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How can we understand ancient philosophy?

Yoga practice can be many things; physical exercise, meditation, mindfulness, an escape from inner mental dialogue, a spiritual practice, a form of devotion, an enquiry into the nature of consciousness. If we practise for long enough it’s likely that we’ll realise all of these aspects of yoga at one stage or another, however fleetingly.

But the philosophy of India says that yoga is a state of consciousness where we forget the self, where our own individual consciousness is subsumed into the universal consciousness; a state where we cease to experience our self as an individual but as an expression of the entirety of the cosmos in human form. That state of mind is called yoga, self-realisation, or enlightenment.

Now that’s highfalutin talk, isn’t it?

Especially when you’re struggling just to throw out a few shapes on your yoga mat every day. But it’s worth considering (whether you’re the slightest bit interested in spirituality or not) that yoga practice was intended to be used as a tool towards self-realisation, to break free from the conditioning of every-day life, and realise our true nature. Whether you believe that the practice of yoga asanas has been handed down from guru to disciple for thousands of years, or it’s something that was conceived of in the early twentieth century, the fact remains that it was always intended to be a practice of enquiry into the nature of our own minds. So it makes sense that, as practitioners of yoga, we should give at least some attention to this aspect of yoga.

It’s unlikely that any of you, having read my opening paragraphs, have spontaneously gained self-realisation (enlightenment) just by having had the concept explained to you. Likewise, if you read the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Puranas, Vedas, Tao Te Ching, Bible, or Koran it is equally unlikely that you’ll gain full insight into the knowledge contained therein and be suddenly sparked into a state of enlightenment, never to regard the material world in the same way again.

We know that there is some great knowledge contained in the ancient spiritual texts of the world (whether we believe those books to be literal or metaphorical doesn’t really matter) and yet, that knowledge can be so impenetrable as to make their study almost useless. Even with a good commentary by a learned scholar we still can’t guarantee that studying those books is going to alter our experience of life in any way whatsoever.

Here is the problem as I see it. All of these ancient texts (or at least portions of them) were written by great sages of the past; individuals who had gained insights into the nature of consciousness. Their insight was so profound that they wanted to share it with the rest of humanity. They were enlightened individuals who wanted to help the rest of us to gain enlightenment. But we are all too mired in the mud of everyday life to fully understand their message.

We, therefore, have appointed certain classes of individuals to help interpret these writings throughout the ages (priests, rabbis, monks, pundits), but how many generations of Chinese Whispers have passed since the writing of the Bhagavad Gita, the Old Testament, or the Vedas. How can modern interpreters explain what their original authors really meant? So many misunderstandings have developed around these texts that many, many thousands of people have gone to war over their own interpretation of them!

The big problem at the heart of all of this is that pure consciousness is not able to be described. In fact, it is said many times that, if you can explain what it is, then that’s not it!

All of this is why we need practice. Study is not enough. Even study with an enlightened master is not enough because we’re still filtering those teachings through the muddied prism of our own ignorance.

We need a practice that allows us to forget ourselves. Chanting mantras, doing yoga postures, controlling our breath, immersing ourselves in cold water, climbing mountains, running, entering ecstatic states of consciousness, a complete focus on what we are experiencing, so that our own judgement disappears and only pure awareness is present. Then it’s possible that our own sense of self may cease to exist as an individual and we feel immersed in, and integrated with, the eternal flow of consciousness. That is nirvana, samadhi, or heaven. That’s the ‘Kingdom of the Father’ where we no longer exist in the same way as we did before; a life beyond this one; an after-life without bodily death.

What I’m getting at here is that I believe that it’s almost impossible for an un-enlightened person to fully understand and internalise the teachings of an enlightened individual. And even if somebody studies philosophy for their whole life and writes a commentary on an ancient text, that does not mean that they are interpreting that text as it was originally intended to be interpreted. So even our learned teachers can, with the best of intentions, lead us up the garden path.

Let’s imagine that Lewis Hamilton wrote a book about how to drive a Formula 1 car and how to win the Monaco Grand Prix. If I read that book and I was in possession of the fastest Formula 1 car, would I go out and win that Grand Prix next year? Of course not. At the very least I would have to do thousands and thousands of hours of practice in the car before getting even close to winning the race.

Similarly, just because we are in possession of a mind and we have been given the instructions on how to achieve enlightenment, it doesn’t mean that we will be able to do it. It takes thousands and thousands of hours of practice, and still it may never happen.

Is it possible that, if I practised enough in my Formula 1 car, I might even have a chance of winning the race, whether I had read Lewis Hamilton’s book or not? Yes, of course. But wouldn’t it be a quicker process if, rather than having to figure absolutely everything out by myself, I had a guide along the way, someone who had done it before and knew how to transmit their knowledge in an understandable way? Again, yes.

And of course, as I practised more and more I would understand more of the points that my guide was trying to make. How could I listen to and understand a Formula 1 driver talking about heel-toe braking, when to accelerate out of a corner, or controlling the back-end of the car in a chicane without ever having driven a car? The finer points of driving would be totally lost on me. But if I practice then those lessons would all make more sense and they could help me to achieve my goal of winning that race.

And that’s why studying the words of enlightened individuals can be very useful.

But without the practice, no teacher, and no amount of information is going to help me to win that Grand Prix.

That is why practice is most important on the path of yoga.

But we can all do with a little help along the way.


Since you’re already breathing…

Apologies for the lack of a moon-day news two weeks ago. I didn’t feel like I was in the right headspace to contribute anything of value, so I gave it a miss.

If the people I’ve been in touch with are representative of the wider community here in Ireland, then it’s fair to say that this latest lockdown has been a lot tougher on most people than the previous two lockdowns. Personally, I had a couple of pretty bad weeks during which Suzanne and the girls had to put up with my bad moods and lack of enthusiasm for life. Thankfully I’m feeling much more engaged for the past couple of weeks and feeling back to myself a little bit more. I’m even almost enjoying some of the home-schooling with the kids… almost… some of it. Ha!

I wanted to talk to you about breathing again this week; how it can help in your ashtanga yoga practice, and also in your everyday life.

Part of the reason that yoga works (and why it has gained a reputation for being one of the ultimate ‘stress-busting’ things you can do) is to do with controlling your breath.

When we practice a yoga posture we, quite often, are putting the body in a stressful position; a position our body has to work hard to maintain (and when I say ‘body’ I mean all bodily systems: muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, nervous system, respiratory system, endocrine system etc.).

The same could be said for many physical activities; when we run it puts stress on the body, when we climb it puts stress on the body, when we lift heavy things it puts stress on the body, even when we dance we are taxing our bodies in a way that causes some strain.

Why, though, does it seem that yoga works in a different way to any other physical activity? One of the reasons is because of its focus on the breath.

When we put our body in stressful situations, and unless we actively avoid it, one of two things usually happen automatically:

  • We start to breathe more quickly (when we do aerobic exercise, like running or we are in a stressful situation like a confrontation)
  • We start to hold our breath (like when we try to lift something heavy or we gasp after being startled by something)

In yoga practice, we are encouraged always to control the breath; not to let the breath speed up too much, and never to hold the breath. So when we are in the stress-position of a yoga posture and yet we are able to breathe fully and deeply, we are practising controlling our reactions to stressful situations in our everyday lives.

That’s why yoga works as an antidote to stress. It’s not that doing yoga postures is blissfully relaxing. It’s that doing yoga postures is hard, and yet we cultivate control of our breath in order to allow us to eventually feel at ease with that difficulty.

The breath is such a powerful tool and we can use it to help ourselves in almost every stressful situation that we find ourselves. That’s why I also recommend that you download The Breathing App. It’s the most simple tool I’ve found to help cultivate an awareness of your breath during your daily life and I have found it massively useful over the course of this pandemic and through the illness and death of my poor Dad last year.

When I’ve felt my anxiety rising, I’ve opened up the app and spent 1, 3, 5 or 10 minutes breathing. It’s an incredible tonic, I have to say. So simple and yet so effective. I encourage you to try it out.

This isn’t any kind of a sponsorship or affiliate thing by the way, in case you’re wondering. I just really find it very useful and wanted to pass it on. And it’s totally free.

Let me know if you try it out.

Meanwhile, keep bringing your awareness back to the breathing when you’re practising yoga. And never hold your breath in a posture or when moving between postures.


A decade of daily teaching

At 9am on Sunday, the 2nd of January 2011, Suzanne Taught a Mysore-style class in Greystones. Although it wasn’t the first class she ever taught, it was the first class of her brand-new, six-day-a-week, early-morning Mysore programme. It was a busy class with many old friends making the trip down to support the first class of her venture. It really felt like something significant was starting and I’ll never forget the beautiful sunrise over the sea when we crested the hill above Greystones town on our way to the studio.

The next day at 6am wasn’t so crowded, and neither were any of the early-morning classes for a long time.

She would arrive at 4.30 or 5 o’clock to practice herself and the students would start trickling in from 6 o’clock. Sometimes it would just be me and one student, sometimes nobody would come at all (I didn’t start teaching my own classes until around 18 months later after I was authorised by Sharath in Mysore, but I assisted Suzanne whenever she needed me).

It took a while but, after a few months, through her dedication and infectious enthusiasm for the practice, Suzanne had built up a small but committed group of dedicated students who practised together most mornings in that lovely studio, in that lovely town.

It didn’t work out perfectly with the studio there and, just over a year after we started the programme, it was time to move on. It was a very sad day for Suzanne as she had poured so much energy into the place, and the students.

And so the move was made into Dublin city centre. And we went back to having tiny classes again, starting from scratch in another location. Some students travelled up from the Greystones area but, for most, it was unsustainable to be travelling that distance.

The rest is history really, we moved twice more (although by distances that could be measured in yards as opposed to miles), outgrowing two small shalas until we ended up in our current shala in Fitzwilliam Street.

All that is to say, as we come up to the tenth anniversary of that first class, that we should be having a big party celebrating a decade of teaching, connecting, and getting to know all of our students through the years. The way our lives have been touched, enriched, and enlivened by so many amazing people is really something to be thankful for.

If and when we do get back to having a full shala again we’ll arrange a big celebration to mark those ten years, my 40th birthday (which was in April), and the joy of being allowed to connect properly with one another again.

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Suzanne on teaching for ten years, day in and day out, through thick and thin, the birth of two children, through doubts and upheavals, putting down roots in new shalas and being uprooted again, keeping the classes going through a global pandemic, and keeping us all entertained and motivated. She has taught, by a very quick estimation, well over 2,000 classes in those ten years and touched the lives of so many people.

As we sit and watch the numbers of students on Zoom dwindle throughout the lockdown and we worry about how much longer we can meet the rental payments on the shala we must remember how far we’ve come and that, no matter what, we have done some good in the world.

And we still have one student from the old Greystones days; Jane Martin, who continues to practice regularly in the morning classes. Well done, Jane!!


A new shala baby

I’m so happy to share the good news with you all that our lovely students Peter and Caroline Cronin, had a beautiful baby boy a couple of weeks ago. Like many ashtanga practitioners, they’re already used to getting out of bed in the middle of the night for a labour of love, so they’re already better prepared than most new parents!

Their little baby boy is the second AYSD baby, i.e. the second baby whose parents first met at our shala. It’s mad to think that if our little shala didn’t exist those two tiny humans might never have been born!

The birth of their little boy makes me very nostalgic for the pre-covid days, those days when we could all interact normally.

It’s unthinkable that a couple of practitioners could fall in love, get married and start a family, having met at an online yoga class. It just wouldn’t happen, would it? The lockdowns that we’ve experienced since March this year have taken away part of our very humanity. That why we need to get back to being together, acting and interacting in a normal, human way.

There’s something about ashtanga yoga shalas around the world that seem to spontaneously build a strong bond between practitioners. The practice tends to strip back some of the layers that we build up around ourselves. There’s that feeling of a shared experience; the mutual support; a deep, non-verbal understanding between people who are on the same path. To try and replicate that online, through a screen, with everyone muted, is completely fruitless. And I’m not even talking about falling in love here, I’m just talking about building relationships that can support our practice.

Before I started teaching and we had our own shala, I was a dedicated student at two previous shalas. On those mornings when the alarm would sound at 5:30am and I would feel like rolling over, pulling the covers over my head, and going back to sleep, it was often the thought of my absence being noticed by my friends and fellow practitioners that got me out of bed, into the shower, and into my car. It was the feeling that, if I don’t go, someone will notice. Social accountability.

We can, of course, have that accountability on zoom but only if we’ve built up such a relationship with our fellow practitioners that they would even care to notice that we were missing, and, I know I’m repeating myself here, but that relationship is so much easier to build in person.

We’re struggling to keep on keeping on. We’ve all become so used to living our lives in our small cocoons. But when something as momentous as a birth (or indeed a death) happens, it jolts us back into realising that this “new normal” is not normal at all. We need other people. Even introverts like me.

I hope we can get back to normal human interaction sometime in the next few months. The progress of the vaccines is encouraging to me. I know some of you will have concerns over the speed at which they’ve been created but more money, time, and sheer force of will have gone into a vaccine for this particular disease than probably any other medical treatment or vaccine in history. Personally, I feel that, if approved for use, the vaccines will be safe and effective and I will be in line as soon as possible to get the jab.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 is still a dangerous disease for the most vulnerable people in our society. That’s why we have decided to keep the shala closed for now. 


Every breath is an opportunity to create space

I had a discussion with one of our students the other evening on Zoom and, as we were talking, I thought to myself that it would make a good subject for this edition of the moon-day news.

So I want to share with you my latest thoughts on the breath and how it relates to asana practice in our ashtanga yoga method.

It has been obvious to me for many years that the breath is the thing which makes this practice so powerful. As ashtanga yoga practitioners we’ve been paying attention to our breathing for many, many years. We’ve seen mindfulness practice entering the mainstream (and even more intense breathing methods like holotropic breathing or Wim Hof’s breathing method) and so more and more people in the world are starting to realise how important and transformative breathing practices can be. 

But there is a problem with how many of us are using the breath in ashtanga yoga which I have seen over and over again throughout my practice and teaching life. It’s something I try to correct when I’m teaching but it’s worth expanding on here a bit, I think.

For the sake of visualisation, imagine you are practising pascimattanasana (the first seated posture of the primary series, a seated forward fold with both legs straight and bringing the hands to touch the feet). You can even get into the posture to experiment with what I’m about to write. As you breathe in fully, you will feel a small increase in the amount of tension in the body (maybe in the backs of the legs or in the upper or lower back) and then, as you exhale, you will feel a small release of that tension. This is a natural process and happens in every posture, or even when we’re completely inactive. That’s why we naturally associate exhaling with the release of tension, like when we sigh with relief.

What happens in a yoga posture is that, as we increase the tension on the inhale, our body naturally expands and opens up (that’s why it’s hard to inhale fully in a posture that is already at the limit of our flexibility). This expansion sometimes makes some space in the body so we can move deeper into the posture on the exhale. But what I’ve noticed so many time over the year is that so many people use the space that they’ve just created to force themselves further into the posture, thus creating even more tension than was already there.

In fact, what we need to do is to follow that cycle of inhale and exhale (tension and release) to allow the body to become softer and more supple as we relax into the posture. Let gravity do the work of getting us further into the posture and forget the pushing, pulling, and straining that has become a habit for so many of us.

It’s pretty simple and it seems obvious that we should be cultivating relaxation in the postures, but so few people actually do it.

The by-product of this approach is that we get deeper into each posture, in a relaxed way and, even more importantly, instead of building up an association of tension and straining with whatever particular posture we’re working on, we actually build a happy association of release and relaxation.

If we do this for every new posture that we learn (right from the very beginning of our practice journey) we will avoid injury and cultivate the blissful experience of a yoga practice without the use of force.

Let me know what you think.


Longterm Lockdown

So the shala has been closed again for the past two weeks and the lovely old room that you’ve all infused with your good energy lies empty. It’s a small hardship compared to what many people have had to go through but, nonetheless, it’s sad to see the place so lifeless. Those days in the shala when the energy is high, the mats are almost overlapping, and the steam hangs in the air, seem like something from another age by now. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for those times, or to long for them to return soon.

But the reality is that we are in this for the long haul. We have to get used to the rollercoaster of lockdown and reopening, lockdown and reopening, and at the same time, we have to be conscious of the toll that it’s going to take on our collective and personal psyches.

There has been a lot of talk of “The New Normal” but we have to acknowledge to ourselves that none of this is normal, nor will it ever be. Humans, as well as so many other species on the planet, are social animals. We live in packs, herds, tribes, whatever you want to call it. Our evolution towards being the dominant species on the planet (for better or worse) depended on our ability to live with and to communicate with each other. When we’re not together we are diminished; somehow less than human.

And while we must, for our own sake, accept the situation we’re currently in, show equanimity in the face of these restrictions, and even try to embrace the whole thing on some level (because to rail against it just causes us more suffering), it’s also incumbent upon us to find ways to stay connected to one another.

At the beginning of the lockdown here, in March, we all took to online channels of communication with enthusiasm (remember table quizzes on zoom?) but I feel like the novelty of all of that has worn off.

In theory, we’re more socially connected than we’ve ever been before, with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp, Linkedin, Snapchat, TikTok but, in reality, both the art of conversation and our ability to make deep connections have been dying a death for a long time. Can we really get to know someone on Instagram or Twitter?

So sixteen years after Facebook arrived (and after we’ve all realised – on an intellectual level at least – that social media are, at best, just scratching the surface of what used to be normal in terms of social connection) we’re left in a situation, because of a pandemic, that we are more reliant than ever on social media to fulfil our need for human connection. And it’s not fit for purpose.

So what do we do?

I suggest that we need to be aware of the limitations of these platforms and to really realise the fact that they are more useful as entertainment than they are as a way to fulfil our need for social connection and interaction. That’s not even to mention that these platforms’ whole reason for existing is to exploit and subvert our need for social contact in order to sell us stuff (or, more accurately, to sell our attention to advertisers).

The reality of the current global situation is simply that we need to work harder than we’ve ever done in order to nurture our friendships. Meet your friends for a coffee, talk to your Mum on the phone, have a video call with your cousin, go for a walk or a run with your work colleague, go to the playground with your brother’s kids. Don’t just share, like and retweet things that your friends post on their social channels. That is not going to be enough this year. And in the long run, you will feel isolated, unseen, and unfulfilled.

We have to stay together, in our own tribe, and connected across others, or our very humanity will suffer.


Time and love are all we have in the end

Please excuse the prolonged period of radio silence; it’s been a while since I’ve been in touch.

Many of you will be wondering about the post-lockdown reopening of the shala and why it hasn’t happened yet. Well, there are a few reasons, the main one being that my poor old Dad is dying. Exactly a month ago today, after eight weeks in the hospital and a long period of misdiagnosis and frustration stretching back years, my Dad was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. The doctors told us he had a maximum of six months to live. Ten days later they revised their prediction to “weeks rather than months”. We were all devastated.

He came home from the hospital to live his last few weeks with his family around him. We converted my parents’ sitting room into a bedroom, moved in a hospital bed and a respirator, my Auntie moved in with my Mam, my sister came home from Paris, and we all readied ourselves for taking care of him 24 hours a day.

Two weeks have now passed and, although his condition seems to be deteriorating every few days, he’s still with us.  We’re lucky to be able to have this time to spend together and I’m hugely grateful for that. At the same time, I don’t want his suffering to continue for any longer, so I’m torn between wanting him to stay with us and wanting him to be released from any more pain.

Through it all, he has managed to maintain his sense of humour and mischievousness. Although his voice is becoming very faint he’s still able to make us all laugh, both through words or just with a sideways look. 

The process of reopening the shala is tricky because we’ll have to change so much about the administration of the classes – booking systems, rationing of classes due to lack of space (only 7 mats will fit into the shala with 2-metre social distancing), marking of mat-spaces on the floor, provision of hand sanitiser, communication of new protocols to everyone, figuring out the best way to hold simultaneous in-person and online classes, etc.

None of this is impossible, or even massively difficult, but it all takes time and, because of my family situation right now, time has become an extremely precious commodity. Time and love really are all we have in the end.

So I’m choosing to spend the time I have (and the limited time my Dad has) at my Dad’s bedside with my Mam and with my Sister; helping, laughing, crying, cleaning, cooking, washing, feeding, and just being together, all of us for the last ever few days.

The shala will reopen but, in the face of a life coming to an end, it seems to matter a little less.

I want to thank you all massively for your patience and, in advance, for the love I know will be coming my way when I send this email.

I may not find the time to reply to any messages you send but please know how much I appreciate you all.

Sending love,
John

P.S. If your Mam and/or Dad are still alive, give them a ring today, while it’s still possible.


It’s been emotional

The unprecedented almost-worldwide lockdown that we’ve all been living through for the last few months has been such a peculiar experience for all of us. I think many of us were naively thinking that we’d close everything up for two or three weeks and then we’d all go back to normal. Obviously, it hasn’t been like that at all. We’ve actually had time to get used to social distancing, working from home, home-schooling, avoiding friends, family, neighbours, and strangers, and some even having to have zero contact with people living in the same house as them.

It has been an emotional time for everyone, not being able to engage in many of the things we love, and not being able to see the people we care about. The length of time that we’ve spent in this situation has forced us to fully adapt to living our everyday lives under these conditions. It hasn’t just been a short hiatus, where we’ve been able to put everything on hold, before getting back to normal. Major life-events have happened during the lockdown. Mothers have had babies, students have been required to choose college courses, couples have married, some have separated, people have moved house, started new jobs, lost their jobs, buried loved ones.

Life, of course, has gone on despite all of our hopes that maybe we could just stay in suspended animation until this all blew over, and many people have been forced to make big decisions. Making big decisions under these conditions is not easy.

I was listening to a former US navy seal commander on a podcast the other day and he said that they are trained not to make any decisions when their emotions are high. People do not make sensible choices during heightened emotional states. And yet, we have been living our lives in a heightened emotional state for months on end. We’re all worried about our future, and that of our society. Who among us is not concerned about the health of our elderly relatives? We all want things to return to normal, but we know that it may not happen for a very long time.

To make good decisions we need not to be in a heightened emotional state. We need to calm our emotions using whatever tools we can (ashtanga yoga is good!). We need clarity. And we need to be honest with ourselves.

Although lockdown is starting to feel normal (even familiar) we have to realise that we haven’t evolved to thrive under these conditions and, despite some of the positive aspects that we might be enjoying, (less time commuting, more time with our children, etc.) that there is still a lot of potential for irrational decision-making.

Spend some time observing your own mind through yoga, meditation, getting out into nature, or whatever method you prefer. Because, when we know ourselves, we will be able to spot those times when we’re not thinking like ourselves. Then we can hit pause on the decision-making process until the time is right.


Mind-altering methods

We’re all doing our best to try and maintain some semblance of normality at the moment. Some of us are embracing the opportunity for reflection, rest, learning, etc. and some of us are railing against the confinement, shaking the bars of our metaphorical cage and really struggling with the reality of the situation.

Actually, I believe that’s too simple a narrative because I think most people are actually more like me, swinging wildly and unpredictably between both extremes. Some days you feel punch-drunk, battered, and bruised. Others you find yourself rolling with the punches; ducking and diving; even throwing a few jabs back, in defiance of the fear and the confinement.

The last couple of days haven’t been great for me. I’ve been in a bad mood. I haven’t slept well. I’ve been having stressful dreams. I’ve been grumpy and short with my family. But I’m all good again today.

I know I’m not unique in this and, although we want to portray a positive face to the world, it’s important to acknowledge that so many of us are going through the same roller coaster of emotions. There’s nothing in our past that can have fully prepared us for the current situation.

So today I wanted to share the methods that I personally have found useful when my mind starts to sabotage my happiness. When you see it written down it’s very simple but any one of these things helps me to reset and to be more patient, compassionate and emotionally available to the people I live with, who I love most in the whole world, my family.

Movement

That can be yoga practice. It can be running, cycling, swimming, walking, stretching, lifting weights, dancing with the kids. It doesn’t matter what kind of movement it is as long as it gets you focussed on your body and less on your mind. It’s your mind that is the problem here.

As we all know it is usually our reaction to certain situations which cause us problems, rather than the situation itself. As Hamlet says “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

When we get away from our thoughts and into our physical sensations we usually begin, very quickly, to forget the negative thoughts we were experiencing.

Two minutes of movement can be enough to be of benefit. Even one minute. Set a timer for one minute and jump up and down on the spot as high as you can. I guarantee that your mental state will be different afterwards.


Have a cold shower

This is a more recent addition to my arsenal of mind-altering practices. You can build up your tolerance to cold very slowly. Just make the water a tiny bit colder for a tiny bit longer every few days. Or you can just jump into the sea if you have that option available to you. That’s even better because it’s also outdoors so you can connect with that inner need we have to be in nature.

Breathe

This is the easiest and most readily available of all these practices. Just become aware of your breath coming in and going out.

This is another version of bringing awareness away from your mind and towards your body.

There are lots of ways to do this but I use a ratio of 2:3 for the inhale and exhale as recommended by Eddie Stern. I highly recommend downloading Eddie Stern’s Breathing App to start you off with this. It’s the most simple app you can imagine (and it’s free). Once you get into the habit you won’t need the app anymore. It’s a doddle.

This morning I felt a familiar negative feeling arising so I sat outside with a cup of coffee and did about 3 or 4 minutes of breathing like this. I came back indoors in a much better mood.

Simples.

Read

Entering into somebody else’s world can help us to take an exit from our own negative thought spirals. You don’t need to read Eckhart Tolle, The Dalai Lama, or the Yoga Sutras (although they’re great). It can be Dan Brown if you like, or Fifty Shades of Grey. The point here is to alter your internal landscape from one of thinking to one of forgetting yourself, not to necessarily do meaningful internal ‘work’ on yourself. I find there can sometimes be some resistance to serious literary works when I’m in a negative frame of mind. So just read what you feel like (but it has to be a book, not facebook!).

I personally feel like reading works better than TV or movies for me. There’s something more wholesome about it, and it’s silent which, for some reason, seems to help me. TV is the white-bread instant dopamine hit and reading is the brown-rice slow-release-happiness for me.

Contact

This is a tricky one at the moment for many people but, if you live with your family or with your partner, a good old cuddle can do wonders for your mental state. Cuddle your kids, cuddle your husband, wife, partner. Just make sure it lasts long enough to work.

I’d love to hear more ways that people get away from their own thoughts and into a positive frame of mind. I need all the help I can get some days!

Send us an email to share your gems of wisdom.


Continuous refinement

The long-term study of ashtanga yoga, like the long-term study of anything, is a process of continuous refinement. The longer we practice, the more knowledge we absorb about the system and, maybe, we start to gain some insight into the intentions behind it. When we reflect on the structure of the primary series, for example, we might start to question why we start with the standing postures, not the seated ones; why do the backbends only happen at the end; why do we have some really challenging postures in the middle and some more manageable ones further on? 

As we gain an insight into the structure and, therefore, the essence of the ashtanga system we may start to reflect on whether we need to change the way we approach the practice on a daily basis. If we find that we’re regularly experiencing niggles or injuries, it is incumbent upon us to investigate why that is happening. If we practice through pain for long enough it’s pretty likely that we’ll eventually stop practising altogether and so, although ashtanga yoga seems like a very strict system, we sometimes need to discover subtly different ways of doing things which will then allow us to continue to practice for our whole lifetime.

That’s not to say we should modify all the postures so that they are all achievable from the beginning. It’s my belief, barring underlying injuries or conditions which prevent it, that we should start off learning the precise system of vinyasas which constitute the ‘traditional’ ashtanga yoga practice. It’s important that there is some struggle in the learning of the practice; it’s in this struggle that we sow the seeds of the revelations that can come through practice.

It’s a bit like cooking. When you’re learning how to cook something new, you follow the recipe to the letter. And the first few times you make it you’ll do it exactly the same way. If it’s perfect and it suits all of your taste preferences you might keep making that exact same recipe for decades. Over time, though, you might alter the recipe to suit your own tastes and preferences, or you might need to alter it in to allow for some dietary changes (you’ve realised you’re intolerant to gluten or dairy, or you substitute minced beef for puy lentils because you’ve stopped eating meat). After you’ve made the same dish a thousand times it will bear a resemblance to the original one, but it’s unlikely to be exactly the same.

Maybe I’m stretching the metaphor a bit here but, if you were to pass on that recipe to somebody else, you might find yourself giving them the original recipe, without your modifications, so that they may start with a clean slate which allows them to alter it to their own preferences over time.

It’s important to me that the integrity of the ashtanga yoga tradition is kept intact for future generations. If every student who learned the practice added some modifications and then taught their own students the modified version, ashtanga yoga as we know it would be unrecognisable in just a couple of generations.

So I do believe that, when we start off we need to ‘follow the recipe’ that comes with the practice. But, if we find that we are suffering because we’re trying to strictly follow a strictly system, certain elements of which are causing us physical pain and suffering, due to our own unique attributes, history, genetics and injury profile, then it is important for us neither to continue bashing our head against that particular brick wall, nor to walk away and give up entirely, but to find a new way to approach a practice that has so much to teach us.

Let me be clear; I’m not talking about wholesale changes to the practice, leaving out important postures just because they’re hard, or adding in tonnes of new postures but, over time, we might begin to bring our own flavour to the dish that is ashtanga yoga. And that is entirely rational and sensible.

The most important thing, from a personal point of view, is that we find a way to continue to enjoy the practice into our older years. If we can’t do that then, no matter how dedicated or determined we are, we are likely to stop practising, and we will lose so much.

Enjoy your practice and go gently.


News

We’re offering online classes for the duration of the level 3, 4 or 5 restrictions in Ireland. Book your spot here.

The next moon day is Tuesday the 27th of April. There are no classes on that day.

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  • (087) 2780 559
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