The Old Normal

Hi everyone,

If you’re anything like me you’ll have greeted the recent announcement from the Irish government about the lifting of pandemic restrictions with mixed feelings. We all, of course, wish that this whole pandemic never happened and that we could flick a switch to put everything back to the way it used to be (well maybe not everything, but most things) but, of course, that’s not going to happen.

We’ve been institutionalised by this virus and by our collective and personal reactions to it. We find ourselves at the point that the lifting of restrictions (to which we have become so accustomed) might be a cause for, not just celebration but also some concern.

The vaccine uptake in Ireland has been impressively high (or disappointingly high if you believe Bill Gates is a paedophile lizard who is trying to microchip us all) and we find ourselves at the point at which we can start to enjoy aspects of daily life that have been denied to us for so long. We can go to a concert, go to a yoga class, go to a restaurant, even go on a foreign holiday, and yet because we’ve become so used to restrictions, it’s normal that we might feel some nervousness about engaging in those, previously forbidden, activities.

But it’s also a time to rejoice. We have done what we can to combat the virus here and we deserve to reap the rewards of our collective sacrifice, to return to the normal functioning of our everyday lives.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a lot of talk of “the new normal”. I must say that I fundamentally disagree with that nomenclature for the way we’ve been forced to live. There’s absolutely nothing normal about physically distancing ourselves from friends and family, about an elderly couple crossing the street when they see you coming, about feeling self-conscious when you sneeze in a supermarket, or about not being able to visit a sick relative in hospital. The way we’ve had to live our lives for the past year and a half has been utterly abnormal and it has caused so much stress, loneliness, sadness and suffering for so many people.

Those of us who have followed the guidance of the experts in the field of virology, immunology, and public health should continue to follow their advice. If we followed their advice on limiting the scope of our lives then why shouldn’t we follow their advice when they tell us that now is the time to reconnect with our old lives again? Yes, it might be a little worrying to venture back out from under our metaphorical rocks but, if now is not the time, when is?

It doesn’t mean we need to start hugging strangers again but it’s, at the very least, time to drop the worry, stress, anxiety, and fear that have become habitual for so many of us.

Congratulations on surviving this long with your life intact. If you’ve suffered a lot, I truly do send you my very best wishes. Now it’s time to enjoy living again.


Reflections on a year in the life of…

On Friday it was exactly a year since my Dad passed away. I mentioned it to a few people that the anniversary was coming up and everyone was shocked that a year had gone by already. I was too. A year… in the blink of an eye.

In a way, it has become a cliché. “Where did the year go?” “Time is going by so quickly”. “It’s hard to believe that Autumn is almost upon us”. We say these things as part of our small-talk these days.

But when some big event happens in your life, like the death of a family member it does force you to stop and really think, “but, where is the time actually going? Why does it feel like we’re just spinning and tumbling through the weeks, months, seasons, years without feeling the time go past?”

There are a few reasons that may explain why time seems to speed up as we get older. Partly it could be due to the fact that, for my 5 year-old daughter, one year represents 20% of her life, whereas for me one year is a mere 2.5% of my life. It could also be down to the fact that our brains process information at a different rate when we’re adults than they do when we’re children. This article from psychology today is worth a read if that kind of thing interests you.

But I also have a feeling that our perception of time speeds up when we fail to present new stimulus into our system, i.e. if we do the same thing over and over again, with each day a carbon-copy of the last one then January feels like February, which feels like March, which feels like April. And when we spend as much time indoors as most of us do these days, even the weather and the seasons can have little effect on our perception of the passing of time. We end up with no mental landmarks to allow us to psychologically mark the passage of time. It’s like the old Irish proverb says, “It’s a long road that has no turning”.

When we have novel or interesting experiences our perception of time slows down. We add a new stimulus into our system and, because of this new experience, we start to pay more attention. That’s why, when we go on holiday for three or four days, see new sights, visit new places, speak to different people, experience different customs, different food, different everything, we come back feeling like we’ve been away for much longer than we actually have.

For the past 17 months, most of us have been living our lives in a very routine way. We’ve been working from home, not travelling very far, eating at home, seeing a small group of people (or nobody at all), having the same conversations over and over again (lockdown, home-schooling, case numbers, working-from-home, variants, vaccines, reopening, blah blah blah…). So, when I tell you that my Dad died a year ago, you might remember that happening, but it doesn’t seem like a year ago. Because the whole world has been in some sort of suspended animation we feel that time is passing us by at a rate we may never have experienced before.

So we need something new to do (or to go back to something old that we haven’t done for a while) in order for us to feel engaged with life and so we can feel like we’re not just rushing headlong towards the winter, or next year, or the next decade or whatever. In a way, we need to light a fire under ourselves to go out and experience the world, learn a new skill, visit a new place (it doesn’t have to be far away), and just do something that’s outside of our regular routine. Then, by dint of this novel experience, we’ll notice that time slows down and the progress of our lives feels more like a stroll through the garden than a rush down the motorway. We get to experience fully the passage of time and stop asking ourselves and each other “Jesus, where did that year go?”.

In memory of Kevin Forde (April 1st 1949 – August 20th 2020)


What’s the most important yoga pose?

Yoga practice is really amazing. So many interesting asanas. So much potential for self-transformation, for improving health and vitality, for gaining self-knowledge, becoming a better version of one’s self.

And it’s great fun. There are so many challenges along the way. Can I get my body into that position through practice? Can I pay attention to my breath when my body is in such an intense asana? Can I enjoy the journey of an asana from impossible to possible without getting frustrated or annoyed? Can I really keep looking at my nose for that long!?

But there is one element of the yoga practice that I’ve noticed has become, for really a lot of people, harder and harder over the last year or so.

Taking a proper rest at the end of the practice.

The yoga postures work the body on a physical level but also on the level of the nervous system. The ancient texts refer to 72,000 energy channels (nadis) in the body. These nadis are stimulated, and even cleansed, through yoga practice but they can also become somewhat agitated, or let’s say ‘excited’ by the combination of breath/bandhas and asanas. In order for us to allow the nadis to settle after all that roller-coaster ride, we need to allow complete stillness to descend within both the physical and the energetic body.

That’s why there’s a compulsory rest at the end of the practice. To allow the energetic body to recover from the yoga asanas. It’s vitally important. Without it, we’re building up layers of agitation in the nadis.

There’s something about online classes that seems to make it harder for people to take a long enough rest after yoga practice. Maybe it’s just the fact that so many of us are practising at home for such a long time and there are so many more distractions at home than there are at our local yoga studio. Maybe we’re all just still so freaked out by this pandemic that we find it harder than ever to stay still for longer than a couple of minutes. Who knows why, but it’s just something I feel has started to be ignored by a lot of students, and it’s really important that we don’t let that important element of the practice slide away.

How long is long enough then?

The research says that it takes a minimum of 7 minutes for the nervous system to reset after yoga practice. So, if you need to, set an alarm for 7 minutes and then put your phone out of reach. Why not set it for 10 minutes and reap the benefits of an unhurried rest after your yoga practice. It could be the only rest you get all day!

Lie Down. Take Rest.


Change of Rules for In-Person Classes

Hi everyone,

It seems that we’re going to be forced to change the rules around who can come to the shala because of the delta variant. We were hoping to open for everyone with 2-metre social distancing but, because we’re included in the same group with restaurants and pubs, we can only allow students who are fully vaccinated against Covid to attend.

It’s so, so disappointing. With equal access to in-person classes for everyone just on the horizon, we’re forced again to put restrictions in place.

As I’m sure you know, the case numbers have increased dramatically in the last few days and the number of people in hospital has doubled over the last month or so. I suppose that, in the context of complete uncertainty by the experts as to what the final outcome of this variant will be, it makes sense to be cautious. But it’s a bitter pill to swallow for us and (if you’re not fully vaccinated) maybe for you too. I know many of you were planning to continue with the online classes anyway, so it won’t matter so much to you right now. We really were looking forward to seeing everyone again at the shala though. It’s been way too long. Way, way too long!

The vaccinations are being done at speed now and in six weeks or so I think that all adults who want a vaccine will have been given two doses. Also, if there’s no increase in serious illness from this variant, maybe the government will decide to allow unvaccinated people indoors for classes sooner than that. Meanwhile, if you like, put the date in your diary for the day that you’ll be fully vaccinated and maybe even book yourself into a class on that day (you can book classes up to 60 days in advance).

I want you all to know that this is a decision which is not easy for us and that it’s not a matter of personal preference. We sat down and discussed this decision at length and have come to the conclusion that we’re not expert enough to disregard the advice of the scientists on this matter. We have a duty of care to everyone who comes to the shala and, at the end of the day, we’re relying on the experts to tell us what is and isn’t safe. Of course we can disagree with the advice but, in the end, we can’t risk the health and wellbeing of any of you just because we think we know better.

I know some other yoga studios will open for everyone and I absolutely do not judge them for that. It’s been so hard to stay afloat during the pandemic. It’s really depressing to still be in this situation. The shala has been closed for 65 of the last 70 weeks. To see something that you’ve worked long and hard to build just slip through your fingers is so painful. But for now, we’re going to follow the advice from our government. Fingers crossed it will come back soon.

To end on a positive note, maybe as a vaccinated person you will feel safer coming to the shala knowing that the risk is now very low because everyone there will be fully vaccinated.

Also, I feel like it might be possible to reduce the social distancing requirements at the shala, as they are doing in pubs and restaurants. The rules for the hospitality sector will be that six people can sit at a table together and that the tables must be just 1 metre apart. Obviously, we can’t get 6 people on a yoga mat but maybe we’ll be able to have the mats 1 metre apart instead of 2. That would allow us to fit 14 or 15 people per class. That’s enough to get a real buzz going! I’ll keep you all posted though because we don’t know about that yet.

Sending love,
John


A slice of solitude

We are the first generation in history who have managed to completely eliminate boredom from our daily lives. We’re so connected by a device in our pocket (or more often in our hand!) to the most incredible online entertainment, news, knowledge, social interaction, information, education, games, and even careers, that we’re not compelled to spend a single minute from morning to night searching for something to keep our minds occupied. There is literally no reason to be bored ever again.

And while the technology that allows that to be possible is truly incredible, it comes at the expense of our need for self-reflection and introspection, our need for face-to-face contact, our need to switch off our dopamine-hungry brains, and maybe even the ability of our subconscious mind to function in the way it needs to. Our minds are constantly engaged by something outside ourselves. In other words, we are never alone, even when we’re physically alone. This, of course, has advantages. Who could possibly say that we would have been better off without video calls over the last year or so? But, pandemics and other isolated events aside, we have become so dependant on technology to fill our lives that we are in danger of suffering serious consequences. Our ancient brains are being hacked by the technological advancements of the last 15 years and we find ourselves in a constant state of reactivity. We’re always reacting to something outside ourselves. Our own internal monologue has been crowded out so much that it’s almost inaudible.

I’ve been listening to an author called Cal Newport recently and I want to share some of his thoughts with you.

Below is an excerpt of a blog post he wrote a few years ago. He’s reflecting on his interpretation of a book called Lead Yourself First by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin (why do authors always include a middle initial?). Here’s what he writes:

“There were two lessons in particular that struck me as relevant to the types of things we talk about here. So I thought I would share them:

  • Lesson #1: The right way to define “solitude” is as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.
    When we think of solitude, we typically imagine physical isolation (a remote cabin or mountain top), making it a concept that we can easily push aside as romantic and impractical. But as this book makes clear, the real key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation. It’s time for your mind to be alone with your mind — regardless of what’s going on around you.
  • Lesson #2: Regular doses of solitude are crucial for the effective and resilient functioning of your brain. 
    Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions. It’s the only time you can refine the principles on which you can build a life of character. It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.”

Makes sense right? As much as we need interaction, entertainment, and information, we need time alone to process our reactions to all of those things, otherwise, we just go from reaction, to reaction, to reaction, without any mental reflection.

It has become apparent to me that I am guilty of spending a paltry amount of time in solitude at least as much, if not more, than the next person. I watch Netflix in the evenings when my children go to bed, I play chess online against a friend of mine when I have a few spare minutes, I listen to podcasts when I’m running, driving cooking, or walking to pick up my daughters from school, I check the Irish Times website when I’m bored (I used to go on Facebook or Instagram but I’ve managed to free myself from most social media for now at least). There is almost no moment during the day when I’m not engaged with some input from ‘other minds’.

There are only two things I do on a daily basis that are not influenced by other minds.

Bringing the dog for a walk, and practising ashtanga yoga.

I never listen to music or podcasts or make phone calls when I’m walking with the doggie because I feel like he deserves my undivided attention when we’re out together. After all, he doesn’t get to choose what he does each day, most of that is controlled by us. The least I can do is pay attention to him when we’re out. Besides that, he’s an absolute divil so I have to watch him most of the time so he doesn’t jump all over other dogs that he meets!

With regard to yoga practice though, it has become so obvious to me that it’s the only time that I’m getting true headspace. In fact, I’d say the main reason I practise these days is for the headspace that I’m able to experience by paying attention to my body and my breath. Besides yoga practice, the rest of the day is crammed full of family commitments, work that needs to be done, some other form of exercise (usually while listening to something), mindless scrolling and clicking, and a little reading if I’m lucky.

So the only time I’m experiencing true solitude, as described above, is during yoga practice.

I suggest that we need to cling strongly to things that allow us to experience solitude and therefore a more expansive awareness of ourselves and the world around us. In an age when there is so much science, so many smart people, and so many billions of dollars utilised to make sure we stay addicted to our smartphones, we’re almost powerless to resist. Our ancient brains have been hijacked by these new technologies we need tools to help us to reclaim some of our own mental real-estate.

If you’re interested in reading more about Cal Newtown’s work you can check out his website here. You can listen to a short extract of a podcast he recorded with Rangan Chaterjee here (apple podcasts) or here (Spotify).

Let me know if any of it speaks to you. Also, let me know anything that you do which allows you to experience solitude.


YouTube Yoga

YouTube is amazing isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So go slowly.

Enjoy the postures.

Enjoy the breath most of all.

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


Culture shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tears of joy will be shed.


Mutations in your yoga practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Are yoga postures a form of meditation?

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

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

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

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

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

Wait for it…

It’s very profound….

It is…..

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

Seriously!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How can we understand ancient philosophy?

Yoga practice can be many things; physical exercise, meditation, mindfulness, an escape from inner mental dialogue, a spiritual practice, a form of devotion, an enquiry into the nature of consciousness. If we practise for long enough it’s likely that we’ll realise all of these aspects of yoga at one stage or another, however fleetingly.

But the philosophy of India says that yoga is a state of consciousness where we forget the self, where our own individual consciousness is subsumed into the universal consciousness; a state where we cease to experience our self as an individual but as an expression of the entirety of the cosmos in human form. That state of mind is called yoga, self-realisation, or enlightenment.

Now that’s highfalutin talk, isn’t it?

Especially when you’re struggling just to throw out a few shapes on your yoga mat every day. But it’s worth considering (whether you’re the slightest bit interested in spirituality or not) that yoga practice was intended to be used as a tool towards self-realisation, to break free from the conditioning of every-day life, and realise our true nature. Whether you believe that the practice of yoga asanas has been handed down from guru to disciple for thousands of years, or it’s something that was conceived of in the early twentieth century, the fact remains that it was always intended to be a practice of enquiry into the nature of our own minds. So it makes sense that, as practitioners of yoga, we should give at least some attention to this aspect of yoga.

It’s unlikely that any of you, having read my opening paragraphs, have spontaneously gained self-realisation (enlightenment) just by having had the concept explained to you. Likewise, if you read the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Puranas, Vedas, Tao Te Ching, Bible, or Koran it is equally unlikely that you’ll gain full insight into the knowledge contained therein and be suddenly sparked into a state of enlightenment, never to regard the material world in the same way again.

We know that there is some great knowledge contained in the ancient spiritual texts of the world (whether we believe those books to be literal or metaphorical doesn’t really matter) and yet, that knowledge can be so impenetrable as to make their study almost useless. Even with a good commentary by a learned scholar we still can’t guarantee that studying those books is going to alter our experience of life in any way whatsoever.

Here is the problem as I see it. All of these ancient texts (or at least portions of them) were written by great sages of the past; individuals who had gained insights into the nature of consciousness. Their insight was so profound that they wanted to share it with the rest of humanity. They were enlightened individuals who wanted to help the rest of us to gain enlightenment. But we are all too mired in the mud of everyday life to fully understand their message.

We, therefore, have appointed certain classes of individuals to help interpret these writings throughout the ages (priests, rabbis, monks, pundits), but how many generations of Chinese Whispers have passed since the writing of the Bhagavad Gita, the Old Testament, or the Vedas. How can modern interpreters explain what their original authors really meant? So many misunderstandings have developed around these texts that many, many thousands of people have gone to war over their own interpretation of them!

The big problem at the heart of all of this is that pure consciousness is not able to be described. In fact, it is said many times that, if you can explain what it is, then that’s not it!

All of this is why we need practice. Study is not enough. Even study with an enlightened master is not enough because we’re still filtering those teachings through the muddied prism of our own ignorance.

We need a practice that allows us to forget ourselves. Chanting mantras, doing yoga postures, controlling our breath, immersing ourselves in cold water, climbing mountains, running, entering ecstatic states of consciousness, a complete focus on what we are experiencing, so that our own judgement disappears and only pure awareness is present. Then it’s possible that our own sense of self may cease to exist as an individual and we feel immersed in, and integrated with, the eternal flow of consciousness. That is nirvana, samadhi, or heaven. That’s the ‘Kingdom of the Father’ where we no longer exist in the same way as we did before; a life beyond this one; an after-life without bodily death.

What I’m getting at here is that I believe that it’s almost impossible for an un-enlightened person to fully understand and internalise the teachings of an enlightened individual. And even if somebody studies philosophy for their whole life and writes a commentary on an ancient text, that does not mean that they are interpreting that text as it was originally intended to be interpreted. So even our learned teachers can, with the best of intentions, lead us up the garden path.

Let’s imagine that Lewis Hamilton wrote a book about how to drive a Formula 1 car and how to win the Monaco Grand Prix. If I read that book and I was in possession of the fastest Formula 1 car, would I go out and win that Grand Prix next year? Of course not. At the very least I would have to do thousands and thousands of hours of practice in the car before getting even close to winning the race.

Similarly, just because we are in possession of a mind and we have been given the instructions on how to achieve enlightenment, it doesn’t mean that we will be able to do it. It takes thousands and thousands of hours of practice, and still it may never happen.

Is it possible that, if I practised enough in my Formula 1 car, I might even have a chance of winning the race, whether I had read Lewis Hamilton’s book or not? Yes, of course. But wouldn’t it be a quicker process if, rather than having to figure absolutely everything out by myself, I had a guide along the way, someone who had done it before and knew how to transmit their knowledge in an understandable way? Again, yes.

And of course, as I practised more and more I would understand more of the points that my guide was trying to make. How could I listen to and understand a Formula 1 driver talking about heel-toe braking, when to accelerate out of a corner, or controlling the back-end of the car in a chicane without ever having driven a car? The finer points of driving would be totally lost on me. But if I practice then those lessons would all make more sense and they could help me to achieve my goal of winning that race.

And that’s why studying the words of enlightened individuals can be very useful.

But without the practice, no teacher, and no amount of information is going to help me to win that Grand Prix.

That is why practice is most important on the path of yoga.

But we can all do with a little help along the way.


News

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The next moon day is Tuesday the 7th of September. There are no classes on that day.

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