Every breath is an opportunity to create space

I had a discussion with one of our students the other evening on Zoom and, as we were talking, I thought to myself that it would make a good subject for this edition of the moon-day news.

So I want to share with you my latest thoughts on the breath and how it relates to asana practice in our ashtanga yoga method.

It has been obvious to me for many years that the breath is the thing which makes this practice so powerful. As ashtanga yoga practitioners we’ve been paying attention to our breathing for many, many years. We’ve seen mindfulness practice entering the mainstream (and even more intense breathing methods like holotropic breathing or Wim Hof’s breathing method) and so more and more people in the world are starting to realise how important and transformative breathing practices can be. 

But there is a problem with how many of us are using the breath in ashtanga yoga which I have seen over and over again throughout my practice and teaching life. It’s something I try to correct when I’m teaching but it’s worth expanding on here a bit, I think.

For the sake of visualisation, imagine you are practising pascimattanasana (the first seated posture of the primary series, a seated forward fold with both legs straight and bringing the hands to touch the feet). You can even get into the posture to experiment with what I’m about to write. As you breathe in fully, you will feel a small increase in the amount of tension in the body (maybe in the backs of the legs or in the upper or lower back) and then, as you exhale, you will feel a small release of that tension. This is a natural process and happens in every posture, or even when we’re completely inactive. That’s why we naturally associate exhaling with the release of tension, like when we sigh with relief.

What happens in a yoga posture is that, as we increase the tension on the inhale, our body naturally expands and opens up (that’s why it’s hard to inhale fully in a posture that is already at the limit of our flexibility). This expansion sometimes makes some space in the body so we can move deeper into the posture on the exhale. But what I’ve noticed so many time over the year is that so many people use the space that they’ve just created to force themselves further into the posture, thus creating even more tension than was already there.

In fact, what we need to do is to follow that cycle of inhale and exhale (tension and release) to allow the body to become softer and more supple as we relax into the posture. Let gravity do the work of getting us further into the posture and forget the pushing, pulling, and straining that has become a habit for so many of us.

It’s pretty simple and it seems obvious that we should be cultivating relaxation in the postures, but so few people actually do it.

The by-product of this approach is that we get deeper into each posture, in a relaxed way and, even more importantly, instead of building up an association of tension and straining with whatever particular posture we’re working on, we actually build a happy association of release and relaxation.

If we do this for every new posture that we learn (right from the very beginning of our practice journey) we will avoid injury and cultivate the blissful experience of a yoga practice without the use of force.

Let me know what you think.


Time and love are all we have in the end

Please excuse the prolonged period of radio silence; it’s been a while since I’ve been in touch.

Many of you will be wondering about the post-lockdown reopening of the shala and why it hasn’t happened yet. Well, there are a few reasons, the main one being that my poor old Dad is dying. Exactly a month ago today, after eight weeks in the hospital and a long period of misdiagnosis and frustration stretching back years, my Dad was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. The doctors told us he had a maximum of six months to live. Ten days later they revised their prediction to “weeks rather than months”. We were all devastated.

He came home from the hospital to live his last few weeks with his family around him. We converted my parents’ sitting room into a bedroom, moved in a hospital bed and a respirator, my Auntie moved in with my Mam, my sister came home from Paris, and we all readied ourselves for taking care of him 24 hours a day.

Two weeks have now passed and, although his condition seems to be deteriorating every few days, he’s still with us.  We’re lucky to be able to have this time to spend together and I’m hugely grateful for that. At the same time, I don’t want his suffering to continue for any longer, so I’m torn between wanting him to stay with us and wanting him to be released from any more pain.

Through it all, he has managed to maintain his sense of humour and mischievousness. Although his voice is becoming very faint he’s still able to make us all laugh, both through words or just with a sideways look. 

The process of reopening the shala is tricky because we’ll have to change so much about the administration of the classes – booking systems, rationing of classes due to lack of space (only 7 mats will fit into the shala with 2-metre social distancing), marking of mat-spaces on the floor, provision of hand sanitiser, communication of new protocols to everyone, figuring out the best way to hold simultaneous in-person and online classes, etc.

None of this is impossible, or even massively difficult, but it all takes time and, because of my family situation right now, time has become an extremely precious commodity. Time and love really are all we have in the end.

So I’m choosing to spend the time I have (and the limited time my Dad has) at my Dad’s bedside with my Mam and with my Sister; helping, laughing, crying, cleaning, cooking, washing, feeding, and just being together, all of us for the last ever few days.

The shala will reopen but, in the face of a life coming to an end, it seems to matter a little less.

I want to thank you all massively for your patience and, in advance, for the love I know will be coming my way when I send this email.

I may not find the time to reply to any messages you send but please know how much I appreciate you all.

Sending love,
John

P.S. If your Mam and/or Dad are still alive, give them a ring today, while it’s still possible.


It’s been emotional

The unprecedented almost-worldwide lockdown that we’ve all been living through for the last few months has been such a peculiar experience for all of us. I think many of us were naively thinking that we’d close everything up for two or three weeks and then we’d all go back to normal. Obviously, it hasn’t been like that at all. We’ve actually had time to get used to social distancing, working from home, home-schooling, avoiding friends, family, neighbours, and strangers, and some even having to have zero contact with people living in the same house as them.

It has been an emotional time for everyone, not being able to engage in many of the things we love, and not being able to see the people we care about. The length of time that we’ve spent in this situation has forced us to fully adapt to living our everyday lives under these conditions. It hasn’t just been a short hiatus, where we’ve been able to put everything on hold, before getting back to normal. Major life-events have happened during the lockdown. Mothers have had babies, students have been required to choose college courses, couples have married, some have separated, people have moved house, started new jobs, lost their jobs, buried loved ones.

Life, of course, has gone on despite all of our hopes that maybe we could just stay in suspended animation until this all blew over, and many people have been forced to make big decisions. Making big decisions under these conditions is not easy.

I was listening to a former US navy seal commander on a podcast the other day and he said that they are trained not to make any decisions when their emotions are high. People do not make sensible choices during heightened emotional states. And yet, we have been living our lives in a heightened emotional state for months on end. We’re all worried about our future, and that of our society. Who among us is not concerned about the health of our elderly relatives? We all want things to return to normal, but we know that it may not happen for a very long time.

To make good decisions we need not to be in a heightened emotional state. We need to calm our emotions using whatever tools we can (ashtanga yoga is good!). We need clarity. And we need to be honest with ourselves.

Although lockdown is starting to feel normal (even familiar) we have to realise that we haven’t evolved to thrive under these conditions and, despite some of the positive aspects that we might be enjoying, (less time commuting, more time with our children, etc.) that there is still a lot of potential for irrational decision-making.

Spend some time observing your own mind through yoga, meditation, getting out into nature, or whatever method you prefer. Because, when we know ourselves, we will be able to spot those times when we’re not thinking like ourselves. Then we can hit pause on the decision-making process until the time is right.


The strangest few weeks

It has been the strangest few weeks that I can remember in my lifetime. The weather here in Ireland is turning from Winter to Spring. The mornings are lovely and bright, and there’s that ‘grand stretch’ in the evenings. Under normal circumstances, we’d be rejoicing at the good weather and looking forward to the Summer.

But everything has been put on hold; all planning of Summer holidays; all social occasions; all education. Everything feels like it has entered a weird state of stasis; a standstill almost. And yet, something ominous is just over our shoulder. We have an idea of what it is, but there are more unknowns than there are knowns.

You know that feeling when you put your hand under a really hot tap? There’s a micro-second where we feel nothing; a tiny moment before the signal gets from our hand to the pain receptors in our brain; that one moment of blissful ignorance before we realise that we’ve burned our hand. We have a feeling that something bad has happened but we haven’t quite paid the price yet. And we don’t yet know how bad it’s going to feel. It happens so fast (at the speed of thought) that usually our hand has pulled away from the water before we even feel the pain.

I feel like the whole of Ireland, and most of the rest of the world, is experiencing that micro-moment, slowed-down and stretched out over the space of weeks. We don’t know how bad this crisis is really going to be in the end, but we have that ominous feeling that there is going to be a lot of pain before it’s all over.

This state of ‘not-knowing’ can have the biggest impact on or thoughts, our fears, and our stress-levels. Like a wasp just over your shoulder. You don’t know yet if you’ll be stung and you can’t quite see it coming. But you know it’s there.

If you’re like me you’ll have been experiencing a certain level of anxiety about the impending impact this virus may have on you, your family, your friends, your community, and even your financial security. And these are all valid worries.

Some of the narrative coming from the yoga community has been decidedly unhelpful. The idea that, because we do yoga, we should be always positive, always relaxed, never worried or stressed, and equanimous in all situations is utter nonsense. The fact that we practise yoga means, for many of us, we’ve recognised that sometimes life is hard; that we need a system to get through difficult times; one which can help us to reconnect with our deeper selves where all those worries can maybe begin to fade.

But none of us are there yet. If we were we wouldn’t need to practice anymore.

It’s normal to feel worried. It’s normal to be stressed. It’s normal to need help.

And it’s at times like this when we might start to realise just how important things like yoga, movement, mindfulness, social-connection, breath-work, and meditation really are. We need those things more than ever.

The proliferation of yoga teachers using online platforms to continue to connect with their tribe has been really heartening, and it has been so useful for many yoga students (and teachers) around the world. If we’d experienced this crisis 15 years ago the technology would never have been able to keep up. We’re lucky we can still connect with each other now.

As you may know, we’ve been running a full schedule of led classes on Zoom (a video conferencing platform). It has proven to be a much nicer experience than I had thought it would be. Not quite as connected as all being together in the shala, but I’m still getting that nice warm glow that comes from sharing ashtanga yoga together. You can join the classes here.


Yoga Stops Traffick 2020

Hi everyone,

This week’s moon-day news is all about Yoga Stops Traffick.

As some of you already know we have been organising events for this annual global fundraising event since its inception.

In this, its tenth year, the organisers of Yoga Stops Traffick are aiming to make it the biggest event yet.

Every year in March yoga studios around the world hold events to raise awareness and funds for Odanadi Seva Trust, a home for young boys and girls who are the survivors of human trafficking. The people at Odanadi do truly remarkable work, rescuing children from horrific situations; housing, feeding, rehabilitating, healing, educating and nurturing these young souls and giving them the gift of a normal life; one without the need for constant fear.

The circumstances these children are rescued from are, thankfully, unfathomable to most of us. The organisation of Odanadi breaks down doors, rescues these children, and aims to bring the traffickers to justice, all in a legal and political system that is difficult for good people like these to succeed.

To date, Odanadi Seva Trust has rescued and rehabilitated more than 12,000 women and children; carried out 422 brothel raids; educated tens of thousands of children, men and women about sexual exploitation; returned 1380 missing children to their families and brought 385 traffickers to justice. 

Yoga Stops Traffick raises vital funds for Odanadi to keep on rescuing these children and to fight the legal battles which aim to eventually free them, and many more who follow, from the monstrous actions of their captors.

So please come to the shala on Saturday, March 21st at 10am. We will, as we have done for the past ten years, attempt to complete 108 sun salutations.

Please don’t feel under any pressure to complete this challenge, but, if you feel the urge to help Odanadi and the children they support, come along, do whatever you can (or feel like), make a donation, and enjoy the buzz at the shala.


Keep it playful…

The weekend with Tony Riddle came and went and it has left a lasting impression on both Suzanne and I, as well as a lot of the people who attended.

We had two brilliant days of laughing, playing, hugging, crawling, squatting, jumping, wiggling, and wobbling until our legs felt like they didn’t belong to us anymore.

There was so much to unpack from the weekend (way too much to go into any depth here) but I was struck by one thing in particular. We played a couple of games with partners in the room where the object of the game was to be led by our partner freely and without any resistance. It was fun and also hard work as we were manipulated into unusual shapes and positions by each other (using minimal or no touching).

What was so noticeable in this game was how freely everyone was able to move and how loose we could be in our bodies when that was the object of the game.

As someone who adjusts those very same bodies every day in yoga class it was incredibly interesting to observe how, when new and unexpected patterns are introduced to the body – without any expectation in advance of what those patterns should look or feel like – the body and mind can be totally free of preconceptions, self-consciousness, fear of injury, or the desire to ‘get it right’. The freedom with which people were moving their bodies made me realise how much we can become locked into repetitive patterns in our yoga practice.

When we become more focused on getting the posture correct, or getting through it so that we can get to the next one, we can create so much tension and rigidity in both the body and the mind. But when we treat it like a game, like a child playing, as we did last weekend, we can find unexpected softness, freedom, and flow. And then yoga practice can take on a new, and maybe even more joyful, expression.

So I’m trying to approach each asana in the ashtanga system as if I’ve never practised it before. I’m trying to feel the movement in each breath and the playfulness inherent in moving my body like a child. I encourage you to try this approach. It will do wonders for you both physically and mentally and, I expect, will help you to live a long and pleasant life, continuing to enjoy practising into old age.

A huge thank you to Tony and to everyone who came along.

YOU ARE LOOOOOOVED!!


We have a long way to go…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the quote:

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

My thoughts on reading this were:

Wait.

What?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s absolutely crazy.


Yoga and movement for the modern human

It’s so inspiring to see so many people practising yoga in Ireland these days. When we started practising (less than 15 years ago) you’d never see people walking around with yoga mats under their arms. And if you did they were never, ever men!

Maybe I’m in a bubble but it does seem like, in general, people are taking more of an interest in their physical and mental health than even five years ago. There’s a proliferation of yoga studios and gyms in Dublin and beyond. Just from the window of the shala on Fitzwilliam Street you can see three personal training gyms. It’s great. And who did you know ten years ago who ever went to a personal trainer? Nobody right? Now it’s not uncommon. It makes me think that we’re going in the right direction.

But it also makes me think that maybe our generation is suffering physically and mentally more than previous generations did; that we need the likes of gyms and yoga studios more than ever.

We spend more time indoors, more time sitting down, and less time moving than our parents and certainly, our grandparents did. It used to be that we could get our movement and fresh-air requirements just from our work but those days are gone, never to return. We have become somewhat divorced from our environments and even from our own bodies. We’ve become a shadow of the wild men and women from whom we descended.

We seek out comfort and luxury whenever possible and we’re told by advertising that the more comfortable we are, the more successful and happy we will feel. Yet, as the boom in people running marathons or doing ultra-endurance events like Ironman and Spartan Races will testify to, it’s when we put ourselves in uncomfortable and challenging situations that we start to feel fully human.

With the proliferation of yoga and other movement practices in the last 30 years or so we are starting to see some really interesting innovation by some amazing people. I know innovation is a bit of a dirty word in the world of ashtanga yoga but, more and more, I’m starting to realise that we need to connect with other disciplines in order to truly understand our own.

When Ramamohan Brahmachari taught yoga to Krishmnamacharya in the Himalayas he could never possibly have understood that, in one hundred years time, the practitioners of this discipline would be sitting at a desk in front of a computer for a minimum of eight hours a day, five days a week!

It’s worth considering that even doing 9 hours of yoga per week may not fully solve all the problems that we’ve created with our modern lifestyle. The other 159 hours are also important!

So with that in mind, we’ve become very interested in the work of Tony Riddle, The Natural Lifestylist. In October he ran the length of Great Britain, from Land’s End to John O’ Groats in 30 days. That’s 30 miles per day. And he did the entire thing in his bare feet!!

Tony talks a lot about ‘rewilding’ our bodies and, also, our home and work environments so that we can start to live in a way that is more conducive to the proper functioning of our bodies and minds. The human being, after all, was forged through natural selection in the wilderness.

The best news is that we’ve reached out to Tony Riddle and he has agreed to come and share some of his knowledge with us at the shala. I’ll have more details for you soon but we expect that he’ll be teaching a two-day workshop at the shala on the weekend of the 8th and 9th of February 2020, from 10 am to 6 pm each day.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. Ashtanga yoga, on a purely physical level is an incredibly effective practice but it’s not perfect (physically). Bear in mind also, though, that the point of yoga isn’t to attain physical perfection. Yoga postures are, ultimately, tools to help bring us into a state of yoga; that is, having a pure and still mind. I’m talking here on a mostly physical plane.

Interesting things are happening in the world of movement. Mark Robberds, Ido Portal, Tony Riddle, and others are doing work which is enhancing our understanding of how to attain mastery of our bodies in the modern world. They are some of the pioneers of our generation, in the same way that Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois were in their time.

We embrace this new inquiry and the knowledge which is being added by these trailblazers.

The times and dates for Tony Riddle’s visit might be subject to change but that’s the plan so far.


Transcendence through super-human effort

The running stage of a half-ironman race went past the front of our apartment complex last Sunday. For those of you who aren’t in the know with these things, a half-ironman is a 1.9km swim, followed by a 90km bike ride (up into the Dublin mountains in this case) and a 21.1 km run. It’s an epic undertaking. And yes, a full ironman is twice as long as that!

The winner was the gold medalist from the last two Olympic triathlons, Alistair Brownlee and it was an incredible sight to see him blasting around the course. He won by almost 11 minutes in the end.

It was the regular joe-soaps of the race though who really captured my imagination. I stood at the side of the road for almost five hours applauding and marveling at the effort that the athletes were putting in. The race started at 7am in the water in Sandycove and, although the winner crossed the line at around 11am, many were still running at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Over the last few years, I’ve listened to lots of ultra-endurance athletes speaking or have read what they’ve written. It’s a subject that really fascinates me. A common thread amongst them is that they say, after a certain point, the race becomes just as much of a mental battle as a purely physical one. What do you do when, after two hours on the bike, every muscle and sinew is in pain and your rational mind is screaming at you “You have to stop now or you’re going to die”? I suppose there are two options. Stop or keep going. The fact that so many keep going is a testament to the power of story in our lives; even the search for meaning really.

The story of a race that is staged at a certain time, on a certain date, in a certain place, over a certain distance is a very powerful one. Who chose the distances for these races? Why not 100km on the bike? Or 50? Or 1.5kms in the sea? Like so much in our world, it’s a construct. But, once we attach significance to that race and that distance then it can become so powerful in our minds that we are willing to put ourselves through hell to achieve success.

I was struck by the rawness of the experience. Sweat, blood, snot, salt-water, cramps, nausea, pain, chafing, detached toenails, and yet they continue to chase the goal of covering that distance without giving up.

It seems to me that it is good evidence of the separation of mind and Self that is referred to so much in the Indian philosophical tradition. The rational mind says “Stop, this is dangerous; you have nothing left; what is the point of this anyway?!”. But yet, there is another Self who is able to observe those thoughts and ignore their advice; a witness to the rational mind who is able to over-ride the thoughts; the ultimate decision-maker. And maybe that’s the true appeal of ultra-endurance sport, that participants are able to transcend the thinking mind and connect with that higher Self, the atman, that which connects us all to our true selves.

Patanjali says:
Yoga is the stilling of the mind (the stopping of thoughts). When all thoughts stop, the individual sees his true self. At all other times, the individual identifies with his thoughts.

Whether we know it or not, we are all seeking to experience our true selves. There is certainly potential for transcendent experiences in endurance sports (just as much as there is by doing yoga asanas) when the body becomes so exhausted that the regular functioning of the mind starts to shut down and maybe even stop.

Is that what we’re all seeking?


We’re obsessed with comfort

As I sit down to write this week our very good friend and neighbour is in labour, delivering her first baby into the world. She has decided to give birth at home and our apartments are as close as they can possibly be to each other. Suzanne and I really feel connected to her, almost like we’re in this together, despite the fact that she is in her own apartment (with her husband – also a very old friend – and a couple of midwives) and we’re in ours.

You can’t help but be transported back to the birth of your own children in times like these. The beauty of the whole thing is one thing, but what I’m struck by most of all today is the primal nature of childbirth. The pure rawness of it all. Even to be present at the moment of birth is unlike any other experience we humans will probably have in life. It’s uncomfortable, and painful, and emotional, and draining; exhilarating, and joyous, and exhausting; transcendent, and a thousand other things.

Today has caused me to reflect on how, during the most intense and uncomfortable experiences of our lives, we connect most fully with what it means to be human. What’s more human than giving birth to a child?

And yet we live out the rest of our lives seeking comfort; seeking ease; trying to numb our emotions. We have a primal need, though, I believe, to transcend the body and even the mind; to go to a place where nothing matters but the next breath. And yet, in life, we avoid these things at all cost.

Practising yoga asanas can help create some intense experiences in our lives and (while they’ll never be as intense as childbirth, nor would we want them to be) on the mat we sometimes get to reconnect with what it feels like to be fully human. It is the discomfort which is caused by some of the yoga postures, the ones that we want to be over as quickly as possible, which can help us to reconnect with that primal nature. There is huge value in feeling some discomfort on a daily basis. It’s impossible in this life not to suffer in some way or another. We can, however, practise, through yoga or many other disciplines, what our response to suffering will be when it comes along.

Sending love and happiness to our beautiful friends and neighbours Andrew and Eva, and to baby Harmony. Thank you for teaching us to live a life without fear.


News

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

The next moon-day is Sunday the 15th of November. There are no classes on that day.

CONTACT
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  • (087) 2780 559
  • info@yogashala.ie
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