Category Archives: Ashtanga

Yoga, a life and a death.

Settling down to planning yoga classes and workshops for the new term, and after attending the BKS Iyengar Centenary event in December, I hardly know where to start. I feel a bit lost! When I left for India in November, I was physically and mentally very low, but I knew that whatever the teaching was, it would be just right for me. (It ALWAYS is.)

When the twelve day event began, I sank gratefully Prashant’s teachings on pranayama over the first five days. There were mutterings of frustration from the young, fit, active, healthy ones, they wanted action – they had been training for weeks no doubt, whereas I was lucky to be there at all! Instead, Prashant was asking us to develop a “culture of tenderness and delicacy”, to battle with our barriers through the breath:

“Don’t get trained. Get educated.”
“Pranayama is not deep breathing. It is breath craftsmanship.”

Exploring the internal purposes of exhalation, he encouraged us to use it like the heads on a Swiss Army knife – to cleanse, wash, expel, offer, evacuate. So for five days we dissected ourselves. It was intense and it felt very good to me.

Then, on the sixth day, Geetaji arrived. At 8.30 am sharp for the next five days, she was brought onto the stage in a wheelchair and taught us for four or five hours straight. After lunch it was on to Q&A sessions, back to the institute for meetings, interviews, where she finished at seven or eight in the evening. (On the final day, the centenary of her father’s birth, she was there with her whole family. Rachel and I went to pay our respects – I’m so glad we did.)

She was determined to make us reach inside, plumb our depths, face and deal with our issues. You wanted some action? Well, try this! Again and again she urged us to go beyond our limits, like in Sirsasana:

“Don’t come down. Go back up!

And going further and further over in Halasana:

“MOVE! MOVE!”
“Pain is not the criterion. Movement is the criterion.’
“If there’s a will, there’s a way. If there is no will, there is no way.”

At her feet she had 1,300 people from 56 countries and she knew she had very little time left. She wanted us to go through the pain, the fear, find out what lies beyond:

“There is transformation in every asana.”

Then her work was done, and her time had come. When the event was complete, less than 48 hours later, she died. She had been telling everyone all year that she wanted to see the centenary through, then her work would be done. No-one gave much thought to what she actually meant, though.

And what did I learn? I learned that freedom comes through the exhalation: the gift of yoga is power over life and death.

So back to today and where to start my class planning. Geetaji implored us to read Gher father’s books, and going back to basics seems as good a place as any. I’ll start with the book co-written by Guruji and Geetaji: ‘Basic Guidelines For Teachers Of Yoga’, and see where it takes me.

In her niece Abhijata’s words: “The cleanest mirror that we had, is gone… Never again will we have someone who was as clear, as simple, as straightforward…Everything else in the world came to a standstill when she was involved in an action…Her life force ended after December 14th…which reminds me of the death of Gandhiji… her work was done, and all she had to do was close her eyes.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Ashtanga, Breathing, Iyengar, Pain, Relaxation, Yoga - Intermediate, Yoga - Therapeutic

5 simple steps to #yoga practice at home.

Yoga, Pranayama and Meditation – why is home practice so difficult? With a little more time and effort between classes you could develop your practice and begin to understand and enjoy some of the more intangible benefits that yoga has to offer. These five simple steps will help to capture the enthusiasm from class and bring it home into your private practice. It’s really very simple and the only question is what path you might take between steps four and five.

  • Place
  • Plan
  • Time
  • Sit
  • Lie

MMChairWindow1. Make space – a corner will do, somewhere you can put your mat down and shut the door. In this space, create a sense of the sacred. Use a windowsill, shelf or side table and make a shrine – a tea light, a statue, a flower in a vase – any objects which bring focus to the mind and humility to our intentions. This space reminds and encourages us to do better, to go deeper, and the people around you will appreciate and respect it too. (Saucha – Cleanliness.)

2. Have a plan. Even if your plan is to go with the flow you’ll find it helpful to have structure to act as a reminder once you’re ‘in the zone’. If you want a sequence, write it down. Preparation is an important part of the process. (Santosha – Contentment.)

therapeuticpage-e1495549096875.jpg
3. Use a timer.
To build up your strength and stamina by holding poses, staying in inversions, and for recuperative poses, in home practice the timer is our teacher and our best friend. For Savasana, Pranayama and meditation, a timer can help you to release more and in the end, you won’t need it. If you use a phone or tablet, use it to store your practice notes, make use of the timer, but always put it in flight mode. (Tapas – Discipline.)

satya11

4. Always begin by sitting for a few moments. This quiet time prepares the brain and the body: it instills the essence of yoga practice from the outset and reconnects the brain with the body. (Svadhaya – Self Study.)

01 Savasana knees supported5. Always finish with Savasana. The healing benefits of your practice need to percolate through all the cells of the body and this takes time. Offer up the fruits of your labour (however bitter!) to a higher self. Lie flat, a blanket for the head and/or a chair for the legs, if necessary. Set your timer and if you fall asleep, so be it. (Isvara Pranidhana – Surrender to a higher being.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Ashtanga, Beginners etc., Iyengar, Lifestyle Changes, Mindfulness, Relaxation, Yoga - Beginners, Yoga - Intermediate

Praise in a #Yoga class: is it Satya?

satya3Satya is the Sanskrit word for truth. It also refers to a virtue, to being truthful in one’s thought, speech and action. In Yoga, satya is one of the five yamas. It is the virtuous restraint from falsehood and, crucially, the distortion of reality in one’s expressions and actions.

A student recently asked me why I didn’t give positive feedback to individuals in class. It’s a question that comes up from time to time. Speaking as a school teacher, she said she spent her working life encouraging and praising pupils for effort and achievement. Why is there no praise in a Yoga class?

There is a stock answer: when I say to a yoga student, “Well done”, I am giving myself a pat on the back. I am saying, “Look! My teaching is so excellent, and this student is living proof!” Is that Satya?

alignment1What about all the lessons that student has not learned, the basic actions avoided and evaded even after months and years of practice? Shoulders back, lift your chest – do I still need to say this every time? Clearly yes – I have not taught them this lesson yet. That these actions are not coming tells me their mind is elsewhere or their ego is still in the driving seat, and I have not dealt with those issues. That is the reality, the Satya in this situation. To say “Well done” is to distort reality for both of us.

How many of us experience moments of dread when the teacher moves on to our ‘worst’ pose, the one we love to hate? Somehow we struggle through, cling on and breathe a sigh of relief when they move to the next pose. And then when we are practicing, when we see the results begin to come, is there a part of us that looks forward to showing off our new-found skills and achievements in class, anticipating admiring glances from our fellows and praise from the teacher? Is this Satya?

satya12Some students just seem to flow into the  most demanding of poses – deep twists, spring up into handstands but how is their practice in, say, Savasana for instance?

And is it so very wrong to quietly say, “Well done” to someone who has been struggling and finally gets up into Urdhva Dhanurasana? When I’m immersed in my teaching, sometimes the words just pop out of my mouth! But what if a student is unlikely ever to achieve that pose? Maybe there’s an injury, a difficulty that precludes them from the final pose – is their effort any the less because of that?

satya11Saying, “Well done” to someone in a Yoga class is the quickest way to stunt their progress. When someone is praised, in that moment, the learning stops: out come the laurels and the ego, effort ceases and is replaced by laziness, apathy and then disillusion. The brain takes over and their experience of yoga narrows down to a few postures they can use to demonstrate their experience and ability. Satya includes the reality of our inexperience, our inability too.

In Iyengar Yoga the challenge is to learn the essence of the pose, not just its technique or shape. If it was all about form and beauty, Yoga would be an Olympic sport, like gymnastics. When Mrs. Urdhva Dhanurasana finally lifts up from the floor, to say “Well done” creates a distortion of reality: the discipline and effort are gone and the student gets mentally ‘stuck’, believing that’s all they have to do. Their practice will suffer because getting into the pose is only the beginning. My teaching therefore is at fault. That is Satya!satya9

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Ashtanga, Beginners etc., Iyengar, Yoga - Beginners, Yoga - Intermediate

#Leggings or #Pune Pants?

On a day when @united are being dragged over the hot coals of Twitter for enforcing their company’s dress code, #yoga teachers and students the world over are having a major wardrobe crisis. (Just put ‘yoga leggings’ into Twitter and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not tasteful, any of it.)

punepant8As ever, #IyengarYoga has the answer. BKS #Iyengar was a pioneer, in every respect, and many years ago the Iyengar Yoga Institute #RIMYI perfected what we now call Pune Pants. The design allows complete freedom for the body whilst protecting the modesty of the men and women in the class. They are designed like a pair of bloomers but with an extra piece in the gusset so you can bend, extend, squat and twist with no limitation imposed on the movement of the body by the fabric clinging to your skin. If you’ve never worn them, try Eka Pada Sarvangasana in your usual lycra, then try it in cotton Pune Pants…..see? For more choices, see this site HERE: www.frannixon.com

So if you want to see yourself as others see you in class (generally from behind and upside down), push your fist into your leggings. If you can see your knuckles, we can see your knickers. (As a #yogateacher, I’d rather see VPL than a thong any day.)

And if you live in a cooler climate, you won’t have to throw all your cosy leggings away – just wear them underneath. The opportunities for colour co-ordination and fashion statements are endless…..

Photo credit: Ray Burmiston http://www.rayburmiston.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Ashtanga, Iyengar, Yoga - Beginners, Yoga - Intermediate, yoga clothing

From #Yoga to Self-realisation. Part 3

Ashtanga: the Eight limbs of Yoga.

Men & Yoga7
The philosophy behind Yoga is vast. It’s impossible for a Western person to embrace the beauty and subtlety of it all in just a single lifetime. If you practice yoga regularly, you may have had glimpses of your own inner potential, your natural spirituality. In order to explore that potential further, it’s useful to have a framework, or a map to guide you.

People usually start coming to yoga classes for reasons of fitness, health, flexibility but they find there’s another benefit, one that can’t be described, only experienced. When they come out of a class, everything is the same but something is different. The discomfort and stress in our brains is diminished, mental noise and emotional instability have been replaced by a quiet stability. What is it about yoga, specifically, that does that? And how does that lead to spiritual transformation?

Most of life is an accident that happens to us. We all have commitments, family issues and financial constraints, health problems. Things happen to us, some good, some bad, and we live with the imprint of these accidents for the rest of our lives. For richer or poorer, no one is immune. At times life is extremely uncomfortable, painful and stressful.

BKS Iyengar famously said that, “Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” In this quote, he’s talking not just about the body, but the mind and the emotions too.

He also said that health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit. “When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open.” How can both those statements be true?

hall-of-positivityFirst we must cure what we can and the framework for this is found in the first two of the eight limbs of yoga: the Yamas and Niyamas. The first sets out a series of restraints in order that we might do the minimum amount of damage to others and to ourselves. Then we are encouraged observe and discipline ourselves. The reasoning behind this is very sensible – social justice is better for everybody and natural law encourages us to create a climate around ourselves that is comfortable for us and for others. And as I said in the first blog post self discipline is the key.

Having put our house in order, the third limb suggests we focus on what we can do to counteract the natural physical, mental and emotional stresses of life through Asana practice. Asana means “seat”. When we practice we are developing our inner climate, one which is comfortable and supportive for the spirit. Sometimes the practice is for the body, sometimes for the brain, the emotions, the mind. We practice so that somewhere within any one of the asanas, we can find that moment of equilibrium. The asana needs to be physically comfortable, and with skilful teaching such as you find in RIMYI, if we ‘cannot do’ we find a method or a prop to provide that stability so we can ‘go inside’.

Eight LimbsWith these first three basic steps, we can cure what need not be endured. The reason we continue to practice is that life goes on, some problems come and go, but some stay and must be endured. We do everything we can to create a harmonious, balanced, protected and receptive climate within and around the gross body from which we can access the spiritual body. It’s not dependent on how many postures you can do or how ‘well’ you can do them, but can you use them to create the freedom from physical and mental distractions and go further? And how do you do that?

The bridge between all this external work and our spiritual world is Pranayama, the fourth limb, simply described as conscious breathing. The link between the body, the mind and the spirit is our Consciousness. Through the asana practice, we learn to read the body and the brain, like a textbook. We stay in the pose and use our intelligence and our breathing to explore further and further. And this is where the Western depiction of yoga loses its way. We improve and evolve, not by ability but by education, by becoming cultured in our practice. Like seasoned wood, which does not change with external conditions, we need to season our consciousness so it is not disturbed by external fluctuations.

And the next step towards this would, of course, be withdrawal of the senses, Pratyahara, when the asana practice has settled the body, the brain, and the mind, then our consciousness is free to explore our inner landscape. Look at the chart above – you’ll notice the figure is lying down for this stage and sitting up for the stages of focus and meditation. We’re entering the realms of prana, energy, nadis and chakras, concepts that are relatively inaccessible (unless you have fully experienced the first five steps) and will need chapter of their own. First we must learn to walk.

“Illuminated emancipation, freedom, unalloyed and untainted bliss await you, but you have to choose to embark on the Inward Journey to discover it … Penetration of our mind is our goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat.” BKS Iyengar

cropped-gold-pink-hand-mudra1.jpg

1 Comment

Filed under Ashtanga, Iyengar, Mindfulness, Well-being, Yoga - Beginners, Yoga - Intermediate

From #YOGA to Self-realisation. Part 2.

Ayurveda, Yoga and the Evolution of the Brain.

BKS Iyengar said, “Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one’s being, from bodily health to self-realization.”

sand

Grains of sand magnified many times.

The media, and sadly the Yoga media in particular, seems to have reached a point where it can’t grasp the basic principles of yoga. Judging by what we see in magazines and online, if we have the right mat/water bottle/leggings and practice pose after pose (any old how) until the day we die, we’ll have good health and longevity, spiritual ‘things’ will happen to us, and we’ll all be deliriously happy. That would be handy, but it’s much more subtle and much harder work than that, because self-realisation takes time, and in the beginning, a lot of sweat.

We know that yoga is ancient. Its purpose is to develop our self-awareness and lead us towards spiritual transformation. There’s even a ‘text book’, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which sets out all the information we need to achieve this. So how do we relate this to the act of unrolling our mat and get on with the job**?

Ancient YogaAyurveda takes a physiological approach to wellness that recognises the different dimensions of the human system – the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – and recognises that each has its own form of expression. ‘Dis-ease’ in the human system could manifest as changes in your emotional state, a negative mental attitude, physiological changes, altered breathing patterns or a combination of these. One fundamental Ayurvedic understanding is that an imbalance in any of these dimensions leads to dis-ease in others. What manifests in one dimension may have a root cause in another. This system of healing spread throughout the ancient world and is the basis for all allopathic and homeopathic medicine.

Yoga practice is also recommended in Ayurvedic medicine as a preventive and as a treatment, from a psycho-spiritual perspective. Thus yoga treats all the dimensions of the human system. But how does this lead to human evolution, self-realisation, and spiritual transformation?

To begin to answer that massive question, let’s consider what Jean Gebser called the Four Structures of Consciousness, which he suggests have evolved in our brains since Australopithecus roamed eastern Africa about 4 million years ago. Gebser’s major thesis was that just like any natural organism, human consciousness is and always has been, in transition.

The Heart has its reasonsIn first transformation, the brain of Australopithecus evolved what Gebser called an Archaic Structure of Consciousness, almost completely instinctual with minimal self-awareness. The human being was totally immersed in the world unable to extricate him/herself from that world: they identified completely with that world and had no ego. (Think of a plant or a tree.) Today this manifests in our behaviour as the impulse towards self-transcendence, the need to remove the distinction between subject and object through ecstatic experiences or drug-induced states. Young people often seek this experience during their teenage years. We feel it when we are ‘at one with Nature’.

The second ‘cognitive style’, which Gebser called the Magical Structure, evolved through the era of Homo Erectus, about 1.9 million years ago until as recently as 70,000 years ago. It still pre-dates what we know as the Ego, and it operates at the archetypal level, what we call gut instinct. (My husband has this in spades!) Gebser suggests it’s also the cognitive basis for magic, some inward yogic paths, and the cultivation of paranormal powers. Today it’s active when we fall in love, when we’re spellbound, or in sympathy with someone or something. In the negative sense, it manifests as temporarily losing one’s judgment, or even one’s humanity, under the hypnotic influence of a large crowd. (Sound familiar?)

Buddha2The third transformation of the brain Gebser called Mythical. By this point, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon people had evolved a degree of self-awareness and ego, similar to that of a child. Symbols & myths, feeling & intuition – these were the contributing factors used by our brains in the creation of sacred texts and ancient writings. The Mythical consciousness is active today when we “immerse ourselves in the imagery of the mind*”, when we express to our thoughts and feelings through poetry and art.

These transformations involve structural changes in both mind and body and as we evolve, each ‘mutation’ continues to operate to some degree within us. In the past 1-2,000 years we have evolved a fourth: the Mental. This operates in the domain of the rational mind which has now become acutely self-conscious, with a well-developed Ego. This cognitive style is based on the principle of duality – subject/object, black/white, yours/mine, either/or. And it’s proving extremely unhelpful to mankind and to the planet. Duality gives us only two choices and our fear of making the wrong choice or being told we’re ‘running away from the problem’ is exploited all the time by individuals and organisations whose sole purpose is the getting of power and money.

Your Magic Zone

Julian Lennon

Fortunately, evidence suggests there are millions of individuals who question and reject this approach. In his book ‘The Ever Present Origin”, Gebser suggests we could be witnessing the emergence of a fifth structure – Integral Consciousness. It might be wishful thinking but if he’s right, it could be the antidote to the excessive egoism of Mental Consciousness, along with its denial of our Spiritual reality and our Natural origins. Integral Consciousness transcends the ego and restores the balance between the various structures of consciousness. It will be difficult to imagine but hey – John Lennon wrote a song that describes what that might look like.

Yoga and other spiritual traditions contain within them many values and elements that could help us. The central principle is the ability to focus and discipline the mind in order for transformation to begin. So when you unroll your mat, you’re not running away from the problem. You are becoming part of the solution. Discipline is key.

To be continued.

*With thanks to Georg Feuerestein PhD and his excellent book The Yoga Tradition.
**For a classic guide to integrating yoga into your daily life, I highly recommend The Tree of Yoga by BKS Iyengar.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ashtanga, Iyengar, Mindfulness, Yoga - Intermediate