primary series

ekamyogini, gym bunny

i joined a virgin active gym. all i can think is: what’s a yogi like me doing in a place like this? long story short: my seamless transition from one yoga studio location to another didn’t go as seamlessly as i’d planned. so i’m studio-less for a few months. also, my parkour training has brought me to the point where i’ve realized: i’m just. not. strong. enough. but more on that later.

the real purpose of this post is to note a yogini’s observations of the gym as a practice space and yogic environment.

  1. oom-tss oom-tss oom-tss… vande gurunam…oom-tss oom-tss… charanaravinde…oom-tss oom-tss… good thing mantra goes with any beat.
  2. mondays are BANGING, literally. but as the week goes on there are significantly fewer people. every morning i was able to park closer and closer to the entrance. where did everyone go?
  3. OMG…BREATHE! a yogi will note, almost immediately, that everyone is breathing wrong. just wrong. so much effort, so erratic. it’s actually painful to hear. no wonder so many exercise regimens fail.
  4. there’s a lot of standing around, drinking water and generally ‘resting’. as i’m about to learn with strength training, yes, you do rest in between sets. but for many it’s like a loss of focus time. they wander around, eyes glazed over, sucking on their water bottles. yep- they’re in the zone alright.
  5. this is going to sound uncharitable, but most of the people in the gym don’t actually look like they spend much time there. maybe the ones in better shape escaped! except for the scary guys in the free weight corner, darkly flexing and grunting.
  6. yoga room = spillover conditioning room or cool down room. i might be busting my ass in bhuja pidasana, but everyone else is using my tranquility to foam roll or in one case…srlsy- to SKIP ROPE! [OMG the beautiful wood floor!] and hey don’t bother to remove your shoes.
  7. upon being kicked out of the yoga room i rolled out my mat in the weight machine area. the amount of testosterone being pumped into the air there fueled an incredible primary series practice for me.

honestly, the gym isn’t such a big step from mysore-style practice. especially if you’ve ever done it in mysore or at one the bigger mysore-style studios around the world. you have to listen to people breathe, grunt, and take the occasional tumble, feel people sweat, dodge flying feet and hands (i’ve actually smacked people in the ass on both sides of me coming up from back-bends). if i hadn’t spent the last 5 years practicing in airports, hotel rooms, hallways, dining rooms, pool sides, hotel gyms and dark corners i wouldn’t have developed the pratyahara to actually enjoy my current situation. there is never a good excuse, you can practice anywhere!

and as for those guys flexing and grunting…i’ll be hopping over into their corner soon.

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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.

every practice is beautiful

i’m still high from an amazing jam i had two saturdays ago. after a week of rest from strength and conditioning i felt like i was floating that day. there’s nothing like a nice float through things you once thought were impossible to encourage you to dig deeper. but then i saw the video. yes, the video footage of my so-called floating. and there i was, mentally, back at square 1.

there are a lot of parkour and free-running videos out there- most of them are not very good. people are quick to film themselves doing something they think is awesome, but they forget to add the awesome. i’ve been on a mission lately trying to find those few and far between videos of traceurs/euses that really get to the essence of beautiful movement and combine it with the art of photography and video. so i’ll save you from wasting 2 minutes of your life watching me until i’ve created something worth watching. you’re welcome. but if you’re willing to waste a few minutes of your life on worthwhile parkour/videography, here are a few links:

i’m thankful that the yoga community isn’t about posting videos of awesome yoga tricks. oh wait, they are. for the most part yoga videos have stayed instructional or inspirational rather than being promotional. ok nevermind, upon review, it really is mostly about self-promotion. recently i told a friend that if i ever said i was making a yoga video or writing a book about yoga to please, please stop me. i’m going to leave inspiration to the masters.

so how did it happen that my practice that saturday felt amazing but looked like crap? because every practice is beautiful. and this is my message for today- your practice is beautiful whether you were flying through the air with the greatest of ease or crumpled on your mat in a pile of blood, sweat and tears. any practice that is a true expression of your current state is beautiful. all those bodily fluids are just as much a part of you as the wind in your hair. and however good or bad you feel while you’re practicing, if you can live in that moment, you have found your moment of truth.

beginners claim to me that their practice looks terrible, that they’re not as good as [that person on the mat next to them], that they will never be able to jump through to sitting, they will never be able to get that bind. when i watch a practitioner, when i see the evidence of passion, frustration, exultation, or pure doggedness, i see a person whose practice is real, grounded in truth, and who is experiencing transformation on a molecular level. and that is a beautiful thing. sometimes, one of my jobs as a yoga teacher is to refocus the practitioner’s awareness from the actual, physical practice to what is going on deep inside and to help the practitioner transcend both the ‘good’ practices and ‘bad’.

i’ve never seen myself practicing yoga, but i feel amazing when i do it- that’s real. i’ve reached the point where my yoga practice is fulfilling whether i’m lying in snot on my mat or flowing from one chaturanga to the next (sometimes both are happening at the same time). so for my parkour practice, i’m resolving to take the perceived difference between how it feels and how it looks, and transcend it. i know i’m getting stronger and more agile, and sometimes i really do feel like i’m floating. so i’m going to avert my eyes from the video evidence and keep my mind on the practice itself and its transformative effect on both my physical form and my mental self-doubt. and someday i will make that video worth watching.

and now…for my first trick!

my ankle is healed! mostly. it would probably be more truthful to say that i imagine that it is healed. therefore, i no longer have an excuse not to start practicing yoga asana again. but more importantly, i get to start learning tricks!

this is going to be a stretch for some of you, but i’m about to draw a comparison between parkour/free-running/tricking and primary/intermediate/advanced ashtanga series. ready?

parkour and primary series get you into the basic flow of things, lay a groundwork, and create frames of reference. they build strength, open you up with a little flexibility, and get your mind working in the right direction- focused, disciplined, and open/at ease. in essence, they provide a vocabulary and repertoire for moving forward- they get you from point A to point B. and both of them you’ll be practicing for the rest of your life.

once you’re grounded, intermediate series uses your strength to get you moving in sometimes bizarre ways. it’s more energetic, pulling on nerves and opening up blocked channels in the body. free-running builds on the beautiful simplicity of parkour moves, but allows an open mind to create amazing movement sequences that include flowing tricks. intermediate and free-running are about getting from point A to point B with style and innovation. only those disciplined enough, who did their time in pk/primary, will gain mastery in this arena.

tricking, which i don’t believe is really parkour/free-running, but is associated with it, is about being just insane enough to attempt the impossible (and succeed). tricking (to my noob eyes) looks like a long run of gymnastics-martial-arts-stunts combined in a 10-second tornado of legs and arms and spinning bodies. the advanced ashtanga asana series may be slower, but it is no less intense. that last link/video will take you awhile, but it’s just as amazing as the tricking one. very few (mostly those with lots of the crazy inside) make it to this plane of existence.

my first trick is going to be a front tuck/flip. i’ve been honing it on the trampoline for the last few weeks and will hopefully bring it to the floor early next year (or maybe a sandpit nearby even sooner!). then i can start front flipping off of walls instead of just jumping off them. not that jumping off of walls is bad, i like jumping off of walls. it’s just that, you know, it’s nice to have a bit of style in your flow sometimes.

Snnnzzzzzz...BBOOOOooooorrrringggggggg!!!!111!!!!1!!