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.