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.


  1. Thank you for such a heartfelt sharing and it's so wonderful to read about your breakthrough. I've just started on the headstand in my practice so I know exactly what you mean about the 'mental crutch'. I can't even imagine myself lifting off without my teacher next to me, but never say never. Yoga is, after all, about achieving the seemingly unattainable :)

  2. Hey Mel, great post, worth the wait.

    Cary & Kino do know each other, so not surprised they sing from the same sheet. Kino seems to repeat stuff in different ways, she told us "If you are not happy on the journey, you wont be happy at the destination".

    Would love to have seen Kurmasana experiment on the hotel carpet, tho congrats today on getting it for real today, there's no going back now.

  3. Hi Danielle, thanks for your comment! I know exactly how you feel, and for me it didn't matter how many tips people gave me or what techniques I tried, it just suddenly happened - and I'm sure it will for you too! And in the days that follow, you'll be able to do it again - because instead of the little voice inside your head saying "I don't know why I'm even trying this, I know I can't do it" the voice says "well you did it before..."
    And I didn't believe people when they used to tell me this, but now they have all been proved right! The only thing that had happened before that slightly changed my understanding about headstand was that I tried to do one ON my bed the week before. Take it from me, it doesn't work (you can't push down into your arms as you lift up because the bed just pushes away from you!) but somehow it helped me connect the core muscles everyone always talks about (and I never felt!) that would enable me to lift up with straight legs. Not that I am doing it that way yet, but I made the connection and I think your body has a memory for things it has done before. Anyway good luck, one day it will come!

    Thanks Kev, I know I really kept you waiting with this ;) I think that C & K seem to have some similarities so I'm sure you won't come back from Thailand with any controversial new practices!

  4. I wouldn't dare, when I came back from doing 2nd series at Brahmani, Susan tipped me off that it wasn't a good plan to start doing it at the Shala! I would love to return from Thailand standing up from dropback though

  5. Thanks Mel, I have no doubt that one day it will come, the question is "when" and how I'll cope with waiting in the meantime. That's the "real" yoga isn't it? :)

  6. I absolutely love this post Mel, for so many reasons. Thanks for writing it.


  7. Yes, beautiful post Mel... honestly, this nearly brought tears to my eyes when I read it last night!

    First up, thanks for the video :)

    Second, you've only been practising for a year? You are doing awesome. Don't worry about learning with 'correct method' one pose at a time... you'll catch up soon with a rock-solid foundation. Seriously.

    Third, seems like you are also quick at processing your 'stuff', I think full circle in one year is pretty good going on that too (I've spent much longer getting over some of my exes)... I love how it worked out like that in Edinburgh, and the way you describe it... you write really well.

    Lastly, headstand on the bed?? OMG. WAY too spongy. Are you nuts? :)

  8. Thank you so much for your lovely comments :) it really means a lot. I know I focus too much sometimes on what other people are doing, and how long they've been practising compared to me. A year seems like a long time but I know it isn't really, in the grand scheme of things - especially when my first 8 months were so massively inconsistent! And hopefully now Cary is moving me on things will start to happen, I feel better about it all already and I *think* she said after supta kurmasana yesterday 'you'll have this in a week'. Though that's probably a 6 day week and I failed again on that score by skipping this morning!

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who tears-up over blogs (though not my own of course!!) It was crying over one of Grimmly's that made me start this blog in the first place.

    and god only knows what possessed me to try a headstand on the bed, it was just one of those crazy urges one night when I was about to go to sleep! It may have been nuts but I think it helped the understanding in it's own small way ;)