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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.


The strangest few weeks

It has been the strangest few weeks that I can remember in my lifetime. The weather here in Ireland is turning from Winter to Spring. The mornings are lovely and bright, and there’s that ‘grand stretch’ in the evenings. Under normal circumstances, we’d be rejoicing at the good weather and looking forward to the Summer.

But everything has been put on hold; all planning of Summer holidays; all social occasions; all education. Everything feels like it has entered a weird state of stasis; a standstill almost. And yet, something ominous is just over our shoulder. We have an idea of what it is, but there are more unknowns than there are knowns.

You know that feeling when you put your hand under a really hot tap? There’s a micro-second where we feel nothing; a tiny moment before the signal gets from our hand to the pain receptors in our brain; that one moment of blissful ignorance before we realise that we’ve burned our hand. We have a feeling that something bad has happened but we haven’t quite paid the price yet. And we don’t yet know how bad it’s going to feel. It happens so fast (at the speed of thought) that usually our hand has pulled away from the water before we even feel the pain.

I feel like the whole of Ireland, and most of the rest of the world, is experiencing that micro-moment, slowed-down and stretched out over the space of weeks. We don’t know how bad this crisis is really going to be in the end, but we have that ominous feeling that there is going to be a lot of pain before it’s all over.

This state of ‘not-knowing’ can have the biggest impact on or thoughts, our fears, and our stress-levels. Like a wasp just over your shoulder. You don’t know yet if you’ll be stung and you can’t quite see it coming. But you know it’s there.

If you’re like me you’ll have been experiencing a certain level of anxiety about the impending impact this virus may have on you, your family, your friends, your community, and even your financial security. And these are all valid worries.

Some of the narrative coming from the yoga community has been decidedly unhelpful. The idea that, because we do yoga, we should be always positive, always relaxed, never worried or stressed, and equanimous in all situations is utter nonsense. The fact that we practise yoga means, for many of us, we’ve recognised that sometimes life is hard; that we need a system to get through difficult times; one which can help us to reconnect with our deeper selves where all those worries can maybe begin to fade.

But none of us are there yet. If we were we wouldn’t need to practice anymore.

It’s normal to feel worried. It’s normal to be stressed. It’s normal to need help.

And it’s at times like this when we might start to realise just how important things like yoga, movement, mindfulness, social-connection, breath-work, and meditation really are. We need those things more than ever.

The proliferation of yoga teachers using online platforms to continue to connect with their tribe has been really heartening, and it has been so useful for many yoga students (and teachers) around the world. If we’d experienced this crisis 15 years ago the technology would never have been able to keep up. We’re lucky we can still connect with each other now.

As you may know, we’ve been running a full schedule of led classes on Zoom (a video conferencing platform). It has proven to be a much nicer experience than I had thought it would be. Not quite as connected as all being together in the shala, but I’m still getting that nice warm glow that comes from sharing ashtanga yoga together. You can join the classes here.


Yoga Stops Traffick 2020

Hi everyone,

This week’s moon-day news is all about Yoga Stops Traffick.

As some of you already know we have been organising events for this annual global fundraising event since its inception.

In this, its tenth year, the organisers of Yoga Stops Traffick are aiming to make it the biggest event yet.

Every year in March yoga studios around the world hold events to raise awareness and funds for Odanadi Seva Trust, a home for young boys and girls who are the survivors of human trafficking. The people at Odanadi do truly remarkable work, rescuing children from horrific situations; housing, feeding, rehabilitating, healing, educating and nurturing these young souls and giving them the gift of a normal life; one without the need for constant fear.

The circumstances these children are rescued from are, thankfully, unfathomable to most of us. The organisation of Odanadi breaks down doors, rescues these children, and aims to bring the traffickers to justice, all in a legal and political system that is difficult for good people like these to succeed.

To date, Odanadi Seva Trust has rescued and rehabilitated more than 12,000 women and children; carried out 422 brothel raids; educated tens of thousands of children, men and women about sexual exploitation; returned 1380 missing children to their families and brought 385 traffickers to justice. 

Yoga Stops Traffick raises vital funds for Odanadi to keep on rescuing these children and to fight the legal battles which aim to eventually free them, and many more who follow, from the monstrous actions of their captors.

So please come to the shala on Saturday, March 21st at 10am. We will, as we have done for the past ten years, attempt to complete 108 sun salutations.

Please don’t feel under any pressure to complete this challenge, but, if you feel the urge to help Odanadi and the children they support, come along, do whatever you can (or feel like), make a donation, and enjoy the buzz at the shala.


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

News

The shala is currently closed due to the Covid-19 crisis. Click here to join our online classes.

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 Wednesday the 19th of August. There are no classes on that day.

CONTACT
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  • (087) 2780 559
  • info@yogashala.ie
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