Puja and pranayama

Today, the yoga bungalow where we’re staying was decked out in its finery ready for puja, which is a kind of Hindu offering ceremony, and we were all invited. The offering was made to the Hindu gods Lakshi (goddess of wealth and good fortune) and Ganesh (remover of obstacles) in order to help bring success to the the yoga bungalow, as the busy season commences.

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This was the first Hindu ceremony I’ve ever attended, apart from the wedding of our local curry house owner’s daughter a long time ago (yep, we were regulars at the curry house!), which is rather a blur except I remember that the bride had tears running down her face throughout the whole service, and definitely not from joy. I remember my dad told me at the time that, in Hindu marriage, the wife symbolically leaves her own family and instead becomes part of the husband’s family. My own eyes had welled up as I watched that poor girl sitting on the giant stage, looking so scared and lost whilst everyone partied on around her. Anyway, I digress…

For the puja, we were invited to sit on the floor around a small shrine that had been erected in the yoga hall. The shrine comprised a picture and statue of Ganesh on a low table, decorated in fresh flower garlands and fruit, with candles, incense and small pots of honey, milk and yoghurt beneath the table.

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A man, who I was under the impression was BNS Iyengar, presided over the service, chanting in a deep voice, putting teaspoons of milk and honey on the statue and ringing a little bell. Seeing as BNS Iyengar is 89 years old, I spent most of the time marvelling at the age-defying powers of yoga, as this man was fresh-faced and mobile, with a full head of black hair. I only realised my mistake afterwards, as a grey-haired, bespectacled Iyengar shuffled in to take our pranayama course, every inch the grand old man – he did arrive on a scooter though!

Throughout the ceremony, the chanting barely stopped, and we were invited to throw fresh cut flowers onto the statue. We were then all given a bindi (a dot of red powder on our forehead) and blessed with smoke from the incense, then bowls of fruit were handed out for us to eat. The other yogis there, who have been in Mysore for a while, seemed to know what to do, so I guess these puja ceremonies are quite common – certainly you see many people, both Indians and westerners, with bindis every day. It reminded me a bit of Sundays when I was young, yawning and swinging my legs in church as the vicar droned on, but I was quite chuffed to have popped my bindi cherry – I’m sure it won’t be the last one!

Afterwards, free lunch was provided to all at our café – we were served a gorgeous thali (a mixture of different curry dishes with chapatti and rice) on a segment of banana leaf – an ingenious use of foliage to avoid both washing-up and extra land-fill waste.

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I also had my first pranayama (breathing practice) class with the aforementioned BNS Iyengar today – it feels very special to be learning with one of the last remaining students of Krischnmacharya. He is old-school (I half expected to have our knuckles rapped when we made a mistake) and he has a thick Indian accent that was hard to understand at first. But he has a wonderful, open smile and a twinkle in his eye, and I really warmed to him. We are learning the basics first, which is perfect, as pranayama is something I have of course done lots of over the years, but have never studied in earnest before.

I am feeling so very happy to be here. Mysore brims over with friendly, warm and welcoming people – both the Indians and the huge array of westerners who flock here for the yoga. The yoga set is incredibly diverse – as well as the many yoga teachers out here, we’ve also met a Norwegian oil-rigger, a French interior designer, a Hungarian economist, a Finnish farmer, a German climbing instructor, a Spanish circus performer and the Ukrainian manager of ‘The Laughing Cow’, just to name a few – all united by a love of yoga and an urge to travel to its homeland and learn at source. It’s a magical thing… 🙂

And so it begins…

This morning we attended our first class with Vijay Kumar. We were in the second batch at 6:30am – the first one begins at 4:45am. Obviously the second session is heaving as, for most people, 4:45am is not a time that exists, except for back in the day when we could still party all night. So there were 17 people (all westerners) packed into a room, the air already heavy from the previous group’s hard graft, and it didn’t take long for our own sweat to start pouring onto the floor. Blimey, it was slippery in there, not helped by the smooth marble floor. At one point I heard a kerfuffle next to me and looked over to see Chris lying on his back on his neighbour’s mat, flailing like a helpless beetle, having slid there during his gharba pindasana rolls. Drop backs were nerve-wracking, as I half-expected my hands to fly out beneath me on the sweat river that had appeared on my own mat.

I’m painting a lovely picture, right?!

Anyway, it was a great session, all the better for the heat and sweat (my arms positively flew through my legs in gharba, with no squirty bottle of water in sight). Vijay was a calm, friendly presence, patrolling the room steadily, and providing assistance where required. Many people in the room were still learning the sequence, and he took lots of time to explain new postures and, from earwigging (yes I know, I should have been focusing on my own practice but I’m too goddam nosy!), he explained things really well with clear directions and helpful hints. He was also really patient and encouraging, and I received some great adjustments. I liked that he asked for feedback as he gradually pushed you deeper into a pose, and that his adjustments built-up slowly, until you suddenly realised you had never felt so deep in the posture before. My body felt really open thanks to the heat and adjustments and I can already see how a few months of regular practice with Vijay will help my practice loads.

So all in all it’s a big thumbs up for Vijay, even from Chris, who I have started to call the ‘reluctant yogi’ (and I think he calls me the ‘yoga nazi’ behind my back). I can’t wait for more… 🙂

Anyway, we’re off to source a local SIM card now (no mean feat out here – the infamous Indian bureaucracy penetrates all facets of life, and I have never needed so many passport photos in such a short space of time in my life!). I will bring to you some of my observations of Indian life that I’ve noted down so far in my next post – Mysore is a wonderful, friendly city, where chaos and calm reign in almost equal measures. Some of my favourite things so far? The smiles, the food, the cows, the fresh coconuts – oh, and the yoga, derr.

Couple of pics today:

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Today is Shiva’s day and, in preparation, the roads have been full of a variety of geometric chalk drawings, one outside each home, since we arrived. They bring good luck apparently.

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Every Sunday Harish, the cafe chef at our accommodation, gets in touch with his feminine side and decorates the cafe with fresh flowers- how lovely… 🙂

Wussy westerners

We seem to have fallen on our feet with our accommodation.  The owner, Prashanth, is a yoga student of BNS Iyengar – not to be confused with the recently deceased legend that is BKS Iyengar. Both BNS and BKS Iyengar were students of Krishnamacharya (that must have made for confusement in class) and BNS Iyengar is still alive and well at 89 years old, and one of the most respected teachers in Mysore, himself a living legend. Anyway, it turns out BNS Iyengar (I will try and find out what those initials stand for!) would like to use this place to teach in, and hopefully he will be starting a one month intensive pranayama course here within a week or so. Needless to say, I am on the waiting list!

This morning we volunteered our ‘western bodies’ to help Prashanth assess a new teacher, also a student of BNS Iyengar – they clearly take student-teacher lineage really seriously out here. Prashanth would like this teacher to take classes at our accommodation, but first wants to see if he is able to adapt his adjustments for westerners. I asked what the difference is and apparently it mostly comes down to us westerners being a bit wussy – Indian adjustments tend to be strong and abrupt, whereas for westerners they ease their way into the adjustments over the course of the five breaths. Also, apparently Indian yoga students tend to have a quicker breath than westerners, which surprised me.

Anyway, I certainly found the adjustments this morning stronger than I was used to, but very effective. The teacher clearly knows what he’s doing. Poor Chris got a bit of a beasting though – adjusted on nearly every posture as there were only four of us in the room and I sensed they were a bit reluctant to touch the girl!

Incidentally, this new teacher is apparently a gold medal winner of the northern districts yoga tournament and a referee in this district’s yoga competition. I find the concept of yoga competition hard to get my head round, but it’s certainly big out here, and has been for a very long time. I hope to attend a competition soon to see what it’s all about and will of course report back!

It feels absolutely wonderful to be out here, and I actually can’t quite believe that it’s taken me so long to come to the homeland of something that I teach for a living. Indians I speak to about yoga generally assume I’ve been before and I have to put them straight sheepishly. Oh well, everything happens when it should, and I certainly feel ready to soak up as much learning as I can and definitely feel that this is exactly where I should be right now. I’m not sure Chris feels the same though!

In fact, as I write this, Chris is test-riding a second hand moped outside, preparing his Mysore escape route – a trip round India on two wheels (or possibly three if he gives in to his desire to buy a tuc-tuc!).

Frond yoga arrives in Mysore

So, I am finally in Mysore, after the surreal experience of spending eleven hours in a weird artificial limbo in the sky then being plonked down unceremoniously somewhere utterly different from when I was last on solid ground. To me, flying long-haul really is a strange form of travel, almost like some kind of dark magic, which requires extreme discomfort, sleep deprivation and random eating patterns to work.

I’m jet-lagged but very happy to be here. I’ve had curry for breakfast, there are cows in the road, I’ve already drunk two fresh coconuts and nearly been mowed down by numerous mopeds, had curry and rice for 20p at a busy street stall, thrumming with workers taking their lunch-break. India is just as brilliantly crazy as last time I was here (in 2001 – so long ago!) but also different. Most people have mobiles now, just as many women wear jeans as they do saris, and we were greeted by the familiar scent of a Subway outlet as we arrived at the uber-modern Bangalore airport. Not quite the mystical scent of incense and spice that I was imagining…

We’ve spent our first couple of nights battling jet-lag in a swanky-ish hotel in the sleepy residential Chamarajapura district of this large city, which is where Vijay Kumar’s yoga studio is located. But this morning we were lucky enough to find long-term digs at a lovely little ‘yoga bungalow’ set within a peaceful garden on a quiet side street with five en-suite rooms (for en-suite read ‘partitioned off area with loo and tap in the wall over a bucket’), a yoga hall and an attached vegetarian cafe selling gorgeous sattvic food – I tried the lemon, ginger and turmeric tea on arrival, which was freshly ground up as we waited and tasted sublime. The room is very basic (some may say austere) and very cheap, but the place has lots of charm, and it will be a good place to meet like-minded folk I think, plus I’ve never minded roughing it. The owners run pranayama, yoga philosophy and meditation sessions there in the evenings as well as yoga classes each morning, although I will be at Vijay Kumar’s studio each morning, which is around a 10 minute walk away.

It was the first place we looked at, and as we deliberated over our turmeric tea, more people arrived to look at it, so we made the call and paid up for a month. Apparently the ‘season’ is just beginning (who knew yoga had a season?!), and foreigners are pouring in, so decent rooms at a reasonable rate are like gold-dust. The season begins once the monsoon passes through, leaving balmy temperatures and clear blue skies in its wake. Apparently it is late this year, and the rain only stopped last week – jammy or what?!

We start yoga with Vijay on Monday morning, 6:30am and I can’t WAIT to get on the mat. Due to the frenetic chaos of packing up our lives before we came out here, combined with a strangely perverse feeling of almost rebellion against my practice, I have barely done any yoga in the last three weeks. I am not entirely sure why, but perhaps it was my body enforcing a break in a ‘calm before the storm’ kind of way, or perhaps it was from an underlying fear of committing to the time out here, and of somehow not feeling worthy of being in Mysore. Old demons, that are receding now I’m here, leaving an eager anticipation of the work to be done, the sweat to be dripped and the breath to be breathed… 🙂

Here are a couple of photos below: firstly a typically sleepy residential street in this district, with obligatory cow – these charming back-streets are just metres from the main, crazily busy roads but are like little bubbles of serenity, superbly and inexplicably sound-proofed; secondly the brilliant peacock mural at the yoga cafe of our new digs – in fact that is our room’s window behind Chris, which might prove interesting in terms of ambient noise. I’m appeasing myself with the thought that a yoga cafe is unlikely to support a rowdy late-night crowd, particularly as some classes begin at 4:30am, ouch…)

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It starts with a dream…

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Buddha

So, it’s almost here. It began with what felt like an impossible, whimsical dream, then it became something I dared to talk about to people and, a few years on, finally it’s happening.  In just over a week I’m setting off to India for the winter to fulfil a dream of studying and practising yoga in its homeland.

It shows me that what we dream for and long for can happen – you just have to believe it will and be prepared to work for it and to make sacrifices and changes. But do you know what? If your passion to do something burns deep enough, those sacrifices you make don’t even feel that bad, and can even turn out to be good things.

For example, this summer I’ve been working like crazy to earn enough money for the trip and living in a caravan to save even more pennies. On the surface, I’ve had to sacrifice a number of things – time to myself, time with my partner, time for socialising, home comforts, living space! Yet I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier, and perhaps a part of that is knowing that my life choices are leading me further along a path I really want to tread; call it my dharma.

Yet it all began with a dream… Budddha was right when he said that we create our own world with our thoughts. We have so many thoughts in our heads. Many of these are are loud, shouty, ‘on-the-surface’ thoughts that tell us we’re not good enough, make us feel frightened and feed us a constant stream of negative dialogue about ourselves and about the world around us. They are so noisy we tend to listen to them and believe them.

But beneath those thoughts there are other, quieter hopes and dreams and thoughts. These are the ones that whisper quietly but persistently at us, and won’t leave us alone, even when we tell them to shut up. They are the ones that tell us we’re awesome, that we’re better than we think we are, that life is a beautiful gift, that we have so much to offer, that we are strong. Why is it so hard to listen to these thoughts?

I spent years trying to suppress that little voice that nagged at me, soft but persistent. It told me that I should learn to be a yoga teacher, that I should travel, write, connect with nature, that I should find a job that inspired and motivated people and, ultimately, helped them heal. I used to belittle this voice and tick it off sternly, telling it to shut up, because it was just ‘dreams and fantasy’. I told myself I was being silly – those weren’t real ambitions, they were just romantic yearnings. That wasn’t the ‘real world’.

I did this for years, but it still didn’t stop nagging at me. When I finally decided to listen to it and to trust it, my life started to change slowly but surely, and then it became like a snowball rolling down a hill, gathering speed and volume. Now, as I contemplate my life of yoga teaching, travel, writing, massage, reiki, connection with the great outdoors and wildlife, I feel like a miracle has happened – how can this impossible dream have become my reality? But then I realise it’s been a gradual change. Dreams become thoughts, become actions and concrete decisions, become life… So that little voice wasn’t so silly after all it seems.

We have a choice: to believe the negative, destructive thoughts that haunt all of us; or to delve deep and go on an inward journey to unearth the nurturing, positive thoughts that lie beneath them and start to trust them. Either way, our world will respond in kind and corroborate those thoughts. We need to learn to tap into our innate truth and intuition, and to grow into the person that, deep down, we know we are and want to fully become.

So we think, so we become.

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Natural lunar cycles

With tomorrow being a full moon, I feel compelled to share a recent lunar-based discovery that I made. I recently finished a book called Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin, who is probably my favourite nature-writer. His love of and attunement to British wildlife comes through strongly in his books and I relate to his quiet observation and appreciation of the minutiae of the natural world – those tiny, beautiful moments that are so easy to miss.

Anyway, in the last chapter, he was talking about traditional hedge-laying and coppicing methods, and two extracts from the book really caught my eye, which I’ve copied out below.

On traditional hedge maintenance:
“But the work must be done in winter when the hedge reveals its architecture. Since it involves pruning the trees, a temporary reduction of their substance, this is labour for a waning moon, the low tide of the sap.”

On coppicing an ash hedgerow:
“Every two or three years I must pollard or lay its canopy. This is what I have to do today under the waning moon. If the moon can cause the tides to rise and fall, why should it not do the same to the sap in plants and trees? That is the logic behind the notion that the husbandry of increase, such as sowing and planting, is best done during the waxing phases of the moon. Conversely, harvesting, the work of decrease, including coppicing and pollarding, belongs in the time when the moon herself is decreasing.”

I love that traditional agriculture was so in tune with natural cycles and rhythms – to bear fruits from the land, you need to understand the land, love the land, know it intimately – so that you can work with it harmoniously for long-term success.

To take this further, it makes absolute sense to me that we are as much a part of the natural world as the hedgerow saplings and crops being harvested, and that our ‘sap’ (watery content) is affected by lunar cycles along with the rest of the planet’s water. I used to struggle with the whole ‘moon day’ thing with ashtanga yoga – partly because I was so desperate to practise and felt miffed that the ‘ashtanga yoga police’ were saying I shouldn’t, and partly because it all sounded too hippy-dippy. But as my practice has deepened, my understanding of yoga as a way of enhancing our connection with the world around us has grown, and it all makes more sense to me now. Plus, now I’m a few years older, I think my body quite enjoys the rest on the moon days!

Anyway, Roger Deakin got it – he even refers to the moon in her feminine, yin form in his second quote, bless him. He was a true yogi (he sadly died in 2006) and probably felt more moments of ‘samadhi’ (blissful enlightenment) than most of us, whilst communing with his beloved nature, yet he probably never stepped onto a yoga mat in his entire life.

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Autumn clear-out

For as long as I can remember, I have loved having a good old sort-out, especially of my wardrobe. When my three sisters and I were little, around once a year my mum would herd us into a bedroom, at the centre of which would be a huge mountain of all of our combined clothes. Then would begin an hour or so of heady, thrilling madness, with clothes flying all over the place, tussles for the mirror and the odd whiney dispute, as we went through the much-anticipated process of passing on clothes that no longer fitted us and inheriting new items. It always involved mixed emotions – for example the struggle to let go of a treasured pair of jeans mixed with glee at finally having my hands on my sister’s much coveted minnie mouse t-shirt. But the end result was always one of calm camaraderie and contentment – a job well done.

And I still find it immensely satisfying trawling through the depths of my wardrobe,  seeking out forgotten fashion horrors and banishing them to a bulging bin-liner, to be deposited ceremoniously at the charity shop. I used to feel that the resultant empty spaces in the drawers and wardrobe were good justification for a shopping spree. But over the years, I’ve come to enjoy the sparseness that is left, with no desire to fill it. It feels cleansing and liberating to just have what I need, and to not be tied down by unnecessary extras. Instead of new things, I feel like I have new space, both in my bedroom and in my head – and that feels good.

Having attended a wonderful ‘Autumn cleansing’ workshop with Liz Lark today, I was reminded that autumn is a great time of year to carry out an audit and have a good old clear-out. This might be focused on your wardrobe or kitchen cupboards, but it could just as easily be focused on yourself.  The workshop involved flow sequences that included lots of twists and deep hip openers, in order to squeeze out old, stale energy deep within our bodies and bring in new energy.  One brilliant pose to do at this time of year is the pigeon, and add a twist in for good measure by bringing a forearm onto the mat in front of you and taking the opposite hand around the back and looking over that shoulder, then swap the forearms over and twist the other way – this combination of hip opening and spinal twist really wrings out the body from within.

We also enjoyed prolonged guided pranayama (breathing) and meditations during the workshop in order to focus our minds on our inner world rather than the outer world. Taking time out to sit and mindfully focus on your breathing or a visualisation or a mantra is a great way to help create mental clarity, which then helps us to tune into and trust our innate intelligence and intuition. If any negative thoughts arise, notice these thoughts and try and flip whatever negative statements you are hearing to the reverse positive statement. Liz quoted the Buddhist saying that ‘we create our world through our own thoughts’. Trying to throw out old, negative repeated thoughts and replace them with more helpful, positive thoughts is a great way to make a positive change this autumn.

As the trees shed their leaves at this time of year, so too can we shed old habits and attachments that no longer serve us. Then, like the trees, in this bare, liberated state we can focus our energy on fostering new, positive growth as we hunker down over the winter, so that it is ready to burst out into bright, riotous fullness when the seasons start to change again and we feel warmth on our skin once more… 🙂

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Jumping-through negativity

Last Saturday I ran my first jump-through workshop. For those who don’t know, the jump-through is a dynamic linking sequence that is used between postures in ashtanga and vinyasa krama yoga.

I had deliberated for a long time about whether it was a good idea or not to run the workshop.  I wanted to pass on all the tips that I’d learnt during the tens of thousands of jump-throughs that I’ve probably done over the years. And I wanted to inspire and encourage people; to empower them to know that they too can achieve lift-off through regular practice and a positive attitude.  However, I was aware that, for ashtanga practitioners in particular, the jump-through has a tendency to occupy the thoughts rather too much until, at worst, it can eclipse the rest of the practice and cause negative feelings of self-defeat. Why? Mostly because it’s so damn hard and seemingly unattainable for many, especially at the start of the ashtanga journey.

So I didn’t want to encourage this negative preoccupation with the jump-through. Yes, it’s an essential part of the ashtanga practice: through its repetition it builds the necessary strength and endurance to carry you further into the series, and it fosters the discipline required to follow this form of yoga. But it’s just another part of the series, no more or less important than any other part. The ashtanga system works as a logical progression of postures – if you do them all, no skipping (apart from when you have injuries or other contra-indications), then the body will open up and strengthen progressively.

And it doesn’t matter if you don’t float through the air gracefully with each jump-through – only a handful of gifted, dedicated practitioners manage to do this (check out David Swenson and Kino McGregor on youtube for male and female examples of this). Most people don’t have the requisite time to invest in achieving this. And that’s OK! We all work with what we have, where we’re at, and the most important thing is not skipping the jump-throughs and trying to do them with integrity each time. For this, I mean trying to effectively utilise the breath, drishti and bandhas and engaging a positive mindset. You don’t even need to ‘jump’; it’s much better to step with bandha control, a steady drishti and breath awareness than it is to fling the limbs around in an uncontrolled manner. This way, the transitions can still be graceful and steady, such that the moving meditation of the practice is not disturbed. And with this approach, with regular practice, positive energy, patience, perseverance and a can-do attitude, the necessary core and shoulder strength and hip flexibility will develop in time, such that, one day, the body might start to seem so light that a little hop seems a natural next step. There is no rush.

I learnt a lot from the workshop, but one of the most noticeable lessons was that jump-throughs seem to tap into the worst of our fears and negative feelings towards ourselves. As I went round the room, giving assistance, the negativity that was rising with each jump-through was almost palpable, and various versions of “I can’t do it” and “I’m not good enough” rippled round the room. Comparisons with other, ‘better’ practitioners in the room abounded, and I understood acutely that one of my pre-workshop suspicions was true: that my aims to inspire others by my own journey could actually achieve the opposite effect, due to the natural tendency for humans to compare themselves to others and find themselves lacking. More than anything else in the ashtanga journey, jump-throughs seem to foster a negative sense of not being content with where we’re at in our journey; not being able to lose attachment to the end-result.

I found this incredibly interesting. For this very reason, jump-throughs, along with any other posture that really challenges us, do hold an important part in the yoga journey. As soon as that negative voice in our head kicks in and starts berating us, telling us we’re not good enough as we are, will never be good enough blah blah blah, the usual negative nonsense…, we need to take a step backwards and observe what’s actually occurring. When we hear that nasty voice, it means we’re tapping into one of our most fundamental negative beliefs about ourselves, which usually comes down to some kind of fear if you delve deep enough. So jump-throughs, along with other seemingly unattainable postures, have the capacity to teach us so much about our negative patterns of behaviour.

And those patterns are so entrenched due to constant repetition. Instead we need to ‘change the record’. When you approach a jump-through and, for the umpteenth time, land heavily on your bum, instead of saying ‘I’m rubbish, I’ll never be able to do this’, try giving yourself some gratitude for being on the mat and having a go and instead say, ‘I might not be able to do it today, but I’m getting stronger with each one I try and I’m exactly where I need to be for now’. If you repeat this enough times eventually that voice in your head will change, or at least become quieter and you will more easily be able to take a rational step back and tell it to ‘shuss’!

So, overall I’m pleased I ran the workshop as it felt great to share all the various tips and advice I’ve been given over the years or that I’ve discovered through my own practice.  But I also now have loads of ideas about how to improve the format and change the focus for next time, to concentrate more on how to combat our negativity and change our mindset. I truly believe that a positive can-do attitude, above anything else, will dictate whether the jump-through happens to you or not. If you say it won’t ever happen, then no it won’t. But if you say that it might not happen today but you’ll keep practising and moving towards it, then that will carry through into your practice and one day, with dedication, you may well have lift-off!

And remember, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen! When you think about it, the world isn’t going to change if you can jump-through – life will continue just as before. Yoga is all about the journey, and what we learn about ourselves along the way; it isn’t about reaching an end-goal. Because then what? Someone just puts another ‘end-goal’ in front of you to reach! Enjoy where you are, and feel some love for the jump-through (or step-through), wherever you’re at with it, for what it can teach you about your deepest fears and negative beliefs, so that you can flip it to a more positive story to tell yourself… 🙂

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It’s all in the balance…

This Thursday sees me running the first of my monthly ‘yin’ style yoga classes, with long-held, supported postures and a slow, meditative pace. This might seem a strange thing for a die-hard ashtangi to be doing, but I suppose that is the point of this post. We need both the yin and the yang. The more I ponder about life’s little conundrums, the more I find myself simply concluding ‘it’s all about the balance’. I can’t think of a single aspect of life where this isn’t the case and it shows through in our everyday language – ‘work-life balance’, ‘a balanced diet’, being a’well-balanced’ person. There is a natural tendency towards finding the equilibrium; that sweet spot of lightness and effortlessness.

I LOVE ashtanga yoga. It is a part of me, it has moulded me, honed me. It is familiar, warm and comforting like an old friend, yet endlessly challenging, intriguing and exciting. I love that there is always further to go, more subtle fruits to yield – it never stops. It’s humbling, and in its simple repetition, day in day out, it provides a platform to delve deep within ourselves and observe the daily changes to our mind and body – the practice becomes a personal laboratory of introspective investigation, allowing awareness to grow.

But sometimes ashtanga isn’t enough for me. Sometimes I need to really slow down and let my yin energy rise. The Chinese Taoists would have it that everything, including ourselves, is composed of yin and yang energy – they are two sides of the same coin, and the balance between them is always in flux but always seeking equilibrium. We all possess and need both, but some of us are naturally more pre-disposed to yin energy (feminine, soft, pliable) and some of us exhibit more yang tendencies (masculine, hard, competitive, full of drive), and understanding this about ourselves can help to bring us into balance.

For me, I feel strong affinities with both yin and yang energy and, before I had the self-awareness to recognise this about myself, I was often out of balance, swinging wildly between extremes of the two, but more usually suppressing my yin side. Eventually, in the frenetic ‘yang’ madness of university finals, I was drawn to yoga for the ‘something else’ that it offered; something that was as yet elusive but that I sensed I needed. A space to slow down, to suspend judgement, to soften. And then I found ashtanga yoga, which seemed to still offer that third dimension, but also satisfied my need for physical challenge.

Since then, on my ashtanga journey, the challenge has always been to keep the yang in check and foster the yin element. And, yes, it’s taken me almost 8 years to come to this point of awareness. Now, through emphasising the breath and mindful focus above the physical achievements, and not being drawn into always seeking the next pose, I’ve learnt to tap into ashtanga’s softer, yin side. And boy, it’s done me good.

This growing awareness that I need to top up on healthy doses of both energies has led me towards softer forms of yoga as a complement to the ashtanga. I’ve always enjoyed both dynamic and softer styles but have only recently realised how much I need both of them in my life. Over the last year or so I’ve devoured books by Donna Farhi and Sarah Powers (both quite ‘yin’ teachers) that would previously have left me cold. But now they really speak to me. And I’ve found I really enjoy teaching soft, slow classes as well as dynamic and challenging sessions. For me, there’s a balance in the combination. We all go through different phases in our lives and our yin-yang energy balance will always be in flux. And it’s our responsibility to recognise when it’s out of balance and make positive changes to address it, for our personal well-being.  Adding occasional yin sessions into the mix, for me, improves the overall benefits of my yoga practice.  Although the beauty and magic of ashtanga arises from the repetition of the sequences and commitment to regular practice, I’ve learnt not to berate myself if sometimes I substitute the traditional sequence for a slower, softer version without jump-throughs, or a completely different yin-style sequence, if that is what my body and mind are genuinely calling out for – the tricky thing is spotting when it’s genuine need or when it’s just the mind telling us stories to mask laziness! For those who often suffer from lack of motivation and low energy, ironically the more yang practices such as ashtanga are likely to be better for bringing you into balance, as your energy is likely to be a bit too yin-dominant. 

For example, if I’m feeling fragile and sorry for myself then a fiery ashtanga second series practice might just lift me out of that mood. Or if I’m feeling a bit weary or under-the-weather then maybe I need to honour that and practise a slow, shortened primary series. Likewise, if I’m hyped up in a slightly anxious way then a sequence of calming yin postures and pranayama is probably best, but if I’m feeling jubilant and playful then a creative ashtanga session with some handstand practice at the end will probably make me feel great. And so on…

It’s all about knowing ourselves well and trusting our intuition, and yoga is a brilliant vehicle for this journey of self-awareness. It’s no coincidence that hatha (hatha yoga is the umbrella sanskrit term for all forms of yoga that emphasise the asana element) translates as sun (ha) and moon (tha), which coincides with the fiery sun-like yang energy and the liquid, moon-like yin energy. And yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to join’, suggesting it’s all about bringing these two elements together, in balance.

Maybe one day I’ll find a way of satisfying both my yin and yang needs within the ashtanga system alone, through enhanced awareness and further development of pranayama and meditation practices. But, this is where I’m at for now and I’ve learnt to let go of expectations about where I think I should’ be. The journey is always shifting course, and we just need to keep our eyes open to the changes that occur, through constant self-enquiry, and find ways to move past obstacles as they arise.

Does your yoga practice make you feel in balance? Does it leave you with a feeling of calm contentment or is there some niggle that might need investigating? It’s all about the balance… 😉

life work balance

The most expensive algae in the world

Can anyone help me out here? Having finally turned veggie this year, I have now become one of those tiresome health-conscious people who ‘worry about their protein intake’. So, after months of various people banging on to me about the wonders of spirulina and its supremacy in the world of protein provision, I decided to join the band-wagon. A trip to Holland and Barrett later, and a disbelief that I had just forked out £12 for a small bag of algae, and I arrived home with the packet below.

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Now, I am like a small child when I buy new things – I have to use them IMMEDIATELY, irrespective of circumstance. As such, I found myself ripping open the bag like an excited labrador and pouring some onto the banana and yoghurt I was eating for pudding. A cloud of green powder exploded across the caravan, covering my face and hands, oops. Using a cloth to rub it off just smeared it into a film of slime, until I looked like I was fully dirted up with army camo. Seriously, this stuff is fine, and I don’t mean its taste. In fact, when I came to try actually eating the stuff, I found it just made my entire dessert taste of pond. Yes, it tastes as bad as it looks.

So now I am stuck with a bag of the stuff, knowing it’s really good for me but not quite knowing what to do with it. A brief online search for recipes didn’t really inspire me, as most brightly suggested ‘adding it to your veggie smoothie’ as though that was already an integral part of my daily diet. I clearly have a long way to go with the whole vegetarian thing…

Still, its credentials are formidable:

  • Comprises 65% protein and essential amino acids;
  • High in essential omega oils (the kind you get from oily fish);
  • Very high in chlorophyll, which removes toxins from the blood and boosts the immune system;
  • Very high in iron;
  • Really effective anti-oxidant – even better at absorbing free radicals than superfoods like blueberries;
  • Significantly more calcium than milk; and
  • Contains loads of additional important vitamins and minerals (cue huge list of impossible to pronounce words that tend to make me zone out).

So if anyone has any advice in how to use it (i.e. how best to mask the fact you’re eating algae grown on the surface of a pond), please do let me know. And likewise I will share any good recipes that I find on here.

In the meantime, Chris and I are now discussing how we can cultivate our own – how hard can it be? For a start, it tastes remarkably like the rather ‘pondy’ water that comes out of our taps in the caravan, which we draw from our large storage water-butt, which in itself is drawn from a bore-hole – perhaps we’re already sitting on our fortune?!

Post-script: I tried putting it on my muesli this morning. The resultant verdigris paste freaked me out rather, but the evidence is below that it actually wasn’t too bad.  The tidemark of green on my lips afterwards was a bit weird though – I felt like some kind of clean-living Joker character.

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Yum (kind of).