heard around the studio

gossip, funny thing said, heard around the studio

Mysore myths #3: Ashtanga is hard

A week or so ago I almost got into a knock-down-drag-out argument (in public) with a friend over this myth. She’s currently training for a half marathon, and is known for readily volunteering for 100+km ultra races (both of which I would define as ‘hard’). From her perspective ‘ashtanga is hard’ and she, and others, keep trying to get me to agree with them. It won’t happen.

There is a consensus out there that ashtanga vinyasa yoga is hard. It might be the earnest clarification that the class you are about to waltz into is an ashtanga class. It could be the concerned look the teacher shoots your way when you walk in; a pained expression that conceals the incorrect assumption that you might not be ready for this. Or you might have heard it announced by a practicing ashtangi who perhaps needs a pat on the back and a thumbs up for getting on their mat today.

If practiced traditionally, ashtanga vinyasa is a set sequence of postures practiced six days a week (there are a few exceptions). Accepting a 1-2 hour daily practice is a commitment, but does it make ashtanga hard? Another observation is that the postures themselves are hard. In the traditional method, postures are practiced in sequence and as they become accessible to the practitioner. A new student would not dive into pincha mayurasana (see below) or nakrasana on the first day, but they would certainly be ready for these postures when they arrive at that point in their practice. The ashtanga series of postures are accessible to anyone willing to develop a consistent practice.

A daily practice and challenging postures don’t make something hard. I have witnessed beginners to ashtanga, to yoga, walk into a class, complete an entire primary series, and walk out again none the worse for wear. I have worked with students as they develop their practice, and I have maintained my own practice through the years, and I can tell you: ashtanga vinyasa yoga is not hard. It is the mind that makes something hard. It is the mind that says doing something six days a week is impossible. It is the mind that insists you will never get into that posture. It is the mind that tells you that repeating the same sequence every day is boring, boring, boring! What would you be able to do if your mind wasn’t so busy telling you something was hard? Instead of blaming the practice, or the style of yoga, gain control of that rogue element in your mind that has duped you into believing you can’t do it. [Helpful Hint: a consistent yoga practice assists in gaining mind control.]

I sometimes tease beginner students that they have chosen one of the most challenging forms of yoga practice. But I never doubt that the ashtanga vinyasa sequences, schedule, or lifestyle is not accessible to anyone who seeks it out.

And here’s Kino, proving it’s not hard.

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Mysore Myths, part 2

Look at your Mysore self-practice teacher, now back at your mat. Now back at your teacher- is your teacher practicing? Are you practicing? Eyes back to your mat. Sadly, your teacher is not practicing. Your teacher would be practicing if there were someone else to teach Mysore self-practice this morning; but, there is not. Eyes back on your mat. Your teacher is now looking at you and wishing that they too had a teacher to assist them during their practice. Are you present in your practice? You’re now realizing that your self-practice is possible today because of the sacrifice your teacher has made. So honour them by focussing on your practice.

“Mysore-style is where you get adjusted.”

Some practitioners have had yoga teachers who like to jump on, climb on, or otherwise man-handle a body into a posture. Some people like this because they feel they’re being ‘pushed’, ‘challenged’, or ‘opened’. (I have also seen the word ‘cranked’.) This style of adjusting is not in line with the first yama ahimsa (non-harm), and I can assure you, experienced, long-term practitioners of ashtanga vinyasa avoid these teachers like the plague they are. No good can come of forcing a posture into a body (or mind) that is not ready.

So what am I paying for?’ you might ask. First, a dedicated space and time to practice. Because we all know that rolling out your mat at the foot of your bed every morning hasn’t been working so well for you. Second, Mysore-style teachers observe a practice as a whole. If you’re struggling with something, we can usually help. And by ‘help’, I don’t mean ‘jump on’, ‘force’, or ‘crank’. ‘Help’ sometimes means redirecting the student’s focus (i.e. breathe!), or leaving the student alone to figure it out on their own.

Third, and this is the big one, teachers share the shakti energy of the lineage absorbed from their teachers and amplified through their own practice. We are here to share the practice with you, not to force our own practice on you. When we adjust manually or verbally, we do it out of love for the practice, and because we love our students. And love shouldn’t hurt. Nor should it be demanded like some sort of commodity.

So do not come into my space with an agenda of ‘getting adjusted’. And to further manage expectations, I’ll let you in on my adjusting philosophy:

1. If you’re new, I don’t adjust you. Even with beginners I won’t adjust until an understanding of the initial sequence and breathing has settled in, and that you are committed to coming. This rule also applies to people I’ve worked with before who have gone missing. So don’t expect anything from me until you’ve been coming regularly for a few weeks. Yes, weeks.

2. I start with verbal adjustments, because if you don’t listen, how can we build a relationship? Being able to process verbal adjustments demonstrates knowledge of your left from your right, and that a mind-body connection is present. It also gives me an idea of how easily distracted you are. 

3. Before manually adjusting someone, I look for a minimum amount of strength and flexibility required by the posture and an awareness of where the posture is going. I also look for correct breathing and a sense of calm. Because if I add my asana to your asana and you’re not strong enough or flexible enough, things are going to go pear-shaped and injury will occur.

4. I adjust more intensely on Mondays and Tuesdays and then I back off as the week progresses. I want to see that the effort invested has been retained and incorporated in a practice. Friday is an adjustment-free day. Yet another benefit to daily practice.

Lots of hard adjustments aren’t bad, but they’re not suitable for every day. If you want to be challenged, go to a workshop and get adjusted. Or even better, go get a massage! Afterwards, return to your mat and maintain your daily practice, which usually translates to fewer injuries when you attend those challenging workshops. In order to maintain a daily practice you can’t always be limping to your mat from all the adjustments the day before.  And to be honest, I don’t have the energy to adjust you every day in every posture, because I have to get on my mat too!

Ultimately, ashtanga vinyasa is a self-practice. Come to Mysore-style classes with the intention of self-development and the pursuit of peace and meditation on the mat. You will never leave disappointed.

the travelling ashtangi

as kids, my family never went half-ass on vacation. we travelled all over the U.S.- florida and disney world several times as my grandparents had a very nice jumping off point in orlando. gettysburg to see the battlefields, mesa verde in colorado to check out the cliff dwellers (at 15 years old i was the 3rd designated driver on that trip), prince edward island (that’s in Canadia). the younger sibs even made it out to the badlands (oregon trail style, but no one died of dysentery). there was no national park or museum we didn’t hit (i saw the house, not the movie, where jesse james was shot). we always drove, packing 8 kids and all our reading material and pillows into a 14 passenger van. it was a hoot. until saturday came.

my mom (designated driver #2) would always make sure that on sunday morning we were taking up an entire pew at mass in Godknowswhere, USA (or Canadia). i’m not sure how she did it, but she always found a catholic mass for us to attend. even on vacation! (honestly, she made me track down a catholic mass in kasane, botswana) and if a mass couldn’t be found, she would be very put out. quiet all day and reading her today’s missal. eish.

now, as an ashtangi, i understand. because whenever i go somewhere, travelling for work or on vacation, i am on-line checking out where to catch the nearest mysore/ashtanga classes where i’ll be. in NYC it’s with eddie and his crew at ashtanga yoga new york. in amsterdam it’s yoga mandala, in nairobi it’s with oriane (who finally got me to my chin in bhuja pidasana). i’m now heading home for 6 weeks and thinking: vermont? boston? portland?

because we ashtangis, we’re all one big tribe (don’t you dare call it a ‘religion’ or a…*whisper* ‘cult’). though ‘physically intimate, but emotionally distant’ we still like to practice together and enjoy each other’s company for that 1 hour, 1.5 hours, maybe even 2 hours, on our mats in the morning, even if we never make eye contact. it’s what holds us all together and individually keeps us sane. because who else would get up at 5:30am to practice primary series again? while on vacation?

and like a catholic mass, there’s no question about what you’re supposed to do. growing up i knew when the bells rang i had to go to my knees and start spewing latin, no matter where i was. now when the instructor calls ‘samasthitih’, i know we’re going to chant the vande gurunam together- in sanskrit. so it seems the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.

and as a studio owner it’s wonderful to see the occasional, and very welcome, international travellers. those people, who like me, always google: ‘ashtanga [name of city on plane ticket]’. and then scan links for words like ‘traditional’ or ‘mysore’. hell, we’re probably the people who i didn’t make eye contact with in the yoga room/inter-denominational prayer room at the [whatever international airport].

two weeks ago it was a woman from milan. this week it’s a man from america. ekam has had visitors from zambia, france, and lots of south africans now living abroad coming home for the holidays. they bring a breath of fresh air with them and a dedication to a practice that crosses borders and peoples (though i have a sneaking suspicion that we’re all a-type). it’s inspiring that a practice that started in a room that couldn’t hold more than 12 people at a time, has expanded into a global, individual practice. and we welcome all comers. because, in the end, it’s a little global piece of home, and a practice that we all share and are inspired by. in the end, there’s no vacation from the dedication to the practice.

(funny article about how insufferable yogis are. and there’s even a link to something about yoga snobbery. [snark.])

the 10 things i wish i had known before opening a yoga studio

today, Ekam Yoga closes its (current) doors (temporarily) for ‘renovations’. it was a fun 2 years, but i’m ready for a cleaner, better-maintained, cheaper, homier space and a more consolidated, minimalist lifestyle. the insane running around of the last 2 years is finally at an end (whew!). i can now look forward to 1 june, when Ekam will begin a new phase in Parkhurst.

i opened Ekam Yoga in March of 2010. i had these beautiful fantasies of introducing johannesburg to the joys of traditional ashtanga vinyasa yoga. i had practiced in Mysore and NYC and those places were always packed! i thought, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; the traditional ashtanga practice and teaching method is beautiful, practical, and it works. people here are going to love it!

looking back on the last 2 years, here’s the reality:

1. everyone that you need to get your studio up and running is ‘un-yogic‘. the shortlist: landlords, contractors, builders, financial advisors, interior decorators, branding agents, your own family, etc. it’s business as usual, and no one knows (or cares) what ‘yogic’ means. it’s ok. remember: you’re yogic and you understand the nature of karma.

2. your practice will disintegrate, rebuild itself, disappear, become transparent, rise, fall, and spin in circles. just like everything else in the world. you will then come to realize that you’re always practicing. and that is a priceless learning experience.

3. your practice will take new forms, for example: cup washing, mat cleaning, snack sourcing, flower arranging, website updating, email answering, budget balancing, etc. each new form reveals itself through a love of the practice.

4. you will have over 600 followers on FaceBook, but no one will show up at 6am in the dead of winter. on the up-side, you can use that time to practice! or go back to bed.

5. that person with the 2, 3 or 12 friends who can’t wait to experience your studio? they’ll never pitch. it’s the same with those who said they were coming to your workshop, your retreat, your class on saturday, etc. and then there are those that call to ask you if it’s ok to come to class (‘sure!’) and they’ll see you tomorrow am (‘bright and early!’). i’m sorry to break it to you: they’re just teasing. but there will be lots of nice surprises that walk into your studio too!

6. you will teach more private yoga classes than you thought possible, and your students will love you for it!

7. you won’t make as much money as you thought with those famous yoga teachers who pass through town. but they will draw numbers and gain recognition for your studio. they’re a lot of extra work, but they’re worth it.

8. if you stick with it, keeping true to your vision, you’ll lose friends, but you’ll make friends too. be grateful for both.

9. it will be a rough ride for a while, and you may not make it. but,

10. you will never, ever regret it.

so you want to practice intermediate series?

below is an article i wrote about 2 years ago when an occasional student insisted i teach them 2nd series. i intended it for the Ekam website but couldn’t figure out how to tone it down enough for general consumption. i’ve had my personal battles with learning intermediate series, especially without a qualified teacher. perhaps this was a way to vent my own frustration with learning 2nd series on my own- a process that is still ongoing after 3 years. i did do some research when i was writing the information below- this isn’t stuff i just made up because i think i’m a bad ass. i sympathize with those learning intermediate on their own, it’s a truly devilish sequence of postures and the risk of injury is greater than that in primary series. so if you want to learn intermediate series (from me) i’ll refer you here first. and i’ll be very honest that i’m still on my own journey though this sequence. i truly believe in the criteria outlined below, which is why i am currently not practicing 2nd series, but i do assist others (and believe me, i recognize the ethical issues of this).

‘primary series is for students, intermediate is for teachers, advanced is for demonstration.’ – Sri K Pattabhi Jois.

The intermediate, or ‘second series’ of ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a challenging set of asanas that work deeply into the body and the mind. This series of postures, known as ‘nadi shodhana’ or ‘channel cleansing’, requires the ‘yoga chikitsa’ (yoga therapy) learned in the primary series to create a grounded physical base for this more energetic sequence. The intermediate series is a much deeper practice than the primary series, while being complimentary to it. Just as primary series pulls and twists your physical body, the intermediate series pulls and twists your nervous system and the energy channels that run throughout the body- the nadis. And like the primary series, each posture in the sequence prepares you for the next.

For many students of ashtanga vinyasa, beginning to practice the intermediate series will be the first time the student has experienced the traditional method. Many people (like me) learned primary series all at once from a DVD, a book, at a gym, or at a yoga studio during a full primary series led class. So learning one posture at a time, slowly integrating it into your daily yoga practice, may be a new concept. Like the primary series, the intermediate series of postures can take years to learn- perhaps a whole lifetime.

Learning the intermediate series is rewarding, but takes a serious amount of physical, mental and emotional commitment. If you don’t have the strength and the stamina to complete the primary series and feel energized afterwards, you will not be able to advance in your second series practice. Second series postures are added, one at a time, to your primary series practice, testing your physical and mental endurance. To be truly ready to embark on this next level of your practice, you should be able to answer ‘Yes’ to the following statements:

  1. I have been practicing the primary series at least 4-5 times/week for at least a year. In addition, I am capable of sustaining a 4-6 day/week practice indefinitely.
  2. I know the correct vinyasas for entering and exiting all postures of the primary series.
  3. I can perform all jump backs and jump throughs between each posture all the time, every time, throughout the entire primary series.
  4. I am capable of binding myself in Marichyasana D and Supta Kurmasana. I am able, or nearly able, to stand up from Urdhva Dhanurasana and drop back into the posture unassisted or with very little assistance.
  5. I have the time for my daily practice to run up to two hours in length.
  6. I have attained yoga chikitsa (yoga therapy) and my life is in balance. I am content in my current yoga practice.

Also, review the first two limbs of Ashtanga, the yamas and the niyamas, and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Ahimsa (non-violence): Do I knowingly bring myself to the point of injury in my current yoga practice? Am I able to recognize an injury before it manifests and change to avoid it or ask for help?
  2. Satya (truthfulness): Am I honest with myself with regard to my capability within my practice?
  3. Asteya (non-stealing): Am I taking away time and effort needed in my primary series practice?
  4. Brahmacharya (going with God): Is this truly a good use of my energy? Do I have constancy in my practice, offering it as a prayer or meditation rather than just a physical effort?
  5. Aparigraha (non-grasping): Am I trying to acquire 2nd series rather than seeing it as a daily meditation and act of humility?
  6. Saucha (purity): Am I approaching this new level of my practice with purity, having uncluttered my primary series practice? Am I open to the benefits the practice will bring?
  7. Santosha (contentment): Am I content with my current practice, regardless of whether or not I ‘advance’ in 2nd series? Would I be happy practicing primary series for the rest of my life?
  8. Tapas (austerity): Do I have not just the desire, but the discipline to carry my practice further, despite what it may bring?
  9. Svadhyaya (self-study): Do I seek 2nd series as a way to know myself better? Regardless of what it uncovers?
  10. Isvara-Pranidhana (surrender to God): Can I surrender my practice to a greater power, open to what each day may bring, whether great advancement or serious setback?

Finally, students wanting to learn intermediate series postures will need to attend Mysore-style self-practice at Ekam Yoga for at least a month before any postures are added. This is so we can observe your current practice, work with you where necessary, and ensure an open, honest relationship between student and teacher moving forward. Traditionally, postures are given by the teacher, not asked for by the student- are you ready to surrender your practice and trust another to guide you? We as teachers are also slowly deepening our own practices with these postures and that resources regarding the intermediate series are currently thin on the ground in South Africa. We are doing the best we can, grounded in a respect for ourselves and our practice, and with awareness of our own strengths and limitations. We are all a part of the journey.

heard around the studio 2…

Setting: the Ekam Studio during Mysore-style practice. EkamYogini has bound a practitioner into Marichyasana C…

EkamYogini: see, i told you, if you practice enough your arms do grow longer!

Practitioner: Yeah- cool!

EkamYogini: of course, in my experience, i’ve seen a direct relationship between perceived arm length and actual core strength…

Petri Raisenen in Mari C

MYTH BUSTED! The marichyasansas have nothing to do with the length of your arms and a lot to do with whether or not you have enough mula/uddihyana bandha (core) strength to hold your rib-cage to your thigh (the same thigh (A/B) or the opposite thigh (C/D)). So rather than hanging from your door frames to get your arms to grow longer, start engaging these critical bandhas in the sun salutations and standing postures to build the strength for these asanas. Don’t wait for navasana to start using your core!

Of course, orangutan arms (and long thighs) do help.

my thong article

I wrote this almost 2 years ago sort of as a vent/joke. RecoveringYogi liked it, but they already had a similar article, so i’m publishing this here for your reading pleasure…

note: i am not going to hold it against you if your underwear shows up in my classes. i understand that ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ happen. it’s cool, honestly. this was written totally for fun.

Have you been seeing a lot of this lately in your yoga classes?

whale tail

Whale says hello!

Me too. Since it’s so prevalent in the yoga classes I attend and the ones I teach, I figured it would be a good topic for and article. I mean, if one is wearing his or her underwear in plain view, we should assume that it’s up for discussion, right? Like a nice piece of jewelry, ‘Hey that’s a lovely chakra pendant, where did you get it?’ Except in this case it’s more like: ‘Nice thong, did you get it at Women’s Secret? Oooo, I just love their stuff don’t you?’

Over the years I had picked up a few thongs, certainly they weren’t the kind that I would want anyone seeing. Prior to them playing peek-a-boo in yoga classes and the world at large, I had thought they were an intimate item that only you knew you were wearing, that sort of being what made them ‘sexy’. I figured wearing them gave you that knowing look on your face that you had a secret, which men, of course, also wanted to know. What thongs give you, in reality, is a permanent wedge. I vaguely remembered this fact, but after seeing so many thongs in yoga classes I decided maybe I was missing something (this is a feeling I have a lot and has nothing to do with thongs). Maybe I was being prudish with my breathable, high-impact, comfortable underwear that never rides up and is certainly never seen. I thought perhaps I should really give that thong thing another try.

Over the last 18 months I’ve gone through many internal and external changes, a lot of old baggage had to go.  With increased health, happiness, and a positive outlook I decided it was time to go underwear shopping. So into the bin went over 20 pairs of saggy, baggy, elastic gone, threadbare, holey underwear. Some of these were my favorites, but so tatty it was really more of a mercy toss, allowing these poor pieces of cloth to attain a higher station on the wheel. In came sporty, candy-colored underwear, including quite a few thongs. I believed that with my newfound health and happiness already doing a lot for my outward appearance, the thong was going to bring it over the top with that lovely knowing look.

Just for background information, here’s a brief (HA-ha) history of the thong. The thong made its post-1900 debut in New York City in 1939, when the mayor ordered dancers to ‘dress more appropriately’. I’m not exactly sure how a thong ensured ‘appropriate’ coverage. Of course we all know Brazil is famous for its thongs and string bikinis and the craze migrated to all corners of the world, starting at beaches everywhere and eventually reaching Hollywood. (As most things do- even yoga. I wonder when the concepts of living simply and personal enlightenment will reach Hollywood?) Personalities began sporting thongs, when they wore underwear at all, with their low-rise trousers and a fad was born. Of course once the general public started copying stardom, and doing it badly, celebrity made its exit, stage left. And to pull you back how this is all about me, this leaves a yoga teacher wondering how to adjust certain postures without touching a small flag who’s most recent territory was… well you get the idea.

The only advantage to wearing a thong I could find listed on several websites was ‘no panty lines’, especially under light-coloured or skin-tight clothes. It neglected to mention that though one would have no panty lines, the cottage cheese-textured cellulite would be clearly visible under said light-coloured and/or skin-tight clothing. The other word that keeps coming up in relation to thongs is ‘sexy’, which really is an ambiguous term at best. What defines ‘sexy’ is really as diverse as people themselves. My question then becomes: Why do people feel a need to bring ‘sexy’ to yoga? Cleansing the body, mind and spirit and walking the path to complete awakening and awareness isn’t enough to pull together? Another question: How is displaying one’s underwear completely unacceptable as business attire, but seems to be perfectly acceptable in a yoga class, or a gym, or on the street, or at a night club? What boundary was crossed between work and non-work that made the thong declaration possible? As a yoga teacher, teaching yoga is my profession. I do not show off my kit to my students, yet they feel completely free showing it to me.

Maybe I’m taking myself way too seriously and the showing isn’t for my benefit at all.

I do practice in a thong now, and once I get over the initial urge to remove what’s gotten stuck in there, I do find it wearable. Does it contribute positively or negatively in any way to my practice? No. Does it give me a knowing look? Between ‘jumpthroughtosittingbindinhalepanchadasa’ and ‘pushupjumpbackekadasaexhale’ there isn’t a lot of time to have a knowing look, and certainly no one is supposed to be aware of my ‘knowing look’ if their eyes are focused on their drishti. So you won’t see my thong in any of your classes. And I’d prefer not to see yours either.

heard around the studio…

in mysore, india, after practice, people gather at the coconut stand and drink green coconut water or chai. it’s part of the satsang. i did source coconuts last year for the studio in a (failed) attempt to bring a bit of mysore to johannesburg. the closest source of coconuts in southern africa is mozambique. and this will come as no surprise: coconuts are devilishly hard to get into if you’re not handy with a machete. i’m not handy with a cordless drill either, and that was the last of the grand ideas for sourcing coconut water for the studio.

so at Ekam we hang around after practice and drink herbal tea and organic instant coffee and eat chocolate biscotti. we sit and argue about yogic philosophy, discuss chapter 11 of the bhagavad gita (BG), debate the usefulness of the specific kriyas in the hatha yoga pradipika (HYP)…no, wait i’m totally kidding; we really just hang out. but occasionally we do have a few stunners, which i’ll jot down here from time to time as i remember them. yogis are hilarious (when we’re not debating the kriya techniques of the HYP that is).

Setting: The Ragas of Romance, featuring 3 well-known classical indian musicians had just played a concert in Joburg. it was amazing. i was really glad i wasn’t high.

SasmitaYogini: Yeah…i’m going to get one of those things…what’s it called…the squeeze box thing.

EkamYogini: a harmonium? really?

SasmitaYogini: yeah one of those! and D. [her partner] is going to get a tabla. we’re going to start playing together.

EkamYogini: that is so coool! i’m going to try and find a bansuri somewhere. i used to play flute and i’ve been wanting to start playing again. it can’t be that hard… [pause]

EkamYogini: we should get together and jam sometime!

SasmitaYogini: yeah! that would be awesome!