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Keep it playful…

The weekend with Tony Riddle came and went and it has left a lasting impression on both Suzanne and I, as well as a lot of the people who attended.

We had two brilliant days of laughing, playing, hugging, crawling, squatting, jumping, wiggling, and wobbling until our legs felt like they didn’t belong to us anymore.

There was so much to unpack from the weekend (way too much to go into any depth here) but I was struck by one thing in particular. We played a couple of games with partners in the room where the object of the game was to be led by our partner freely and without any resistance. It was fun and also hard work as we were manipulated into unusual shapes and positions by each other (using minimal or no touching).

What was so noticeable in this game was how freely everyone was able to move and how loose we could be in our bodies when that was the object of the game.

As someone who adjusts those very same bodies every day in yoga class it was incredibly interesting to observe how, when new and unexpected patterns are introduced to the body – without any expectation in advance of what those patterns should look or feel like – the body and mind can be totally free of preconceptions, self-consciousness, fear of injury, or the desire to ‘get it right’. The freedom with which people were moving their bodies made me realise how much we can become locked into repetitive patterns in our yoga practice.

When we become more focused on getting the posture correct, or getting through it so that we can get to the next one, we can create so much tension and rigidity in both the body and the mind. But when we treat it like a game, like a child playing, as we did last weekend, we can find unexpected softness, freedom, and flow. And then yoga practice can take on a new, and maybe even more joyful, expression.

So I’m trying to approach each asana in the ashtanga system as if I’ve never practised it before. I’m trying to feel the movement in each breath and the playfulness inherent in moving my body like a child. I encourage you to try this approach. It will do wonders for you both physically and mentally and, I expect, will help you to live a long and pleasant life, continuing to enjoy practising into old age.

A huge thank you to Tony and to everyone who came along.

YOU ARE LOOOOOOVED!!


There’s a trap on the path

Does this sound familiar?

“I’ve been practising ashtanga yoga for six months/two years/ten years and I still can’t bind-in-marichasana-A / lift-up-and-jump-back / stand-up-from-drop-backs / insert-name-of-asana-here. I should be able to do this by now”.

If we practise ashtanga yoga for long enough it’s almost inevitable that, at some stage, we’ll fall into the trap of believing that we are supposed to achieve certain postures; because we’ve practised for long enough and regularly enough.

After all, doesn’t Patanjali say:

Practice becomes firmly grounded when done for a long time, without interruption and in all earnestness
(Sutra I:14)

First, let me say that these thoughts are completely normal and are actually part of the process. But it’s important to eventually realise that, this kind of thinking misses the whole point of the practice in the first place.

The point of yoga practice, as we all know, is to calm down the relentless spinning of our own mind. It’s right there in the second verse of the yoga sutras.

Yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuations
(Sutra I:2)

That’s the only definition of yoga that Patanjali gives.

And yet, over and over again, we fall into the trap of trying to achieve certain yoga postures, in the vain hope that this will get us closer to success in yoga.

Even though we know it won’t!!

What is wrong with us!?

When we catch ourselves operating on this level there’s a very, very simple remedy. It doesn’t work just to remind ourselves that the point of yoga isn’t success in yoga postures, because we already know that, and it hasn’t helped us from falling into the trap so far.

We should try to remember why we started practising yoga in the first place. Well, not what first made us decide to give yoga a try, but what made us come back for a second, third, fourth time.
For me, after my first ashtanga yoga class I felt a huge sense of peace, openness, ease, well-being. Physically speaking I felt amazing (well, tired but amazing!), but it also felt as if I had tapped into something deeper; some deep-seated feeling of both ease and vitality that I had rarely felt before.

Did I achieve any advanced yoga postures in that first class? Of course not, and yet I still vividly remember that feeling all these years later.

So is it necessary for me to achieve advanced postures now in order to experience what Patanjali was talking about? Absolutely not.

And yet…

We forget.

Until we remember again.

And then we forget again

  • when the next new posture comes along
  • or one of our friends learns a new pose that we haven’t done yet
  • or we’re unable to do something that we used to be able to do
  • or we see someone doing something fancy on Instagram
  • or we realise it’s been a year since we saw our favourite travelling celebrity yoga teacher and we haven’t yet nailed those couple of poses that he/she taught us last year, and he/she is coming back again soon, and we’re going to be embarassed, and, and, and
  • for a whole host of other reasons.

And so it goes. A continuous struggle.

Here’s the thing though:

We can use this ashtanga system to really begin to practice yoga, in the sense meant by Patanjali, very simply; by breathing deeply, always keeping our awareness on the drishti, and starting to pay attention to which of our thoughts are true and which are not.

If we practise in this way then we will always be going in the right direction, even if our ability to perform yoga postures is going in the ‘wrong’ one.


Podcast Episode 2: Aoife Donnelly

Thank you so much to everyone who commented online or in person about the first episode of our Ashtanga Yoga Shala podcast.

This second episode is with our friend and long-time student Aoife Donnelly.

Aoife has been a student of ours, on and off, for around ten years and she freely admits that she has had something of an on-again, off-again love affair with ashtanga yoga. Part of the reason I wanted to get Aoife on the podcast (other than the fact that I find her hilarious and great company) is that I wanted to share the perspective of somebody who has had that love/hate relationship with yoga.

Because of the nature of our society and the fact that experts who appear online or in the media are usually fanatical about their chosen subject, we’re mostly met with images/videos/blogs/Instagram posts from yoga teachers and practitioners who were struck by the practice from day one and have never had a moment’s doubt that this is what they should be doing on a daily basis.

Sometimes it can be hard to relate to those kinds of people and we can be made to feel that, if we’re not like that, then we’re doing it wrong.

The reality for most students is that they will go through a sticky patch at some point (for a huge variety of reasons) and will struggle to find the time to dedicate themselves to yoga practice. That’s normal and is part of being human.

Aoife’s story is one of consistently returning to ashtanga yoga and realising why she started it in the first place and also of using the tools that she has learned through practice in other areas of her life.

 


Ashtanga Yoga Shala Podcast Episode 1: Petar Dukic

In the first episode of our new Ashtanga Yoga Shala Podcast I spoke to our student and assistant Petar Dukic in advance of his six-month trip to India and Nepal.

Petar tells us about how his relationship with his body has been healed through ashtanga yoga, how he uses social media consciously, and how connecting with his breath has had a profound impact on his life.

Follow Petar on Instagram @petaryoga

Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify

We have a long way to go…

This will be the last blog post before Christmas and so, first of all, we want to wish all our readers a happy Christmas.

As I sit down to write every couple of weeks my intention is always to try to connect with you and to be as honest and open as I can. Sometimes I have an idea of what I’m going to write before I sit down but, often, I don’t. So I’m aware that sometimes I just end up rambling on about something or other (like now for example).

I want to thank you all for reading and taking on board my ramblings. Many of you reply and it means a lot to me knowing that you find this stuff interesting, enjoyable, or maybe even useful. I know there are a lot of different things competing for everyone’s attention these days and so I appreciate the time you spend reading the blog every couple of weeks (or whenever you get a chance).

I think 2019 will go down as the year that the global community of ashtanga yoga grew up a little bit and started to acknowledge that there were some skeletons in its cupboard. There are, it seems, still a few people who are holding out and suggesting that Pattabhi Jois did nothing wrong but I think, in general, there has been an acknowledgment that, as a community, we had some serious soul-searching to do.

I still believe that it came way too late (and I include myself in that criticism) but we can only move forward from where we are and I hope that the healing process – both for the individuals who have been his victims and for the ashtanga yoga community in general – has begun.

In the context of the shocking new Netflix documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator”, there was an article in the Sunday Business Post this week about adjustments in yoga classes. I encourage you to watch this documentary, although just a warning; it is pretty shocking and probably triggering for anyone who has been through sexual abuse.

Although I welcome the conversation that’s starting to be had around this subject, I was pretty shocked to read the last paragraph of the Sunday Business Post piece.

It was a quote from Matt Quigley, owner of the YogaHub in Dublin.

We know Matt. In fact, he used to come to our classes in Oscailt around the time he opened his Camden Street studio. He actually asked us if we would move our morning Mysore-style programme to his new studio but we decided that we would prefer to stay independent in the end. None of that is relevant to the quote but it’s more to illustrate the fact that we’re friendly with Matt and that this is not a personal attack.

Here’s the quote:

“I went to a class in Marylebone last year, and I had to start laughing because I was in downward dog and the way that teacher assisted me I could feel his penis against my bum because he grabbed me by the hips. I’m used to that because that’s ashtanga, he doesn’t mean anything by it. That’s simply how they assist.”

My thoughts on reading this were:

Wait.

What?!

First of all, I want to say that it’s possible that Matt was misquoted here. That happens all the time and I haven’t contacted him to ask him about it.

Nonetheless, this idea is now out there in a national Sunday newspaper and as one of only a few full-time ashtanga teachers in Ireland, I feel a responsibility to address it.

Maybe some people are ok with this sort of an adjustment from a yoga teacher but I want to be very clear here: 

It’s not ok for any yoga teacher to touch their genitals against a student in a yoga class!! That is sexual assault. And if that teacher is doing that, and he carries on doing that, whether or not he is deriving a sexual thrill from it, he may end up being – justifiably – convicted as a sex offender.

It’s not ok and I disagree in the strongest terms possible that “that’s ashtanga… that’s simply how they assist”.

At our shala (and, I hope, the majority of ashtanga yoga shalas around the world) the students are treated with kindness and respect. We can’t let this go unchecked and we can’t assume that, just because there is physical contact between teacher and student in the Mysore-style tradition, that there also has to be genital contact!!

That’s absolutely crazy.


Yoga and movement for the modern human

It’s so inspiring to see so many people practising yoga in Ireland these days. When we started practising (less than 15 years ago) you’d never see people walking around with yoga mats under their arms. And if you did they were never, ever men!

Maybe I’m in a bubble but it does seem like, in general, people are taking more of an interest in their physical and mental health than even five years ago. There’s a proliferation of yoga studios and gyms in Dublin and beyond. Just from the window of the shala on Fitzwilliam Street you can see three personal training gyms. It’s great. And who did you know ten years ago who ever went to a personal trainer? Nobody right? Now it’s not uncommon. It makes me think that we’re going in the right direction.

But it also makes me think that maybe our generation is suffering physically and mentally more than previous generations did; that we need the likes of gyms and yoga studios more than ever.

We spend more time indoors, more time sitting down, and less time moving than our parents and certainly, our grandparents did. It used to be that we could get our movement and fresh-air requirements just from our work but those days are gone, never to return. We have become somewhat divorced from our environments and even from our own bodies. We’ve become a shadow of the wild men and women from whom we descended.

We seek out comfort and luxury whenever possible and we’re told by advertising that the more comfortable we are, the more successful and happy we will feel. Yet, as the boom in people running marathons or doing ultra-endurance events like Ironman and Spartan Races will testify to, it’s when we put ourselves in uncomfortable and challenging situations that we start to feel fully human.

With the proliferation of yoga and other movement practices in the last 30 years or so we are starting to see some really interesting innovation by some amazing people. I know innovation is a bit of a dirty word in the world of ashtanga yoga but, more and more, I’m starting to realise that we need to connect with other disciplines in order to truly understand our own.

When Ramamohan Brahmachari taught yoga to Krishmnamacharya in the Himalayas he could never possibly have understood that, in one hundred years time, the practitioners of this discipline would be sitting at a desk in front of a computer for a minimum of eight hours a day, five days a week!

It’s worth considering that even doing 9 hours of yoga per week may not fully solve all the problems that we’ve created with our modern lifestyle. The other 159 hours are also important!

So with that in mind, we’ve become very interested in the work of Tony Riddle, The Natural Lifestylist. In October he ran the length of Great Britain, from Land’s End to John O’ Groats in 30 days. That’s 30 miles per day. And he did the entire thing in his bare feet!!

Tony talks a lot about ‘rewilding’ our bodies and, also, our home and work environments so that we can start to live in a way that is more conducive to the proper functioning of our bodies and minds. The human being, after all, was forged through natural selection in the wilderness.

The best news is that we’ve reached out to Tony Riddle and he has agreed to come and share some of his knowledge with us at the shala. I’ll have more details for you soon but we expect that he’ll be teaching a two-day workshop at the shala on the weekend of the 8th and 9th of February 2020, from 10 am to 6 pm each day.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. Ashtanga yoga, on a purely physical level is an incredibly effective practice but it’s not perfect (physically). Bear in mind also, though, that the point of yoga isn’t to attain physical perfection. Yoga postures are, ultimately, tools to help bring us into a state of yoga; that is, having a pure and still mind. I’m talking here on a mostly physical plane.

Interesting things are happening in the world of movement. Mark Robberds, Ido Portal, Tony Riddle, and others are doing work which is enhancing our understanding of how to attain mastery of our bodies in the modern world. They are some of the pioneers of our generation, in the same way that Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois were in their time.

We embrace this new inquiry and the knowledge which is being added by these trailblazers.

The times and dates for Tony Riddle’s visit might be subject to change but that’s the plan so far.


Transcendence through super-human effort

The running stage of a half-ironman race went past the front of our apartment complex last Sunday. For those of you who aren’t in the know with these things, a half-ironman is a 1.9km swim, followed by a 90km bike ride (up into the Dublin mountains in this case) and a 21.1 km run. It’s an epic undertaking. And yes, a full ironman is twice as long as that!

The winner was the gold medalist from the last two Olympic triathlons, Alistair Brownlee and it was an incredible sight to see him blasting around the course. He won by almost 11 minutes in the end.

It was the regular joe-soaps of the race though who really captured my imagination. I stood at the side of the road for almost five hours applauding and marveling at the effort that the athletes were putting in. The race started at 7am in the water in Sandycove and, although the winner crossed the line at around 11am, many were still running at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Over the last few years, I’ve listened to lots of ultra-endurance athletes speaking or have read what they’ve written. It’s a subject that really fascinates me. A common thread amongst them is that they say, after a certain point, the race becomes just as much of a mental battle as a purely physical one. What do you do when, after two hours on the bike, every muscle and sinew is in pain and your rational mind is screaming at you “You have to stop now or you’re going to die”? I suppose there are two options. Stop or keep going. The fact that so many keep going is a testament to the power of story in our lives; even the search for meaning really.

The story of a race that is staged at a certain time, on a certain date, in a certain place, over a certain distance is a very powerful one. Who chose the distances for these races? Why not 100km on the bike? Or 50? Or 1.5kms in the sea? Like so much in our world, it’s a construct. But, once we attach significance to that race and that distance then it can become so powerful in our minds that we are willing to put ourselves through hell to achieve success.

I was struck by the rawness of the experience. Sweat, blood, snot, salt-water, cramps, nausea, pain, chafing, detached toenails, and yet they continue to chase the goal of covering that distance without giving up.

It seems to me that it is good evidence of the separation of mind and Self that is referred to so much in the Indian philosophical tradition. The rational mind says “Stop, this is dangerous; you have nothing left; what is the point of this anyway?!”. But yet, there is another Self who is able to observe those thoughts and ignore their advice; a witness to the rational mind who is able to over-ride the thoughts; the ultimate decision-maker. And maybe that’s the true appeal of ultra-endurance sport, that participants are able to transcend the thinking mind and connect with that higher Self, the atman, that which connects us all to our true selves.

Patanjali says:
Yoga is the stilling of the mind (the stopping of thoughts). When all thoughts stop, the individual sees his true self. At all other times, the individual identifies with his thoughts.

Whether we know it or not, we are all seeking to experience our true selves. There is certainly potential for transcendent experiences in endurance sports (just as much as there is by doing yoga asanas) when the body becomes so exhausted that the regular functioning of the mind starts to shut down and maybe even stop.

Is that what we’re all seeking?


We’re obsessed with comfort

As I sit down to write this week our very good friend and neighbour is in labour, delivering her first baby into the world. She has decided to give birth at home and our apartments are as close as they can possibly be to each other. Suzanne and I really feel connected to her, almost like we’re in this together, despite the fact that she is in her own apartment (with her husband – also a very old friend – and a couple of midwives) and we’re in ours.

You can’t help but be transported back to the birth of your own children in times like these. The beauty of the whole thing is one thing, but what I’m struck by most of all today is the primal nature of childbirth. The pure rawness of it all. Even to be present at the moment of birth is unlike any other experience we humans will probably have in life. It’s uncomfortable, and painful, and emotional, and draining; exhilarating, and joyous, and exhausting; transcendent, and a thousand other things.

Today has caused me to reflect on how, during the most intense and uncomfortable experiences of our lives, we connect most fully with what it means to be human. What’s more human than giving birth to a child?

And yet we live out the rest of our lives seeking comfort; seeking ease; trying to numb our emotions. We have a primal need, though, I believe, to transcend the body and even the mind; to go to a place where nothing matters but the next breath. And yet, in life, we avoid these things at all cost.

Practising yoga asanas can help create some intense experiences in our lives and (while they’ll never be as intense as childbirth, nor would we want them to be) on the mat we sometimes get to reconnect with what it feels like to be fully human. It is the discomfort which is caused by some of the yoga postures, the ones that we want to be over as quickly as possible, which can help us to reconnect with that primal nature. There is huge value in feeling some discomfort on a daily basis. It’s impossible in this life not to suffer in some way or another. We can, however, practise, through yoga or many other disciplines, what our response to suffering will be when it comes along.

Sending love and happiness to our beautiful friends and neighbours Andrew and Eva, and to baby Harmony. Thank you for teaching us to live a life without fear.


Yoga and nothing else?

There’s a feeling amongst ashtanga yoga practitioners that doing other physical pursuits negatively impacts your ability to do yoga postures; that running tightens the hamstrings and hurts your knees, climbing causes the shoulders and upper back to become stiff, cycling tightens the hips, lifting weights in the gym causes all the muscles to become tight and stiff rather than supple. Friends of mine were even advised to take rickshaws everywhere in Mysore because walking would make them stiff for yoga practice.

If you’ve practised yoga for even a short time you might recognise that there is some truth to this. If you go for a long hike in the mountains you will feel stiff the next day in your yoga practice. If you run long distances (and the word long is, of course, entirely subjective here) you’ll probably find the same thing.

A friend I met on my first trip to Mysore in 2007 said: “Yoga makes you able to do everything else better, and doing everything else makes yoga worse”.

So what should we do? Should we forsake all other physical pursuits so that we have an easier time doing the yoga postures? Long-time readers of my emails will probably guess my answer to this, but it sort of depends really.

If the most important thing to you, at the moment, is to progress through all the different series’ of ashtanga yoga then it might be smart to avoid other things which are going to negatively impact that. Progression in asana is a valid goal and probably the one which keeps most people hooked on ashtanga yoga, at least for the first few years.

If like me, however, you have realised that you are never going to finish all six series (and, in fact, you’re unable to do some of the postures you used to be able to do) then you might end up with a choice.

Give up practising altogether because making no progress is too frustrating. So many people choose this and it is extremely unfortunate in my opinion.

or

Ask yourself what your motivation to practice yoga really is. There are hundreds of reasons to keep practising (a few of them are listed here). If we find something that motivates us to return to our mats over and over again, then we don’t need to worry about whether or not we can do the postures the way we might like.

So if we are practising regularly and are not worried about progressing through the series then we must revisit whether or not we should also allow ourselves to pursue other physical disciplines. It seems self-evident to me that we should endeavour to live our lives unrestricted by our own fears. If we feel like running we should run, if we feel like climbing we should climb, if we feel like learning a martial art we should learn a martial art, and if we feel like going to the gym and lifting heavy stuff then we should do that. Surely all of these things can help in the pursuit of physical health and mental clarity, both of which we are striving for in our yoga practice.

Anything which challenges us in new ways provides us with the potential to grow (that’s part of the reason the ashtanga yoga asanas get harder the further we get through each series), and personal growth and self-awareness are at the heart of yoga practice.

My advice:
Don’t live in fear of stifling your progress in asana. Live a full life and grow old with no regrets.

I went to my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class today. Practice is going to be tough tomorrow!


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!


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