Tumbling, twisting and twirling

Our daughter, Molly, had her sixth birthday yesterday. I know, time flies.

We spent the morning at the food market in The People’s Park near our apartment with some of our closest friends who Molly loves, eating nice things including Teddy’s ice-cream with a flake and sprinkles. Aren’t birthdays great?

The afternoon was spent trying on her new clothes, playing with her new Spirograph® from Auntie Sharon, doing handstands and cartwheels on the grass, jumping on her cousins’ trampoline, more presents, then watching a few cartoons, dinner, bath, and bed. An objectively good day for a six-year-old.

Just before she went to bed we had a little cuddle and I asked her if she’d had a good birthday. She said “It was ok. I hurt my two fingers” (she does yoga in school and she’s been practising Bakasana since last week, she fell out of it and bent her two fingers back a bit), “Andrew stood on my foot, I scraped the back of my leg against the steps outside and I fell on my head when I was trying to go from handstand into bridge” (urdhva dhanurasana or a backbend to you and I).

Before you feel too sad about the terrible hurt that was inflicted upon her on her birthday let me just tell you that this is a totally normal day for her. She’s always either cartwheeling or hand-standing or doing back-bends. In fact, she’s almost never the right way up! And because of her love of tumbling, twirling and twisting she usually ends up hurting herself in one way or another.

It doesn’t stop her though. A quick cry, a hug and a kiss from myself or Suzanne and, before you know it, she’s upside down again.

I wouldn’t say she’s an unusually fearless child; she’s afraid of dogs, not too confident climbing trees, shy around people she doesn’t know. But she’s so determined to master different things (handstands, backbends etc.) that she doesn’t let little accidents stop her along the way.

I’m sure a lot, if not most, kids are like this but, somewhere along our life-journey we start to allow ourselves to be stymied by little setbacks in our lives. When does it change? Which of us really knows? But many of us are so much more cautious as adults than we were as children.

Ashtanga yoga can help us to reconnect to the child we once were. It can help us to regain the fearlessness and the determination we had as children to master something physical. But, even for us ashtanga yoga practitioners, we can fall foul of injuries, falling out of postures, hurting ourselves while practising. We mustn’t fear. We mustn’t let it diminish our determination or, most importantly, stop us from enjoying our practice and our lives.

We have to learn to approach yoga practice and life like a six-year-old. Maybe we should start sending her into the shala, instead of me and Suzanne, to really teach us all how to live a fuller life!


Inoculate yourself against the politics of division

I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the developments (or lack of) around Brexit these last few weeks. The mind boggles with the backward-thinking that has been on display in certain quarters. The pigheadedness, obstinance, and pure self-interest that has been demonstrated by a number of politicians has been staggering. Yes, we have been conditioned to expect less and less from our elected representatives over the years but this is taking it to a new level.

Nationalism has reared its ugly head again in the last decade or so throughout much of Europe and the politics of division has proven to be very popular. In the United States, some of Donald Trump’s policies are paving the way for all-out fascism (disguised as ‘patriotism’).

In an age when it feels like we should be breaking down borders and embracing our fellow earthlings, there are those who wish to isolate themselves from all other cultures, traditions, ethnicities. The very fact that on a global scale, through technological innovation, we are becoming socially, economically and culturally closer to each other is understandably uncomfortable for people who are frightened of whatever lies outside their own limited world-view.

When people feel disempowered in their lives they become frightened of everything.

So they want to leave the EU, close the borders, build a wall, imprison asylum seekers and lock up their children. Do anything to discourage the ‘invasion’ from beyond, of people who are ‘not us’.

When we should be encouraging the global community to co-operate towards achieving our combined physical, intellectual, emotional, economic, cultural, environmental and spiritual well-being we are, instead, running in the other direction.

I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to practise yoga since my mid-twenties. In the above context, I see practising yoga as a sort of inoculation against these extreme ideas of nationalism, xenophobia, and of the concept of ‘native vs foreign’.

When we practice yoga – through whatever alchemy there is within the breathing, postures, and drishti, combined with some rudimentary study of yoga philosophy – we slowly come to realise that each of us shares a collective consciousness with all of our fellow men and women, and indeed all sentient life. We come to know, in a visceral sense, that we are all one on planet earth. Whatever pain and suffering we inflict on ‘others’ is inflicted in turn upon us.

Something happens to us underneath the surface when we practise yoga with earnestness. We start to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. We become immune to hate and, if we want to, we can start to become a beacon for acceptance, tolerance, and love in the world. Fear in all senses can be overcome through self-empowerment.

We must keep practising and keep on spreading this knowledge or we might find ourselves building bigger and bigger walls until we are the only ones left inside the prison.


After the honeymoon

I have very fond memories of my first few years of ashtanga yoga practice; being exposed to new ideas and philosophies, enjoying the challenge of learning new postures, bringing awareness to new parts of the body that had, unbeknownst to me, been lying dormant for years, and enjoying progressing through the primary series (albeit at a much slower pace than most people).

I had a feeling of empowerment unlike anything I had experienced before and I was hooked almost from the very beginning.

Because I teach ashtanga yoga now, I regularly get to share in my students’ experience of the same process. It’s a real privilege.

Ashtanga yoga is such a powerful method for body and mind, and it can facilitate great insights into how we are living our lives on a daily basis. In our daily practice, we hold up a mirror to our physical, mental, and emotional state and can examine what we find.

At the beginning of our practice journey, this can lead to many revelations which can have the potential to profoundly change our relationship to the world around us. This can even happen very quickly. However, it’s not uncommon to find that, just when a student realises they have the power to change their life circumstances for the better that they give up practising; unwilling, unable, or simply not-yet-ready to deal with the changes in consciousness – and in personal circumstances – that may arise.

The simple tristhana method of moving the body, with conscious breathing, while concentrating our gaze can have some unexpected real-life effects.

This is what I often call the honeymoon period of practice. It can last a good number of years or even a lifetime but, for a lot of us, there will come a time when we feel like we are not experiencing the same benefits from the practice that we once were.

And then what happens?

There is a binary choice: Keep practising or stop practising.

Lots of people stop practising when they feel like they’ve reached a plateau, or they get injured, or they just don’t feel the same enjoyment as they once did.

Those that keep practising can go through a period of frustration and doubt. This, though, is to be expected as part of the journey. When we realise that Patanjali wrote about exactly this in the Yoga Sutras, 2,500 years ago, we come to see that frustration and doubt are all part of the process.

The nine obstacles to success in yoga as set out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras are:

  1. Disease or sickness
  2. Lack of enthusiasm, stagnation
  3. Doubt
  4. Impatience
  5. Lethargy/laziness
  6. Over-indulgence, non-moderation
  7. Incorrect understanding
  8. Inability to hold onto what has been achieved
  9. Sliding backwards from what has previously been achieved

When we see that the problems we are experiencing have been experienced by most, if not all, of the practitioners of yoga who have gone before us, it can provide some sense of solace and also a feeling that, despite feeling like we’re getting nowhere, we’re actually right on track. 

To open a 2,500-year-old text and find our current thought patterns being expounded upon is a bit like one of those sealed-envelope magic tricks; like the one where the magician writes down the name of the playing-card that an audience member ends up picking from the deck. Patanjali’s premonition of our mental state is not magic though, it is borne of experience, forged in the crucible of uninterrupted, daily practice. He knew what we must go through in order to get to the pinnacle of yoga practice because he, himself had gone through that exact process.

So if you’re faced with that nagging feeling that you’re not achieving anything.

Let it go.

Enjoy your time on the mat.

There is no need for daily progression in the asanas. Ashtanga yoga is a daily ritual which, when practised for long enough, has the potential to open our hearts and minds. It is when we become ‘opened-up’ that we can receive insight into the nature of reality and of ourselves.

And that’s what we are really striving to do.

Bonus Video

Tim Miller begins his introduction to new students by speaking about the nine obstacles. The sound quality isn’t great but it’s worth it for the pearls of wisdom

Thank you for the love

Yoga Stops Traffick. Wow!!

We’re so proud of all of you wonderful people for coming along and doing 108 sun salutations!! And we’re so proud of the donations you made.

I wasn’t able to make it along myself. I had made a commitment to play on a recording of some music for a new Amazon Prime TV series. Those kinds of recording sessions are scheduled months in advance and there are so many people (and so much money) involved that there’s no getting out of it once it’s set. I was happy to have organised the event though, and so lucky to have such a wonderful wife and yoga-partner to run the event on the day.

When Suzanne told me all about it I was so sad that I wasn’t there. For those of you who couldn’t make it along, everyone in the class counted at least two of the surya namaskara in their own language. We had English, Irish, Polish, Spanish, Croatian, German, and of course, Sanskrit. What a fantastic thing to do. I’m sure everyone came out with a very good feeling of having worked very hard and done something very worthwhile.

In terms of donations (which are still coming in) our current total is €775 taken directly by us plus around €300-350 donated directly to Yoga Stops Traffick by current or former students at the shala who couldn’t make it along on the day.

So that’s over €1,000. I can’t believe we raised such a fantastic amount.

Besides the money side of things, the fact that the children of Odanadi can see that there are people in the world who care about them is a huge deal. For part of their lives, they were neglected, abused, and made to feel like nothing in this world was good. Through Odanadi they have been helped to live a new life. And all of you who came along – and those of you who donated online – are a part of that happy story.

If you would still like to add a donation please do. You can just click below.

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=yogastopstraffick&pageUrl=1


The best thing we do all year

I’m using the Moon Day News this week to make sure you all know about the best thing we do all year.

On Saturday the 2nd of March at 10am we will be participating in this year’s Yoga Stops Traffick event.

Yoga Stops Traffick is an annual, global event which raises funds for Odanadi Seva Trust, a home for children in Mysore who are the victims of human trafficking.

Odanadi is a very special place which is very close to our hearts. 25 years ago, while researching a story about prostitution, two former journalists, Stanly and Parashu (who still run Odanadi), came to the realisation that they couldn’t stand by any longer and allow this horrific situation to continue. They set up a boys’ and a girls’ home for children who had been victims of human trafficking.

Since then they have been literally kicking doors down and rescuing children from unspeakably monstrous people and situations. They house, feed, educate and rehabilitate these children and endeavour to provide them with a level of normality which they didn’t have before.

Many of the children in Odanadi had, while under control of the traffickers, been forcibly addicted to drugs in order to pacify them. As you would also expect, there is a high level of residual trauma and mental health problems which they experience. Stanly, Parashu and the people at Odanadi provide a safe space in which these beautiful children can find some peace and build a new life.

Much of the budget of Odanadi is taken up by fighting court cases against the traffickers who sue them for seizing their ‘property’. Because they are dealing with a notoriously corrupt system, the police often take the side of the traffickers and expensive legal action follows.

The children of Odanadi are sent to school where possible. Many of them even continue on to University, all funded by Odanadi. The children become able to live a normal and productive life as functioning members of Indian society, despite their horrific history.

Those children who are so severely psychologically damaged that they are unable to attend school, are taken care of through the Odanadi system and made to feel safe and like valued members of the community there. It is really a special place.

As I said above, it is a place that is very close to our hearts. Suzanne taught yoga to the girls the last two times we were in Mysore and I visited myself a number of times. Despite the trauma that the residents have gone through, as soon as you walk through the gates of Odanadi, you get an unmistakable sense that this is a happy place, full of happy children.

Help Odanadi continue to support the happiness of their children and to rescue more and more girls and boys from the horrors of human trafficking.

Please come along on Saturday the 2nd of March and support the amazing work that they are doing.

Odanadi kids

Self Doubt

Every two weeks I spend a day or more wondering how I’m going to come up with something to write for the moon-day news.

I feel like I have nothing to say, nothing to share, nothing that can add value or meaning for you, the students of our shala and all the other readers of this newsletter. I’m actually filled with dread every, single time I have to write to you all.

I’m afraid of being judged by anyone who reads my words. I’m embarrassed by the sense that I have no real knowledge or insight into the vast subject of yoga.

Who am I to be writing about this subject? Shouldn’t I just leave it up to those who have been practising for much longer than me; to those who are more well-versed in the philosophy of yoga than I am; to those who have really walked this path with conviction and have sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of the lofty goal of yoga?

Serendipitously, I have engineered this deadline for myself. I know that many of you depend on getting the moon-day news in your inbox as a reminder that there is no class at the shala the next day. And that fact is the thing that eventually forces me into sitting down in front of the computer each time.

Having come to know so many of our students well over the last few years I know there are at least a few to whom this fortnightly moon-day news means a lot. They have told me this. And so it’s undeniable that I’m contributing something of value to at least a few people through my writing.

And so I must ask myself the question, why do I dread writing this so much?

I am usually somewhat proud of having written the moon-day news. I receive lots of emails from people telling me that they love what I write. There is a very positive feedback-loop around the whole thing. And yet, I have this gnawing sensation that I have nothing to write. Literally nothing. Surely, after 137 emails I’ve exhausted my reservoir of useful information.

So maybe there is a moral to all of this.

I think most of us judge ourselves too harshly and it becomes transposed into all aspects of our lives. We want to be the best employee, the best boss, the best husband, wife, father, mother, lover, writer, yoga-practitioner, blogger, student, Instagrammer, friend, cook, entertainer.

I caught myself yesterday evening giving myself the same trip in another aspect of my life. As many of you know, Suzanne and I lead a double-life (professionally speaking) as both yoga teachers and orchestral musicians. I had a concert at the National Concert Hall last night and, as I so often do, I worried that I was going to mess up. There is a version of this internal narrative that many of us have all the time. Of course, and as usual, it all went totally fine and I performed perfectly well. And a thought occurred to me when I got home, relieved to have “gotten away with it” again: I would say, since I started playing professionally, that I’ve done around 30 to 50 concerts a year. That adds up to somewhere between 450 to 700 concerts in my career. There are two instances in which I remember making bad mistakes out of all of those thousands of pieces of music that I’ve played in concert. TWO!

And yet, the fear is always there that the other musicians that I’m playing with will finally notice that I’m rubbish. What’s that all about?!

I think almost all of us have our own version of this.

We must examine our relationship with those areas of our lives in which we exhibit utter competence but yet we feel like an impostor, and ask ourselves why we are engaging in these limiting and negative patterns of thought.

I guess my point here is that we all have fears and self-doubt. It is just our minds turning over and over; the ego taking control of our thought-patterns. We place so much value in what our mind tells us, but sometimes our thoughts are not our friends and they are not to be trusted. Remember the third Yoga Sutra “When thoughts stop the individual sees his or her true self”.

See, another one written! Phew!!


Our habitual state

When I’m feeling un-inspired or lethargic I often turn to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. And when I’m grasping for a subject to write about (I’ve written 136 of these so far; it’s not always easy to come up with new ideas!) I also sometimes open the sutras up. So that’s what I’ve done today.

There’s so much wisdom contained in these 196 short aphorisms that it would take even the keenest of students many lifetimes to understand it all.

Never mind that there are 196 individual sutras though. The entire wisdom of the yoga sutras is contained within the second, third and fourth sutras. If we can fully understand and realise these three then we have no need for the rest of them.

Note – In case you’re wondering, the first sutra is merely an introduction – “Now begins the instruction on yoga”.

So what do these three sutras tell us?

I.2: Yoga is the stilling of the mind.
I.3: When the mind is still the individual becomes aware of his/her true nature.
I.4: At all other times the individual identifies with his or her own thoughts.

Read that last one again. This is the state in which we all find ourselves (I’m assuming that none of you have reached enlightenment yet).

We strongly identify with the stuff of our own minds; thoughts, anxieties, memories etc. We’re so caught up in being ourselves that we rarely give a thought to the fact that none of our experiences, thoughts, roles (father, student, lawyer, wife, teacher, yoga-practitioner) are the essence of who we are.

If we can still the mind through the practice of yoga (or through any other means) we will come to realise that we are not our thoughts, we are not our bodies, we are not our careers, we are not anything that can be named.

It’s a concept which, once embraced, can lead us down a very different path than we were on before. But it’s a difficult concept for most of us to grasp, so conditioned are we by the society in which we are raised.

That’s why Patanjali has to include 192 more sutras to explain what he means, how we can experience this state, why we should try, and what we will experience along the way.

It’s worth looking into!!


A busy life

The Dalai Lama is reported as saying the following:

“I meditate for one hour first thing in the morning, except for days when I’m really busy. On those days I meditate for two hours”.

We all make excuses for neglecting our practice, and the “too busy” excuse is probably the most common.

But it’s during those intense periods of busyness, hyperactivity and stress that we most need to practise.

We all know this already. I’m not coming up with a new idea here. But it’s not easy to fit in yoga practice when life is already full.

I’ve had a pretty busy time of it for the last while; looking for a new shala, taking care of two small children, lots of music practice and concerts, and teaching of course. But I haven’t sacrificed my daily, morning yoga practice and I’ve added a short sitting meditation practice every evening to help calm the mind. I’m not quite at the Dalia Lama level yet but, I’m hoping a few more weeks will do it!

The reason I love the above quote is that it speaks a truth about our usual mindset. The fact that we’re expecting him to say he doesn’t practice meditation when he’s busy shows how our mind lets us make excuses for ourselves.

So maybe we can’t create the space to increase our practice time when we have a very busy day but maybe we can just keep going, keep doing the thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow and helps us to deal with, and maybe even deflect, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Don’t stop practising.

Never stop practising!


How regular yoga practice can change your life

I remember a couple of things about my first introduction to Ashtanga yoga. For a few years before that, in my early twenties, I had become rather conscious of my health. I’d lost a couple of stone in weight, I was exercising regularly and I became more aware of what I was eating. Previously, I had been a junk-food junkie, and while I wasn’t lazy (I worked hard at college) the most amount of exercise I got was walking from the halls of residence to the takeaway pizza place!

The new, healthier, streamlined version of me decided to give yoga a go. I signed up for an introductory ashtanga yoga class and, while I loved the feeling it gave me, I found it pretty hard. I liked the fact that it was hard though, so that was a positive. I was fully on board from that very first class.

One thing made me feel a bit dubious though. The teacher said to all of us who were there, without any hint that he was exaggerating, that Ashtanga yoga would change our lives. “Ok”, I thought, “that’s a big claim to make”. I’m a natural skeptic in most situations so I suppose that was always going to be my reaction.

But as it turns out he was right, for me at least. Ashtanga yoga really did change the way I live my life.

What I have found over the years is that Ashtanga yoga is a very practical system. As a skeptic, I think that is one of the things about it that appeals to me most. I like how tangible the practice is. I like that it makes you feel your body in a visceral way. I like that it forces you to become aware of what is happening right here and now.

One of the practical ways that Ashtanga yoga changes peoples’ lives is in its effect on the choices that we end up making in order to accommodate our practice.

Let’s say you have decided to go to a Mysore-style class at 6.30am on Monday morning. You are almost guaranteed not to go to the pub on Sunday evening. You also might decide that it’s better not to stay up until midnight, binge-watching Game of Thrones whilst working your way through a six-pack of cheese and onion (or “Shallot and Gouda” if you’re into the posh crisps).

Well let’s say it’s unlikely at least, but not guaranteed. You might decide to engage in those activities and go to yoga class anyway. But you will realise very quickly that you do not feel good during the class. That’s going to be pretty obvious. So next time you will be a little more likely to avoid the booze, junk-food and late nights in advance of your morning yoga practice. Again, not guaranteed, but more likely second time around. If you keep trying to do both the boozing, junk food and sleep deprivation and the yoga practice you will eventually give up one of the other.

These obviously unhealthy behaviours result in a bad practice experience of course but, as our practice becomes more established we will also start to realise that there are more subtle negative behaviours, attitudes, environments, and situations that can have a deleterious effect on our experience of yoga practice on a daily basis.

The fact that the practice feels entirely different every day (despite the series of asanas staying the same) gives us a clue as to the effect of all the other varying influences on our lives. Diet, sleep, work, relationships, and a myriad of other factors can all affect us in gross and subtle ways, both positively and negatively.

The fact that we have one constant thing in our lives – regular Ashtanga yoga practice – shines a light on the fact that it is we who are constantly changing, not the practice. And so, if we practice for a long time, without interruption, we may start to weed out the negative aspects of our lives; or at least to start to identify what has a positive effect and what has a negative effect on our bodies and minds.

We literally feel it in our bodies. The thing is, sometimes the yoga postures, breathing, bandhas, drishti feel so good that we know that it is possible to feel like that. Then, on days when it doesn’t feel so good, we start to question why. Often it’s obvious (I ate this, I drank that, I stayed up too late) and sometimes it’s more subtle, but, if we dig a little deeper, we will usually find a reason. Then it’s up to us to try to eliminate that which is causing us to suffer on our mats (and, by extension, in our daily lives).

At the end of the day, most of us practice yoga because of the way it makes us feel. And we all want to feel good while we’re actually practising. It is this desire which can, in a very practical way, lead us to start making much healthier choices in our lives.

So we let the unchanging nature of our practice act as a sort of barometer of how we are living our lives. And, as promised in my first ever yoga class, our lives will inevitably change.


A long way to go

There’s so much that we don’t know about yoga that sometimes it can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, my first trip to Mysore was a few months after Guruji fell ill (in 2007) so, other than a couple of led classes that summer I never had the chance to be a student of his. I was, of course, blessed to have had Sharath as my teacher since then and that is something I am hugely grateful for.

I have heard, second-hand, so many different things that Guruji said over the years though, and one that is on my mind this week is he said that it takes around ten years to get past the ‘beginner’ stage of ashtanga yoga.


For me, I think it’s going to take a bit longer than that. I still feel like a beginner, and when I hear the depth of knowledge that some of the older teachers have (or even some of the exceptional young teachers) it makes me feel like I have a very long way to go.

So along with being fascinated this week by the content of a podcast interview I was listening to with Eddie Stern, it also really made me feel like I know only a tiny percentage of what I need in order to be a truly effective teacher in this lineage. Eddie is, of course, an exceptional teacher and listening to him really made me realise that there is so much more going on in this ashtanga yoga system than we can ever fully comprehend.

Guruji was a master of many different roles; spiritual teacher, physiotherapist, coach, philosopher, priest, trickster, guru. His knowledge of the practical and philosophical aspects of yoga was incredible. And here I find myself following the instruction of my teacher Sharath to teach this method myself, without even five percent of the knowledge that someone like Guruji had. And it begs the question, as they say in India: What to do?

Here is my approach. I feel like, ok I’ve been doing this practice every day for more than a decade, I do know a little bit about it. I’ve also had one of the best teachers in the world for most of that time, so that, hopefully, helps. I’ve experienced ups and downs with the practice over that time too, so I can empathise and also advise my students on how to avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made.

So I suppose what I’m really doing as a teacher is just sharing the lessons I’ve learned through my own practice, as a student. As we all know, the practice itself – done consistently over a long time – is the real teacher.

It is really a wonderful blessing to have a great teacher like Guruji, Sharath or Eddie Stern but, in the absence of someone like that in our home-town we can just keep practising and the theory behind it all will become apparent automatically. We might not be able to articulate the physiological processes that are occurring when we’re doing the asanas (as Eddie was in his interview) but we will feel the difference in our body and mind when we practice regularly.

There is so much happening internally when we practice yoga asanas. So many things are happening on the musculoskeletal, circulatory, nervous and hormonal levels that most of us have no concept of. But, once we have acknowledged that we know nothing we can start to proceed. While we are practising, listening and educating ourselves on the path to attaining the level of mastery in yoga, the best course of action is to follow the instructions of someone who we know has that mastery already. For me that is Sharath and so that is why, at the shala, we try to teach in a way that is as close as possible to the way he taught us.

So, if you ask us a question about the practice (the classic one is “When can I do the next posture?”) we will usually give you an answer that starts with “Sharath says…”

In the meantime, thank you all for your patience. Maybe, in another twenty or thirty years, I’ll have more answers for you.

Listen to Eddie Stern’s interview here

 


News

We have 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 Tuesday the 16th of July. There are no classes on that day.

There will be no evening class on Thursday the 18th of July.

There will be no evening class on Monday the 22nd of July.

CONTACT
  • 7 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2
  • (087) 2780 559
  • info@yogashala.ie
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