Sunday, 18 December 2011

The role of my teacher

This morning after backbending on the floor (and finding that for the first time since I first spotted my feet a few weeks ago, today they were just a vague glimpse of pink) I stood to prepare for dropbacks, and after a couple of half-hearted warm-up hangbacks, I sat down to take my forward bend.
The room was quiet, and unbeknownst to me C was watching me from her perch on the other side of the room. As I sat down she called out "MEL! get up!"
I tried to explain across the room (until she came over to my mat) that on Friday I went to see the osteopath, and after the adjustments he gave me (and the nauseating noises which accompanied them) he advised me to not practice for 2 or 3 days, and to very definitely back off the backbending for at least 3 or 4 days. "But did you have an injury when you went?" C asked.
When I gave her a head-wobble as my answer (i.e. I had a slight twinge in my lower back which bothered me only in shoulder-stand, halasana and any legs over-head poses - so not really an injury) she said "If you went with an injury that's one thing, but if you just went along on a whim because your job allows you to see an osteopath, then I don't go along with that advice." I giggled (a lot). Then I stood up. 

By this stage I was giggling so much that I could barely control my first dropback. She had completely got the measure of going straight to the top of the list today of the numerous roles of a mysore teacher is...
...calling you out on your bullshit.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Blogging dilemma

So, just a petit post for a petit dilemma (which, incidentally, I prefer to spell with an n, but apparently is with a double m. Who knew?!). 

As I may have mentioned ;) I will be heading off to India in the Spring for my fourth trip to Goa and my first trip to Mysore, a trip of just under three months. And (considering how shite I am at committing to regular blogging when I say this) I am debating what to do about writing whilst I am there. The matter of blog secrecy/openness has oft before been debated - and whilst it's obvious that my blog is not private, nor do I attempt to conceal my identity, nor do I openly discuss it's existence with my family or friends outside of the yoga world. I have once posted a link to it on facebook thanks to the new privacy features but it almost gave me palpitations to do so. But I can't help but feel that at least some of what I want to share from Mysore would be interesting to my family who will (I know) be hanging on any and every bit of news they can get out of me while I'm away. But letting them in on the blog secret now would mean admitting to having fibbed about it's existence in the past, not to mention an immediate censorship of what I post here (including going back and hiding old posts I'd prefer not to share). So do I create a whole new blog for my trip? What if people don't find it - or worse - mention the existence of this blog when they do?? The thought of two separate bogs - one more yoga related and one just about the trip has occurred to me but seriously, how likely is that to happen? 

Thank god I don't have to live a double-life for real, I think the stress would kill me....Talk about first world problems.

p.s. am in backbending bootcamp. Had to do about ten dropbacks today and still no solo standing....le sigh.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Nothing's changed and everything's different

It's maybe untrue to say that "nothing's changed" but given that the topic of my last post was hitting the two year mark with my teacher, this past week I've been noticing the extent to which my practice has changed. I am doing exactly the same asanas I was doing this time last year, but everything is completely different - I have started to experience the practice on an energetic level to some extent and it feels like it is starting to feel like it's been transformed, and that it's transforming me. True, I'm also in the midst of ayurvedic treatment, taking herbs and doing practices which are supposed to heal me and open my heart (and are in fact merrily fucking with my head) but I seem to be finding life a series of almost unbearably sweet days with the odd overwhelmingly disastrous tear-ridden thrown in for good measure. And I feel like when it comes to practice if these feelings continue, where I can find an immense sense of grounding with the energy WHOOSHING down and pinning me to the earth, whilst bouncing off itself and sending my flying with grace and ease, then I couldn't care less if I never get given another asana. I think the "secret" to this change is this: three years. My first year was all about figuring out the practice (and how to fit it into my life and find a teacher). My second year was about claiming the primary series, asana by asana, and my third year seems to have been about solidifying and beginning, in some small way, to understand what all of this craziness is really here for. I'm just scratching the surface, but I have greater respect for this system day by day.

And on the subject of unbearable sweetness, and inspired by Serene Flavor's occasional happy life lists (and memories of the weekly "What we Like" lists in Just Seventeen magazine...) these things are currently making me happy (in no particular order)...
  • Hearing Blue by Joni Mitchell over a lovely impromptu catch-up breakfast and coming home to download it and listen on repeat. Favourite tracks...A Case of You and California. Listening to it transports me to the imaginary life where I live in an attic in Paris and drink black coffee and smoke cigarettes (see also: Madeleine Peyroux).
  • Re-reading the copy of Chocolat by Joanne Harris that I bought second-hand (and last read) on my travels in Thailand in 2000 and still bears the 200baht price sticker....and trying to not picture the beautiful Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp as I read...)

  • My shiny new epilator. I am way too lazy and disorganised for any sort of leg hair removal that needs doing more than once a week.
  • Blowing the dust off my sewing machine to make dolls for my nieces for Christmas...crafty, satisfying AND saves money. Win win win.
  • Navigating my way through my ayurvedic treatment and coming up against some of the craziness that I've been burying for years...or decades. It's not always fun, but finding appreciation in each little change and gain that I can find.
  • The huge new shopping centre 1 tube stop from my house which it turns out is not the work of the devil (as I first thought) because it means I can stop off for porridge or a pastry and coffee on the way home from practice. On the days when I am less than happy it seems that my mental health can be tipped back into balance by one of these excursions...oh AND there is a Waitrose there. Fully stocked up on rye bread, mung beans and avocados after this morning's excursion....and wheat-free vegan chocolate-chip shortbread biscuits. Oops.
  • The sweet and possibly naive thrill of anticipation. Sometimes this is the best bit.
  • Going to really. I'll have worked 39 hours by the end of this week and I am loving being there. Every time I go I end up getting therapy of some sort...whether I'm lying on a couch or not. Reflexology after a 9 hour shift that started at 5.30am on Monday, an impromptu dunno-what healing session in the office to cure my migraine on Wednesday night (and it really did), a conversation with the ayurvedic doctor which turned into therapy....I am so blessed to work in this environment. What's not to love??

On my break at work. I look pretty miserable don't I?
Knowing that my trip to Mysore is oh so close, but appreciating every moment of the here and now.

That should do for now.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Two years on

And so much has changed. Two years ago today I rocked up atYoga Place and practiced for the first time with my teacher, and I claimed to know there and then that she was my teacher – I usually have notoriously appalling judgement based on first impressions, so I’m glad this time I was right! And one year ago today (coincidentally) I was given setu bandhasana, the last pose of primary. 
Clearly in my first year of practice with C there were major changes – I arrived practicing up to bujapidasana, unable to stand on my head, with unreliable binds in Mari D and (more to the point) I was practicing a few times a week if that. By the end of year one I had gained a lot of strength and flexibility and a 6-day a week practice, the marichyasanas proved no problem, I was more than happy standing on my head, after many months of fretting and injury (and finally a letting go) I was able to bind supta kurmasana, rock around in garbha, get my knees grounded in baddha konasana, and satisfy my teacher that I was ready to get to the end of primary. Dropbacks were added in a few weeks later, around mid December if I remember rightly, so I am still just under the year for working on those. Of course thinking about today being my shala-versary I got to wondering what has changed in my practice in the last year, and whilst the changes don’t generally come as headline news, they are probably more profound for the fact that they are more subtle. Things that have changed that would be noticeable to an outsider are that I’ve added in some fancy party tricks: lotus jumpbacks after garbha and utupluthi, getting my legs behind my head from the floor in supta kurmasana, and of course my backbends have changed since a year ago when I was just doing three little urdhva dhanurasanas (and Susan would frequently comment that she’d never seen me do backbending, and thus deduced that I was rushing through them and would come to regret it later – and how right she was!!). More subtle changes, or at least one which has come about only very recently but feels like a complete game-changer, is working on getting my chin to my knee – from my teacher encouraging me to touch the chin (not the nose!) to knee in ardha baddha padmottanasana I found a whole new hinge for forward bending, and am now able to look up towards my toes in the janu sirsasanas and Mari A. My jumpthroughs are coming along, I am now working on Mari D with both hips down, and over the past year I have – of course – been working on dropping back.

And what a fucking journey that’s been. Excuse my French, but I think it’s warranted. After the pure joy of my first solo dropback on my last day in Goa in March this year, things took a turn back when I accepted that the heaviness of my landing was seriously hurting my wrists. A month or so later I came back to assisted dropbacks, only to injure my lower back on the right side in a poorly judged attempt at dwi pada to get into supta kurmasana, and again the dropbacks went out of the window. Many months later (I lose track...and wasn’t keeping notes) after patient daily work with my teacher, I started to drop back by myself while she worked on helping me stand up. The closest I came to standing so far was to rock up a few inches off a bolster while I was practicing with the very fabulous renegade teacher at shiny yoga HQ, but in my daily work with C we just keep going, no props or tricks, just daily effort.
Then about six weeks ago when my shala fees were due to be paid, I decided to take a little holiday from YP and practice at one of the shiny centres to save some money (as I work there I get almost free classes). At the point that I finished up at YP I felt that I was this close to standing up, and maybe this wasn’t the right time to go away, but I did it just the same. And whaddyaknow, the teacher I went to did very little backbending with me (just three totally assisted down and ups, doing the work for me), I got an attack of the lazy and stopped working on it, and two weeks later when I came back to C (having skipped more days that I was away than I had practiced) my backbends had completely regressed. I felt that the opening I’d gained in my back was lost, and I was once again overwhelmed with fear at the idea of dropping by myself. So C allowed me to work on completely assisted dropbacks, and as the time went on I realised that this enabled me to work more on the standing up – because by the time I got there I wasn’t already whacked out on the terror of having dropped to the floor. After a few weeks of me just loving the assist, she took on a new tactic and started, instead of holding my waist as I dropped, to guide my hands in closer to my feet to increase the backbend. The first day she did this I immediately lifted my heels which I had never done before – a sure sign that this was one of the deepest backbends I’d ever experienced. The desire to freak-out was IMMENSE. But the next day I noticed that my heels wanted to lift, but I didn’t let them. Each day it felt more challenging, but each day when I laid down for my first backbends from the floor I felt this whole new opening – I really felt like I was bending my back which felt felt like it was only my arms and legs holding me back, that if a strap was around my waist suspending me from the ceiling I could hang in a perfect tall backbend. You know, a bit like this:
(photo credit here)
So as it went, I wasn’t working on my dropbacks, but I was very definitely working on my backbends. And in a different way it was hard work, but of course the one thing I shouldn’t have done was grown comfortable with it, because yesterday Cary came to the top of my mat and said: “you want to try on your own?”
I sort of whimpered and so she caught me as I dropped, but without taking my hands in, and after the whole routine had gone the same way, I was left feeling a bit disappointed in myself that I hadn’t really worked on either thing. So with the thought that today was a bit of a special day (even if only in my head), when she asked again today, I said yes. And I landed more gently, and with more control, than I was doing before I stopped dropping back 6 weeks ago. She offered to help me on the next one, but I said I was ok, so I dropped back all three times, and afterwards told her how much better they felt. She agreed that I seemed to have a kind of “bounce” to come back up. On the final dropback she assisted me, took my hands in, I felt the openness in my back, and after five breaths she brought me back up for me to (as usual) groan and creak my way through the squish in paschimottanasana.
And why do I feel the need to report of all this asana-asana-asana? I don’t know, sometimes it feels worthy of sharing, or maybe I just want to mark the day, or to come back out of blogging hibernation (again!!), but really I just want to remind myself that the whole point of this practice is that you can’t just expect huge changes every day, or that you can always do something which challenges you straight away just because you reeeeeally want to. For me the whole point of this practice is the fact that it is every day, and that 364 days a year you might feel nothing is changing until one day – BAM! You nail the thing you’ve need working on. But where does the work come from to have the breakthrough in the first place? Yep, of course, it’s the 364 days when “nothing” happened – the almost imperceptible gains that we make, even if we feel that nothing is ever changing. If you want overnight success then maybe this isn’t the practice for you. But if you are prepared to come up against your fears, your challenges and your limitations day in, day out; come rain, shine, snow, illness, redundancy, bereavement, and any other shit that comes your way, then your mat is ready and waiting for you.

Backbending with Tim in Antwerp this August

So for today, and every day, I am grateful to all of the teachers who set me on this path and to those friends, fellow-students and teachers who keep me inspired and motivated to stay on it. Peace out.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

At last


This is your final confirmation to study with sharath at KPJAYI, we have received your online registration form and it has been accepted by us. You can come according to your dates that you have mentioned in your online form.
For now it is sure that Sharath will be teaching until 6th april 2012, so you can study with him till then. 
Do bring this Confirmation print out, you will have to show this on your arrival to register in person at KPJAYI, Mysore.

If you have any clarifications, please write or call.

Thank you,
This, after a month of waiting and *three* emails to chase. Mysore here I come!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

My grown-up gap year: the view from the halfway point

I can hardly believe it’s been six months since I found myself free-floating, without employment and in desperate search of a new direction. My solution at the stage, once the panic died down and a sort of clarity emerged, was to give myself some breathing space – and this is when the idea of a “year out” emerged. As I let go of grasping, a sketchy plan emerged: to find some sort of casual work until early Spring, and then to take some time to travel before I came back to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. The idea behind it all was that the “answer” would somehow come to me, or would come along thanks to whatever connections I made during the course of the year – this sounds a little simplistic, but I still believe that finding a new direction organically rather than searching, grasping and scratching around for something, anything, is the way to go, even if there is no such thing as one definitive answer. So six months in, how’s it going?
Well clearly having all of this extra time hasn’t allowed for much blogging. As ever the intention is there, the ideas and thoughts are there, but taking the step of translating it to text and sharing it is a bridge too far. The reality is that I have spent the past few months suffering from some sort of exhausting fatigue that can’t be diagnosed as anything in particular, but means that I seem to spend my time divided between practicing, working part-time at the yoga centre reception desk, travelling across London to do either or both of the above, and sleeping (though not necessarily at night-time). I spent many weeks incapable of staying awake throughout a full day, and this coming from the girl who never ever took naps during the day apart from in cases of proper full-on illness. When I finally went to the doctor to get it checked out I told her that my issue was that I was exhausted and had been for months: she asked if I had any idea what could be causing it and my genius answer was: “well, I don’t get enough sleep...” Given that more often than not I work closing shifts at work, finishing after 10pm, taking an hour (at least) to get home, needing a short while to unwind after I come through the door, and then trying to get up around 5 the following morning to practice I suppose it’s not really surprising that I’m bloody knackered all of the time. Plus there’s the lack of routine, as my shifts vary week to week, the fact that I got into a pattern of eating very little of any nutritional value for a few months (another round of toast anyone?? Or maybe a biscuit or TEN?!) and the fact that over the summer I had all-consuming houseguests for 6 weeks out of 8, oh AND I had my car stolen. So that’s the barrage of excuses as to my blog silence..
But all of this has raised some interesting – or to me, fascinating – mental processes. I have been having regular acupuncture sessions through this whole period, ad hoc to begin with and then for the past month or so I’ve been having them weekly and started to really really get the benefit. My energy levels are rising, people are telling me I look better – brighter, I am eating properly again (is this cause or effect?), my digestion has slowed to more of a normal pace, my breath has grown deeper, my mind has calmed down. But I didn’t get here just through the acupuncture, there is a whole heap of mental processing that's been going hand in hand with it (oh, and I stopped following a vegetarian diet too, but that's another story). 
Part-way through the summer I had a random thought, or fear, about one of my close family members where I imagined that I had observed a mental-health condition in them. The fear took a grip on me, I collapsed into immediate non-stop tears, I couldn’t shake the thought, the massive fear, that even if this wasn’t true now, perhaps it would be in years to come. I tried to stop thinking about it and get on with my day. As the days passed the thought came and went, it drifted in and out of my conscious awareness, but I watched every interaction with the person concerned for disproof of it and, when none came, the fear dug it’s way into the fabric of my every thought. Was this before or after my car was stolen and along with it my sense of total independence? I think it was after. I was stunned how much the theft affected me: on discovery of my missing car I was surreally calm, I called my dad and said “my car. It’s gone.” But as time passed and I was reminded that my gap-year and working part-time option meant that I wasn’t in a financial position to replace the car (thank-you insurance company for really testing my equanimity) I felt increasingly vulnerable. Add this to the fear, the huge, looming fear and all that came along with it (the inevitability of those around us ageing, growing sick and eventually leaving us behind) and I found myself walking to the station towards the shala one day a few weeks ago thinking “what’s the point?”. Not just why do I get up at stupid o’clock to practice, that old familiar refrain, but what’s the point of ANY of this? 
And then the thought struck me: this is why people have full-time jobs and families and relationships, to distract them from the fears, the HUGE looming fears of the really big stuff. Take away the underlying day-to-day stress of a 9-5 job, the inner chatter involved in maintaining a relationship, and what are we left with the fill the silence? The fears. The big ones.
As luck would have it I was going for acupuncture that same day. When I walked in S told me that I looked different. Different how, I asked? “Rested: grounded” was the answer. Funny that, I said, because my head has been all over the place. Pressed, I just about managed through tears to explain my new theory of why we keep our minds busy, to distract us from the fears (without going into what I was afraid of, feeling somehow that if I say it aloud it will make it true). And through his answer, and our conversation, things started to make a little bit more sense. S said, you know how people often get sick when they go on holiday? They’re all “go go go” and as soon as they stop their bodies crash. That’s like a microcosm of what you’re doing in taking this time out – and I realise, and say to him that I feel like this year should be all chilled and calm and enjoyable, not difficult and challenging and borderline depression-filled, but who says so? Between what he says next and how I respond, I realise then that maybe this is what has to happen, I have to let the world stop spinning in seven different directions at once to listen to the quiet fears that lay buried beneath, and that’s never going to be easy – it’s going to be hard, and messy, and filled with fear and tears and pain, but the end result is that it will come out and I will be better off for it. Sort of like a noisier, longer, vipassana retreat (which I always say I'm too scared of for fear of having to sit with my own insanity for ten days and becoming irrevocably unhinged). And as S so eloquently put it, when we take the time to stop and really listen to what our minds are saying: “We’re all fucking crazy”.

Well that’s the crazy brain stuff. Not the whole six months had been filled with this, though sometimes it feels like I have turned into some kind of invalid who needs to rest and I can’t remember ever not being this way, but at least now I can start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. I have started a massage course for a few weeks, just a taster really, in Ayurvedic yoga massage and am making my travel plans for January and really enjoying working in the yoga centre. And that seems enough for now, my practice has wobbled a little in recent weeks with some days taken off to sleep, and even the odd incomplete practice where my body seemed to be made of stone, but I am starting to realise more and more that these things hardly matter. I am getting on my mat, I am breathing, I am feeling. And what more can I ask of myself than just that?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

I drank the kool-aid.

This week (just in case you haven't heard) Sharath is in town. After feeling non-plussed when I took 1 led class with him two years ago (as an almost complete newbie) I was torn between utter terror and major excitement in the run-up to his arrival, but three days in I am absolutely 100% loving the experience, 4.30am alarms and all. In brief, here is why:

He just walks into the room and we all stand in silence. There is no fluff, no precursor, no bullshit. Just his presence, at which silence falls, his quiet removal of his jacket with his back to us, the feeling of anticipation as he faces us and we rise and come to front of our mats, waiting to hear him say "samasthiti" at which point absolute stillness falls. It is nothing short of magical.

The feeling of being surrounded by so many dedicated ashtangis, knowing that they have travelled from far and wide for the same reason is in itself something special.
The fact that I know or recognise so many of them makes it all the more special. My twitter friends, most of whom I've met previously, but one very special person who I hadn't, are making the week even greater than the sum of its' parts. Lovely ladies from Dublin who I practiced with at Peter Sanson's workshop, colleagues from shiny yoga HQ, my regular shala-mates, familiar faces from work and previous workshops, seeing all of these people here together in one room reminds me that London is not a big and faceless or lonely place. It also reminds me how we have managed to create an incredible, supportive and loving set of connections in this big and sometimes scary world by connecting through our breath and our intentions. And a very special friend gives the most incredible pre-practice hugs.

As we all move together, following Sharath's count (sometimes longer than we would wish, sometimes not long enough) I feel the power of moving to somebody else's instruction. It doesn't feel like giving over the power, as it sometimes can, it feels like blissful surrender.

The focus in the room is incredible. It is palpable. The gentle giggles when Sharath makes one of the jokes we all know he will make soften us and reminds us not to take things too seriously.

For the people who need him, he is magically there. For those who perhaps don't, to suggest that a week of adjustment-free led practice won't teach you anything would be utterly and completely missing the point. I am yet to feel the touch of his hand on me, but as he walks past and his eyes move over my practice without pausing, my confidence in my strength grows. I am learning so much, just through each breath I take in that room, surrounded by a hundred others who are also learning untold amounts each day.

With every count, every breath, every day, my intention to go to Mysore and practice with Sharath strengthens. He reminds me why I am here, why I turn up on my mat every day. The practice goes by so quickly even if sometimes the count does not.

Each day reminds me how far I have come. Each day I feel stronger, even though I also feel more tired. I am growing through this experience. I am sharing it with my friends. I am leaving the room a different person than the one I am when I arrive. I am filled with the feeling that the world is small, and friendly, and that loving connections are everywhere you look.

I keep the faith in difficult postures where I would usually count quickly and give up: navasana, uttana padasana, sirsasana, ardha sirsasana. In utipluthi, I have a little less faith ;)

The feeling of connectedness as we take our final vinyasa to the top of the mat to recite the closing chant is markedly different than at the opening of our practice. I feel my ankles and feet bonded together, utterly grounded and still. I find my breath to chant, and as I left today I kept Sharath's pronunciation of "lokah  samastha" running around my head in a loop. 
As we take a brief savasana the energy in the room is electric. I feel the energy radiating around me.

This is why he is the guru. In this room, in this way, he teaches with no westernised adaptations. Maybe this isn't for everyone, but I know without question that is is for me. 

I think we can pretty much say I drank the kool-aid. 
Been there, done that, got the tshirt.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The teacher student relationship, dropbacks and a grown-up gap year

So much time, so little inclination to write here...

Actually that's not quite true; I have the inclination, it just rarely translates to action. There is quite a lot I want to share given that since I last wrote both my life and my practice have been somewhat transformed. I was ruminating on a post about the teacher student relationship last week, which could have been a good'un if I'd got around to it, but the opening of that post was to be this:

To the casual observer of this blog (and how could you be anything else, given the scarcity of my posts?) it may seem that I swing from workshop to workshop, gathering experiences and advice and slightly varying technique wherever I go. In actual fact, although I was perhaps guilty of this in my first year of practice (because I was so convinced that I wouldn't stick with this practice that I was keen to soak up as many experiences as I could before I threw in the towel), this is something I try to avoid. Having found a number of travelling or overseas teachers I gel with, I now try to stick with them. After two weeks with Kino and Tim in Goa this year (having twice previously taken weekend workshops with Kino) I am going to see Tim again in August (and possibly September), and then I will see both of them again next year. But actually, yoga holidays aside, I strongly believe in building a relationship with one teacher. There is something so special involved in finding somebody you can work with day in day out, through injury and stiffness, through bendy days and bereavements, through personal triumphs and professional disasters; finding somebody who knows your body, knows your practice, and (it turns out) seems to know your mind is completely invaluable on this path.
I had the perfect example of this last week. After months of working on backbending (including three months recovering from an injury which prevented me working on them at all) I made a mental connection one day last week which seemed to provide the missing jigsaw piece. I was on my way to work, walking along the road and the question popped into my head "What am I waiting for?" and immediately I answered my own question: I'm waiting for the floor to be closer when I hang back. Having spent a few weeks (maybe less) dropping back to the floor without assistance in February I knew that the further the "drop", the greater the likelihood of hurting my wrists - which was what led me to stop dropping back all those months ago. But I also immediately knew that the floor isn't going to come any closer via my back: I would have to bend my knees. So there and then I made the decision, that's what I will do tomorrow. Of course "tomorrow" came, and I was knackered - I dragged my body through my practice and was tempted to quit before I even got to seated. But finding renewed energy after the Maris (it's amazing how the marichyasana through to garbha section energises you!) I reached the end of my practice, and as I stood hanging back deeply, telling myself to bend my knees, my teacher called to me from the back of the room "Mel - when you get to that point, BEND your knees." 

It was the first time she had ever called out to me to encourage me to try and drop back alone: on the very day I had made all of the mental and physical connections I needed to make to do just that.
So I dropped back. Not once, but three times, with C bringing me to standing after the third. And then we did assisted hangbacks before I again dropped back alone to hold for 5 breaths, walk in, and be brought back to standing again. Afterwards I spoke to her, and told her that she seemed to have read my mind, and she told me that when you build a relationship with a student over a length of time as we have, you get to be able to read just where they are. And I totally get this.
I think this is also the reason that sometimes the day you're given new poses is the day you were going to stay in bed. It's also the reason you sometimes get new poses the very day you had accepted your practice exactly where it was
Backbending with Tim in Goa

Anyway, so that was something I wanted to write more about, but that'll do for now. My practice is in a really interested phase now, where dropping back has ceased to be surrounded by trauma or drama, I am just doing it (I'm now 4 days in with my solo drop-backs, so I fully expect the drama to return at some point but for now I'm happy it's gone!). I also seem to be gaining so much awareness in my practice, in all kinds of different areas. And of course that is the point of this whole endeavour, it's not the physical "achievement" of any given asana, but the way in which we approach it, and deal with the fear or discomfort or drama that is the real yoga. So I'm happy that I'm doing some good work at the moment. C and I discussed the approaches yesterday, and she said that for some people they jump into the dark first, and work out the details later, whereas I have worked it all out along the way. So in terms of backbending, when I first began I remember not doing anything - I just allowed myself to be moved in certain ways to do the assisted dropbacks, without finding any of the action in my own strength or engagement (it all just came from natural flexibility). For me the fear came quite a lot later, after I had connected with and opened my back and it started to seem like I should try and drop back on my own. But other phases I needed to go through included "finding" my legs in assisted dropbacks, then REALLY finding them in urdhva danurasana - using a block between my feet to stop them turning out has been utterly invaluable for this, and I credit Claire Missingham for doing this with me in a vinyasa class and making me realise why I was being told everyday "heels out Mel!". On an intellectual level I needed to get to the point of realising that when I released the fear and dropped to the floor I would actually be doing less work. And one day a few weeks ago laziness crept in, and I started to think that the sooner I could do it the better for that reason alone. So now I'm doing it, but trying to control it is difficult, and I said to C that I feel the same way as I did in the initial days of assisted dbs, that I am just "doing" but still need to find what exactly it is that I'm doing. But yesterday she uttered the immortal words "I'm proud of you" and today she told me that each one just gets better, so hopefully day by day I am finding a tiny degree more control. It's all a process.

Off the mat, life is pretty sweet at the moment too.Considering the state I was in back at the beginning of this year, I can scarcely believe how well things turned out. So in April I found myself out of work, and after a couple of months being a lady of leisure (month one: pure bliss! month two: pure boredom and loneliness) a combination of intriguing twists of fate brought me a part-time job working on reception in the largest yoga centre in London. I KNOW!!! It was pretty tough to begin with as there is a huge amount to learn, and being in the front-line as it were you need to be quick, friendly and extremely knowledgeable. I'm now a month and a bit in from my training, and as a general rule, I am absolutely loving it. On Saturday (the hours are pretty anti-social too...) when the next person arrived to relieve me from my shift I had that feeling of "owww, do I really have to go?" - how lucky am I??! The obvious drawback is that working shifts is tough (especially sometimes getting home from work at 11pm and getting up at 5ish to practice the next day - and next month I have a few 5.30am shifts, which mean leaving home at 4.30!), and there are a few challenging dynamics to work through, not to mention the financial aspect of doing a job like this, but the benefits completely outweigh them. And as I'm working only twenty hours a week, I have all this time to just do as I please...I have read so many books, been a lot more social than normal, visited my family, not to mention the extra yoga classes and treatments I can take advantage of at my place of work (half the time I'm there even when I'm not working!). The obvious answer of course would be to switch my mysore practice there as well (which would be far more cost effective) but aside from the fact that I'd have to travel twice as far to practice each day, how could I throw out the relationship I just wrote a whole post about? 
So things are working out pretty well. I'm thrilled that my belief that "something would come up" seems to be working so far, and my loose plan at the moment is to take a whole year out from my previous 9-5 existence, and see where it takes me by April next year. But I have to say, given that I am sitting at home with a coffee writing this post before heading off for afternoon tea and cakes with my fellow new-trainee colleagues, and then possibly taking a class with a highly popular and slightly swoon-worthy teacher this evening: life is pretty sweet.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Peter Sanson in Dublin - part 2. Time to lighten up!

This post continues from part one which you can find here.

Evening practice is all well and good, but the problem usually comes getting up and practicing again the next day. I was a little stiff, and given that I was in the 9.30am slot I decided to get up early enough to eat a little something before I headed to the shala (as it turned out, this was a good move and didn’t adversely affect my practice at all). Eating at 7am to practice at 9.30, (assuming you have healthy digestion ;) seemed to be A-OK (and for me, better than eating nothing at all until I finished practice after 11.30). I had a bit of a logistical issue on Saturday morning as I was due to meet my lovely friend afterwards, but without wanting to traipse all round Dublin carrying my mat and a bag full of wet clothes I decided to trek back to the B&B, then back down into town again. Incidentally, if anyone is planning to visit Ashtanga Yoga Dublin at any stage, the accommodation they recommend on their website isn’t on their doorstep as I had assumed, it’s actually a bus-ride away (or as I discovered soon enough, a 20 minute walk) and the shala itself is in Blackrock, half an hour out of the city. I was then a bit thrown when during my practice, David announced that Peter would be giving a talk at 12.30, causing me a little internal battle about meeting my friend (who was coming aaaaall the way from Belfast just to see me) as I’d have to let her know I’d be rather later than planned. But of course she understood, given that I was in Dublin in the first place for the yogas.
Having given a more detailed practice report in part one, rather than write a super-long blow by blow account of the four practices, I’d like to try and get across some of the experience of practicing with Peter. Of course, this is something you will have to experience for yourself, but if I can in any way pass on the feeling I was left with after studying with him, I hope to inspire others to seek him out (believe me: you SHOULD!).

So the practice was strong, unBELIEVABLY sweaty (more steamy ashtangis) and we were moved around quite a bit to accommodate the number of people coming and going – I think the maximum practicing over the weekend was just under 50, and the room holds half that, so we had the “One more!” system going on with people waiting out in the hall. The early group (not me, boo...I missed the chanting) were mostly practicing well into second series, and those coming latest were seemingly mostly new practitioners, but the vast majority of other practitioners were either doing full primary (or a bit less, or a bit more) with many Mari D and Supta K assists needed. In a situation like that it’s hard sometimes not to feel a sense of grasping; firstly, that you don’t want the practice, or the weekend to end. With a teacher as inspiring as Peter, who just happens to live on the other side of the world, there’s a feeling of regret that he could never be my regular teacher, coupled with wanting to get the absolute MOST out of the days I had with him (especially given the fact that I had travelled, and made financial sacrifices to be there). And that grasping might lead to the wish for more help, which in turn made me appreciate that although yes, I am working on backbending (and clearly need help and inspiration there), I don’t feel “stuck” anywhere in my practice, and I suppose the only way that I could hope for a complete transformation is if that were the case, and Peter could somehow unstick me. But having gone from beginner, to less-of-a-beginner, I started to realise when I was in Thailand that the learning does platea compared to at the beginning – but that doesn’t mean that you can’t take huge inspiration from a workshop. And when it came to backbending on Saturday, I stood up to start my hangbacks to warm the back, but as part of my faffing I had taken my hair down ready to tie it up again (for anyone who’s never practiced with me, my look at this stage was sweaty-birdsnest) when Peter appeared. I tried to explain that I usually do some work on my own before assisted dropbacks (I didn’t dare try and fix my hair too!!) which he misunderstood, and thought that I meant I was going to dropback on my own, so then we just went straight to assisted. And having had an injury however long ago that I’ve been working at the edge of for months, these were the most pain-free backbends EVER. Not a bad start thank you Mr Sanson.
So after practice, I dashed back to the B&B, dropped off my wet things, picked up my handbag and camera, and then had enough time to walk back to the shala ready for the talk. There was also a talk on the Sunday, and the two days have merged into one a little, so I’ll try and just share some of the essence of what was said.
Essentially it came down to this: this practice is comprised of breath, bandha and drishte (exactly like I said in my last post - ha! Go me!!). Through our practice we are reconnecting circuits and moving the energy around the body – in different ways in each asana – to release and clear the nadis. He defined drishte as looking without tension in the direction of the flow of energy. When Peter first studied with Guruji, he spent many months being taught first the sun salutations, and then the fundamental asana, but he was never shown the next asana until Guruji was satisfied that he had completely mastered the combination of breath, bandha and drishte. He was practicing upstairs in the old shala with one Indian lady while the senior students practiced downstairs, and for many weeks he was taught only surya namaskar, and he was told to repeat it over and over. He joked that somebody asked him recently if they should do 5 As and 5Bs or 5 and 3 – “I got up to 24 of each! I told him, you do 14, this is easy! With no books to check, or websites to look up, he had no idea what was coming next, and just humbly practiced according to what he was told each day. Then as the monsoon came and all of the other westerners left, Peter was moved downstairs to practice with the Indian practitioners, most of whom were therapy cases. He talked about how different the energy was with the Indians compared to the westerners, how clear it was that this was a devotional practice for them, like a puja (but also how when Guruji left the room to make coffee they would all chat, skip poses and generally play up!!). He also talked about some incredible therapy cases which seemed sort of unbelievable (we’re talking: the medical world has given up on someone, they’re wheelchair bound, and in the end they’re doing second series. Huh??) but I understood that if you were there, and saw these things with your own eyes, you would never have any reason to doubt this system, or this Guru.
This was the basis of Peter’s main message: 90% of westerners do too much. We get ahead of ourselves and we focus on the external practice, and in turn we withdraw our attention from what’s going on inside. By practicing mindfully, being completely in the moment, movement to movement, we can bring our focus back to the breath and observe where there is resistance – but this is mostly in our mindset. He talked a lot about finding the appropriate level or amount to do in your practice on any given day – rather than just showing up on your mat and doing the same thing every day, to learn over time to read your energy (which will be affected by the moon, your personal circumstances and health, and many other factors) and to develop a healthy relationship with the practice in this way. He talked about how he finds the practice gives him energy when he approaches it in this way (“every day I surprise myself on the mat; first I do surya namaskar A and then see how I feel, and then maybe I do B... “) and he can then do his work, look after his family, because he has been energised through his practice rather than exhausted by it – it should complement our everyday life, not compromise it. He explained that the main way we can practice in this way (as well as reading our energy) is through using the internal action of the bandhas – if we engage the bandhas throughout the practice we should be able to hold each posture for an infinite number of breaths, whereas if we try to do the same using the muscles of the body we will quickly becoming exhausted.  (Reading this paragraph back I realised I have said “in this way” many times, but this is one of the things Peter says a lot: “and in this way, we practice the yoga” so it seemed appropriate to leave it in!)
This all makes sense in the context that Peter was taught; one on one with Guruji over many many years (21 years to be precise – though of course the numbers will have grown in later years). He said that Guruji was able to tell when he was exhausted, and he would just tell him to finish – and there was no arguing with him! He said that it took him many years to be able to discern for himself in the same way when he should finish his practice, and now (clearly) he is able to do the same for others – hence the fact that he stops people as much as he does. And I really appreciate how good this is for us, it’s just that unfortunately for most people I’m guessing it’s not going to happen very often. If a teacher is looking after 20 or 30 people in a mysore environment, they are not able to watch everyone closely enough to understand and know when their energy is gone. And from my own point of view, my biggest challenge is finding a balance between understanding that today I should do less, and just being lazy and backing off something I don’t want to do (i.e. backbends!). From what Peter was saying, it seems to be a skill acquired over a very long period of time to be able to authentically understand your own energy in this way, or perhaps you are very lucky and have a teacher who can do this for you. I did ask a question about this, but of course, questions asked to yoga teachers are never answered in a particularly specific way, so I am left to ponder this and work it out for myself.
In conference on the Sunday, Peter said that he could really see the difference in the practitioners who had been there on Saturday; and I really felt it too. Practice was strong, uber-hot (again) and focussed and I felt over these few days that I really came to find and engage uddiyana bandha. I think this is something which was just the right timing for me to find, and I am incredibly grateful that I was able to meet Peter at this stage where I have started to gain access to the deeper levels of the practice. Backbending on the second day (yes, I’m obsessed...) was utterly fuss-free. I’d been moved to the front row, and was beside someone doing a good chunk of second series who happened to reach back bending at the same time as I did. When we were both lying on our mats preparing for UD he came and stood over us. “That was so much better today you two, so much better. Now, you come up?” the girl beside me said yes, I laughed. He said he’d help me. So I pushed up into urdhva dhanurasana, and before I had much time to fuss, he’d stood me up.
I have to say, however I feel about dropping back, I ABSOLUTELY *LOVE* this!! Somehow being stood up from a backbend on the floor for some reason just feels like the most fun thing ever – and in that moment I realised that one day, if I really work at it, I may be able to do that by myself, and that this might be the carrot in working on my backbending (as opposed to the stick I use most days). And we went straight from the standing up to assisted hangbacks, and lastly one assisted dropback and stand-up, all of which was over in double-quick time. So Saturday was the most pain-free, Sunday was the most fuss-free....not bad so far.
After another wonderful talk on the Sunday I was feeling a bit lost. Not only was there just one Mysore practice left (and no talk), I had no plans for the day and the weather had turned grey and cold. I meandered around a bit, bought some lunch and walked back to my B&B with no plan as to what I was going to do next. I ate lunch in my room and then tried to pull myself out of the slump I had gone into, but all I really wanted to do was lie on my bed and cry. It’s funny, when I came back people asked me how my weekend was, and I was torn between saying it was AMAZING (because the practice and teaching really was) and being a bit more honest; it was kind of hard. Don’t get me wrong, I am usually very good at enjoying my own company, but somehow this weekend away was a bit rough on me. I don’t know if it was because it came at the end of a long period of time that I’ve spent largely by myself, feeling more and more isolated, or if it was partly to do with the practice bringing things up due to its intensity. I was attuned to do Reiki a few months ago, and I’ve started to notice that if I treat myself, especially around the hips, I can feel things moving – I did this before going to the Friday evening practice and it spun me out quite a lot, and this seems to be happening quite a lot recently. So I can only hope that this is a period of adjustment, that I am processing some of my “stuff” and that this too shall pass. But still, I found myself in Dublin (well, half an hour from Dublin..), cold and a bit sad and no idea of where to go or what to do. But I realised that I could either stay there until morning, or I could do something to try and shift my mood. So after attempting to do some research on my blackberry (which is totally shite for browsing the internet) I decided to go to the cinema, though I had no idea where in the city to local bus stopped, but I figured I could at least try. And off I went, feeling slightly better for having taken decisive action, and before I knew it I was in the centre of town. Jumping off at what I thought might be the right stop, I spun around and realised that I had stopped EXACTLY outside the cinema I was hoping to find. And the film started in 15 minutes.
And what does an ashtangi in the midst of a deeply intensive and inward-focussed weekend of practice go to see? Well, if she’s smart, The Hangover 2. It was so much fun!! And it was (of course), exactly what I needed – a bit of lightness to pull me out of myself and remind me that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously. A few hours later, feeling fabulous I tripped out of the cinema to find that the miserable weather had been replaced with beautiful evening sunshine, and I realised that even in a very small way, the Universe really is looking out for me.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Peter Sanson in Dublin

Sometimes in life we get that call, the pull, of something we just have to do. At this stage in my life I am answering all of those calls, and going with whatever my instinct tells me. And sometimes this means think outside of the box a little.
On this occasion, that meant that (with a little help from ebay):

An anglo-concertina, bought when I was 15 and living in my parents loft for the past however-many years, plus:

Cherry red DM boots (also bought at about age 15, even though they weren't really my style, and languishing in my parents' loft ever since), plus:

Two tickets to see Take That, bought on a whim
Equalled this:

Dublin Bay. Specifically, four days of practice with Peter Sanson, who I was so bowled over by when I met him in May. After one practice with him I just knew that I had to find a way to practice with him again, so I got onto ebay, converted some of my belongings into cash, and booked my space. It’s been a week now since I was there, and having processed it I’m ready to share what I learned – with a little help from the notes I took while I was away.

Being in the first timeslot for the Friday evening practice meant that my Surya As and my first few Bs were accompanied by Peter chanting, and I never wanted it to end; his strong, resonant voice filled the room as we all began to practice. I think he explained in London that he chants the ashtanga yoga mantras he was taught by Guruji before he learned any asana, and takes about 15-20 minutes to complete (anyone know what this might be?). Nothing makes you slow your breathing and make every movement so deliberate as the sound of a strong and resonant voice chanting in Sanskrit, but I realised that it would have to end, and that that would be OK too. And when it did end, he told us to come to samasthiti when we finished our next salutation and we chanted the opening mantra together. Unlike often when you visit a teacher and the mantra is different this was just perfect to me, and I was surprised by the amount of sound produced. And for the first hour there were just 12 of us practicing with a certified teacher, and I knew I had made the right decision to come here.

Peter spent much of the first part of the practice with an older man who was breathing like a horse and clearly struggling, and next to him was teacher R (who had flown over to take part and assist for the weekend) and I tried hard not to be distracted by seeing the first teacher I connected with in London practice alongside me. As when I practiced with him in London, Peter teaches quite verbally and with a unique style, walking around the room referring to practitioners as Swami (“up, swami!”), making sure nobody skips over anything they are having trouble with “Ohh – trouble you two. You wait me”, all with the strange (but quite wonderful) mixture of Indian-inflexion and a strong Kiwi accent. After I dropped my leg in UHP he called to me to wait, then sent David (the owner of the shala) over, and despite being a head shorter than me the assist was strong and fantastic. Standing in front of me as I held my leg out for the final 5 breaths Peter reminded me to engage udiayana bandha to lift the leg and I really felt it.
Parsvotonasana was assisted too, Peter lifted my hips, telling me to engage mula bandha and I fiddled with the sensations trying to find it until he said “There! That’s it!” leaving me wondering how on earth he knew? The room started to fill up and was unbelievably hot, and as the number of practitioners grew we were packed in more and more tightly. Every inch of floor was either covered in a mat or soaking wet, every inch of my clothing was drenched. For the first time ever in a Mysore room I saw steam rising from the bare torso of the man in front of me and later, more disturbingly, saw it rise from my own body. I was assisted again in supta kurmasana – he called to me to wait for him when I was already in dwi pada to exit, and (this was a first!) I had to reverse it, go back down to the floor, undo the hands and go back to kurmasana. Reverse vinyasa! “Let’s take a look at this...I see what’s happening, this calf is trapped,” he says, rolling my left calf out and popping it behind my head. The extra treat is to be supported through bakasana and the jump-back to exit which is of course way less difficult than attempting it by myself!
I heard others being stopped at supta padangustasana and although I had come fully prepared to be stopped, having seen that he often stops people ealier than their normal practice would end, I went into ego-mode of “why should I get stopped?” whilst simultaneously trying to rush past supta pad to make sure I got past it undisturbed – bad lady! But after I finished the asana I heard “You wait me!” and he came over to do it again with me, and I got the same treatment I’d heard others getting. “Engage uddiyana, lift RIGHT up – don’t use your flexibility to come up” – as in, whole body off the floor if that’s the only way you can touch the head to the leg (needless to say, this is way more feasible when you have a person leaning on your straight leg than when attempting it alone). Then he got me to really relax the straight leg and to breathe super-slowly (“free breathing”) before telling me it was a great start, and we do more tomorrow, but backbending now. Which let me off the hook for dropping back (though I saw others doing assisted dropbacks who didn’t do full primary) but gave me more scope to spend time on urdhva dhanurasana without worrying about overdoing it. On my fifth or sixth one (he kept calling out to people to ask how many they’d done – in Peter’s room, it’s 3 minimum, but 5 or 6 is better) he came over and told me to take my hands slightly wider, but that it was good – and I felt like maybe my errant left foot was straight? Somehow it felt different, and much better, and I had the unwelcome realisation that doing MORE backbends is better than doing less.
I moved to the back of the packed-out room for closing and took it super-slow, ending with a looong savasana. But finding that my breath was catching in my throat (as it had been all practice) I took my hands to my throat to do some Reiki, and to my chest and stomach. Twenty minutes later I emerged, went to get changed and then stumbled out of the shala, making my way just around the corner to sit overlooking Dublin Bay whilst I ate an apple. And I can only describe the way I was feeling as totally took me another 20 minutes just to eat the apple, slowing down every movement, feeling every sensation, and it almost felt like my head was about to blow apart - the sensation of mindful eating was so intense. In fact, it was exactly how I felt after I practiced with Peter in May, and I have no other way to describe it than it must be his energy in the room when he teaches which causes this feeling. Weird, but very very wonderful.  Eventually I peeled myself off the bench and walked out to the main road to wait for the bus back to my B&B (another 20 minutes...there seemed to be a pattern emerging), getting back there a little before 10pm to get ready for bed, and more powerful practices in the morning.
Part two coming soon - no, really it is!

Sunday, 29 May 2011

What are you looking at?

When we first learn ashtanga, one of the things we are told is that this practice can be boiled down to these things: breath, bandhas and drishti.

The breathing can be difficult for some people to master at first. To find the strength of ujjayi breathing without forcing it; to always move with the breath. I was taught well as a beginner, so this was one of the foundations of my practice. Still, there are days when my breath is ragged, or it catches in my throat, or I feel myself having to "stop" and take a deep breath into my belly, but generally speaking I think I can say: breath? Tick.

Bandhas are a trickier one. I was told in my first weeks of practice that it takes seven years to learn to use them. Hurrah! I thought, that's me off the hook, I don't have to try! But of course that's not the case, we are supposed to diligently try try and try until one day this will start to make sense. It hasn't come as a lightbulb moment for me, or rather I should say not one lightbulb moment, but a sequence of them, but over maybe the past few months, two years into my ashtanga journey, I have started to find that activation , and to feel the effect it has on various places in my practice. The funny thing is that it seems to appear of it's own volition as I stand in tadasana preparing to take my hands into prayer and begin the chant. And sometimes it just doesn't appear, and that's OK too, but on the days when it floats in during tadasana, I know I can rely on it to be present in a patchy way at least throughout my practice. Anything where the pelvis is open it feels incredibly hard to engage, I suppose this is where it will be easier once I can learn to keep it engaged throughout, rather than having to remember once I am in the asana, and trying to find it again. But it's coming.

Drishti is an interesting one, because at first I thought it was simple - just look where you're told to look. In most asanas (with a few exceptions) remembering the drishti was a bigger challenge at first than actually doing it. But maintaining drishti actually within each asana is one thing (look at your hand, tip of the nose, over your shoulder - how hard can it be?), but what about through the vinyasas? And in surya namaskar A and B? When shalamate SY taught our led class shortly before Cary came back from maternity leave (and I should point out, it was the first time she'd ever done such a thing and she did a GREAT job!), before we began she spoke briefly about drishti. She talked about using nasagrai drishti in upward dog, and focussing on the moments of awareness where we are fully present in the moment, and asking us to notice those moments so that in time they could be expanded throughout the practice (I'm paraphrasing and probably getting that completely wrong). But her reminder helped me, in that it made me aware that I was already very diligent in keeping my focus on the tip of my nose as I came into upward dog. Gold star for Mel! But I said to her afterwards that for me, the point where it all goes hazy is going into downward dog. For me, my practice begins like this:
Ekam: Raise the arms overhead, look to the thumbs.
Dve: Fold forward on the exhale into standing forward bend.
Trini: raise the head, looking at the tip of the nose
Catvari: jump back into chaturanga, looking - slightly ahead? Never sure if that's correct
Panaca: up into upward dog, drishti fixed very firmly on the tip of the nose
Sat: ahhhh....this is where it all falls apart. For some reason, rolling over the toes and back into downward dog, my drishti goes a bit swimmy, I lose the focus, and as I go back into downdog with it's uncertain gaze-point I frequently take the opportunity (completely unconsciously, most of the time) to see who just came in the room, to glance at the clock, to see who the assistant is today.
In other words, a total drishti violation! Somebody call the ashtanga police!

Swimmy drishti...not that you can see it in the clip.
A few suryas from my trip to Yoga Thailand last October (that's me in the purple) with Clayton Horton. Vanity requires that I say I think my practice has changed a lot since then ;)

So one day this week, it occurred to me to try and hold nasagrai drishti from upward dog, right through the transition into downdog and see if I could manage it. I'll admit, the first few times I tried it, I felt literally sea-sick and thought "oh well, at least I tried." But then I carried on, and held the drishti through every surya, through every vinyasa, and found that the swimmy feeling was gone, as was the queasy feeling from my first few attempts. So the next day I did it again, and I managed to maintain my drishti through surya namaskar A and B (actually, B is a little trickier what with all of that lungey business, but I did my best), as well as through every vinyasa, and the results of this minor alteration to my practice have been quite incredible.
For starters, I realised just how much I glance around during my practice. Those who practice with me can vouch that I am not one of those people who constantly stops and looks round the room (right Susan?) but it's true I am generally aware of who's there. who got new poses, who fell on their head, who broke the rules...and this level of assessment and judgement of the room affects my practice, and it something I am working on getting over (or I WANT to work on it, but can't seem to figure out how); after all, yoga helps us to become more self-aware, meaning that we don't necessarily stop doing things that are wrong - it just means we notice them more! Keeping that firm focus through the sun salutations leads to a practice which is 100% more focussed than in the past - if not more so. The impact is nothing short of phenomenal. 
I've also been surprised to realise that I haven't been keeping the vinyasa to one breath per movement until now. Somehow my transition back into downdog stretches out over a number of breaths, even in a vinyasa where I should inhale to up dog, exhale downward dog, inhale jump forward, this has been s-t-r-u-n-g out as I fiddle and faff with my feet, or kick my rumpled up towel flat, or - I don't even know how or why, but it's just something I noticed as I learned to maintain the drishti. And having becoming aware of it, I am now doing my best to maintain the rhythm of breath with movement.
An added fringe benefit which I'll admit surprises me is that it seems to be helping my jumping forwards. I am working on this as Kino teaches it, to jump as far through the hands as you can with legs crossed, then instead of giving up, sitting down or planting the feet, to keep your bum lifted off the mat whilst wriggling until the feet go right through to straight legs. Having accidentally engaged my bandhas before jumping forward the other week I felt like I'd found the magic key to get the feet further through the hands (i know, I know; I've read it/been told it a thousand times, but I had to experience it for myself to understand it) but when you add the drishti? Somehow it helps even more! I don't fully understand why, but there is no doubt in my mind that it does, and my feet are now landing further through my hands than ever before, and I'm actually getting one foot right through on the initial jump a few times each day. 

So every day it becomes ever more clear to me how these three things work together: breath, bandhas and drishti. 

The challenge comes for me when I get to surya B which I have some issues with that my teacher keeps picking up on (and hence my mind starts to wander too when I get here) but I could happily do surya A all day and all night with perfect drishti and disappear into some some of sense-withdrawal wormhole. And then of course after an ease-to-maintain-focus padangustasana comes trikonasana and all that follows which seem to allow for a bit of looking where you are going, realigning the hips and feet, checking who your mat neighbour is and general loss of focus, so I suppose this is where my work will be next: how to maintain drishti and focus during the transitions between asana until eventually, maybe, I can maintain focus throughout my practice and not be so concerned about what is going on around me. And there was me thinking I had to actively work on not being so judgemental and scattered in my attention, when in actual fact all I had to do was come back to those three things:  breath, bandhas and drishti. 

Monday, 23 May 2011

The life and works of daydreamingmel

Once upon a time (not a million years ago) I worked in an office, and my days looked like this:

My very grey office of old.

Although working in fashion is supposed to be exciting, I was horribly bored a lot of the time. I wasn't being stretched, the work wasn't very fulfilling, and it was only liking my colleagues (and the lack of a suitable alternative) that kept me there for almost three years.

Then one day I found the perfect* job at a shiny happy company. I worked from home, and my new office looked like this:
*Note to self: there is no such thing as the perfect job: idolising anything without having tried it first is a BAD THING. But if you've been reading for a while, you'll already know this. Anyway, back to the story. My office looked like this...
My home office, it wasn't usually this tidy though!
 Or some mornings THIS was my office:

A patch of sunshine in my favourite cafe
 Or actually more like this:

Sunny Kensington High Street

The best time of day - a Winter sunset

Easily one of my favourite buildings in London
After years as a battery hen, I was free-range! I saw so many beautiful autumnal sunsets, I spent a night in Brighton and dropped in to a shala there, I fell in love with bits of London I'd never been to before, I learned not to be quite so terrified by driving my car as I watched the great British countryside roll by....

But it wasn't enough. 

And at the end of March I found myself out of work (I've written a LOT more about this in earlier posts in case you want the full story...), having come to the realisation that I wanted something different out of my work. And now, at almost the end of May, I am even more free-range than ever before. Put simply, I haven't earned any money in a while. But a few interesting things have been happening.
The first is that I did NOT have a freakout. Of course, I had moments of "ohmygodwhatamigoingtodo??", it's only natural to have a few of those. But what didn't happen was a total panicked meltdown. I just had faith that something would come up. This was massively helped by the phonecall I got just hours after the meeting which terminated my contract, asking me to work on a freelance sales basis for a small childrenswear brand my friend used to work for. This took a while to set up, and whilst I am officially doing it now, it's a bit of an in-between time in terms of selling, so there's not a huge amount I can do. And as I work on a commission-only basis, there's nobody calling and demanding to know how many customers I saw this week (good job too, as the answer is: not that many!). But knowing that I at least had the prospect of something only hours after losing my job definitely helped me to keep the faith.

The most interesting thing I have found is that the open-minded approach I found in Goa (where I started to believe that if I wanted to, I really could do ANYTHING - and there's no such thing as a bad idea) has stayed with me. I have come up with some pretty mad-cap ideas (even by my standards) but I have allowed these ideas to flow without judgement, and I have understood that each of these ideas or thoughts is part of a larger process. Take this as an example: one day I heard a rumour that the lease was about to expire on our shala. After the initial panic that it was about to close down, my brain went into a total mad spin where I decided that I could take it on (I told you it was mad!) and I started to make a plan to try and find out the full story. Meanwhile, I decided that if I was going to try such a thing, I really should get some experience and offer to take on some of the volunteer shifts at the shala in exchange for classes. Meanwhile, I found out that the lease story was completely untrue, and was just told to somebody who was complaining about something with regards to the shala and was told it to keep them from moaning (but then they started talking to other people about it). It was just a red herring! But instead of being disappointed I decided to press on with my plan to volunteer, but to do it at a different yoga centre instead which offered more classes (and which I go to from time to time and fork out for said other classes - kirtan, namely!). And what should happen the very day I plan to seek out the contact details to send in my CV? The yoga centre in question advertises for new front of house staff, and I decide that I may as well apply to earn actual money instead of just free classes.
And guess what happened? Yep, I start in 2 weeks time. AND it fits in well with the kidswear sales job, which seems to be evolving into something of a (cough,cough - unpaid - for now at least) consultancy role, which is like the job I had for 5 years and LOVED (before the grey days of the fashion office) and is really getting my creative juices flowing. So my days unfold like this: I get up for practice, a little later than I would if I had to be somewhere, then I either head home afterwards for breakfast and chill out for the day, or I go and see some customers or potential customers after breakfast in my favourite cafe, before coming home to do some baking, sewing, blog-reading or - well, whatever I fancy doing really (which generally involves anything except cleaning the flat or writing this blog). It's a tough life :)

Another way that I'm following my gut (though maybe it's crazy) is that next weekend I am heading off to Dublin to practice with Peter Sanson who I met in London last month. When I met him I just had the strongest feeling that I HAD to go, so I put some things on ebay and bit the bullet and booked it. I'm not saying that I think my life will change as a consequence of going to Ireland, but I just had an strong feeling (stronger than just that I want to go!) that I should go, so I'm going. After all, my instincts seem to be pretty trustworthy at the moment.
I am also putting this into perspective. Two months without (much) work seems like an awfully long time on the one hand, but on the other hand it is an absolute luxury, and in years to come I'm sure I will look back on this time with great fondness and gratitude that it happened at all. And whilst I am still having the occasional moment where I wonder how I'm going to pay my car tax or my credit card bill, I have to just keep having faith that these things will work themselves out. Because afterall without faith, what have we got? 

Monday, 2 May 2011

MIA and total inspiration.

I know, I know...the bujapidasana bootcamp post I promised never came. And yes, I have pages of notes from my 2 weeks with tim & Kino (which when I read I think "wow! I'm so glad I wrote that down as I don't remember hearing it!"). And yes, my last post was all "woe is me I've got an in injury and feel like crap" but that feeling lasted half a day and lately I've been feeling pretty fabulous about my practice & life in general. But I have to just bash out an off-the-cuff as-it-happened post right now.
Bujapidasana bootcamp teaser...
Being a bank holiday weekend, and our teacher not really back from maternity leave, our shala was closed today, so several of my shala-mates were suggesting different options of where to practice (having a lie-in NOT being an option, especially as tomorrow is the moon day here). Although we are about to lose one of our 2 certified teachers in London and I've yet to visit the one who is leaving, I didn't feel a strong draw to go and try her out. Several reasons really; firstly I feel like I have had a LOT of different teachers lately. Tim and Kino, both fabulous, but both different to each-other, and to my normal teacher, then coming back to London we had two teachers covering C's maternity leave. The first I liked on a personal level but didn't click with the teaching at ALL, the second was returning having taught us all last summer and I lovelovelove. But with another few weeks until C returns fully we have a fabulous shalamate covering the next few weeks, and I already feel like I am entering the flip-out zone of needing to stick with people I know (the shalamate currently assists and is fabulous, so this isn't an issue). But going just for one day to visit yet another different teacher? Nah. Overkill says my brain.
Plus, I seem to have entered a new zone of practice. I don't know if this is because the lower back pain has temporarily suspended my work on dropbacks (I'm just seeing how I feel each day, but generally if I feel it in urdhva dhanurasana, then no dropping back that day), or if it's to do with having now been doing full primary for 5 months or so. But I have gone into this inward focused, deeeeep and amazing version of practice. On any given day I may become completely obsessed with my TOES. Imagine an alien (or a baby maybe) discovering toes for the first time - I notice them as I roll over them, I feel this amazing connection, I put the energy there and just trip out on it. Another day it was keeping my legs engaged and lifted in every posture, especially in upward dog and maintaining the lift in my thighs, and discovering the difference it made to jumping forward. Another day (actually, every day to an extent) it was finding the lift in mula bandha, realising that forward bends come from there and not the hamstrings at all. Point is, I feel like I am surrounded with AHA! moments and profound realisations of the connections my body is making with itself, with the mat, with my mind...and going deeper and deeper inwards, realising (most importantly) that whether or not I drop back, move on, or whatever it is matters not one bit. I have my whole life for this.

So it was with this in mind that I decided to go instead to my lovely former evening teacher R on my travelling ashtangi day - not a new teacher,I reasoned, and I love to get back to her if ever I can. Then yesterday I remembered that she was hosting a workshop which I had originally been incredibly excited about; Peter Sanson, an old-school certified teacher from New Zealand was going to be teaching 4 days of mysore practice in a very low-key venue over the long weekend. I had whooped with excitement when I heard he was coming, having heard amazing things about him from my Yoga Thailand roomie, but as the time grew closer (and my employment status being what it is - ie I still don't have a job) plus this clashing with C's planned return from maternity leave, I "sensibly" opted not to book a place. Fast forward to yesterday, and lovely friend J encouraged me to text the teacher and ask if she was teaching in the evening as usual. The reply came straight back: no, but there's space on the workshop if you want to come. So what could I say but yes please and I'll see you there?! She asked me to come at 10am, so even better, I got to sleep in, take a salt bath and do some bed-hanging before I set off across London.

So after a restful and relaxed start, I arrived, changed and walked into a very full room, hesitating as to where to lay my mat. As both Peter and R were busy I found a corner to tuck my bag in only to realise that the person I'd put it in front of was an old friend who I met in India last January! She flashed me a big smile, I blew her a kiss, and walked back to find somewhere to practice. Peter walked towards me, took my mat from me, loudly said to a guy in the front row "Swami! You move!" then sort of gave the girl to his right a little kick to get her to move over and unrolled my mat for me - the wrong way up. I was at this point more than a little daunted, I have to say. But there was my spot, right up front, so I got going. Feeling rather shaky I decided not to chant aloud (I always do, no matter what else is going on in the room) but stood with my hands in prayer so thrown that I couldn't even remember the chant. But the anxiety dissipated quickly enough. Peter commanded the room verbally, but not in a distracting way at all. No, it was in a way that made me feel that even if I received not one adjustment, a combination of his energy, the group energy, and the things he said would have led to a transformational practice. "Breathing, no straining; breathing" he said in his thick kiwi accent, tinged with the Indian lilt of one who has spent many many years in Mysore. "Swami, you wait for me", "See, it's easy, you make it so complicated, everybody does!" to the lady doing kapotasana,  "oh so good - good! He is too good, no?" with the unaffected indian twang to R and then back to walking around the room, saying seemingly to us all "breathing, breathing, don't lose the connection with the breath, no straining". Meanwhile I was working my way through my surya namaskar with a huge smile on my face, trying not to allow the thought of "why didn't I do the whole weekend? this is amazing!" to take over my thoughts.

There was something seriously magical happening in that room that it isn't going to be possible to conjure up in words.
I can't remember where I was up to in my practice when he stood in front of me and just put his hand and my back and made some sort of affirmative comment, then the same thing again a little later. I love this, it's a bit like being patted on the head (a la Tim Feldman) but it tells you that they are here, and somehow from the right teacher even that small gesture of laying on hands does something for you. I got the beginning of my first adjustment in UHP, but he asked R to come and take over as he looked after a conveyer-belt of Marichyasana bindings, funnily enough he bossed her about in a forceful way "Here! this one! Now!" but the energy certainly wasn't bossy, or strict, it was just...oh I don't know, amaaaazing. This is probably getting a little tired, me just raving about him but unable to tell you why...

Anyhoo, having been asked to come and start at 10am when the start-time was 9, while I was still on my standing asanas I realised that many people seemed to be finishing (or close to it). Then somebody left, and was asked were they not staying for the talk? And I heard "Five minutes" and started to panic. It was just before 11am and on my usual schedule I had about another hour of my practice still to run, but were we finishing up in 5 minutes? But 11.00 came and went, and people were still practicing, though as I began my seated asanas I heard Peter telling several people who I knew (or sensed) usually practiced full primary to stop and go onto backbending even though they had only got to navasana (or maybe a little further). So then I had the fear that either he was going to tell me to stop, or that I was going to run out of time, but either way that I wouldn't finish my practice and get to do backbending. But then given my new "I've got my whole life" take on practice, the answer to that of course is "so what?". It was actually kind of funny though, after adjusting two girls to my right in Mari D he told them both to do backbending, One obliged, the other went in search of the water bottle and did garbha pindasana. As she was in kukkutasana he came and stood in front of her and said "What happened? I said backbending! nice try!" but make no mistake, the spirit in which he was stopping people, and calling them out was on the basis that as he said to these two girls "You ran out of steam. Whatever energy you have left, reserve it for your backbending". Why should it be seem as a judgement on your practice if somebody says that to you? I think we all have days like that, so maybe we'd do better to listen to them sometimes instead of forging on through come what may.
Inevitably as the room thinned out, and more and more people took savasana, I started to get more attention. In Mari D I took my wrist on each side and he came to me on the second side and said "You've really got that one, beautiful. Now, boat!". I carried on through my practice. As I reached kurmasana, I took a deep position, my legs squeezing the sides of my ribcage and chin on the floor, knowing that at R's shala, everyone gets adjusted in this pose. In the past I have rushed to put myself into supta k just to show that I can; today I knew not to. But here it started to get funny, he pulled my legs in, took one arm around and then I tried to get involved. No no, he says, wiggling my leg around, I'm trying to bend your leg, you trying to straighten it - so of course what I had to do was just surrender and be adjusted. My left leg was hooked behind my neck "Oh, you love this one here" he said - which, given that I have been trying to figure out how to hook my left leg behind my neck from the floor (though everyone tells me it's barely possible) was interesting. My right leg flipped on top, he told me to take the right arm around, and then he got onto me about tension in my hands, shoulders and breath. The thing is, when you try and try to get something like the bind in supta kurmasana (even though I've been doing it now since last summer, there is still effort involved) you may not even realise there is tension there. But he wiggled my arm, made me loosen up, then told me to breathe: "No: full DEEP breaths...breathing" and I became aware that my breath was a little shallow, and very shaky. I watched it, it deepened it, I smoothed it out. "Now hands to the front," and I brought my hands forward, trying desperately not to slip on the insanely ice-rink like floor (this is not a dedicated yoga room, and every inch of the floor was a skid-pan) and then with his support, I lifted up in dwi pada (first time in - err, practically forever), then went through tittibasana, bakasana and just about jumped back into chaturanga, finishing with my head between his legs. We had a giggle and then he told me to take lotus, so without vinyasa I went into garbha p, he stood in front of me as I sprayed my arms and got into it, super-deep with my hands firmly on my chin and my ears closed with my middle fingers before he walked away and left me to it. 
In baddha konasana my head was wriggled about like a rag doll. "Too much tension! Let it go! What is this right shoulder doing? so tense here, let go, let go" (more head wiggling, right shoulder poking) - apparently the left shoulder was behaving, but the right one wasn't. I hung out there for a very long time, not really sure if I was being adjusted in A or B (it started as A and sort of became B I think) but it seems that my method of using the elbows to push the thigh down, which I think was as I was taught, was introducing too much tension on my right side. I can't remember now, but I think it was in supta k that the tension was also evident on my right side, so now he had started to notice a pattern. I was instructed to go to upavishta  next despite the fact that nobody else in the room was still practicing now, and they were starting to file in and sit ready for the talk. Maximum last-one-left-practicing-anxiety captain!

After supta padangustasana he came to me and said "do backbending now - take chakrasana" and I thought uh-oh, here we go. Chakrasana FAIL! I go through phases with including or excluding chakrasana attempts in my practice. I know the theory, and I have been helped with it by lots of different teachers, but the fact remains that on my own I just don't get it. But with Peter standing at the top of my mat I put my hands back, took my legs over, and stopped. No no no he says, you're making this too complicated - move over and I'll show you. Take hands and legs over together - haven't you seen how a child does it? And he rocked back and forth a few times to show me, hands and legs going together and knees remaining bent ("while you learn"). My turn. Somehow I managed to bash my cheek-bone with my knee at one point, but he had me do it again and again without attempting to flip, just the action of hands and legs together. Then finally he came and helped me go over, and I landed able to see how you could hop straight into chaturanga from the landing. Replicating this will of course be another matter, but I am definitely going to practice that rolling action of both hands and legs together.
Part of my reservation about going to a different teacher today (initially) was that to feel I had my moneys-worth, I would want to be dropping back, whether my back was screaming at me in pain or not. I know, I know..but sometimes these thoughts are there and we have to acknowledge them. But the lovely thing about having run out of time to finish my practice today meant that this wasn't an option. And given that by now everybody was finished, I took all of the prescribed five (FIVE!) urdhva dhanurasana with absolute focus of one on one assistance from Peter and it was completely amazing. I have often been told by my normal teacher "Heels out mel!" and last month in a vinyasa class I experienced an assisted backbend with completely parallel feet and realised what a huge difference it makes. But I haven't managed to replicate it, and clearly haven't lost the habit - but with C on maternity leave, I haven't been reminded for two months. What Peter pointed out is that by turning my left heel out, my right shoulder is having to do all of the work. Lightbulb moment! Tension in my right shoulder all through my practice, and then in my backbends it is being put under extra strain because of my wonky feet! I should point out that I didn't make this connection myself, he did - but as he moved my left foot, and took my hands wider, I went up into UD and it felt completely different. He stayed with me, moving me further over my shoulders and watching my feet in all 5 backbends, then adjusted me in paschimatomasana, telling me again to watch the tension in my right shoulder, and actually not to hold my fingers at all (my approximation of taking the wrist) but to take the sides of the feet instead, and take the elbows out wide. Again, completely different!

Baddha padmasana in Goa
I was instructed to take a shortened closing (as now it was coming up for 11.30, the planned time for the talk) without headstand, and told to take lotus but not to hurry the closing three postures. So I took baddha padmasana, then a few breaths in padmasana and utipluthi, figuring I'd rather take a slightly longer savasana. As I prepared to jump back from lotus Peter came over and asked if I'd done padmasana yet, I said I'd done it quickly as I was worried about everyone waiting. He told me to take my time, no hurry, and then - and I've never had a teacher do this with me before - he sat in front of me, softened my arms and my hands in the mudra, and then talked me through taking full deep breaths. It was such a beautiful thing; by this stage my breath can be a bot wobbly and uneven, but there's nothing like having a teacher sit and breathe with you to make you aware that it is, and to smooth it out, not to mention the fact that he was taking this time with me while everyone else was already long since finished and done. Utipluthi again he sat in front of me, told me to lift from the bandhas not the arms, and to breathe a little more quickly - I got off lightly with 10 breaths as I'd heard him tell some of the guys to take 25 or even 50, telling them that if you lift from mula bandha (well, he said "here" and I couldn't see him, so I'm assuming) that any number of breaths is possible, telling me that it was beautiful, that I'd done really well, that he was so pleased with me, and now to take rest.

And then shortly afterwards he spoke, just for a short while, and I felt still, and calm, and utterly tranquil. Everything he said made perfect sense, and was mainly focussed on breathing. Meditation not necessary when you have this practice, he said. All limbs of yoga are contained in this practice, he said. Pranayama begins when you take your first breath each day, he said. And I sat, unmoving, and listened, taking his words as my savasana, feeling the spirit of Guruji trasmitted directly through this man who studied with him so long often one to one; from arriving in Mysore as a complete beginner, to gaining an advance B teaching certificate. The added lovely surprise of connecting with an old friend meant that I took up the offer to join Peter, R and some of the others over tea and cake (well, it was only me eating cake...) and spent a wonderful few hours sitting in a nearby cafe having the chance to chat to both teachers, some of the other practitioners, and my friend. And immediately that i got home, I started thinking about what I could sell so that I can go and join Peter on one of the other dates of his European tour.

I'll end this stream of conscience post with the words Peter finished with today, which he also quoted in the Guruji book:
"There is one thing that Guruji said that really stuck with me through the years. He pointed to his heart and said, 'There is a small box sitting here. It is Atman. Turn your attention here. That is yoga.' I will never forget that." And he repeated today, "God is right here, in your heart. Concentrate here. That is yoga."

Peace out. Workshop LOVE!!