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.


  1. Your workshop recaps are memoir-quality material - when you decide to publish a book one day about your yoga journey, I'm definitely buying it and I want you to sign it!! ;)

    I'm curious now about taking one of his workshops, and am especially interested in his approach of finding the right level to practice at for any day. Personally, finding the balance is a struggle. I somehow feel like a 'bad student' when I stop my practice at Navasana on a particularly slow day - ambitious much???

  2. Nicest comment *ever*, thank you so much d!

    If you ever get the chance I would seriously try and get to study with Peter, I've never met anybody quite like him - and I only came across him after my room-mate in Thailand raved about him as he's so seriously low-key. But finding that approach, the balance between lazy and over-ambitious, that has to be one of the hardest things - I know I certainly don't understand it for myself yet. I'm (wrongly) proud that I have never yet gone to the shala and done anything less than my full practice, but perhaps I'd have done better to not kill myself over getting to the end some days. I don't know, for now I'm going to keep the thought in the back of my mind and see how it settles. I find that these bits of wisdom we come across tend to lie in wait, and one day > ping! They makes sense and it all falls into place. Hopefully it'll be the same for this.

  3. I really enjoyed these posts as well. I especially liked getting to hear about Peter's experiences with Guruji through your words. I just find it so special the way Guruji personalized his teaching to his students and taught them very differently. Its especially great for us because we have all these opportunities to find senior teachers that resonate with us.

    I also related to your experience. I only got one weekend with Nancy Gilgoff but it was profound the way she connected me with the internal aspects of the practice. Which seems to be part of what Peter did for you. She also was the first to teach me uddyana bandha and it was through working with that that I also started connecting more with mula bandha. So I really think that part of what you learned will surely pay dividends in your practice going forward.

    Thanks for sharing yet again another yoga experience. I can live vicariously through your yoga travels!

  4. wow what a thorough post!! if i closed my eyes i could even imagine i was there!! i am constantly learning how to not take myself so seriously - seems like you had a great time =)