A great question

Those of you who come to the shala regularly will know Joanne. She’s there a lot, and she’s very chatty!

Anyway I love the way Joanne thinks about the practice, and about life in general, and she asked this great question just before we went on our retreat last weekend:

“Whilst struggling with marichasana A Suzanne said to me, “this is preparation for putting your leg behind your head”. Since then I’ve been asking myself, why on earth does one need to be able to put their leg behind their head?”

Before you read on, I’d like you just to have a think about that. It’s easy to get so caught up in this ashtanga yoga practice that we stop questioning it at all. You might think to yourself, “well it’s so that you can do supta kurmasana when you get to it” or “it opens up your hips”.

But that doesn’t answer the question really. It just creates another question: “why do you want to open up your hips?” for example.

We could ask a similar question about every yoga posture really, and the range of answers from most people would be the same: So that you can do the next posture , or so that you can lengthen the hamstrings/open the hips/build more strength etc.

But doing the next posture isn’t really the point of yoga practice. Neither is lengthening the hamstrings or making your back more flexible. Not really anyway. Not really really.

Patanjali is very clear right at the beginning of the yoga sutras. In the second sutra he says:

“Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ”

Yoga is the stilling of the mind

So, in that context why would we want to get our leg behind our head?

Because it takes such a monumental effort of concentration (it’s not something one does absent-mindedly is it!) that we have the potential, in that moment, to come closer to stilling our minds than ever before.

The same applies to every other posture. And that is why, as one posture starts to become easy we are given the next challenge along the road. The postures are simply tools that we can use to still our minds. When this becomes our focus it all starts to make more sense.

So go forth and be still!

Thanks Joanne.


How much should I practise?

The recommendation of daily practice in the ashtanga yoga tradition can be difficult to follow.

I have been very lucky over the years to share a house/marriage/life with another very dedicated practitioner. It has been easy to be a good influence on each other with regard to practising every day (it’s probably just as easy to be a bad influence on each other too, but we’ve been lucky so far that it hasn’t really happened). I have to give a huge amount of credit to Suzanne for keeping me on the path of daily practice over the years. Who knows where I would be without her.

I did give up ashtanga yoga though, completely and utterly, in 2009. I was really struggling with a chronic knee injury that never seemed to get any better and I decided that that was it, I’d had enough of this ashtanga yoga stuff. It was just making it worse, and I was sick of getting up so early to practise, and I wasn’t “getting anywhere” with it, and I was just fed up. “That’s it, I’ve had it with this ashtanga yoga”, I said. I told everyone I was giving it up.

I lasted three days before I was back on my mat.

I suppose I had taken for granted what I was getting out of this practice on a daily basis. It was only when I stopped practising for a few days that I realised how much I enjoyed it.

Since 2013, when our first daughter was born, my practice has changed a bit due to more severe time restraints and also many sleepless nights (we had another daughter in 2015) but I still manage to get on my mat almost every day and do what I can.

I was forced to take three months off practising in 2014 when I suffered from a rather large herniated disc in my lower back (L5-S1 for those of you who like the technical details) but I was itching to get back to practice that whole time. When I was finally able to start practising again – starting with just one or two sun salutations and building from there – it was such a joy. Like my experience in 2009, I suppose you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone.

But what I really want to talk about today is the daily requirement of practising.

I know just as well as anyone how hard it is to get on your yoga mat, especially when you have a family/job/injury/illness or anything else. That is why I have really come around to the realisation that the idea of the “Daily Minimum” is a very good thing.

I have heard of David Williams talking about the daily minimum in relation to practice, and as far as I know (although I’m open to being corrected on this) it came directly from Guruji.

The daily minimum is defined by David Williams as being three surya namaskara A, three Surya Namaskara B and the last three finishing poses (yoga mudra, padmasana and utpluthih).

That’s all.

It takes less than ten minutes.

I have found that, even on days where it seems like I couldn’t possibly practise, that the daily minimum is possible. I have often found (and this is the beauty of committing to doing at least the daily minimum every day) that after doing a few sun salutations I will often – but not always – find the energy to do more than I had planned.

I would very much recommend that you try to commit to the daily minimum each day.

  • Don’t be disappointed if, on deciding to do the daily minimum that you don’t actually end up doing any more than that. Be happy that the daily minimum is enough that day.
  • Try to cultivate an awareness of whether you are building energy or using up energy through the practice. If you can become adept at becoming aware on a physical level of this (your mind will often give you conflicting advice and excuses – be it to stop or to keep going) that is the key to deciding how much or how little practice to do each day. To really become good at this takes a long time.
  • If it is not possible to practice on any given day at your regular practice time then don’t make the excuse that you can’t practise that day. You can find time for the daily minimum at some stage. You can.

I think for those of you who are toying with the idea of committing yourself to daily practice (and it is that time of year after all right?) then this could be a very useful psychological tool to use to get you on your mat every day. The rest will just flow from there.

If you have any questions, or we can support you in any way let us know in the comments below.


Have you let your practice slip?

Ashtanga Yoga Shala Dublin - Yoga mat in the binSuzanne was mentioning the other day that she thinks students who have let their practice slip are often a little bit shy, or possibly even embarrassed about coming back to the shala to start up their practice again. They feel like, in some way, they’re guilty of neglecting their practice and that they’ve let us down in some way!

I want to state categorically today that nothing could be further from the truth.

When any former student who I haven’t seen for a while walks through the door of the shala I literally can’t stop smiling. There are many things about teaching and running a shala that bring me a lot of joy, but seeing an old student coming back to the practice is probably the thing that makes me happiest. When someone who I thought might have given up ashtanga yoga for good comes back it’s a cause for celebration. It’s not a time for judgement and questions about “where were you”. Those questions don’t even cross my mind. I’m just so happy to see the person that all those questions are irrelevant.

As I’ve said in this e-mail newsletter many, many times, we know that this is a hard practice. It’s not easy to sustain the discipline and dedication it takes to keep it up regularly for your whole life. And we know from experience with our students over the years that some people take four or five attempts to establish a consistent and regular practice before really finding a way that works for them. It’s normal.

We try as much as possible to create a nurturing and supportive environment in the shala. We feel like the community of students who come to practice is a very special group of people and we all understand (teachers and practitioners alike) that people come and go over the years.

I just want to use this platform to make a couple of points:

  • There should be absolutely no guilt about not coming to the shala for a while (or even for years). You are ALWAYS welcome.
  • If you are not there at the beginning of the Mysore-style class you can still come in.
  • Nobody in the history of yoga has done every single posture they’ve ever learned, every day of their lives. If they have then they are crazy! If you haven’t got enough time (or energy) to do your whole practice then come in anyway and do less.
  • We have had two children in the last three years, are trying to maintain a shala, support a community of practitioners, and continue our careers as musicians. We understand that not everybody can spend two hours practising yoga every day. But what we have found is that, by doing a little bit of practice every day, then our lives are all the better for it.

If you have been thinking about starting back up your yoga practice after a hiatus, at any shala, then do it now. Your teacher will be delighted to see you!


The Iceman Wim Hof, a modern-day yogi

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

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

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

So how does he do it?

The answer is basically through pranayama.

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

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

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

He appears on two recent podcasts which you can find

here

and

here

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

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

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


Building energy through ashtanga yoga

It’s nice to be back at the shala after over a week away. I had a lot of rehearsals and concerts as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival and I enjoyed the change of scene. Suzanne brought our girls down to Kilmuckridge, Co. Wexford (accompanied by her Auntie, who owns a holiday home there). They had a nice break, building sand-castles, swimming in the sea, and bouncing on the big trampoline that Suzanne’s Auntie has in the garden.

I missed my little family a lot while we were separated but the uninterrupted sleeps I was getting almost made up for it! I had a lot of energy for practice and playing in the orchestra; much more than I have become accustomed to. This week, of course, I have had to transition back into having less quality sleep and this, in turn, affects how I practise yoga.

Last night, for example, I was woken four times and when my alarm went off I felt like there was no way I could face my yoga mat. I dragged myself out of bed though (after a few internal arguments) and rolled out the mat. I always find, on mornings when my energy is low, that to step outside and get some fresh air is the best way to wake up fully. So out I went onto the little patio at the front of our apartment. Normally I step out onto the our balcony, which overlooks the sea, but this morning Molly, our 3 year old, was in the bed with me (the solution to being woken up four times!) and I didn’t want to wake again her by opening the door. By the time I had taken ten deep, conscious breaths outside I was ready to go.

Slowly, as I went through the surya namaskara my energy started to build. Every time this happens I am amazed at how much energy can be cultivated by this ashtanga yoga practice. My practice was shortened (by dint of not getting up straight away when the alarm went off) to just the standing asanas before I had to wake Anna (our 10-month old) and start our normal breakfast ritual. But even after those few asanas I felt brand new. The night’s tribulations had been all but washed away.

This is almost always my experience with this practice. On days when I feel like I couldn’t possibly practise, rolling out the mat with the intention of doing just a few surya namaskara leads easily to continuing with the rest of the practice. There are of course rare days on which my energy doesn’t build through the practice, and on those days, I now know just to sit down and do some deep breathing; the next day will bring another opportunity to practice.

So, since having two children in the last three years and also since picking up a spinal injury my approach to practice has changed considerably. I am no longer trying to ‘achieve’ anything with the asanas. I just use the practice as a way to build energy. Changing the intention with which I practise has made a big difference to the way I practise.

That is what I think the real intention behind this ashtanga system is, just building your energy.

The great yoga teachers would say that this energy can be used to further your progress towards enlightenment, but it is available to you for whatever you need; work, family, relationships, the pursuit of enlightenment, or just leading a full life.

So when you step onto your mat next don’t get tricked into thinking that success in yoga comes by achieving difficult asanas, try to cultivate a practice that will build energy for you and see how much positive change it can cause in your daily life.


We need to talk about dristhi

Well, we need to talk about both breath and dristhi actually. These are two of the three elements which make up tristhana. The third element is asana or postures, which we don’t really need to talk about at all! In fact there is already waaaaaaaay too much discussion of asanas on the internet.

Tristhana means the three places of action or attention within the ashtanga yoga practice. They go from the gross to the subtle; asana purifies the body, breath purifies the nervous system and dristhi purifies the mind. Notice that bandha isn’t included as part of tristhana, it is considered as an extension of the breath.

So we already know all about asana. That is the postures, the most obvious part of yoga. In fact, to the uninitiated, that is all that yoga seems to be about. There is of course a lot that can be said about asana but just for today I’m going to park that one here.

I find it interesting that the other two elements, breathing and gazing, are considered in many traditions to be practices all on their own. The postures alone don’t constitute any kind of yogic practice; when they are practised without the other two elements we call them exercise or gymnastics.

For thousands of years the practice of watching the breath has been in existence and it is a fully-formed practice all of its own.

Also the practice solely of dristhi in the form of trataka has been around for a very long time.

There are so many benefits to practising only these two elements of yoga without even doing the asanas.

It is, of course, the asanas that draw most of us into the practice of yoga in the first place but seeing as we are already there, on our mats, day in and day out, year in and year out, we might as well try to bring as much attention to the other two – equally if not more important – aspects of this ashtanga system. Then we can hope to really reap the benefits of practice more consistently and with greater effect.

For a more comprehensive and erudite explanation of tristhana please read the kpjayi explanation at https://kpjayi.org/the-practice/


A very difficult subject

I think one of our neighbours killed himself at the weekend. He was a couple of years older than Suzanne. I can’t be sure (and I might be putting two and two together and getting five) and so, out of respect, I won’t go any further in any details.

Something like that happening so close to your home really makes you think a lot. And, regardless of whether or not I’m right about him (may he rest in peace), suicide in our country is at epidemic proportions. So I felt like I wanted to talk about it. I don’t really know why but I did.

Different people practise yoga for many different reasons and, even individually, there’s usually a broad spectrum of reasons why we “take practice”. But the two most compelling reasons that I can think of (just off the top of my head) are:

(1) the student is extremely unhealthy and/or obese and needs to regain their health in order to avoid an early demise
(2) the student suffers from acute or chronic depression and regular (or even sporadic) yoga practice can help to lighten their outlook on life

It’s the second reason I want to talk about. And I’m going to keep it short (partly because I have no clinical knowledge or expertise about the subject and partly because I want you to read to the end).

Not being a sufferer of clinical depression myself I must also add that I am not speaking from any personal experience and I must apologise in advance to any sufferers if my words trivialise or demean the condition. I just hope that the more this conversation is brought into the open then the less people will feel stigmatised about seeking help (rather than resorting to suicide). That is my sole intention here.

I have been told more than once by sufferers of depression that coming to practice regularly is a huge  part of keeping that black dog from their doors. I think it works in a few different ways.

First of all yoga practice (and other exercise) releases endorphins and these, as you probably all know, are nature’s anti-depressants.

Secondly (and I think this is the beauty of the model of daily, morning, mysore-style practice that we and others around the world are practising) the sense that there is somewhere to go every day where one can potentially get some stillness of mind in a welcoming and, hopefully, non-judgemental community (and become an integral part of that community) can be hugely beneficial. “I don’t know what I would do or where I would be without this place or this practice” is what we have been told by a few different students over the last few years of running our daily classes. I have no doubt it is the same the world over.

It is the community and the shared intention to practice which is important here. And that is what is so satisfying on a personal level for us; that our small community is growing and nurturing the individuals within it. We’re not solving the greater problem of suicide or depression by any means but it’s a little drop in the ocean and we are all a part of it.

So don’t underestimate your contribution to this growing group of yoga practitioners. Your presence there in the mornings could be a small part of keeping someone on the straight and narrow, and you might not even know that they need you.

Apologies if I have rambled on a bit; it’s hard to discuss something so serious and I just sat down and wrote this in one go. If any of this resonates with you please send it on or get in touch. Likewise, if you have any objections to it let me know that too.


The journey is the destination

On the face of it, the practice of Ashtanga Yoga seems like it is progressive. And it is. The asanas, as we go further into each series, get progressively more physically demanding. The names of the different series’ even support that. Primary series, intermediate and advanced A, B, C, and D.

So, if it’s a progressive system, how long does it take to get to the end? And what are the rewards of getting further through the series?

The truth is that it doesn’t work in this linear way at all. Quite the opposite in fact. A complete beginner to the practice is just as likely to experience yoga (defined as the stopping of all thoughts) as a student who has been practising for a long time. The beginner might not identify the experience in the same way as the ‘advanced’ student, but the experience is the same.

As an aside, there is a famous concept from Zen Buddhism called beginner’s mind. The idea is that, in the mind of an expert in any field, the possible outcomes of any action or stimulus are mostly predictable. The expert thinks “I have done/seen/experienced this a thousand times and I know what’s going to happen next”. In the mind of the beginner, however, the possibilities are endless. Not having any frame of reference for a particular experience means that we can fully participate in the experience without expectation of the outcome. We are encouraged to try to adopt this beginner’s mind. In other words, to live without expectation.

Getting back to the ashtanga practice, we can be fooled into thinking that an expert, or an advanced student, or your teacher (what I’m trying to say is; anyone who can do more asanas than you can, or can perform the asanas like you saw Kino McGregor doing them on youtube) can tap in to this experience of yoga much more readily than you.

This is not true.

The experience of yoga (stopping the mind, remember) is an experience which is deeply rooted in the present moment. The asanas are just a method to cultivate this. They are designed as a distraction for the mind, so that it discontinues its normal thought patterns. In the same way as some mindfulness practitioners meditate on the flow of breath in the body, or transcendental meditators meditate on a mantra, ashtanga practitioners meditate on the asanas.

The reason they get progressively more difficult is so that the mind doesn’t creep back in once the particular asana upon which you are meditating becomes easy (or easier anyway). Or, in other words, the series’ progress in difficulty in order to make sure that the student is always operating at the limit of his/her physical capability. In that way, complete concentration is required to perform the asanas.

It is only afterwards that we realise our minds stopped just for an instant. And that is yoga.

The beginner trying to touch his toes is having the exact same experience as the long-term practitioner trying to balance on one arm. The experience of yoga is just as readily available whether it’s your first time on a yoga mat or your ten thousandth.

So there is no pot of gold at the end of the sixth series. The gold is in each individual breath, if only we can bring our one-pointed attention there.

I came across two clips which illustrate this point much more effectively than I can. Neither are overtly related to yoga practice. They both agree, though, that it is the journey, not the destination, which is important.

“Don’t hurry” – Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois

 

 


Ashtanga Yoga as therapy

Ashtanga Yoga has a bit of a reputation amongst the uninitiated for being strict, rigid, uncompromising. It is not generally seen as a practice which anyone can do. It is said that one has to be fit, able-bodied and energetic. You might have had the experience of being asked “Oh Ashtanga, that’s the really hard one isn’t it?” (that’s usually the second question though, the first is “Is that the one in the hot room?” – after I say no to that one, most people lose interest; I don’t know why)

However, those of us who have been practising for a while (and have therefore had a chance not just to practise but also to reflect a little on its nature) realise that this is a fluid practice which changes on a daily basis for all practitioners. We also cannot help but notice that the way we practise (and even the way we learn the method of practice) is different for each individual, even for Surya Namaskara A. The practice is for anyone who wants to do it. And everyone practises it differently.

We also realise through practice that this primary series is a fantastic therapy. Before the “first, second, third series” etc. became the usual way to refer to the different sequences, the ‘primary’ series was known as Yoga Chikitsa (Yoga Therapy). The primary series is intended to heal the body. This is a practice which can be learned by anyone.

I have heard Sharath repeat this (or variations on it) many times:

“Young man can practise.

Old man, he can practise.

Very old man, he can practise.

Man who is sick, he can practise.

Man who does not have strength, he can practise.

Only lazy people can’t practise.”

Then he cracks up laughing.

Every time.

Before there were so many western yoga students travelling to Mysore, Guruji had many many therapy cases; very sick and even partly paralysed students would go to him and he would slowly help them to regain their health and mobility bit by bit, getting warm blood flowing in their bodies. Even in our limited experience of teaching this yoga we have seen the therapeutic power of the asanas both in a general sense and for aiding with specific injuries and illnesses.

The therapeutic effect is also there on a mental and emotional level. We have heard many times of students whose mental health has improved through the practice of asanas (such as help with depression or addiction) or of people who feel like they have gained enough clarity in their lives and in their minds to begin making healthier choices (like leaving destructive relationships, gaining control over their diet or starting a new career). There is something about practising Ashtanga every day that makes everything else seem more straightforward.

I am a very firm believer in the adage that if you can breathe you can practice. Spread the word.

Ekam, inhale. Dwe, exhale. Trini, inhale.

Just those first three vinyasas might be enough to change the course of somebody’s life. The rest of the asanas are just embellishments of that.

 

 


Are we practising yoga?

Suzanne absolutely loves her pregnancy yoga class. She goes every Saturday afternoon and I know it’s going to be invaluable to her when it comes to her going into labour.

I asked her last week what sort of things they do in the class. She said, “we practise a lot of different positions for giving birth, we discuss different concerns that we have, we practise breathing for labour… it’s basically just to prepare you for giving birth. Helen (the teacher) is brilliant”

“That’s cool”, I said.

Then I thought “Is it yoga?… or is it more like a labour preparation class?” We agreed that it wasn’t really yoga but it was excellent none the less.

What is yoga then?

The yoga sutras tell us: yogas citta vrtti nirodhah

Yoga is the stilling of the mind.

So are we practising yoga in our Mysore Style practice?

Think about it….

It’s hard to say for sure isn’t it? Are we stilling our minds? Are we practising stilling our minds? Do we even have the intention of stilling our minds when we are practising? Or do we practise purely for good health and a nice ass? Be honest.

Patanjali says that yoga (that state in which the mind is completely still) is achieved through two things:

Abhyasa (practice) and Vairagya (non-attachment).

So we’re getting there with the practice bit right. We practice, In fact if there’s one thing Ashtanga students take very seriously it’s Abhyasa. And although it seems on a daily basis that this practice is hard and takes a lot of devotion it’s a lot easier than non-attachment. Non-attachment is a difficult concept. I’m going to park it here though, because I want to get to the bottom of whether or not we are practising yoga in our mysore style practice. Are we even doing the Abhyasa part?

Well I think the answer is that it depends on our intention. And the intention of each individual day of asana practice (or tristhana practice for those of you who read the last moon-day news!) makes a difference to the tone of each practice session.

Take, for example, a day on which you feel physically tired. It could be (and sometimes is) the day on which you go deepest into the stillness in your practice. Other times you could feel in tip-top condition but your mind is busy planning, reviewing and thinking; your having a constant little internal conversation with yourself but your performing the asanas as well as you have ever done. The first example brings you much closer to Patanjalai’s definition of yoga. The second one brings you closer to good health and a nice ass!

So are we practising yoga every morning at class (or in our home-practice)? I think that the answer is:

SOMETIMES

It’s quite an unsatisfactory answer but there it is. We have to admit that sometimes, even in this venerated lineage of Ashtanga Yoga (note the capital letters and everything!) that we’re often doing the exact same thing as the labour preparation class.

So the moral of the story is: Just because a class you go to is called yoga, it doesn’t mean that there is any yoga happening there. And that includes our classes. You have to bring the intention to allow yoga to happen. Otherwise it’s just a really good exercise class.

Guruji puts it better:

“Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus”


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