ZOOM-ing along: teaching in the time of corona.

Most of the participants appear before the individual talks. From the Friends of Ashtanga Instagram Page.

As covid19 cases rise here in Cairo and elsewhere, we are reminded of the fragility of life. While we aren’t experiencing any closures here in Egypt (and, hopefully, will continue to be open!), I thought this would be a good time to share my presentation for the Friends Of Ashtanga online conference that happened back in September about what I learned from teaching online.

For the teachers, students, and programs who have had to go back online or have stayed online this entire time, hats off to you. I know many students have decided to go at it alone or have parked their practice in the meantime. I just want to say that there are so may benefits to live instruction, even if its happening through a screen. AND If you can continue to come to class, no matter what format, do so, because your presence right now can really help keep a program alive.

When we paused live sessions here in Cairo mid-March, and moved classes online, I would never have imagined that I’d still be teaching on ZOOM in September. Six months—a crazy amount of time for life to be stalled so.  The pandemic may have thrown us off our course, but it unified us also. Being globally connected has never been more apparent as we watched the news report of the spread of this novel coronavirus, first in China, and then in Europe, and then: the world. Over these months, we have connected over our worry, our suffering, our hopes, also. And we have connected by overcoming the obstacles that threaten to disconnect us.

When the WHO declared that covid19 was a pandemic, many mysore programs around the world, including my own, announced that they were migrating sessions online. In a matter of days, my Instagram feed was full of Zoom screenshots of students practicing, each in their individual 2-dimensional boxes—it was bizarre and unsettling how we all jumped online so quickly.

It seemed counter-culture, yoga online. We all love the potency of a room in flow, the steam rising off of moving bodies, that meditative hum of the collective breath. What is ashtanga if not a live, tactile, sensory experience, with students thriving from hands-on assistance?

Yoga, the Great Unifier

Now, in hindsight, I look at the movement online as a great example of yoga, we bent and adapted, we regained our balance and steadiness, we took a deep breath and just got on with it, one day at a time with as little drama as possible.

We went online because we needed the practice and we needed each other. Those early days of the pandemic were both surreal and extraordinary. I Facetime-d with my parents and sisters in the US and in Asia with uncharacteristic regularity. I took led class on Zoom with Sharathji in India through Miami Life Center. I chanted to Ganesha with Eddie Stern on Instagram Stories. I took part in a small online festival celebrating Yoga in Africa. And then, there’s today, Friends of Ashtanga—each of these are beautiful stories of connection. 

The mainstay over these six months, however, was—and, is—mornings with my students. Our small community gathered to breathe through uncertainty and change, we stuck together to maintain some sort of normal. As a new mom, these mornings were a healthy anchor for life at home with a newborn.

Virtual Mysore

We discovered together that the mysore format translates surprisingly well online. As individual practitioners, we are used to independently exploring asana, which we already know by heart. Our understanding of drishti and concentration, helps us move our attention inwards, thus keeping us from getting distracted, whether it’s from the glitches from the device or the disembodied voice dispensing instructions to a virtual class room.

Benefitting Students

Being online, allowed students to safely move their practices into their personal spaces, into their actual lives while continuing to feel supported by a teacher. Prior to covid19, only a few students in Cairo could manage a home practice. The tendency was that if they didn’t make it to class, they didn’t manage to practice. These online offerings, I believe, are home practices with training wheels, easing students into comfortably practicing on their own.

It’s also been a great opportunity to practice with softness, kindness, and mindfulness. There has been little rushing, little of that frenetic energy that comes with the desire to catch up with everyone else. Somehow, we all understand, no one is going anywhere, we are just here to practice.

Teacher Online

I believe more than ever in the potency of this practice, that the experience is transcendent. Teaching online really works. Take away the expectation that practicing with a teacher comes with a good press, twist or tug, what we have online is actually closer to how practicing with Sharathji in India is really like, where adjustments are sparse, but the presence of a teacher is plenty.

Even without the assists, students have moved along beautifully. I have witnessed students become stronger during this time, more flexible, more light. Which makes sense because progress is always a side effect of consistent practice

It’s been liberating doing away with the expectation that it’s my “job” to take students physically deeper. We all know that digging deep is the responsibility of each practitioner. Studying online reinforces that our practice is a personal journey, and that there is a healthy amount of space between teacher and student.

The conversation is also different online. Take away that reliance on the language of touch, words have weight and people listen more. And while I’m not suggesting that verbal assists should replace physical adjustments, I think these days have demonstrated that we can communicate the practice in plain and clear ways. (And while there is a beauty of the to allowing the experience unfold through the body, touch and adjustments can be imprecise and inappropriate, relying a lot on inference.)   

Mostly, I found as a teacher that my big contribution is simply being there, opening the space, keeping it going, observing, calling out what I see, which is easier when everyone’s practice is tidily laid out in front of you. Being seen has been so important.

In Conclusion

In a way, none of these experiences that I am sharing are out of the ordinary, yoga has always been a great unifier, ashtanga communities have always provided practitioners an outlet to work through their tensions and anxieties, the ashtanga practice has always been a place to find softness and support, and the teaching has always been more energetic than physical. However, personally, prior to coronavirus, it was hard to see these things.

I still miss–and look forward to–in-person teaching in that breathing heaving room–among many, many, MANY other things. But I don’t necessarily want things to go back to EXACTLY how they were. I believe that these times have taught us to think outside the box (yes, inside the box too!), they have challenged us to be flexible and innovative while reminding us that essence of practice exists in whatever space it is allowed to flourish.

Siwa Oasis New Year Yoga Getaway

We are returning to Siwa—our first retreat there was 2014! Looking forward for this spectacular offering.

Our yoga retreats in Dahab (September) and White Desert (October) have been so successful that we decided to add one more to help us herald in a new year!

2020, for the most part, has come with a great deal of challenges, both personally and globally. Coming to the end of this year is an opportunity to reframe the year to come.

Our retreat offers a different perspective, amidst the most awe inspiring places in Egypt: Siwa Oasis—with its charm and culture which is unlike other parts of Egypt, it’s peaceful and stunning surrounds of lakes, lush greenery and and desert.

Keeping the pandemic in mind, all yoga and many of our daytime activities will be in the great outdoors, yoga amidst fruiting date palms, picnics in a an oasis, open air hot spring, and some of Siwa’s cultural sites like the Old Shali fortress town and Temple of the Oracle (to Ammon correlating Zeus and Jupiter). Spaces are limited and we will enjoy yoga, meditation, chanting and storytelling in an intimate setting among friends and family.

Early Bird rates are available till Saturday, Dec 19. Message for more information.

To Zoom Or Not to Zoom?

While the recent Covid 19 has pushed much of the world to shelter in place, many are managing restrictive safety measures by taking their work, study, socialising and exercise online.

We are on a partial curfew here in Cairo with under 2000 cases, so far. Many, however, are taking the advice of government officials to stay home to slow the virus from spreading.

When I paused the program in mid March, I signed up to zoom, sent the students the link and a message that they could join me to practice together. So it’s been a month of meeting to meditate and practice.

I wanted time to understand how to use the platform. See if it really made sense to me.

Within the week, it became the new normal to see zoom screens posted on Instagram. Individual boxes showing students practicing together in their own homes. Almost over night, yoga programs around the world moved their teachings online. What at first seemed exciting made me feel a little anxious. Was this the next big thing? I started to wonder whether we were squandering the opportunity to really self practice?

I debated whether to just continue the casual practice group or restart classes online. It felt good to meet with students but I wondered if the ashtanga teaching method would really translate well online.

Over the last month I’ve taught a few led classes and a Mysore class to test the waters and, actually, I was happily surprised to see how the ashtanga practice translated well online.

What I learned—or, rather, remembered—was this: ashtanga yoga is more energetic than physical. Over the last three weeks, what drew us together was the silent dialogue of practice. Yes, it is personal. But it is also shared. And, in times like this, it’s important to stay connected.

Online, teaching too gets stripped down to the essential. Just as we confuse the practice to be a physical one, we often think of ashtanga instruction as being tactile with its hands-on-adjustments. When in truth, adjustments are sparse in Mysore, India. The teacher’s role is to hold space, to nudge students to walk down a path that only they themselves can go down. At its best, transmission from teacher to student is subtle and unobtrusive. Far too often, teachers (myself included) over-assist and we take on more than we should, stealing from students the opportunity to master an āsana on their own.

As we relaunch the program online this week, I know that we will loose some students in this period. This is a time with shifting priorities. Others, the ones already happily established might choose to self practice on their own. That’s ok. For those joining me, I know things can’t exactly go back to normal, but I know we’ll do our best to move forward, to adapt to challenging times and to thrive with the new opportunities these times and this medium of learning is bringing us.

Mysore Zamalek Classes will restart on Monday, 13 April. Monday and Friday are Led Classes. Tuesday to Thursday are Mysore-style self practice. Please message us if you are interested in joining the program online.

Teaching in Beirut

Yoga is about connections.

For some time I’ve been watching how our neighbouring Beirut’s program has been growing with various teacher friends coming to hold space there. It’s been a pleasure to see Yoga Souk’s Mysore program evolve much like our own in Cairo.

So, it’s a great pleasure to be here now in Beirut teaching at Yoga Souk in Saifi Village. Should you be in Lebanon, I am teaching Mysore-style ashtanga classes Monday to Friday 6:15-10:15 and led classes (for regular practitioners) on Saturdays at 9:30am.

We’ve also started a Yoga Sutras introduction course, which is a rich of exploration of the yoga philosophy that powers our practice. We have four sessions left and there is still time to catch up.

If you are in Cairo, Mysore Zamalek classes are continuing as scheduled at Nūn Center.

March Madness

We have a full schedule once again in March. We are had a retreat in Upper Egypt, more on how it went in a future post.

There’s an International Women’s Day Event at Nūn on March 8 where I will teach a led class and speak on Yoga for a Balanced Life, and we’ll be raffling off a month pass. Money from raffle ticket sales will go to Tawasol, Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run and Heya Masr, all helping to empower women/young girls.

Also, we’ll be staring our next Intro course on March 22.

Please message mysorezamalek@gmail.com for questions or to register for the month-long course.

Led Primary Time Machine

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Who has never wished to slow time down, or speed it up, or stop time altogether? It might be the stuff of science fiction, but what if I were to tell you that the ultimate time machine can be found on your yoga mat? I know, I know, it might seem like I’m peddling some strange siddhi, or yogic super power like time control. Well…yes…and no. It’s much more down to earth than all that.

Primary Series is the first series of the astanga method (there are 6 in all). Mostly, ashtanga is practiced in a self-paced setting. One performs their postures according to their own breath and abilities. In such a room, you can have beginners doing just the most basic postures while others twist, fly and contort themselves into shapes that one might not think humanly possible. This way of teaching is supplemented by what we call Led Classes. In the later, students practice together led by a teacher who is calling out the asana names and brief but key instructions while counting each vinyasa (breath and its corresponding movement) so that students can develop a steady rhythm and a clean, undistracted yoga practice. It is a class where one’s mental and physical stamina is tested, while one is harmonized into one collective moving breath.

When I really started studying the count of the first series of ashtanga yoga, I become fascinated with how it played with units of time broken down into units of breath/movement or breath/stillness, and how it moved between the two states, each beat with its own number. Until that point, I’d never truly observed time. I didn’t even like numbers. Time happened to me. I waited for it sometimes. It escaped me at other times. Time is and was always there, while I engage in some activity, conversation, even while doing nothing at all. Led Primary changed my relationship with time.

The succinct sanskrit count which is seamlessly coordinated with vinyasa (movement and breath together), drishti (gazing point), and āsana (posture)–what we call tristāna, the three pillars of the practice–allows us to simply be in the moment, to be in time. As we experience time in such a focused and deliberate manner, we learn to just be: be in the inhale or the exhale, be the posture, be in the challenge if its difficult, be in the comfort if it’s easy. We learn to change, to shift quickly, to experience time which is always changing. We learn to drive ourselves, to get past the potential distractions in order to focus on the moment. We learn to be imperfect because we might not always be able to breathe as long, or move as quickly as is asked of us–and because that moment/breath/posture passes in a flash, we also learn to let go, to take things easy, to move on because there’s no time to waste. Every moment is really precious.

Moreover, when we learn to breathe evenly in both the inhale and the exhale, the speed in which time passes become immaterial. The pace of the count can be fast or it can be slow, but it little effects the steadiness of mind when we are breathing in a balanced way. In that way, we also overcome time.

The ashtanga yoga method as a whole has done so much for me, it’s hard to explain how transformative this odd succession of postures strung together with breath can really be. It’s scope is so very wide in my life. But with led primary, learning to count, learning to surrender to the count is a very specific and concentrated experience. I love it more now than ever. The more time I spend with it, the more time it gives me. Time really slows for me between the beginning and the end of each breath, so much happens, and yet the whole series can be done in a flash. In that hour and a half, we can learn to expand and compress time. Ok, not time itself, which is constant, but definitely our experience of time evolves. We learn to be present, which in this day and age is pretty challenging.

I got married recently, and it’s true what every one says that the build up to a wedding can be so big and then the whole crazy thing is done in a flash. I wanted very much to be present and to enjoy this incredibly special day in my life. I remember when I started walking this incredibly long beach aisle to our odd shaped ceremonial arch, I decided to just breathe and take it one step at a time, there was nothing else to do, no one else to be with, nowhere to be other than right there and then. It did go by all too quickly as all greatly lived moments do, but I can also say that I savored it. I can’t imagine I could fall so easily in that space, slowing myself down, without having that blueprint from the practice.

It must be said that led primary can be very difficult and it might take a lot of practice to even start to observe each breath especially when someone is leading you through it. But that too comes with the practice.

So, no, you can’t dial back to whatever year and redo whatever wrong. It’s not that kind of time machine. But Led Primary does help us tune into the world in front of us, into that precious yet fleeting present so that we can simply enjoy it. It helps us live our best possible moment, one we can happily look back on. And it helps us to continue to move on.p with grace and contentment.

Led Primary this Friday at 8:30am at Nūn Center, 4 Shafik Monsour. Mysore Zamalek has led classes twice a month. If you aren’t familiar with the series, please message us to find out the best way to start an ashtanga practice. 

October Schedule Up

September has had us hopping here in Mysore Zamalek and we are happy to welcome back returning students and introduce a whole new group of students to the practice.

Due to some irregularities in our schedule, we won’t be taking in new students until 14 October. And we thank incoming students for their patience. We are also starting our next Intro Course in the October 26, this special month pass for beginners and refreshers include 3 special classes where we speak more on the theory and foundational principles of the practice.

Please note that between September 30 and October 11, I will be teaching from 7am to 9 only, the room is however open for self practice until 10:30am. October 3, 4, 7 and 8 we have no instruction though the room is open for self practice. October 9 is moon day and there is no class.

For more info on joining Mysore sessions and/or the Intro Course, message us at mysorezamalek@gmail.com. We are located at Nūn Center, 4 Shafiq Mansour, Zamalek, Cairo.

And We Are Back

Classes are back in session here in Cairo. We are happy to get things started this September. It’s a full month.

On top of our regularly schedules classes, Sunday to Thursday 7-10:30am and our two led classes on September 14 and 28 at 8:30am, we are starting our second Ashtanga Yoga Introduction Course, a 4-week course that includes 3 workshop weekend classes and unlimited Mysore classes for the month. It’s a great program for starting or refreshing your yoga practice.

We’ve added “Mysore+”, additional self practice sessions on September 7 and 21, these classes are for quiet exploration of your practice. I will be available in the room while self practicing myself. It will be a nice time to practice together.

Mysore Zamalek classes are at Nūn Center, 4 Shafik Mansour, Zamalek, Cairo. We accept drop ind from experienced practitioners, please contact us to make an appointment if you are a new student. Our email is mysorezamalek@gmail.com.

The Thread of Practice

Parampara, the unbroken line of lessons from teacher to student, is one of the most striking things about our yoga practice. It is a thread that runs through the practice, that holds it together. Many question this, especially these days. But to say that this has no part in modern day Ashtanga yoga, I think, would be a step in the wrong direction. While I often have long stretches of solo self-practice, I could not do this without a teacher.

Is this system perfect? Well, is our practice perfect? It is all just a process. We’re constantly learning, constantly evolving and innovating.

As I take time off from teaching my own students for the next couple of months to visit my own teacher at the source of Ashtanga yoga in Mysore, India this thread becomes ever more present, ever more felt, ever more experienced.

Yoga becomes alive in such learning spaces. I learned long ago that I had to give up my aspirations to teach. Period. To be a student is one of the greatest gifts, to be in a position to receive, to learn, to grow, and to be guided when undergoing such a precious journey is such a blessing. And while I feel the separation between myself and those who I meet daily on the mat, I know that for now it is time for me to learn, to nourish my own practice, and that the long arms of these two months ahead will extend far longer than one might imagine.

Mysore Zamalek is closed from today till early August. We look forward up restarting with you then!

Practice Self Forgiveness

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Photo by Michael Tutaan, Boracay, Philippines

The great irony, perhaps, of diving deeper into this physical practice is how metaphysical it becomes, the more advanced the posture, the more subtle the mind and the heart. How, for example, taking one’s leg behind the head is less about the openness of hips, the ability to internally rotate the leg while lifting the center and, with it, the back–though all fundamentally a part of the process–than it is about cultivating patience and perseverance.

Once in a while, I ask myself, what have I learned? What is new, especially when there are no new postures to investigate or obsess about? It has been two years, almost, since I’ve studied with my teacher in Mysore and my practice seems to be greatly about establishing a steady rhythm, building strength and getting comfortable. Some days are tougher than others, I must admit, developing strength seems to have come with loosing a certain amount of bendiness. And establishing a life in one place, as I have done this year in Egypt, comes with an entirely different set of challenges that sometimes get in the way of the smooth flow of practice.

For me, I think one of the greatest lessons of cozying up to the intermediate series these last two years is learning to forgive myself.  I may have not overcome my own expectations, they creep up on me still while on the mat (not to mention off the mat!), but it’s never so hard as before. Mostly, because I’m not as hard on myself as I was before. Often, I find myself humorously observing the struggles, the days I ate pasta and how that feels in titthibhāsana, the days I can’t get a good grip on the mat in karandavāsana and fall, the days I get on the mat late and I’m so tired that I’m practically crawling through the practice. It’s all ok, I can’t always be my best physically though I can still put my best effort forward based on the conditions that I am given and that I allow myself.

We cause so much undue suffering with unforgiving thoughts: why can’t I do it, what’s wrong with me, why am I not good enough? Such fluctuations of the mind are debilitating, they stall us, not just mentally but physically too, they keep us from moving forward. And thus the relationship between the mind and the body continues. So, instead, let’s be kind to ourselves, let’s be sweet and also honest. Be honorable, admit when it’s hard but do not harden because of it. Forgiveness in itself is a deep and fulfilling practice.