Tuesday, 30 March 2010


Funny, if I’d written last week as I planned to then this post would be nothing but excitement and positivity - this blog tends to polarise my life & practice into great or terrible, when of course most of it is made up of a lot of days which are neither perfect nor dreadful. But I suppose the desire to write is greater when there’s something really significant to say, so perhaps you should just assume that in the days and weeks I write nothing what I’m actually saying is “everything is fine”.
Anyway I digress (before I’ve even begun) but maybe I should start with last week’s positive stuff. So last week was great, practice-wise. After being given kurmasana and supta kurmasana on Sunday, I went to the shala Monday, Wednesday and Thursday – a huge improvement from the days of once a week. Despite the fact I felt completely destroyed on Monday after two days in a row (that’s two days of 2 or 3 attempts at bujapidasana and 2 kurmasana/supta k, 1 lone, 1 assisted), resting on Tuesday I felt better than I felt beforehand in terms of my body. I expect (and usually find) the next day to be when you’re most sore, so it was a pleasant surprise to feel like I had a new body instead. Wednesday and Thursday it felt good to practice two days in a row again, I really think it makes a difference, and instead of the usual grand decision the night before, on Thursday I turned up at the shala by default: it just seemed easier than making a decision whether to go or not. I sort of came-to on the tube and wondered how on earth I got there and still felt a bit puzzled when I arrived but it felt like progress that going to practice was the default option. I went out at lunchtime on Thursday and made some notes over coffee about the changes I have started to notice
  •  I’m amazed that my body doesn’t feel sore – I know I’ve worked, but nothing feels unmanageable. On Tuesday when I expected to feel really sore I felt amazing, like the day after a terrible hangover when you wake up expecting to feel ill but instead feel back to normal. 
  •  I have been feeling totally blissed out after savasana. I normally sit quietly for a moment or two  afterwards, but this period has lengthened as I stay and lap up the waves of whatever this amazing feeling is. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but it happened three times in a row so hopefully it’s here to stay.
  • On Monday night at my choir rehearsal, I was knackered and being told we were going to sing a difficult new song through from the top again I had the familiar feeling of I can’t do it! But my mind went to the brutal effort of buja & kurmasana that morning and I thought if I can do that, I can surely sing a bit more too. 
  •  My stomach has been reacting weirdly though I don’t know if it’s connected (think India!). I felt so terrible on Monday I went and got some rehydration salts and took them before my singing class, remembering how much better they made me feel when I was exhausted in Goa. It seemed to work – though I don’t remember accompanying them with a bar of Dairy Milk when I was at Purple Valley! 
  • So the week went like this: Monday – wrecked, no energy, body felt broken. Tuesday – rest, felt great. Wednesday & Thursday – cut down to 3 surya B’s to conserve energy. Mad sweating & high energy but Thursday felt like real progress in the exit – I got a real lift up in the arm balance and straightened my legs before lowering gently down. Almost got the bind in supta kurmasana but got so excited (I giggled) that I lost it. Right foot came in over left as C helped me with the bind but I couldn’t quite work the heel up onto my left foot (and yes, I’m sorry but I now make involuntary sound effects while being adjusted) and then she had me hold it for ten breaths – every one of them panted.
  •  I feel like buja is making no real progress, some days its better and other days much worse again – definitely no linear progress with this one. But according to Noah this asana is about hip flexors and stamina plus a bit of arm strength, so surely the more I practice the easier this will become?
  •  I think getting new poses has changed my attitude to the whole practice because before I felt like I was just going there to get on with it, and getting the odd adjustment, now I feel like I am really working on something and I can start to see a future where my practice will progress. I can understand now why people get hooked on the physical progress and it’s hard not to but I don’t want to become asana-centric. I’m not sure what the answer is but I know that what’s driving me now is that I want to keep practicing more just to make it all come more easily.
But that was last week. So what of this week? I went to practice on Sunday, a tough one as I’d been out late on Saturday night and then the clocks went forward, so I only had 5 hours sleep. There were only 6 of us there and Cary didn’t arrive until 8.45 having been let down by her phone not auto-updating when the time changed. With the shala that quiet I had quite a lot of adjustments, but practice felt like a real slog on that little sleep (after a week of 5-6 hours sleep I really need to catch up on a weekend). For my last three poses the routine was the same: two attempts at buja (actually three, I fell out of the arm balance on the first try and went straight into the second without taking vinyasa), followed by kurmasana & supta solo, and then assisted. After practice my collar bone was feeling really sore on the left side and over the last two days it hasn’t gone away: it feels really badly like it needs to click but won’t. I woke up on Monday at 5.30 and even though my bag was packed for the shala I decided to go back to sleep, and today was a moon day, so I haven’t tried to practice, but it hurts just to have a small bag on my left shoulder. So I went to the osteopath tonight, expecting a lecture about the demon ashtanga and lots of painful adjustments, but actually it was quite good. She explained that my right side is much tighter than my left, so my left side is working harder to compensate. Also my right hip is a bit misaligned which will be affecting my left shoulder/collarbone – it’s true that in supta k on Sunday I felt really tipped over to the left side, and I have definitely been feeling the kurmasana adjustment in my hips all week. She did some huge clicks of my lumbar spine, which made me giggle, and of my neck which made me feel sick, but weirdly nothing on the desperate-to-click collar bone. And although I was determined to go to the shala tomorrow she made me promise that I will practice at home and work on gentle stretching and opening up the hips and shoulders. So this is where the ego kicks in and starts counting how many practices I’ve made it to this week...this inconsistency is driving me mad. I suppose the answer is to just let it go and breathe...

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Suddenly it all makes sense.

So what happens when you write about making peace with your practice being just where it is? You get given the next two poses the very next morning.

I’m not saying that I have mastered bujapidasana by any means, but Cary saw fit to show me kurmasana and supta kurmasana today. And when I spoke to her after practice I told her “Noah said in Goa that the role of your yoga teacher is to always leave you feeling slightly overwhelmed. So you’re doing a good job.” I went on to tell her about the very unattractive character trait I developed in Goa which I can only liken to a foot-stomping 5 year-old, mid-tantrum. The chitta vritti went something like this…
Why is she getting that new pose today? She only just started practicing a few months ago. I’ve been going up to buja since August and I still didn’t get Kurmasana…So what about me? WHAT ABOUT MEEEEE?
See? 5 years old. Not exactly my finest hour, but as I wrote last night, at the end of two weeks I did finally start to make peace with where I was at, and this feeling has definitely deepened over the past couple of weeks. When I told Cary about this she said that it’s funny but as a teacher, even if you don’t know that that’s what it is, you can feel that sort of energy, and it tells you that the person still has a lot of work to do. So she and Kino are completely on the same wavelength here – the work to be done is not about the form of the asana, but the inner work. Hence the fact that last night I wrote that I had let the inner-tantrums go, and today, despite a still (very) imperfect rendition of bujapidasana, I was finally moved on. After EIGHT months! Footnote: that’s 8 months of mostly absent practice. But still.

So what now, onwards and upwards? Not exactly. Just practice practice, and hopefully at some stage, all is coming.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Breakthroughs on and off the mat: a weekend with Kino

A couple of weekends ago I went up to Union Yoga in Edinburgh to take a weekend workshop with Kino MacGregor. Having been obsessed with studying with her since I first came across this video last year (recorded at Purple Valley) I had pretty high expectations – and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Though I confess, the night before I went I was looking at a load of photos on her facebook page and suddenly experienced this overwhelming sense that I was really not going to like her, with her perfect practice, her wonderful husband, her great success…I think that’s called straight-forward jealousy! I also have this in-built defence mechanism when it comes to looking forward to something too much: if I think it’s going to be amazing, something in me wants to lower all expectations so that I don’t end up disappointed if it doesn’t turn out to be great. But as soon as Kino started speaking on the Friday night I just loved everything that came out of her mouth, the way she had of explaining everything, and I knew that the weekend wasn’t going to be a let-down. I also loved that during her asana demo, she was not robotically perfect. There were slight wobbles, there was a bind she couldn’t quite get (probably Marichyasana E or something similarly crazy!) but it all showed that despite being awesome and amazing, she is still human.

It’s hard to sum up a lot of what Kino talked about on the Friday evening and over the course of the other workshops, as she speaks in such a way that it’s impossible to take notes without missing what comes next. I’m really hoping that the weekend will be released as part of her podcast series though as I got so much out of it. Even where there were things I‘d heard her say before on other podcasts, I still learnt more from hearing her speak at length. Here are just a few of the things I managed to note down from what she said:

Yoga doesn’t ask you to be peaceful until you are peaceful. Experience the anger, the jealousy, the ego, and work through it – if you back off from it when the emotion arises, you won’t ever be able to work through it and come out the other side.
This is really interesting for me because for a long time I have experienced overwhelming anger during triang mukha. When it peaked a few months ago I almost yelled during an adjustment, and avoided practice for a few days afterwards. I definitely always dread the pose but just recently the emotion has moved on from feeling angry into crying – thankfully in the space of 5 breaths the tears don’t actually start, but I find myself starting to shake as I almost hit the point where they do. So according to Kino, if I stick with it, soon (I hope!) or at some point, the emotion will be dealt with and I won’t experience it there anymore.

The depth of an asana is not represented by the form itself, but by the inner work that is going on…The benchmark of your practice is not the depth of the asana, but by how you behave in your interactions with other people, and how you go about your daily life.
This was something she talked about a lot over the course of the weekend, that the yoga is not found within the achievement of an asana, but by the journey you go on to achieve it. This was music to my ears, as I do feel like I have such struggles with certain poses that I wonder if I will ever understand them – are you listening, bujapidasana? Funnily enough while she was helping me with buja this week, Cary mentioned “the journey you are having with this pose” so I guess she and Kino are singing from the same song-sheet on this point. It also helps a little with my frustrations and paranoia about the way I am going about learning the primary series – though this is a whole other topic by itself! Maybe I should expand on it later, but I spent much of my time in Goa feeling annoyed and paranoid about the fact that I only practice up to buja whilst many other people I see do full primary, having learnt it all in one chunk. I made peace with this before I came home from Noah’s retreat (in his last conference he said “as long as you are being challenged and are finishing on an asana that you can’t really do, then you are doing the right thing for you”) but felt it again a little in Edinburgh, surrounded by people who certainly couldn’t achieve every pose but were doing full primary regardless. I just feel sometimes like maybe I am wasting my time, having been practicing just to buja since August last year (with very sporadic practice until this year, I admit) waiting to be given the next pose, when others around me sail through primary despite not being able to achieve the poses either. This point of Kino’s made me feel a lot better about this, that by going through the learning process of struggling to achieve the asanas I have difficulty with means that I am experiencing a whole lot of the real yoga!

To strengthen the point, she came back to this during one of the later workshops, where she said:
If we try to achieve anything in one go we deny ourselves the journey and she then quoted a saying that “there is no happy ending without a happy journey”.
The thing I really love about Kino is that (although you don’t believe it to look at her) she says that none of this came naturally to her, that it took her a year to be able to push up into a headstand, five years to be able to do handstands, and that everything that you see today in these very impressive demonstrations has come about simply by practice, practice and more practice over the course of ten years.

She also suggested that we use Guruji’s dedication to teaching as our inspiration to keep trying to achieve what at first seems impossible. Before the first Westerners came in the 1970’s, Pattabhi Jois taught for many many years with only a handful of students. She told the story that people would ask him why he continued during that time, and he said “I only need one student to be a teacher.” The suggestion was that if he could remain that dedicated to keep teaching through those decades with only a few disinterested students, we could keep trying every day until eventually we would be able to lift up off the ground in utpluthih.

Aside from all of the talking, the weekend consisted of 5 classes: the demonstration and talk on Friday evening, a full led primary and inversions workshop on Saturday, and a Mysore class and backbend workshop on the Sunday.

I was nervous about the led class as I have only ever done full primary a handful of times. I even had my friend help me work out how to get into kurmasana on our hotel carpet before we left for the class! But I needn’t have worried, I’m sure there were plenty of people in the group who had less experience of the full series than I do, and Kino gives very good explanations during each pose.

What was funny was that during the led class, the first one I’ve taken since Noah’s in Goa, I could hear not one but three teachers: Kino, Noah and Cary. Kino told us to find enough trust to transfer the weight forward into the pelvis in prasarita padottanasana, bringing my head much nearer to the ground and changing the feeling of it completely. Cary was there with the adjustment she keeps making to me in trikonasana which I have never understood but seemed to be able to replicate without her being there. Noah told me to push into my foot in Marichyasana and it completely opened up the hip and changed the feeling of the pose…

And as for the headstand, I can’t even begin to explain. Since I started ashtanga I have been struggling with it, and more often than not at the shala I don’t practice it at all. I can go up against the wall, sometimes not even touching the wall, and if there is a teacher helping me I can stay up in the middle of the room, but there’s always been something preventing me lifting up by myself when there is no support. People always say it is fear, but all I know is that I can walk my feet in but can’t work out how to lift them unless I am being supported. I asked Noah about it and he said “Now that is called a mental crutch”. Thanks, Noahji, but tell me something I don’t know - I was hoping for a solution!! I hadn’t even asked Cary for help with it, for fear that I’d actually have to do it. So when we arrived at the led class and the staff took our mats to lay out, I was pleased when they put me beside the wall, thinking that I could go up against it if Kino didn’t come round to help me. And when we got to the pose, I walked my legs in, up onto tippy-toes like normal, then I just thought let’s give it a go…only to find that instead of being stapled to the floor as usual, my toes came up and I tucked my bent knees in and off the ground! Next step, I raised my legs, wobbly as anything, and was shocked to find that instead of rolling right over my head, breaking my neck & meeting a sticky end I stayed upright! Not for long as it turned out, as I was so massively overwhelmed I was crying and violently shaking to the extent that I came down after the count of 10. Because the mats were so close I was really worried that my tears were going to be affecting my friend who was right beside me (though she later said she had no idea) so instead of letting it all out I tried to keep my emotions a bit in check.

How weird that this should happen in Edinburgh of all places. I was a bit weirded out about coming here in the first place as the city holds such strong memories for me; my ex-boyfriend lives here and the only times I had been previously were to visit him. When I booked the weekend (saying that “only Kino could get me to go back”) I had crazy dreams that night and was so worried that being back there would re-open the wounds. But the fact of the matter is, my life has changed extraordinarily since I was last there.
Lying in savasana I realised that this weekend in Edinburgh was like the closing of the circle: 1 year ago exactly I was just starting ashtanga at Purple Valley with Jeff & Harmony, arriving there with a broken heart and a crushed spirit, and wanting desperately to be happy again. Now here I was, voluntarily back in the city I couldn’t even bear to hear the name of back then, realising that I am probably happier now than I’ve ever been in my life.