Re-acclimating to pressure

The blog didn’t happen on the Moon Day last week but I felt that I should send something out nonetheless; partly because it’s good for me to continue the writing habit; partly because it’s nice to stay in touch with you all; and partly because I’ve been getting grief from our friend and student Virginia that she didn’t get an email in her inbox on Friday!

So thanks to Virginia for the motivation to send this out. And also a big thanks to those of you who have deemed my blog worthy of a donation of the price of a cup of coffee each month. You’re very kind.

The main reason there was no email from me on Friday was that I was feeling under a certain kind of pressure that I haven’t felt for a long time.

I was playing a concert that evening with the National Symphony Orchestra; an orchestra with which I’ve played dozens, maybe even hundreds of times before the pandemic. But this was my first concert with them since early 2020 (and also just my second concert in front of a live audience since around the same time) and the circumstances of the rehearsals and concert really put me on edge.

For those of you who don’t already know, Suzanne and I both play the clarinet professionally (mostly in orchestras). That was our main career before we became yoga teachers and we still do it alongside running the shala. We’re freelancers, which means that we’re not tied to one particular orchestra but, rather, we get to play with a variety of different groups. That’s a nice thing, to be able to slot into different professional, social, and musical situations, without having to get involved with the politics of any particular organisation. But it also comes with a certain level of uncertainty. There’s a saying amongst freelancers that “you’re only as good as your last concert”, and while that may be an exaggeration (particularly if you’ve built a good reputation over many years) there is always that niggling feeling that you could be left out in the cold without much of an explanation if things don’t go your way.

So I was booked to play in last Friday’s concert and I was assigned the E-flat clarinet part in Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Now, unless you’re well versed in the intricacies of orchestration you probably won’t have any idea what an E-flat clarinet is (as opposed to a ‘normal’ clarinet -which happens to be called a B-flat clarinet) so I’ll explain.

The E-flat clarinet (usually written as Eb clarinet – the ‘b’ being the symbol for ‘flat’ in musical notation) is the smallest instrument in the clarinet family, which means it’s also the highest in terms of its pitch. That is to say, it’s a very squeaky and often ear-piercing instrument. That means that anything you play on the Eb clarinet is very clearly audible to everyone else in the orchestra, and to the audience, everyone who is watching the live stream at home, and everyone who is listening to the concert on the radio (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that it was being broadcast live on the radio too). Besides that, there’s also quite an important Eb-clarinet solo at the beginning of the second movement of that particular symphony.

I haven’t played the Eb-clarinet for a couple of years so I was already on edge and, like an awful lot of musicians these days, I’m a bit rusty in terms of performing at all.

When I got to the rehearsal I found that my seat was surrounded by perspex screens in front and to either side. I knew this would be the case but I had underestimated the lack of communication that I would feel with the rest of the orchestra. Even the musician who was sitting right next to me was hard to hear in that situation, let alone the strings and brass, some of whom were thirty yards away or more.

So there I was, with an unfamiliar instrument (which is very very audible) unable to hear the people I was supposed to be playing with, in an orchestra I hadn’t played with for almost two years, with an audience due to arrive and a live broadcast on national radio.

I was really feeling the pressure.

That was Day 1.

On Day 2 I felt a little more comfortable. The feeling of being in a big orchestra like that was starting to become familiar again (there were around 80 people in that symphony).

And on Day 3 (the day of the concert) I felt like I had the whole thing in hand. There were still some nerves there but nothing out of the ordinary compared to what I would usually feel.

The unfamiliarity of the situation, having effectively taken two years off, was what set me on edge. The circumstances of having something hard to play, where I couldn’t just blend into the background, and all the while feeling isolated by perspex just added to it.

As re-acclimated to the situation though, it started to feel like everything was familiar again and by the day of the concert, I had a feeling that I would be fine.

And I was.

The concert went well. I received a lot of compliments for my playing from other members of the orchestra and I felt that I had done a good job. I even enjoyed the experience of being in the middle of that huge sound again.

It all set me thinking though. I’ve been practising ashtanga yoga for 15 years. Many people would think that, after such a long time practising, you would never suffer from stress, anxiety, or nerves; you’d be so relaxed that nothing could phase you.

In a way, it’s disappointing to realise that anxiety and stress still happen despite all of those years of practice (not to mention the fact that I’ve been playing the clarinet for 32 years!).

On reflection, it’s hard to say whether I would have been even more anxious without those years of yoga practice but I suppose we need to ask that question.

What are we practising yoga for? Is it to achieve mastery of the body, of the breath, of the mind?

And how do we gauge our progress in yoga? Is it being able to do advanced postures, being able to breathe freely, or being calm under pressure?

Did I fail in some way by allowing myself to initially become stressed by the situation? Or did my eventual calmness show that I do have the ability to stay calm under pressure? And is that because I’ve been practising yoga for so long, or for some other reason?

I don’t have the answers to those questions but I do feel that it’s important to reflect. I’d be interested to hear your own experiences.


Rising Covid and rising anxiety

The news on the radio paints a grim picture. Across Europe, Covid-19 cases are increasing and, while we’re being told that another lockdown is unlikely in this country, the fact that we’re even having that conversation again is cause for concern. The vaccines are mostly doing their job of keeping people from developing severe illness and from dying and I’m happy to have had my two doses, but there’s still this niggling fear in the back of my mind which is making its way forward.

Could I, or my children, pass on the Delta variant to my Mother or another elderly (or immuno-compromised) person, whose immunity from the double-vaccination is now, seemingly, starting to wane?

If we go into another lockdown, will the yoga shala close down forever?

How would we make a living if that happens?

Will we have to home-school our children again?

Could I or Suzanne get long-Covid?

Although none of these scenarios feels hugely likely, there is still that feeling that something ominous could be on the way. Personally, I fear another lockdown more than I fear the disease but I know that’s not the same for everyone.

For those who have declined the vaccines, I also feel some empathy (and I know there are, surely, many of you reading this who fall into that category).

I’m sure this is an over-simplification but I have an idea that there are roughly three types of people who are not getting vaccinated;

  • People who have no fear of getting sick from Covid and believe that the reaction of the world to the virus has been overblown. Maybe they understand that elderly or sick people can be badly affected but they don’t fit into that category so, for them, there’s no need to be vaccinated.
  • People who do have a fear of getting, or passing on Covid but have a greater fear that the vaccines might not be safe. 

Life is ok for the first group of people. Ok, they don’t get to go to restaurants, bars, concerts or nightclubs (in this country at least) but they don’t have fear.

For the second group of people, I have real sympathy. I don’t agree that the vaccines are unsafe (in fact, as we’ve been told, the risks of contracting Covid-19 are far greater than the risks of being vaccinated) but that doesn’t mean that people in this second group don’t have genuine fear. It’s hard not to feel what you feel!
The third group are those who are unable to get vaccinated because of allergies or other underlying reasons that the vaccines would definitely not be safe for them. For this group, who are mostly in a vulnerable position with regards to their health already, life is probably very tough right now. I’m guessing there are many people in this group for whom a de-facto lockdown has been the reality for the past 18 months.

I’ve been alternating, over the last year and a half, between periods when I pay attention to the news (over the radio and in newspapers) and periods where I ignore it completely.

I would have to say that my anxiety levels and, indeed, my mood, have been much better during the periods when I’ve disengaged from the news cycle. As the co-owner of a yoga shala though, I have to make sure that I know the current guidelines and restrictions so that we can make at least somewhat-informed decisions as to how we operate the shala. So I have been paying attention to the news over the last few months.

It’s hard to moderate one’s consumption of news though. I’ve found that I’m either all-in, checking the news multiple times per day, or else I’m not engaging at all. And right now I’m all-in, and I can feel that nagging worry starting to come back.

We thought that, on October 22nd, we would drop all the restrictions on attendance at the shala, but as I’m sure you all understand, it doesn’t feel like the timing is right to do that just yet. It’s disappointing. I was daydreaming the other evening about those days when the shala used to have 30 people in it; everyone packed in like sardines; steam rising up to the ceiling. It feels like a distant memory. I long for those days.

For now, all we can do is keep practising. Yoga practice is of huge benefit in times like these. Don’t underestimate its power. Make time for it.

If you’re reading this it’s likely that you have at least a rudimentary understanding of how to practice. You’re at a huge advantage compared to so many people who have struggled through this pandemic. You have the tools to moderate your response to external problems and to maintain equanimity in the face of worry, fear and doubt about the future.

Nobody is immune from fear, but yoga practice can help us navigate our inner world in a way that few other things can.


Lovers and Fighters. The Power of the Breath

Yoga is a radical path. The dedicated practitioner of yoga has made a decision to take full responsibility for their own physical well-being, their own emotional and mental health, and has decided that these things are important enough to spend time cultivating.

To one who doesn’t practise yoga, it may seem that a yogic life is one of many restrictions (getting up early, restricting unhealthy foods and alcohol, spending many hours on yoga practice) but once they practise yoga for a while they start to realise that true freedom comes from the ability to control one’s own impulses, to be equanimous in all situations, and to be the master of one’s own vitality.

When we practice yoga for a long time, without interruption, we gain the ability to control our inner world with greater ease and, when our inner world is calm, the chaos and tumultuousness of the outside world has less of an impact on our emotional well-being.

The key to this inner calmness is that which connects the inner and outer worlds; namely the breath. When we control our breath, we control our minds.

I was recently listening to a podcast with legendary Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter Rickson Gracie. Rickson Gracie, it seems, is universally regarded as the greatest practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that there’s ever been. His mastery of that art is, of course, due to many factors but one thing that he is very clear about is the huge advantage he had over his competitors because of the breath-control (pranayama) practices that he learned from yoga teacher, Orlando Cani, with whom he studied for many years. Gracie says about learning to control his breath:

“Sometimes when I make my routines, I get in a very special stage of meditation. And this is beautiful because I’m able to exercise and totally clean my mind and keep myself in the present moment. When you control your breath, you can actually control yourself mentally and physically. You can really understand your fears and your emotional stress”

He also mentioned in an interview how, when he was preparing for a fight, he would sit in the changing room and practice these pranayama techniques. Then, he says, when he would arrive into the ring, his heart rate would be at 60 to 65 beats per minute. His competitor would already be anxious and Gracie knew that already the other guy’s heart rate would be in the 90s. As the fight got underway his own heart rate might rise to 90 when his opponent’s was at 120; when he was at 120, his opponent was at 160 and when he reached 160 his opponent’s heart rate would peak and he would start to get exhausted and make mistakes.

So the ability for him to control his breath and therefore his heart, and ultimately his mind, through the practice of pranayama gave him a huge advantage in every competition he ever entered.

If we look at another trailblazer in our modern world, Wim Hof, we can also see the influence of ancient yogic practices.

I absolutely love how Wim Hof has reinterpreted these ancient practices to speak to our modern, western sensibilities, but fundamentally he is encouraging us to practice exactly what the ancient yogis knew; breath control and cold exposure. The pranayama practices in the yogic tradition can be complex and even complicated to learn and to practice and I think Wim Hof has realised that this is a barrier for most people to learn them. So, when he teaches breath control, it seems, he doesn’t emphasise the small details. Instead, he says, it doesn’t matter if you do this breathing exercise while breathing through your mouth or through your nose, just do it!

Also, there is the practice of Tummo meditation, the most remarkable of which is when Tibetan monks in the Himalayas wrap themselves in very large cotton sheets which have been soaked in the glacial water that comes off the mountain. These icy sheets are wrapped around their bodies many times and, through meditation and pranayama they are able to raise their core temperature and dry the sheets from the inside. Pretty wild huh?!

Wim Hof was a student of yoga for many years and even taught himself to read and write Sanskrit so that he could understand the Upanishads, Baghavad Gita and Vedas (in fact you can see him on YouTube talking about a manuscript he wrote on yoga as far back as 1988). He says that he learned so much about yoga and Hindu culture but, after many years, he realised that he needed to reinterpret the teachings in order for his western mind to fully understand them.

Nonetheless, we can see the obvious through-line from very old yogic practices to the Wim Hof Method that he now teaches.

For both Rickson Gracie (a fighter) and Wim Hof (a bringer of love and compassion), breath control, stemming from old yoga systems, is a very strong component of their art.

When we control our breath, we control our mind, and when we control our mind we become the masters of our own lives.


Cultivating an analogue life

I would consider myself somebody who has relatively strong willpower. If I really want to do something then I will usually stick to it. I’ve been practising yoga for 16 years, I’ve mastered a musical instrument, I’ve been eating a healthy, vegetarian diet for well over a decade, I exercise regularly.

I’m not saying I’m perfect – far from it (just ask Suzanne!) – but I’m, thankfully, not someone who has huge issues around impulse control.

I’m becoming increasingly alarmed, however, by my inability to truly moderate the amount of time I spend looking at a screen. Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve come to the realisation that I am almost powerless to resist the allure of my digital devices.

It’s not by accident that my iPhone is so addictive, though. So much time, money, and expertise (by extremely intelligent people) has been co-opted into keeping me staring at my phone as much as possible.

My primitive brain, which has evolved to seek pleasure and avoid pain, has been hijacked by dopamine-rush-inducing apps, likes, shares, alarms, reminders, sounds, colours and all manner of notifications, causing me to keep on engaging with my phone until it becomes almost like an extension of my own body; or even of my own consciousness. So, even when I want to avoid it for a while, it keeps on dinging, ringing, and flashing until it gets my attention. Once it’s in my hand, who knows what interesting thing will grab my attention and how long I might spend engaged with it.

I got my first iPhone in 2007, or maybe 2008. I got it because I thought it was such a handy little thing to have in my pocket. I could google anything I wanted, whether or not I was near my computer. I could get directions to wherever I was going on google maps. I could check the weather forecast. I could stay in touch with friends from college in London that I didn’t see anymore through Facebook. It was just so convenient!

I did not buy that phone because I wanted to pick it up and look at it between 60 and 100 times per day, or because I wanted to be more engaged with the phone than with the people around me. And yet, that’s where we now find ourselves.

So what can we do to try to cultivate a healthier, less one-sided relationship with technology?

I’m reminded of a story I heard about Mahatma Gandhi. A mother brought her young son to see Gandhi one afternoon and she asked him to tell her son that he should stop eating sugar because it was so bad for him. Gandhi asked her to come back in three days. After the three days passed, she came back and Gandhi said to her son, “You should stop eating sugar, it’s very bad for you” (or something like that).

She thanked Gandhi but asked him why she had to wait three days for him to say that. His reply was that he had to first stop eating sugar himself before he was able to give the same advice to her son, otherwise he would be a hypocrite.

I, on the other hand, am going to acknowledge my own hypocrisy here and plough on through with the advice anyway. That’s one of the many reasons I’ll never be given the title of Mahatma!

First of all, I want to draw your attention to what I feel is a tricky problem. Most of us don’t want to get rid of our smartphones entirely, which means that, rather than make the decision to abstain entirely from their use, we have to moderate our screentime instead. This is much harder. We can’t (or don’t want to) just put our iPhones away in a cupboard, or go back to using an old-style Nokia phone. So we do need to engage mindfully with our smartphones, while monitoring our relationship with them and limiting our time.

Yesterday, just as a quick example, my phone sent me 94 notifications. Allowing for the fact that I was asleep for 8 hours, that’s one notification every 10 minutes. I don’t even have any social media notifications switched on for my phone so, for a lot of people that figure would be on the low side. And when was the last time you didn’t read a notification?

There are loads of apps out there that will lock your phone after a certain time limit, or block out certain apps at certain times of the day. These are all useful but you can always choose to over-ride or change the settings on these apps. I don’t know if they really work.

My suggestion (and I’ll let you know if this has any impact or not!) is that we replace our digital time with analogue pursuits instead. My feeling is that, if we just tried to decrease our screentime without putting something else in its place, we would most likely fail and would definitely experience some withdrawal symptoms. The key is to fill that time with something else.

  • Put your phone in a drawer, or a cupboard.
  • Read a book (not on an e-reader, a paper book)
  • Practise yoga of course! This might be the ultimate analogue activity with no outside distractions.
  • Spend time listening to the birds singing
  • Do some gardening
  • Have a proper conversation with your friends/family/flatmates
  • Go for a walk without the phone
  • Do some knitting
  • Read the physical newspaper
  • Play a sport
  • Go for a swim
  • Basically, try to remember what you used to do for fun in 2005 and do that!

Smartphones are murder for our relationships, our parenting, our ability to focus, our awareness of what’s going on around us, our very sense of self.

I’m struggling with it and I’m happy to admit that. I don’t think I’m struggling any more than the average person though. The smartphones themselves are able to hack our human system and cause us to spend more and more time engaged with these unfulfilling pursuits. We’re almost powerless against it, but we’re not finished yet.

Value the personal.
Value non-digital pursuits.
And remember, as Tony Riddle says, “Sky-time is better than screen-time”.


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.


News

Our next beginners’ course will be in January 2022. If you’d like to get started sooner contact us by clicking here.

We’re offering online classes for everyone and in-person classes for students who are fully vaccinated against Covid. Book your spot here.

The next moon day is Friday the 19th of November. There are no classes on that day.

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