Twenty years on the mat

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A quarter of a century sounds like a long time, and I’ve just realised that is how long I have been practising yoga for. The amount I have done on a daily basis has fluctuated over the years since my first classes in a chilly community hall.  Periods of illness and general disruption have affected my willingness and ability to practice every day, and in recent years problems with my neck have forced a change to my practice; no longer Ashtanga but Yin Yoga and a return to where I started with Iyengar.

I also swim every week now, as yoga is no longer enough on its own to keep me slim and physically fit. Yet, the mental and emotional fitness is still more than catered for, and the routine of stepping onto my mat every morning is reassuring and necessary to start my day off on the right, or indeed left, foot.  When I go on holiday I miss my mat, and instead have to make do with a few stretches on my hotel bed in order to wake me up.  I have to admit, I love it once I’ve returned from vacation, having not done what I consider to be a proper practice for a week, and before I get into bed at night, I roll my mat out so it’s all ready for the following day.  There’s something very comforting about the noise it makes as it unfurls onto the carpet.  It’s a sense of comfort which continues the next morning as I stumble, sleepy-eyed onto it and begin my practice.

I’ll admit I don’t tend to go to a class now, and am instead happier practising at home, taking some time for myself. Yet, I do occasionally miss the shared energy which a good yoga class can have.  I’ve tried quite a few different styles of yoga over the years, and maybe I’m just searching for another.  Although that won’t be one of the newer, more Westernised approaches but something that takes me back to the original aim of yoga, which is to still the mind.  Even after all these years, it remains a challenge for me, but then that is what is so great about yoga; it never gets old.  It’s a constant learning curve, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

So, I’m potentially about half-way through my gift of existence now, and I’ve spent half of that doing yoga. I can say with certainty that it has been of benefit to me, in every single way; helping me through challenging and unhappy times in my life.  I’m sure it has also been responsible for the sense that, despite turning forty recently, I don’t feel physically any different to how I did ten years ago, and I’m much more content within myself.  I hope that a decade from now, after another big birthday, my practice will still be enabling me to keep my mind and body happy and healthy.

‘It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed.’ Sutra 1.14 of The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, translated by T. K. V. Desikachar, from his book The Heart of Yoga. 

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A tribute B K S Iyengar (1918-1914)

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Like many Westerners, my first yoga class was an Iyengar one.  The practice includes the use of belts, foam blocks and wooden bricks, known as ‘props’, which are sometimes frowned upon by some schools of thought. However, they make postures available to all regardless of their ability, which can only be a good thing.  I studied in the Iyengar style for many years and enjoyed the precision and focus brought to each asana, which enables better alignment.  B K S Iyengar was one of the most important figures in bringing yoga to the West, and thereby enabling me and many others over the years to train as teachers and attend yoga classes.

Light on Yoga is a well-known classic, but my particular favourite is The Tree of Yoga, which beautifully compares the eight limbs of yoga, of which asana is just one, to a tree.  In this exert Mr Iyengar considered dharana; ‘To bring the wandering mind to a state of restraint is known as dharana.  Dharana is concentration, or complete attention.  It is the juice which flows within the branches and the trunk of the tree towards the root.’  Iyengar also explored the relevance of yoga to health, the different stages of life and the journey of the self.  As the West has become increasingly obsessed with the physical practice of yoga, it is a joy to read a text which reminds us of its spiritual origins.  Like many teachers and students I am grateful for the gift of yoga in my life and thereby also grateful to Mr Iyengar for bringing yoga to the West, so that it may enrich our lives today.

‘As the essence of the tree is in the fruit, so the essence of the practice of yoga is in the freedom, poise, peace and beatitude of Samadhi, where the body, the mind and the soul are united and merge with the Universal Spirit.’  B K S Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga

Let go with Yin

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I highly recommend these two books.  They are excellent guides to the postures and philosophy behind Yin Yoga.  The Bernie Clark one is more in depth.

I highly recommend these two books. They are excellent guides to the postures and philosophy behind Yin Yoga. The Bernie Clark one is more in depth.

For most of the last twenty years I have practised typical yang styles of yoga, such as Ashtanga and Iyengar.  However, a few years ago I started to have consistent neck pain and discovered even postures as simple as downward dog and sequences like Sun Salutation, which feature it, were no longer available to me.  I wasn’t sure what to do about my practice until I came across a local Yin Yoga class and realised this was perfect for me.  Like many people I enjoy hatha yoga for its physicality but that meant I could also avoid doing what really matters most when it comes to yoga, and that is just sitting, just being.  ‘Stop and be still’ was not a concept that was familiar to me.  So when my neck pain became worse it was the force I needed to make me find a new way to get in touch with the energy in my body and find a few moments of stillness and calm.

So, what is Yin Yoga?  Bernie Clark explains that ‘most forms of yoga today are dynamic … designed to work only half of our body, the muscular half … Yin Yoga allows us to work the other half, the deeper … tissues of our ligaments, joints, deep fascial networks, and even our bones.’  Yin Yoga also works with the ancient Taoist principles of Chi and the meridians, which are stimulated, allowing energy to flow freely through the body, releasing both physical and emotional blocks during the long-held postures.  Holding mostly seated and lying postures for a minimum for five minutes might not sound particularly difficult, but to a yang-yogi such as myself, it is actually a real challenge to remain still and be with the sensations which arise; be they physical or emotional.  We are so used to running around, working, going to the gym, shopping, blogging, googling and generally filling our lives with ‘stuff to do’ that taking an hour out to do very little, while actually achieving a great deal internally, seems like a luxury we just can’t afford.  However, we can, and we should.  I am still struggling to just sit and be, but as Patanjali stated; ‘persevering practice is the effort to attain and maintain the state of mental peace.’  I’ll keep persevering as long as I am blessed with days to walk this earth.

 

 

 

Comfort Yoga

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After almost 20 years of yoga practise I have to admit I can be a little set in my yogic ways at times and often practise the same postures on a daily basis.  I frequently think I should do something different but invariably end up doing the same ‘comfortable’ and familiar poses.  This is definitely something I need to challenge myself on but it is sometimes a welcome relief during difficult times in our lives to return to such asanas.

So what are my feel good poses?  Well, like the writer of the attached article, I really enjoy Viparita Karani.  Whenever I’ve taught it in class, it’s been very well received.  Lots of deep, relaxed sighs of content as people feel they can let go in this restorative, yet energising posture.  It gives your feet and legs a rest, whilst stimulating your digestive system and little grey cells as a certain Belgian detective would say.  Another favourite pose is Supta Baddahkonasana, which is a supported back bend, with the feet in cobbler’s pose.  I love the openness of this position and the way it invigorates yet relaxes me.  It provides a wonderful stretch for the spine and opens the chest, encouraging a more optimistic outlook on life.

Apanasana is another posture which in the past I have often practise almost mechanically in class, yet in recent years have actually taken the time to really focus on the breath and movement working together to aid relaxation.  This pose is very versatile as it is often used to bring the body and mind back to centre after forward or back bends, or a rotation.  It’s more than just moving the knees back and forth, and is instead an asana in which we can really combine our breath and movement in a fluid, meditative way.

My other two favourites are Trikonasana (triangle) and Utthita Parsvakonasana (flank angle stretch), which also work on opening up the body and providing a much needed lateral stretch, something we so rarely do in everyday life.  They make me feel stronger, both physically and mentally, whilst focusing and calming my mind.

It’s quite difficult to choose a favourite five, as there are so many postures that I enjoy for different reasons, but these are definitely my go to postures for a comforting practice.

What are your 5 poses that make a bad day better?  Which postures do you go to when life is testing you?

Also, which asanas do you often avoid because you find them too much of a challenge?  I’m planning to write about them at a later date and would love to hear which postures you struggle with.

http://blogs.yogajournal.com/goodlife/archives/2013/05/5-poses-that-make-a-bad-day-better.html

Bookshelf recommendations – Yoga for Depression by Amy Weintraub

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In the second of my recommended readings on yoga, I thought I’d tell you about a great guide on how yoga helps those who suffer from depression.  I struggled with this condition for most of my teens and all of my twenties, so I know how hard it is.  In my late twenties I was really tired of the ups and downs of the condition and my doctor recommended anti-depressants, but I wasn’t happy with that and decided to explore other options.  I had already been practising yoga for about ten years at this point and my teacher suggested I read this book.  It examines the various causes/types of depression, details the ways in which yoga can help, in addition to the approach taken by various schools of yoga and clearly explains postures, meditation and breath work that will bring harmony back to our fractured minds.  All of this is supported by Weintraub’s description of her own journey through depression with yoga as her guide.  The one piece of advice which has really stuck with me is that regardless of how you feel, go to your may every day.  Your mat is your place of sanctuary, where you have nothing to hide and can be yourself and be honest about how you feel.  The asanas, breathing and meditation will help you through the pain but only if you turn up on your mat every single day.  It is now almost ten years since I freed myself from depression’s grip and I still go to my mat every morning to practice and give thanks for the day.

‘An unsavoury activity’ – A response to some of the recent anti-yoga reports

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It takes quite a lot to make me angry, but today’s article in The Guardian by Naomi McAuliffe rattled my yoga mat;  it’s a scathing comment on yoga and I don’t get the impression her tongue is in her cheek at any point.

Firstly, to deal with an inaccuracy:

‘The people who get addicted move on to harder and harder forms of yoga. Hatha leads to Bikram, and before you know it you’re on Ashtanga…’

Hatha is not a form of yoga in the sense of being a style of yoga.  It is one of the yogic paths, all of which lead to enlightenment, and hatha yoga is the physical path.  It is not a style or school of yoga, so she is quite wrong on that point.  Furthermore, one person’s ‘hard’ yoga is another’s ‘easy’ yoga.  There are different styles to suit all needs and abilities, and something as supposedly simple as sitting still might be really difficult for some people, let alone head stand.

Secondly, her generalisation of yoga students:

‘Probably the main reason people abandon the practice, or never even try, is the unutterable smugness of yoga bunnies… These people rarely drink alcohol – and not for the reasonable reasons, which are religion, previous alcoholism or pregnancy. This only accentuates how boring they are…Despite the fact that it is just a bit of stretching, apparently you need to wear marl-grey, bootcut yoga pants.’

The last time I looked there were no references to being ‘smug’ in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and genuine yogis don’t think they are any better than anyone else because yoga teaches us that we are all equal and we shouldn’t judge others.   With regards to alcohol, that’s entirely an individual decision and I have known many yogis over the years who enjoy a drink; obviously not to excess but then that’s got nothing to do with yoga and everything to do with simple health advice – everything in moderation.  Oh yes, and the clothes.  Again, having attended classes for twenty years now, I have seen people wearing all kinds of outfits but generally it’s just something comfortable they can move around freely in.  Yes, there are the fashion victims but they’re probably like that in the daily life anyway and yoga isn’t about image, or at least it shouldn’t be.  I do however, agree that the advertising of yoga clothes isn’t representative of most yogis, but then no advertising is realistic because it’s selling us something!

Oh, and no, yoga is not ‘just a bit of stretching’.  Its aim is to enable us to still the body and breath, in order to then still the mind and find peace. Evidently, people like Naomi McAuliffe haven’t been to very good classes and have missed the point of yoga entirely.  It also doesn’t need to have any so-called ‘mysticism’ attached to it either.  As I have stated in a previous post, you don’t have to believe in anything spiritual or religious in order to practise yoga.  I do not have a faith and yet I have practised for twenty years quite happily.  Once again, the incorrect assumptions lead to wrong-headed opinions about something people haven’t taken the time to thoroughly investigate.

I have attached the article below for you to read.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/11/father-obaoill-yoga-unsavoury-irish-priest‘I’m with Father O’Baoill – yoga is a deeply unsavoury activity.  An Irish priest has warned parishioners that yoga endangers the soul. It’s turning into a rubbery, vainglorious dullard that worries me.’  Naomi McAuliffetheguardian.com, Friday 11 July 2014 12.38 BST

The Sound of Silence

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I mentioned in a yoga class once that I enjoy practising yoga to music, which didn’t receive a particularly favourable response. I was asked if I could truly connect with myself with such distractions, and wouldn’t it better to take a break from all the noise in the world? I could understand their point but I didn’t agree. Music has been an integral part of my life since I was born. My parents always had music or the radio on, and I too love listening to all kinds of music. To me, it can enhance a practise, especially if I’m feeling a little low or in need of calming down. The music, along with my practice, provides the inspiration I need to face challenges or just simply to relax.
So, what do I listen to? Well, I’m particularly fond of film scores and have often done a mean Virabhadrasana (Warrior) to Howard Shore’s wonderful Lord of the Rings soundtracks. If I’ve felt a little agitated and in need of a more fluid practice to calm me down, I have sometimes listened to Leftfield as I practise: the combination of beats and more chilled tracks is just the job. Yet, I also listen to more obvious ‘new age’ music which aids relaxation and helps me to think clearly. At times though, I just simply have the radio playing quietly in the background, which I don’t really pay attention to, but like the noise. Ah, yes, the noise.
Maybe those people in the class were right. We are not used to silence anymore; so full are our lives of music, overheard conversations, traffic, neighbours and ring tones that we are uncomfortable with the noise inside our heads. Is it a fear of what it would say if only we could hear it above the din? Maybe, yes.
As for me, I just love music and that extends to all facets of my life. Whether I’m studying, working, reading or writing, I like to have the radio/music on, so naturally that includes my yoga practice too. Whether it should, is another question entirely. Maybe I’ll experiment and see if I can get used to the sound of silence.
What about you? Do you like silence or sound when you take to your mat?