impatience
  5. Lethargy/laziness
  6. Over-indulgence, non-moderation
  7. Incorrect understanding
  8. Inability to hold onto what has been achieved
  9. Sliding backwards from what has previously been achieved

When we see that the problems we are experiencing have been experienced by most, if not all, of the practitioners of yoga who have gone before us, it can provide some sense of solace and also a feeling that, despite feeling like we’re getting nowhere, we’re actually right on track. 

To open a 2,500-year-old text and find our current thought patterns being expounded upon is a bit like one of those sealed-envelope magic tricks; like the one where the magician writes down the name of the playing-card that an audience member ends up picking from the deck. Patanjali’s premonition of our mental state is not magic though, it is borne of experience, forged in the crucible of uninterrupted, daily practice. He knew what we must go through in order to get to the pinnacle of yoga practice because he, himself had gone through that exact process.

So if you’re faced with that nagging feeling that you’re not achieving anything.

Let it go.

Enjoy your time on the mat.

There is no need for daily progression in the asanas. Ashtanga yoga is a daily ritual which, when practised for long enough, has the potential to open our hearts and minds. It is when we become ‘opened-up’ that we can receive insight into the nature of reality and of ourselves.

And that’s what we are really striving to do.

Bonus Video

Tim Miller begins his introduction to new students by speaking about the nine obstacles. The sound quality isn’t great but it’s worth it for the pearls of wisdom

Thank you for the love

Yoga Stops Traffick. Wow!!

We’re so proud of all of you wonderful people for coming along and doing 108 sun salutations!! And we’re so proud of the donations you made.

I wasn’t able to make it along myself. I had made a commitment to play on a recording of some music for a new Amazon Prime TV series. Those kinds of recording sessions are scheduled months in advance and there are so many people (and so much money) involved that there’s no getting out of it once it’s set. I was happy to have organised the event though, and so lucky to have such a wonderful wife and yoga-partner to run the event on the day.

When Suzanne told me all about it I was so sad that I wasn’t there. For those of you who couldn’t make it along, everyone in the class counted at least two of the surya namaskara in their own language. We had English, Irish, Polish, Spanish, Croatian, German, and of course, Sanskrit. What a fantastic thing to do. I’m sure everyone came out with a very good feeling of having worked very hard and done something very worthwhile.

In terms of donations (which are still coming in) our current total is €775 taken directly by us plus around €300-350 donated directly to Yoga Stops Traffick by current or former students at the shala who couldn’t make it along on the day.

So that’s over €1,000. I can’t believe we raised such a fantastic amount.

Besides the money side of things, the fact that the children of Odanadi can see that there are people in the world who care about them is a huge deal. For part of their lives, they were neglected, abused, and made to feel like nothing in this world was good. Through Odanadi they have been helped to live a new life. And all of you who came along – and those of you who donated online – are a part of that happy story.

If you would still like to add a donation please do. You can just click below.

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=yogastopstraffick&pageUrl=1


The best thing we do all year

I’m using the Moon Day News this week to make sure you all know about the best thing we do all year.

On Saturday the 2nd of March at 10am we will be participating in this year’s Yoga Stops Traffick event.

Yoga Stops Traffick is an annual, global event which raises funds for Odanadi Seva Trust, a home for children in Mysore who are the victims of human trafficking.

Odanadi is a very special place which is very close to our hearts. 25 years ago, while researching a story about prostitution, two former journalists, Stanly and Parashu (who still run Odanadi), came to the realisation that they couldn’t stand by any longer and allow this horrific situation to continue. They set up a boys’ and a girls’ home for children who had been victims of human trafficking.

Since then they have been literally kicking doors down and rescuing children from unspeakably monstrous people and situations. They house, feed, educate and rehabilitate these children and endeavour to provide them with a level of normality which they didn’t have before.

Many of the children in Odanadi had, while under control of the traffickers, been forcibly addicted to drugs in order to pacify them. As you would also expect, there is a high level of residual trauma and mental health problems which they experience. Stanly, Parashu and the people at Odanadi provide a safe space in which these beautiful children can find some peace and build a new life.

Much of the budget of Odanadi is taken up by fighting court cases against the traffickers who sue them for seizing their ‘property’. Because they are dealing with a notoriously corrupt system, the police often take the side of the traffickers and expensive legal action follows.

The children of Odanadi are sent to school where possible. Many of them even continue on to University, all funded by Odanadi. The children become able to live a normal and productive life as functioning members of Indian society, despite their horrific history.

Those children who are so severely psychologically damaged that they are unable to attend school, are taken care of through the Odanadi system and made to feel safe and like valued members of the community there. It is really a special place.

As I said above, it is a place that is very close to our hearts. Suzanne taught yoga to the girls the last two times we were in Mysore and I visited myself a number of times. Despite the trauma that the residents have gone through, as soon as you walk through the gates of Odanadi, you get an unmistakable sense that this is a happy place, full of happy children.

Help Odanadi continue to support the happiness of their children and to rescue more and more girls and boys from the horrors of human trafficking.

Please come along on Saturday the 2nd of March and support the amazing work that they are doing.

Odanadi kids

Self Doubt

Every two weeks I spend a day or more wondering how I’m going to come up with something to write for the moon-day news.

I feel like I have nothing to say, nothing to share, nothing that can add value or meaning for you, the students of our shala and all the other readers of this newsletter. I’m actually filled with dread every, single time I have to write to you all.

I’m afraid of being judged by anyone who reads my words. I’m embarrassed by the sense that I have no real knowledge or insight into the vast subject of yoga.

Who am I to be writing about this subject? Shouldn’t I just leave it up to those who have been practising for much longer than me; to those who are more well-versed in the philosophy of yoga than I am; to those who have really walked this path with conviction and have sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of the lofty goal of yoga?

Serendipitously, I have engineered this deadline for myself. I know that many of you depend on getting the moon-day news in your inbox as a reminder that there is no class at the shala the next day. And that fact is the thing that eventually forces me into sitting down in front of the computer each time.

Having come to know so many of our students well over the last few years I know there are at least a few to whom this fortnightly moon-day news means a lot. They have told me this. And so it’s undeniable that I’m contributing something of value to at least a few people through my writing.

And so I must ask myself the question, why do I dread writing this so much?

I am usually somewhat proud of having written the moon-day news. I receive lots of emails from people telling me that they love what I write. There is a very positive feedback-loop around the whole thing. And yet, I have this gnawing sensation that I have nothing to write. Literally nothing. Surely, after 137 emails I’ve exhausted my reservoir of useful information.

So maybe there is a moral to all of this.

I think most of us judge ourselves too harshly and it becomes transposed into all aspects of our lives. We want to be the best employee, the best boss, the best husband, wife, father, mother, lover, writer, yoga-practitioner, blogger, student, Instagrammer, friend, cook, entertainer.

I caught myself yesterday evening giving myself the same trip in another aspect of my life. As many of you know, Suzanne and I lead a double-life (professionally speaking) as both yoga teachers and orchestral musicians. I had a concert at the National Concert Hall last night and, as I so often do, I worried that I was going to mess up. There is a version of this internal narrative that many of us have all the time. Of course, and as usual, it all went totally fine and I performed perfectly well. And a thought occurred to me when I got home, relieved to have “gotten away with it” again: I would say, since I started playing professionally, that I’ve done around 30 to 50 concerts a year. That adds up to somewhere between 450 to 700 concerts in my career. There are two instances in which I remember making bad mistakes out of all of those thousands of pieces of music that I’ve played in concert. TWO!

And yet, the fear is always there that the other musicians that I’m playing with will finally notice that I’m rubbish. What’s that all about?!

I think almost all of us have our own version of this.

We must examine our relationship with those areas of our lives in which we exhibit utter competence but yet we feel like an impostor, and ask ourselves why we are engaging in these limiting and negative patterns of thought.

I guess my point here is that we all have fears and self-doubt. It is just our minds turning over and over; the ego taking control of our thought-patterns. We place so much value in what our mind tells us, but sometimes our thoughts are not our friends and they are not to be trusted. Remember the third Yoga Sutra “When thoughts stop the individual sees his or her true self”.

See, another one written! Phew!!


Our habitual state

When I’m feeling un-inspired or lethargic I often turn to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. And when I’m grasping for a subject to write about (I’ve written 136 of these so far; it’s not always easy to come up with new ideas!) I also sometimes open the sutras up. So that’s what I’ve done today.

There’s so much wisdom contained in these 196 short aphorisms that it would take even the keenest of students many lifetimes to understand it all.

Never mind that there are 196 individual sutras though. The entire wisdom of the yoga sutras is contained within the second, third and fourth sutras. If we can fully understand and realise these three then we have no need for the rest of them.

Note – In case you’re wondering, the first sutra is merely an introduction – “Now begins the instruction on yoga”.

So what do these three sutras tell us?

I.2: Yoga is the stilling of the mind.
I.3: When the mind is still the individual becomes aware of his/her true nature.
I.4: At all other times the individual identifies with his or her own thoughts.

Read that last one again. This is the state in which we all find ourselves (I’m assuming that none of you have reached enlightenment yet).

We strongly identify with the stuff of our own minds; thoughts, anxieties, memories etc. We’re so caught up in being ourselves that we rarely give a thought to the fact that none of our experiences, thoughts, roles (father, student, lawyer, wife, teacher, yoga-practitioner) are the essence of who we are.

If we can still the mind through the practice of yoga (or through any other means) we will come to realise that we are not our thoughts, we are not our bodies, we are not our careers, we are not anything that can be named.

It’s a concept which, once embraced, can lead us down a very different path than we were on before. But it’s a difficult concept for most of us to grasp, so conditioned are we by the society in which we are raised.

That’s why Patanjali has to include 192 more sutras to explain what he means, how we can experience this state, why we should try, and what we will experience along the way.

It’s worth looking into!!


Be like the children

Like most parents, I try to be an example for my two little girls but, more and more, I’m realising that actually, they’re the ones who are teaching me how to live.

They dance with abandon the second they hear a tune they like; they spontaneously break into song in the middle of a crowded coffee shop or in the queue for the checkout at the supermarket; they’re so hungry to learn new things and have new experiences; and they lack any embarrassment whatsoever relating to their own bodily functions!

My 5-year-old daughter has, for a while now, been giving everyone who visits our house something to bring home with them. Our good friend and neighbour went home with 15 cent from her piggy-bank in his pocket this morning after dropping in for a game of Ludo with her and her sister. Yesterday another friend visited with his 16-month-old daughter. She went home with a teddy.

Most people say, “Ah, you’re very good, but don’t be giving your stuff away”. But it makes her so happy to give. She’s disappointed when they refuse the thing she has offered. It’s so easy to see that making other people happy makes her feel happy too.

Why is it that we tend to discourage this behaviour? And why is it that, by the time we’re adults, we feel like we need to hold on tightly to what we have; that if someone else has something that makes them happy (material or otherwise) we tend to feel envy rather than joy in their happiness?

We are conditioned to believe that the more we have, and the more we achieve, the happier we will be but, in reality, becoming unattached to the material world (vairagya) and being in the service of others are the things which can bring us lasting happiness and satisfaction.

We must try and follow the example of our children and revel in the happiness of others. Only then can we truly be an example back to them.

Yoga Sutra 1:33
Maitrī karunā muditopeksānām sukha dukha punyāpunya visayānam bhāvanātaś citta prasādanam

Stillness of mind is maintained by cultivating an attitude of joy in the happiness of others, compassion for the suffering of others, delighting in the good deeds of others, and disregarding to the bad deeds of others.


What is sufficient?

“Don’t think that perfecting an asana makes a good practice. Don’t think like that. Many students say, oh today, I caught my ankles in backbending, today is my good practice. Don’t think like that. Getting up and being on your mat, and just doing what you can, that is sufficient and that is your best practice.”

Sharath Jois

I came across the Instagram page of Ashtanga Yoga Vancouver last week and saw this quote beside one of the photos there. I’ve heard Sharath say something similar in response to a question during one of the weekly ‘conferences’ at the shala in Mysore.

I love how simple Sharath makes everything when he talks. It sometimes seems so unsatisfactory to people because they want everything to be detailed and complicated. There’s always the temptation to say “Yes Sharath, I know all that, but what’s the REAL thing that I need to know in order to progress”. But it’s simple. It really is.

Did you practice today? Yes or no? If the answer is yes then you are on the right track and you are (infinitesimally) closer to the state of yoga than you were yesterday.

Unfortunately these, instead, are the questions that we ask ourselves regularly: Did you catch your hands in Marichasana D? Cross your feet in Supta Kurmasana? Jump back without touching the floor? Get both legs behind your head?

And what happens when we achieve these ‘milestones’ in asana practice? We get another, usually more challenging, asana and the process of striving to achieve that starts again. Exactly the same. Why can’t we recognise this cycle? And the inescapable fact that it’s never-ending?

One of the first things we hear about ashtanga yoga is that there are six series of asanas and that nobody, except Sharath, practises, or even knows, the sixth series. Why, then, can’t we seem to immediately come to the conclusion that achievement of all the asanas is almost impossible and, therefore, that it can’t be the point of the yoga practice in the first place?!

Why do we continue to miss the point, over and over and over until we are broken?

This ashtanga yoga system is a trap. The progression of the primary, intermediate and advanced series fools us into thinking that we must master the asanas. The fact that the asanas get more challenging as we go further seems to suggest that we have to be able to perform extraordinary feats of acrobatics in order to gain the full benefit of the yoga practice. But it is just that, a trap. The asanas are not the point.

It’s fun to learn new asanas of course. And sometimes we need the challenge of mastering a new asana to give us the motivation to continue to practice day after day. We learn determination and, if we’re lucky, patience. So, don’t get me wrong; I encourage you to enjoy the journey of learning new asanas and to attempt to find comfort in each one.

But again, the asanas are not the point! We’re mistaking the tool for the function. The asanas are just a way of creating the conditions for the mind to spontaneously settle into stillness. We can cultivate that stillness in the crucible of daily practice but we have to be careful to keep reminding ourselves that the goal is not achievement in asanas but rather equanimity in all aspects of our lives.

All of that progression through the different asanas and the different series is irrelevant in terms of your progress in yoga. People are way too focused on the achievement of asanas.

If you read last week’s moon-day news you will have seen that I mentioned Sutra I:14 “The mind is stopped (brought into stillness) through practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya).”

Whatever happened to the varaigya part of the equation? And how do we cultivate that? I suggest starting with the above quote from Sharath. Especially these eight words:

“Just doing what you can. That is sufficient”


Embodying the habits we aspire to

“Your habits are the way that you embody a particular identity. So, every morning that you make your bed, you embody the identity of an organised person. Every time you go to the gym you embody the identity of someone who is fit. Every time you sit down to write you embody the identity of someone who’s a writer. And so, in that sense, every action that you take is kind of like a vote for the type of person you believe that you are and, as you take these actions, you build up evidence of a particular identity. Pretty soon, your beliefs have something to root themselves in and that, I think, is the true reason why habits are so important.” – James Clear, author of Atomic Habits.

I recently heard an interview with the author James Clear, from whom I have stolen the idea for this week’s Moon-Day News. It struck me that how a lot of what he was saying could be hugely useful for anyone who struggles to practise yoga regularly, despite wanting to.

The crux of his philosophy is that, in order to follow through with behaviour-change we need to be focused not on what we want to achieve, but rather, on the type of person that we want to become.

We practise yoga for many different reasons and all of those reasons are valid. If you really think about it, though, most of our reasons are based on an outcome in one way or another; to achieve good physical health and a healthy mind, to maintain a healthy weight, to gain mastery of our bodies, to become one with the universal consciousness. These are some of the potential benefits and results that we are practising to achieve.

Despite these noble reasons to practise (who wouldn’t want all of theses things) we often need help in maintaining a regular practice.

What James Clear is saying is that, if, instead of being focused on these goals, we can think of ourselves as the type of person who, for example, doesn’t miss a day a of practice, then we are much more likely to follow through and eventually achieve those goals. True behaviour change comes about by changing our view of ourselves as people.

So, let’s say you only have three minutes to practise today. You no longer have to think “what benefit will I get from just practising one or two surya namaskara?” because now you are embodying the identity of someone who never misses a day of practice.

Some days it’s not about the benefits or results of the practice. Some days it’s just about reinforcing the fact that you’re the type of person who practises regularly. And, as we all know, regular practice is one of the most important elements in the quest to experience the fullest expression of yoga. In fact, according to Patanjali’s yoga sutras, if we practise regularly we are half way there.

Yoga Sutras, Chapter 1

Sutra 2: Yoga is the stopping of the turning of the mind
Sutra 12: The mind is stopped (i.e. the state of yoga is achieved) through practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya)
Sutra 14: Practice becomes firlmy established when it is done for a long time, without interruption and with a positive attitude.

I hope this change of mind-set might be helpful to someone reading this. Be the type of person who practises yoga regularly. That’s half the battle. Of course, if we’re in search of true enlightenment, we’ll ultimately have to let that identity go too, along wih everything else that we identify with. That is non-attachment.

Firstly though, let’s just get the practice bit sorted!


News

We have moved to number 7 Upper Fitzwilliam Street.

Click here to find out about our introductory classes. All proceeds go to Odanadi Seva Trust, a home for trafficked children in Mysore, India.

The next moon-day is Tuesday the 16th of July. There are no classes on that day.

There will be no evening class on Thursday the 18th of July.

There will be no evening class on Monday the 22nd of July.

CONTACT
  • 7 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2
  • (087) 2780 559
  • info@yogashala.ie
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