Thursday, 17 December 2009
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Second thought - David Swenson, OH MY GOD. I was quite overwhelmed with the idea of this incredible yogi (whose book is my practice bible) being my teacher for the next two days, but having seen some things on youtube of his conferences (as well as his awesome practice of course) meant that I knew vaguely what to expect. As anyone who has ever had the chance to study with Mr Swenson will tell you, he is really very funny. I'm sure us ashtangis are probably an easy crowd, but halfway through this first class I'd laughed enough that I could have been at a comedy show. Of course this also put everyone at their ease, which with the subject matter of the workshop was a good idea.
He kicks off the class asking if anybody has any questions - interesting to do this at the beginning. So we had some discussion about finding time to practice, and he talked about his short forms (which he was careful to say he does not call ashtanga) and joked that the question seemed like a plant as he then told us he has not one but two new DVDs coming out - one with 6 different 20 minutes short forms, and a new primary series which he was just editing in Paris last week. Of course the series hasn't changed but I think he just wanted to update the DVD with a newer version. He also talked about a lady in a workshop once who told him she had found a good answer to the question of finding time and motivation to practice: she had given herself permission to consider it her yoga practice if she took her mat down from the shelf, unrolled it, stood in tadasana and took one breath, rolled her mat back up, and put it back on the shelf. Of course, she never only took one breath, but in allowing herself to do this she got on her mat more often.
So in essence that was workshop one, and if you're still reading then you have the stamina of an ashtangi. More installments to come, whether you like it or not!!
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Sunday, 22 November 2009
I have a deep-seated issue with surya B which I have been trying to get over but just had a feeling I wouldn't be getting away with anything. So my first downdog adjustment was straightforward enough, a push on the hips, just the right amount of pressure, but also a tap on the fingers of my left hand which weren't pressed into the floor. The second one however was new to me and turned things upside down...
And then I made my next sequencing slip-up and completely forgot navasana, only remembering when I was already partway through closing - I don't know what this was all about, I very rarely miss anything out or start off on the wrong side, I can only put it down to being distracted by being in a new place.
Thursday, 19 November 2009
Monday, 19 October 2009
I've got a good excuse though - ready? I've had builders in. Not convincing enough? For a period of one month, my entire flat (my practice room included) has been turned upside down, covered in 2 inches of dust, filled with building rubble & materials, and I have had to rise at 6 to wash in the kitchen sink before the builders arrive to start work (on the days that anybody turned up, this is - not that I ever knew when this was going to be) The only days I could rely on them to turn up were on weekends, when I was forced out of my home for the duration, but still needed to be around at the beginning and end of the day to check up on them and answer questions. Given my shower-less status, not to mention the stress of living in a pigsty for twice as long as the job was due to take, somehow I was not feeling predisposed to a) get on my mat on a daily basis, or b) go and get hot & sweaty at the (similarly showerless) ashtanga shala I practice at a few times a week. Oh and in weeks 1-2 I also put my neck out. Good enough excuses?
My living room - mid chaos
All of that said, it has turned into rather an interesting experiment. Having started to practice ashtanga yoga in March this year, despite some "off" weeks I have been fairly consistent for the past 9 months, but every so often I begin to wonder why I practice. Having taken some time out I think I have some fairly convincing arguments now. Of course the experiment wasn't exactly scientific, I mean what came first: were the rising stress levels due to my the lack of a safe haven or my lack of a yoga practice? During the past month I have found myself to be constantly exhausted, frequently unwell (I have just come out of a 4 day migraine), my skin is breaking out, I am constantly worrying about the future - in short, from what I remember, I have reverted back to my pre-yoga self.
So now that the work is over (and I have a very fabulous new bathroom to show for it), the dust is all but cleaned up, and I have the keys back from the builders, today was the designated day to get back to my practice. I had planned to start over the weekend but being a moon day yesterday, I took the day to rest instead, ready for an early start today.
Perhaps it's overblown to imagine that all of these effects have come about thanks to me getting on my mat this morning, but perhaps not. It reminds me of a passage in Donna Farhi's wonderful book Bringing Yoga to Life where a lady taking on yoga later in life to cope with a difficult divorce realises that for the first time she finds joy in simple things, the sensation of the wind on her face, the pleasure of a hot bath. "Nothing's changed", she says, "but everything has changed".
Sunday, 6 September 2009
As a complete beginner to the ashtanga primary series, and to self practice, I attended beginners classes with Jeff and Harmony held after the pros (as I thought of them) had completed their two hour self-practice kicking off at 6am. Grateful for the extra sleep, I trotted off to the shala at 8am to be put through my paces, and day one was a piece of cake - sun salutations, so far so familiar. Afternoon classes focusing on the philosophy of ashtanga yoga soon had my hitting a brick wall almost straight away. The idea of this practice, as explained by Jeff, was to become an independent practitioner - cue spontaneous tears from me and the voice in my head saying "not you, this doesn't work with your lifestyle, you'll never do it". Every time that phrase was mentioned over the next few days, I got a huge lump in the back of my throat, and found myself facing huge doubts and questions as to how this would all fit into my busy life in London that involved two hours commuting a day. A DVD we were shown one evening in the first week, "Ashtanga NY" (which I now own a copy of - and I love) pushed me further into doubt. "This practice of ashtanga yoga," said one of the yoginis on film, "You can't flirt with it". Surely that was what I was doing here? I couldn't possibly see how I could get up 6 times a week to get to a shala and start practicing at 6am, and nor did I want to, in all honesty. I questioned whether I was going to be able to "stick to" ashtanga when I got back to London. Usually I found it hard enough getting out of bed in time to get to work for 9.30 every day, and my evenings were pretty full too, so I just didn't see how I would find space for this in my life.
The combination of Jeff's anatomical knowledge (from many years spent as a paramedic) with his humour and light-hearted eloquence, and Harmony's utterly beautiful and seemingly effortless demonstrations, in-depth knowledge and beautiful chants - plus of course their dynamic as a couple - made them the most incredible teachers. Of course the beautiful setting in Goa no doubt helped, as did the wonderful people on the retreat with me and copious amounts of amazing vegetarian food (supplemented with almost daily trips to the local German bakery for coffees and cakes with my fellow yogis) but I began to realise that I was starting to heal. My heartbreak, which I had feared would overwhelm me when I was given endless space to navel-gaze, seemed to be receding and taking more of a back seat. The endless and in-depth conversations with like-minded people made me feel supported and contented, and calm in a way I couldn't remember ever feeling before. To sit around drinking camomile tea and telling stories about 18th birthday presents for dogs was the greatest joy; there was no need for alcohol, bedtime was at 9pm when I would climb the stairs in Ganesh house and chat with my Finnish room-mate from our beds before going to sleep at 10. I think I laughed more in the two weeks I was in Goa than I could remember doing for years, all without the need for drink, and all with people I would never have met under normal circumstances.
Tuesday, 25 August 2009
All ashtangis (and probably a lot of yogis) will know exactly who I am talking about, but for anybody who doesn't know, Sharath Rangaswamy is the director of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (AYRI) in Mysore in India, a position he took over following the death of his Grandfather Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in May 2009. And of course, Mysore is the focal point for ashtanga yoga, and Pattabhi Jois (or Guruji as he was known) was the grandfather not just to Sharath, but to this style of yoga itself. He is widely credited with having brought yoga to the West, and many thousands of students (both from India and around the world) studied with Guruji in Mysore over the 70 plus years that he was teaching. But enough of the history lesson.
The level of anticipation I had about taking this class was huge - and I mean huge. Having been introduced to ashtanga in March 2009 by J and H, two wonderful teachers who had been given Guruji's blessing to teach, I had learnt the importance of the lineage of this practice, the direct handing down of teaching from Guruji and Sharath to authorised yoga teachers. For this reason, after a failed early experiment with an unauthorised teacher (at a cheap & convenient yoga centre) I now study in London with a teacher I love who is also blessed by Guruji to teach.
Of course I saw the opportunity to take this class with Sharath as being the direct line to ashtanga in it's purest form, and for all I know could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to practice with him. So I put aside my huge fears, my concerns that after only 5 months of ashtanga I wasn't ready, and that as I usually only practice up to navasana (about half way through the primary series) that I would get stopped by Sharath, not to mention the worries about how I would get into central London for 7am on a Sunday, when by happy coincidence I managed to get a place.
Now I should say at this point that I grew up being told that if you look forward to something too much, it is bound to be a disappointment. Having followed this maxim for all of my childhood and much of my adult life, I have tried in recent years to embrace the optimism which sits rather more comfortably with me. So I looked forward to the class with great excitement, and was sure that the energy of the group would carry me through the whole series even though some of it was unfamiliar to me. Having travelled to Europe to revisit my teachers J&H three months after I first met them in India, I had already experienced the energy that incredible teachers can create and which takes you through a wonderful, powerful practice from the first breath, so it was this in particular that I was looking forward to.
So with all of this background, I am almost afraid to admit to how I felt during and after the class. Honestly? On the face of it, I found the led class a little underwhelming. Although I really don't know what I was expecting (although the mental dialogue went a little like this: "It'll be amazing! You'll have the best practice EVER! Everything will just magically come, and you'll be headstanding in the middle of the room for hours and floating into jumpbacks like David Swenson"), I know that I didn't quite get what I anticipated out of it. True, I completed the full primary series, I wasn't stopped at any point, and I didn't fall on my backside during Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana - with my leg in half lotus - as I did on the workshop with J&H in Antwerp...(I bounced). Mind you I did nearly land on my face in my first over-enthusiastically floating vinyasa which would have been quite a way to start the class!
Other than this near miss there were no disasters, but also no triumphs - and notably, no adjustments from Sharath. In fact, I was surprised by how few adjustments he did throughout the class. Having watched films of him and Guruji taking led classes on world tours before, Guruji would do the count while Sharath scuttled around the room adjusting somebody on every count, and more often than not his Mother Saraswati was adjusting too. This time it was just him on his own, so he was concentrating on leading the class, although I was a little distracted when I realised that the man behind me had at least three or four adjustments. The funny thing is, in the run up to the class I was hoping that I got lots of adjustments, and because I got there so early I was right up the front with Sharath mainly in front or beside me for the whole class, I was actually willing him to keep away from me. I was so worried that either he'd touch me and I'd cry, or that he'd push me too far and it would hurt me, that I probably sent him enough stay away vibes to ensure he steered well clear.
I want to make it really clear that none of this to be taken as a form of criticism of Sharath personally, or of the system of Ashtanga yoga. I feel to a certain extent that the stage I am getting to now is a healthy one of discovery. When I arrived in Goa in February 2009 knowing nothing about ashtanga yoga, and nothing about yoga itself outside of weekly asana practice, I learnt all about this incredible man and his family lineage, and despite some difficulties adjusting to some of the ideas (which I'll write about another time), in terms of Guriji and Sharath I accepted everything as a child would - unquestioningly. On my return to London, and my further research into the world of ashtanga both through a new teacher and extensive reading online, I began to hear some criticisms of the practice, and even of Guruji himself (and that was from the teacher - needless to say, not somebody I continued to practice with) which I just could not accept. But my feelings during and after the class this weekend led me onto thinking about a couple of things.
Firstly, I think the space had an enormous amount to do with the 'energy' you get during your practice. Thinking about the shala where I first studied in India, it is constantly filled with people getting on their mat with great sincerity & pure intention; it's filled with unshod feet, quiet voices and some of the finest teachers in the world; it feels to me that it has become a sacred space. It doesn't get used for discos and wedding receptions or church fetes on off days.
And at AYL, my London shala of choice, it's the same situation. It's filled on a daily basis with ashtanga practioners working their way through their practice, and the first time I ever practiced there it just felt so so right. Contrast it with the places I have been to with the same teacher which weren't dedicated shalas, and something just doesn't click. I wondered initially if it was to do with size of the room, and the bigger the room (and further you are from the incense!) the lesser the feeling, but that argument doesn't work when I think about the large shala in Goa. So instead I come back to the idea that somehow all of the practicing, chanting and meditating that goes on in the space somehow charges it with this incredible energy. In fact when I went to J&H's Antwerp intensive where a friend has just started teaching a few classes a week in an empty space beneath a photographic studio, there was the most powerful feeling of that connection and energy that I've felt so far - which either had to be down to the space, to J's chanting for an hour in there before we began, or perhaps it's a straight-forward teacher-student connection which of course I didn't have with Sharath having never met him before.
And the class on Sunday was in a large civic centre no doubt used for all types of functions, packed with people, and although everybody talks about the incredible energy when you practice with Sharath, I got - well, not nothing exactly, but not much. Maybe because I was at the front, I wasn't packed in with people on all sides, maybe all sorts of things, but it just didn't feel like I thought it would. I wonder though whether this will feel different by the end of the week of workshops, primary followed by intermediate every day, which if my "charging up" theory holds any weight, it should.
The other thing I have been really wondering about, is the westernisation and western interpretation of Indian ideas, and how in some ways it seems that the very few words spoken in English by Guruji or Sharath are taken and built upon by western teachers and turned into something beautifully written, or spoken, which speaks to you and affects you when you hear it. Actually though, the memorial piece written in Yoga Journal last month quoted Guruji's direct words to many famous teachers and they made me cry, but of course that's not what you get in a led class.
This is all part of a much larger philosophical debate I started having with myself. Again I want to stress that I'm not making any judgements here, and I'm certainly not criticising anybody or losing any faith in the system or those who have set it out in Mysore, but I do think it's inevitable that I would eventually move from the unquestioning acceptance that I began ashtanga with and begin to intellectualise it a bit. To be honest I'm still just trying to make some sense of my feelings in the class, and how flat I felt - whilst at the same time feeling I don't want to admit to it for fear of seeming less than a proper ashtangi.
Saturday, 1 August 2009
True as that may be, everybody has a story, and more precisely, every yogi has the story of how they began. Often when you read the website of a great teacher, they will talk about how they were working in this industry or that industry (usually film/music/advertising - the more hectic and less spiritual the better) when this practice "found them". That may be dismissed as bunkum by the general population, but the further I go with my journey on this path, the more I begin to think that there is a design, and that it cannot be mere chance that led to where I am now.
So how did I come to be throwing myself so whole-heartedly into this new lifestyle aged 31? It's not like yoga is completely new to me. I took my first class at 18, and for the year between finishing school and starting University my best friend and I met in the local leisure centre on a Wednesday night for an hour and a half of stretching. The best part was the final relaxation (a luxurious half an hour) where the un-yogicly named Debbie (who also had rather un-yogic spikey hair from what I remember) would talk us into a state of complete bliss, so much so that I feared for my friend having to drive me and then herself home. The teacher explained the meaning of the greeting "Namaste" and every practice finished with this exchange, and a deep bow to the ground which I took with me into every class I attended ever since.
I tried and failed through the years that followed to find a class that I liked. There was the man in my University city who made me feel uncomfortable from the second I arrived (I think I was a minute late and he crucified me in front of the whole class - bad manners yes, but hardly the appropriate response); the lady at the sports centre near my first London flat who talked about nothing but ovaries and fertility, and then about two years ago I started going to a class at my local gym. It was a fairly easy hatha class, the type that probably the majority of once-a-weekers would experience in church halls and gyms around the country: some light stretching, nothing too challenging, with a final relaxation before you floated home feeling sleepy and relaxed, all to the back-drop of some spiritual sounding music (though this may have been there to drown out the pumping R&B and sound of grown men grunting in weight-lifting-effort that floated in from the gym). In the time I took that class there were four different teachers with varying styles along the same theme, but I tried to go every week and I enjoyed the new feeling I got when I bent to pick something up, a new opening around my hips, as well as it helping me to feel more relaxed. And I loved downward dog with a passion, I'd have happily stayed in it all day (I still feel the same - this is the special treat to reward for your efforts in Suryanamaskara A & B).
I enjoyed the class so much I wanted to try doing more that once a week, so I started going to a weekend class also at my gym, and found a much tougher, more dynamic class - ashtanga, or so I thought (I later discovered it was actually a dynamic hatha class - but possibly from the Sivananda school). After a few false starts something clicked with the weekend class, and at a time when my life was in great turmoil, I had a eureka moment one Sunday afternoon. This teacher was more spiritual, it was clear that yoga was his life, not just something nice he thought he might teach. After our final relaxation we would sit cross legged, eyes closed, heads bowed, and at that moment of great peace he said "If you can keep this feeling inside you, nothing can touch you". Click - I have no idea why, but this was it. I had an overwhelming sensation of peace, I felt unstoppable, I was incredibly relaxed but felt powerful too - and the feeling lasted for days. I became a regular at both classes, though the midweek class then changed to Iyengar which I really struggled to enjoy - now it was all about the "ashtanga". Life continued to throw some bumps into my road, but I carried on going to classes when I could, and as I lay on the floor in my relaxation I remember thinking I always want to be doing this. I could picture this being the start of my life including yoga: pre and during pregnancy, with children, as an old lady, I always want to be taking classes and giving myself this time to devote to yoga. It's hard to look back on how I felt without colouring it with what I know now, but I do remember feeling this very strong desire to have a lifelong relationship with asana, and the deeper I go with my practice, this feeling has just grown and grown.