YouTube Yoga

YouTube is amazing isn’t it?

I’ve learned so much from watching things on there; how to hang a painting properly, change the brake-light bulb on my car, replace the fill-valve on my toilet, do a Turkish get-up, put a baby into a sling, replace the strap on my watch, get my dog to come back to me when I call him, and probably a hundred other things that I previously would have had to get somebody to teach me, or do for me, or else go to the library and hope they had a book on it. We all take it for granted now but it’s a pretty incredible resource. And it’s only 16 years old. When I finished college it didn’t even exist!

As yoga students, we’ve been given access to a library of resources that, twenty years ago was incomprehensible. There are so many videos on there with tips, tricks, and advice on how to do almost anything you can think of.

In one way, we have a huge advantage as yoga students in this day and age. We have access to probably tens of thousands of teachers in our own homes.

But there is a problem and I’m just going to say it straight out.

Most of the famous yoga teachers on YouTube and Instagram are freaks.

That’s all. That’s the end of the moon day news for this week. I’ll leave you with that.

No, of course, I need to explain that statement.

There’s an amazing (to me at least) TED talk by David Epstein about how and why world records in athletics and other sports have been dropping consistently since modern records began. And there’s a very very interesting section of the talk (about 8 minutes in) in which he discusses how athletes physiques have become so specialised for their own particular sports. For example, swimming legend Michael Phelps (who is 6 foot, 4 inches) and long-distance running legend Hicham El Guerrouj (who is 5 foot, 9 inches) both have the same length legs. Long legs and a short torso are an advantage in long-distance running whereas short legs and a long torso are an advantage in swimming.

That is to say that certain people are more naturally physically suited to doing certain things than others. And this is where the problem lies with yoga celebrities.

When we see Michael Phelps swimming, Usain Bolt running, Michael Jordan jumping, Cristiano Ronaldo dribbling, or Brian O’Driscoll spinning out of a tackle, we don’t sit there and think that if we practice for a few years we’ll be just as good as they are. We know that they’re exceptional athletes and that people like that only come along once in a generation.

But when we see people doing yoga on YouTube or Instagram we think that we’re supposed to be able to do what they’re doing and, if we can’t, we’re ‘bad at yoga’.

Yoga practitioners who can do extraordinary things with their bodies are naturally the ones who will become well known on visual platforms like YouTube or Instagram and it is certainly inspiring to see what some people are capable of. But when you watch that video of Pattabhi Jois teaching Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Eddie Stern, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman and Karen Haberman it should feel more like you’re watching the Olympic Games rather than some sort of template for your own practice. The way those guys do the primary series is something that we can aspire to but expecting ourselves to be able to get to that level will, for almost all of us, lead to frustration, and maybe even injury.

We have all been blessed with the bodies that we have. They are all different, and they are capable of different things. We should try our best to fulfil our own personal potential while absorbing lessons from as many masters as we can. We will never become somebody else and we will never be able to exactly replicate everything another person can do. We all have our own individual strengths, weaknesses, fears, traumas, history. Yoga can help with all of that but not if we’re trying to force ourselves into something that our body is not adapted for.

So go slowly.

Enjoy the postures.

Enjoy the breath most of all.

And be happy that we have found this ashtanga yoga practice. It should be used as a tool to improve our lives, not as a gauge of our self worth.

Culture shock

When I first went to Mysore in 2007 it was a huge culture shock. So many things in India are different to the way they are in Ireland; the noise, the food, the weather, the smells, the wildlife, the language, religion, sport, and socialising were all very different to home. Even the way Indian people drive was a shock!

I’d been to different European countries and I’d been, once, to the Middle East, but India was the most ‘foreign’ place I’d ever visited. There were, of course, some similarities. Ireland and India have a shared heritage as British colonies of course. And without doubt, no matter where you go in the world, you realise that, in reality, people are fundamentally the same.

Although the details of our lives may feel very different, at heart we share common hopes, dreams and aspirations. Everyone, at the end of the day, wants to be happy and to do what’s best for their family. The fundamental universality of our dreams, hopes and aspirations are what bind us together, despite the culture we find ourselves born into. We all want to live a life of purpose and meaning, with a healthy dose of love and laughter along the way.

When visiting another country, especially one whose culture is significantly different from one’s own, we expect to experience that culture shock. In fact, that’s often the reason we travel to other countries; to experience something new and interesting. So I was ready to be amazed and even discombobulated by my visit to India.

What I wasn’t ready for was that having spent a couple of months in Mysore, I would experience an even bigger culture shock on returning home to Dublin. Two months isn’t a very long time but when we experience new things our perception of time slows down (that’s why a few days holiday in the countryside can feel like two weeks). So when I got home I felt like I had been away for a long time.

I experienced everyday things at home very differently; the power shower in my apartment, brushing my teeth with tap water, the much stricter driving rules, the Irish drizzle versus the Indian monsoon.

I saw someone driving a Ferrari while I was walking up near Dalkey one afternoon and it blew my mind. How could somebody spend that amount of money on a vehicle when there were people living in slums in India?

Of course, after just a few weeks, my newfound wonder at our cultural and societal norms started to wear off and I went back taking it all for granted again. I stopped fully appreciating the clean water coming from my tap, or the year-round produce in the supermarket.

But every time I went to India I experienced the same thing. The novelty of being in India was always so interesting but I felt the shock of coming home more keenly. And I know that many of my friends who travelled to Mysore over the years experienced the same thing. I suppose that’s one of the reasons that they say travel broadens the mind. We see our homes with different eyes when we return.

I’m reminded of all of this because (in this part of the world at least) we are on the verge of a return to normality. We’ll start to live our everyday lives again soon as our society reopens after the latest (and hopefully the last) lockdown. It feels different this time; like we might actually see the end of this pandemic sometime in the not-too-distant future.

But we have to be cognisant of the fact that we are all going to experience a shock when we do get back to normal. Yes, there will be an outpouring of relief and joy, and we will certainly not be sad to see the back of this whole thing, but it will take us time to adjust, and maybe it won’t all be as straightforward as we think.

The greatest culture shock is always when we see our own lives through the prism of lived experience. The old will seem new again and we might not be fully ready. But we will get there and we’ll be doing it together.

We’re absolutely dying to see you all again in the shala, whenever that may be.

Tears of joy will be shed.

Mutations in your yoga practice

There’s a lot of coverage of Covid-19 variants these days and we’re all a bit terrified at the prospect of a vaccine-resistant strain developing that could plunge us all back into global lockdown.

This idea of the evolutionary journey of a virus (or, indeed over a longer time scale, any living thing) started me thinking about our own way of evolving our understanding of yoga practice.

My rudimentary understanding of evolutionary mutations is as follows: A living organism (in this case the Covid-19 virus) creates copies of itself (think of them as children if you like; or offspring at least). The genetic code that is handed down to that next generation is identical to that of its parent (or half of each parent if the organism is not a self-replicating one like a virus).

In some cases though, mother nature makes a mistake in the copying process and one or more letters of the billions of letters that make up the virus’s DNA are changed by mistake. This is called a mutation. Usually, this mistake in the DNA results in the offspring being defective in some way, and it doesn’t survive. Sometimes, however, the change in DNA causes the virus to be more effective at surviving.

Imagine, for a moment, that a genetic mutation in a baby giraffe causes it to grow up and have a longer neck than all of its siblings and any other giraffes around (the chances of this actually happening are so remote that it might only happen once every few thousand years). That giraffe will have a more abundant amount of tall trees available to eat from because the others can’t reach that high.

The long-necked giraffe is likely to survive in the wild for longer than its peers because it will be less likely to go hungry. If it survives for longer it is also likely to produce more offspring and therefore the genetic mutation that gave it a longer neck will be passed down to its own babies. Those babies, when they grow up, will have the potential to produce more offspring than the other shorter-necked giraffes for the same reason of more food being available to them than the others, and therefore the mutation becomes more prevalent in the population of giraffes. The giraffes with the longer necks produce more offspring than the shorter-necked giraffes for hundreds of generations until, eventually, there are more long-necked than short-necked giraffes and that’s when we say that the giraffe’s neck ‘evolved’ to become longer.

Of course, it’s more nuanced than that but you get the idea. For the sake of giving an understandable explanation, I’ve over-simplified the process.

With viruses and bacteria the evolutionary process happens at a much quicker rate because they produce copies of themselves – and therefore genetic mutations (mistakes on the DNA) – at such a faster rate than a mammal, for example. So a virus can evolve in a matter of days rather than over thousands of years.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. What the hell does this have to do with yoga practice?

Let’s take one simple asana that we all do every time we practice, just to use as an example. Downward-dog.

Ashtanga yoga students do downward-dog on the very first day they ever step on a yoga mat. And they also do it in every practice session for the rest of their lives.

There are around 60 downward dogs in the primary series. That’s around 17,000 per year if you practice six days a week and take moon-days off. Of those 17,000 repetitions, there is no possible way that we’ll do them all exactly the same way. So, in other words, downward-dog is a great candidate for evolutionary mutations. At least one of those 17,000 variations is going to be a better way of doing the posture than you were previously doing.

If you’re paying attention at just the right moment you will realise the discovery your body just accidentally made, and you’ll adopt the new, better way to do that pose from then on. 17,000 more attempts and you might find an even better way the next year.

So, over time, and without you having to do any huge amount of study of anatomy or physiology, you’ll find the best ways to do all of the yoga asanas through sheer repetition of the same asanas over and over again.

That’s the beauty of daily practice; you just need to show up every day and pay attention. If you do that, your practice will evolve to be something that will nurture and nourish you for the rest of your life. But you have to do those thousands of repetitions or the ‘mutations’ will take much longer to occur.

Are yoga postures a form of meditation?

Many great teachers have said that the practice of yoga postures (asanas) is solely intended to give the practitioner the flexibility and stability to sit comfortably for a very long time, in order to practice meditation. Others would say that the asanas themselves are the meditation and that we don’t need to add a separate sitting meditation practice; that yoga asanas can spontaneously induce a meditative state if they’re practised in the correct way.

I’d like to tease out the second argument here a little for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, there is no formal sitting meditation practice as part of the ashtanga yoga tradition. In fact, Pattabhi Jois famously laughed when he was asked by his students if they should learn how to meditate. Instead of meditation, he called it ‘mad attention’ and said that meditation is not something that we can ‘do’, but rather it is a state of consciousness that happens spontaneously.

Secondly, many people (due to personality type, time restraints, or a myriad of other reasons) might dedicate themselves to asana practice in a way that they never would or could to a sitting practice, so there are a lot of people out there who will never practice meditation separately from yoga asanas.
That means that we should reflect on how to approach asana practice if we are using it as our sole means to achieve the state of meditation (Dhyana)*. 

First off, it almost goes without saying (but not quite) that the internal aspects of ashtanga yoga practice (namely breath, bandhas, and drishti) are hugely important in helping us to enter more mindful states of consciousness. The physical postures themselves do, of course, have an effect on the mental state but the internal aspects connect us on a deeper level with our own minds. I’ve written about this before (probably a good few times) so I’m not going to expand on that thought here.

What I do want to mention is the one thing that I notice almost every ashtanga yoga practitioner doing, to varying degrees, during the asana practice that definitely prevents them from approaching that meditative state of Dhyana.

Wait for it…

It’s very profound….

It is…..

Messing around, fiddling about, and dawdling in between one posture and the next.


It’s so simple that it’s almost silly and yet it’s actually very, very difficult to stop doing it.

Think about it. You come up, nava inhale, from the first sun salutation (surya namaskara) and you pull the bottom of your top down. After the second surya namaskara you pull your waistband up. After the third one, you fix your hair and after the fourth, you wipe a drip of sweat from your nose. As the practice goes on, for an hour or more, we fiddle around, fooster about, and generally distract ourselves from what we are trying to achieve; single-pointed focus (ekagrata) on what we are doing.

But what we have to realise is this: We do not have time for that! We need to immediately flow from one vinyasa to the next without any break in the continuity of our awareness.

We don’t have time to wipe our sweat, we don’t have time to fix our hair, we don’t have time to remove an item of clothing, we don’t even have time to pet the dog! Because, if we’re focused on doing any of those things, we’re not focused on the practice that we’ve actually decided to dedicate our time to.

So let the sweat roll, let the hair get messy, finish in the same number of layers of clothing that you started in. Basically, focus on the vinyasas, focus on the breath, focus on the drishti (please, please focus on the drishti!) and focus on the sensations in the body and mind that are caused by doing yoga asanas. Everything else is a distraction, and distraction means that you can’t possibly enter the Dhyana state.

Use your practice as a tool to cultivate focus. Focus is a super-power, especially in the age of smartphones!

Then, when we occasionally string enough moments of concentration (Dharana) together we can enter the state of Dhyana and, as many a teacher has said for many years, the yoga asana practice can become a moving meditation.

Maybe give the dog or the cat a little caress occasionally though, they need our love!

*Dhyana, the seventh limb of ashtanga yoga (as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras) is usually translated as meditation. The eight limbs are Yama (five personal disciplines), Niyama (five social disciplines), Asana (postures), Pranayama (control of the breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the five senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (bliss, oneness).

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.


Our next beginners’ course will start on February 3rd. Find out more by clicking here. If you’d like to get started sooner contact us by clicking here.

We’re offering online classes for everyone and in-person classes for students who are fully vaccinated against Covid. Book your spot here.

The next moon day is Monday the 17th of January. There are no classes on that day.

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