Thursday, 17 December 2009

Finding my Christmas calm...

Like most other people, I am finding myself getting  a bit stressed and strung out in the pre-Christmas madness. If you could play out my internal dialogue it would go a bit like this: "If I go and collect my Indian visa in the afternoon then I can stop by and pick up my brother-in-law's present I have on hold then I need to get the christmas card for my nieces and then I can catch the post then that should give me time to leave work on time for the Christmas party and then I can work late tomorrow to try and get through the backlog..." and all this while I'm eating breakfast.

While I was observing all of these thoughts I was struck with a realisation: everything I have to be stressed about is something else I have to be grateful for. Running around trying to find appropriate gifts for everyone? I have a family and friends who I love. Stressed at work and trying to get everything done before Christmas? I have a job, and one in which I am (at last) busy. Worrying that I'm not prepared for my trip to India? I am so lucky that I'm in a position to be going away.
The prospect of not being stressed in the run-up to Christmas would probably mean that my life was very different. True it's hard to find time for yoga (let alone sleep) when things are like this but knowing that in just over two weeks I will be in Goa and practicing every day makes this a lot easier to accept. So that is all for today, a short & sweet post to remind myself of everything I have to be grateful for.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Finally, a post about David Swenson's workshops...Flying floating & handstanding.

Last week I took 4 workshops with the fabulous David Swenson and was dying to blog about it while it was all fresh in my mind, but life had other ideas for me last week and I haven't had a moment until now. Or more accurately, I have had moments but chose instead to spend them procrastinating instead of getting on with least now it's been a week the post is likely to be a bit less epic (who was I kidding?!)!

Day 1, workshop 1: Flying, Floating + Handstanding: A Fun-filled exploration of Vinyasa and Arm-balances

One of the greatest challenges of the Ashtanga flow is the vinyasa. In this class David will break the vinyasa down into its components. He likes to refer to this as: “The Physics of Flight”. The class will also explore the elements of handstands and arm-balances. This will all be done through the avenue of partner work. There is always plenty of laughter and fun as well as a depth of information in this class. All levels may attend even if you have never done a handstand before. Alternatives are always given.

First thought - handstands, what the hell was I thinking?? Given my well-documented problems with headstands this seemed a little like trying to climb everest having once tried a climbing wall. I was also pretty put off by the idea of partner-work, but the fear of this was eliminated as I was at the workshop with Sam who I met on twitter (@dottyTeaKettle) - we had egged eachother on to book it via twitter and then met for real at the yoga show in October. Thank you Sam, for helping to make the workshop more fun, less terrifying and for being a great partner :)
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.
David then spoke about how he had never once regretted a practice, but had regretted not practicing (I've heard him talk about this before) but he went on to joke about how our brain knows this but thinks "Maybe today will be the day you do regret practicing," and how we have to continually trick our brains to allow us to get on the mat. He talked about setting realistic goals, and how setting unrealistic goals will just leave you frustrated. Of course I know all of this, and try to integrate it, but sometimes I can't help but get frustrated with myself when I don't get out of bed and onto my mat.
Then somebody asked how do we overcome the fear of doing handstands - quick answer: don't sign up for a handstand workshop. Cue nervous laughter. From the start of the class it became clear that we were split between the gung-ho yogis dying to get up on their hands and the rather more reluctant & fearful ones wondering what they had let themselves in for. He talked then about fear, using an example of his wife being afraid to learn to drive - having lived in NYC she'd had no need, but once they moved to Texas people get in their car to pick up the mail from the end of their drive (I quote). Nobody could understand why she didn't just learn to drive, they all said "there's nothing to be scared of, everybody does it.." but you can't just tell somebody to not be scared. Whether we share the exact same fear of something with others is irrelevant, the fear is very real to us. When his wife found a driving instructor who asked "What is your fear?" her answer was that when she was 15 her father had crashed his car into a tree and died. So the instructor said "I am going to teach you to not crash into a tree." Of course with handstands we're not scared of standing on our hands, we are actually scared of not standing on our hands (so, falling).
He went on to define a handstand. Of course we're all thinking of the moneyshot, the upsidedown posture which he beautifully demonstrated, but he was at pains to point out that a handstand is any time when your weight is on your hands - so it is first encountered when jumping back/forwards in the sun salutations. You could sense some of the Type A personalities chomping at the bit as we went through the stages of jumping through, practicing tranferring weight between our feet and hands, working with a partner for a "turbo assist" (aka grab ass-ana!) but I know I was grateful that the very scary stuff wasn't that prominent for the bulk of the class.
We got some great tips about jumping through, about crossing the legs at mid calf, flexing the feet and making yourself as narrow as possible to enable you to jump through. Also think about the ramps that skateboarders use and picture the arc - in other words aim to swing a lot higher and further beyond where you really need to be to get that momentum. For jumping back he talked about using opposition of forces (more on this later - it was the topic of workshop two), leaning forward to swing back, and he also talked about pushing down to enable you to lift up (makes perfect sense in handtstands but also in other balances).Another point he heavily emphasised was with any balances putting your awareness into the point of contact with the floor. This is something I rarely do as I am wobbling away in UHP or attempting a headstand, all of my concentration is on the wobbling and none on the stability of my standing leg. But of all of the information on jumping back the most important point was this:
There are no rewards for jumping back! You will not get a communique from Mysore the day you do it, your kids will not tidy their rooms, you will not become a better or nicer person just because you can jump-back!
His point of course was that people attach self worth to these things, and as he put it: "It's only yoga!" Whether you can jump-through or not will not affect your progression as a yogi, and just because somebody else can jump-through doesn't necessarily mean they have their bandha engaged, they might just be doing it - he gave us a very funny demo of what he calls the Archer - a particular body-type who jumps through with straight legs using a combination of flexibility, strength and a sense of adventure - fundamentally they just fling themselves at it and hope for the best. My favourite part by far was when he had us all in downdog recite "I am a good person!" before we attempted it - and lo & behold my resulting jumpthrough was the best one I did! I don't think that was his point really but who cares, it worked!
I'm sure you're wondering if I'll ever get on to the handstands...well, the point is, the bulk of the two and a half hour workshop was spent on these elements (the floating and vinyasa elements) with the full-on handstanding probably only taking half an hour at the end (maybe less). Of course the fear was still there through the rest of the class, but it became clear that David Swenson has a very clever way of teaching scary stuff. It goes like this. Be wondefully funny and warm to put everyone at their ease. Tell yoga jokes. Break everything down into tiny pieces and build it up slowly so that before they know it, people are doing the thing that scares them most.
Stage 1: Each pair partnered with another twosome and he demo-ed the handstand, using three helpers, one student. Helper #1 acts as the wall (with their back to the student) and helpers #2 and #3 stand either side. Student goes into downdog, helpers lift up the student's legs from the pelvis, the wall grabs the student's ankles and gives them a lift upwards. Helpers 2 & 3 keep hold of the student at either side, one hand in front of the leg and one behind. When you're ready, wall lets go of the ankles and helpers take the legs down. (actually it might be that the helpers let go either side but stayed near, with the wall still holding the student's legs - or that might have been stage 2 & what I've written as part 2 was really part 3...anyway you get the idea).
Stage 2: Start off as above, then when the legs are up, the wall turns to face the student, makes a fist and puts it between the student's thighs, pushing up under their arm with the other hand so that there is a strong upwards force in the wall's arm. Helpers let go of the legs. Student is doing bloody terrifying handstand without realising it.
Stage 3: As stage 1, then the wall bends their legs, takes the whole body weight of the student, straightens legs and sways from side to side ("like a lizard on a rock" - this was the flying part and would supposedly feel really nice).
Stage 1 was terrifying in propsect but actually completely fine in practice.When we had the demo I nearly asked a question about what to do if our arms weren't strong enough, but when you are being assisted like this it doesn't matter. It was pretty amazing to realise that we could do this, even coming from a place of total fear as I was. I wasn't quite ready to try stage 2 (although my wall did turn and do the fist I still had the helpers holding either side too) but stage 3 was where it went a bit wrong. Because I'm tall I couldn't just let my arms swing, and I had a hard time trusting that I was safe swinging about like this. Worse though was when I was the swinger (so to speak!!) - the person I was lifting was fairly heavy in frame compared to me and while we were doing it she was screaming that my shoulder was really pointy, so David came over to see what was going on, and was saying "straighten your legs!!" to me, while I was saying "sorry sorry sorry.." freaking out while she screamed on about my pointy shoulder. It was all a bit traumatic (the man from the book told me off!) though of course I am dramatising....
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

Twice in a week...

Today was the big challenge. Get myself to a mysore class, and then go to work afterwards - something I haven't done for about 5 months. I planned it with military precision, trying to work out exactly what time I needed to start and finish my practice to make sure I got to work on time, how long it would take me to get from home to the shala, and then afterwards from the shala to work, and of course what time I would need to get up. As I didn't get on with the shower on my first trip to YP I decided to allow enough time to take a shower and wash my hair before I went, so worked out I needed to set my alarm for 5.20am to make sure I was ready to start my practice with the opening chant at 6.30.

So I got up and out of the house, that was fine, though I somehow managed to miss the chant by a few minutes - I was there when they did it, but I was still in the changing room. So it was fine, I started my practice with a quiet moment on my mat, at AYL I would always do the chant quietly on my own but it didn't seem right when I'd only just missed it. As an aside, I used to worry that it was annoying to other people that I did that, as not many other people did - but today when I was almost finished a girl arrived and unrolled her mat in front of me, and quietly but audibly started "vande gurunam..." and it was so lovely to hear!! How could anybody be annoyed by it? A good lesson for me to realise.

I was surprised by how busy the room was, we were pretty packed in (much busier than Sunday), but still Cary was darting around the room, and I got more adjustments than I am used to getting (even the micro ones she does on her way past)  though not as many as on Sunday. I forgot until just now but when I was approaching the shala this morning in the dark, I happened to look up and saw her silhouette through the frosted glass giving an adjustent and it really made me smile. Anyway despite her busy-ness I am really conscious of her grace. It might just be that I'm recognising what Karen was writing about last week, but I can't help but notice the way she seems to have everyones's back, even though there are so many people there, and also the way she moves around the room - almost like it's a dance. But slight as she may be, my God her adjustments are strong! No correction to the length of my downdog today (I think I've got that now - I can't believe how different it feels) but the usual push into it, a few tweaks in the tirikonasana sequence (including standing on my back foot in the revolved version, I always seem to get that!) and then on to UHP.

I wonder if I am alone in finding in next to impossible to balance in this posture by myself - even after all of these months. Cary was waiting for me to take my foot in the first place before she stepped in, and on the left side it took me about three tries just to balance.
Naturally I think my leg reaches about the angle of this picture: i.e. not all that high! (picture credit here) I am used to having a teacher take your leg up higher, and the main teacher at AYL might take it up on her shoulder whereas the assistants would hold your leg on their arm (no doubt concerned about being too strong).

But what does Cary do? Well it feels more like this:
picture credit here
Oh - except that my standing foot isn't allowed to turn out as it does in this picture. And Cary would be in the picture too, lifting my leg whilst simultaneously correcting the grip on my toe, pushing me down onto my raised leg, turning my knee in and making sure my foot wasn't rolling out, holding onto my shoulder to stop me falling, pushing my chest up at the end...! At least there was no standing leg straightening today (I tried to keep it straight, really I did, but it does feel like the only thing keeping me upright). Although this is how it feels, I'm sure my leg is actually nothing like as high as this, but I think the assist in this pose is what gave me such agonisingly sore glutes after Sunday's practice. No adjustments in pachimottanasana today which I was almost grateful for (actually maybe it was that which hurt so badly afterwards) and at least I didn't forget the sequence at the beginning of seated this time! The shala was really filling up by this stage so there was a bit of shuffling about of mats, but everyone seemed to have enough space. And then I got a bit distracted when a girl rolled her mat out in front of me into what looked like not a space at all, she was clearly unsure whether it was OK and looked to Cary for reassurance, and as she turned around I saw that she was the little sister of a boy in my class at Primary school - she was also at my secondary school, but about four years below me. Quite a weird coincidence as I didn't grow up in London, plus I think mysore classes are quite niche really, and then to practice in the same shala, and to happen to appear in front of me - I have no idea how many other people were in the room, and if she'd have been anwhere else I wouldn't even have seen her.

Anyway aside from my distraction (it didn't help that she has a dancer's physique and a very acomplished practice!!) I continued through my practice and only got adjusted in Marichyasana A - again, a very strong one which made me want to squeal as C pushed my body down to my leg, telling me to take the chin to the shin put pushing still deeper even once it had hit my leg.Then although she was stood behind me in D and I struggled to bind, I managed it again on both sides (just) without any help. I still prefer the adjusted bind, but of course it is good to know I don't need it!

From Mari D I ploughed straight into Bhujapidasana, attempting it twice before I realised I'd missed out navasana AGAIN!! Funny how I am rushing to the pose I am struggling with rather that avoiding it...I wonder what that says about me. Anyway I remembered in time, so went back through vinyasa and into navsana, where C's assistant came over and told me to come up out of my lower back which I did and immediately had to bend my knees. I did think that I'd probably been leaning back to far to get my legs up & straight but nobody ever picked up on it before. So then it was my third attempt at the bloody bhuja...actually I'm wondering if anybody can help me with this because I just DON'T GET IT! I jump round my arms from downdog, and on the last few attempts I can now gingerly cross my feet and lift them (though it takes massive effort) and then I just hang there, stuck! I have been taught to take my forehead to the floor as a beginner's modification - but in doing this, my feet are back on the floor. When I am balancing on my arms, attempting to move my head towards the floor feels far too scary as I am sure I am going to crash-land, so I end up crashlanding onto my backside instead (which is a much softer landing I can assure you). So having crashed down I'm never really sure what to do, whether I try again, or if I can give up and stop at that point (having already tried twice pre-navasana, today I stopped). Any tips will be gratefully received!

Once again today I did my tippy-toes non-headstand, and again nobody noticed, but I can't work out if I am actually just attention-seeking in doing this. Either way, there's no way I can do an unsupported headtstand in the middle of the room so I supose I'll stick with it until I get asked about it (surely I won't get away with it again!). I made sure I took a really long savasana as I know that's the difference between feeling exhausted or refuelled at the end of the practice, and then went off to shower and get ready for work. Timing-wise I couldn't believe how it worked out, I arrived at the tube station 45 minutes early for work, which given my usual timekeeping, was about an hour earlier than normal! So the good news is the 5.20 alarm might not need to be a regular thing. I am slightly worried that it had to be such a carefully planned operation to get me to a morning class though, it makes me wonder how I am ever going to ramp up my practice from once or twice a week, but I suppose I need to just work on getting there first, and worry about the frequency later. I was pretty knackered at work today too, though initially I think I was mainly feeling the effects  of eating sugary breakfast cereal at my desk rather than some good wholesome porridge I'd normally have at home. Weirdly though I did feel like from my hips down I was zinging with energy, but my back and upper body generally just felt destroyed. But I suppose I have done the hardest bit now, I have established that I can get to a morning class and then get to work, both logistically and pyhsically, so now there are no excuses!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Are you here for yoga?

Standing on the doorstep of YP at 7.45am (no chance I was sleeping through today), showered, coffee-ed up and ready to practice, I'm trying to work out whether I rang the bell right & nobody answered (should I buzz again? impatience isn't very yogic...) when a smiling face comes walking towards me. "Are you here for yoga?" Yes, I say, I'm not sure if I'm meant to buzz? "maybe nobody's here yet" she says, pulling keys from her bag and opening the door "I'm Cary".

Ahh, the famous Cary, so beloved of the London branch of the cybershala, and very definitely built up in my estimation without my ever having actually met her. Not necessarily a good thing, as far as I'm concerned - great expectations can mean great disappointment. Thankfully I hadn't said anything stupid before I knew it was her (which is always a good start - I am brilliant at putting my foot in it with someone I assume to be the teacher only for them to turn out to be another student and - worse - vice versa). I was surprised to find only one other person there, but Cary talked me through how things work - shower through there, practice room here, tea here, fill out this form, put your money in the box & write your name in the book, pausing halfway through to ask "You've done this before, right?". I explained that I have been practicing in the evenings and it was working for me before but now it's not, which she agreed happens. So I spent the next 15 minutes carefully avoiding starting my practice, taking ages to get changed (why did I put my vest on under my other clothes? it just saved me time I could have done with spending!), filling out my form, and basically procrastinating, not wanting to be one of only two people in the room. As Cary came in to the changing room to light incense I confessed what I was doing, and so bit the bullet and went in to start.

When I was on my fifth sury A I was surprised not to have heard creaking floorboards signalling an adjustemnt, but then Cary came over as I went into downdog and asked where my form was (I was supposed to bring it into the room with me) so I scooted off to get it - of course, no adjustments until she's seen my form to know whether I have any injuries (very smart). As it turned out, lack of adjustments was the last thing I needed to be worried about! Starting on my surya B's I went into downdog again and saw her out of the corner of my eye leaning on the back wall behind me, and my first thought was I'm in trouble here...
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...
Crouching behind me, she put her hands about a six inches further back than my feet and said "DON'T move your hands! bring your feet to my hands", and my first thought was HOW? I have been told once by a sub teacher at AYL that my downdog wasn't long enough, but really that much?? And I have always shuffled my hands and feet in a bit, plus of course the way I was doing it my heels were just able to connect with the floor. But in this new longer stance everything felt different, my head felt like it was practically on the ground and jumping forward from there seemed like I had miles to cover. Of course every down dog after that I was aware of where her hands had been and where I needed to be, and how different it felt. How could I have been doing it this wrong for all this time?
Padangusthasana - another adjustment, knees straightened, arm position slightly adjusted. Trikonasana sequence - surely I was going to get pummelled here? No! Feeling like I'd got away with it I went into Prasarita Padottanasana and realised how much closer the ground is to my head these days. Funnily enough I'd been worried as this was my first full morning in an age (since Sharath in August in fact) that I would have no flexibility but I found it almost straight away, even with my hamstrings still tight from Wednesday's return to practice - something about the energy in the room, I'm sure of it.
Parsvottanasana and again, more flexibility than I am used to through my shoulders, and on to the dreaded Utthita Hasta Pandangusthasana. I am so used to getting a full assist in that pose I am convinced that I'm incapable of doing it by myself. Anyway I got started, but C was soon there and my leg was hoisted higher than ever before to shoulder height. And here's where it got tricky - she stood on one leg and pushed my knee on my standing leg straight with her foot. She took her foot away, my knee bent again. And again. And...yeah you get it. I wanted to scream it's the only thing keeping me upright! As we got to C she held my leg up (at AYL you are left with this one) and then she stepped away and told me to hold for one breath. I returned my foot to the floor but at an angle, got a micro-adjustment to straighten my feet, and then back up through the same thing on the left side as she miraculously gave me about 4 adjustments at a time - leg up, knee straight, head turned, corrected toe grab - and I'm sure there was a fifth but goodness only knows what else it could be. Then it was into Ardha Baddha Padangusthasana without the security of a wall in front of me but although I was wobby going into it I didn't topple, and on the left side actually managed to hold onto my toe until I was back upright (normally I can only catch it halfway down and let go on my way up to stop myself falling).
I had decided to do the rolling out the towel at Dandasana thing to stop me tripping up in standing as I was doing on Wednesday, so I rolled it out and went through my five breaths, and into half lotus for Janu Sirsasana A and was 4 breaths in before realising I had skipped the whole paschimottanasana/ purvottanasana sequence (and this is even after checking this bit in David Swenson last night as I always forget there's a vinyasa in there!) so I went back and in paschimo B got a full-on I-want-to-scream adjustment (I knew I'd be grateful for it later though). And if I thought my inclined plane was getting away with any sloppiness I had another thing coming as she came and leant on my toes, and then I was into seated.
All went well apart from me getting my sides wrong with Marichyasana D, probably because I was distracted and wondering whether Cary would come and help me - I can usually just about bind on the right but flail around on the left and nine time out of ten get help, but would rather have it for the whole thing as the twist is so much less when I only just catch my fingers. Anyway, distracted, I put my right foot into half lotus first and struggled but just caught my fingers, realising this was the side I normally struggled with and this normally comes second. So I went back to the right side, bound around my fingers, vinyasa and into the left and hurrah! I caught my fingers and even felt the twist - so maybe a ratio of 2 left to 1 right is the way to nail it! Anyway it's good to know that I CAN make it without needing assistance (even if it feels better with help).

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.
Anyway bhujapidasana was the usual mess, and I thought about asking for help and explanation but decided against it - I'll just practice it badly and see if she spots it was my chosen approach, so I did it twice (badly) but I do start to feel like something might be coming with it. As I said afterwards I have probably only tried it a dozen times if that, so I don't know why I'm giving myself a hard time that I haven't magically got it yet.

And then closing - at AYL you move to another room to close, so it felt nice to be able to stay on my mat and just flow through it, though it will take a bit of getting used to that there are still all the sounds of people practicing around you - especially as I'm sure I heard Susan doing her famous finger-breaking Nakrasana and I was dying to take a peek! But also being in another room has allowed me the safety net (i.e. allowed me to get away with) doing my headtstands at the wall. I have such a mental block with this: I WANT to be able to do it, really I do, but I also want to get away with not doing it. So am I going to ask for help? no siree. Am I going to do a headstand preparation up on tippy-toes and see if I get caught out? Ohhhhh yes. And for today, no comment and thus, no headstand. But in childs' pose afterwards (hey, I'd still been upsidedown, I still get to do it) Cary throws a towel over me and does this fabulous massage all down my neck and back, and then I'm into full lotus with relative ease (what's going on today?) and my closing three postures, and rest.

And wouldn't you know it, for the first time in absolutely months I get one of those moments in savasana. The best way to describe it is is being like when you are waiting for the sun to come up, but it already looks light so you wonder what difference the sunrise is going to make. And then it breaks and WOW, suddenly everything looks different. That's what these moments are like. I have only had a few of them, but you feel relaxed and then suddenly, the sun comes from behind a cloud and you feel inexplicably calm and peaceful, and a slow smile spreads across your face. The only problem is as soon as it happens, my brain starts with the "oh my god! It's happening! I'm having one of those moments!" and of course it's gone, but the memory of it and the smile remain.

The added bonus of my practice today was that I'd made a plan to have coffee with Globie afterwards - I'd recognised him from his videos and exhanged smiles across the room (Kevin I hope you got that mine was a "yes I'm Mel!" smile!). I was also on the lookout for Susan as I'd promised to make myself known and despite mistaking somebody else for her initially, as soon as I saw limbs bending in unnatural directions I knew it was her - we just had time to say hi before she had to rush off. This is part of what's been missing for me at AYL - I'm sure if you go there all the time it's friendly, but being as sporadic as I've been with it I have barely ever spoken to anybody there. They had a sign up about their christmas party and although I thought I'd be a nice idea, I knew there'd be no point in me going as I wouldn't know anybody. So two hours good company and yoga chat over breakfast in an east end greasy spoon cafe after practice was a welcome change, and it was great to put a name to a face. It's funny that this should come up now though because last night I read this passage in Iyengar's Light on Life:
"Practitioners of the asanas alone often forget yoga is for cultivating the head and heart. Pantanjali talked about friendliness, compassion, gladness, and joy. Friendliness and grace are two qualities that are essential for the yoga student. In yoga class, students often look so serious and so separate from one another. Where is the friendliness?...Where is the joy? Without these, we have not achieved the true yoga of Pantanjali".

So forgive me for the hugely long post (if anybody's still reading), but it feels like today was a bit of a red letter day for me. I think I just found my teacher.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

99% Theory, 1% practice...

No, I know that's the wrong way round, it's just that lately my yoga practice has been a little more this way around. Lots of reading, lots of thinking and talking about asana, but no actual doing. Despite the optimism of my last post I have been finding it a struggle to have any sort of regular practice for about the last two months (at least).

But today I went to my first Mysore class in a month. Now I'm not saying that's it, that's the end of my struggle, but at least it's a step in the right direction. And the reason I took the step today? Yesterday morning I woke up and felt like everything was wrong. Wrong daily routine, wrong city, wrong job, wrong life. And I couldn't shake off the feeling which got worse as the day went on and culminated in tears when on my way home from work the driver of a nearly empty bus refused to open the doors for me. And then I knew that the only thing I could do to make any of this better right now was to go to the shala the next chance I had - which turned out to be tonight.

So everyday, my alarm goes off around 6am for me to get up and do a home practice, but instead I lie in bed getting cross with myself, eventually get up just before 7, roll out my mat and manage a couple of stretches in my pyjamas before I have to get in the shower. Then I take too long to get ready for work, end up in a panic and leave the house knowing I will be late, rush to the station for the commute to the office, arrive hot & bothered and ten minutes late (always, every day, ten minutes - so why can't I fix it?), spend the day trying to avoid the fact that I am doing a job I really really don't love in an industry run in a way I am morally opposed to, spend half the day reading yoga blogs and then feel guilty and end up working late to make up for it, make the hour-long journey back on packed trains, get home exhausted, make dinner, go to bed and start the whole thing over again. So where in all of this can I manage a 6 times a week Mysore practice? Until my current blip I was going to AYL after work to practice with R, I tried for twice a week but it was normally only once (I am in a choir who meet on Monday nights, Tuesday night she has one of her assistants cover and Friday there's no evening session) and then the remaining days I would do something at home in the morning. Never my full practice, but always something. Then it's all gone off the rails, and having not been to AYL for so long, I have got swept away with the idea of moving to YP (where so many of my favourite bloggers go) as it is the East London place anyway, and I could go in the mornings and have a shower before work (no showers at AYL makes it an impossibility for me if I need to look even half way respectable after practice). The cost puts me off, as I know I wouldn't make it there 5 days a week which makes it an expensive option, but I just feel like the evening thing isn't working for me, I'm not building much of a relationship with my teacher, I'm not progressing (I know, it's not the point - but still, I want it!!). Anyway having all but made up my mind, I went back to R tonight and she was lovely. My card had expired with 1 class unused so I went with the cash to pay as a drop in. I'd not had a reply to the email I sent her asking about extending the pass a few days, she said she had replied, and insisted that I didn't have to pay which was so kind of her (I fully expected to pay as it expired 10 days ago).
My practice in itself was OK, it felt very physical which I suppose is only natural given that I was trying my hardest not to injure my shoulders (I have been seeing an osteopath for the past month as I keep getting neck and shoulder problems). So I suppose being hyper-aware of my shoulders was only natural tonight, but there were a few other things too, all gained from the blogs I have been reading! I forget where I read it, but somebody wrote about realising her toes didn't all connect with the floor in chaturanga (which mine have NEVER done) so tonight I worked on that, as well as keeping my arms at right angles to the ground (or do I mean shoulders?) which again I hadn't been aware of before until YogaSweetie on twitter gave me the tip. Then there was the awareness in forward bends that my back was curved (thanks to Grimmly's poll) and I remembered somebody's comment to ensure the forward bend started from the hip, so I tried this and again it was the first time I'd had that focus. So while I'm slightly bemoaning the fact that my mind was very much awake and my practice never had that ethereal, dreamy quality tonight, I suppose it's all part of the process to sometimes be more focused on the body (especially after an injury).
The good thing was that I don't seem to have lost too much of my flexibility over the past two months. It didn't bode well when the wrist bind became a fingertip bind even after an assist in Paschimittanasana A, but other than the tighter than normal hamstrings things were pretty much as normal. I was stepping instead of jumping-back tonight for fear of hurting my neck, although I did do one during my Suryas just to try it and actually had the lightest jumpback I've ever managed (for some reason I never do them at home, only at the shala - I'm paranoid about hurting myself as it seems such a tremendous effort). And when I got to Marichyasana A I felt really sick, but the twists felt good at the same time. I had the usual assists in downdog, UHP, and the paschimosquish and when I got to Mari D, I thought about trying to bind by myself, but just looked round to see R smiling at me from the other side of the room. She laughed as she came over, saying she thought maybe I was going to make it on my own (pre-blip I could bind on the right on a good day and very ocassionally on the left) and then gave me her fabulous arm-stretching twistifying assist - it's almost not worth being able to do it yourself, she does such a great job. Then navasana which weirdly was stronger than ever before, into my very dodgy bujapindasana (my feet will NOT come off the floor!) but instead of collapsing in a heap tonight I at least managed to come out of it into an arm-balance of sorts, and I was finished! Just backbends left, and after all of the dropback progress I've been reading about in the cyber shala I realised I need to actually start pushing up into proper backbends rather than just the lazy little bridges, so two out of three ain't bad and I was ready for finishing.
Coming home from the shala I didn't feel in my usual dreamy state, but I felt fine, and so glad I had conquered the fear of going back after such a long break from practice. Now I am just all confused as to what to do as I was resolute that the evening practice doesn't work, and I need to start going to morning Mysore classes, but I do love R and would hate to feel I had chosen another teacher over her. Anyway this was meant to be a short post so that I got to bed early (somehow I never manage to write short ones) so I'd better leave the pondering for another day.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The journey back to my 1.

My practice of late has been erratic to say the least. That's actually being rather kind to myself: it's more true to say that my home practice has been non-existent for a period of a whole month, during which time I have made it to the shala precisely once (plus one wonderful ashtanga workshop, a few bikram classes & a community yoga class - but more on that another time).

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.

6 a.m. Somehow when I knew it was "get up now or be caught mid-wash by a builder" the motivation was a little greater, but saying that I only hit snooze once and was on my mat by 6.15 after feeding the cats and getting into some clothes (no pyjama practice for me today!). My intention was just to get on my mat, I had no clear plans in terms of how far I wanted to get, the benefit of which was I couldn't be disappointed. Practicing in the dark was a new experience, I lit two more candles than normal alongside the incense, got on my mat, and started with the opening chant. I have tried practicing without the chant (especially in a silent shala where nobody else audibly does it), but have found it's worth doing even if only under my breath as somehow the practice just doesn't feel the same without it. Through surya namaskar A I worked on my breath, the recent experience of a worskhop taken with a metronome really slowed down my breath, letting me feel my way into each posture slowly and with grace. And then I hit the Bs.
Now is it just me, or does surya namaskar B feel like it's out to get me? Somehow I hoped that after such a long break things would have changed.Certainly the first one was fine, I tried tricking myself into thinking it's just an opportunity for extra downward dogs (my favourite) as I felt the resistance creeping in. As I came into the second, and then the third, I found my breath getting ragged, or I was holding my breath, certainly running out of air on the upward dogs, and I bailed after just 3. Still, after a month off, I was feeling pretty good. All in all I surprised myself, making it all through standing although UHP was the usual farce - this posture is so heavily assisted at the shala I fear I will never learn to stand on my own one foot (so to speak). Also I noticed during Parivritta Parsvakonasana (revolved side angle posture) that feeling of why am I doing this? which seems a fairly regular place for it to creep in, plus my balance was shot to pieces in that posture today - possibly due to the darkness as much as lack of practice. I closed with the final three postures (no time for full closing) and a ten minute savasana, and wondered if I would notice any difference in my day now that I was back to my practice.
Given that I left the office on Friday being told that the future of the company, and therefore my job, is once again hanging in the balance (my boss's exact words to me were "don't spend too much money this weekend") I had a remarkably productive day today. Surprisingly, as my main contacts in India were on holiday today and I had very little to do, I'd go as far as to say it was my most focused and proactive day in recent memory. The first thing that I realised though was the way I was sitting at my desk. Instead of legs crossed, or slouching in my chair, I noticed myself sitting up quite straight, with my feet planted firmly on the floor in front of me. There is something I've noticed since I began ashtanga with regards to equal weight distribution in my feet and I certainly noticed this today - instead of sitting or standing with weight on my toes, I push down through my legs so that my heels have as much weight as the balls of my feet. It's a small thing, but I notice it most either standing on the tube or sitting at my desk. The other thing I've noticed in recent months on the tube is that when I have to stand and hold on, I feel like I have grown.Now I'm tall anyway (5 foot 10) but instead of reaching up for the handrail, I feel like I am above it and my hand just drops down to it. The other thing I noticed today that I remember from my early days of practice is the strong diuretic effect it has, not to mention the effect on my digestion - but perhaps we're straying into the territory of too much information...
But my favourite change I notice after I have practiced is in my hips. It's a little soon for it to be back today, but after a break from practice I always notice the incredible difference in the way I bend to pick things up. Taking the milk from the fridge at work, picking up the cat's bowls to refill them, emptying the dishwasher, instead of bending down from my back I seem to hinge from my hips and I just love the way it feels. Hard to describe, but I'm sure you will know what I mean if you have felt it, it makes all of the hard work it takes to make forward bends reach the ground worthwhile. The last thing I notice was in the way I chose to spend my evening. Before I went to India, my evening were routinely spent in front of the TV - it didn't really matter what was on, I was just watching it to switch off. After India, I couldn't just sit in front of it. I reclaimed my evenings, and wrote, or read, or caught up with emailing friends. The TV habit has crept back, but this evening I just couldn't do it (and so here I am blogging instead).

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

Beginning Ashtanga yoga: a testimonial to my teachers.

I was recently asked by my first ashtanga teachers, Jeff and Harmony Lichty, to write a testimonial for them as they have recently ceased to be travelling yogis and are settling in a new city. They gave a list of suggested topics to cover, but as soon as I began to write I realised I was telling a story much too long to be used in a portfolio of satisfied student comments. Rather than curtail myself, I will write the story here, send them a few paragraphs as they have asked for, along with the link to this blog.

I arrived at Purple Valley in Goa this February aged 30; terrified at what stood before me, exhausted, and psychologically battered and bruised after losing both my dream job and boyfriend in the space of a few months. I had booked the trip on impulse and it was quite out of character for me - I always used to say I'd never go to India even if you paid me, but when I googled "yoga holidays" I stumbled across Jeff & Harmony's course in Goa and I just knew I had to go. At that time I was taking yoga classes at my gym, one or twice a week, and as far as I was concerned one of them was ashtanga (actually, both were hatha). A week before I was due to leave London for India, I re-read the course description and noticed that it mentioned Mysore style self-practice, which I dutifully googled. At that point I went into blind panic realising I had no idea what I had let myself in for and deciding that the pictures I found of rooms full of people, each in different postures and bathed in sweat, looked like they were quite mad.

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.

Meanwhile, as doubts raged inside my head, the first week's classes progressed. Jeff and Harmony gently led us beginners through the Suryanamaskar A and B, the fundamental asanas, and the beginning of the standing postures - leading at first, then inviting us to begin again on our own so that we were learning the sequence. Really, that was probably tougher than going straight into self practice as we were doing everything twice (at least - I never again forgot prasarita padottansana C after Jeff made me go back to the beginning when I missed it!) but before we knew it, the sequence was coming to us all naturally. And in the second week, I started to move from thinking "I can never do this" to "where in London can I do this?", and all the while, my practice was coming along with the teaching and support of Jeff and Harmony.
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.

As the time went on, our beginners class grew smaller in size as people were taken aside and told they could "move up" to the Mysore class. I got my call on the last possible day, Thursday of the second week, so I experienced one self practice session in India before reverting to a led half primary class on the final day with the full group. It was incredible to think how far I had come in just two weeks, but of course a lot of my focus was on what I couldn't do rather than what I could. My arms wouldn't support me in chaturanga, I could only just reach my toes with straight legs in paschimottanasana A let alone grab the sides of my feet for B - but I kept remembering what Jeff had been saying - you can't think about your practice in terms of days or weeks, not even in months and years, but rather in years and decades. I wasn't sure where I stood on that, but his description of a forward bend progressing by a millimetre a week and that becoming 5cm in a year (surely enough to bind around my feet) helped my mind back onto the right path.

And our final workshop session entitled "Where to now?" helped to clarify things a lot. My scribbled notes from that session included the following:

- Try to use this as a kick start to integrating yoga into your daily life rather than taking two classes a week (was he just talking to me I wondered?
- The next step might seem hard to take but it needn't be; just get on your mat every day with some sincerity.
- It doesn't have to be the same, or better, or more every day - just do what you can on any given day.

And really these three statements summed up what I took away from the retreat. Actually the real teaching from Jeff and Harmony could be summed up in four words: Get on your mat. Whatever the question, this was the answer they gave: get on your mat with some sincerity, and it will come. As Guruji said, "Practice, practice, all is coming".

I arrived back in London with an unreal sense of calm. Returning to an uncertain future and the possibility of losing my temporary job, all I could do was shrug my shoulders and say "If it's meant to be...". A close friend later told me I was a space cadet when I came home, but I like to think people closest to me may have just been confused by my state of calm as it was so different to how they'd seen me before, certainly in recent months. Gone was the panic about what I was going to do next, gone was the crippling procrastination, gone was the desire to spend every evening in front of mindless television. Also gone were the desires to eat meat and drink alcohol and the inability to get up early. I had undergone a wholesale change in the short space of two weeks, and I have no doubt that this was due in great part to the wonder of my teachers in Goa. Every day when I get on my mat I express gratitude to you both, and for this practice and the changes it has brought in my life.

Wherever I go, whoever I study with, however many miles and years separate us, you will always be my teachers. With all of the sincerity I can muster, from the bottom of my heart, Jeff and Harmony, I thank you.
As a footnote, if you are lucky enough to live and practice in Victoria in Canada, then please look them up. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Sharath: more questions than answers.

If I were to sum this post up in a few sentences it would go like this; on Sunday I took a led class with Sharath, and although I got all the way through full primary the experience wasn't quite what I expected it to be and left me with some pretty big questions - about places to practice, and about how an Indian tradition is interpreted for a western audience.

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.

I think what it comes down to is that whilst yoga is a spiritual practice which works on turning your thoughts inwards and quietening the mind, what I miss with the Mysore self-practice system is those short-cuts to feeling amazing. It's those moments when the teacher says just the right thing and suddenly you're filled with the sense of persisting peace that I love, and that kept me coming to yoga classes before I started ashtanga. And perhaps this was what I was looking for on Sunday, not the physical practice but the direct line to the soul that J&H seem to have with me. What I got instead was a focus on the physical practice, but I realise that I have now overcome my long-held fear of moving on beyond navasana. Most importantly though, I realised that in the face of my confusion and trying to make sense of how I felt during the class, I didn't freak out. Yes I have written a very (very) long analysis of it, but I seem to be starting to rid myself of the drama addiction that would in the past of turned this into "oh my god! the class was a huge let-down, what am I going to do now?" and have instead treated it quietly and calmly as another interesting step on the path.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Story time.

"Yoga is about letting go of your own story of yourself", so says my wonderful teacher J.
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.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Making sense of it all.

I begin to wonder some days if living in a big city and trying to lead a yoga lifestyle is entirely incompatible. At what point does treating every person compassionately just turn you into a mug? Where is my dristi on the tube? And how do you retain your calm when all around you are losing theirs?
It reminds me actually of a fabulous workshop I went to a few months ago with the American teacher Max Strom. At the end of the class he talked us through our savassana describing the flashlight we all held in our chest (which I took to mean the not insignificant sense of peace I'd gained over the preceding two hours) which we could all turn outwards as we left the class. Being as the yoga centre we were in is smack in the centre of one of London's busiest shopping streets, he pointed out that it was a great experiment to take this feeling with us, and see how long we could make it last - not by trying to keep it to ourselves, but in a sense by turning this light onto other people.
I had up to that point always got frustrated at having to travel home from classes via public transport (with other people daring to destroy my calm - how could they?!) and feeling sometimes that the effect of the class was lost by the time I reached home. Instead, Max was suggesting in a way that what we had spent the previous few hours doing was now to be shared with the people we passed on our way home.
I like to think that in the past five months since I started to practice Ashtanga yoga, and mainly since I realised that yoga is so much more than asana practice, that those around me may have benefited a little too. I don't mean this in a "holier than thou" kind of way, and god knows I can be cranky, lazy, irritating and irritable when I want to be - after all I'm an ashtangi not an angel. But from my new rule to always smile and thank bus drivers, to my efforts to have more integrity in the way I do my job, to my generally happier attitude and approach to life, all of this comes from yoga.
In truth, all of this is the yoga. So while those around me may think that my yoga begins and ends on a sticky blue mat and has no impact on them, I like to think that perhaps the larger part of my day - the bit spent off the mat - actually does.