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

 


The Iceman Wim Hof, a modern-day yogi

I’ve recently been hearing a lot about this guy called Wim Hof, known as “The Iceman”. You might have already heard of him, but if not you will now.

He is the holder of 26 Guinness World Records including climbing – and almost summiting – Everest in just a pair of boots and a pair of shorts, swimming under the ice above the arctic circle for longer than anyone else, and running a marathon in the Namib desert without drinking any water. He has also been injected with an endotoxin by doctors in The Netherlands under laboratory conditions and was able to control his auto-immune system to avoid any ill effects. His feats of physiological control and endurance have all been verified by the scientific community, and they are beginning to re-write the text-books based on what he has shown to be possible.

He seems like some kind of Superhuman right?  He maintains, however, that he can teach anyone how to control their physiology so that they could achieve the same thing. In fact, twelve of his students were also able to negate the effects of the injection of the endotoxin in the same clinical trial in The Netherlands, and he has brought two groups up Kilimanjaro in just boots and shorts, and in record time!

So how does he do it?

The answer is basically through pranayama.

He has, on his own, discovered a breathing technique which, when combined with a kind of cold water therapy allows the practitioner to fully control their endocrine and immune systems.

I have read a lot over the years about yogis who could withstand poison (Ram Das for example writes about giving an enormous dose of LSD to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, with no effect) or slow down their heartbeats to zero (Krishnamacharya was said to be able to do this). But none have ever really been tested by the scientific method. It seems like Wim Hof, without having ever had a teacher, has discovered how to unlock untapped reserves of human potential and has made it his mission for it to be verified by science, so that he can share it with the world.

I could go on and on about it but I want you to see and/or hear him yourself.

He appears on two recent podcasts which you can find

here

and

here

But maybe it would be best just to watch the documentary below first.

I’d be interested to know what you all think of him. Personally I think he’s a modern-day, real-life, legit yogi (even if he wouldn’t call himself that).

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaMjhwFE1Zw[/embedyt]


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 Tuesday the 19th of February. There are no classes on that day.

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