Remembering Gurus: Iyengar, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji), and Me

Guruji & Iyengar

My heart is heavy at the news of the death of B.K.S. Iyengar (14 Dec 1918 – 20 Aug 2014). His wisdom, knowledge and teachings have been a big part of my yoga journey, both spiritually and tangibly. Although my Guru was / will always be Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, and I feel very lucky and grateful for the time I spent studying with Guruji in Mysore, India, I feel a sense of loss that I didn’t make it to Pune, to meet Iyengar. Iyengar was the first style of yoga class I attended with my mother, as a teenager in Auckland, New Zealand. Ashtanga hadn’t made it to New Zealand then (it must have been the early 90s), and I remember the discomfort in my hamstrings as the teacher saw I could go further and urged me on, and held us for what seemed like an age in the forward bends. Later, when I discovered ashtanga yoga in London, I fell in love with the notion of a daily ‘self-practice’ and ‘vinyasa’, and forgot all about Iyengar. It was not until decades later, that I came back to it, searching for precision and refinement in the advanced postures I’d been practising in ashtanga, and a yearning to hone into the more subtle aspects to enrich my ashtanga practice, and to gain a deeper connection to pranamayakosha (the subtle body of vital airs, breath). My link with Iyengar is one of gratitude and respect, acquired through the teachings of his senior teachers in London, whereas with Guruji (Shri K. Pattbhi Jois), it was personal and experiential, and his passing was a much deeper loss. When the news broke of Guruji’s (Pattabhi Jois’s) death in 2009, I was immediately on the phone in tears with my two best friends in London whom I’d spent a lot of time with in Mysore, India. I felt a deep sense of sadness, felt the loss of my teacher, and Guru. There was no question whether to go to India or not – within days we were on a plane to Mysore, where Guruji’s old students from all over the world had come for his memorial service. The atmosphere was solemn, with much sadness and gratitude, but also one of solidarity and community. There was something so refreshingly down to earth in the way the service was held, with a big tent with trestle tables set up on the street outside the yoga shala, and inside it, a big photo of Guruji propped up on his chair, surrounded in flowers and offerings, in the middle of the room. He died in May, and the preceding January I had visited him, as he lay almost motionless in his bed, a shadow of the teacher I had known, so gaunt and frail and suddenly, elderly looking. It was painful seeing him like that, dying, but I am eternally grateful to have thanked him for what he had given me, and to have said goodbye to him in private. In the tent outside the KPJAYI shala during his service, eating a thali off banana leaves on a long trestle table packed with a mixture of Indians and yoga students, coming and going as different people came to pay their respects at different intervals, I was struck by the acute sense of the end of an era, and the passing of a great spiritual and cultural icon of our time.

Apart from Krishnamachary’s son T.K.V. Desikachar, who continues to teach and uphold the parampara, B.K.S. Iyengar and Shri K. Pattabhi Jois were the most famous direct bearers of the Krishnamacharya lineage. Krishnamacharya was part of the explosion of the cultural physical movement that happened on the Indian subcontinent during the early 20th century, and was instrumental in the pioneering and development of yoga as a healing force that could be practised more inclusively by a wider demographic. Instrumental in bringing yoga to the west, today sees the passing of another true yoga great of the 20th century. My heart goes out to the Iyengar community who are experiencing the loss of their Guru.

5 Reasons to Attend a Yoga Workshop

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You may have seen posters for yoga workshops at your local studio, or heard your teacher mention them at the end of class. Why are workshops on offer, and what is their purpose? If you go to regular classes, why would you need to invest in a 2 or 3 hour workshop? What would you gain?

When I first got into ashtanga yoga in a big way, I was so excited about it, I spent a few years going to as many workshops with senior teachers as I could. One weekend in 2002 or 2003, John Scott was teaching a weekend of workshops, and I signed up to all of them. I soon realised that you were not meant to go to all of them, that they were all full on practises, and by the end of it, I was so exhausted! But, it was worth it – I learnt some invaluable things that are still with me. I learnt how to do the ashtanga jump through with straight legs at a John Scott workshop. Not instantly, but it taught me the technique and alignment, which I took away and practised, until shortly afterwards, I got it.

1) Alignment & Technique

Alignment and technique are often skipped over in classes, simply because the focus is on the flow. In ashtanga for example, the meditative quality that’s achieved by flowing through the postures (vinyasa) combined with breathing (ujjayi) and gaze points (dristi) is prioritised. Some teachers do mention alignment but there is usually not enough time to get down to details.

In a workshop setting, alignment of postures and directionality (actions) are explored in detail, as well as techniques of how to do postures you might be finding difficult. We look at what muscles should be working in each pose, how to engage them, and what should be relaxed, in order to reach that well known yogic dichotomy: the balance between strength (sthira) and ease (sukham). Sometimes muscles become dormant and cause others to compensate, which can lead to injury. Learning what should be working when is an invaluable addition to your practise and effects wellbeing, as leads to integration (one of the meanings of the word yoga!) and integration feels great physically, mentally, and energetically.

2) Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the scientific study of pattern formation and pattern change, and when students notice how good it feels to do a pose in an integrated way, compared to a non-integrated way, and start practising like this, it enables a gradual (this cannot be done instantly) rewiring of the brain, as new neural pathways are established. Meaning, it is possible to make positive changes in ourselves, and even facilitate healing. During workshops I often have students say to me “wow, it feels completely different doing it that way!” which I am always delighted about.

3) Questions

Workshops are a fantastic forum to voice your questions! I encourage questions because I love how they open up a dialogue, and highlight the areas you are curious about. I have the chance to demonstrate and discuss the topics in detail and with student interaction I can gauge whether the class has grasped what I’m teaching. Questions are a great way to get involved, clarify and integrate what you’re learning.

4) Attention

Yoga classes can be busy, and it’s not always possible for the teacher to adjust or correct everyone, or to see everything that everyone is doing. In a workshop, you get more attention. Your questions are taken up, and any bad habits can be ironed out, because there is more time and space for adjustments, demonstrations, and to think and talk about what you might be doing and what needs to change.

5) Experience

The experience of a yoga workshop is fun, enlightening (lots of ‘aaahhh!’ moments) social and uplifting. You are in a room with the teacher you love, and a bunch of students who are as crazy about yoga as you are. The experience of working and learning together is really inspiring, and you will leave with lots of new things to work on and think about. From the teachers perspective, we get to know you and your practice better, have some fun, and feel proud of you when we see your practices deepen and improve.

‘Jumping Back, Jumping Through: The Ashtanga Vinyasa’ workshop with Sarai Harvey-Smith is at Triyoga Chelsea on Friday, 29 August 2015, 19.30 – 21.30 for info and booking, click here

An imperfect pose

My yoga practise is far from perfect. I still stick my bum out too much in Pincha Mayurasana, and have been working on getting it in for years! And I can’t come up from Karandavasana. In truth, very few women in the world can. In the past I have been able to touch my knees down and lift up again straight away, but these days I’m not so focussed on achieving perfection. And that’s what I love about yoga, it’s constantly a work in progress, each day different, and I see it as a microcosm of life – things aren’t perfect. That’s why we call practise ‘practise’, and what keeps it interesting. I loved practising here in Turkey at my retreat at Huzur Vadisi.

Moon Days: Debunked

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I am a devoted yogi- and I love science.  It is very satisfying to read about neuroscience confirming yoga’s effects on the nervous system, evidence based scientific proof of the benefits of yoga for depression, anxiety, chronic stress.  Things we have known as practitioners and expounded in the ancient Hindu scriptures.  But I think it’s equally important to question why we do the things we do, not believe everything we are told, and to make informed, intelligent decisions that are one’s own.  Some things in yoga I do because I enjoy love them, like chanting, taking rest on moon days, following a structured method and tradition – but being honest about why one does these things is key.

Melanie Cooper has written a very good article about the myths about taking moon days as rest days from ashtanga yoga practice here.  She weighs up the ashtanga folklore against the scientific facts.  It turns out that the waning and waxing of the moon does not affect the water in our bodies, or our psyche.  There’s no evidence of increased crimes, psychiatric admissions, or even menstruation patterns, on full or new moons.  She doesn’t know why they exist but she observes them because she likes being in touch with nature, and enjoys the ritual.

I believe the reason moon days exist, is because Guruji was Hindu, and a Brahmin.  Many Hindu festivals take place on new or full moon days, which involve all sorts of time consuming rituals, like fasting, observing silence or obstaining from sleep, or family rituals.  See an explanation of all the moon day festivals here.  Guruji didn’t teach on moon days because he observed these festivals, and partook in longer pujas (Hindu rituals) on these days.  Simple as that.  (Guruji would often cancel practice on other festival days too, which meant we all got a day off and an excuse to eat pizza, Indian festival sweets and stay up later than 9pm).  Western teachers honoured this tradition in their shalas back home, and I guess the myths emerged from people wanting more of an explanation as to the days off.  I love the excuse not to practice on a moon day, it’s a treat to have a rest, and it keeps me in tune with the cycles of nature.  But when my schedule is hectic and I perhaps miss a day of practice here and there, I make it up on other days, sometimes those days are moon days.  I’ve no compunction about this, and I must say I’ve never noticed much of a difference in my practice whether it’s a moon day or not.

Entering into Headstand – 4 Variations

Here are four entries into headstand, for beginners to advanced level.  Follow the same principles of the posture, which I outlined in my blog Headstand with Blocks, to set the foundation of the pose up.

1) Entering with Knees Bent: find your balance with one knee to chest, gently push your weight off the other leg, till then both knees slowly come to chest. From here, lift your knees towards ceiling, and move feet over your head towards the floor behind you.  Lastly lift your feet up into the final posture. Come down the same way

2) Entering One Leg at a Time: Lift one leg up, keeping it very straight and strong. Keep lifting this leg towards the ceiling. Gently push off your foot on the floor, make little movements until you find your balance with both feet off, and at this point slowly raise the second foot up to meet your first foot.

3) Entering Lifting Both Legs Together: walk your feet in as close as you can, keep lifting your hips as high as possible. Push down through your wrists, lift your shoulders away from ears, and fix your shoulder blades.  Lift both legs up.  For flexible students, be careful not to arch your back, especially the lumbar.  Keep the back of your body extended. Come down continuing to lift hips and shoulders up.

4) Jumping into Tripod Headstand: Mukta Hasta Sirsasana A is a headstand from Ashtanga’s Second Series, and takes some courage to jump into.  Enter from downward facing dog, keep your hips and shoulders lifting, jump lightly and engage your core. Remember, your core is your back muscles (latissimus dorsi, serratus, etc – which you can engage with your shoulder blades), as well as your abdominals.  Come down the same way, till it’s time to lift your head off – then let your arms take over and your feet land into chaturanga.

 

Headstand with Blocks

Salamba Sirsasana.  Salamba = supported, sirsa = head, asana = pose

Lots of my students ask me for help in headstand, and I don’t always have time to help everyone individually in my busy classes at Triyoga.  So here are some tips:

Headstand is a balance, if you feel you are holding on for dear life, chances are you are arched and having to grip/clench hard to stay up. It is less effort once balanced, remember you are looking for Sthira Suckham in each pose.  This is why the wall is useful in the beginning – it can teach you how it feels to balance, with your body aligned.  Headstand should be learnt once you have been practicing consistently for 6-12 months, and have learnt how to support your body with your armpit chest/shoulder blades and legs.  First things to focus on when learning are:

1) wrists must be upright. Inner and outer wrists equally upright. Hands cupped- not collapsed out, and not joined at palms

2) elbows shoulder width

3) shoulders must lift strongly away from ears, the back of your body must lift and lengthen up, lift hips up (don’t collapse the lumbar)

4) abdomen must be soft and long, with arms, shoulders, legs and hip muscles doing the work: arms rolling out and pressing down, the rest lifting up strongly

Using the blocks behind your thoracic spine stops you from pushing your back forward and compressing your neck – and teaches you to lift up:

Getting in:

Put your knuckles against the wall (as close as possible), place crown of your head just inside your hands. Place your knees inside your elbows so your back has to curve and lift.  From here, lift your knees off the ground and hips up. Walk your feet in, lifting hips.  Get a friend to put the blocks between your shoulder blades and the wall.  Then lift one leg as high as you can, and swing the other up to the wall.

Work in the pose:

Slide your heels up the wall, activate your legs by keeping kneecaps firm/quads lifting, lift your buttocks towards your heels and engage the muscles of the gluteal crease. Move tailbone into your body.  Press buttocks forwards, inner thighs back.  If this is hard to implement, put your buttocks against the wall and slide them up the wall, before taking them off and balancing with just heels on wall.  Keep your body symmetrical in the pose.

Once you’ve learnt to balance upright comfortably, with knuckles against the wall and rest of body off the wall, you can move away from the wall. This progression with take different amounts of time for different students.

Benefits:

Headstand ensures fresh blood flow to the cells of the brain, pituitary gland (metabolism, growth, thyroid, pain relief hormones, and water balance via kidneys) and pineal gland (which produces melatonin, a hormone regulating sleep and connected to nervous system functioning). Increased blood flow to these glands rejuvenates, nourishes, and stimulates. People who practice headstand regularly experience increased vitality, immune functioning, capacity to think, and ability to relax and sleep soundly.

Caution:

Headstand should be practised with the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Do not practise headstand during menstruation, if you have neck or back problems, a heart condition, or if you suffer from high or low blood pressure. If you experience discomfort or pressure in your eyes, neck, or ears, come down. Don’t attempt during pregnant, unless you are an experienced practitioner.

SF GF Choc Raspberry Brownie Cookies

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Today there is a Full Moon, and so traditionally a day of rest for Ashtanga practitioners.  When you practice intensely six mornings a week, day-in-day-out, over decades, Moon Days are a welcome and lovely treat.  You can lie-in, take rest, and even indulge a bit the night before! (Note: yogi definition of indulging is not typically a big night out on the razz, although this has been known to happen. It usually means “I had way too much spelt vegan pizza and dairy free-sugar-free-raw cake last night”).  Although I don’t eat sugar, I mentioned in my blog the types of sugar I do sometimes eat The Sugar Debate: How I Eat.  I’ve tried a number of sugar free, wheat free recipes, with different sugar, wheat, and dairy substitutes.  I love chocolate, and always keep Green & Blacks Cocoa in the cupboard – it is by far the best cocoa I’ve found, and makes an amazing hot chocolate with nothing other than soy and rice milk (equal parts)-the rice milk sweetens it enough.  Last night I wanted to make cookies, and so searched the web and found the recipe below, which turned out to be one of the best I’ve found yet!  It is simple, easy and fairly quick to make, tastes really good and uses three of my favourite ingredients for baking healthy sweets: coconut oil, ground almonds, and maple syrup (and cocoa, but that one goes without saying).  Here’s the recipe, from Feastie.com:

Raspberry Brownie Cookies

Ingredients

    • 1 1/2 cups (200 g) Blanched Almond Flour
    • 1/4 cup (25 g) Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
    • 1/4 teaspoon Baking Soda
    • 1/4 teaspoon fine Sea Salt
    • 1/2 (60 g) cup Roasted, Unsalted Pecans, chopped
    • 1/2 cup (60 ml) Pure Maple Syrup (I prefer darker Grade B)
    • 2 large Eggs, whisked
    • 1/4 cup (54 g) Melted Coconut OIl
    • 1 teaspoon pure Vanilla Extract
    • 1 cup (140 g) frozen Raspberries
    • Cooking Spray
Optional

Method

    • Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F with the rack in the middle. Spray & line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk together dry ingredients in a large bowl. Combine wet ingredients in another bowl. Stir together wet & dry to form a batter, gently folding in the raspberries last.
    • Bake for about 25 minutes or until the cookies are done in the center (start checking at 22 minutes). Let them cool for a bit on the baking sheet & then transfer to a cooling rack.
    • Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Re-heat as needed or enjoy at any temperature.
Notes
  • I like to use frozen raspberries for this recipe so I can easily fold them into the thick batter without them breaking up too much.