Category : Yoga Articles
At the Family Ashtanga Camp this year I remember our chai walla – Piers (right) talking around the fire. He was responding to Cheryl who’d asked him about his yoga practice. She seemed curious as to why he had not been to many of the ashtanga yoga classes. Piers said that his practice these days was more with the Jnana path rather than with the Hatha one. This intrigued her…
Recently Piers wrote an article for the Elephant Journal, which was inspired by the teachings of Jnana yoga, in particular Mooji. He titled his article ‘How many yoga teachers do you know who ask the big questions?‘. Piers has also been in discussion with Being Ordinary about his experiences with Mooji, and his understanding of non-duality. I thought I would link it here incase there is an appetite for hearing more about Piers’ response around the camp fire.
Paddy McGrath Yoga Workshop – Nov 24th & 25th
A rare opportunity to experience one of the leading yoga practitioners in the world. Visiting the UK for the first time, bringing her unique approach to ‘unbuttoning the spine’. Paddy will be joining us in Totnes for a weekend workshop followed by three morning sessions of the yogapad series. This promises to be a insightful and inspiring visit that will compliment and enhance all styles of yoga practice for teachers and experienced practitioners.Please contact Michael or Rose for more information.
In 2003, I met Sri OP Tiwariji whilst on an intensive yoga course in Asia. At that time he was the President of the Kaivalyadhama, a centre for Yoga and Ayurveda in Lonavla, India. I came across a video of him this week on You Tube, which brought back fond memories of his talks. He often smiled and laughed as he tried to explain some of the important concepts of yoga to a group of serious and inquisitive westerners. He was a humble man, who seemed to wear his yoga ‘credentials’ lightly. I thought I would share some reflections based on this talk about the Guru.
According to Sri OP Tiwariji, the Guru is someone who transforms you – he talks of an existential transformation, something that is felt and embodied.
The mention of existential turns me towards philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, who emphasised the fundamentally embodied nature of human existence. That is, we are inextricably bodily beings, I am my body, and it is only through my body that I can engage with, encounter, and ‘rise towards’ my world. Indeed, other existential philosophers, such as a Heidegger, have argued that the very way we understand our world is embodied.
On reflection, I had not quite put together the philosophies of yoga and existentialism, but they seem to chime. Thinking in this way makes me realise that the Guru can help bring me back into myself: into my body as an always-present condition of my conscious experience. With this in mind, I guess it is no surprise that the path of Yoga begins in our bodies – asana, and that the Guru guides you along this path to an existential transformation.
Sri OP Tiwariji also emphasises the one-to-one relationship between the Guru and Shishya, which I also believe is a central factor in the development of the practice. On a basic level, one part of this relationship is the alliance that enables the student and teacher to work together even when the student experiences strong desires to the contrary. When the practice gets tough, I think it is this alliance that brings the student through.
On a more complex level, another aspect of the Guru-Shishya relationship is the person-to-person part, or you could think of it as the ‘real’ relationship. The part where the teacher and student meet in meaningful and deep ways. Moreover, it’s helpful to think of the Guru-Shishya relationship as a representation of all relationships. For example, how I come into contact with the teacher as a student offers an insight into how I come into relationships more generally with others. I think this is the ground for where the painstaking process of an existential transformation occurs. The place where my relational patterns come under the spotlight through the experience and skill of the Guru, including all my deficits, needs, failures, and fears.
For me, this speaks of a two-way joint venture, with the Guru-Shishya relationship taking centre stage through the development of a yoga practice. It’s a two-person psychology where the Guru as some-body meets the Shishya as some-body. The existential transformation takes place in between this space, and within the bodies that are engaged in this process.
When I say bodies, I mean both the Guru’s body and Shishya’s body. A stance that acknowledges the Guru’s limitations and involvement in the process alongside the Shishya’s. Anyway, I have always struggled with old yogi fables of Guru’s transforming their disciples through some kind of divine power. It has always felt a bit unbelievable, and one-sided. It imbues the Guru with a huge amount of power – someone who can transform! I do not think this is how it goes.
One final reflection, inspired by the writings of Richard Freeman, is that of the external Guru out-there meeting the internal Guru in-here. In the Mirror of Yoga, he sites the Bhavana Upanisad in his explanation of the internal Guru as the central channel in the yogic body, or the susumna nadi. This channel begins deep in the basin of the pelvis and rises up through the centre of the heart, and out the crown of the head. He goes on to say that yoga practice is designed to allow us to open up this central channel of the body and to cultivate a visceral connection within ourselves to a sense of truth from which all else flows.
I really like the idea that the external Guru out-there helps me to come into contact with the internal Guru in-here. I somehow find this reassuring and that the process of existential transformation, as according to Sri OP Tiwariji, is within reach. Infact, might it not already be in me?
Over the summer I asked Bob to tell me why she practices yoga. Here is Bob’s response:
An Ashtanga practice is composed of four main parts: an opening sequence; one of the six main â€˜seriesâ€™, a back-bending sequence, and a finishing sequence. In consideration with those things/people/concepts that fascinate me about Ashtanga yoga, in this moment, I would like to offer an invitation in 4 parts.
Invitation 1: Getting to your mat and perhaps residing there.
Standing on the edge of my mat before starting is sometimes a dizzying experience. I think about the thought-scape that the practice will provide; I think about sharing my practice with those others in the room, and always learning something from each and every body; I think about my â€˜victorious breathâ€™, my internal body â€˜locksâ€™, and my â€˜eight limbsâ€™. As I approach my practice with stiffened muscles and sleep in my eyes, I like to think of the ten sun salutations as being part of a process where the body slowly reveals itself. I like the idea of dedicating my practice to something or someone, like a mapping through those important to me. And I like to remember that the thing about maps is that they only work as contextual markers. You only really understand where are you are going in relation to where you have been.
Invitation 2: The surprise of finding that you have bones in your body.
I am not sure I knew where my ischial tuberosity was before Ashtanga yoga, but I am reminded of both of them every time I do Padahastasana and try to allow my sitz bones to rise up toward the sky. Most days they complain and grumble, but sometimes, sometimes, this simple pose can feel like flying.
Invitation 3: It is useful to bring something back and leave something behind.
I have always been of a mind to place my body somewhere unexpected, and Ashtanga has altered my course in an engagement with an embodied practice, and it occurs to me that practicing Ashtanga is like exploring a city; where some sites are well known and others less so. Michael has been an excellent guide, who encourages a gradually gained knowledge in the alignment of movement and breath that the Ashtanga practice holds close. I will admit to having gotten lost many times in my Ashtanga city, when my direction wavers and stutters. But I am determined to get to know this place, to traverse it daily and to come across new ways of understanding the practice by finding further strategies and approaches in the nooks and crannies: perhaps an engagement with a muscle that I have never come across; a lightness to an asana never experienced; an opening of a hip never seen.
Invitation 4: Remembering to breathe.
You might be surprised how easy this is to forget.
Lee participated in a week long intensive course at the Yoga Campus with Richard Freeman in September. I’ve asked him to reflect on some of the significant teachings that made an impact on him. His reflections are as follows.
Before attending my week long intensive course, I had no real sense of what to expect. Obviously I was familiar with Freeman’s work and his reputation, but I hadn’t stopped to consider what I might learn. If I’m honest, I hadn’t even really paused to think about what I might get out of the experience at all. In advance of attending, all I had really done was worry about what might be expected of me: would I be good enough, would I struggle, would I make a fool of myself. In hindsight, none of these were useful concerns to put my energies into. It was only during a phone call from Bob that, when she asked me if it was what I had been expecting, that I realised I hadn’t thought about my expectations at all.
In many ways, this lack of expectation probably served me quite well. I had no particular agenda, or planned learning outcomes, none of the things I would almost certainly encourage any of my students to have in advance of a workshop experience. Thus, my reflections on the week were not from any disappointment, either in myself or in what was ‘missing’ from the experience. It’s in this context that I offer you my five most significant moments of learning from the week.
1. Shiva and his throat full of halahala: RF told the story of the gods and demons chopping down a mountain, turning it upside down and using it to try and churn the nectar of immortality. When this failed and they were left with the poisonous halahala, Vishnu recommended they approach Shiva for help, who in an act of selflessness sucked up the poison. Now, depending on who you listen to, either Parvati (his girlfriend), horrified at the prospect of losing her lover grabbed his throat in order to prevent him from swallowing it, or Shiva himself decided to hold it there, neither consuming nor spitting out the poison. As a way to navigate those really difficult moments in practice, I loved this story. There is something really light about not having to embrace something that you struggle with (which has always felt a bit too much like pious self-sacrifice to me, or doing something because “it’s character building”), but also not simply rejecting it out of hand. Simply holding it in the throat (which might, if you’re lucky, turn blue) seems like the perfect thing to do with something that is a struggle.
2. Bankers pose: in our very first Samastitihi, RF didn’t feel we had really captured the intention of the posture. While I have heard various (very helpful) suggestions from teachers about how best to achieve this pose, in this first session we were given something physical in order to model the posture. By taking our thumbs and jamming them into out armpits (just at the top of the pectoralis major), we were encouraged to think about being self-satisfied bankers with our thumbs under out braces (or suspenders if you’re from the US). Immediately, the physical action, itself already a potent way to address alignment, when linked to the image of the banker lifted my sternum up, slid my shoulder blades down my back, and made me settle into Samastitihi in a totally different way.
3. Prana and apana: honestly the full implications of this have yet to settle, and I really must do more reading to get there, but in his discussion of pranic postures and panic postures, RF made a great deal of the importance of action and counter action. There were many examples, but the one that probably struck me the most was in Trikonasana. As you come into the posture, the hip and the femur of the back leg spiral inwards to allow you to get into the pose, but to fully find the posture, once you are holding your toe (or ankle or shin), you have to try to find a way to spiral back out. Another way of thinking about it is that once the body had ‘closed’ in order to take the posture, the heart opens up towards the ceiling to settle into it. I’m still thinking about this, and about prana and apana, every time I come into any twisting posture. And some where I’m not twisting. In fact, I’m thinking about this most of the time.
4. In Ustrasana, Laghu Vajrasana and Kapotasana, on the way back up think about drawing the head back in towards the sacrum rather than trying to flip the body back to upright. Although the head is really heavy, that inward motion, the drawing together of the back of the head to the lower back, the weight is pitched back into the hips and really allows you to ground through the knees in order for you to find your balance. This can be augmented by placing your hands on your hips and gently reminding your psoas to engage by pressing it with the middle fingers.
5. William Blake wrote:
He who binds Himself to Joy
does the Winged Life destroy…
But he who kisses Joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s Sunrise.
RF quoted this as a way to remind us that the joy comes from letting go.
I have never fully understood what is meant by the term non-attachment (vairagya) in yoga. I’ve heard people refer to vairagya as being the capacity to remain unattached to the outcome and results of yoga practice. Or the ability to practice yoga without clinging to the idea of progress or being able to do certain poses. I have also heard dilemmas, like Dani’s, about wanting to strive in yoga and make progress, and being unclear between endeavoring and non-attaching. Moreover, if I am honest with myself, and ask whether I can invest in a daily yoga practice without any expectation of a return, then my answer is, on most days, no.
But then, is this really what vairagya is about?Â
In the past I’ve nodded my head when people have talked about non-attachment. I’ve nodded because I’ve not really grappled with it. I’ve never fully appreciated how it translates, and I’ve always kept it out-there, at a distance. I’m wondering what it would take for me to internalize it, and work on it from the inside?
Recently I came across a helpful description of vairagya, and I want to share that here. I would also like to take it a step further by attempting to say that the process of yoga and the process of psychotherapy share a common philosophy, and as a result of thinking about this my understanding has grown.
In the Mirror of Yoga, Richard Freeman describes abhyasa and vairagya as a twofold process. Abhyasa refers toÂ establishing a pattern of practice for insights to emerge, and vairagyaÂ means releasing or letting go of these insights that have arisen. In my mind I think of an abhyasa-vairagya scale interacting with one another, with the potential of too much of one out-weighing the other and vica versa. If I practice too much, then no space is left to acknowledge emerging insights, and if I do not practice at all, then no insights emerge in the first instance.
When I think about my own abhyasa-vairagya scale, over the last 10 years I reckon I have done quite a lot of practice. Practicing asanas, practicing pranayama, and practicing meditation. On reflection, my scale is probably a bit out of balance. More abhyasa and less vairagya.
In the last two years I have also been studying psychotherapy. During this time I have come to realize that the dual process that Richard Freeman describes in yoga, also happens in psychotherapy. I have established a pattern of practice between a therapist and I, whereby I meet her atÂ an agreed time, each week, in the same place, in service of working at depth with the insights that emerge. Through this repetition and ritual an abundance of difficult, and sometimes traumatic, emotional experiences have popped up into my awareness. Some of which I had totally forgotten about, and most of which I have struggled greatly with letting go of. I have remained attached to these experiences, and I continue to be fearful of what might happen if I allowed these things to fall away.
Without the framework of practice I doubt I would have made contact with some these fundamental insights into how my personality is structured. Equally, without the encouragement of letting go, I doubt I can become free from the limitations these structures have imposed on who I am.
When I contemplate vairagya now, rather than nod my head, I wonder what it will take for me to embrace it. Part of me is scared of who I’ll be, when the things that have held me together thus far in life, are no longer there.Â