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.


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.


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!!


We have a long way to go…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the quote:

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

My thoughts on reading this were:

Wait.

What?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s absolutely crazy.


News

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

The next moon-day is Thursday the 28th of January. There are no classes on that day.

CONTACT
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  • (087) 2780 559
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