Showing posts with label meditation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label meditation. Show all posts

Thursday, 16 June 2016

What I learned from my students today...

Your teachers will tell you how to put poses together, what they do for the mind body; but your students will show you what it means to their lives. It is a privilege to teach and be reminded of many things that as practitioners we may have begun to take for granted. 

Leaving everything behind 

When we step into our yoga space...I'm not saying 'mat' as yoga can be done sitting on a chair or the bus; it's more about carving out a mental space (and of course coming into a dimly lit room away from the world facilitates this more easily)... When we step into our bodies and breath within that space we can make a choice to leave behind the family arguments, the feelings of low self worth, the work expectations etc. That 'leaving behind' might walk a wavering line, but with practise it will become more concrete. And every time we re affirm that choice, by reconnecting with the breath, a chakra, the music in the room, a smile, or whatever...our ability to make a choice becomes stronger. Of course we have to go back to our home/ desk/ lives - but we go back a little different. For many people, weekly yoga class is the only time they take have that's not for someone else. The funny thing is that it ends up being for everyone, if it benefits us. 

Battling less with life 

In our first twists we tend to use brute force to get somewhere; to triumph over our bodies; to mirror or better where someone else is at. Over time we understand that kindness and breath produce openness in our spines. And before long our eyes are closed and we are the only one in this twist, playing with looping edges of acceptance/ frustration/ surrender. So off the mat do we learn flexibility. That trying to force life/ family/ friends/ colleagues into doing it our way doesn't work and only leaves us frustrated and wondering why other people have it better. 

A breath changes everything 

Breath is transformation on a cellular level. Not just an automatic function of the lungs but the thread that connects the everyday with the highest self. Whatever physical shape we are in, the breath unites us. What use is the most complex pranayama unless we remember to breathe? In the most challenging postures, through the breath, we learn that relaxation is not just lying around being lazy; but a highly effective mind body state. Class by class the breath starts to vie with our to do list or self beliefs as the chosen dwelling place of our mind. Back in the everyday, awareness of just one breath rises us above the battle and allows us to negotiate some inner space, to see and respond more clearly. 

Community heals 


Yoga is both being together and being entirely in our Self. Sometimes the community we need is the shared silence of shavasana, the brief absence of words in a noisy world; sometimes it's a chat after class, discovering common issues and sharing experiences. My experience is that our highest self guides us to the people we need and the work we are meant to do in each moment; the only thing that's required of us is to stay open to it; that of course is the whole practise! As teachers we simply facilitate the opportunities for communion and community, and let go of attachment to the results. 



I am grateful to offer yoga for positive mood and positive living courses as part of the Wellbeing network for mental health recovery, run by City & Hackney MIND. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Mantras for precarious times, peace & everything in between

I was recently describing in class how much I enjoy the 'door-mouse' effect of living near to nature. Winter always invites me to hibernate - and while I chant on a daily basis, I often intensify my 'japa' during the colder months. 

Japa is the practise of using a 'mala' (beads) to count out a specific number of repetitions of a mantra. The action of touching and moving around the beads (like a rosary) adds an extra 'anchor' to quiet the mind. It wasn't a requirement of my sadhana to reel off 108s, but had become a spontaneous transition day to night, night to day. 

Particular mantras are recommended for particular situations we face, employing words which are a wake up the soul, of it's own remembrance, as Russil Paul describes in the fabulous book 'The Yoga of Sound' (which 'appeared' for me around this time via my ever-inspiring colleague Yog Sundari!)Or the bija (seed) mantras - which are powerful keys to unlock our inner energy and potential. For example you may choose the 'Maha Mritunjaya' mantra to break through fear and embrace transformation. Or the mantra 'Om Yam' to invoke the qualities of the heart.

For me right now its the Shanti mantra (below). With the exact, beautiful intonation of my teacher Saji) it came whispering to me one evening as I drifted towards sleep. This mantra I realised was the first I ever led, as a terrified trainee in Kerala several years back. What had changed? 

At that time it was all about the fear of my voice, how did the mantra sound to others, was I getting it right, what the hell did these words in this strange language mean? While now I was tuning in to the vibration and forgetting about the words themselves. 

Despite the different 'flavours', any mantra can take us beyond the confines of the ego into connection with the highest self which is unconditional peace, wellbeing, transformation, love and anything else we invoke. In times of turmoil and disharmony, the turmoil within is the one we can start with. 'As above, so below.'

Centuries ago yogis and yoginis found that sound has different layers, from the loud 'external' sound to a whispered mantra, a silent thinking and a spontaneous repetition. And used mantra as a vehicle of intention; re-creating with our tongue, lips, mouth and vocal chords its particular vibratory pattern allows us to manifest the form or result which that pattern represents. The rishis ('seers') worked with both mandala (form) and mantra (vibration) and today there is renewed interest in this, as 'cymatics'. Check out mandalas created in sand or this amazing video of the gayatri mantra made visible in water (thank you Lisa for this, I could just watch it for hours!)

Like a song we hear constantly on the radio, when we repeat a thought it sticks in our subconscious. When we listen to or repeat a mantra we make space between the thoughts - and fill that space with harmonious messages - which serve not only ourselves but others. If you wish to meditate and have a chattering mind (who doesn't right?) japa is for you. Even when the mind becomes quiet the world is chattering at you - others opinions, media messages, technology. So mantra clears the clutter and replaces it with vibrations that re-align us with our original/ desired state of resonance. 

Even without a translation - in fact sometimes because of this, as we are not busy analysing - sanskrit mantras have transformative power setting off waves of vibration through our watery organs, cells, bones, energy pathways etc. 

The act of chanting exercises our lungs and lowers our heart rate. It activates the glandular system, balancing hormonal secretions such as melatonin (sleep cycles). At the same time we are expanding outwards - the 'like attracts like' effect invites a response from that which we are calling to/ for. If that sounds less verifiable, just try it and see what happens and what others observe in you. 

Chanting alone - awesome. Chanting together - even better. We sync into the same breath pattern, the same pitch, the same vibration. We might let slip the armour we build up of who and how different we are and start to feel truly in tune, never minding how in tune our voices are. And isn't that what we are looking for in this practise of union (yoga)? 

We are starting a new chanting circle at The Well Garden on Friday 12th Feb at 6pm. It's FREE and requires no prior experience of chanting or even to make a sound (just come, listen, lay down before the 6.30pm class if you like). 




Monday, 4 January 2016

New year, reconnecting with path and purpose

As one year rolls into the next there is a pressure to blaze into Jan with big decisions, big resolutions; to delete and re-invent. I am sitting waiting for the inspirational words to come, trying to gather together into that expected new year blog post the random thoughts that have been gathering in a reflective few weeks. I almost missed the sound of the rain drops on the steel roof of the boat for the last half hour. I listen and I re-connect. And this is the key, where the inspiration always comes from; turning within, not turning a page on the calendar.

The yoga sutra we are most familiar with is probably 1.2 yogas chitta vritti nirodah'. This is the state or purpose of yoga, the stilling of the fluctuations of consciousness. The attention becoming absorbed in the rain drops rather than the to do's and 'I am's'. But flicking onto sutra 2.1, here, clearly outlined, is the practise or path of yoga – 'tapah svadhyaya-isvara-prindindanani kriya-yogah'. This is the how of it – the three prongs of dedicated effort, self study and devotion to the divine which will support the cycle of our practise throughout the years.

Our early days of yoga (or maybe of each year) might mainly reflect the first element, of tapas: lots of intensive asana practise, a sudden desire for strict routine, grand renunciations and shifts in attitude. Then swadhyaya sneaks into play, perhaps we wonder what is behind this steam roller of transformation and begin to read into the sutras or other texts. But we also begin studying who or what is this 'me' reading, moving or breathing. Perhaps our dedicated practise shifts into a new contemplative depth, whether its content changes or not, whether it still looks the same from the outisde.

Swadhyaya offers an opportunity for yoga to spill off the mat, for 'Who am I' is not only an enquiry for deepest meditation but in our lives, moment to moment, and in any situation as we begin to re-appraise what draws us towards our happiness or stillness, and what increases the feeling of separateness. The pauses in thought we find on the mat (nirodah) can be applied to any choice such as 'might this comment I'm making on facebook cause anguish'; 'does this relationship nourish me' or 'can this food help me feel more present or more anxious'?

The more this enquiry draw us within, the closer we come to the divine, whether or not we have a devotional practise or an idea of what the divine looks like. For in yoga the two are only separated by false perception - ishwara and purusha or brahman and atman. Devotion or surrender indicate allowing a softness to creep into practise, as we move from separateness towards union. Perhaps we move from times of necessary purification to a desire to reach out to the divine in others. Or life, family and health circumstances change and surrender allows us to see that not even our glorious early yogi-self is permenant. We move through the ebbs and flows of the years with grace rather than struggling against the tide.

Of course this path is never linear and as ever deeper layers are revealed, sometimes we have to retrace our steps. And here is why swadyaha stands at the centre of the path. Where am I and what do I need right now?

Here at the beginning of a new cycle can we look honestly at how our bodies and minds feel after a festive break. Whether students or teachers, likely we need to re-apply some discipline to get back on track. But before kicking ourselves: for indulgences and arguments; todays wobbles in a previously steadfast dancing shiva pose; clunky cueing in that first class back...seeing this as an opportunity to be grateful for the awareness of how some of our choices have made us feel this time round; for the patterns we can only see more clearly through testing interactions.

Swadhyaya is the key to checking in with our own purpose and our own path. No previous effort has been wasted. Rather than how little have I achieved in the year goneby - how much have I learned? To making realistic intentions instead of those that peers or magazines condition us to desire. Or setting extreme targets that we are set to fail and falling into guilt and shame which divide us more deeply that the 'failure'. I remember a beautiful saying by Swami Lakshmanjoo: 'he who knows he has fallen has not really fallen.'

Happy New Year. Embrace this time of transition and all that you are : )  







Saturday, 19 December 2015

Still adrift, but putting down roots

5 winters (the river measure of time and hardiness) ago I returned from India broke and in pieces, and moved into a cold and unfamiliar world. 

Making a shaky start (broken gear boxes, chimneys lost under low bridges) and frozen in at Hertford I soon toughened up, scooping snow off the roof to boil for tea (and sneaking round to my best mates for washing and warmth). Then it was off to london to join the world of continuous cruising; whereby nomadic boaters move every two weeks, a 'reasonable' distance, sporadically policed by the questionable authority of canal and river trust. A sign of the times is that since then the liveaboard community on the canals has increased by 70-80 percent. Most people will claim crazy rents and inability to buy in london have fuelled this change but I like to see the wish to get outside the machine in some way as just as much a factor. That's certainly why I and many of my friends did it; craving a more sustainable lifestyle in all ways, not just monetary. 

In deciding to buy a boat I ummed and awwed for weeks about the philosophy of it - pretending to 'own' something and buying into the need for security. A wise owl (that same Hertford rock of a friend) said to me - this will be the beginnings of good things for you, and besides your home moves and you have no address it's hardly 'settling down'! She was, as often, right. 

The healing power of water had drawn me: water which signifies the life giving essence expressing in different forms; the emotions; acceptance and flow. Having this floating 'cave' and being able to step away from the popularity contest of london life, I began to expand anew. Savouring aloneness, I began to attract new friends and collaborators. 

It has been with the support of amazing family and friends that I've slowly transformed my boat into a simple but joyful home, reflecting my inner journey. Re painting and re naming her after the celtic goddess of horses this autumn I realise the subconscious power of symbolism. A friend asked me 'did you go for trad colours or does she reflect your personality?' I let the pictures speak to that : ) 

And now I move into the second stage of settling, with lesser resistance. Making a full circle back to Hertfordshire, we've moved onto a mooring on the beautiful river stort. It manifested almost instantly after stating with surprise to the universe what I would like in my life now: grounding. Nourished by water and ready for the steady base of earth. What once would have implied stuck-ness and distance from spirit now feels it's very container. Both earth in which to plant sunflowers, broccoli and herbs - and roots from which to welcome the wonderful opportunities opening up to teach and play sound. I am finding new community, including bunnies and squirrels, and soon there'll be a yoga space to invite you to. Of course, again, I can move anytime but there isn't a need to know that. 






Here she is post transformation - thank you so much to Ben Smith 'Mr Blue' boat painter. 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Renewed faith


Patanjali's sutras state that the spiritual aspirant needs 'provisional faith' as well as mindfulness and energy to step onto this path. What about those already on the path for many years, how can our faith continue to be strengthened? In cultivating our connection with our highest self on a daily basis, but also through seeing the emergence of the highest self in others.

I've just finished a month of teaching YTT in Rishikesh. I thank firstly my teacher Yogrishi Vishvektu for his faith in me, even at times when my own conviction falters. But also the 25 Akhanda teachers emerging fully cooked from the 'oven' (as he describes it) of an intensive month at Ananda Prakash ashram. Living, breathing and being 'yoga' together as a community is about much more than becoming a teacher of others, but building faith in our own divine nature.

And reaching out a hand to guide this process offers the same benefit. We see after a certain time (and effort) the transformational power of yoga in our wider lives as well as bodies and minds, but mindfulness is strengthened through seeing the new blossoming of Self in others. This year's group inspired me with their bravery, devotion and will to overcome whatever obstacles appeared. And to embrace not only the practise of yoga on the mat, but in every moment. I go home full of renewed energy to share this practise, on a physical level and as a path to divine living.

My meet and greet card on day one was 'embrace the negative as well as positive experiences' and this is where our faith is truly tested. I borrow a quotation from several students, via the words of Osho: 'I am the centre of the cyclone, so whatever happens around me makes no difference to me. It may be turmoil or it may be the beautiful sound of running water; I am just a witness to both, and the witnessing remains the same.'

When we have faith the right teachers arrive in our lives at the right time to awaken our witness. And from this place our fears - not being good/ smart/ beautiful/ whatever enough - are exposed to be transformed. I'm learning to thank these fears too! For showing me the strength of my faith! Faith does not mean a storm free journey, but does hold our hand and guide us back to the centre.

Love, congratulations and thanks to all. Hari OM. 





Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Taking your practise to the next level...but not too seriously

Wow, as spring in London truly arrives, 9 new yoga teachers blossom out from the first ever Akhanda Yoga YTT to be held in the UK! Which leaves me reflecting on this tradition of Akhanda Yoga...and why some of you might be tempted to sign up for the next one... and join the family!

Here in London for a workshop and graduation, Yogrishi Vishvketu re-told the story of founding Akhanda yoga - when he came to the west to teach, people kept asking 'what's this type of yoga called..' - 'yoga, just yoga' he would reply. After some time he realised that we like to brand our yoga as much as our leggings or phones. So a name had to be chosen, and that name was Akhanda - meaning indivisible, unbroken tradition (a bit like yoga - so we are essentially saying "yoga yoga"!). 

What makes Akhanda yoga so special? 

It's a great story but there are reasons why Guruji was asked so often what this type of yoga is - at first it feels different - very 'whole ' - though we might be at a loss to pinpoint why. 


In Akhanda we honour the original streams of yoga - Bhakti, raja, jnana and karma - as well as Hatha yoga. That means our practise includes a diverse range of techniques from cleansing kriyas to fire puja, chanting, meditation and study of the scriptures as well as service in our lives. 

Personally I'm bored of saying or hearing the words 'but yoga is not just asana' and I want to be positive about everything yoga is, rather than debate what it's not. That's why Akhanda appealed to me so much. 

There are hundreds of yoga techniques because we are complex and unique beings. According to yogic theory we are comprised of 5 layers - the koshas - which we become familiar with experientially in practise. And different techniques balance or purify each subtler layer. So when we chant we filter the monkey mind, when we do pranayama we expand our energy in preparation for meditation, and so on. 

When it comes to asana, the stilling and purifying of the physical body, we consider not only a balance of the movements of the spine and different station of postures, like inversions and sitting, but our individual constitution (via the Ayurvedic doshas) and the influence of the vayus (subdivisions of the pranic life force which govern different functions of the body).

Yoga is a path of balance or equanimity - of bringing ourselves from the extremes to the centre. As the Gita says: 
'Yoga is skillfullness in action'; not over-feasting or over-fasting, a balance of practise and right understanding. 


Akhanda yoga considers the balancing of opposites - the yin and the yang, the sun and the moon, the rajas and tamas, shiva and shakti, creativity and consciousness, expansion and grounding, effort and allowing, Self and all...for whole-ness. 

Taking an Akhanda YTT 

Training with the World Conscious Yoga Family (in Akhanda yoga) includes philosophy, techniques, anatomy (yogic and physical), transformational experiences, teaching methodology and ethics, practical teaching experience, yoga and business, discussion about Ayurveda and yogic diet...


A lot of learning and a lot of unlearning. 

At the weekend Guruji reminded us of some words by the great yogi Goreknath:
'Hasiba Kheliba kariba Dhyanam' - your meditation should be playful.


Akhanda is learned and taught in a spirit of fun. At times you may wonder, why I am elephant walking rather than poring over some scripture, what will I learn? But the point is what we open to by dropping our guard, freeing our thoughts and embracing the child-like spirit. This is as important to teaching as knowing our Sanskrit. 

Of course YTT is challenging! Being ready depends not on x number of years practise, doing whatever advanced techniques or even being sure that you want to teach. But knowing that unshakable pull to explore more and more deeply the effects of this magical thing called yoga. We work on ourselves while learning to share with others. In many ways completing the training is just the start. 


Traditionally you have two choices - intensive study of Akhanda yoga at its rishikesh hq, versus training in your home country, paced over 9 months or a year. And whats right will depend upon your circumstances and ultimately what your heart gravitates towards... 


However this year I think Yog Sundari has created the perfect balance for uk trainees - a flexible programme of 8 weekends at breeze in london and a 10 day intensive workshop in India (experiencing guruji's teaching and graduation on the rooftop with the Himalayan foothills in the background!). 

I will also be teaching on the programme and you can join us from sept - but hurry we have just 4 places left! Details here



Class of 2015 


Me and Guruji 



Monday, 6 April 2015

'Dig a hole for your pond without waiting for the moon. When the pond is finished the moon will come by itself'...

These words by Dogen Kenji just sum up the practise of yin yoga for me. Recently I was lucky enough to take a yin yoga training with Gayatri Gayle Poapst a Canadian anatomy and yoga teacher who trained with Sarah Powers, one of yin's pioneers.

Yin, also known as Taoist yoga, is all about resistance and surrender. We surrender the to the pose, we surrender the mind's resistance into breath or mantra, we surrender (rather than resist) what is right now. We wait. This might sound unpalatable, especially for us pitta types! Yet, as is often the case, what we 'dislike' can often be just what we need - a welcome release in a world of striving and flitting.

The environment many of us live, work and play in is YANG. To keep up with it we eat, move, think in a very yang way. And why not? No one wants to be seen to slow down, step back, ' lose their edge' - right (including, perhaps, on the mat)? As nature around us plays out as a balance of yin and yang, so do we require both the 'sunny and shady sides of the mountain' to be healthy and whole. Yin and yang exist together, within one another, within each of us.

Coming home from the first day of training, via the buzz and tension of the tube, I cycled down the river feeling the shivers of chi in my body. I looked at the reflection of the full moon in the water and thought: this is what yin yoga brings to the mat (and this is what london needs more of!).

Why yin?

Yin and the physical body

When we move in and out of asana in dynamic or 'yang' practise we rarely hold a pose longer than 1 minute and even where we do we are engaging, activating and generally working against gravity, which both stretches muscles and strengthens them. This is great and totally necessary, but doesn't scratch the surface of the structures which connect bones, joints and muscles. It takes over 3 mins to stretch out these ligaments, tendons and fascia - with a like-attracts-like approach, ie holding for a long time in a relaxed way...a yin approach to yin tissues.

Lines of fascia connect the body from head to toe and spiralling within, for example from the psoas through the diaphragm to the tongue. The body is interconnected by its web and wherever we tense or tug a strand we affect seemingly unconnected regions. A microcosm of the universe itself. Imagine how as we spend hours at the laptop, forehead tensed, this ripples through the body.

As for the joints, as we age they become drier, more vata - yin practise keeps them lubricated and infused with prana.

Yin in balance

Fascia gives us our shape and sometimes even yoga practise doesn't seem to be shifting that whole body stiffness we come up against at certain times of life or circumstance. So try yin... But don't give up your yang practise just yet! The two balance each other. Yin may make our yang praise more open and flexible but yang does a vital job of strengthening and stabilising our joints to complement their openness.

As someone drawn to contemplative practise I absolutely savour yin but with high mobility I recognize the absolute need to keep on strengthening. Actually it's an interesting practise for 'bendy ones' as we can often flop easily into a (physically) deep expression of a pose without much to challenge our awareness - as yin focuses on sensation we may have to step back to find it, and focus even deeper to be sure we are safe.

Yin versus restorative

Although both may use multiple props, restorative yoga is more designed to release the body into support and comfort, ideal for recovery from illness or injury, with yin more aligned to exploring our edges of comfort and going beyond the body into the deeper Koshas.

If anyone tells you either style of yoga is the 'easy option' I invite them to spend 10 minutes in dragon!!

Yin and the energy body

Many of us groan at the idea of hip openers as we know that not only our stiffness is highlighted. The hips, land of the swadisthana chakra, stir up emotions and here in yin we are holding them for an, at first, excruciating 3/5/10 or more minutes (yes, each side!). Fascia it seems is the gateway to the meridians or Nadis and the chakras and provides access to stored emotions and tendencies.

Chinese medicine and yogic anatomy overlap in mapping out how our organs, glands and nervous system are supplied with the subtle force which makes them tick. Lines of chi or prana move through water rich channels, governing our state of health. This chi must move (yang practise) but also be replenished (yin).

Of course the breath is the vehicle of prana and the stillness of the poses offers us a real opportunity to study, feel and guide the breath.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness tunes us into how we feel through the messages of sensations - the body whispering, talking and eventually shouting at us for what we need. Yoga practised with a desire for the body to be different and a list of shoulds and musts can reinforce our disconnection.

Once we find our comfortable edge in a yin pose we commit to stillness, breathe and observe. W
e 'dig our pond' and we wait!..becoming the witness. This, of course, is easier said than done, but hugely rewarding (as the tons of mindfulness research that have emerged in recent years reflects) in life off the mat. The poses increase the potential for us to feel our body while coming back to the witness challenges the egos grip on our consciousness as we stay, in stillness, and drop through the body into deeper layers of mind.

Yin and meditation

'Yogas chitta vritti nirodah' yoga is stilling the fluctuations of consciousness (patanjali)

How many of us stay still for more then 5 minutes in the waking day without distracting ourselves in some way - book, iPhone, TV, conversation etc etc?. Amazing how we think 'I just want to be still and quiet yet' when that is offered we will do anything we can to escape it, to wriggle away from the discomfort of what appears in the space or just the space itself - the mind throwing us resistance in the form of itches and excuses - 'I don't need this', 'how boring' etc.

In yin, after establishing ourselves as the witness, we are in a ripe space to face the underlying patterns which everyday life allows us to dodge. Being still and quiet is not about swinging from a rajasic mind to a dull one - we face it's ripples and let them go, often adding the positive vibration of mantra or brahmaree breath (or welcoming in the luscious tones of gong).

Yin is meditation in partial motion itself but if you find the act of sitting tricky it will also give you some much needed openess in the hips to fold into that 'steady comfortable seat'... And all that unfolds from there.

I start a weekly yin class every Thursday 6.30pm at the well garden from April 9th
As yin works along the same meridian lines as gong I invite you to try them both together for some powerful release and rejuvenation...
6.30pm - 8.30pm, £16/18




Monday, 30 March 2015

Expectations....

On the recent Rajasthan retreat we talked about banning the words SHOULD, MUST and CANT and this applies as much to teaching as to practising yoga. 

EXPECTATIONS. When we first get on the mat these'll likely be about our own bodies, not doing as we believe they should/ what our neighbour's can do; frustration as to why today's practise isn't as 'good' as yesterday's; wondering why we feel angry, agitated etc when we 'should be' zen personified like the serene teacher sitting in front of us...

Then, as teachers we continue to have, and maybe grow some new, expectations about ourselves. We will of course expect class to pan out just as we planned it and torment ourselves when we didn't stick to the painstakingly crafted plan (although it could that our students loved us for that spontaneous sequence which felt it had been just made for them!). To expect ourselves to be as funny/ popular/ experienced as the next teacher on the schedule. To know all the answers, otherwise be exposed as a yogi fraud! And maybe to feel like we should be perfectly at peace with ourselves (not not having these expectations) now that we've ticked the box of YTT. We are work in progress and old patterns may come up again in this new form. 

But perhaps also towards our students. Do we expect they should show a certain level of commitment, body awareness or behaviour off the mat? Might the fact we feel drained or disappointed by our students 'lack' on any of these points be more about the security of our teacher ego? Teaching is a wonderful practise in offering up the fruits of our actions, karma yoga in action. Krishna would say we just do our duty and leave the results to god; the role we play might not always match up with our expectations of who we are or how we are perceived, but may be what's necessary in the wider scheme of life. 

That's not to say we become push overs or lazy teachers who roll out the same class with minimal effort as 'they can't be bothered anyway'. Or stop encouraging, inspiring and challenging our groups. But find the balance of doing our best and offering it up. 

And of course students will have expectations of us. Oh yes! For us to make them as happy as their last class/ favourite teacher/ other style of yoga did; for us to behave flawlessly off the mat. We are a work in progress as are they, we will grow as teachers as they grow as practitioners. Can and should we communicate this - for example acknowledge that the 'serene' teacher that now sits in front of them is sometimes shaking inside? I don't think there is one right answer, except to have awareness of where this is coming from and speaking to - if we are looking to have an outlet for our personal stuff there are more suitable ears; if we are seeking approval, why? But if we can soften students expectations of themselves by sharing a little of our own vulnerability, we may all grow in the process. 

Continuing, or starting, to cultivate authenticity, non-attachment and discernment through our own sadhana will help us navigate this path and turn expectations into teachers themselves.m

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

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.

Monday, 21 October 2013

In and out of balance

We had a really lovely discussion at the stretch talk last Friday about the delicate balance between the koshas and the juggling act between fulfilling our day to day lifestyle and where we want to go with/ be taken by our yoga practise. Life is full of seemingly opposing situations or influences which pull us back and forth - the calm space of our practise and the frantic pace of London. 

Yoga and a knowledge of the pancha koshas {5 x layers of being - ananamaya (food body), pranamaya (energy body), manomaya (mental body)  vijnanamaya (wisdom body) anandamaya (bliss body)} is a way to achieve balance on every levels. Sometimes theory can feel like adding complexity, but the koshas indicate the interconnectd-ness of everything on a personal and practical level.  

While teaching classes about 'balance' and 'space', I've been reading a fantastic book by Dr Claudia Welch about the Eastern approach to balancing hormones, which considers these powerful messengers as yin/ yang or feminine/ masc. forces. As she explains, the yang nature of our lifestyle and society can create imbalance over the years, leading to stress, and its manifestation as various health issues (she focuses on women in her studies, but it also applies to men).  

It seems when we are surrounded by yang we often want more yang, to help us keep up. Like working at lightning pace, juggling a million things, feeling frazzled but never admitting this is all too much - drinking a ton of coffee in readiness for the next deadline to land on our desk. It becomes a cycle and being busy seems to be both something we moan about and thrive off - maybe subconsciously feeling that if we embraced more yin we wouldn't be able/ want to keep up...and to accept that would mean making some deeper lifestyle changes. 

Welch explains how the hormone equivalent of out of balance living is going on under the surface; stress hormones creating a state of alert which requires more of the same to remain at the same pace. And placing stress on the glands producing the hormones, the organs under their influence and the systems these control like the heart and blood pressure, or reproductive health. (Read her book - excellent - 'Balance your hormones, balance your life'). Not to mention the full circle effect on our mental health.  Flicking back through some ashram notes I discover Vishvaji's words that 'hormones are the thoughts in liquid form'...

What can we do, apart from practise yoga obviously? For a start, practise more yoga of course! There are many ways to regain balance - and I'm not just talking about a particular style of practise but how we practise. 

There are of course the awesome balancing asansas which make us feel focused, invigorated and alive - Garudasana, Natarajasana being two of my all time favourites. As we were discussing in our group, the obvious physical effects of these asansas, like core stability or evening out imbalances in the opposite sides of the body, are supported by a host of other benefits like learning, in motion, how to quiet the thoughts as well as balancing the ida and pingalla flows, which correlate to the body structure and to the constant play of life - sun/ moon, yin/ yang, masculine/ feminine.  What we do on the physical level impacts the subtle. 

Notice trying a balancing posture with an agitated mind as opposed to a calm one - how the latter state can be brought about by putting your awareness into the posture and the breathing which sustains it and how the balance then becomes much easier to maintain. There you go, a virtuous cycle has been created - now where else could you apply this? 

Notice your breath - really notice your breath and its qualities. Are you breathing deeply in postures or are you actually breathing harshly? Try practising at a lesser intensity and observe what the effects might be on how you breath and how you feel. The breath influences the nervous system and bridges the physical and mental bodies, so be sure you are not taking frustration out on your body, which your breath might indicate. You can be in the toughest class or posture in the world and still be finding stillness, if you allow it.

Balancing pranayama - anuloma viloma is the king and queen here, literally. Alternating the flow of breath creates a sattvic state where the energy is in balance and the mind becomes clear and free. Do it before meditation, try it when you are agitated, turn to it when you are feeling slow and sleepy. There is no need to ping from one extreme to the other - here is a practical example of simply following the practise and allowing the body to find its way back to centre. 

Proper relaxation. Shavasana is often the practise we bypass or cut down on in a self practise. This is like bolting your dinner down then running straight out the door or back onto the laptop. Actually in an over-busy life we probably do exactly that. Where is the time for digestion, integration and appreciation? Perhaps being unable to sit or lie still with out distraction, with just ourselves, is a sign that over-stimulation has become a habit. Use this discomfort as a positive - to bring awareness to an issue that your practise is reflecting. 

We might not all have time for technology free days or mauna (silence) but can integrate stillness off the mat - allow 10 mins after yoga class to remain in the place you cultivated - it can be the journey home - a slow and silent cycle or walk just noticing your environment, breath and body. 

Mix dynamic, flowing movements with some stiller postures (check out a yin or restorative yoga book/ class). Echo the balance you wish to restore with your body. 

And balance movement with meditation - give yourself a safe witnessing space in which things can come to the surface and learn to ground amid all the turmoil. Grounding is not dull, it is being connected and present, rather than scattered or high. Akhanda yoga emphasises not only expanding our prana but aligning its inner form with the great or cosmic prana, a force which we can draw upon to bring balance, awaken knowledge and compassion. Mantra or kirtan is another wonderful way to bring ourselves into a wider perspective or higher vibrational alignment. 

Eat well and seasonally to support your yoga practise - food as well as ancestory defines the physical body. Learn about your dosha or constitution, enjoy both healthy food that's high in prana and a healthy attitude towards consuming it. Cultivate gratitude and allowing rather than guilt. I was touched by the practise in Bali of making a small offering at every meal and continue this ritual at home. Even when food comes out of a packet this can be a way to re-connect with where it comes from, saying thank you to mother nature who provides for us. 

Set intentions of balance at the start of your practise - rather than 'I will not think about work/ that stressful situation for the next hour' as that's probably doomed for most of us - more like 'I will dedicate this time to listening to my body' or 'I will honour my current need for more rest.' If the other stuff comes in, take a reminder of your intention - just like you can return to the breath if the mind begins to hit forward planning mode while trying to surrender into childs pose. 

An internal mantra (japa) can balance thoughts and cultivate positive emotions. Patanjali talks about 'pratipaksha bhavana' - the cultivating of opposite qualities (when you are stuck in hate, don't just deny it but actually find means to evoke love). So, adding the breath, you could connect with positive energies, emotions or qualities e.g. drawing in vitality, releasing negativity. As well as what we eat, our thoughts or our mental body shapes the physical layer. Use this knowledge to regain balance. More of this in classes to come : )

Make your practise regular and a part of life - create time for it and it will create space for you. Be aware that yoga is preventative as well as curative. So what you are doing now can protect against going out of balance in the future and bring greater awareness to its early warning signs. OM Shanti x




Ali Piriamvada Gunning - I teach Akhanda and Kundalini Yoga in East London. Me and my narrow boat Bokissa are in MIle End Park.  

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

green space & moving with grace


Do you feel graceful?
It doesn't matter if you are naturally coordinated (or not), have rhythm, learned dance as a kid - with Yoga your entire body can become full of grace.

I have recently remembered all over again my respect for Asana. It started in India, with hearing what my practise looks like from the outside and has continued into the last few weeks out of London in the Lee Valley, discovering new green spaces for sunrise practise and solitude. 

Sometimes we feel as our practise develops that we are leaving things behind; the urge to sit and meditate becomes more important than the urge to twist, invert or stretch. And that would follow the natural progression of our traditional 8 limbs. But like the limbs of a person, the Yoga path is not always linear - you don't master walking and then forget how to use your arms - instead things start to sync together and create an intuitive dance.

Obsessing over the physical body can stop us going into its deeper layers, but loving it is a way of celebrating what we have discovered in/ out there on a more solid level. And sharing this with the world - the sense of connection with 20 other people in a room following Surya Namaskar needs no words. Being a teacher puts me in a lucky position to observe a roomful of people following the same sequence but each expressing it differently, working around their own unique make-up.

I used to feel a bit embarrassed and uneasy about people watching me practise in public spaces - will they think I am showing off – and, in fact, am I a Yoga exhibitionist? But that's only their perception, or my inhibitions talking. It truly feels like singing my happiness at the top of my voice. And when we do either, it might make others wonder.

For me its all about the intention that we bring to the postures; there is a possibility to treat every movement of the body as sacred in the same way as every moment of a puja or a meditation can be. Moving our bodies into shapes inspired by nature, animals or ancient sages can totally transport us from the churning of our minds into a more simple place, that reflects these origins.

The phrase 'my body is a temple' has become a bit of a cliche but, after many years of being deeply unhappy with the way I looked, Asana brought me to this experience, and made me think before punishing it. Its not about how how shiny and perfect are the outer walls of a temple, but what we are in it to do...but we can still admire its beauty and tend to it, with devotion.

Talking of outdoor Yoga, details of a new Hackney weekend class on the grass to follow soon – yippee! 


the cheshunt studio
stansted abbots shala

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.

A winter sunshine Yoga getaway - Egypt - Nov

I've been fascinated by Egypt since seeing the Tutankhamun exhibition as a kid in Edinburgh. So its always been on my list to visit - though I've never managed to drag myself away from India lately. So, getting the opportunity to host a holiday/ retreat there with Yoga on a Shoestring is a bit of dream come true...and lets face it we all need some winter sun (especially us boat-dwellers!)...

The details:

Our accommodation for the week is at the peaceful and comfortable Coral Coast Hotel - on the dramatic shoreline of the Red Sea and with rooftop Yoga shala.

Aside from our inspiring surroundings, the magic of desert, mountains & water, this will be an amazing opportunity to deepen your practise, to nurture yourself and to meet like minded Yoga folk!


we'll be located on the shore-line of the red sea

the yoga space
headstand in the dessert anyone?!

Each day our exploration of Yoga will be based around a different theme. I'll be teaching a morning session of pranayama & meditation (for the early risers), then 2 Yoga classes: a morning of dynamic, flowing Akhanda style and an evening class which will be stiller and deeper; giving you a daily balance of Shakti & Shiva, moon & sun, yin & yang. There will also be a Classical Kundalini workshop or two, mantras & sound work (just considering how to squeeze a gong into my suitcase!). And there will be the chance to practise with the desert sand between our toes, as part of a day trip with the bedouin.




In the daytime you are free to roam and explore - Mount Sinai and St Catherine's monastery are very close by and the area has tons of activities like camel riding, diving & windsurfing. Or just chill out on the beach. Average temperatures in Nov are 27C, 10 hours of sunshine!

All classes and trips are optional, should you need more time to just relax and recharge. Non Yoga partners/ friends are also welcome - reduced rates available.

Costs are:

From £325 per person including accomm, 6 x days of Yoga tuition and vegi brunch daily...
There is an option to pay in instalments if you'd like to spread the cost.
Flights are around £240 at the moment, there are many flights to Sharm el Sheikh but best to book early to secure a good price.

Please have a good read of full details about the hotel, the area & prices here: http://www.yogaonashoestring.com/YogaholidaysDahab2013-2014.htm



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.