Showing posts with label India. Show all posts
Showing posts with label India. Show all posts

Monday, 27 October 2014

Santosha and 4 day professional course for ED

As you know I've been working on a programme for yoga and disordered eating. Returning home from India today I was thinking about the fact that in the days of patanjali and the ancient rishis eating disorders would not have existed as one of the afflicted states of mind. Food was probably pretty scarce and in India, even largely today, food is seen as a celebration of life with daily offerings, prasad and feasting making it part of religious and spiritual Life. Ok the Diwali sweets are not exactly the healthiest, but they are consumed in a social and sparing way. 

Coming to India was a big turning point for me in realising it was ok to admit to enjoying food, that it didn't mean I was greedy to tuck into a good old plateful; delighting in the sensory experience of a thali and actually laughing at my Imperfect self dribbling pani puri filling down my chin. I am very lucky to come here and be able to afford to eat well while others do not, and that is a strong reminder to be grateful, with perspective. 

Anyway I wanted to share some of the ways we (dr Sam Bottril and I) have been pairing up patanjalis ancient yogic thinking (the yamas and niyamas) with the modern issue of eating behaviour, through 8 week courses, each week following a theme with home practise tips and discussions...

I'll be supporting Sam and the Minded Institute on a 4 day professional training coming up end nov - this is for anyone interested in incorporating yoga into their therapeutic work with disordered eating or yoga teachers looking to expand their knowledge of the evidence, research, techniques etc out there. Details here 

Santosha – Contentment  

"From contentment comes supreme joy' rishi patanjali 

Each one of us sees life differently, through our own 'veil' of experience and conditioning. The struggle to meet expectations keeps us unhappy; looking to change ourselves, looking for new experiences that will make everything better. Expectations come from both within and outside but often we are the only ones seeking perfection in ourselves. Either way, we are the only one who is responsible for striving toward these expectations. When we step onto the mat we might be full of expectations – to achieve the 'perfect' back-bend today, to move faster than our neighbour through that last sun salutation, for the teacher to gives us the exact class that we crave, never mind the needs of the lesser able students around us.

We may have these same expectations in front of the mirror. Every day our body is different. In a world of homogenised food, harsh media criticism and monotonous jobs this is not what we signed up for. But we do not criticize the moon for its cycle – we watch with fascination at its changing shape and often celebrate its fullness and leave it to do its natural thing for the remaining 27 days. In a world which is constantly evolving why do we, part of nature, expect to freeze ourselves in youth, thin-ness or super-fitness?

Back on the yoga mat... there will be some practices you can do with ease and others that will be a challenge. As in life, we gravitate to those in which we look good or come with feelings of pleasure. Often the postures which make us feel challenged, angry or damned ungainly are the ones we need to be doing! Each obstacle is a teacher. Your neighbour will be going through a whole different set of attachments and aversions. Where would be the incentive to practice if it was all easy? Yes yoga allows us to change the way we look and feel but at the same time it alters our perception of what this should be. I often like to start my practice by banning the very word 'should' and noticing each time a thought begins with it.


Sometimes we get a little peek beyond the veils, that who we are is just fine. The longer or deeply we practice the more often we get a glimpse of santosha. I remember in India looking down at my feet one day and seeing them as just perfect – I mean really loving my feet. My nail polish was chipped, my toes were sandy and just as stringy as ever but I loved them just as they were in that moment. All I'd been doing was my daily practice with dedication: when you let it, supreme joy arises from contentment.

Contentment doesn't mean being ecstatically happy all the time - ups and downs are part of who we are. But as Patanjali outlines, it is the battle against how things really are that keeps us from contentment. Practicing teaches us to observe everything - sadness, happiness, good and bad times...and through all of these to stay with our true self.

If we cannot possibly be content until we look just like the yogi(ni) next to us, we are missing the magical changes that are occurring moment to moment, breath to breath. Even if we achieve his/ her look there will be another goal post to strive for. It is changing the perception (not obtaining a new yoga style/ body/ bag/ relationship/ title) that is transformational.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference”
Serenity prayer. 

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. 

Monday, 31 December 2012

Life in 3D

Recently I watched Life of Pi in 3D; having actually gone to the pics to see Midnights Children (a week too early) I had no idea that Yann Martel's story, too, was set in India. Currently craving for the feeling of that magical land, it brought tears to my eyes to see the opening shots of Pondicherry.

There were more surprises, and tears, to come. You might be wondering where I've been hiding, but I've never seen a 3D film before. And I was totally blown away by the rain drops falling just off to my right and the fish swimming out of the screen towards me! So like a kid in a sweetshop I spent the next 2 hours gawping and jumping in my seat. Ok maybe I need to get out more...

But it also reminded me of how life feels after establishing a Yoga practise. I left thinking that if life is the film, as so often metaphorically described, then life through the lens of Yoga is most definitely the 3D version. Never mind that Yoga can take us beyond this dimension - as many of us practise not to transcend the life we are living, but to enrich the here and now.

To some the path of Yoga might be seen as feeling less - learning non-attachment and cultivating an attitude of equanimity - and of course there is the idea of renunciation. To me anyway, Yoga has made my life progressively richer, bolder, brighter - at the same time as simplifying it. There are so many things in life to numb us down: booze, bad TV, junk food, thankless overtime...Yoga is a true escape - an escape from all the escapism.

The thing with being at the cinema is that we can recognise that we are (I'm) watching the film, even through the most life-like effects and heart-wrenching scenes; so we can appreciate the scenery, the acting, the emotions for what they are. Yoga gives us a bit of this perspective on life, viewing the drama from the outside - playing but not being consumed by it. 

A friend described to me cycling through the park after his first Yoga class feeling so alive - like he could take off and fly home. On a measurable and physical level, Yoga re-aligns boosts mood enhancing hormones and neuro-transmitters. It changes the balance of our energies. While we might not actually take off, we can fly through the same crappy situations with a different attitude.

Our sense organs seem to sharpen so that sights, smells, tastes POP! out at us - giving a new-felt appreciation for the everyday things we habitually consume, wander past, use. I remember once looking down at my own foot, possibly for half an hour, and being totally blown away by the detail of all the little bones and how they connected and moved and the texture of the skin - before they had just been functional body parts and suddenly I totally loved my feet.

At the same time, how we perceive what we are sensing changes - being more present within our experiences - for if the mind has raced ahead or is looping over some recent event, then it is no wonder we don't register how rich a scent is or how delicate a fabric might feel between our hands. Eating is a great example - in the quiet space post-Yoga food has more flavour, seems somehow brighter on the plate. Its (probably) the same food but we are experiencing it more deeply.

Being thrown into a 3D version of life would seem to be the last thing we need to achieve the goal of Yoga - to still the mind and its 'modifications' (Patanjali). But a growing wonder at the richness of each and every thing is a whole different thing to burying our head in our thoughts. How can we remember that we are joy itself without finding joy in our surroundings? If we can have such awareness of detail, and just look, listen, experience it all, then we have the subtlety to go deeper than patterns of thought like fear and worry. 

Yoga is moving from dull-ness into light or from flat-ness into fullness. Wishing you a bright and joyful year ahead x





by Ali Gunning (Piriamvada Yoga) – I teach Akhanda and Classical Kundalini Yoga in East & North London. Home is on the waterways with my narrow boat Bokissa.