Tuesday, 22 July 2014

River bank news...find a balance

In summer living on the canal really comes into its own: watching daily the changes in the under-waterscape, the crazy lettuce-like weeds and frisky dragonflies; picking brambles and, of course, being outdoors every second possible (including teaching yoga!). Above the waterline Hackney Wick and Bow have lately come alive with cafes, arts and new flats.

Through towpath connections I stumbled upon The Riverbank Project, a warehouse space with a permaculture garden, overlooking the Olympics near Old Ford Lock. This diverse space will be used for shoots and launches but on Mondays it dedicates itself to well-being, through a series of yoga classes and workshops called 'Find a balance'. So as well as practising Akhanda with me each week you can learn how to juice for better health, use martial arts for meditation, how to create with keffir and kombucha... and more. Yoga & workshops are just £17 for the introductory month!

We start on 28th July with a free taster yoga class (pre booking only) then on 4th Aug its a whole evening of yoga and gong.

Here's the info on the rest - pre booking essential here



Monday, 21 July 2014

And...Exhale...the festival - Aug 2014

This is going to be so much fun...and affordable - only 300 tickets available so book now. I'll be there with the gongs, plus teaching kundalini and guiding morning meditation. 


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

First steps into yoga...new 8 week beginners course


oasis leisure centre (and me) are offering an exciting new 8 week yoga programme open to members and newcomers to the centre. 

Suitable for yoga newcomers who wish to learn the fundamentals in detail, in a small group setting, with one to one attention. 

You will learn various asanas (postures) which correct posture, strengthen the body and increase flexibility. We will focus on correct breathing, linking breath with movement for a lighter and flowing practise and how breathing can boost and balance our energy levels. There will be techniques to still the mind and reduce the impact of stress and discussion on incorporating the benefits of yoga into your everyday life. 




Starts Monday 2nd June
At oasis, endell st covent garden
6.15-7.15pm weekly 
Pre-booking is essential and must be done through the centre

Coming soon...'next steps' course for intermediate level!

Meditate for a better posture


Much is made of the benefits of meditation in terms of improved brain functions like concentration and memory and for achieving positive emotional states, for example being more compassionate and empathetic. Generally it makes us more easy to be and be around.

In the traditional 8 limbs of yoga, physical postures (asana) come third along the path, as opposed to meditation (dhyana)'s second to last spot. It was impossible to get anywhere beyond the mind without stability in the correct sitting position – so asana was the essential ground for meditation: “stirum sukham asanam”.

Because we still need healthy bodies to function (and continue to meditate) in a world where we are exposed to stresses and toxins, most of us don't then forget about asana. But have you considered that meditation can also improve your asana practise?

As we cleverly create gadgets and apps that can tell us everything we need to know about our environment and health, maybe we are blunting our own intuitive knowing. Thousands of years ago, through meditation, the sages understood everything in the universe, their trained minds like scientific instruments. In the Yog Sutras (which map out the 8-fold path or Raja Yoga) Patanjali states that by meditating on the naval one gains complete knowledge of one's constitution. This was a big light bulb moment for me, first getting my head around the aphorisms. 

We can apply a little of their technique and learn to understand the body, our own little microcosm. Then making choices in class, of postures or variations, becomes personal and powerful.

When we can develop visualisation power on an inspiring image we can likewise visualise how the body needs to move to achieve a pose – then, when it comes to trying, already have muscle memory and confidence. So we might inspire ourselves into positions which had seemed impossible, with a whole lot less effort.

Meditation, like that first headstand, changes our perspective. It gradually brings equanimity; a balanced view of life around us and of ourselves, an ability to be with our self in all situations. I have definitely come to strive less on the mat, learning to appreciate when I can effortlessly hold Natarajasana and that nothing changes on the days when I wobble. Making it matter less leaves me free to actually smile and enjoy.

Our sense of ego becomes less, our sense of self expanded. Toppling over in headstand amid our favourite class can be placed into context and perhaps even become the basis for some inner inquiry. What is compassion and empathy if only applied to others and not our own bodies?

Meditation purifies the fluctuations of the mind, the subconscious, bringing to light the grooves which hold us to acting a certain way - making certain choices which the body plays out. It is often said that yoga is a process of undoing: for every knot in the body there is a knot in the mind. Understanding those knots rather than squeezing, pulling and cursing them makes asana about love not war in the ground of the body.

Of course the ability to still the mind probably means that wobbling and toppling happen less. 'Listen to your body, listen to your breath' us yoga teachers are always saying...no matter how amazing a multi-tasker we are, if we are listing to our thoughts we are definitely not listening to our body! 

We all know the feeling of beautifully balancing on one leg being interrupted by the mind which tells us we can't, should do better or simply that we have a to do list the size of our mat to accomplish by 5pm. While asana opens space in the body, meditation gives us space amongst the flow and tangle of thoughts. And through applying it's techniques, asana can itself become meditative.

Unaware, our thoughts can take us into cycles of negativity, ill health and injury. From cultivating and focusing the light of awareness we can work with intention to create positive patterns which resonate through the body. What better opportunity to believe in and achieve a healthier body than on the yoga mat where we have time just to explore and a whole tool box of techniques for nourishing certain tissues, joints, glands and organs along the way? OM Shanti, shanti, shanti. 



We have a new guided meditation group at stretch every Sunday morning 9-9.45am (free to members/ £7 drop in).

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Happiness in the mountains - India part 3

3 hours into the bus ride from pondy, passengers are craning pothole-jolted necks for a glimpse of the holy Arunachala - it is said you can feel this mountain before you see her.


India is a place where towns are famed for, or defined by spiritual leaders; monumental human beings as much as ones made of stone and earth. Thiruvanamali is synonymous with the late Bhagavan Sri ramana mahrishi (1879-1950)see Www.sriramanaashram.org. He never aligned to one particular philosophy or label but Advocated a path of jnana and Bhakti (no surya namaskar here); of knowledge and going beyond knowledge, wisdom; the practises of satsanga, meditation and self enquiry.

'Thiru' is also a shiva town. Legend has it that brahma and Vishnu were arguing over who was the more superior deity, so shiva turned himself into an endless column of fire and challenged them to reach its source or beginning. Conceding that shiva was in fact the supreme of the supreme trinity, the other gods bowed and shiva turned fire into stone, creating arunachala, an imposing reminder in matter of the underlying divinity of all creation.

Think of something in India and it appears it seems it appears instantly: a Kung fu master/ karma yogi tour guide (I am so sorry not to have his name having lost the card) runs after us in the vast arunachalaswara temple to offer a speed satsanga, shiva he explains is 'CEO of the universe, all others are the executives'.

Here and in the north of India worship of 'shiva' does not only mean the trident toting destroyer (although he, king of yogis and renunciation is obviously the coolest) rather than another god or goddess but the underlying supreme consciousness, or shivam, which can be both in form and formless. All gods are in effect 
representations of whatever you call 'that'. 

The highlight of a stay in Thiru is giripradakshina, the circumambulation of arunachala, 14km on the outer path, mostly main road passing through a few villages and marked by 8 shivalingams, providing a protective, sacred compass. The way is peppered with temples, shrines, trees flapping with wish bags, hundreds of saffron clad sadhus, playful monkeys and friendly stray dogs.

Tradition was set by Bhagavan who walked in the early morning, slowly and bare foot, so I'm following his lead, starting shoe-less before sunrise and finishing before the midday heat kicks in. The walk celebrates the glory of arunachala, symbol of shiva himself and instills in the devotee a deeper connection with the divine within. To walk with reverence by doing japa or devotional singing keeps this as a moving meditation. In case the mind is wandering to the next chai or idly stop, all along the way loudspeakers loop a slow chant of 'aum namah shivaya'. Like a good yoga practise there is a challenge for the ego, for the body and for the mind.

Compared to the hectic tooting and heat of the outer path, the inner path of arunachala is peace and silence itself. Less to see and more to absorb - as you wander up and up guided by om painted rocks and handy arrows, you can visit the various caves where ramana spent most of his years in thiruvanamali, before the building of the current ashram. Racing against sunset to reach the top (in flip flops, no torch) everything else seems a world away.

It is amazing that a man who spent most of his days in silence is so well known, but when words are less used it seems their energy is stronger. The more time I spent in mauna on this trip the more I notice how words are often used to please others, but actually only appease our own ego, uncomfortable in silence; how saying thank you ten times is about our obsession with being seen to be behaving well and that if you actually smile from the heart and bow with reverence all these word are totally unnecessary.

The middle site, virupaksha cave, shaped like an om, was crafted by Ramana himself; he spent 17 years here mainly in Silence while a throng of devotees trecked for satsanga. The cave is alive with the buzz of the pranava and like much of the ashram property there is no need for technique here, just to sit and wait for peace, wisdom and truth to awaken within.

Everywhere at the ashram the spirit of Sri ramana is very much alive, in the atmosphere of the meditation room where he spent his last days, in devotees flocking to circle his samadhi (shrine), in the Seva of feeding 200 sadhus and local homeless every day. In the background peacocks are shrilling while each morning the young Brahmins lead Vedic chanting and puja. Don't miss the singing of arunachala mantras in the evening by ashramites. There are not really words to describe it here, simple and joyful without any drama, I just feel happy. And that is more than enough. 

Ramana never touted for followers or fame, never creating a lineage. Not once are we even asked to honour the donation system to stay in the beautiful guest house facilities, to use the library (which is a treasure chest of ancient and rare books not to be missed by us yoga geeks), or to eat 3 deliciously simple sattvic meals per day, served on hand stitched leaf plates.  It is as if silence is still the more powerful messenger here, trusting that those who can support the continuation of Sriramanas spirit will, and giving all the freedom to feel and taste for ourselves the essence of the teachings.

So that was Thiru - as is my usual trick we arrived at the end of season, just missing maha shivarathri, falling between the celebrations of full moon, when a million devotees take giripradakshina and the new moon shakti puja. Still, if this is arunachala off peak, I'm sold.

As towns are defined by people, so are our travels through them: eshwan owns the travel company who whisked us from Thiru to bangalore tonight. As the bus was running late he called personally to tell us not to leave the ashram just yet, then he met us at the crossroads and welcomed us to wait in his family home at 3am due to another delay. At the start of each trip this kind of kindness always comes as a surprise and by the end I realise, hey this is the way it should be: to treat all as equal is easy when you believe all are one, to trust before doubting. 

Goa and teaching calls - om namah shivaya.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Yoga therapy?

Isn't all yoga therapy? Several of my friends and students asked me before leaving for Kerala... I have to agree: in my own experience yoga has been a constant support in the toughest times,  transformed my behaviour patterns and removed much negativity - all from the inside. And at the same time, my body is at its healthiest on the outside. So why come all the way to India for training? 

Our guru Saji, founder of Vashista yoga research foundation, has a wealth of experience practising yoga therapy at the likes of SVYASA university, another vivekenanda inspired project which has pioneered programmes for the likes of asthma and diabetes and continues to produce credible research (which we teachers can use to convince the sceptics of the efficacy of yoga interventions). 

The foundation of Saji's teaching is the pancha Koshas - the 5 interrelated layers of our being, according to the upanishadic wisdom. What we do on a physical level affects the mind and vice versa. In fact yoga states that 90% of disease is psychosomatic. This approach seems to be best understood in a land where the goddess of knowledge (Gayatri) has 5 faces and many people still turn to nature before medicine for healing. 

The annamaya kosha is our outermost layer, created from the 5 elements in accordance with our karma and shaped by the food we eat.
Diet then is of supreme importance in balancing the body, and while the general yogic diet (fresh, seasonal, varied, vegetarian - high in prana, low in toxins) can suit pretty much all bodies (if not tastes, at first!), Ayurveda has a lot to teach us about the finer points of eating in line with our dosha (ie constitution - not to be confused with the lovely South Indian dosa).

As food can heal us, it can slowly poison us and yoga offers a series of techniques to remove the traces of a less healthy past. No YTT course in India would be complete without the anticipation of Shatkarma day. I've already written about neti and Shankaprakshalana and this time the stand out kriya for me was Vastra dhauti, the swallowing of 1m of fine cloth in order to remove mucous and toxins from the oesophagus and stomach.

The experience reinforced how much our heads rule our bodies. Saji soothingly tells me to "enjoy, enjoy" as I swallow down 1/2 a metre and watch all sorts of emotions coming out of the pit of my stomach - anger, competitiveness...so healing from the inside out and the outside in, that is the basis of yoga therapy. 

Staying in India brings us back to simplicity, which is a great lesson for any yogi - asanas that might be considered easy or beginner level in our studios back home can provide profound relief to those in need. And I am appreciating all the more the health of my own body to be able to twist and turn... and my teachers for reminding me that it need not be the ego that moves it. 

Sometimes asana is not enough, sometimes too much asana is the problem! Pranayama holds a special place in healing; the Pranamaya kosha being the link, often damaged or unconscious, between body and mind. Even if we cannot move we can breathe ourselves into a state of better health. Learning to breath correctly is the starting point and pranayama is a step further - not just controlling the breath but guiding and expanding the flow of the 5 pranas, the vital life force within the breath. 

According to Patanjali "yogas chitta vritti nirodah" - yoga is controlling the fluctuations of the mind.  To heal we need to purify the mind stuff and, to live in fullness, identify less with the thoughts that it is composed of. Yoga defines stress as "speed of mind" and deals with its effects as well as the very perception of stress: we can't avoid life but we can choose how to act and think in each situation (whether at work, home or mid-kriya). 

The thoughts are the realm of the mental body, manomaya kosha and 
this layer is where much of the trouble begins, often unnoticed for years. Stress has a cumulative effect on the body and we can go on coping, and thinking we are coping, for years until the organs and immunity collapse under its load. And even then we can convince ourselves that patching things up will do. 

Modern western science is now reflecting the view that working with the mind - through meditation - into the roots of disease is the most effective way to heal many conditions.

Again from the Yog sutras: "if you feel that you are bound you are bound, if you feel that you are liberated you are liberated". If I believe I am ill I will become more ill. Or if I can find positivity and be identified with my bliss body as opposed to my body of suffering, I can live life with acceptance and fullness. This of course is easier said than done; yoga therapy works with resolve and affirmations.

Yoga has many streams and sometimes we need to turn to Bhakti (devotion) jnana (knowledge) or karma (selfless service) as much as the more familiar yogas of mind and body. This is another big learning we can take away from India - everywhere these principles spill over into every day life.

A cluttered and over-active mental body clouds our wisdom (vijnanamaya kosha) and bliss (ananadamaya kosha). In whatever form, yoga reminds us that we are the microcosm of the macrocosm and that separation is where the problems start. Applied as therapy we weave together a unique programme for each individual expression of the one. 

So yes all yoga is therapy, even before we realise we need it - not only easing the speed of mind but building immunity, bringing circulation of blood and prana, for keeping joints in motion, for digesting our thoughts and food. Strengthening all the bodies against stress and externally caused disease (the remaining 10%). So keep going to class everyone!...

In the past 4 weeks we delved (lonnng days) into yoga for conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, anxiety and depression, back pain cancer and menstrual disorders; the ancient science of yoga being applied to diseases which are very much symptomatic of the modern age and the effects of our increasing pace. Back in patanjalis day many of these conditions would not have been known, but in today's world, yoga applied in a holistic way can bring relief and, in some cases, cure.

Many conditions, so many techniques - and here is the importance of a teacher. Saji sets the perfect example to us - without the context of compassion, unconditional love and faith, techniques are just that, techniques. 

And as teachers, knowledge is a wonderful thing, but without our own sadhana, tapping into the universal source of energy, it lacks power. Yoga is to experience first hand. After a month of teaching or being guinea pig for other students, I can attest to the power of mind sound resonance, pranic energisation and Tantric Gayatri healing. With meditations galore - in motion, with mudras, bijas and, of course, on AUM - I have many more amazing yoga tools to share soon... but much self practise to do first.

I have to say a few words about the setting of this course, the Chinmaya foundation kerala; birthplace of the great saint Adi Shankaracharya. Doing japa every day in the very room where he was born, practising asana in the house where his family lived and taking lectures in the shrine to Vedanta master swami Chinmayanda help to reinforce Saji's point - that we are blessed and supported by the great yoga tradition before us and only a channel for the sharing of its energy to heal. 

And finally about the inspiration I've received from my juice family as well as new yoga family. Mary and Jojo in the village store have supplied me with various combinations of chickoo, banana, papaya, carrot and watermelon over the weeks. And reminded me that we also have to look up from the books and the mat - because yoga therapy in whatever form is about true connections with people - and all it takes is a few words of malyallam (mostly fruit names) and open hearts. 

Taking a breather on allepey beach before pondicherry. Hari om and love to all. 

For details of sajis training check out www.vashistayoga.org

Thursday, 6 February 2014

South India part one....2014

Hello Kerala, land of the coconut, and Tamil Nadu, equally lush and green, with a sense of ancient wildness. In both states, some of the friendliest (and most laid back) people to be found in this, the friendliest nation. And featuring the hungriest of the hungry Mosquitos! 

India is so often described as a feast for the senses. In my first few days I've been tuning into its soundscape as much as the more obvious colours and flavours. Drifting in and out of sleep in my lovely fort Kochin homestay, the crows are making a right din, surrendering near sunrise to the swirling call to prayer which provides the backdrop to my yoga practise on the roof-top. As day breaks the rickshaw peeps come to the fore again. New environments are an amazing way to remember the freshness of our sensory awareness which can otherwise subside into routine and familiarity. 

I attend a morning meditation at the city's Kathakali centre where we sit or lie on a darkened wooden stage intricately carved with Keralan motifs. The musicians sit amongst us and start with a beautiful chant of 'lokah samasta sukinuh bhanvantu' before playing morning ragas. The tabla is immense, the flute haunting; my consciousness drifting between the two and somewhere way beyond. Afterwards the musicians explain that raga has a unique energy pattern which activates the chakra and 108 marma points throughout the body (same as the Sanskrit letters of a mantra would), producing specific psycho/ Physio-logical states. There are ragas (more than 6000) for morning, evening, sad times and everything in between. I'd never thought of classical Indian music as a sound bath but like gong it has that ability to tame the wandering mind in a more comfortable realm, that of sound rather than silence. 

Kochin and the Malabar coast is spice heaven: walking down the streets you catch chilli, pepper and cardamon in the back of the throat, just as I remember Salman Rushdie describing in "the moors last sigh", a family epic based in the city. My last visit here was a flying one, for a friend of a friends wedding, and we never really explored the eclectic Fort and Mattancherry areas, although one of my night wanders winds up in the same local Durga temple as 4 years ago. 

Today I ate probably the tastiest masala dosa yet, on the train to Kanyakumari - loaded with green chilli and bathed in squash sambar. Railway food I have learned is often surprisingly good: unlike trains back home there are no prana starved pre-packed sandwiches and depressing trolleys loaded with corporate sugar; as discovered while nosing around the carriages on a long long haul from Delhi to Goa, it is often cooked here on the train by sweating cooks stirring giant pots. The other surprise, today, was a juicy fly wrapped in the delicious pancake. But I found it, so happy to still be vegan, if not the low salt/ sugar/ garlic/ onion version of days back home! 

Kanyakumari is the southern most tip of India where the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea converge. Legend has it that parashakti, incarnating as the virgin Devi Kumari, destroyed the mighty demon Banasuri here, saving the world but at the same time missing out on a promised reunion with Shiva...Her final footprint is enshrined on Vivekenanda rock, a dramatic temple and visitor centre reached by ferry (never been asked to wear a life jacket in India before - which tells you how wild this meeting of seas can be!). 

The 'wandering monk' came to meditate here, realising his life's purpose and also prior to his great speech to the congress of nations in Chicago, 1892. I have read elsewhere that he wasn't fluent in English at the time but channeled his spiritual message to the world, which resonated amongst the broad spectrum of cultures and religions represented. Vivekenanda mixed the Santanam dharma with social thinking, hoping to unite India as an example to the world. His legacy and policies continue in education, health, worship and farming in Tamil Nadu today.

The monument, and the neighbouring mega statue to local poet Thiravullar, are kind of hectic so the vivekenanda meditation hall is a welcome respite. Inside a glowing om symbol decorates the front wall and it's mantra plays on loop as we sit on straw mats in the cool and minimal marble room. After a short while the gathered families, locals and tourists begin to breathe and softly chant along, together. It reminds me that we can make meditation reflect our lives - over complicated and busy (contradictory) - and that sound can bring us back, simply, to that deep and collective connection that simply is. 

The vivekenanda Kendram, is a community which lives by his philosophy, created by his great disciple eknathji (who also built the monument despite many odds and obstacles). This is the kind of place I have often imagined that the uk could do with, where yogic practise meets life and reaches out into wider society both as an example and in practical ways eg here they offer training in sustainable agriculture and traditional Tamil medicine and affordable yoga immersions. 

Here worship is filled with vibrant sound and I called time on Kanyakumari with a bell ringing puja as the sun set over the Muruga temple. Inspiring and unpredictable as ever, mother India, less than one week in - tonight I hit the road for Mysore.