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 trippy...it 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!