Lovely memories from a great weekend of yoga and fresh, Atlantic sea air. The walk up to the Cliffs is an unmissable part of a weekend at The Cliffs of Moher Retreat – and we got good weather too! Thanks to our warm and welcoming hosts, Michelle and Michael. We’ll be back at the end of June….
Apart from the obvious – the climate, the laid back, free-wheeling lifestyle (for ex-pats and visitors, at least), and the bright, colourful landscape of Goa – something that made me smile on arrival here was the big box of blocks and belts in the corner of the shala.
All along one low wall at the side of the space, students of all levels are working on hip openers, shoulder openers and backbends using blocks and belts, while others are using props here and there while they practise. Now that’s a rare sight in a Mysore-style class. I’ve been in classes where props of any kind are banned, according to strict “regulations”. But Rolf Naujokat, who spent 3 to 6 months in Mysore every year for 16 years, and is certified by Pattabhi Jois to teach, is married to Marci, and has thankfully maintained an open mind. Marci, although an Ashtanga practitioner herself, has a strong Iyengar background, and takes a very dim view of Ashtangis ”throwing themselves into backbends and grabbing their ankles before they’re ready”. As she put it to a young student the other morning, “You’re going to need that lumbar spine in later life”. (For the record, the only people taking their ankles here are practising 3rd Series).
Not that I’m a fan of being belted and blocked up without good reason, I should add. But – dare I say it – there is sometimes a place for props, and this time with Rolf and Marci is making that even more clear to me. Richard Freeman thinks that “judicious use of props” is sensible. David Swenson says to “think of them as training wheels”. Everyone’s body is different and every now and then, props are a good idea. I don’t get my heels quite to the floor in Pashasana, for example. So if I roll my mat up under my heels, just a little bit, I can align myself correctly, put the weight in the right place and get the most benefit from the asana. I’ve been ordered to unroll my mat in a Mysore-style class (one I didn’t return to). But it was in a Mysore-style class with Richard Freeman that I was first advised to use my mat under my heels. And you know what? If it’s good enough for him, I think I’ll stick with it.
What first attracted me to Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, and drew me away from other forms, was the freedom of the practice, the dynamic power of movement with breath, the way 90 minutes on the mat leaves you with that extraordinary, joyful combination of energy and calm. In the 12 years since I began practising, I’ve seen a lot of change. Some eager Ashtangis, the ink not yet dry on their Mysore-issued authorization papers, seem to come back, as a fellow-student here put it, “not as teachers, but as rule-enforcers”. A dogmatic approach has crept in where before there was none. You can walk into a shala and feel that instead of supporting you in your practice, the teacher is casting a critical eye across the room, looking for faults, hard evidence that you’re not “doing it the right way”, so they can swoop in and “correct”. It’s an unimaginative and boring way to teach, and for the student, an inhibiting way to learn. It’s a shame that the term “The Ashtanga Police” exists, and elicits wry smiles and raised eyebrows from weary Ashtanga lovers. But I can understand how it’s evolved.
All kinds of nonsense is proclaimed at workshops and classes as absolute “truth”. Anyone who tells you that the practice is thousands of years old, for instance, and has been passed down, absolutely unchanged, or “unadulterated”, in the form in which it is taught today in Mysore is naïve, delusional, or both. Of course the practice has evolved and changed over time, and continues to do so. Everything changes over time. No-one ever had to come up from backbends before moving into 2nd series, for example, until Sharath introduced the idea in recent years. I’m sure he had his reasons – not least enabling a bigger turnover of students in a busy Mysore shala. But that’s just one example of a change, and a pretty significant one, (ask anyone who’s stuck at that particular hurdle). I’m personally very glad that my teacher, Marianne Jacuzzi, had the wisdom to help me move on into 2nd series and enjoy all the benefits of its early back-bending sequence, which helped me eventually come up from Urdhva Dhanurasana.
If you’re in any doubt that things ain’t how they used to be, read Nancy Gilgoff’s personal account of how she and her then partner, David Williams, were taught by Guruji in the late 1970’s.
And if you want to know more, Chad Herst, authorised by Pattabhi Jois, and co-founder of Mission Ashtanga in San Francisco, has written an insightful piece about this recent development of the so-called “traditional” method and ideology.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is an extraordinary, life-enhancing and transformative practice that was originally taught in a far less rigid way than it sometimes is today. First generation teachers like David Swenson, Richard Freeman, Nancy Gilgoff and David Williams all attest to the fact that Guruji taught each student according to his or her individual body, ability and stage of life. He would instruct one student to do a pose in a certain way, then walk to the other side of the shala and tell another student something entirely different. It was a creative, caring and intelligent approach that respected the individual and evidenced a true connection between teacher and student. Sadly, it’s an approach that is sometimes missing in Mysore-style classes today.
A good teacher is a wonderful help, so find one if you can. You won’t be able to identify them by official credentials, whether it’s a certificate from Yoga Alliance or an entry on the list of that ever-expanding “small handful” of teachers authorized at Mysore. Some teachers with all the “right” credentials are wonderful. Some are not. And some without any of those much sought-after credentials are amazing. You won’t find David Swenson, Lino Miele, Nancy Gilgoff, Graham Northfield, Paul Dallaghan or any number of other brilliant and passionate Ashtanga teachers on any official list. And it doesn’t matter a fig. What matters is the teacher’s own knowledge and love of the practice, passion for passing it on and ability to truly connect with their students as individuals.
If you’re lucky enough to find a teacher with these qualities, get all the help you can from them. If you can travel to great teachers from time to time, even better. Most of all, enjoy your practice, and remember that although some things have changed, the template for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the same as it’s always been. While it’s not about obeying rules, the things that matter will always matter: the sequence, the bandhas and most of all, the connection between you and your breath. The best teacher of all will be your own practice, on your own mat, in your own space. Keep it up, and you’ll see.
Anyone with a regular Mysore-style Ashtanga practice would probably agree that first thing in the morning is by far the best time to practice. Your body gets into the flow of the sequence before your mind has truly woken up and diverted your attention elsewhere. Connecting with your breath and directing the focus internally comes easier. The rest of your day runs more smoothly, thanks to a fantastic kick-start from the meditation in movement that is your Ashtanga practice. Calm lingers, stress finds it harder to take hold.
But “first thing in the morning” is relative. Practising here in Goa with Rolf Naujokat, I’m in an easy rhythm of getting out of bed at 4am and onto the mat by 5am. Anyone would think I was a natural early riser.
At home in the middle of an Irish winter, 6am is the earliest I manage to crawl from under the duvet. I can just about drag myself to the mat, bleary-eyed, for 7am. That doesn’t make me a bad yogini. It makes me an adult in a cold country with a busy life. One of the big lessons of Ashtanga is that it helps us to learn to listen to our bodies. At 4am in Ireland, mine is screaming “MORE SLEEP!”. At 4am here, where it’s balmy and warm even at that early hour, my body is ready for the day. It’s not just the climate – I can get to bed early here, because I have nowhere else to be and nothing else that needs to be done. After my morning practice here, I have no other responsibilities, except to myself (“Do I feel like another fresh coconut juice?” “What will I read when I’m finished this book?” “Is my back getting as much sun as my front?”). Back home in Ireland, my yoga practice is part of my day – a day that’s filled with family, friends, work and all the responsibilities, both enjoyable and not so much, that come with normal adult life.
But there is no right and wrong. if you’re happy getting up at the crack of dawn (or even earlier), knock yourself out. Set that alarm and enjoy your time on the mat. Rolf, who at almost 60 years of age still practises 4th series, rises at 2:30am. That way, he’s finished his practice by the time he comes to teach us. But Rolf lives in India and his working day, teaching yoga, is over by 9:30am, so it all comes naturally to him. Just like any other worker who rises early and works irregular hours – train drivers, nurses, radio presenters – they catch up on their sleep when the rest of us are wide awake, doing the stuff we have to do.
Not everyone can practise first thing, even at a more reasonable time like 7am. Luca is a carpenter from Italy who is here for a month. He took up Ashtanga 3 years ago. His long working day starts at 7am, so to practise before work, he’d have to get up at 4am or thereabouts, which would leave him exhausted, in view of his working hours. So he practises when he gets home from work in the evenings, before his evening meal. Luca has no teacher at home, and taught himself from books and DVDs. He gets his teaching now from stacking up his holiday time and spending it with great Ashtanga teachers like Lino Miele in Italy and Rolf here in Goa. The rest of the time, it’s him and his mat. And when you see him on the mat flowing through 2nd series, you know it’s working for him.
If you’re find it a struggle to get a home-practice together, beware the holier-than-thou attitude of some Ashtangis who boast of being on the mat at some ungodly hour of the morning for an hour and a half or more. Practise when you can, as often as you can. Six days a week is the goal, and more than likely a distant one right now. That’s normal. Whatever you can manage to start with is right. At his workshop at Greystones Yoga Studio last September David Williams talked about “The Daily Minimum” practice, meaning 3 Surya Namaskara A, 3 Surya Namaskara B, and the final 3 finishing poses, Yoga Mudra, Padmasana and Utplutih, then a short Shavasana. That should take you all of 15 minutes or so. It’s more worthwhile to do that every day, or most days, than to do 90 minutes once a fortnight. I wish I’d understood that when I first started Ashtanga and would try to practise first thing, with small children running around gleefully underneath my Downward Dog. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have spent more time doing 15 minutes in peace and quiet, at whatever time of day worked, and less time feeling guilty for not getting through a whole practice at the crack of dawn, six days a week.
Whatever time you practise, if you stick with it, you’ll probably find you want to practise more often, and for longer, as time goes on. It’s a good idea, i think, to try to stick to the same time every day – it helps your body and mind to make a habit of it, and you’re less likely to miss your time on the mat. And if life still gets in the way and you end up skipping practice despite your best intentions, remember tomorrow is another day!
Think you had a busy Saturday? This was the scene at the supermarket near my hotel in Mumbai today – shoppers patiently queueing outside (and it was a long, long line…) for their turn to enter the store, with the entrance controlled by a security guard.
And below, Dhobi Ghat, the famous outdoor laundry, where supplies from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals are hand-washed by workers in large concrete wash pens under the hot Mumbai sun.
I feel an urge to send a loving postcard to my local Supervalu in Greystones – not to mention my washing machine. There’s nothing like an afternoon spent wandering the streets of Mumbai to make you count your blessings.
The man who brought Ashtanga Yoga to the west, David Williams, came all the way from his home in Hawaii to teach a workshop for Greystones Yoga Studio at the end of September. David’s teaching emphasis was on building a practice that you can sustain throughout your life and his stories of the early days of Ashtanga in Mysore in the 1970′s and how things have developed since were fascinating to hear. Thanks to all the keen yoga students who attended – without your support we wouldn’t be able to bring these big names in yoga to the Irish Yoga community. Roll on the next one – David Swenson and Shelley Washington in May 2013!
Saturday, June 30th saw the first ever “Breathe” event, beautifully organised by Greg Walsh of Samadhi, Nikki Cousins and Peter O’Brien. The venue was wonderful and the schedule busy with free masterclasses from great teachers; stalls to browse, massages to indulge in, lectures to learn from and delicious food to keep us all going. A huge thanks is due to Greg, Nikki and Peter for devoting a whole heap of time and energy over the last year to creating a day where yoga enthusiasts of all different disciplines can meet up. Although the root of the word “yoga” is to “unite” or to “join”, the various factions of the Irish Yoga world rarely have the opportunity to mix, and on a day-to-day basis, it’s easy to end up only ever “mixing with your own kind”, so to speak. Now, thanks to Greg, Nikki and Peter, we have an event where all of the Irish yoga community can come together in a mutually supportive environment and celebrate our love of yoga (whatever our practice of choice may be). Breathe was such a fantastic success that next year’s event is already in the planning – congratulations again to all who helped make it happen.
Every Wednesday at 3:30pm I get to teach one of the most enjoyable and rewarding classes of the week, when a lovely bunch of boys and girls aged between 8 and 11 come to the studio for their weekly yoga class. Some of them know each other from school already, but even though it’s a really well-bonded group, it’s great to see how they welcome a newcomer with support and encouragement and lots of fair play.
For example, every week I read a piece from a book of “Meditations for Children”, to help them settle into their Shavasana at the end of class. The kids take it in turns to pick the “story” every week, but at their own suggestion, if there’s a newcomer in the class, they are allowed to pick the story over the child whose turn it is. It’s amazing too to see just how much these high-energy, chatty, bouncy and flexible kids (who probably climb the walls at home when asked to sit still) will lie down for 10 whole minutes, absolutely quiet and still, in perfect Shavasana at the end of their class. They adore that part of the class, and even watch the clock, making sure I’ve left enough time for “the lying down at the end!”.
The kids came back last week for the first time since the Christmas break. As we had a chat at the beginning of class, I asked them if they were all happy to be back. After a big “Yes!” resonated around the room, I asked them to explain why. Best answer of all came from Jamie, aged 10, who sat quietly, deep in thought while he waited for his turn to speak, then looked up at me and said “I’m happy to be back at my yoga class because yoga is like getting away from the world”.
Wow. Stick with it Jamie – you’re already a great little yogi!
It was an incredible honour and delight to host David Swenson and his lovely wife Shelley last weekend. They put every last ounce of their energy into giving us all a fantastic experience. Thanks to all the students who signed up for the event and made it possible. It was the studio’s first major workshop and what a way to kick off!