Category: Blog

Building energy through ashtanga yoga

It’s nice to be back at the shala after over a week away. I had a lot of rehearsals and concerts as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival and I enjoyed the change of scene. Suzanne brought our girls down to Kilmuckridge, Co. Wexford (accompanied by her Auntie, who owns a holiday home there). They had a nice break, building sand-castles, swimming in the sea, and bouncing on the big trampoline that Suzanne’s Auntie has in the garden.

I missed my little family a lot while we were separated but the uninterrupted sleeps I was getting almost made up for it! I had a lot of energy for practice and playing in the orchestra; much more than I have become accustomed to. This week, of course, I have had to transition back into having less quality sleep and this, in turn, affects how I practise yoga.

Last night, for example, I was woken four times and when my alarm went off I felt like there was no way I could face my yoga mat. I dragged myself out of bed though (after a few internal arguments) and rolled out the mat. I always find, on mornings when my energy is low, that to step outside and get some fresh air is the best way to wake up fully. So out I went onto the little patio at the front of our apartment. Normally I step out onto the our balcony, which overlooks the sea, but this morning Molly, our 3 year old, was in the bed with me (the solution to being woken up four times!) and I didn’t want to wake again her by opening the door. By the time I had taken ten deep, conscious breaths outside I was ready to go.

Slowly, as I went through the surya namaskara my energy started to build. Every time this happens I am amazed at how much energy can be cultivated by this ashtanga yoga practice. My practice was shortened (by dint of not getting up straight away when the alarm went off) to just the standing asanas before I had to wake Anna (our 10-month old) and start our normal breakfast ritual. But even after those few asanas I felt brand new. The night’s tribulations had been all but washed away.

This is almost always my experience with this practice. On days when I feel like I couldn’t possibly practise, rolling out the mat with the intention of doing just a few surya namaskara leads easily to continuing with the rest of the practice. There are of course rare days on which my energy doesn’t build through the practice, and on those days, I now know just to sit down and do some deep breathing; the next day will bring another opportunity to practice.

So, since having two children in the last three years and also since picking up a spinal injury my approach to practice has changed considerably. I am no longer trying to ‘achieve’ anything with the asanas. I just use the practice as a way to build energy. Changing the intention with which I practise has made a big difference to the way I practise.

That is what I think the real intention behind this ashtanga system is, just building your energy.

The great yoga teachers would say that this energy can be used to further your progress towards enlightenment, but it is available to you for whatever you need; work, family, relationships, the pursuit of enlightenment, or just leading a full life.

So when you step onto your mat next don’t get tricked into thinking that success in yoga comes by achieving difficult asanas, try to cultivate a practice that will build energy for you and see how much positive change it can cause in your daily life.


What are we trying to do here?

Thanks to everyone who came to the class yesterday and participated in the filming. It seemed like having a camera in the room upped the intensity of the whole experience a notch. As if it wasn’t intense enough already!

Quintin (the producer/cameraman) asked us a few questions after the class so that he could capture our thoughts and feelings about ashtanga yoga on camera. One simple question really got me thinking.

“What are you trying to do here at the shala?”

I don’t think I’ve ever had to explain exactly what it is we do, and why; our “mission statement”, I suppose you could call it. Of course I have an underlying sense of what we are trying to create at the shala but to put it into words has never been necessary before. On reflection, this is what I think. It’s pretty simple:

Our intention is to hold a space where we can facilitate yoga practice and therefore create an environment in which people can come and have an experience of stillness.

That is all. We see ourselves as facilitators of practice rather than teachers. The practice itself is the teacher.

If we can succeed in the above mission then we will have created something very rare and truly beautiful.


We need to talk about dristhi

Well, we need to talk about both breath and dristhi actually. These are two of the three elements which make up tristhana. The third element is asana or postures, which we don’t really need to talk about at all! In fact there is already waaaaaaaay too much discussion of asanas on the internet.

Tristhana means the three places of action or attention within the ashtanga yoga practice. They go from the gross to the subtle; asana purifies the body, breath purifies the nervous system and dristhi purifies the mind. Notice that bandha isn’t included as part of tristhana, it is considered as an extension of the breath.

So we already know all about asana. That is the postures, the most obvious part of yoga. In fact, to the uninitiated, that is all that yoga seems to be about. There is of course a lot that can be said about asana but just for today I’m going to park that one here.

I find it interesting that the other two elements, breathing and gazing, are considered in many traditions to be practices all on their own. The postures alone don’t constitute any kind of yogic practice; when they are practised without the other two elements we call them exercise or gymnastics.

For thousands of years the practice of watching the breath has been in existence and it is a fully-formed practice all of its own.

Also the practice solely of dristhi in the form of trataka has been around for a very long time.

There are so many benefits to practising only these two elements of yoga without even doing the asanas.

It is, of course, the asanas that draw most of us into the practice of yoga in the first place but seeing as we are already there, on our mats, day in and day out, year in and year out, we might as well try to bring as much attention to the other two – equally if not more important – aspects of this ashtanga system. Then we can hope to really reap the benefits of practice more consistently and with greater effect.

For a more comprehensive and erudite explanation of tristhana please read the kpjayi explanation at https://kpjayi.org/the-practice/


Why daily practice is the best practice

I’ve been thinking this week about the Ashtanga tradition of practising six days a week and whether, if we’re not on that roll of getting on our mats every day, we are getting the full benefit of the practice.

It seems to me that the majority of yoga teachers who I meet don’t practise daily or necessarily encourage their students to do so. I don’t have enough knowledge of other yoga traditions to say if sporadic or irregular practice is prescribed by other schools as part of their system, but I would be very surprised if anything less than daily practice was recommended by any yoga traditions. We can, in some respects, consider ourselves lucky to have such clear guidelines in the Ashtanga tradition, which sets down six days a week as the ideal amount of formal asana practice. Of course, this is not possible for everyone, but at least it leaves little room for confusion.

So, as yoga students, what should we expect of ourselves?

Well I am of the opinion that we should practice as regularly as possible. That does not mean that every day we have to practise every asana we have ever learned, but as far as is possible, we should get on our mats (except for Saturday, because Saturday is oil-bath day!). Guruji was very clear about that. Ashtanga is meant as a daily practice.

Now, that is not to say that we should abandon our other responsibilities in the pursuit of advancing our asana practice. Yoga practice should improve one’s life, not hinder it. Most yoga students have to go to work every day (without falling asleep at their desk), look after their family, and function normally in society. Few, if any, of us have absolutely no responsibilities at all. In the lineage of Krishnamacharya (Pattabhi Jois’s teacher) yoga practice is said to be for householders (as opposed to renunciates), so it is possible to be a committed yoga practitioner and to maintain a normal life too (that’s a relief eh?).

But why should we practise every day?

Well the benefits of asana practice are first of all experienced physically. But as we go deeper and practice more regularly the more subtle aspects of the practice become apparent to us. Sharath, in the conferences we attended in Mysore, many times reiterated the point that, through the practice of yoga, “change should happen within you”. A daily commitment to practice accelerates that change and, in a very practical way, encourages the yoga student to make healthy choices in their life.

Simply knowing that you have to get on your mat every morning (or afternoon or evening) means that you have to treat your body and mind well for the rest of the day. Otherwise, as we all know only too well, the experience that we have on our mats the next morning is not a fulfilling one. If, on a daily basis we decide whether to practise or not, then we let ourselves off the hook of having to live a healthy life. Every time we have mistreated ourselves – physically, mentally or emotionally – we have the excuse to not bother with our practice the next day, because we don’t feel good and couldn’t possibly face that hour and half of contorting our bodies. So with the commitment already made that we will practice every day, regardless of whether we feel like it or not, then the choice is no longer “will I practise today or not?” but rather “what should I do (or avoid doing) today so that I will be ready, willing and able to practise in the morning?”. Heathy choices become part of your life. And when healthy choices become the norm we really begin to feel that we are in control of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

So I recommend making a commitment to regular, or even daily, practice (at home or at class) and seeing what benefits it brings to your daily life. Even if your practice ends up being only twenty minutes on any given day, try to get on your mat. Peter Sanson, one of the most inspirational and experienced teachers I have had the good fortune to meet, puts it nicely. He suggests that we start with Surya Namaskara A each day and se how it develops from there.


Rehashing!

I have decided to re-publish some of the moon-day newsletters here on our website in order to give them a permanent home. Many of you who are newer students of ours will not have been on our e-mail list when we wrote them anyway so they’ll be new to you.

Apologies in advance to any of you who have already read them. Just ignore. Or re-read them if you so wish.

Love

John


A very difficult subject

I think one of our neighbours killed himself at the weekend. He was a couple of years older than Suzanne. I can’t be sure (and I might be putting two and two together and getting five) and so, out of respect, I won’t go any further in any details.

Something like that happening so close to your home really makes you think a lot. And, regardless of whether or not I’m right about him (may he rest in peace), suicide in our country is at epidemic proportions. So I felt like I wanted to talk about it. I don’t really know why but I did.

Different people practise yoga for many different reasons and, even individually, there’s usually a broad spectrum of reasons why we “take practice”. But the two most compelling reasons that I can think of (just off the top of my head) are:

(1) the student is extremely unhealthy and/or obese and needs to regain their health in order to avoid an early demise
(2) the student suffers from acute or chronic depression and regular (or even sporadic) yoga practice can help to lighten their outlook on life

It’s the second reason I want to talk about. And I’m going to keep it short (partly because I have no clinical knowledge or expertise about the subject and partly because I want you to read to the end).

Not being a sufferer of clinical depression myself I must also add that I am not speaking from any personal experience and I must apologise in advance to any sufferers if my words trivialise or demean the condition. I just hope that the more this conversation is brought into the open then the less people will feel stigmatised about seeking help (rather than resorting to suicide). That is my sole intention here.

I have been told more than once by sufferers of depression that coming to practice regularly is a huge  part of keeping that black dog from their doors. I think it works in a few different ways.

First of all yoga practice (and other exercise) releases endorphins and these, as you probably all know, are nature’s anti-depressants.

Secondly (and I think this is the beauty of the model of daily, morning, mysore-style practice that we and others around the world are practising) the sense that there is somewhere to go every day where one can potentially get some stillness of mind in a welcoming and, hopefully, non-judgemental community (and become an integral part of that community) can be hugely beneficial. “I don’t know what I would do or where I would be without this place or this practice” is what we have been told by a few different students over the last few years of running our daily classes. I have no doubt it is the same the world over.

It is the community and the shared intention to practice which is important here. And that is what is so satisfying on a personal level for us; that our small community is growing and nurturing the individuals within it. We’re not solving the greater problem of suicide or depression by any means but it’s a little drop in the ocean and we are all a part of it.

So don’t underestimate your contribution to this growing group of yoga practitioners. Your presence there in the mornings could be a small part of keeping someone on the straight and narrow, and you might not even know that they need you.

Apologies if I have rambled on a bit; it’s hard to discuss something so serious and I just sat down and wrote this in one go. If any of this resonates with you please send it on or get in touch. Likewise, if you have any objections to it let me know that too.


The journey is the destination

On the face of it, the practice of Ashtanga Yoga seems like it is progressive. And it is. The asanas, as we go further into each series, get progressively more physically demanding. The names of the different series’ even support that. Primary series, intermediate and advanced A, B, C, and D.

So, if it’s a progressive system, how long does it take to get to the end? And what are the rewards of getting further through the series?

The truth is that it doesn’t work in this linear way at all. Quite the opposite in fact. A complete beginner to the practice is just as likely to experience yoga (defined as the stopping of all thoughts) as a student who has been practising for a long time. The beginner might not identify the experience in the same way as the ‘advanced’ student, but the experience is the same.

As an aside, there is a famous concept from Zen Buddhism called beginner’s mind. The idea is that, in the mind of an expert in any field, the possible outcomes of any action or stimulus are mostly predictable. The expert thinks “I have done/seen/experienced this a thousand times and I know what’s going to happen next”. In the mind of the beginner, however, the possibilities are endless. Not having any frame of reference for a particular experience means that we can fully participate in the experience without expectation of the outcome. We are encouraged to try to adopt this beginner’s mind. In other words, to live without expectation.

Getting back to the ashtanga practice, we can be fooled into thinking that an expert, or an advanced student, or your teacher (what I’m trying to say is; anyone who can do more asanas than you can, or can perform the asanas like you saw Kino McGregor doing them on youtube) can tap in to this experience of yoga much more readily than you.

This is not true.

The experience of yoga (stopping the mind, remember) is an experience which is deeply rooted in the present moment. The asanas are just a method to cultivate this. They are designed as a distraction for the mind, so that it discontinues its normal thought patterns. In the same way as some mindfulness practitioners meditate on the flow of breath in the body, or transcendental meditators meditate on a mantra, ashtanga practitioners meditate on the asanas.

The reason they get progressively more difficult is so that the mind doesn’t creep back in once the particular asana upon which you are meditating becomes easy (or easier anyway). Or, in other words, the series’ progress in difficulty in order to make sure that the student is always operating at the limit of his/her physical capability. In that way, complete concentration is required to perform the asanas.

It is only afterwards that we realise our minds stopped just for an instant. And that is yoga.

The beginner trying to touch his toes is having the exact same experience as the long-term practitioner trying to balance on one arm. The experience of yoga is just as readily available whether it’s your first time on a yoga mat or your ten thousandth.

So there is no pot of gold at the end of the sixth series. The gold is in each individual breath, if only we can bring our one-pointed attention there.

I came across two clips which illustrate this point much more effectively than I can. Neither are overtly related to yoga practice. They both agree, though, that it is the journey, not the destination, which is important.

“Don’t hurry” – Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois

 

 


Ashtanga Yoga as therapy

Ashtanga Yoga has a bit of a reputation amongst the uninitiated for being strict, rigid, uncompromising. It is not generally seen as a practice which anyone can do. It is said that one has to be fit, able-bodied and energetic. You might have had the experience of being asked “Oh Ashtanga, that’s the really hard one isn’t it?” (that’s usually the second question though, the first is “Is that the one in the hot room?” – after I say no to that one, most people lose interest; I don’t know why)

However, those of us who have been practising for a while (and have therefore had a chance not just to practise but also to reflect a little on its nature) realise that this is a fluid practice which changes on a daily basis for all practitioners. We also cannot help but notice that the way we practise (and even the way we learn the method of practice) is different for each individual, even for Surya Namaskara A. The practice is for anyone who wants to do it. And everyone practises it differently.

We also realise through practice that this primary series is a fantastic therapy. Before the “first, second, third series” etc. became the usual way to refer to the different sequences, the ‘primary’ series was known as Yoga Chikitsa (Yoga Therapy). The primary series is intended to heal the body. This is a practice which can be learned by anyone.

I have heard Sharath repeat this (or variations on it) many times:

“Young man can practise.

Old man, he can practise.

Very old man, he can practise.

Man who is sick, he can practise.

Man who does not have strength, he can practise.

Only lazy people can’t practise.”

Then he cracks up laughing.

Every time.

Before there were so many western yoga students travelling to Mysore, Guruji had many many therapy cases; very sick and even partly paralysed students would go to him and he would slowly help them to regain their health and mobility bit by bit, getting warm blood flowing in their bodies. Even in our limited experience of teaching this yoga we have seen the therapeutic power of the asanas both in a general sense and for aiding with specific injuries and illnesses.

The therapeutic effect is also there on a mental and emotional level. We have heard many times of students whose mental health has improved through the practice of asanas (such as help with depression or addiction) or of people who feel like they have gained enough clarity in their lives and in their minds to begin making healthier choices (like leaving destructive relationships, gaining control over their diet or starting a new career). There is something about practising Ashtanga every day that makes everything else seem more straightforward.

I am a very firm believer in the adage that if you can breathe you can practice. Spread the word.

Ekam, inhale. Dwe, exhale. Trini, inhale.

Just those first three vinyasas might be enough to change the course of somebody’s life. The rest of the asanas are just embellishments of that.

 

 


Are we practising yoga?

Suzanne absolutely loves her pregnancy yoga class. She goes every Saturday afternoon and I know it’s going to be invaluable to her when it comes to her going into labour.

I asked her last week what sort of things they do in the class. She said, “we practise a lot of different positions for giving birth, we discuss different concerns that we have, we practise breathing for labour… it’s basically just to prepare you for giving birth. Helen (the teacher) is brilliant”

“That’s cool”, I said.

Then I thought “Is it yoga?… or is it more like a labour preparation class?” We agreed that it wasn’t really yoga but it was excellent none the less.

What is yoga then?

The yoga sutras tell us: yogas citta vrtti nirodhah

Yoga is the stilling of the mind.

So are we practising yoga in our Mysore Style practice?

Think about it….

It’s hard to say for sure isn’t it? Are we stilling our minds? Are we practising stilling our minds? Do we even have the intention of stilling our minds when we are practising? Or do we practise purely for good health and a nice ass? Be honest.

Patanjali says that yoga (that state in which the mind is completely still) is achieved through two things:

Abhyasa (practice) and Vairagya (non-attachment).

So we’re getting there with the practice bit right. We practice, In fact if there’s one thing Ashtanga students take very seriously it’s Abhyasa. And although it seems on a daily basis that this practice is hard and takes a lot of devotion it’s a lot easier than non-attachment. Non-attachment is a difficult concept. I’m going to park it here though, because I want to get to the bottom of whether or not we are practising yoga in our mysore style practice. Are we even doing the Abhyasa part?

Well I think the answer is that it depends on our intention. And the intention of each individual day of asana practice (or tristhana practice for those of you who read the last moon-day news!) makes a difference to the tone of each practice session.

Take, for example, a day on which you feel physically tired. It could be (and sometimes is) the day on which you go deepest into the stillness in your practice. Other times you could feel in tip-top condition but your mind is busy planning, reviewing and thinking; your having a constant little internal conversation with yourself but your performing the asanas as well as you have ever done. The first example brings you much closer to Patanjalai’s definition of yoga. The second one brings you closer to good health and a nice ass!

So are we practising yoga every morning at class (or in our home-practice)? I think that the answer is:

SOMETIMES

It’s quite an unsatisfactory answer but there it is. We have to admit that sometimes, even in this venerated lineage of Ashtanga Yoga (note the capital letters and everything!) that we’re often doing the exact same thing as the labour preparation class.

So the moral of the story is: Just because a class you go to is called yoga, it doesn’t mean that there is any yoga happening there. And that includes our classes. You have to bring the intention to allow yoga to happen. Otherwise it’s just a really good exercise class.

Guruji puts it better:

“Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus”


Tristhana

When a friend or family-member says, “Hey, you’re into yoga aren’t you; what’s the story with that?”, I bet you say “Yeah, it’s ASHTANGA yoga. It’s not like NORMAL yoga classes”. In other words, you don’t want them to think that you go to this class where it’s you and a load of grandmothers in leotards (especially if he or she is an attractive member of the opposite sex; or same sex if that’s how you roll). But what is Ashtanga Yoga?

The answer is: Tristhana.

Tristhana is what constitutes the Ashtanga Yoga practice but it’s possible you might never have heard the word.

There are three elements to Tristhana (as you might guess from the ‘tri’ part of the word):

Asana

We all know this one. It’s the postures. The most obvious/least subtle part of the practice. Asanas purify, strengthen and give flexibility to the body.

Breath

We know about this too because we can hear all of our fellow practitioners “breathing with sound”. The sound is very important for two reasons. First, the sound of our own breath draws our attention inwards and makes it easier to achieve pratyahara (the fifth of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga) or withdrawal of the senses. Second, when we can hear straining or unevenness in our breath it acts as a warning sign that we may be pushing too hard and could potentially be about to injure ourselves. The inhale and the exhale should be of equal length and should be as steady as possible.

Breath deeply and slowly, with attention to, and interest in, each breath and you will go deeper into yoga practice.

Correct breathing purifies the nervous system.

The kpjayi.org website says

For cleaning the body internally two factors are necessary, air and fire. The place of fire in our bodies is four inches below the navel. This is the standing place of our life force. In order for fire to burn, air is necessary, hence the necessity of the breath. If you stoke a fire with a blower, evenness is required so that the flame is not smothered out, or blown out of control.

The same method stands for the breath. Long even breaths will strengthen our internal fire, increasing heat in the body which in turn heats the blood for physical purification, and burns away impurities in the nervous system as well. Long even breathing increases the internal fire and strengthens the nervous system in a controlled manner and at an even pace. When this fire is strengthened, our digestion, health and life span all increase. Uneven inhalation and exhalation, or breathing too rapidly, will imbalance the beating of the heart, throwing off both the physical body and autonomic nervous system.

An important component of the breathing system is mula and uddiyana bandha. These are the anal and lower abdominal locks which seal in energy, give lightness, strength and health to the body, and help to build a strong internal fire. Without bandhas, breathing will not be correct, and the asanas will give no benefit. When mula bandha is perfect, mind control is automatic.
Note that bandhas are considered an extension of the breath, not as a separate technique in themselves. If you can try to mentally connect breath and bandhas you will find strength which you never knew you had.

Dristhi

Dristhi means ‘looking place’ and it is just as important as the asanas and the correct breathing method. To maintain consistent and correct dristhi through the entire practice is a huge challenge, and one which is really interesting to try. You may have heard people (including Suzanne and I) refering to the Ashtanga method as ‘like a moving meditation’. The mediatation part is very unlikely to happen without observance of dristhi.

There are nine dristhis: the tip of the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, tip of the thumb, tip of the middle finger, tip of the big toe, up, right side and left side.

From kpjayi.org:

Dristhi purifies and stabilizes the functioning of the mind.

I have heard Sharath mention also that the practice of dristhi can greatly aid people suffering from depression.

So these three elements are equally important in the practice. It is easy to neglect dristhi and breath in favour of focusing all of our energy on the asanas but without all three elements in place the practice will have much less benefit.

So maybe, instead of saying that we are doing ‘yoga practice’ or even ‘asana practice’, we should say that we are doing ‘tristhana practice’.

 


News

We have now moved to number 7 Upper Fitzwilliam Street.

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

The next moon-day is Saturday the 22nd of December. There are no classes on that day.

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  • (086) 8976 776
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