Be like the children

Like most parents, I try to be an example for my two little girls but, more and more, I’m realising that actually, they’re the ones who are teaching me how to live.

They dance with abandon the second they hear a tune they like; they spontaneously break into song in the middle of a crowded coffee shop or in the queue for the checkout at the supermarket; they’re so hungry to learn new things and have new experiences; and they lack any embarrassment whatsoever relating to their own bodily functions!

My 5-year-old daughter has, for a while now, been giving everyone who visits our house something to bring home with them. Our good friend and neighbour went home with 15 cent from her piggy-bank in his pocket this morning after dropping in for a game of Ludo with her and her sister. Yesterday another friend visited with his 16-month-old daughter. She went home with a teddy.

Most people say, “Ah, you’re very good, but don’t be giving your stuff away”. But it makes her so happy to give. She’s disappointed when they refuse the thing she has offered. It’s so easy to see that making other people happy makes her feel happy too.

Why is it that we tend to discourage this behaviour? And why is it that, by the time we’re adults, we feel like we need to hold on tightly to what we have; that if someone else has something that makes them happy (material or otherwise) we tend to feel envy rather than joy in their happiness?

We are conditioned to believe that the more we have, and the more we achieve, the happier we will be but, in reality, becoming unattached to the material world (vairagya) and being in the service of others are the things which can bring us lasting happiness and satisfaction.

We must try and follow the example of our children and revel in the happiness of others. Only then can we truly be an example back to them.

Yoga Sutra 1:33
Maitrī karunā muditopeksānām sukha dukha punyāpunya visayānam bhāvanātaś citta prasādanam

Stillness of mind is maintained by cultivating an attitude of joy in the happiness of others, compassion for the suffering of others, delighting in the good deeds of others, and disregarding to the bad deeds of others.


What is sufficient?

“Don’t think that perfecting an asana makes a good practice. Don’t think like that. Many students say, oh today, I caught my ankles in backbending, today is my good practice. Don’t think like that. Getting up and being on your mat, and just doing what you can, that is sufficient and that is your best practice.”

Sharath Jois

I came across the Instagram page of Ashtanga Yoga Vancouver last week and saw this quote beside one of the photos there. I’ve heard Sharath say something similar in response to a question during one of the weekly ‘conferences’ at the shala in Mysore.

I love how simple Sharath makes everything when he talks. It sometimes seems so unsatisfactory to people because they want everything to be detailed and complicated. There’s always the temptation to say “Yes Sharath, I know all that, but what’s the REAL thing that I need to know in order to progress”. But it’s simple. It really is.

Did you practice today? Yes or no? If the answer is yes then you are on the right track and you are (infinitesimally) closer to the state of yoga than you were yesterday.

Unfortunately these, instead, are the questions that we ask ourselves regularly: Did you catch your hands in Marichasana D? Cross your feet in Supta Kurmasana? Jump back without touching the floor? Get both legs behind your head?

And what happens when we achieve these ‘milestones’ in asana practice? We get another, usually more challenging, asana and the process of striving to achieve that starts again. Exactly the same. Why can’t we recognise this cycle? And the inescapable fact that it’s never-ending?

One of the first things we hear about ashtanga yoga is that there are six series of asanas and that nobody, except Sharath, practises, or even knows, the sixth series. Why, then, can’t we seem to immediately come to the conclusion that achievement of all the asanas is almost impossible and, therefore, that it can’t be the point of the yoga practice in the first place?!

Why do we continue to miss the point, over and over and over until we are broken?

This ashtanga yoga system is a trap. The progression of the primary, intermediate and advanced series fools us into thinking that we must master the asanas. The fact that the asanas get more challenging as we go further seems to suggest that we have to be able to perform extraordinary feats of acrobatics in order to gain the full benefit of the yoga practice. But it is just that, a trap. The asanas are not the point.

It’s fun to learn new asanas of course. And sometimes we need the challenge of mastering a new asana to give us the motivation to continue to practice day after day. We learn determination and, if we’re lucky, patience. So, don’t get me wrong; I encourage you to enjoy the journey of learning new asanas and to attempt to find comfort in each one.

But again, the asanas are not the point! We’re mistaking the tool for the function. The asanas are just a way of creating the conditions for the mind to spontaneously settle into stillness. We can cultivate that stillness in the crucible of daily practice but we have to be careful to keep reminding ourselves that the goal is not achievement in asanas but rather equanimity in all aspects of our lives.

All of that progression through the different asanas and the different series is irrelevant in terms of your progress in yoga. People are way too focused on the achievement of asanas.

If you read last week’s moon-day news you will have seen that I mentioned Sutra I:14 “The mind is stopped (brought into stillness) through practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya).”

Whatever happened to the varaigya part of the equation? And how do we cultivate that? I suggest starting with the above quote from Sharath. Especially these eight words:

“Just doing what you can. That is sufficient”


Our new shala is almost ready

Yoga students. The day has come!

We are finally moving on from what has been a wonderful chapter in the story of our little shala in Dublin. Our new shala is almost ready and we are so excited about welcoming you there this Sunday for our first class.

Our shala in Baggot Street is about to burst at the seams in its valiant, yet futile attempt to house all of you hard-working ashtanga yoga practitioners and it is definitely time to move on! We’re delighted that we’ll have more space for you all at the new shala.

Finding a new shala, negotiating a lease, and getting the place ready has been a long and difficult process. It’s almost four months since we were told that we would have to find a new home and, at the time, it seemed like we’d have ages to find a new place. As it turns out, we’ll be moving one day before our lease expires in Baggot Street. It has been a stressful process that I wouldn’t recommend you try!

Then, just when we thought we would have everything done and finalised, we were told yesterday that the building work won’t be finished in time for Sunday’s class. Boohoo.

So, unfortunately, we won’t have a shower for the first few days at the new shala. Our builder says he should have it all finished by the end of next week. I know a lot of you like/need to have a shower after practice and I sincerely apologise that it won’t be there straight away. Everything else should be in place by this Sunday.

We really did everything that we could to have it ready in time but, as almost anyone who has dealt with builders in Ireland knows, they sometimes disappear on you just when you really need them. It has been a frustrating few weeks, to say the least. Thankfully we practise ashtanga yoga and, so our equilibrium is totally unaffected by those sorts of things 😉

I had a brief moment of nostalgia in the old shala yesterday evening while I was teaching. The room was as packed as it has been for the last few months and, as the steam rose from the practitioners and made it hard to see to the other end of the room, it struck me how much the space has held us all and provided a haven for us to practise.

Students have come and gone, some have stayed a long time, some a short time, and some only made one visit. So many people have been nourished by coming into contact with the ashtanga yoga practice at our small shala. We’ve played our part in that but, as always it has been the practice itself which has provided all the benefits. Those of you who know us will know that we do not seek the limelight at all, but sometimes we do have to step back and pat ourselves on the back. We’re so proud that we have facilitated the emergence of such a special community of yoga practitioners. That’s how I felt yesterday evening as I squinted through the haze. We’ve done our best to nurture you all on your journey with ashtanga yoga and we are looking forward to continuing that journey in a new place.

A yoga shala, after all, is so much more than the physical building that houses it; it’s the students who really make it into something special. We love you all.


Healthy habits

There’s a lot going on this month. Luke Jordan is coming next week (which takes a lot of organising), we have a new shala in the pipeline, and I’ve got a big (for me) concert coming up in Cork in a couple of weeks.

I don’t tend to suffer from stress too much but I’m feeling it a little this last month or so. I’m starting to see and feel the effects of increased levels of stress in my life and it makes me feel compassion for those who live with stressful situations on an ongoing basis. I know that includes some of you who read this email.

It’s patently true to say that stress is a killer. It has actually become a cliché to say that these days. And I find that worrying. Stress has become the norm for many of us; at work, at home, with family, relationships, commuting, finding a home, you name it.

As a society, we’re starting to sleep less, move less, connect with each other less and our food choices are becoming less and less healthy as the decades go on. It paints a bleak picture of our future and that of our children.

There are, though, some beacons of light amongst us who can help us to combat this downward trend, and I think it’s helpful to share some of the things I do in order to help me lead a more uplifting life.

I eat mostly plant-based, whole, organic food. This is where we buy most of our veggies. For those of you who say you don’t have time to go and find organic food. Just get onto these guys. And sign up for their weekly emails. I find them inspirational.

I absolutely 100% need to get outdoors every day. And so do you. You know it. So do it. Go out and move around. You can borrow my kids if you need an excuse!

I listen to The Rich Roll Podcast almost every week. This guy, for me, is the ultimate lighthouse in the stormy sea. There are so many amazing people out there; teachers, mentors, or people who lead and inspire us by example. How many of them are available for us to listen to for two or more hours every week in our earbuds though? And all for free? Get listening to The Rich Roll Podcast asap!

If I’m lying in bed, unsuccessfully willing myself to get up and get on my mat I sometimes get the phone out and go onto The Happy Pear Instagram account. Seeing those guys swimming in the Irish Sea at sunrise every morning never fails to give me the jolt of positivity that I need to throw the covers off and put the coffee machine on! Be careful though, not to start clicking on all the other accounts or other apps that you’re addicted to on that iPhone!

All of these things are really great but, most importantly, I practice yoga every day that I can. Every day that I practise I am thankful for it. I have found that my life improves in direct proportion to the amount of time I spend on my mat that day, week, month or year.

Stress really is a killer.

And yoga really is magic.

P.S. You can’t really borrow my children. They’d freak out.


The cycle of long-term practice

Just as I was about to roll out my yoga mat yesterday morning my 5-year-old daughter Molly walked into the room. She woke up two hours earlier than usual and, despite my encouragement, didn’t want to go back to sleep. She was upset because a small, stick-on ‘jewel’ that she had gone to bed with on the back of her hand, had fallen off and she couldn’t find it in the bed. This is grounds for becoming inconsolable at the age of five!

I calmed her down and promised (actually I DOUBLE-PROMISED!) that I would find it as soon as her little sister woke up in the lower bunk.

Then I had a decision to make. Do I start my yoga practice and make her wait until I’m finished, maybe give her some colouring to do? Or do I be with her and spend some quality time with just the two of us?

I chose the quality time and we snuggled up under a blanket on the couch and I read “Daisy And The Trouble With Piggy Banks” to her for a full hour. Molly likes chamomile tea so we had some of that and then it was almost time to wake Anna (the almost-three-year-old) and get the day started properly with breakfast, hair-brushing, teeth-brushing etc. etc. etc…

So I skipped a day of practice.

Despite the fact that the choice I made is the patently selfless and compassionate one, I still have the small gnawing feeling that I’m a sort of ashtanga yoga delinquent for missing a day of practice.

The institution being represented by the man who is visiting Dublin this weekend might have something to do with the installation of those guilty feelings into my consciousness but let’s not get into that here!

I feel like, over the years, as ashtanga yoga practitioners we can be prone to swaying gently but surely between periods of over-exertion and periods of under-exertion. We might spend a couple of years practising really hard, pushing our bodies and minds to their limits on a daily basis. That can be a lot of fun, especially when we’re young and full of vibrancy, but it can also sometimes lead us towards injury and burn-out. Then we might spend another couple of years becoming a bit less energetic in our daily practice. We might do fewer asanas, or do them in a much gentler way and we might miss a day of practice here and there.

It seems to me to be a cyclical thing, akin to the cycles of inhalation and exhalation that we perform through our yoga practice and, indeed, our entire lives. Inhale is effort, exertion, energy, drawing in vitality. Exhale is relaxation, softening, surrender. The cycles of prana and apana happen not just on a minute by minute basis but also over the course of years and even lifetimes.

The idea that someday we will find the perfect balance is, I believe, a myth and I’m starting to think of balance as being something to be achieved over longer periods of time. Nothing is in stasis, everything is in flux and this too shall pass. A period of intensity will be balanced by a period of restfulness.

So I feel, for sure, that I’m in an apana period in my asana practice and, as much as I would like to engage in a long, strong, energetic practice every morning, I must accept and embrace the reality of my daily life.

And anyway, the blanket snuggles with Molly were great 🙂

Keep practising. Don’t stop. But just do what you can.


Sometimes it’s hard to be a yoga student

It’s a difficult time to be a yoga student.

Granted, the availability of yoga classes is probably greater than at any point in history so, in that sense, we’ve got it easy, compared to the pioneers who went before us. But we have a big problem that they didn’t have.

We know what all the asanas are supposed to look like.

In the old days, the student had no reference to books, magazines, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or even other yoga students. They were taught an asana by their teacher; given as much or as little instruction as was appropriate for them, and they did the asana the way that their own particular body allowed them to.

These days we have the ability to google any new asana that we’re learning and we will be treated to photos and videos of a plethora of strong, flexible, slim, beautiful people doing the pose perfectly. Then we go back to our mat and try to imitate what we saw on the internet.

And what’s the result?

Broken knees.
Broken backs.
Broken shoulders.
Broken hips.
And a broken spirit.

It’s a jungle out there!

We have to always remember that we don’t have the same genetic material as anybody else. Our bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles are not the same shape or size and are not in the same proportions as anybody else. And the version of any given asana that we do will never, ever be identical to the version that somebody else does.

That’s not the point!

So I encourage you all to find the space inside each yoga posture where you can experience balance; the balance of sthira (steadiness) and sukha (happiness or comfort). Too often we’re seeking one or the other without trying to balance them. We’re either pushing too hard to achieve steadiness, or we’re taking the easy way out to achieve comfort. I must say that, for most ashtanga yoga students, it’s the former!!

Learn to relax in the asanas. It’s so much more enjoyable. Don’t force and fight against the body to try and achieve what you saw somebody doing on the internet or in a book.

When we learn to relax we open up so many more opportunities for new experiences in the yoga practice. It can become a meditation practice where we can observe the effects of each asana on ourselves.  How does the first vinyasa of Surya Namaskara A really feel? Why is that the first movement we make in the practice and what is its effect on us? Are we bringing too much strain and tension to that first vinyasa or are we flopping around without any steadiness at all?

When we start to observe the practice in that way, we can start to get inside the asana.

Get to know the asanas in your own body, with your own experience and forget about what somebody says in their book or on their Instagram account. None of that has got anything to do with you.

Enjoy your practice.


Practising with Peter Sanson in Barcelona

If you’re an attentive reader of our blog you’ll know we spent a few days in Barcelona this week practising with one of our favourite teachers, Peter Sanson.

We’ve practised with him a good few times before, both in Dublin and Portugal and we never grow tired of the experience. Peter has a very simple approach to ashtanga yoga and has a very important message for his students, which he repeats again and again. He has a superb ability to distill the practice down into its essential nature and has a very powerful way of transmitting this to us all.

I’ll attempt to share with you a little of what he spoke about in his talk on Saturday afternoon.

  • Ashtanga yoga is a very simple practice. Most teachers these days over-complicate the whole thing in an effort to make themselves look good. They teach too many asanas too quickly to their students so that the students think they’re great teachers.
  • If you want to see what yoga is NOT about then go onto youtube (or other social media sites) to see all of these yoga teachers performing and talking about yoga asanas. This is the exact opposite of what yoga is about.
  • The yoga asanas are all to do with internal action and moving the energy through the body. What the postures look like from the outside is irrelevant.
  • There is absolutely no performance aspect to yoga practice.
  • Peter is not in the slightest bit interested in what asanas you can do. He is only interested in finding where you are blocked; where the energy is not flowing, and working with that.
  • Every student is totally unique and has a unique set of physical, mental, and emotional circumstances, and a different history through their lives. We should not try to emulate any other students or teachers, only try to work with our own set of circumstances to try to understand where we are coming up against blockages.
  • Everybody is always thinking about the next posture. The most common question that Peter is asked is, “What’s next?”. His reply is, “How about bringing your full attention to the posture that you’re doing right now!”

The passion that Peter has while explaining his approach always leaves us feeling inspired. To try and transmit these ideas to you without you sitting in front of him is hard and maybe even pointless but I thought I’d try anyway.

For Suzanne and I the experience was somewhat bittersweet insofar as we always have a fantastic time practising with Peter. But it always comes to an end too soon and we return home to practise alone again. We are enthused and inspired in our practice and teaching after having contact with such a great teacher but practising without a teacher for such a long time is hard.

It’s our sincere hope that we can help Peter to come back to Dublin next year and we’ll be travelling to see him somewhere else in Europe too. I encourage anyone who has the chance to go and experience his teaching if possible.

See you all at the shala x

 


Gratitude

It often occurs to me how lucky Suzanne and I were to have been able to travel to Mysore when we did; to go and learn from one of the best teachers in the world so early into our ashtanga yoga journey. I had only been practising for a year and a half when I first travelled to Mysore.
 
Ashtanga yoga has become so much bigger in the intervening years that it’s now very difficult to get accepted to practice at the shala with Sharath. When we first went all you had to do was write a letter to Guruji (a letter, remember those?) to say we were coming. Then, you’d turn up on the day you said, and you’d be accepted as a student at the shala.
 
Our intention was to practise with Guruji that year, but he was taken ill about three months before we went (Suzanne was there the previous year and had practised with him for a month or so) so that meant Sharath did all the teaching while we were there, with the exception of a few led classes that Guruji counted himself. Looking back I can’t help feeling how lucky we were to be there. Even to meet Guruji before he passed away was such a blessing.
 
Next Tuesday we are travelling to Barcelona to practise for a few days under the guidance of Peter Sanson, who was Guruji’s student for almost 30 years and still continues to travel to Mysore every year to practise with Sharath or Saraswati. It’s another great blessing to be able to learn from a teacher who has so many decades of practice and teaching under his belt.
 
As the number of students practising ashtanga yoga grows and grows over the years we might find that we don’t have as much access to some of these amazing teachers. Guruji is already gone, Sharath is so busy with so many students that it is hard to even get a place in his class; and who knows how many more years he will be able to keep up such a rigorous schedule. So don’t wait until you’re ‘ready’ to go to a really great teacher. Always take any opportunity that presents itself to practise under the guidance of a master.


Our changing relationship with ashtanga yoga

Our relationship with yoga, in common with our relationship with everything else in our lives, is constantly changing. Personally, I have gone through many different phases since I discovered the practice.

For me, ashtanga yoga started off as something to challenge myself with. I loved the physicality of it all and, every day that I practised, I felt fantastic, bordering on euphoric. Every day there were new challenges and, every few weeks, my body could do something that it was unable to do before. Tiny, incremental changes and improvements were happening both in my body and mind (not always in a totally linear way, but in a generally upward trajectory). I now think of that as the honeymoon period.

Over the years that honeymoon period changed to something else. Sadhana. The practice took on something of a devotional aspect. Not devotional in the religious sense (I’m a sworn atheist) but more in the sense of a daily ritual; a way of paying respect to my body and mind in a way that was very real and very tangible. I was devoted to continuing to practise daily, to visit Mysore as often as possible, and eventually, to pass on what I had learned to anyone who was interested. I felt, and still feel, a strong devotion to my teachers and the lineage of which I am a part, and I feel a duty to continue their work, albeit on a much smaller scale. But I didn’t feel that same sense of being on an upward spiral in terms of what asanas I could do. And the euphoria, while still there sometimes, had become a less frequent occurrence.

Then I started to teach. And sadhana slowly became seva. I feel that now, I’m in the service of my teachers and, to a greater extent, our students. I practise because it makes me feel good. But it doesn’t make me feel as good as it used to! I practise because it’s important that I practise. If I am, along with Suzanne, to lead a community of practitioners then it’s hugely important that I practise what I teach. Some mornings that’s the thing that gets me out of bed and onto my yoga mat.

And now I am also a Father to two small girls, and practice has become something that is still very important, but not the most important thing in my life. I often have to snatch a short practice at home before our girls wake up. Some days, like this morning, they wake up halfway through the first Surya Namaskara. Some nights they wake us up three or four times and I manage to drag myself out of bed for a short ten-minute practice before it’s time to wake them up. Some days I practice fully and some days I don’t manage it at all.

For years I heard people say “I’m just a better husband/wife/parent/colleague/etc. when I practice than when I don’t”. I had never really experienced that personally, but I now realise that it was because I always practised. I almost never missed a day. Now I know exactly what they were talking about. I’m a Grumpy Dad when I don’t practise in the morning. “Good God”, I say to myself, “the girls are a total nightmare today”. On reflection I realise that it’s usually me.

So, in a sense, I now practice just as much for the benefit of my family as I do for myself.

Really the practice, for me, has changed so much over the years, and that’s besides anything to do with progression (and regression) in the asanas.

The beautiful thing about this ashtanga yoga practice is that, although my relationship has changed many times (and I’m sure yours has too if you’ve been practising long enough) it still keeps me coming back. It does tend to provide whatever is needed during whatever stage of life we are at. There are endless benefits and so much to learn through the repetition of these same series of asanas over a lifetime.

And what it looks like from the outside, is totally irrelevant.


The trick of ashtanga yoga

In moments of clarity, I sometimes realise that Ashtanga Yoga, at its core, is a trick that we play on ourselves.

The whole scenario; the progressive series, the self-practice style, the power dynamic that can develop between teacher and students, the ‘publicness’ of our struggles every day on our mats; it all feeds into the feeling that there is something at the end of it all that we are supposed to achieve. What are we trying to achieve? A particular posture, a feeling, a clear mind, a healthy body, an emotion, approval, enlightenment?

The longer I practice and the older I get, the more I realise that the whole thing is an elaborate hoax. There is nothing to achieve, nothing to prove, nobody to impress and nowhere to progress to.

All we are doing is moving, breathing and directing our focus on a particular thing. That’s all we have to do. The benefits of the practice lie in the doing of the practice. The practice itself is a joyful experience (or at least it should be). If it’s not then we won’t be able to sustain it for the decades needed to really see where it leads us.

There is no pot of gold at the end of the ashtanga yoga rainbow, no medal at the end. The very fact that we are lucky enough to have discovered this yoga practice is reward enough for me.

So we should enjoy our practice. It is not meant to create more suffering in our lives.

I think it bears repeating: There is nothing to achieve, nothing to prove, nobody to impress. In fact, there is nothing to do at all, just move, breathe and enjoy.

 

Alan Watts, speaking about education, careers and life in general, puts it better than I ever could:


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Click here to find out about our introductory classes. All proceeds go to Odanadi Seva Trust, a home for trafficked children in Mysore, India.

The next moon-day is Tuesday the 26th of November. There are no classes on that day.

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