The Value of Silence

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Wouldn’t you feel lost or even ignored if you came for a yoga class and hadn’t heard a single word from the teacher? I believe that just on the contrary, a silent yoga class presents an opportunity to learn something fundamental about your yoga practice.

I got the idea of teaching a silent Yin Yoga class from Norman Blair under whose guidance I studied this wonderful style of Yoga. Norman talks a lot during his classes, partly because he thought for a long time that students wouldn’t be able to cope with extended periods of silence (hard as it already is to stay still for 5 minutes at a time). That was until he made an experiment and led a class in complete silence. To his surprise, everybody seemed at ease with following only what he demonstrated.

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It was Norman Blair who inspired me to teach silent yoga

Encouraged by his example, I thought I’d give it a shot as well. To be on the safe side, I had in my group people who were already familiar with the specific nature of yin yoga with its mindful orientation, passive, long- held poses and slow pace. I must admit that teaching without verbal instruction felt a bit as if I wasn’t doing my job well enough. There was also the constant fear that the students had already forgotten they should not suffer in silence, what kind of sensations they should steer away from, etc. I did not leave the group on their own completely- if I saw someone struggling with finding a supported pose, I’d rush to offer a prop. After a silent relaxation, I awaited anxiously for the group’s feedback. I was relieved to hear they wanted more of classes like this in the future.

Silent Yin Yoga is even more meditative than its standard version. The teacher’s voice (just like music) could easily become a distraction which can take away focus from the breath to the act of listening. But I see even greater value of a silent class in bringing the agency back to the practitioner.
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Far too often yogis who don’t have established home practice do not trust themselves regarding their own yoga practice. They consider their teacher an ultimate authority, source of infinite knowledge, someone who knows their needs better than they do themselves.

I think it’s very important to make every yoga practitioner understand that nobody will ever be able to ‘read’ their bodies better than they do themselves. All it takes is to practice body awareness and learn how to interpret the arising sensations. There isn’t any one way a particular asana must be performed in yin yoga. There are innumerable options how to approach a specific asana and a multitude of props can be used in quite a freestyle way. The less said by the teacher, the more creative students become, adjusting asanas to the unique shapes of their bodies in an intuitive way.
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What I am hoping for is that through constant reminders to be aware of sensations and to assess them in order to create optimal practice made during ordinary, teacher led classes and through occasional silent sessions where those skills could be fully developed I would be able to lead my students towards more independent, safer and fulfilling yoga practice.

Nobody can be inside your body and feel what you are feeling. Nobody should decide what is right for you. The teachers have experience and knowledge which can be very useful but the ultimate teacher is within you.

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The un-yogic yogi paradox

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I’ve just returned from yoga and hiking holidays in Bulgaria. I find those trips a perfect blend of work and leisure: I teach classes twice daily but the rest of the time I can enjoy outdoors adventures. I’ve been doing it for a while now and I must admit that initially it was difficult for me to adapt to the concept. I was used to yoga retreats, where anything apart from yoga was an additional attraction- welcome, but not necessary. Hiking and yoga holidays are exactly the opposite: people treat yoga classes as a chance to loosen up their muscles before and after the hike.

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Posing at the magnificent Pirin mountains in Bulgaria

During my first trip, I was surprised to see everyone drinking well into the night just to wake up early for the yoga class the following day. I grew so much used to it by now that I didn’t even raise my eyebrows when I had to teach an evening class just a few hours after a traditional Bulgarian lunch, served with plenty of home-brewed rakija spirits. Yoga Nidra (guided relaxation) seemed the safest option for that day: adaptation is a key to success on such trips. I consider it a useful experience to remind me yoga doesn’t usually hold a central position in most of the practitioners’ lives.

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Bulgarian grandmas who served our group home-brewed spirits: all just a couple of hours before my yoga class

This trip was an eye- opener for me for a completely different reason, though. One of the conversations I had with the organizer of this trip put me initially in a state of shock and disbelief but after a longer deliberation actually and very sadly rang true. We were talking about different kinds of holidays he was offering: some focusing on hiking only, some combined with yoga. According to my employer, people who liked his company so much that they attended multiple trips each year, tended to avoid yoga holidays. It had nothing to do with aversion to yoga as such- it was a free choice to attend or skip yoga altogether and the price of both kinds of holidays didn’t differ much either. Apparently, the real reason to avoid those holidays was the kind of people that yoga was attracting. So, what was wrong with the yoga enthusiasts? Again and again, the regular hikers reported that they didn’t get along very well with the people coming to yoga holidays who tended to be ‘fussy, selfish and unwilling to share’.

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Teaching yoga after the whole day of hiking

I thought: how could that even be possible? Aren’t the ideals of yoga exactly the opposite? I could easily explain the argument of fussiness. What is a firm principle for one (eg. being a vegan) could probably sound like fussiness and inflexibility to an average person. And trust me, trying to be a vegan in Eastern Europe presents a real challenge. This year, I was served in a 4 star Slovakian hotel boiled broccoli and cauliflower as a vegan breakfast! I took it with a smile, though- as long as I was getting SOMETHING to eat, I was ready to put up with inconveniences for a couple of days. Keeping the fussiness argument aside it still leaves us with the selfishness accusation. If it was an argument raised many times, it must have carried a seed of truth.

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Thankfully Bulgaria turned out to be more vegan friendly than Poland and Slovakia

That made me think of other instances of very un-yogic behaviour which is rife among the trendy modern yogis, the kind you can come across in fashionable, expensive London studios. This kind of people love to show off wearing their expensive Lululemon clothes, practicing on their £100 yoga mats and covered all over in glittering mala beads (yogic rosaries used for mantra repetition). Many dedicated yogis (not only the trendy kind but also followers of a particular guru) tend to look down on others- the ‘unhealthy’ and ‘unspiritual’ masses.  My experience of attending a Dharma Mittra (founder of a major contemporary yoga school) workshop was that of vanity fair, full of yogis showing off their shiny, trendy yoga gear and accessories. The majority of those people were causally doing various acrobatic poses while waiting for their guru to appear. Just in case others might miss how skilled at advanced asanas they are. My friend, an Astanga yoga teacher, told me she avoids some yoga schools because the atmosphere is too competitive there!

All of this is rather disturbing for me and suggests that although mala- wearing modern yogis might have heard of yamas and niyamas (moral guidelines expounded in one of the classic yoga scriptures), they have little desire to actually comply with them.

Most of the contemporary yoga schools making any sort of claims of being linked to the spiritual tradition of yoga often define themselves as belonging to ancient Raja or Astanga Yoga branch. At the base of this 8-step ladder towards the final goal -the enlightenment- are yamas and niyamas, followed by asana, pranayama and stages leading to meditation. In other words, in theory, the prerequisite for doing yoga as we understand it (physical postures) is establishing strong moral base and discipline relating to outer and inner world.

Just for the record, the five yamas, self-regulating behaviors relating to interactions with others are

  • Ahimsa: nonviolence
  • Satya: truthfulness
  • Asteya: non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya: non-excess
  • Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greediness

The five niyamas, personal, inner practices include:

  • Saucha: purity
  • Santosha: contentment
  • Tapas: self-discipline
  • Svadhyaya: self-study
  • Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender (to God or something higher than us)

Of course I don’t expect all the people practicing yoga turning into angels. As I mentioned before, most of the yoga practitioners treat it as a very peripheral sphere of their lives. However, if a significant number of more dedicated yoga practitioners tend to be more flawed than an average hiker that is in my view a reason for concern. And I don’t think it’s just my imagination or exaggeration. JP Sears, a comedian whose videos draw lots of attention on YouTube is a master of satire in his parodies of yoga community [check out his ‘Ultraspiritual’ video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kDso5ElFRg]
The chasm between the ideals of yoga and reality of the yoga community is stark.

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JP Sears uses satire to expose hypocrisy of yoga community

For me yoga has little to do with physical prowess. It’s a state of mind, an attitude towards other people and the world in general. A mindful, content person who hasn’t attended a single yoga class in his life is in my eyes more of a yogi than some of the arrogant, exploitative yoga teacher celebs. Yoga encompasses entire life. If it’s just a few poses done daily or weekly, it’s nothing but a fitness form.

Is Yoga therapeutic?

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Most people associate yoga with radiant health and peace of mind. Paradoxically, the first image that pops into one’s mind when hearing the word yoga is a young, fit and presumably healthy woman in a contortionist pose. Viewing Instagram images of uber-flexible girls in poses defying gravity one might question the therapeutic value of yoga. Perhaps rightly so.

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THAT’S WHAT MOST PEOPLE HAVE IN MIND WHEN THEY HEAR WORD ‘YOGA’

Contrary to what many yoga practitioners believe and surprisingly many yoga teachers preach, asanas weren’t invented in order to improve health. The aim of the Hatha Yogis practicing headstands in the Himalayas wasn’t well-being and relaxation but forcefully disciplining their bodies in order to channel subtle energies and reach higher mental states. No wonder then that some of those old, ‘classical’ asanas carry inherent risks, particularly for a Western desk-bound population.

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HATHA YOGA WASN’T MEANT TO BRING PHYSICAL WELL-BEING BUT SPIRITUAL REALIZATION


It might come as a surprise that the oldest known asanas (apart from seated meditation poses) were developed only a couple of centuries ago. Even more shocking might be the fact that those oldest asanas are just a fraction of postures practiced today in yoga studios worldwide. The vast majority of asanas as we know them today were invented by 20th century teachers, mostly from the Krishnamacharya lineage. These teachers were undoubtedly well-intentioned but their anatomy knowledge was limited and they tended to create one-fits-all sets of sequences and alignment rules. Swami Sivanada and Vishnudevananda of the Sivananda Yoga lineage, Pattabhi Jois of Ashtanga Yoga and particularly B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga, all claimed that yoga- or rather THEIR TAKE ON YOGA- is therapeutic.

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Yet, many of the famous modern yoga teachers (and some of their more ardent followers) need to cope with chronic pain and serious injuries developed by years of overstretching and mastering ‘advanced’ poses. Being flexible has somehow become equated with being a good, successful, hard-working yogi. But the constant pushing beyond the body’s limits comes with a price.

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NOT ALL YOGA STYLES ARE SUITABLE FOR EVERYONE

Injuries can happen during almost any activity, even as simple as walking or taking a shower. Moreover, most sport disciplines have a much higher level of traumatic injuries than yoga. Yet the yoga injuries, especially among those who practice intensely and are naturally hyper-mobile, are a hidden, dirty secret of the yoga world
This does not mean yoga cannot be therapeutic. Indeed for many it is a self-healing process, both on a physical and mental level. I often hear from my students their back pain disappeared completely as a result of regular practice or that their panic attacks are a thing of the past. Just a quick search through yoga blogs ends up with hundreds of personal accounts of how yoga almost miraculously healed this or that person from a particular condition.

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YOGA THERAPY – AS THE NAME SUGGESTS- HAS INDISPUTABLE THERAPEUTIC VALUE

Some yoga styles are more geared towards healing than others. In fact therapeutic and restorative yoga are both meant to do just that. If you are not a 100% fit and healthy person it might be wiser to steer away from more dynamic and intense styles such as Bikram or Ashtanga Yoga and choose those with a more individual approach for example Viniyoga or Scaravelli Yoga.

This being said, much depends on the teacher rather than the style she follows. With a competent, attentive and accommodating teacher you should feel you’re in good hands. But ultimately it is your own attitude to yoga practice that makes a real difference. Are you honest with yourself and willing to accept your limitations? Do you practice to achieve some concrete goal (let’s say, reaching your toes or ‘nailing’ the crow pose) or could you rather let the situation unravel and accept whatever you encounter on the way?

For further exploration of the topic of yoga, pain and intention behind practice I recommend getting acquainted with Matthew Remsky’s WAWADIA project http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/multimedia/wawadia/

Finding balance in Yoga practice

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Diversity is a good thing. Your body needs a variety of different movements to be completely mobilized. Doing the same actions over and over again can lead to repetitive stress disorder or to creating imbalances in the way muscles develop. For example, all the flowing Yoga styles tend to use lots of pushing away movement of the arms but there are virtually no pulling actions. Common sense dictates one requires both actions to create a balance.

We are used to believe that practice makes one perfect. Repeating one and the same sequence day after day, year after year might eventually make you perform them with ease. But attending just one class taught in a different style of Yoga would show you just how limited that mastery would be. I’ve experienced it myself, practicing solely Sivananda Yoga for the first 3-4 years of my adventure with Yoga. When I moved to Edinburgh, there wasn’t any Sivananda Yoga class nearby so I had to try other available styles such as Vinyasa flow and Iyengar. At that time I considered myself good at Yoga (the realization you cannot be good or bad at Yoga came later) but my self confidence disappeared after attending just one Iyengar class. I remember the room was full of women in their 60s and 70s and I was shocked when a class meant to be gentle proved to be quite a challenge. I have learned my lesson. I now regularly try Yoga classes taught by various teachers and/ or representing various styles of Yoga just to make sure I’m not limiting myself to the same repetitive pattern.

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In my early days of teaching Yoga, I was confident I already mastered Yoga.

Many years passed since this first encounter with other Yoga styles and by now I understand also that we don’t always need the same thing. Our needs differ, depending on our physical and mental condition and even external circumstances such as time of the day or weather. Some days I add to my daily practice a bit more dynamic or strength-building elements. Some days I just do slowly a few simple asanas and if I’m really low in energy, I just settle for a couple of restorative poses or breathing practices. Doing the same sequence over and over again with no regard to all those factors seems insanity to me now.

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Now I often opt for more gentle form of Yoga

The concept of Yin and Yang is very useful to illustrate the need of balance in life in general and in Yoga practice in particular. If you lead very Yang, active lifestyle, Yin or slower kind of Yoga will be a blessing. And conversely, if you are rather sedentary or apathetic, a bit of Yang could prove very useful.

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Yin and Yang illustrates need for balance

All this is reflected in the way I teach my classes. On the hot summer days when people can hardly move I teach more static, less demanding poses. On the chilly days when people feel sluggish and basically need a good wake-up I energize them with something more active. Obviously adjusting the class to the needs of every single participant is impossible but sometimes I can pick up on a general mood or condition of the group and adjust the class accordingly.

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I adjust the intensity of the class according to the needs of the group

This being said, the importance of steady, consistent practice cannot be overestimated. Dropping in to completely different classes each time, always changing the teachers isn’t the best strategy. It’s good to have the favourite style or teacher, something that is the core of your practice, that you can always come back to like to the old, comfy shoes. It’s easier to create a regular practice if it’s based on one particular approach to Yoga. So long as it doesn’t turn into an unhealthy addiction or blind repetition, consistency could bring one plenty of benefits.

So, as usual, harmony and balance is the key.

Yoga adventures in Kolkata- part 2

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Every December, I fly to Kolkata in north-east India to visit my in-laws. Although India is a birthplace of Yoga, Kolkata is definitely not a yoga hub. Most Western Yoga lovers head to Rishikesh on footsteps of Himalayas or to South India where Sivananda, Ashtanga and Iyengar classes are offered in abundance. Spiritual seekers are drawn to famous south Indian ashrams such as Auroville and Sadhguru’s ashram near Coimbatore. West Bengal has little to offer in terms of Yoga styles popular in the West. However, it does not mean it’s a Yoga desert.

There are two main types of Yoga taught in Kolkata. One is Power Yoga, offered in even tiniest local gyms and used purely for fitness purposes. I tried it two years back in one of the posh Yoga studios in the city centre (see: https://padmakshidiary.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/yoga-adventures-in-kolkata/). The second is Yoga therapy. It actually seems that for many Indians there is no point to practice Yoga unless you suffer from one illness or another. Yoga Therapy has become popular mainly due to Baba Ram Dev- a celebrity Indian guru who claim to be able to cure with Yoga any disease from eczema, through diabetes to cancer and mental illness.

mystic-yogaYoga class at one of the Western-style Yoga schools in Kolkata

Recently, I’ve been quite interested in Yoga Therapy. Even though I have a fairly good idea of what poses should be avoided in case of most common health conditions, I’d love to learn more how to alleviate those conditions through Yoga. Yoga therapy in the UK is taught on one-to-one basis to meet the needs of each and every person. It is meant to improve functioning of physical, physiological (digestion, respiration, cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune), and mental systems and can be used as a complimentary therapy, in conjunction with Western medicine. There are a few good Yoga Therapy courses offered in London but sadly they are way beyond my budget. Hence, my idea to come to India to study this art here in the near future. I thought it would make lots of sense as Indian teachers seem to specialize in this field.

When I discovered that a Yoga Therapy teacher with 15 years of experience lives in my in-laws locality, I decided to try out his classes. From my previous visits to Kolkata, I knew attending a Yoga class here is going to be a very different experience from what I’m used to but I haven’t expected it to be THAT different.

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Indians don’t need yoga mats to practice yoga asanas

Yoga Acharya (Yoga master) as he was calling himself, was conducting classes in his own flat. I attended two of his sessions: one on Saturday afternoon and one at 6 am on a Sunday morning. I was told to wear white loose trousers and a white tunic (traditional Indian lady’s outfit) and come ‘clean inside and outside’. There was just me and a teenage boy attending the first class and a couple of more young men and one lady at the morning session. When I entered the flat, the teacher was sitting on a bed with a large mirror installed behind him. I automatically assumed that’s just one more example of how much Bengalis are fond of beds (where they study, read, snack, receive relatives and close friends and generally spend most of their day). However, my husband later explained that it is an ancient tradition that a guru transmits knowledge to his disciples while seated higher than them. It was a sure sign that it wasn’t simply a Yoga exercise class but Yoga proper (involving spiritual aspects). The students spread thin throws directly on a stone floor in front of the teacher: that was our space for practice.

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Guru on his dais

We started the class with chants to goddess Durga and god Ganesha sang simultaneously with a recorded version. The devotional music was played in the background throughout the class. lengthy pranayama session constituted the main part of the class. The teacher instructed us to breathe very slowly, then in ‘medium breaths’ and then breath as fast as we could. Only then did we practice traditional pranayamas such as kapalabhati, brahmari and anuloma viloma. We learned from the teacher that practicing kapalabhati for 30 min every day will ‘cure all diseases’. This kind of wild, unsubstantiated claims were repeated throughout the class. The breathing sequence was followed with a warm-up inspired with Satyananda Yoga tradition, involving gentle mobilization of all the body joints and quite strenuous abdominal strengthening exercises.

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Pranayama was the most important part of the class

Suddenly, the music changed from subtle, melodious devotional tune into a dance/pop Western music from the 90’s. Dario G’s Sunchyme was played during a few rounds of fast-paced sun salutations. Doing sun salutations not just on a hard surface but also on a thin throw which kept on slipping and folding was quite a challenge. No wonder that everybody went through their saluts in a very haphazard way.

Once the sun salutations were completed, we lied down in a row for the Yoga asanas. The whole asana session couldn’t have exceeded 10 minutes and it comprised of a few poses done in a quick succession. None of the poses were held for more than 30 seconds. Curiously enough, we started with ‘cycling’ while staying in the shoulderstand. At no point during the class was breathing mentioned. Neither the importance of being kind to one’s body. All participants (the teacher including!) were huffing and puffing or even groaning, trying desperately to reach the deepest version of each asana. I could not see how forcing the unwilling body to reach those ‘correct’ poses could be in any way therapeutic. The instructions such as ‘put your nose on your knees’ in the forward fold meant that de facto students were constantly putting their health at risk in order to obey the teacher. Yet, the most unexpected part of the class was to come.

The asana session finished as suddenly as it started. The teacher swapped the devotional tunes for cheesy pop music again and with a smile announced: ‘Now, aerobics!’. With this, he jumped out of the bed and led us through a curious mixture of a football warm up, jogging on the spot and spontaneous dance. I was trying hard not to burst out laughing doing jumping jacks in the middle of the Yoga Therapy class. The aerobic exercise lasted altogether at least as long as the asana session, if not longer. Once it ended, we froze for a few seconds in a tree pose, gazing at the Oum symbol attached to the mirror above the teacher’s seat.

We concluded with a relaxation accompanied by a recording of a Satyananda Yoga Nidra. For the reasons unknown to me, the recording was in Hindi, even though the language spoken in Kolkata is Bengali. After the closing chant the teacher said: ‘And now, be happy!’ with which he raised his arms high and made a fake laugh.  The students readily joined. I suppose it must have been a short version of laughing yoga, very popular in India. Laughing yoga is a practice where people force themselves to laugh with the belief fake laugh has same health benefits as the spontaneous one (for a sample watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fq4kTZuLops).

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Laughing Yoga is very popular in India

I was curious what has brought those young men to the class. It turned out all students were suffering from either physical or mental disorders and came to the class hoping to cure them. The teacher felt at ease to talk publicly about their health issues, without even asking their permission. From the leaflet which the guru handed me I learned that his Yoga treatment is good for (among others):

‘acidity, asthma, arthritis, back pain, BEAUTIFICATION, better life style, colitis, concentration, constipation, coronary artery disease, cough and cold, depression, diabetes, disabled, dysentery, eczema, eye problems, frozen solder [sic!], gout, gynecological disorders, headache, heart disease, high blood pressure, improvement in sports, IMPROVEMENT IN BUSINESS, IMPROVEMENT IN EDUCATION, indigestion, infertility, insomnia, kidney disease, knee pain, pregnancy, psychological disease, sexual disorder, sciatica, slow growth, SPIRITUAL GAIN, stomach problem, stress management, tumor, YOGA DANCE SHOW’
It’s really a shame I’ve read the flyer only after I returned home as I’d never learn what a yoga dance show is or how Yoga can help you become more beautiful.
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Now, you might think I’m unfair ridiculing that well intentioned  teacher and his style. After all, there is plenty of equally weird stuff going on in the contemporary Western Yoga scene. DJ sets accompanying classes are not uncommon and some styles involve movements which bear little resemblance with original Hatha Yoga asanas, my currently favourite Scaravelli Yoga including. Furthermore, alignment in asanas is a very modern invention- we owe it to B.K.S. Iyengar. All of this is true, but one important difference is that most of the new Western Yoga styles don’t make claims about authenticity or purity of their Yoga style. Meanwhile, the Bengali teacher stressed out that he teaches ‘pure Yoga’ (as opposed to Yoga taught in the West).

The most shocking for me in the whole experience was the fact that this very unsafe approach to Yoga asanas was advertised as Yoga Therapy. Teacher’s rather carefree attitude was even more surprising considering that he was not only experienced but also well- trained. He completed teachers’ training not just with one but 4 different, renowned institutions, including Baba Ram Dev’s school in Haridwar and Swami Satyananda’s ashram in Bihar. He told me he follows 4 different gurus and teaches the mixture of what he has learned from all of them. Now he himself conducts Yoga teachers training which are just 11 days long. I found out about him by browsing local Yoga schools listing sites where people were giving him raving reviews. I could not help but wonder, if that’s supposedly one of the best Yoga Therapy teachers in the city with population of 14 million, how the other teachers are fairing? And how different would a Yoga therapy course in India be from the one in the West?

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Teacher with his gurus: Swami Vivekananda and Baba Ram Dev

Despite his fame, I never contemplated the idea of attending any of the courses of Baba Ram Dev and seeing his disciple in action only confirmed I was right to steer away. He might have done a good job by reviving interest in Yoga among Indians but he is not a figure I’d look up to. Ram Dev has his own TV channel and a multi-million company ‘Patanjali’ selling a myriad of products, from Ayurvedic medicines and cosmetics to food. He is as much a skillful businessman as he is a showman. He recently appeared in a popular TV show, challenging the host with a yoga duel (see the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQAFAVQaOCk). A guru which turns Yoga into a circus performance just to amuse the audience cannot win respect in my eyes.

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Baba Ram Dev – a Yoga star

There is still lots of research I need to do but I do believe that there must be some worthwhile Yoga Therapy course offered somewhere in this vast country.

Believe it or not- it’s all Yoga

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Most of the people, even those who attend yoga classes regularly have quite a limited understanding of Yoga. They associate it primarily with asanas, specific postures and pranayamas commonly referred to as breathing techniques. Some understand that meditation is also closely linked to Yoga but they’d usually speak of yoga AND meditation as if they were two separate entities. True yoga aficionados might have heard of subtle energy, energy channels or at least chakras. Yet smaller percentage of yoga practitioners have come across yamas and niyamas – yogic moral code.

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Asana (posture) is often first and last thing people associate with yoga

But what if I told you that Hare Krishna movement followers are also yogis? Or that giving up everything to work with slum dwellers could be a form of Yoga? You’d probably be very surprised so let me explain how can that possibly be.

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ISHKON followers right in the middle of their yoga practice

What constitutes contemporary postural yoga is a curious jumble of various branches of Yoga philosophy and lifestyle which evolved over millennia with quite a few 20th century Western additions. It was the early 20th century gurus such as Swami Sivananda who mixed together much older Raja Yoga (codified in 2nd century BC by sage Patanjali) with Hatha Yoga- a mystical branch of Yoga developed in 12th century CE.

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Swami Sivananda is one of the gurus who created modern yoga

Roughly speaking, what we practice today is Raja Yoga, a royal path of Yoga, where an adept is supposed to follow gradually 7 steps leading to the last, 8th step- enlightenment. Labeling modern yoga as Raja Yoga is not 100% accurate and you’d clearly see why when I name those steps. Yama and niyama -guidelines on how to live life, including such universal moral rules as non-violence or chastity- are at the very base of this 8-step ladder, followed by asana, pranayama, and 3 mental stages of sensory withdrawal, concentration and meditation.

Now, show me one yoga teacher who will tell you not to even bother with stepping on a yoga mat until you’re a non-violent, non-coveting, honest, clean, self-disciplined, self-inquiring and content individual? Surely not many people would be attracted to Yoga after such an introduction and so yama and niyama are usually only fleetingly mentioned as something that is worth to incorporate but definitely not essential.

Let’s be very clear on this: Patanjali’s Yoga had nothing to do with performing acrobatic poses. Patanjali considered asana essential only in so far as it kept the body steady and comfortable throughout long periods of meditation. Raja Yoga revolved all around taming the mind and ego through meditation- it certainly wasn’t a body-focused practice.

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Asana is a steady, comfortable pose, ideal for long meditation

So where the asanas come from? Well, some of them are the exact or almost exact copies of practices belonging to Hatha Yoga tradition. However, the fact that we mimic the centuries old yoga poses doesn’t mean we actually follow the footsteps of those mystics who practiced Hatha Yoga in mediaeval India. What sets us apart from them is the lack of the intention which was behind those practices. Hatha Yoga, literally the forceful Yoga, was using human body as a vehicle, a tool to reach liberation (term I’d be using interchangeably with enlightenment).

Hatha Yogis presumed that we have not only a physical, gross body but also a parallel, subtle body. A man is a bit like matryoshka, a Russian doll with many layers, consisting of physical body, subtle energy body, mind body, wisdom body and blissful body. The idea that there is a special kind of energy, a life force which circulates through the channels in the subtle body isn’t unique to Yoga. Indian prana is nothing else than Chinese chi/qi and the nadi channels are the mirror reflection of meridians of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The sole purpose of Hatha Yoga was to use particular asanas and pranayamas to control the flow of energy in the subtle body. We still find the remnants of that idea in modern postural yoga where each asana has both physical and ‘subtle’ or ‘energetic’ benefits. Teachers of some contemporary yoga styles would be able to explain that we stimulate particular chakras (energy vortexes) with particular poses. What is omitted in those teachings though is that the purification of the channels is just the first stage of a long process. The actual aim of controlling the life force, or prana through Hatha Yoga is the hope of waking up another, more potent energy called Kundalini.

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Kundalini rests in the lowest chakra

Kundalini shakti (power) is a primordial, omnipotent energy resting dormant in our subtle body, to be more precise, in our root chakra corresponding to physical location of the base of the spine. Through a dedicated practice of asana and pranayama, combined with special cleansing practices and gestures, Kundalini force can be awaken, directed through the main energy channel and released, causing the state of liberation. Before that happens, though, yogi gains some super-powers called sidhis, including levitation, travel in time and space, clairvoyance and immortal body. People in India feared yogis, considering them magicians, often dangerous ones.
Understandably, the contemporary, New Age version of Kundalini Yoga (developed last century by Yogi Bhajan) advocates awakening Kundalini in order to live more fulfilled life here and now, rather than achieve the state of enlightenment.

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Modern kundalini yoga claims to harness kundalini for improving daily life

It’s worth mentioning that out of hundreds of existing yoga postures, only a small proportion are original Hatha Yoga poses. The majority has been invented by first modern yoga gurus such as Krishnamacharya. Those gurus were strongly influenced by… Western gymnastics which came to India via colonial channels roughly the same time they developed their teachings. The idea of yoga flow (vinyasa)- dynamically moving from one posture to another- is also an invention of Krishnamacharya. He came up with this vigorous, cardio practice because it was more suitable for a military drill for the soldiers of maharaja of Mysore who he was assigned to train.

The first modern gurus combined those two rather incompatible branches of Yoga and started for the first time in history teaching it to the general public. Before that, Yoga was a secret knowledge passed over decades from a guru directly to his disciple. A yogi was a man who had become a sannyasin– a renunciate, giving up all the links with society in the hope of gaining liberation. Once Yoga has become main-stream, the emphasis on enlightenment started gradually fading away, replaced by goals such as health and peace of mind.

Let’s come back now to Yoga which has nothing to do with either asana or meditation. Traditionally, there have been various paths leading to the same goal: realizing the ‘higher’ Reality (transcendental Self or God) and thus uniting with it. This realization and unification leads to the state of existence, knowledge and bliss absolute. The prerequisite of achieving the liberation is to let go of the ego, the sense of self, the idea of body and mind belonging to you. And what easier way to lose it than to devote yourself fully to something bigger than yourself?

Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of devotion is a path in which one loses his self completely by serving God with his every breath.It’s an ultimate surrender of the ego. By this point, you probably started to wonder whether Yoga is a religion after all?  Rest assured. It is not. You can choose any given deity of any religion to become the focus of your devotion. It doesn’t matter if it’s Krishna, Shiva, Jesus, Buddha or even your guru. It works as long as you can truly and wholeheartedly give your chosen deity all your love and sacrifice the ‘I’.  Bhakti yoga usually involves practices such as dancing, chants and meditation all leading to ecstatic states of merging with the Divine. The point in Bhakti Yoga isn’t that you literally believe particular stories about the god you have chosen. Devotion, rituals are just props towards liberation, when the individual self will merge with the Divine into one. 

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Rituals such as this belong to Bhakti Yoga tradition

The other way to annihilate the ego is to dedicate all your actions to the well-being of others. That is the idea behind Karma Yoga, the Yoga of action. Nowadays reduced in certain yoga schools to voluntary service to help with running of the yoga centres, it was actually meant to be a selfless service. So long as you expect nothing in return, including the feeling of pride or righteousness, it is not Karma Yoga and it will not help you in your spiritual development. Karma Yoga means doing your job, whatever it is, without expecting any results.

Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion) and Karma Yoga (yoga of action) are closely interlinked. I mentioned before that ISHKON (Hare Krishna) followers are bhakti yogis. It’s certainly so. But also, their holy scripture – Bhagavadgita- a philosophical treaty coming from an Indian epic Mahabharata, expounds the principles of Karma Yoga. In Bhagavadgita, god Krishna explains his disciple, a prince and an excellent archer Arjuna what constitutes his dharma, his duty which he should fulfill with complete engagement yet detaching himself completely from the fruits of his actions.

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Krishna explains Arjuna principles of Karma Yoga

Another yoga path open for those who could not find the previously described ones suitable is Jnana Yoga, or yoga of knowledge. If it was just about studying and absorbing knowledge, this could have been the most appropriate to scientifically-inclined Westerners. However, Jnana Yoga is all about realizing and understanding through experience rather than studying.

According to Yoga philosophy, the world in which we live, the one we consider reality is just an illusion, maya. Interestingly enough, modern physicists and neuroscientists would by and large agree with that vision of the world first described in the Upanishads, ancient Indian scriptures. Understanding the true nature of the world (that everything is One) is done by jnana yogis through self-inquiry. Two practices of self-inquiry are viveka (discriminating between real and unreal, eternal and transient) and vairagya or dispassion. Dispassion means avoiding craving or aversion to anything, cutting of all possible attachments. Now, looking at the alternatives, being an ardent follower of a particular deity indeed sounds much easier than not experiencing aversion to cold when standing barefoot on the snow or not feeling craving for food after fasting for a week….

The list of various Yoga branches by no means finishes here, I’ve just highlighted the most significant and popular of them. What I was hoping to show is that looking at Yoga as a fitness regime or even as a relaxation technique is a reductionism which ignores the history of Yoga and the wisdom behind it. Not everybody needs or should be spiritual but the spiritual heritage of Yoga tradition cannot be denied and should not be forgotten.

*If you’d like to learn more about history and philosophy of yoga, I recommend reading ‘The Shambala Guide to Yoga’ by Georg Feuerstein*

The myth of Yoga Body

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Most of the Yoga teachers make their students believe that the Yoga Body, the bendy body, is something to achieve, something that one can sculpt through perseverance, through a strong, devoted, daily practice. They are genuinely convinced that whether you’re tall and lanky or short and sturdy and whatever your torso to limbs proportion are, you can and should do asanas in one specific way, usually exactly in the same way as the guru/ founder of the particular style.

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Pattabhi Jois, guru of Astanga Yoga in lotus- a pose inaccessible for many yet essential in Astanga sequence

There are serious consequences of that uniform approach. First of all, anyone who fails to ‘progress’ in the expected way feels inadequate and usually quits Yoga, feeling ashamed, disappointed or defeated. I’m guilty of following that style of teaching for years. I’ve refused to notice that it was always the fit an flexible people or the people who have experienced a visible increase in their range of movement throughout the course that were signing up for the next term. Most of the ‘stiff as as a board’ ones would never come back, often dropping out after just one or two classes.

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Yoga isn’t about reaching to one’s toes but often people who don’t see increase in flexibility quit yoga, feeling it’s not for them or that it doesn’t work

No matter what yoga teachers and gurus preach, you cannot trick or ignore your own biological make-up. If your breast or abdomen or particularly fleshy calves get in the way when you do Yoga, you cannot make them magically disappear. What you can do is to work your way around the obstacle, accommodating the classical version of a particular asana in the way which suits your body. For example, if your belly prevents you getting deeper in forward fold, all you need to do is to keep the legs apart. Simple, isn’t it? The problem is that for the majority of teachers nowadays it’s more important to follow the ‘proper alignment’ rather than do something that would make student’s practice more sensible and beneficial.

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Just a few examples of variation in shapes and sizes of collarbones. Same diversity applies to any other part of the body

Our uniqueness goes far beyond what can be seen with a naked eye. There is a surprisingly huge variation in the way human skeleton could look like. Some people might miss a particular bone or muscle, while some might have an extra one. The shapes of the bones and their particular location in relation to one another vary enormously. The familiar plastic skeleton from the anatomy classes is just an example, an average. The problem is, nobody in real life is average. Everybody is unique.

Following the alignment cues designed by and for young Indian males might bring disastrous effects for somebody who clearly is built very differently from that ‘ideal’. Yoga is a powerful practice, capable of changing soft tissues- muscles, fascia and even to some extent joint capsules and ligaments. However, as the common sense dictates, bones are not pliable. Trying to push beyond the skeletal restrictions is not only completely futile but also can be dangerous. There will be always a few people in each yoga class for whom some poses will be inaccessible regardless of time and effort spent working on them.

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Most of the yoga poses were created by and for Indian men

Far too often yoga students are so fixated on attaining an aesthetically pleasing, ‘correct’ pose, that they barely pay attention to what happens to the body in the process of getting there. Doing an asana ‘correctly’, even if that means losing breath and clenching the teeth with effort, often matters for yogis more than paying close attention to the sensations within. Shifting the focus to just being present could completely transform the practice, making it not only far less frustrating and enjoyable, but most of all more beneficial.

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Getting there rather than being here is the approach many yoga teachers and practitioners take

Unfortunately, slow and gentle Yoga doesn’t really appeal to most practitioners and it’s easy to understand why. It doesn’t bring the same satisfaction, it doesn’t feed the ego with the feeling of accomplishment and success. As everywhere else in life, people search for a thrill, for an adventure or at least for a reward and if they can’t find it, they quickly lose interest. Yogis used to progressive style of teaching often choose a particular pose to become their ultimate goal. They might work on ‘nailing’ that pose for months, even years. What happens when that goal is finally achieved? Absolutely nothing. Apart from fleeting moment of pride or joy, standing on the head or coming to a full wheel doesn’t change absolutely anything, either in or out of the yoga studio.

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There is nothing special in headstand yet this pose is often considered somehow more beneficial and gratifying than others

We should look very closely at our reasons for doing Yoga and the way we practice. It’s time for more embodied and mindful practice, where we truly pay attention to and honour our bodies, even if that means contradicting teacher’s guidelines. Let’s stop doing Yoga against or despite our bodies but be fully with harmony with our bodies, unafraid and unashamed to do any adjustments that the bodies crave for. Only by being fully present and by accepting the reality of our anatomy can we truly experience Yoga benefits.

PS. If you’d like to explore the topic of how individual anatomy affects Yoga practice, I recommend wholeheartedly ‘Your Yoga.Your Body’ by Bernie Clark. It’s very detailed and very anatomically-oriented but would certainly bring lots of A-HA moments.

Revolution in the yoga studio

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A few weeks ago I finally dared to make ground-breaking changes to the way I teach Yoga. If you were following my blog, you must have noticed that for the past 2 years or so I’ve been going through Yoga identity crisis. Diverging from Sivananda Yoga path which I devotedly followed for over a decade was a long and mentally painful process. By now I can say this process is complete. For quite a while, I’ve been at a loss what to teach INSTEAD of Sivananda sequence and how but now I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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I’ve graduated in Sivananda Yoga Teachers Training almost a decade ago. Now I cannot really call myself a Sivananda teacher anymore.

My personal journey started similarly to that of growing number of teachers turning away from ‘traditional’ lineages: I’ve experienced pain directly related to my Yoga practice. After 10 years of doing Sivananda sequence religiously, day after day, I was becoming a wreck. Despite being just in early thirties, I needed ‘fixing’ by my massage therapist friends on a regular basis. Some pains I grew so much used to that I almost didn’t notice them anymore. The nagging, consistent pain in the right shoulder was my constant companion. I thought it was normal and there was nothing that could be done about it apart from temporary relief through massage. Another old companion, the pain which I only recently properly diagnosed as sciatica started appearing with frighteningly increasing regularity. What used to be 1-2 weeks of annoying (luckily never really strong) pain a year became a week of pain each month. When on top of that I started experiencing numbness in my right shoulder and both legs in numerous asanas I could not pretend everything is OK anymore. My body was slowly but steadily breaking down and deep inside I knew very well it was Yoga doing that to me.

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Following Sivananda sequence rigidly didn’t seem to do me that much good in a long term

I started reading, learning, exploring, trying out new styles and seeking advice of other teachers. The more I was learning, the more my home practice was changing. I stopped doing headstand altogether, modified shoulderstand, avoided deep backbends and started practicing poses which relax piriformis muscle- the sciatica pain culprit. Result? The shoulder pain and numbness never came back and rather than experiencing full blown sciatic pain I have to deal with periodic tension in that area.

I’d like to stress out that I don’t blame Sivanada Yoga for being particularly unsafe or harmful as compared to other styles. In fact, dynamic styles of Yoga, especially Ashtanga have much more grim record of harming the practitioners, primarily due to repetitive stress (it’s well explained in this video by Dr Raza Awan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cA9MO4mbjQ. During my recent explorations I did injure myself in a few Yoga classes representing various schools of Yoga. In my search for inspiration I sometimes stumbled upon classes and teachers that were clearly not suitable for me but most of them were at least in some ways useful or stimulating. (see: https://padmakshidiary.wordpress.com/2016/05/14/they-call-me-the-seeker/ )

For the past year or so I couldn’t help thinking: if I was suffering in silence for so long, how could I assume that it wasn’t the same with my students? I’ve transformed my personal practice completely but didn’t have the guts to do the same with the classes taught by me. I lacked confidence as much as I lacked courage. I felt guilty, teaching asanas which I stopped doing myself, teaching in a way which by then I  knew could be potentially risky. I simply couldn’t imagine standing one day in front of my students and telling them ‘Scrap it all. Forget all that I’ve taught you. We’re starting from the beginning’. I thought it’d be too drastic a change, too confusing.

Most importantly, I feared it’d undermine my authority as a teacher or maybe even take away my livelihood. After all, what kind of teacher tells you one day that a particular posture gives you bountiful benefits and can be done almost by everybody just to claim suddenly that it actually takes long years to perfect it and a large percentage of population shouldn’t even attempt it in the first place? Would anyone like to have a teacher lacking integrity?

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I stopped teaching poses just because their accomplishment is gratifying

It was only an amazing workshop with Alexandria Crow, one of celeb American Yoga teachers frequently appearing on Yoga Journal pages that gave me the courage to implement much-needed changes. Alexandria got seriously injured doing Yoga and dedicated herself to informing as many Yoga practitioners as possible about safe Yoga practice. She had to tell her students that she was wrong, simply because what she had learned from her teachers was wrong. And, apparently, her students have thanked her for that, rather than turning away from her. If turning the whole teaching upside down worked for that famous teacher, why wouldn’t it work for me? I decided to give it a try.

a.crow Workshop with A. Crow was a breakthrough

I felt quite anxious, facing room full of my regular students and telling them to forget much of what they’ve learned from me. But Alexandria was right: no one has accused me of misinformation, no one has ignored me and carried on with the old ways. In fact, I’ve got from a few students quite encouraging and heart-warming feedback. Even though I’ve deprived the students of some of the ‘cherry’ poses, those fancy asanas which one can boast to friends about, they seemed quite OK with the changes.

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It took me a while to change my teaching style but I’m glad I did it

Students tend to follow their teacher blindly and I now encourage them to stop doing that. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right. I cannot see everything, much can only be felt by being truly present. What I hope for is that I can teach my students how to be more aware of sensations felt in a particular pose which is in fact the best way to avoid injury and get the most of the practice.

I still have tons to learn but at least I know which direction I’m heading now. There are a few teachers whom I trust and whose guidance I find valuable. I don’t intend to tie myself to any particular style. I rather want to be a part of the emerging paradigm in the Yoga world which recognizes the uniqueness of every person and the necessity to adapt the asanas to individual needs. This paradigm breaks with universal alignment cues meant for an average person and with the idea that everybody can master any asana with as long as he/she is dedicated enough.

Teaching a group class taking into consideration each student’s uniqueness is a daunting task but it’s not impossible. I’m dedicated to learn more about individual anatomical, physiological and psychological differences as well as basic biomechanic and kinestetic patterns which all determine what each person is capable of doing in a yoga class (for more on that, check an amazing book: ‘Your Body. Your Yoga’ by Bernie Clark)

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My new Yoga Bible

I’m not interested in a body-oriented practice, though. I don’t think having in-depth anatomical knowledge annuls the belief in existence of prana, subtle body and energy channels. I still strongly believe that Yoga deprived of spiritual aspects and of wider context of Yoga mindset, mindfulness and meditation becomes mere exercise. ‘Traditional’ Hatha Yoga as we know it is to a large extent an invention of a bunch of 20th century gurus who had very limited knowledge of the human body. Making necessary changes to the ‘sacred’ rules set up by them guarantees safer practice but it doesn’t make Yoga itself any less ‘genuine’ or profound.

Home practice: do what’s best for you

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I always tell my students that one yoga class a week simply isn’t enough. I do understand that few can afford more than one group class (both in terms of time and money) so I encourage the students to practice at home instead. In fact, doing a bit of Yoga every day is better than two long classes a week.

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Weekly Yoga class is good, daily Yoga practice besides it- even better

There are lots of hurdles waiting for yogis eager to start home practice. My students usually complain about lack of time (how about waking up 15 min earlier?) or quiet space (have you tried your local park or living room when whole house is asleep?) But even taking finding the time and space for yoga or inner discipline for daily practice out of the equation, a fundamental question remains: HOW to practice?

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If your house is too small or loud for Yoga, try taking your practice outdoors

I usually advise Yoga newbies to wait with home practice until they get more accustomed with poses, basic safety rules and breathing patterns. As for those more established with their practice, I used to suggest them daily sun salutations: quick, comprehensive sequence working with the entire body. However, I’ve recently realized that the advice I give to my students does not reflect my own approach to home practice. I gave up repeating the same sequence over and over again long time ago so why on Earth would I tell my students to do it? One shouldn’t force himself to go through the same sequence, regardless of circumstances.

Essentially, home practice should be a chance to do what the body/mind needs the most at the particular moment. So if you just need to energize and have just a few spare minutes before going to work, sun salutation indeed might be the best option. But what if you feel tired, have a painful period or headache or you’re stressed out? Legs against the wall or some really gentle floor stretches would be ideal, then.

 

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There is time for more yang-active and yin-passive practice. Both are equally important

The pace, length and intensity of the session should be adjusted according to external circumstances (such as time of the day) and out current needs. Yin is great just before sleep, while Yang gets you ready for challenges of the day.  Trust your intuition and go with the flow when you unroll your mat. You don’t really need to plan or think it over- just let the practice unfold naturally. Most people fear building their own sequence of asanas, thinking they’ll do it ‘wrong’.

Worry not, creating your own sequence is easy as long as you remember just a few basic rules. Every asymmetrical asana needs to be done on both sides,  while a forward bend should be followed with a gentle backbend (eg. bridge) and a backbend -with a gentle forward fold (e.g. child pose). A well-rounded session, even if it’s a short one, should include at least one forward and one backward bend, one spinal twist and one side stretch. You could also add some core-strengtheners, hip-openers, inversions and balancing poses, depending on your needs and time you have.

Here we come to another important point: doing what you NEED usually does NOT mean doing what you LIKE. Everyone enjoys poses which he/she can perform effortlessly and hates the ones that are challenging. Bad news: you really have to do the asanas you struggle with. I don’t mean by that trying out complex, deep poses that your body is not strong or open enough for just yet. I rather mean opening up  and building up strength gradually, gently but persistently through a set of really basic poses.

I’ll give a couple of examples to illustrate my point better. If you need a block to keep your back from rounding when you’re sitting with legs stretched out, hamstrings should be your main concern. If during leg lifts you can’t keep the lower back on the mat and your shoulders tense up, you need to work on building core strength. If your knees are very high up when you’re sitting cross-legged, focus on opening the hips. And so on. Home practice gives you an opportunity to devote more time on the more restricted/weaker parts of the body. If you do something for those neglected parts every single day, you won’t wait long to see the results.

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Doing what feels easy (in my case: backbends) is a great temptation but you’ll benefit much more from working on the challenging poses

Don’t do the poses that are new for you or you’re not entirely sure how to perform- leave those for the guided class. Stop immediately whenever you feel sharp, sudden pain- Yoga shouldn’t hurt! You also don’t want to feel any discomfort in the joints or tingling/numbness in the limbs. Stick to the simplest asanas. The fact that a pose doesn’t look spectacular doesn’t mean it’s not effective. Some of the best and safest poses are the most uncomplicated ones. I learned from a yoga therapy teacher that cat-cow and downward dog should be the two poses to do every day if one has just 5 minutes to spare. I wouldn’t make it a general rule, though. Remember, always go for the pose which feels right for you.

Whatever you choose to do in your home practice, stay present and don’t forget about breathing. The calm, deep, abdominal breath helps to go through the movement and stay during the long holds as well as anchors the mind in the present moment. Always trust your body cues and adjust your position accordingly. Don’t hesitate to use props (such as cushions, blankets or wall) to feel more supported. Last but not leas, never ever skip the relaxation. It’s absolutely crucial to give yourself at least 5 minutes of savasana for each 30 minutes of practice.

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Savasana is a MUST! If you’ve ever walked out of the class before the final relaxation, you know that skipping it really messes you up

Finally, remember that Yoga isn’t just about asana. Sometimes all you need is a pranayama (breathing technique) to balance and cleanse, Yoga Nidra (guided relaxation) to calm down your wrecked nerves or meditation to become more mindful.

Enjoy your practice!

 

They call me the Seeker

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Spring has come and with it, the end of the turmoil and drama I went through during winter months. Since April, I’ve finally been able to enjoy my free time and focus on what’s most important in my life- Yoga. I fully immersed myself in the world of postural Yoga, trying out new styles and teachers in hope to gain some inspiration for teaching as well as personal practice. Last but not least, I was hoping to to find an alternative to what has increasingly felt like a finished chapter in my life. I was ready to detach myself from Sivananda style which I’ve been following  since I first stepped onto a mat, 12 years ago.

For the last 1.5 month I’ve been doing daily practices with my favourite online Yoga portal- Yoga International- and attended numerous classes in two leading London Yoga schools. Since 1st April, I attended 17 classes representing 11 different styles taught by 12 different teachers. A real Yoga marathon.

The experience has been incredibly rewarding so far and has given me an insight into what appeals to me in different yoga styles. So, I know for sure now that I definitely don’t like aerobic-style, very strenuous, New-Age’y kind of Yoga such as Kundalini or Kriya Yoga. Both sessions left me breathless, dizzy and very sore for days after. I did enjoy and found something to learn from the stronger, dynamic classes such as  Vinyasa Flow, Anusara, Jivamukti and particularly Forest Yoga.

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Kundalini Yoga is definitely not my cup of tea

What really hooked me and made me come back again and again though were Scaravelli-inspired classes. That was it. That was the style I was looking for. I was surprised to learn that Vanda Scaravelli was a life-long disciple of B.K.S. Iyengar. After all, Iyengar Yoga is definitely not my cup of tea. I find Iyengar style rigid, dry, military, perfectionist and its instructions full of unintelligible anatomical jargon. The last Iyengar class I attended only confirmed my view: the teacher was literally shouting at us and pointing the finger at those students who were performing asanas in a ‘wrong’ way.
The Scaravelli-inspired classes I attended were nothing like that. They were still challenging, yet slow and very safe for the body. The idea was to forget about attaining a pose. It was the process, the action full of awareness that mattered more. I could FEEL my body better than ever before. And it felt very good indeed. Yes, the style ‘clicked’ with me.
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Vanda Scaravelli was a disciple of B.K.S. Iyengar but developed her own approach

In fact, I liked those classes so much that I immediately bought Vanda Scaravelli’s book ‘Awakening the Spine’ and could not agree more with her views not just on the Yoga practice itself by on leading the life in mindful way as well. Scaravelli warned: ‘(…) do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose‘ and promised that ‘if you are kind to your body, it will respond in an incredible way’. Working with, rather than against the body seems to me the best possible approach to asanas.

The Scaravelli-inspired classes which I attended were focusing mostly on rather basic poses, omitting ‘advanced’ asanas such as arm balances, inversions or deep backbends. It’s not because Scaravelli considered them inherently unsafe – in fact she explains some very difficult asanas in her book- it’s just that one should do asanas with complete ease rather than push oneself to ‘achieve’ them.

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It’s hard to resist ‘advanced’ poses but it often means pushing yourself into them

My only criticism would be that Scaravelli approach is very body-oriented, with little space for spiritual aspects. Surely that’s where legacy of Iyengar is visible. However, I’m far from falling from one blind fanaticism to the other so I intend to take from Scaravelli what appeals to me and carry on with the elements I cherish in my practice.

How to fuse all those very different elements that have inspired me recently into teaching is still a mystery to me. I’m afraid that my hesitation creates some problems not only for myself but also for my students. My classes have changed a lot since I started teaching in London, back in 2011. It surely hasn’t gone unnoticed by the long-term students. What do they think of this transformation? Why I stopped teaching some poses completely or altered the alignment cues for others? I don’t want to confuse my students too much, hence at least in the general level classes I still follow roughly the Sivananda sequence.

The other reason why I stick to most of 12 basic asanas of Sivananda style is that, unlike many of the iconic dynamic Yoga postures (think: downward dog, warrior,etc), those are original Hatha Yoga asanas described in the old scriptures. If I still intend to do and teach Yoga for energetic/spiritual, not just health reasons, I should take that fact into consideration. Actually, it should not be surprising that some classic Hatha Yoga poses are not necessarily good for our bodies (particularly desk-bound bodies). After all, the asanas were not designed for therapeutic reasons originally but for the aim of harnessing and channeling prana– the life energy.

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Most of 12 basic asanas of Sivananda style has been described in first compilation of yoga asanas- 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika

While I retained the structure of Sivananda class in most of my classes, the shorter, 1 hour classes have become an experimental field for me and their participants- my guinea pigs. I feel a bit guilty about that but can’t see any other solution if I want to evolve a consistent style of my own. I’m afraid it’s a bit chaotic right now, yet, luckily everyone seems to enjoy the sessions. More importantly, I believe I made my classes more accessible and less injury-prone.

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Bridge pose is one of the asanas I stopped teaching, realizing too many people were attempting it before their bodies were ready. By the way, here is me in 2008, when I still didn’t know I shouldn’t turn my feet out to avoid straining the knees

For years I preferred to keep the verbal instructions to minimum to encourage inward focus and trusting one’s body. However, I’ve recently discovered how very subtle adjustment can totally change how I FEEL in the asana. I’d never be a fan of one-fits-all, hyper-detailed and military-style alignment-based teaching but I started to give more instructions than I used to. I do it for sake of safety, not in order to reach the ideal or aesthetically pleasant form. In fact, this safe approach often means that from the outside asana looks less impressive which often frustrates the students.

I still struggle with the fact that except for a few golden rules, every style has different alignment instructions, often contradictory. To complicate things more, everybody is built differently and that undoubtedly affects individual range of motion.

There is still so much to learn! A good teacher always remains a student and I feel I spent too many years following the dogma, with my eyes and ears shut to all kind of Yoga wisdom. Now I’m eager to make for the lost time.